Saturday, December 30, 2017

Los Reyes Magos in the Blizzard of 47 By Antonio SolisGomez, © Copyright 2004 Illustrations by Sergio Hernandez


 Part I (Part II January 6 2018)

Chupón fell backwards, tumbling off the wooden box where he was standing. His assailant, the moppy haired lad who went by the name of Chorrito, because he always finished last in the peeing contests, had scored with a snowball from twenty feet. It was pure luck and everyone said it was a sapo shot. Chorrito was claiming it wasn’t when a snowball hit him square in the face and he ran home crying, ending his momentary fame.

It had been snowing off and on since Thanksgiving and a week after Christmas the biggest snowfall ever recorded in El Paso dumped thirty inches, making all the streets impassable and bringing everything to a standstill. School was canceled, mothers and fathers stayed home from work, city services were closed and the streetcars stopped running.

The white cover of snow was an awesome sight to us children, obscuring all the defects and imperfections of our barrio that we knew by heart. The potholes in the streets were no longer. Tonia’s house, charred by fire three years ago, looked perfect. The tumbleweed infested field next to the school looked like a picture post card from some winter vacation spot. Even the red brick tenement on the corner, with the dilapidated wooden porch, looked inviting. Best of all the snow had erased all the boundaries that kept the children from Overland Street, where I lived, from playing with children from Durango or León. The snow magically nullified old conflicts, erased fears, and created new perceptions. It was hard to tell where the sidewalk ended and the street began. The López house no longer had front steps where Señor López would sit and chase the kids who dared to play in front. The pit bull that used to be tied to the tree in Maclovia’s yard, next to the ally that we used as a shortcut to get to school, was taken inside and for the first time we could walk by without fear.

The snowball fight was held at the infamous hoyo, the site of the Hix Building that had burned to the ground three years before, leaving a large steep sided gapping hole that was formerly the basement and now our play area. It was also the unofficial neighborhood dump, where people unloaded large unwieldy household items such as mattresses, too urine stained or too full of bedbugs to be of any further use, or automobile tires too bald and slick to prevent thorns from puncturing them. The tires became walls for our forts, the mattresses trampolines. Any items of real value were quickly taken by old Tomás, the local ragman, to be sold across the border in Juárez. The hoyo was also prized by the derelicts, providing shelter directly beneath the sidewalk where once an elevator moved merchandize to and from the curb. The hobos had long departed for warmer climes and only their frozen turds were left to remind us that they had been there.

The hoyo in disputed territory belonged to no one and the unwritten rule was that it was to be used by whoever arrived first. León Street being closest they were often in possession and we the Overland boys inevitably left out. The snow was a special opportunity and no one objected when the rule in place was ignored and boys from all the surrounding area assembled at the top of the slopes to ride the old car fenders down like sleds. 

The snowball fight began spontaneously and crossed the established street boundaries, Leon boys mixing with Overland and Durango boys and the only way to distinguish opponents was based on where in the hoyo one happened to be when the fight broke out.

Chupón, whose nickname came from a childhood dependence on the nipple of his baby bottle, an early pacifier and which in that day and age was still a taboo, was the reigning bad boy, got up after he was knocked down and began throwing wildly from his stash of snowballs. He was throwing at Chorrito but it was Lupe, the girl everyone knew as La Negra, preferring the company of boys to that of girls and tolerated by the boys because she allowed herself to be kissed, who threw the snowball that sent Chorrito home crying. That exchange of snowballs was the stuff of legends and would be talked about for months to come when snow was but a memory.

We played until the sun was below the rooftops, the snow and cold long ago having penetrated through the old socks that we had used as gloves and through the canvas of our tennis shoes. But it had been a terrific day we all thought, even those of us who had to go home and face the consequences of staying out so long and returning shivering and wet.

My older brother and I had talked about our entrance as we walked home. It was the first thought we had given home since we had started playing that morning and we couldn’t tell if we were trembling more from cold or fear. The heated room felt delicious as we walked in with baited breath. The gas heater on the kitchen floor of our two-room apartment was burning; its filigreed ceramic inserts glowing yellow like molten lava. The stove oven was on also, as were all four burners. The kitchen table was cleared, telling us that dinner had been served and put away.

Thankfully the punishment was swift, my stepfather whipping out his belt as we walked in and strapping our backside, some landing on our buttocks and some on our legs. Defiantly we no longer cried, independently arriving at this strategy just to spite him, even when we were in the wrong. Our punishment meted, mother got us to take off our wet clothing and hung them on the back of a chair and we were sent to bed without supper.

The next day, Friday, was New Year’s Eve and El Paso was getting more snow. As expected, my brother and I were grounded and we worked on a large jigsaw puzzle until Uncle Frank and Aunt Gina, who lived in the next apartment, came over that evening to celebrate. We had planned to hop into my stepfather’s 39 Chevy and cross the border into Juárez to celebrate with my godparents but the snow had laid those plans to rest. In the Mexican kinship system my godparents were my ninos and the ties that bound us were as strong as blood family. I was sorry not to be going to their house but in the end it turned out for the best.

About the time that Uncle Frank was starting to loosen up after drinking half the bottle of José Cuervo Tequila by himself, Doña Lupita came knocking at our door. She was the senior ranking tenant and served as the unofficial manager, making sure that tenants abided by the rules, handling tenants complaints, cleaning the lone bathroom and sweeping up the feces smeared pieces of newspaper that we used to clean ourselves and that we were prohibited from flushing down the toilet. She did everything around there except collect the rent, that was left to Mr. Murrillo, an old geezer with a prosthetic hand that he covered in a tight leather black glove and that he used to pound us on the head whenever he was able to sneak up on us. But tonight she had come over just to wish us a Happy New Year and to encourage us to participate in the pageant of the three wise men held every year at the neighborhood Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church and of which she was in charge.

 Doña Lupita was a large jovial take charge kind of person, the kind of leader found in many small communities and whose public service and personal life are so intertwined that they are indistinguishable. She was married once and had a grown son and a grandson but she had been a widow for many years and her life now revolved around the Church and its calendar of activities. She had a pleasant face but her rasping voice and hips, as big as the horse that pulled the cart that the ragman, Tomás, used to haul away the junk that he pulled from the neighborhood and drove into Juárez, probably kept any suitors at bay.

Her mission that night was to recruit men to play the part of the Three Wise men. She didn’t have much time since the pageant was but a few days away, on the day of the Epiphany, traditionally the day of gift giving in our family. My stepfather said flat out no, but uncle Frank was wavering, maybe because he was already tipsy and the inhibitions that normally prevented him from even talking to anyone outside the family were put to rest by the tequila shots that he was downing since early evening.

Uncle Frank was a cook at the same hotel where both my mother and grandmother worked as chambermaids. Ordinarily he would have worked that night, as had my grandmother, New Years Eve being one of the busiest nights at the hotel. But tonight he had uncharacteristically decided that he deserved a night off with his wife, a woman that he had brought from Italy right after the war. He had met her at the hospital of a small town when he was injured in a battle. She was his nurse and they fell quickly in love. Her name was really Georgina and she was the most beautiful woman that anyone in our family had ever seen. She spoke Spanish, our language at home, with a halting lilt, which I thought was one of her most endearing qualities until I found out that all Italians normally talked that way. I was a little disappointed but I still thought that she was beautiful. 

Aunt Gina was encouraging Uncle frank to accept Doña Lupita’s invitation and he bent to her will, saying that he would do it. Doña Lupita was thrilled and accepted Uncle Frank’s invitation to join them in downing a tequilaso, to seal the deal. Doña Lupita left an hour and five tequilasos later, walking more like Tomás’ horse then when she arrived.

Doña Lupita’s troubles began to manifest the next day when Uncle Frank was cleared headed enough to realize what he had done and backed out as did the other men in other apartments whom she had convinced the previous night while under the influence of the New Year’s celebration.

That’s how my brother and I were told by Doña Lupita that if we found three adults to play the parts in the pageant she would give us three dollars. My brother and I began to calculate all the stuff that we could buy with our share of the money, it being much more than the five or ten cents that we normally earned finding boxes for a local shoe maker and for which we roamed the streets and alleys of downtown El Paso.

Doña Lupita invited my brother and me to the rehearsal the following day and instructed us on what to tell a potential wise man, the most important being that he would have to be at the church promptly at 6:00 pm on the day on the of the performance for a dress rehearsal. The other cast members were already rehearsing and the lines of the three wise men had been given to one of the angels to alleviate the problem of filling the roles. The angel, whose role had been expanded to that of narrator, was none other than the local corner grocer Don Basilio, a robust man with a handlebar moustache that he refused to shave for the part in the pageant and Doña Lupita, hard pressed for actors, had allowed him to keep it. 

The rest of that day my brother and I tried to convince Uncle Frank and the two other men in the apartment house that reneged, to reconsider. Having seen that morning’s rehearsal we were able to make a pretty good pitch, a gift for lying already an asset that we both had cultivated and often used to our advantage. Alas no amount of embellishing could dissuade any of them, the cold sobering daylight having dissipated the enthusiasm of the previous night.

One of the other men we knew well not only because he was Chupón’s father but because we saw him regularly during our afternoon jaunts when we were looking for boxes. He worked for the city and he walked along the curbs pushing a fifty-gallon cardboard drum mounted on a dolly, sweeping up with his broom and dustpan to make sure that the streets were nice and clean. We always asked him if he had seen any boxes and sometimes he would give us a good lead.

The other man was a newer tenant and nobody knew much about him other than that he was hen pecked by his wife. I had overheard my mother telling Gina that she had seen him hanging laundry and assumed that he was doing his wife a favor but when the wife had come out and berated the way he had washed one of her sweaters, my mother knew that he was solely responsible for the wash. This was unheard of, a man with a perfectly healthy wife, doing the laundry.

My brother and I made our presentation and we could tell that he wanted to participate but he looked over at his wife and saw the look of disapproval on her face and said that he couldn’t do it. We knocked on a few other doors of the apartment house but were left at the end of that first day with a big zero and totally disheartened.

On Sunday my mother got us up early for Mass and we walked along the same shoulder high path cleared through the snow that we had used when we visited the pageant rehearsal. Going to church was the one rule that my mother never relaxed. On others, she could be persuaded but going to mass was sacrosanct and inviolable. She had grown up in a home that was Catholic in name only, my grandmother being what she described as a free thinker and never thinking very highly of priests, knowing that in her village they had fathered children with local women. But mother had a religious experience when she was young, a vision of the Holy Mother appearing before her in a soap bubble as she was washing her hair. She told only her best friend and confidant Evangelina who was so impressed with the story of the apparition that mother got her to promise to attend church with her from that day forward. Now, it was hard to tell which of the two had the vision, they both being devote and unfailing in their Catholic duties.

My mother’s friend, Evangelina, was tall and slender, with a strong laughing voice that made one feel happy immediately when she walked into a room and started speaking. Nothing seemed to ever get her down either. Every problem had a solution, every obstacle a way to overcome. It was she that had asked me why I was so down in the mouth and when I explained she infused both my brother and me with optimism. And that’s how we came upon the two obvious choices.

One of them was the barrio drunk; a grenade mangled war hero that in anger captured over twenty Japanese soldiers after his arm was blown apart. My brother and I had first met him one Sunday as we were walking home from the local cinema. He was staggering out of a bar, struggling to strap on his wooden arm and offered us a quarter if we would help him. We strapped it incorrectly to his stump but he was so drunk that he didn’t care that the fake arm was raised as if he was hailing a cab. We helped him get home, a one room apartment with an entrance right off the sidewalk and one of several in a building that took up half the block on the same street where we lived. At the corner was the other small grocery store where we shopped once our credit was tapped out at Don Basilio’s. The ex soldier, before the war was known as guapo, because of his good looks, but now most people just called him Roberto or referred to him as El Borrachito, the little drunk.

The other man we thought of asking was old Tomás the rag picker and local storyteller. We were his most avid listeners and most summer evenings would find us outside his doorstep, along with some of the other neighborhood children, in rapt attention. He had a prodigious memory and brought to life all the familiar tales of beautiful princesses and evil witches as well as more contemporary characters such as the picaresque Don Cacahuate and the adventurer Juan Sin Miedo. We thought he would make an ideal wise man, the only trouble being that he hated the Catholic Church. He liked Christ but getting him to agree was not going to be easy. But we didn’t have to worry about that until we saw him on Monday.

It was mid morning on Monday by the time we finished our chores and were allowed to go outside. Our stepfather was home again. The snow making his carpentry trade impossible to ply, he had put us to clean and oil each and every one of his tools, hammers, chisels, saws, plumbs, squares, even the chalk boxes. Stuff in his toolbox that was made of wood such as his rulers and tool handles, we also cleaned and applied a protective oil.

It was a cold gray day, with the wind having blown some of the snow into drifts that were taller than we were. We felt like little rats in a maze as we made our way through the paths carved out by men using common shovels. Even our stepfather, who was not very sociable, had pitched in to clear a portion of the path in front of our apartment building. Of course it had been Doña Lupita that had organized the project, going up and down the street knocking on doors to solicit help. In the end a path was cleared, allowing us to get to the two stores, the church and the school, although the school path was not to be used until the following week.

We decided to visit old Tomás first since El Borrachito was never about before noon. Old Tomás lived by the railroad tracks several blocks away and we were hopeful that the sidewalks on other streets had pathways. Unfortunately this was not always the case. At best portions of sidewalk had been cleared by civic-minded individuals directly in front of their homes but much of what we found were paths where people had simply walked on the snow. Still it was better than having to make our own path, as we had to do when we neared the tracks. We had to look for Tomás’ place among the other homes that piled with snow looked indistinguishable. Tomás’ house normally was impossible to miss, the roof with several colors of roofing paper all just sort of tacked on to whatever was underneath. And a fence too that was an assortment of bedsprings and headboards, metal crates, pieces of corrugated roofing, wooden doors and a section of old tires covered in chicken wire and all of it now was covered in white. Thankfully we could still see the patches of plywood and boards and the large Coca Cola sign with a smiling woman holding the familiar bottle, that he had used to cover holes in the walls.

We could see a path from his front door to the makeshift stable but couldn’t see Diablo, his horse. We didn’t have to ask him where Diablo was, his neighing at our approach from within the house making it very clear.
“Come in muchachos,” he said cheerfully, always glad for company. “What brings you here on such a cold day?”

“We were just remembering the story you told us once about the three kings having come from India and we wanted to hear it again,” Ruly sort of lied.

“Well that’s a rather long story. Are you sure you have enough time?”

“We do if you do,” I said enthusiastically.

And it was a long story. He went into some detail about how Jesus had been in India during the years that are not accounted for in the Bible, between the time he was twelve and thirty. And how in India he had been given help to prepare him for His mission, being taught the advanced meditation and healing techniques that he used in His ministry.

It was already growing dark by the time Tomás was finishing the story, telling us that the Three Kings that visited Christ at His birth were from India, having come to honor the appearance of such an advanced and Divine Being and that it was they that Jesus visited during those missing years.

Now it was our turn and we told Tomás about the pageant and how much good and happiness it would give people to see it and then the part that we needed him to play the part of one of the Kings. More than once during his story he had rallied against the Catholic Church, making my brother and me cringe but in the end he agreed after we told him that Diablo could also be in the pageant.

By the time we got home it was late and we weren’t allowed out again. El Borrachito would have to wait until the following day. That night more snow fell, a full four inches, covering everything in a pristine mantle of white. The next day we were anxious to visit with El Borrachito but our stepfather made us run over to the store several times and gave us more chores. We had to polish his work boots, sweep and mop the floor of the two room apartment and he wanted one of us around to be a go-fer while he fixed an old motor. It landed on me and I had to find him his screwdriver, get him the wrench, shine a flashlight inside the motor. Finally we finished and he reluctantly let us go.

We found El Borrachito, whom we called by his first name Roberto, at the corner store talking with Don Basilio. It made our job easier because the grocer had already partially convinced him to take the part of one of the Kings. The clincher was telling him that there would be a cast party with refreshments. He was already tipsy but he promised that he would be sober on the day of the performance.

We were happy that we had two of the three wise men cast but we were still missing a third person. We were desperate and asked several of the men we met at the store but all refused, citing commitments of one kind or another or simply just shaking their heads. It was my brother Ruly, that first mentioned the name of Gordo Chávez, the barrio drug dealer who had already done time at the infamous Federal prison on the outskirts of town known as ‘la tuna’, the prickly pear. Gordo Chávez was Maclovia’s son and it was his pit bull that menaced all the children as they passed by on the way to school. He actually owed us a favor from a time that he had given Ruly a tin of pipe tobacco for safe keeping when he was being chased by the police. Ruly just put it in his pocket and we continued playing marbles on our knees as if nothing had transpired. After the police had searched Gordo Chávez and found nothing he came back and retrieved his stash. He wanted to give us some money but we knew better than to accept it.

The only reason Ruly was now suggesting his name was that Maclovia was a Guadalupana, a member of the church service group named after the Virgin of Guadalupe. She was a very pious woman who always wore a black dress with a black shawl over her head and shoulders. When we had first noticed her attire and asked our mother why she never wore anything else, mother said that she was in ‘luto’ mourning the death of her husband some fifteen years back. We knew that she now prayed constantly for the redemption of Gordo Chávez and every week placed the tallest candle possible in front of the altar, an enticement for God to grant her this boon. This last part our grandmother had told us because being a free thinker she thought it was all a bunch of baloney. But now we were thinking that maybe Gordo Chávez would want to please his mother by taking part in the pageant and at the same time please his probation officer that visited him every week to make sure that he was not up to his old tricks. We thought it was a win win situation and that encouraged us to attempt going up to Maclovia’s front door.

The brown pit bull’s name was Tarzan and he had thick muscular shoulders and a big head with massive teeth. It was rumored that he had once snatched a roasting pig from a neighbor’s party and chowed it down as the neighbor and his guests stood by, afraid to challenge him. That’s when the necessity of the chain that now held him was first recognized and placed on his collar. He guarded the entrance to the house, his chain being just the right length to accost any intruders or guests on the walkway but not long enough to get onto the porch. We had to somehow distract him to be able to run up to the porch to knock on the door. We stared at the door for a long time from across the street and finally mustered enough courage to walk to the corner, cross and make our way through the cleared snow path to stand in front of Maclovia’s house. Tarzan had been curious but not barking, just watching warily from his crouched position, his massive head still lying on his paws. Once we reached the front of his house he became enraged, barking and pulling with all his strength at the thick chain. We couldn’t do it. We were both petrified with fear and we resorted to throwing small snowballs on the door and calling Gordo Chávez’ name. Finally he came out to investigate why the dog was in such an uproar and he saw us standing meekly.

“Orale chavos,” he said to us in his heavy voice. “What you all want?”      

 “We wanted to ask you something,” my brother said, barely audibly above the dog’s barking.

“Shut up Tarzan,” Gordo Chávez called out and the dog was immediately quiet and he walked back to his former position, not seeming to mind the cold.

“Come on in,” he said. “It’s too damn cold out here.”

The front room had a large corner fireplace and flames sprouting from a couple of small logs. We instinctively walked across the carpet to stand by the warmth of the fire.

“We came to ask if you would be in the Christmas pageant,” Ruly said, encouraged by his friendliness. 

“What! You gotta be kidding right?” he said, his voice sounding louder and his large body looking bigger inside the house. They called him Gordo because he was chubby as a child but now he was just big, standing over six feet and weighing more than two hundred pounds.

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