Two days after the gun battle settled the disputed water rights between two Arizona ranchers, the short-time hires were drifting again.
Johnny and Omar drifted the same direction, more or less towards Nogales. Omar had changed his mind about being a gunfighter now he had seen how it really was; he hoped to be home for Christmas.
Johnny didn’t have a home.
They weren’t friends, but they got along OK on the trail. The nights were cool and each man could sleep pretty well knowing the other was on watch. Omar loved to talk, and Johnny didn’t mind listening. Omar told stories about Christmas with his two brothers and three sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and other relatives Johnny couldn’t figure out.
Impressed at how much living went on in a large family, Johnny tried to imagine himself in it.
Then Omar asked Johnny about his own memories of Christmas and Johnny said he didn’t have any.
As lies go, it was a small one. Johnny did have Christmas memories, but they were too fragile to share. Omar’s memories were huge and bold, like Omar himself. Johnny’s memories were pale, wispy, likely to dissolve if he opened his mouth.
When Omar turned west to Sonora, Johnny kept going south. Riding alone through the increasingly barren landscape Johnny recalled what he could.
He remembered the excitement of Las Posadas, when he and the other kids trooped from house to house for candy and prizes. At the Mass of the Rooster he was awed by the grandeur and mystery of the mission church at midnight; he fell asleep leaning against his mama. After mass he ate until his tummy hurt and spent Christmas Day in a well fed stupor.
He remembered Mama when she was happy. The solid memories he had of his mother came at the end, when she was drinking herself to death, when she was mean and smelled bad and couldn’t love him anymore. But behind those memories were the frail silver ones, glimpses of Mama when she sang and cooked and gave him his bath and kissed him good night. That was the mama of his Christmas memories, the small memories that were his alone.
And Johnny remembered Papa, healthy, standing next to him in church and singing. He smelled like tobacco. When Papa carried him out of the mission church late on Christmas Eve Johnny felt a sense of security he had not known again.
The houses were smaller than he remembered. But he spied poinsettias through the small windows, and nativity scenes – run down, in need of paint and repair – were scattered throughout the shops. Johnny rode slowly through the streets wondering if he would recognize something or even someone, but he didn’t. The barefooted kids stared at him; they probably didn’t see too many men on horseback riding through. At least not at a walk.
By the time he’d found a place for his pinto it was nearly dusk. There was a cantina not far from the barn where he had a warm beer and a shot of tequila, along with a plate of beans and a couple of tortillas. The food was indifferent, but it was a welcome change from having to cook his own dinner. Just after the sun set he finished and headed back to bed down with his horse.
A giggling group of children carrying candles blocked his path. Their parents, smiling indulgently, shepherded them down the street towards a house brightly lit from the inside. The children began to sing as they arrived at the house; the door opened and the residents listened, then sang the expected response. The door shut and the procession went to another house where the song was repeated until finally the excited party was invited inside to childish laughter and more singing.
“It’s fun to watch, isn’t it?” The voice beside him made him flinch. Johnny had been so absorbed in Las Posada that he hadn’t heard anyone approach.
“Evenin’, Padre.” He hoped the man in the collar and robe hadn’t noticed him jump.
“Good evening,” the priest responded. He was comfortably middle-aged, surprisingly corpulent. “You must be a traveler, to be here by yourself during Las Posadas. Are you visiting family?”
Johnny snorted quietly. “Nah, just passin’ through.”
The priest looked more closely at him. “No one just passes through this village. Something brought you here.”
Johnny looked off in the distance, where songs and laughter wafted from the celebration. “I knew somebody here once.”
The priest nodded and held a hand. “I’m Padre Hidalgo.”
Johnny looked at the outstretched hand for an instant before grasping it. “I’m Johnny.”
“And who did you once know in this village, Johnny?”
Johnny bent his head down and smiled crookedly at the ground. “Oh, nobody special.”
Padre Hidalgo smiled too. “Have you a place to stay tonight, Johnny? There is room, not at the inn, since we don’t have one, but at the mission.”
“No room at the inn, huh?” Johnny played along with this grown-up version of Las Posadas. “I was going to sleep in the barn with my horse. I guess a real bed sounds better than a manger.”
The Padre laughed lightly and clapped him on the shoulder. “And you can tell me about this nobody special that you used to know.”
Johnny stiffened, but only for a moment. Then he followed the priest to the mission.
The next day Johnny paid for his keep with kitchen duty and odd jobs. Just before the noon meal Padre Hidalgo found him in the garden working fresh manure around the cucumber plants.
“So, Johnny, will you join me for dinner? I think the quiet of my office is necessary for me to prepare for the rest of the day, but I hate to eat alone.”
“Sure.” Johnny smiled as he rubbed his hands together, knocking off some of the fertilizer. “Just let me wash up.”
The meal was simple but the wine was good – a gift from the local Patron, according to the Padre. They talked of inconsequential matters while they ate. The office was indeed quiet, with a window that overlooked a small grove of piñon trees. After the dishes had been cleared Johnny sipped his wine as the Padre stood gazing out at the gnarled trunks.
“Now, Johnny Madrid, I would like to know who brings you to our village this Christmas.”
Johnny drained his glass before he looked coolly at his host. “I never told you I was Madrid.”
“You didn’t have to, Johnny. You are known to many here – those who remember a little boy who lived with his mama and papa whose name was also Madrid.”
The priest turned and leaned back against the wall. “I spoke to one of them this morning. Her name is Yolanda. Would you like to speak with her, my son? Is that what has brought you here?”
Johnny schooled his expression to hide his turmoil. He treasured his tenuous glimpses of past happiness, but he sometimes wondered if the memories were true. What if he heard something different, something that swirled them away like smoke in a breeze?
“I don’t know. I really don’t know, Padre.” He avoided the man’s eyes as he spread out his hands before him. “I don’t remember much, and what I remember is so…”
He looked up. “I don’t know,” he repeated.
Padre Hidalgo nodded in encouragement. “What do you remember?” he asked gently.
Johnny hesitated. He’d never spoken his small memories before, afraid it would spoil them somehow. He drew in a breath to start speaking, then changed his mind and said nothing. He trusted the priest, he thought, but maybe he didn’t trust himself.
“Would it help if I told you Yolanda remembers a happy family?”
Johnny smiled. “Yeah, that helps. Thank you.” His smile was short-lived. “Things changed for Mama and me after Papa died. We left…”
Then knowledge struck Johnny like a fist. “He’s buried here. My stepfather died here. His grave…” Johnny trailed off. Why had it never occurred to him that there was a grave? Why had it never occurred to him to come back and pay his respects to the man who had been his father in every way that mattered? What kind of a son was he?
He rubbed his hand across his face. “Do you know where it is?”
“Yolanda knows. Would you like her to take you there?”
Did he? He didn’t know. “Yes,” he heard himself say.
His stepfather’s grave was marked by a deteriorating wooden cross. Yolanda told him that in a good year she put marigolds on the grave for el Dia de Muertos. Lately the years hadn’t been good and the grave had gone undecorated. Johnny didn’t say anything and Yolanda stepped back a bit; he was grateful for the chance to be alone.
He stared at the barren lump of soil that wasn’t even a mound anymore, and felt nothing.
Maybe it started here. Papa got sick when Johnny was seven or eight. After he died Johnny and his mother moved on. Johnny didn’t recall a service or a burial – just the loss and the running away.
Standing there, he recalled other graves, other burials – his mama’s, Renaldo’s … He always watched the burying from a distance and then lit out. He never went back. Now he was here at Papa’s grave with no idea of what he was supposed to do. What did it mean, exactly, to pay respects to the dead? He had no clue. After a long time he raised his eyes to the sky, surprised at the daylight because in his thoughts it was dark.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a figure and thought Yolanda must be waiting for him; when he looked more closely it wasn’t the old woman but Padre Hidalgo approaching from the other side of the graveyard.
When the priest knelt beside him Johnny was surprised to discover he, too, was on his knees. As the priest said a prayer Johnny bowed his head and listened to the words that were meant to comfort but didn’t. When the prayer was over he felt the Padre’s hand on his shoulder.
“How can I help you, Johnny?”
He shook his head. “I’m getting tired of sayin’ ‘I don’t know’ all the time, but it’s the truth. I don’t know how you can help me. I don’t think I can be helped.” Johnny got to his feet and reached a hand down to help the priest up.
Padre Hidalgo stood and dusted off his cassock. “Yolanda wanted to tell you what a good man your father was.”
Johnny shrugged. “He wasn’t my real father. That one threw us out when I was little. He wasn’t even really my stepfather; at least, I don’t think so.” He stared unseeing at the grave and pushed down a flicker of anger at the not knowing. “I wish I remembered more. ”
The priest started to speak but Johnny held up his hand. “No, no, I know you’re gonna say Yolanda knows.” He shoved away the priest’s unspoken words. “I don’t want to hear it from her. I don’t want someone I don’t know telling me about my papa.”
The flicker grew into a flame; Johnny’s voice rose with emotion. “Because you know what, Padre? I should know about him myself. I should remember him myself, here,” and he struck himself over his heart, hard, with a clenched fist. “I should remember.”
Once again he felt the priest’s hand on his shoulder. “You do,” Padre Hidalgo said quietly.
“No. I don’t even remember what he looked like.” Johnny shook his head; his fists remained clenched.
“Then, what he looked like isn’t important. Listen to your heart, Johnny. It remembers.” Padre Hidalgo’s hand remained on Johnny’s shoulder.
Johnny stared at his stepfather’s untended grave. His eyes began to burn; his breath came fast and shallow. Minutes passed; he faced his grief for the first time, with the support of the man of God beside him. At last his fists unclenched. His breathing settled and he rubbed his eyes as if coming awake. He lifted his head to look at the priest, then looked back down where Papa was buried. When he spoke his voice was quiet as a whisper.
“I remember him carryin’ me out of Midnight Mass. I remember how he smelled, how safe I felt.”
There. He’d spoken one of his fragile memories and it hadn’t shattered. It hadn’t dissolved. It was still his.
Padre Hidalgo nodded. “Is it enough, my son?”
Was it? No new memories had surfaced; he knew nothing more than he had before.
But maybe he did, in a way.
He smiled faintly as he accepted the reality of his fragile memories. “No, not really. But it’ll have to do.”
The priest smiled at him and said, “I can think of no better memory to honor your stepfather.”
The words filled an empty space inside him and he savored the small remembrance of his papa.