A Flash of Fallible Heaven

Lasher Lane

 

 

In his well-worn recliner, in front of the TV with a beer, her husband laughed as he watched countless fortune cookies fall on Socorro’s head upon opening the kitchen cabinets. Superstitious, she’d kept fifteen years-worth, never throwing the unopened ones away, wishing the Chinese man didn’t put so many in their once-a-month takeout. Never having the chance to eat them all, she thought it bad luck to get rid of the wrapped ones, as if they might offer the means to a positive future, but the opened ones, read to her by her husband, only held empty promises, which she’d quickly discard.  Their bungalow sat on an acre of land the farmhand had bought for pennies, decades ago. She and her husband called it home for as long as she’d collected those cryptic cookies.

The only Spanish-speaking couple on the block, through the years they’d simply exchange friendly waves with neighbors. Though her husband could speak and read it, Socorro blamed her attempt at broken English for the reason others never invited her past their front door. A gardener and house cleaner, they both longed for the day when they’d be retired. Learning English bit by bit, she was reminded of how the prefix re- could indicate repetition, to do something repeatedly, again and again, and repeatedly tired was how they both felt. His hands never healing from pesticides and inclement weather, her own, raw from toxic cleaning products. He was as tired of mowing lawns and clearing brush as she was of cleaning houses, only to have to come home and clean her own.

Three days a week, Socorro’s gringa boss would pick her up, then drop her at each house, calling  every half hour to check on her progress, making sure she’d be on time to clean the next. She’d hold back tears, dusting family photos of others’ children, some who’d be the same age as her own daughter, if she’d come home ten years ago and wasn’t found in a dumpster blocks from her elementary school, her tiny body, bound, gagged and sexually assaulted, yet another little girl discarded like trash, the significance of her life equal in the killer’s eyes to the contents meant for the Hefty bag she was found in.

Once an avid churchgoer, she prayed and prayed for her only child’s return, but when she didn’t, Socorro lost faith, and for the first time in her life, doubted the existence of heaven and hell. Her only solace was saving to buy Chinese takeout once a month. She’d walk to her favorite Chinese restaurant, passing the 1940’s bungalows, daydreaming of a life not meant for her.

She’d imagine miles of verdant, aromatic groves, with silent screen sirens in glittering, glamorous clothes, with severe haircuts and exaggerated eye makeup, reaching to pick apricots, while men dressed in suits laid on picnic blankets, a bottle of wine nearby.

Once, along with the usual generous amount of fortune cookies, the man put some paper placemats with pictures of the zodiac in her bag. “Chinese New Year,” he said. “Year of the Sheep. Unlucky year to be born.” He shook his head and laughed. She just smiled and nodded, only understanding the words Chinese and New Year.

At home, she set the coffee table in the living room with the zodiac placemats. Instead of her own worn-out flatware and dinnerware, she’d set out plates and cutlery, never in her budget,  which she’d “borrow” from houses she cleaned, returning them each week, their owners never noticing the missing items.  To help her with English, she and her husband would eat dinner while watching cable news. peppered with medication ads making it seem inevitable that all Americans would succumb to heart disease, diabetes, fibromyalgia, cancer, arthritis, cataracts, psoriasis, cancer and stroke.

They both wondered why these had to be commonplace and accepted without question, each laughing at the erectile dysfunction ads, shown much more frequently than the others, as if achieving an erection was more critical than curing other ailments.

When finished eating, Socorro would open a fortune cookie, passing it to her husband to read:

“He who has no faith, has no future,” Again, he read it in Spanish, “Quién no tiene fe, no tiene futuro.”

After he read them, she’d usually take the cookies from him to eat, but she didn’t take this one, and facing him, sitting sideways near the edge of the couch, her hands in her lap, she just shrugged. Since her daughter’s murder, she wasn’t sure if she even had a future, but she knew  she had no faith. Her husband put the cookie down, and noticing the placemat, moved his plate slightly to the side to better see it. He pointed to the years they were both born. He was born in the year of the rat.

“Su año es no afortunado,” he said, pointing to the year of the sheep. Never realizing what zodiac animal represented her birth year, her eyes went wide, only then remembering the Chinese man saying “sheep,” and what “unlucky” must have meant. Now 2015, this was the year of the sheep, the calendar coming around again. Seeing her expression, her husband laughed and waved his hand, dismissing the placemat, saying, “Basura supersticiosa,” not realizing superstition wasn’t garbage to her.

***

She was outside washing her windows, a task she dreaded. Overhearing someone speaking Spanish, she turned to find a woman on a cell phone, pushing Socorro’s elderly next-door neighbor, Elsa, in a wheelchair. Excited to hear her native language, she put down her cleaning supplies and quickly walked over to introduce herself, apologizing for interrupting the woman’s phone call. The woman, Reyna, would be Elsa’s new live-in caretaker. They became fast friends, Socorro meeting Reyna and Elsa on her days off. They’d walk to the park, where they’d sit on a bench, sharing life stories, both good and bad, while Elsa, in her wheelchair, sat quietly, throwing stale bread to the pigeons. For months, they met each morning, Socorro asking Reyna to speak to her in English as much as possible during their heart-to-heart talks. As summer turned to fall, Socorro noticed she didn’t see them walking anymore. She knocked on Elsa’s door, and Reyna invited her in for coffee, saying Elsa wasn’t feeling well and was too weak to get out of bed. Both women stood in the doorway to Elsa’s room, Socorro smiling and waving, asking in Spanish how her neighbor felt. With Reyna translating, Elsa frowned and shook her head. With no more walks to the park, on her days off, coffee at Elsa’s house became Socorro’s new morning ritual.

***

Most nights, Soccoro’s husband’s snoring forced her to move to the living room. Hoping to catch up on some much needed rest, she took a spare blanket and lay down on the sofa. With its tiny pillows, she faced the wall. After a few minutes of lying with her eyes closed, the room grew intensely cold, and she wondered if the front door had blown open, which would often happen if she forgot to use the deadbolt. Hearing a brief flutter, as if wings were beating, She shivered, eyes closed, remembering the time a single crow flew down the living room’s chimney and got trapped in their fireplace. She knew one crow meant bad luck.

She recalled her husband wrestling with the bird, then finally releasing it outside. The Northridge quake had cracked their chimney. Not having money to repair it, they’d stopped using the fireplace, putting a sheet over the screen, watching the house breathe the wind. As she lay there, she knew she had to get up to check if the front door had blown open.

Still facing the wall, too cold, colder than she’d ever been in her life, she felt a large hand clasp  the top of her head, the fingertips pressing into her skull so hard it was painful. Thinking it was her husband jokingly trying to get her to come back to bed, her thoughts quickly turned to robbery. In the past, her husband often reminded her that even though Colfax Meadows looked like any small town, it was part of the city of Los Angeles, and there were many armed  robberies, even the elderly man who lived a few houses down was robbed and shot in the eye through his door’s peephole. She froze, guessing this was her end. Convinced she’d be murdered while her husband slept in the back of the house, she laid still, pondering her next move, knowing her only chance was to turn herself around quickly, quick enough to escape the intruder’s grasp, while running for the gun her husband kept hidden in a hallway drawer.

The large hand let go of the top of her head, and the intruder stepped back from the couch. Socorro saw from the corner of her eye a creature the color of stone, lit from within. Giant and otherworldly, it rose to the ceiling. It stared down at her, with a look not of fear, love or hate, but of bewilderment. It wore a mesh-like gown unlike any material she’d seen on earth, its many-feathered wings flapping in slow motion, where the room’s ceiling should have been, ignoring all laws of physics. Soccoro looked up and smiled at the divine creature. Returning no emotion, it flew straight through the wall and was gone in a flash. She ran to the window, looking past rooftops and trees to the sky but saw nothing. Unable to sleep, she switched on the lamp, staying on the couch until at last she nodded off. At dawn, as a ray of sunlight through the blinds awoke her, Socorro remembered the reason she lay awake all night. Clearly not a dream, that was an angel she saw. She wouldn’t tell her husband, he’d only laugh.

Opening the shutters to let the sun in, she noticed an ambulance in front of Elsa’s house, no siren, only its lights flashing Two paramedics stood in a circle talking with Reyna and a strange man Socorro thought to be Elsa’s son. Reyna looking concerned, holding herself tightly, arms folded across her chest, as if she were cold. Then the man climbed into the back of the ambulance, the paramedics drove away, and Reyna walked back into the house. Socorro quickly dressed and ran across the street, knocking on Elsa’s door. Reyna invited her for coffee. Socorro could see she’d been crying and sat at the kitchen table while she was told that Elsa had passed away only a few hours before.

“She was muy frio con tres mantas,”  Reyna said, then explained that Elsa looked up and raised her arms, as if wanting someone to lift her, and fell over dead. Looking down, Reyna held back tears, her hands folded around her coffee mug. Socorro’s heart jumped. If angels came to comfort the dying and collect the dead, did they make mistakes, come to the wrong houses?

Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, Socorro blessed herself, making the sign of the cross with her right hand.

 


Lasher Lane has worked many years for Prentice-Hall’s art department in book composition and is published in Volume 1 Brooklyn’s Sunday Stories, Hippocampus,The Zodiac Review, Down in the Dirt and Foliate Oak.