Tía Chaparrita is blind and all of sixty-six years old. Standing no taller than a question mark, with a mouth that can freeze the nuts of any macho machismo, the woman is my hero. She’s an actual tía—a blood aunt—and my father’s sister.
Tía Chaparrita runs a midnight poker game twice a month and deals the best mota in L.A.—tropical bud she moves in from Aguas Calientes four times a year. She lives off my dead tío’s VA check and her door, her kitchen, is always open to everyone. Beyond cool, I see to my Tía’s every want, her every need.
My name is Jenera Hill, but she calls me Chichona Fea, which means “big ugly breasts.” Tía Chaparrita cracks me up.
I love her to death.
I hop the alley wall behind her house and walk through her backyard. Tía's got cats everywhere, big ones, little ones, fat ones, boney ones; all are scarred, but none are scared. Mota vapors hover, and due to my laborious labor, her yard is spotless.
I knock on her back door and Lurch the Nurse, her County-sent, part-time right hand, answers the door but says nothing. Tía’s house, a two-story Victorian, towers over the street, blocking all stars, consuming every sunset. Her house bends at every wind and is veiled by an assortment of stained-glass windows courtesy of midnight forays into unguarded churches, chapels, and rectories.
Tía enters, wraparound Blind Mans mask her face.“Vamanos,” she grumbles. “Let’s go before I have to pee again.”
We make it to the church, the Blessed Lord of the Assumption, and it’s dark, the taste of musk and candle rise to greet us. I guide Tía to the holy water. She dips both hands past the wrist, brushes water over her eyes before blessing her face three times. “Make the sign,” she whispers, though she knows I won’t. “Make the sign, mija. It’s good for you.”
This is the first Mass of the day and the only one to be celebrated in English. What few parishioners we have are elderly, except for a grieving drunk or two, and most sit alone. The women kneel in best dresses, hair tightly set, makeup light and dignified. The men sit in stiff wool suits and wide ties, handkerchiefs protruding, shoes polished, hair watered back.
I collar a scampering altar boy, press a ten spot into his hand, and point to the rear of the church.
“Light five candles and put them off to the side. Make them new ones. And don’t tell Father.” The kid nods and disappears. I walk Tía Chaparrita to the last row so that God, she always says, will not be reminded nor shamed by the burden He has delivered upon her head. I place a missalette on her lap, fold a dollar bill into her pocket. An organ begins and the congregation stands. I slip outside.
I sit on the steps enjoying the sun as it settles on my face. A stream of pigeons slide in from behind, circling the street before landing en masse at my feet. Purring and squabbling, the pigeons tap furiously into the asphalt, hunting remnants of ceremonies long passed.
An LAPD cruiser approaches from the west. The car pulls to the curb, the cop on shotgun leans out with a broad, angular smile. The pigeons flutter away.
It’s officers Gluchek and Middlewolfe, bookend surfer cops who are well known and semi-respected throughout the neighborhood. Gluchek cuts the engine and works a small comb through his mustache. Middlewolfe smiles into his mirror, red toothpick balancing off his lip. He motions me over.
“So what do we have here? Homegirl looking for a better way?”
I smile at both men, I got no hate.
“I brought my Tía to Mass. She’s inside gettin’ her religion.”
Gluchek leans over. “Not you? Ain’t you seen the light yet?”
I shrug. “I don’t believe what I can’t see, but if it works for Tía, I’m good.”
Their car radio sparks, and Gluchek guns the engine. “We gotta go.”
“Now don’t you take any wooden gods,” Middlewolfe laughs. “And tell your tia we’ll catch her another time.”
Inside, multi-toned bells sprinkle the silence, signaling the start of Communion. This is Tía Chaparrita’s favorite part of Mass and I know better not be late. I move to the back of the church, position a loaded spoon over the candles, and one minute later the deed is done. I slide in close, and Tía Chaparrita’s sleeve is already pulled back, a line of sweat forming about her eyes.
“Damn,” she whispers, “I thought you bailed.”
“Naw,” I respond, tapping the syringe. “Little delay, pero nothing serious.” Bells sound again, angrier this time.
Pigeons rush against the blue-red windows, wings lashing hard.
Father pans a gold chalice over the congregation.
I tap her forearm with my thumb.
Father puts a wafer into his mouth.
I enter her with a gentle stab.
Father swigs boldly from the chalice.
Tía Chaparrita exhales, moans, slumps.
Parishioners rise and file silently toward Father.
I’ve found my favorite vein.
Father bows and places the Body of Christ into his first child.
I slide the needle in.
Father patiently works his people. No one is left out.
Tía Chaparrita grips my hand. The shit is good.
Father smiles and begins his farewell.
Relief pours like blue sand into every cavern of my soul.
“May almighty God bless you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost . . .”
“And God bless la vida,” I whisper loudly.
“Y tú también,” Tía Chaparrita nods.
“Y tú, y tú,” I respond with a laugh.
Michael Sarabia writes every day from his east L.A. home. A USMC vet, he’s taught history, government, and English composition for over 25 years.
Illustration by Andrés Guzmán
PSSSST! This story will be published in Paper Darts Volume Six. Be on the look out for pre-orders soon.