On the day that James David turned two years old, already a skilled toddler for thirteen months, Reverend John Jones sat solemnly at the kitchen table, and observed his dark-haired son's activities. Only two guests attended the birthday party: a little boy, whose mother was the church secretary, and a little girl, whose father was the choir director. James David's chocolate birthday cake, made painstakingly from scratch by Mrs. Jones in the course of an entire afternoon, sat waiting on the table while the children played on the floor. Their parents sat at the table with the Reverend.
The Reverend felt his blood boil at his son's unruliness, but he believed that birthday parties were a mother's work. In addition, he wanted to maintain his stature, especially in front of the two members of his staff.
Mrs. Jones, glancing nervously at her husband, tried to coax James David to play. She pushed back her sandy-colored hair, with the backs of her hands, and announced in her whispery voice. "Let's cut the cake, shall we?"After herding the children to the table, she lit the candles on the cake and put James David in his chair. "Now, James David, blow. Make a wish and blow out the candles."She moved the cake closer to him.
He stiffened his arms and held himself back, away from the pastry.
Her face turned red with embarrassment; she coaxed him again, softly. "Please, darling, it's tradition. Mommy will help you. Be a big boy and blow out your candles."
The Reverend felt his own face redden, but not from embarrassment. As the candles burned down, he waited silently with fury as his son resisted his mother's promptings. Just before the tiny fires reached the rich chocolate icing, James David leaned forward stiffly, and blew out the two candles.
Candles extinguished, Grace Jones let out a sigh of relief. "Wonderful, darling, now let's cut the cake together and serve our guests."Her shy voice was nervous and tentative. Her son was unpredictable; she could only imagine how this might end. She placed the cake knife in James David's right hand, wrapping her fingers around his, and gently tried to guide him through the first cut.
She winced as she felt him resist. Even though she had expected the worst, Grace was startled when, without warning, he screamed, "no."The scene at the table exploded in chaos; the other children began to cry. Their parents corralled them and raced for safety, away from the table and the out-of-control child with a knife.
James David stretched his upper body, as far as he could reach, across the table. He freed his hand and the knife from his mother, issued another ear shattering "no,"and hurled the utensil across the room, splattering cake on the wall. As the creamy icing oozed and slid down the faded blue wall, it gave the appearance of a house bleeding chocolate.
Well before the cake knife came to a complete stop on the yellowing tile floor, any self-control that the Reverend Jones had maintained was gone. With one highly exaggerated, uncoordinated movement, he ensnared his son with his arm around the child's waist.
He plucked the baby from the chair and carried him into the living room. John Jones was incensed. Too angry to utter even a single word, he violently shook the child like an oversized rag doll.
The Reverend could not think clearly. The banal creature, trapped in his arms, seemed surreal. We have guests in the house, he thought as his mind began to clear, and I must compose myself. I am the Pastor.
Holding James David at arms length, he looked deep into his eyes. "What kind of a child are you?"He whispered as he put the boy on the sofa and released him. It felt like an electric connection severed; he sighed. Reluctantly, he took the boy up again; embarrassed, he returned to the kitchen.
Only Mrs. Jones remained.
In the few minutes that the Reverend and James David were out of the kitchen, the guests hastily scooped up their children, made quick nonsensical excuses, and left through the carport. Grace anxiously cleaned the chocolate from the wall and floor. Without knowing the reason, she left the knife where it lay.
What am I going to do? She thought worried most about the Reverend's reaction. The child had always been a point of contention. Grace dreaded the day when James David would commit one infraction over the limit. Many rebellions and tantrums occurred of which the Reverend knew nothing, nor would he ever.
When father and son reentered the room, they looked like two aliens with absolutely nothing in common, like water and oil. With all of her being, Grace feared they would never mix. "Reverend, please let him go,"she implored, "he's just a child."
He cleared his throat, "Woman, baby or adolescent, birthday or not, he must learn right from wrong."His stern tone was devoid of emotion. "It's our job to teach him. If we ignore his actions, they will only get worse. You remember, as well as me, what happened with David. We have a reason to never forget."
Grace was surprised. Her husband had uttered his brother's name for the first time in more than two years. Will he ever forgive me and accept this child? she wondered. A question she often asked herself.
"I will raise this child in the path of Jesus. I'm going to teach him right from wrong; it starts now, today. 'Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.'"
Grace recognized the scripture from Proverbs.
He continued reciting the passage; his voice took on a certain cadence as though the timing of the delivery was as important as the words themselves. "'If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from Sheol.'" He pushed past her, and carried the rigid child to where the cake knife lay on the cold floor.
The Reverend knelt down. "James David, pick up the knife,"he said without inflection. "Pick it up now."
The child did not budge. Grace gasped, fervently hoping her son would do what his father asked.
The Reverend took control of the boy's clinched fist, pried his fingers open one at a time, and positioned the unwilling hand on the plastic handle. James David remained frozen.
Using both hands, the father wrapped tiny fingers around the utensil, and squeezed the child's hand until it closed around the knife. He carried the boy to the kitchen counter, held him above the sink, and dropped the knife.
He placed James David in his mother's arms, and wordlessly, went straight to his study. There he stayed until the house slept.
Grace heard her husband into the night, through the thin walls, murmuring repeatedly to himself with a chant-like rhythm. She did not need to hear every word to know what he was saying.
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me... Even though I walk through the valley of the..."
Grace found her seven-year-old son playing alone in the backyard. Gazing through the kitchen window of the dilapidated house, she nervously wrung her hands. When I touch the door, he will know his father sent me, she told herself. He will know he's in trouble again. Why must I always be the one to deliver bad news?
With her face cradled in her palms, she muffled her sobs. Any sound made in the kitchen telegraphed through paper-thin walls to the Reverend's study. How many times can I do this before my own son will come to hate me? Grace willed her tears to stop. She wished their family could be different, that father and son could get along.
Mesmerized by the innocent child, she stalled, suffering an eternity of moments. Everyone says he is such a handsome boy. If they only knew how much he looks like his father, they would understand. He's going to be such a heartbreaker. She admired his big brown eyes, long eyelashes, and thick hair. She sighed. He would make a beautiful girl. The idea made her shiver with regret.
Should I have been a stronger disciplinarian when he started Kindergarten? She questioned herself. I could have done a better job of helping him to learn to play with other children. If I had taught him to socialize, he would have no reason to rebel. If I had just stood between my boy and the Reverend, I could have been strict and still treated him fairly. It's so difficult for a minister's son; everyone expects him to be perfect. If I had not allowed his father to demand so much of him, make him into something he's not, things could be better. Grace let out a deep breath; she could delay her assignment no longer.
When the rusty hinges of the wooden screen-door cried out, James David lifted his eyes from his toy. His face filled with dread. He knew her look; he knew why she had come. I wonder what I did this time.
"Your father would like to speak with you."He had heard the same submissive tones a thousand times. She spoke in the same manner to the Reverend. She nervously wrung her hands never looking at his face.
Without uttering a word, James walked past his mother. He knew his father was in his sanctuary, waiting. He reluctantly entered and took his place, at attention, in front of the old oak desk. He knew his father's expectations as he knew every object in the room. The study had once been a bedroom exactly like his. The closet was directly behind him; there was a small television hidden inside. He heard the news commentator's scripted speech sift through the walls every night at six-o'clock.
What did I do this time? He wondered again.
With his head down, the Reverend worked silently at his desk. Handwritten pages, along with two open Bibles, covered the desktop,
He's watching me. James's mind raced. He enjoys making me wait. He loves this shit, making me suffer... He was careful not to waver. If I move, it'll set him off... James held his arms at his sides, hands wide open, and palms pressed against thighs. A fist would provoke his father.
He stared straight ahead. I wonder where the old man got all these Bibles. Why would anyone collect Bibles? Hell, I don't wanna read one. The timeworn books, drenched in natural light, which poured in through curtain-less windows, perched on homemade shelves. The room was the same as all the other studies, in all the parsonages, in all the towns.
Many times, James had overheard his parents talking about the moves. His father often blamed him. However, he had also heard his mother say, sometimes the congregation, or the Bishop, requested they move. Me, thrown out of school might have caused some of the moves, he admitted. There'll come a day when I can really do whatever I want; there won't be any fuckin' Bibles in my house. There won't be a study, rug rats, or rules. Shit, I'll do whatever I want when I...
"James David,"the old man raised his eyes from his work and focused on his young son. "Your mother and I are very disappointed..."It always began the same.
Grace slipped noiselessly into her sleeping son's room. She ran her fingers adoringly through his hair, and gently touched James David's tranquil, innocent face. "David,"she whispered, awash in remorse. The boy-child sleeping before her was the embodiment of lost love, her final chance at happiness, a symbol of purloined joy. In him, she saw the mischievous smile of her husband's only brother.
She closed her eyes; from the deepest recesses of her mind, she heard David laugh, a joyful, uninhibited laugh. Grace knew a side of her brother-in-law that no one else knew, not even the Reverend. David was sweet, docile, and hard to anger. He loved his older brother, and continuously tried to convince him that their differences did not matter. His calm voice was clear in her mind as though he was in the room.
Dear brother, please don't be so angry with me. Just because I've chosen a life different from yours, doesn't mean it's wrong.
Your life isn't just different from mine, David, it's unacceptable. How can you possibly think that living like a gypsy, riding that motorcycle, drinking, and running with harlots is anything other than evil?
John, I understand how you might interpret my life as sinful. You give me too much credit for total debauchery. I'm not a minister, but that doesn't mean my life is wrong. I'm living my life; doing what I want. I'm sorry you don't approve. Nevertheless, I love you.
You, who loves the dark side of the world, love me. With every word, the Reverend became angrier. You have chosen to live as a pagan in total opposition to Jesus' teaching... You come into our home, tell your stories, and distract my wife from her duties to the church and me. You encourage her to comb out her hair and wear curls. You're not satisfied with wasting your own life. You want to take us with you, and I will not allow that.
David cowered and withdrew. It broke Grace's heart to watch. David had often said that all he really wanted was his brother's blessing.
David, leave this house and never return. Never again, call me brother. To me you are dead. He threw open the front door, and stepped aside.
Without a word, David walked past his older brother and into the street. The Reverend pivoted and slammed the door. With both hands, he grasped his collar. The sound of tearing fabric ripped deep into Grace's heart.
Dead to me, dead to me... he repeated as he walked to his study.
Eight months later, at the age of twenty-two years, David died in an accident. One month after that, James David Jones was born.
Grace gazed, once more, at her still sleeping son. She ran her fingers through his hair. He stirred and licked his lips. "Shh, shh, shh,"she whispered, "go back to sleep, my darling, and dream wonderful dreams."She tenderly kissed his cheek, and silently slipped into the hall.
Guadalupe del Rio moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles sometime before her baby girl was six months old.
Star knew two versions of her mother's story. One, the woman had told hundreds of times. It always ended with Guadalupe blaming Star for everything that had gone wrong in her life. The other variation, she heard from Lupe's limited friends. Star was sure there was some truth in the stories. She also knew the sometimes distorted recounting came from too much cocaine, self-loathing, and a desire to be something she was not.
"You're the reason,"Lupe would often scream, "I'm a whore! Before you come, I have mis sueños, me dreams, I have me man."
It was always the same old song, “¡Que la canción!” Star would shout back at her ridiculous bitch of a mother.
Sober or high, Lupe always repeated the essential facts of the story the same, word for word. The tall, thin, powerful man, whom Lupe consistently described, was the love of her life. He was the father of an unborn child, but not a husband when he died on a motorcycle and left Lupe to fend for herself.
Guadalupe was born in the Republic of Mexico, the State of Jalisco, the daughter of campesinos, migrant farmers. She was thirteen when they crossed the Rio Grande with all their possessions on their backs. They were twenty-seven Mexicans in all, including her parents and siblings.
Before they left Mexico, they spent many nights around the campfire eating tacos of rice and beans while listening to Lupe's father retell the numerous stories of Los Estados Unidos y las calles de oro, the United States and the, so-called, streets of gold.
There were no streets of gold, and in the end, they all lived in a cramped, drafty apartment in East St. Louis, Illinois. The family slept shoulder-to-shoulder in one shabby room; it was bitterly cold in the winter and blazing hot in the summer.
They nearly starved before Lupe's father found a job, as a barge hand, hauling coal on the Mississippi. Fortunately, for the hungry children at home, there were tasks on the boat that no legal worker was willing to do. He lived and worked on the boat for thirty days, then spent an equal number of days at home. When papa was home, the family ate in restaurants and lived like kings. The Talavera bowl, which sat in the center of the kitchen table, brimmed full with rich Mexican chocolate. When he was gone, they made broth from boiled meat scraps and begged in the streets. The Talavera bowl sat empty.
Lupe was eighteen when her dream came true. She met her green-eyed American, and they fell in love. She was proud that she was a virgin when he first lay with her. As she felt him fill her, she prayed to her tocaya, her namesake the virgin Guadalupe, for the warmth to bring a baby.
"Me seesters told me..."This part of the narrative always angered Star. If she can't blame me, Star thought, forced to rehear the saga, she has to blame her sisters or my grandparents. "...if I had a baby, it would be American, and me too. A baby would be good, but hijo de puta. I got you and lost me man. It's your fault. You didn't make me American; you made me whore."
Lupe never actually told Star that at one time, in the first few months, there was money in her purse. Star learned this from others.
Once, when Estrella was thirteen, she found a bill-of-sale for a car. Lupe had purchased it when Estrella was only seven months old. It was nearly new, and cash was paid. A year after she found the receipt, drawing upon Star's courage, Estrella confronted Lupe, who was high on cocaine. Brandishing the scrap of paper, she demanded to know what it meant. "Momma, did we have money? Where did you get it; what did you do with it?"
The woman's swollen pupils floated in languid pools of red. "None o' you fuckin' business, I got paid for what I not say."
People laughed at Lupe's accent and her grammar; she blamed Star. Because she had a baby, Lupe could not get a job. They moved often because no one wanted a child around. When the money ran out, Lupe's only option was prostitution; Star was to blame. Everything was Star's fault.
For as long as Estrella could remember, up until the time that she began to earn money, she slept in Lupe's closet. Night after night, she lay in the cloistered, dark space listening to some smelly stranger, grunting and sweating, on top of her mother.
Estrella was her Mexican name, and she hated it. Guadalupe was her Mexican mother, and she despised her. Somewhere in Missouri, a green-eyed American was rotting in a grave; he was her father. Without even knowing his name, she loathed him. Estrella was the only daughter of a cheap, drunken whore and a dead man.
In a barrio of East Los Angeles, Guadalupe enrolled six-year-old Estrella in school.
Estrella loved the time away from her mother. Although shy around the other children, she was a good student and a fast learner. At home, her mother forced her to set aside her situational shyness and learn other lessons like panhandling and grifting. Most importantly, Lupe taught her: "Men are the enemy; they have money in their pockets."Her mother relentlessly repeated, "It's our job to get their money, all of it."
When James David was eight years old, he walked home from school one Friday afternoon right past a house where he had lately seen a young girl playing with her puppy. As he passed the house, he saw the yellow puppy alone in the yard. He did not know why, but he wanted the puppy.
Looking in both directions to make sure no one was watching, James David lifted the latch, pushed open the gate, and softly called, "Here, boy. Here, boy. Com'ere, boy."The dog ran to open arms. James stuffed the puppy into his coat and ran home. He hid his prize in his fort in the backyard.
On Saturday at noon, a knock came at the front door. James peeked out of his bedroom as he heard his father cross through the living room.
At the front entrance, there stood a tall man and the girl who owned the puppy. Tears stained the girl's cheeks.
"Sorry to bother you, Reverend,"the man said in a deep voice, "my daughter and I have been canvassing the neighborhood looking for a small, yellow puppy. You haven't seen one runnin' around, have you?"
"James David,"the Reverend Jones called.
Moving slowly down the hallway, James David kept his eye on the girl. He stood back a little ways from his father and waited.
"James David,"his father asked in a typically severe tone, "this little girl has lost her yellow puppy. Have you seen it?"
"No, father, I haven't seen any dogs."A cold shiver ran up James's spine. He leaned against the doorframe, stared at the girl's shoes, and supported his overly warm face against the back of his hand. The smell of the dog, still on his skin, was strong.
"James David Jones,"the Reverend's voice grew increasingly harsher with every word. His face reddened, "Tell me the truth. Where is this girl's dog? Tell me what you know, or God help me, I'll beat you within an inch of your life. For the love of all that's precious, boy, speak!"
James lifted his eyes warily and looked at the man and the girl standing uncomfortably on the steps. The girl was sobbing; he saw a look of horror on her father's face.
"He's out back,"James whispered. The Reverend did not hesitate. James felt his vice-like grip on his bicep. He grimaced as the pain shot through his muscles. The scene around him began to swim as he felt himself being half carried, suspended by only his right arm, half dragged toward the back door. The man and the girl followed at a safe distance.
"Show us,"the Reverend ordered. He released his grip on James David's arm. His hand felt hot; his heart pounded in his fingertips. A desire to strike the boy flooded over him. The Reverend glanced at the two strangers, standing on his back steps, and he struggled not to embarrass himself anymore than his son already had.
James David retrieved the puppy from its box inside his fort, and handed it to his father.
Reverend Jones forced himself to take the puppy, and immediately returned it to its owner's arms.
He turned to the man. "Sir,"he could feel his voice quiver, "I am very sorry for any inconvenience my son has caused you. I assure you he will be dealt with; this will not happen again."The Reverend felt his composure rapidly slipping away.
"James David,"he clenched his fists as he spoke, "you owe these people an apology and a commitment of penance."He looked hard into his son's face. The boy stood unmoving, his eyes trancelike. The Reverend saw no sign of emotion in the grim countenance. "James David, atone for your sins; tell these people you're sorry. Now, James David, right now. I command you!"
Finally, James David began to speak, but his were not the words of an eight-year-old. "You say that God's creatures are not chattel,"he calmly began.
A familiar discomfort swept over the Reverend. He had felt this way many times before when he read of the crucifixion of the Christ.
James David continued; his voice seemed devoid of feeling. "You teach us that we are a brotherhood, equal and sharing, in the eyes of God. I have as much right to that dog as anyone."
The Reverend was dumbstruck. This is not right, he thought. This boy cannot use my teachings and my example against me. Desperate to save face, he searched his mind for a scripture with which to respond.
"Very well, young man,"the words came slowly at first, "remember King Solomon. He faced a similar situation with two mothers fighting over the same child: And the King said, 'Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.' Is that your wish, James? Shall we cut this innocent dog in two?"The Reverend glared at his son, ignoring the neighbors. The daughter hung from her father's arm sobbing uncontrollably.
"Enough, I've seen and heard enough,"the other man yelled. He stuffed the puppy under one arm, took his daughter's hand, and rushed away.
Reverend Jones left his son alone in the yard, and hastily retreated to his study.
Within the hour, he dispatched Mrs. Jones with a summons for her son. He left James David to stand at attention, for more than an hour, while he tried to unravel the lines of meaningless words in the Bible on his desk. Seething, he studied the pages, careful not to look at the boy.
Finally, overcome with rage, he abruptly stood. The reluctant wheels of the old desk chair squealed in protest against the wooden floor. The chair slammed into the wall. The Reverend removed his belt. He searched James David's face and found no remorse. The boy's big brown eyes were empty.
He lashed the boy, repeatedly, until his heart ached more than his arm. "Now,"the Reverend's words were grim and flat, "James David, you will remain here, and repeat this scripture one hundred times."He took an open Bible from the desk and handed it to the child.
James David wept as he read the words. "And the King said, 'Divide the living child in two..."
The new parsonage was a little bigger, however more isolated than ever before. James had to ride the bus to school. The moves never mattered to him. Friends were easy to make when he wanted. He lived in his own world with very private thoughts and dreams. Nothing outside that world made any difference. It was all just monotonous details. An unwelcome existence, he was perpetually lonely without being alone.
Reverend John Jones repeatedly forced the story of his son's second birthday upon him. James believed it was a milestone; the day he became a rebel. He never understood why he resented his father so deeply. His mother had seemed different when he was very young. He mostly felt sorry for her now. Sometimes he thought of them both, himself and his mother, as victims.
Occasionally, he dreamed of running away and taking her with him. Then the wrath of his father would again fall upon him, and his mother never intervened. He hated that the Reverend used her as an implement, always sending her to bring him to that awful place. My fatherÂ’s chamber of horror, he called it. James came to see his parents as a discordant pair, the master and his disciple.
Inside his private world, his dream world, James lived a very separate life. There, his house, the yard, and his room were always the same, warm and welcoming. There, his father was not a minister, and his mother spoke her own mind. In his imaginary existence, James had friends, many friends. There, they liked his jokes and valued his opinion. There, he was a part of a group, an important part of something very special, a society, his community, a place where he belonged. There, he had no desire to rebel. There, suspension from school was not a possibility, and best of all there were no summons or waiting for punishment.
Estrella at ten was tall for her age, gangly, and a clever, gifted pickpocket. Her inquisitive brown eyes were full of life and hope. Only her olive skin hinted at her heritage. She learned everything with ease. At school, the boys admired her from a distance and the girls envied her. No one befriended her.
Every afternoon Lupe supervised her daughter's homework, which had nothing to do with books or school. They were lessons of the street, lessons of survival in an indifferent world. In all that she touched, she excelled. Her marks never knew she was there. She routinely lifted wallets, cleaned them out, and put them back unnoticed.
When she was twelve, her favorite panhandle was telling old men she was lost; they gave her cab fare and food money. When she pretended to be blind, she doubled the take.
The money went straight to Guadalupe's purse. Lupe counted the scores individually regardless of their dollar value. For each one Estrella received her reward, a tiny bar of rich, Mexican dark chocolate. Trapped beneath her tongue, the candy slowly melted and the natural effects oozed through her body. Often, when the pilfered money first touched her hand, she could taste the phantom cacao.
The Reverend carried his 5'11"frame perpetually erect and rigid, like a duty-bound Beefeater. His long sinewy arms were discretely muscular. His rapidly graying, sandy-brown hair continuously diminished, leaving behind an ever-growing, waxen scalp. Outdoors, he wore a black fedora, a protection for his pale skin. Parishioners cowered when he entered a room as though they feared him. James David definitely feared him; he believed were he to openly resist or rebel, the last thing on the elder's mind would be any consideration of personal pain, for either party.
James read book after book, in secret, and loved them all: fiction, non-fiction, biographies, even textbooks. He found Shakespeare, history, science, and mathematics to be especially captivating. Had the Joneses known, they would have been overjoyed, which was exactly the reason James read late at night when his parents slept. He perfected a facade of disinterest, and worked hard to seem remedial to his teachers. Everything in James's world was a secret, including what he knew.
At twelve years old, his hormones attacked his judgment. He began to openly rebel against his mother.
"James David, do you have any homework today?"Grace asked one day right after school.
"No,"he answered dully.
"I don't understand this,"she began more assertive than normal. "I talk to the other mothers of children in your grade. They tell me there's homework almost every day."
"They're liars,"he rebutted. "They're just dirty stinkin' liars."
James David, don't talk like that. You mustn't call other people liars."She forced a commanding tone. "You have certain responsibilities, and you will have throughout your life. You must do your homework."
He stood up directly in front of her. His brown eyes bulged and his face reddened. Already taller than she, he looked down upon her with contempt. On a smaller scale, he shared his father's physique; his olive skin matched no one. James David clenched his fists tightly, his knuckles whitened. He began to speak in a dry, cruel monotone. "Yeah, well let me tell you somethin'. I'm an American, I'm twelve years old, and I have rights."His words sent his mother straight to her room where she wept for hours.
The next day, for Grace, was like the inquisition. The persistent Reverend spent nearly two hours evoking a thorough explanation for her swollen eyes.
The summons came immediately after school, delivered in a scratchy, broken, almost apologetic, tearful voice. "Your father would like to see you."
The Reverend was working at his desk. The light from a tattered table lamp cast an eerie shadow across the darkening room. James entered and took his place at attention.
More than three excruciating hours passed. The Reverend closed his Bible. He carelessly tossed aside his wire-framed spectacles and rubbed his eyes. "James David, you are right. You are an American, caused by an accident of birth and not by my choice. You are twelve years old. For us all, the passage of time is a natural phenomenon. You do have rights. Now, young man, I am going to tell you exactly what those rights are.
"You have the right to remain silent. Children should be seen and not heard. You have the right to do exactly as I say. You have the right to live in this house for as long as you follow my rules. You have the right to address your mother and me with absolute respect. You have the right to go to school every day and do the best work possible. You have the right to attend church every Sunday.
"If you choose to give up, take advantage, or ignore any of these rights, I will hold you accountable. Moreover, may God help me; you will wish you had never been a miserable wretch born to this earth. Do you understand me?"
The boy stood as still as a stone. He stared straight ahead with unflinching eyes.
"James David, do you understand me?"The Reverend asked again, openly agitated.
"Yes,"James David whispered.
"I can't hear you."
"Yes, sir, I understand,"he said in a still quiet voice.
"Before you sleep tonight, you will memorize Proverbs 29:18. 'Where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.'
"In the morning, first thing, you are to come here and recite this passage to me, flawlessly. Do you understand?"
James David nodded.
"Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir,"he answered in a clear, determined voice.
"Very well, you will apologize to your mother, and you will do your homework. After your recitation, I do not wish to hear of this again. You may go."
Grace accepted James David's apology, although, she knew nothing would change. She knew many things she could never tell the Reverend.
On the day they brought the yet unnamed baby, James David, home from the hospital, Grace agreed with her husband. "One child is enough. Let's do our best with what we have,"she said.
"It is God's will."Reverend Jones answered. "It was sin that brought us to this moment; consequences must now be paid for what was done."
She lovingly cradled the tiny baby in her arms; the smell of newborn and hospital was strong. "I know we must pay for what has happened,"she conceded.
As he drove, the Reverend glanced at her with remorseful eyes then with contempt at the baby. "The two of you led us here. You were complicit, and for all I know, you encouraged him to act."
Tears filled her faded blue eyes. "He needed me; you cast him out, and he needed family."
"He may have needed a sister-in-law, but not an intimate friend as you once called it."Clearly agitated, he increased the car's speed. The next hour dragged by in silence.
That same night Grace knelt by her bed for a very long time, praying and crying. "Lord, dear God, why must thou forsake me? Why hast thou decided to strip my womb and make me barren? Please, forgive me my sins. I know the book of Matthew, and in that, I have violated your seventh commandment. For what I have done, I am truly sorry. Please, help me teach my child well that he might come to know the true nature and spirit of his father."
Much had changed in the Reverend since Grace first met him. When he was young, he was happy and playful. He made no secret of his love for life and God. It was circumstance, family, and disappointment that changed him, gradually at first, then more rapidly as the years passed. Once, when he was in his mid-forties, he confided in Grace that he felt his opportunity to achieve his goals lessening with each passing year. He said it in a moment of melancholy, quite unlike his normal demeanor. "I once hoped to save the world,"he said with remorse. "I intended to begin with my little brother; I have failed in every aspect of my life."
Months before Grace first met David; she heard all the stories. The Reverend saw his brother as young and foolish. At the same time, he possessed exceptional intelligence and huge potential. When he spoke of David, he was animated and excited.
"Darling, wait till you meet David,"he laughed. "I'll have to be careful or he'll steal you away. He looks like a cigarette model in a magazine. With his boyish charm, I'm sure he breaks hearts every day. He's tall and thin with big, wondrous, green eyes and a charming smile."
"It sounds like you're describing yourself, John."She said lovingly.
"If I can get him started down the right path,"he continued as though he had not heard her, "his capabilities are unlimited. I've never known anyone so intelligent and gifted, although I loathe his friends. He tends to make bad choices; he's a terrible judge of character. Nevertheless, he is my brother and I love him. I'm going to do everything I can to help him achieve success and make a contribution to the world. Once you and I are married, we will all be one happy family. Our life together, all of our lives, are going to be so good."
On Thanksgiving Day, the year before she married John, Grace finally met David.
The sun arose to find its reflection glittering like precious stones embedded in a heavy blanket of frost. The frozen dew succumbed to the warming, yellow rays, and vanished before the extraordinary rumble of the motorcycle filled the quiet subdivision.
John Jones's expression turned into a broad toothy grin when he heard the sound. He took his fiancée by the hand, and nearly dragged her to the front door.
A magical sensation swept through Grace when David crossed the lawn. He does look like John, she thought. She felt an instantaneous and absolute link to him. Everything good the Reverend had said about his brother was true. David was charismatic; he made the right jokes, cast appropriate glances, and honored meaningful silences, all with perfect timing, yet his presence disquieted Grace.
The Thanksgiving meal went quite well save a few pointed, caustic, mostly ignored remarks, which the Reverend made regarding David's goals.
After lunch, Grace cleared away the dishes and began to wash them.
David casually sauntered into the kitchen. "Can I help?"He immersed his hands in the soapy water before she could answer.
They worked side by side in nervous silence. Once, accidentally, he touched her hand; she gasped for breath.
On Valentine's Day, of the following year, the thirty-eight year old Reverend John Jones made twenty-six year old Grace his bride. David, then eighteen, was his brother's best man.
At the small reception, David asked Grace to dance.
She was timorous in his arms. Startlingly flustered, she pushed back and looked anxiously into his eyes. "I have to go,"were her only words as she slipped away. In the corner of her eye, she saw her husband watching.
In the following four years, the brothers seldom shared a civil word.
"David, I have nothing more to say to you."The Reverend told him; his voice was cruel. "You're wasting your life; we both know it."
In spite of the Reverend's attitude, David worked hard to build a relationship with him.
When the Reverend was away, David sought out the warm counsel of his sister-in-law. Enthralled by his brilliance and the depth of his capacity to experience emotion, she encouraged him to follow his heart. Their intense conversations became long and intimate; they became best friends. Grace was more open with David than she had been with anyone in her life, including her husband. They trusted each other completely, and shared their deepest secrets.
David visited John and Grace often, frequently dropping by even when he knew the Reverend would not be home. David and Grace were always very careful.
David had a girlfriend. Yet, he never took her, or any of his motorcycle friends, to his brother's house. The Reverend made it clear that he was sure they were all scum. In the final year of David's life, his twenty-second, the Reverend spoke not a word to, or about, his brother.
David Jones rolled through the fatal intersection on his motorcycle a late, cool Missouri Saturday night. A night that for most people was no different from a thousand other nights.
The police said David did not see the drunk driver careening through the red light with his headlights off. David's prized 1954 Harley-Davidson was a pile of mangled steel, bent beyond recognition. Only the motorcycle's fiftieth anniversary solid bronze medallion was unscratched. David was Dead on Arrival.
John Jones did not want to be a father. Actually, as he remembered it, he never really wanted the responsibilities of a husband. Still, a loyal and obedient wife was necessary for a successful ministry, and Grace was easy to look at, a good cook with a tolerant heart. All John really wanted was to be the Reverend Mr. Jones. He resented his parents because their second son was born when they should have been planning their retirement. They said it was God's Will. He called it ineptitude.
When David was just a brother, an innocent little brother, John adored him. They played together during John's infrequent visits to the home of their parents. He liked to tuck the child in to sleep and read aloud his favorite passages from the Bible.
The elder Joneses went on to a better place, and carelessly left their eldest son to be a father to his brother. That not being bad enough, his brother could have been Chinese for all their dissimilarity in belief. The only things they had in common were their parents, and a shockingly similar appearance. They could have been mistaken for twins had it not been for their glaring chasm of years.
The summer when John first met Grace, the July before they were married, the two brothers buried their mother alongside their father.
Because of the death of their parents, his brother became his son. Outwardly, in the beginning, he praised his younger sibling. He spoke often of opportunity and responsibility. He even tried to convince himself that he could make a difference. However, alone with his thoughts, the Reverend believed, that at eighteen years old, the mold was set; David was already what he was to become. The course of the ship is laid in, and I, unlike the wind and waves, can have no bearing on the destination. My brother is too old for me to change.
Occasionally, Reverend Jones regretted his critical treatment of David. Although in the end, there was no time to make up for his actions. His final, malicious words were nearly a year old when David died.
Reverend John Jones stood by the open grave, alone, for a very long time after the mourners left. The coarse gravediggers sat on their heels, far off, waiting, watching, and talking. Occasionally, the wind carried a word or phrase across the granite garden. "He must be the boy's father."The Reverend heard one of them say.
"I would not have made a good father."The Reverend said to the pine coffin. "I was never even a good brother."At forty-two years old, he gazed forlornly at the grave of his only brother, his baby brother; the pain ripped him apart. He was mad and bitter, a failure in the eyes of God.
"I am a wretched sinner,"he said to God, "I beg for your divine forgiveness."He knew when he heard his own words, that his opportunity to atone on a mortal level was forever lost. "God, I pray my brother walks with you. Please, tell him I am woefully sorry, and I love him."At length, his will escaped, the old man shuffled away. His steps guided only by instinct.
Eight months later a child was born, a boy, a baby whose semblance, for the perpetually grieving Reverend, was too much like his dead brother. He struggled to look upon the child's face.
The infant lived the first sixty-long days of his life referred to only as the baby. Haunted by remorse, the Reverend finally acquiesced; he agreed to a mendacious name, James David Jones.
The night when he unenthusiastically agreed to the name, the Reverend sat alone in his study, buried in unpleasant thoughts until midnight. From the depths of his mind, a cacophony of voices reminded him of his failures. Amid the turmoil of guilt, he heard the final pleading words of a compassionate David. Through it all, he found not a modicum of peace, only swelling resentment.
Another child to raise, he thought. It is my burden, my penance from God for my sins, for my failure with David. Could it be God wants me to have another chance to lead a disciple down the road of the righteous? This child will be mine from the beginning. I will not repeat my parents' errors with this one. I will make up for the life my brother threw away.
The Reverend raised James David in the only manner he knew, like a man. James David was a baby saddled with the responsibilities of an adult, an innocent child dragged into a world of unachievable expectations. The rearing was much more than a single mission; it was an arcane crusade.
Open rebellion billowed up when James David was twelve. The Reverend, convinced of some emotional or mental deficiency, ordered an IQ test followed by a Rorschach test and a battery of other psychological exams.
His IQ score exceeded 180; the psychologist told the Joneses he had never encountered a child with more of a contradictory personality. After that, the Reverend concentrated his energy on containment, avoidance, and survival. Everything he tried produced negative results, the antithesis of what he had hoped.
Estrella was fourteen when her mother first introduced her as Star. Guadalupe changed the child's name on the same day she sold the blossom off her baby's flower to a portly, beak-nosed businessman for two, greasy hundred-dollar bills and an equally repulsive fifty. She dressed her gangly Star in a short, tight-fitting, plaid Catholic-school uniform skirt, a white cotton blouse, white ankle socks, and black size-seven pumps. The shoes, one size too large, scraped her heels as she walked. Lupe bought the whole outfit for two dollars in the Goodwill Store.
From the doorway to her own room, Lupe watched it all unfold. She stood, callously by, listening as Estrella cried out with pain. Minutes after his violent thrusts began, the scruffy man found culmination; his fleshy form melted from the release, and his whole weight covered the child.
She felt his paunchy stomach pressed hard against her navel. Her long brown hair filled her mouth; chewed endings scratched her throat.
He grunted with the effort as he lifted himself off; a putrid, sweaty blast from his armpits assailed her nostrils. Instinctively, she closed her legs and tucked her knees to her chest.
The obese caricature dressed without a word. His thick silhouette darkened the door. He paused as he turned to leave and glanced back at the trembling child. "Thanks,"he said gruffly and disappeared.
Together for the first time, Star and Estrella felt hot tears fill their ears. It was Star's idea to bite hard on the, prematurely dispensed, partially melted chocolate trapped beneath their tongue. The dominant, stimulating cacao flooded their mouth; with it came relief.
Star quickly became the princess of the streets. The other hookers were cruel because they were jealous. She was what the johns always wanted, the schoolgirl.
In her first year, she earned substantially more than her mother had in the previous five. Star's per-interlude donation equaled more than three times what the other ladies-of-joy in the barrio could command, and Star managed twice the number of customers.
She rested one week each month. Unlike the others, she stayed in her room with the shades pulled and the door locked. Lupe confiscated most of Star's money and parsimoniously replaced it with dark chocolate. The small amount of money, portioned to Star, she spent carefully, and hid most of it in a secret compartment in her mattress.
Lupe's years on the street took their toll. She became increasingly more volatile with each passing year. Raising a child and turning cheap tricks meant there was never any money for the extras. However, with Star as her benefactor, Lupe explored life's pleasures; she discovered the sublime effects of cocaine.