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The Year, The Day, The Hour

A Novel Excerpt

I always knew that when the year, the day, the hour was right, I would visit the man who killed my mother, the priest of God who struck my world like a bolt of lightening from heaven when I was four years old. And, in early 2002, just after my 16th birthday, the hour came. Don’t ask me how I knew; I just did. The only thing I overlooked was that he might not want to see me. Thus began my letter-writing campaign.

jan 22, 2002

dear “father silva,”

my upbringing was far from perfect, but at least my father taught me a little basic courtesy, which is obviously more than yr parents can say. do you have any idea how hard it was for me to get there? i’m exactly sixteen, remember? e.g. no car or license yet, (though I am getting my permit next week). that means i had to take a nasty bus and sit next to some old weirdo who spent half the trip looking down my non-cleavage. then, the bus drops me off about a mile from your humble abode, forcing me to trudge the rest of the way on foot. since i don’t believe in boots and mittens and all that ugly winter shit, i froze my ass off.

I won’t even go into how it felt walking into that lovely place you call “home,” with all the guards staring at me like some kind of ho. no offense, but the whole place is just dirty, grimy, disgusting. it’s not the kind of dirt you can see, but the invisible kind - which is even worse. i was afraid that if I sat on those ugly orange plastic chairs i’d go home with every form of cooties known to man - not to mention the bubonic plague. but sit on them i did - for the privilege of being stood up by a guy who couldn’t even be bothered to come say hello to his dead girl friend’s daughter.

well, let me tell you one thing, “father gustavo silva,” u owe me. the least u could do is come down and answer my sincere spiritual questions. what’s more, u’re dealing with someone my dad calls “the most stubborn girl on earth.” see u next week.

sincerely yrs,
ava cilento

 

jan 29, 2002

dear “fr. silva,”

apparently, my poor-me letter of last week didn’t move u at all. it seems u have absolutely no sympathy for a kid going to all that trouble to see yr (no offense) sorry ass. well, how about threats? how about i tell my dad u’ve been harassing me with pornographic letters, stuff so vile & disturbing i had to burn them? maybe that will persuade u to come out of yr little rat hole & face me next wk when i board the disgusting bus & cross yr filthy threshold for the third time. see u then.

sincerely yrs,
ava cilento

 

Don’t ask me how, but this time I knew it would be different. This time, I knew he would come down. And not just because of my measly little threat either. (After all, how much more can you do to a guy who’s caged for life?)

The guards already knew me. “You back again, sugar?” one particular lowlife said to me. “Can’t you see that man don’t want to see you. Obviously, he’s gettin all he wants elsewhere. Guys change inside, you know. Me, on the other hand, I know how to appreciate someone with your fine attributes."

“He’s not my boyfriend, if it’s any of your fucking business,” I snapped when I couldn’t take it anymore.

They all laughed. “Sassy little thing, ain’t she?”

“Sassier than you could handle,” I say.

I was so involved in my little dissing match I didn’t even notice that my prisoner had come down and taken his place opposite me; only a wall of Plexiglas separated us. Then he said my name. Ava. Just that, no hello or anything.

He looked nothing like I expected. At first, I thought it was a trick - like maybe he sent someone else in his place. I know it’s sick, but I keep everything I can get my hands on from my mother’s case in a hat box under my bed, and this guy looked nothing like his pictures in the newspaper. The guy in the paper was on the thin side with dark, longish hair, but handsome in his own twisted way. Someone I could easily imagine HER falling in love with. The man in front of me had grey hair, cut close, jacked arms, and the same hard prison look everyone had there, even the guards. There was nothing special about him - except the way he said my name. He didn’t just say it, he PRONOUNCED it, bringing me to life in some way I hadn’t been before he spoke. If that makes any sense, which of course, it doesn’t.

Then he looked at me in this intense way, as if he was seeing HER - just like my dad sometimes does. And though I’ve hardly ever had a shy moment in my life, all of a sudden I felt kind of tongue tied. All the things I’d been wanting to say turned to marbles in my mouth.

He, on the other hand, was completely at ease. “No wonder you’ve been having trouble with the guards. Your skirt is okay, but don’t you own a more modest blouse?”

“No, I don’t. And if I need a lecture on my style of dress, my dad is always available.” But I did pull my shawl a little more tightly around my shoulders. (Ever since I went to Mexico with my dad a couple of years ago, I’ve been dressing like Frieda Kahlo: long skirts, peasant blouses, clunky ethnic jewelry. I even dyed my hair black so I’d look more like Frieda and less like HER.)

The good priest then launched into his spiel: “Listen Ava, I understand why you might want to meet me. You must think I have some answers for you about your mother’s death. Or maybe you just want me to listen to you tell me how difficult life has been without her. Well, if it’s the latter, I’m here to listen. But if it’s the former, I’m afraid I can’t help you. I don’t expect you to believe this, but I wasn’t there when your mother died.”

“Former. Latter. What is this, English class?” I said, trying to pull myself together so that when I told him what I really wanted, it would be comprehensible. The trouble was I didn’t know myself.

“Maybe you just want to talk about her,” he said, speaking real soft, like he understood my dilemma. “Maybe you’re trying to get a little piece of her back.”

“My mother was a slut, Father. I don’t want her back in pieces or otherwise,” I said, and for the first time, I got the reaction I want from Father Gustavo Silva. Up until then, he thought he was the hard ass. Joe Lifer and all that. But inside me, there’s a girl as tough as any motherfucker in this godforsaken place. Sometimes, she makes me strong. Other times, she just scares the shit out of me.

He stared at me a minute, then got to the point. “In your letters, you said I owed you something. So what have you come to collect?”

Once again, I started to feel a little uncomfortable. I reached around in my little red purse for my cigs. But as soon as I pull one out, Father Silva reminded me I couldn’t smoke so I end up settling for three pieces of breath gum all at once.

I waited until the chewing rhythm calmed me down and looked straight at him. “I was thinking you might teach me about God.”

That’s when the man did something that seriously pissed me off. He threw his silvery head back and laughed out loud.

“Did I say something humorous?” I said, sitting up straighter on my plastic throne.

“I’m sorry,” the guy said, trying to wipe the laughter off his face like it was a smear of catsup. “But this is hardly the place you go to learn about God.”

“You’re a priest, aren’t you?”

“Not any more, Ava. But if you’re serious about your quest, I’m sure your father will take you down to St. Ben’s. There’s an old priest named Father Coughlin - I’m not even sure if he’s there any more, but...”

He rattled on for a while, but I’d stopped listening. I took a smoke from my pack, tamped it down and put it in my mouth. I knew I couldn’t light up, but it made me feel better to hold it between my lips like that.

“I don’t know how to break it to you, Father Silva - I mean, Mr. Silva. Whatever you call yourself. But my dad hates religion, hates the church, even hates God. You know why?”

“Not really,” the guy said, beginning to lose patience. “But I suppose you’re going to tell me it’s my fault.”

“He said every time he took communion, he saw your face. Every time he tried to pray, he heard your voice mocking him. You killed God for our family, Mr. Silva.”

“I didn’t do anything to hurt your family, Ava; and there’s nothing I can do to help you. As I say, I’m no longer a priest, and this is no Sunday school.” He stood up and called for the guards with a finger pointed in the air like a guy in the restaurant signaling for the check.

He’d already turned his back was pulling off his head phones when I called after him. “One question, Mr. Silva.”

He stopped, but didn’t turn around.

“Are you saying you don’t believe in God either?”

For a whole long minute, he stood there letting me stare at his back. I could almost see the muscles tightening. Then he turned around. “That’s exactly what I’m saying, Ava. I don’t believe in God or anything else - except maybe a couple of friends.”

“You know what you are? You’re a dead man,” I yelled at him, to the amusement of the guards. “And you’re not even good looking like the guy in the newspaper!”

By then the guard inside was telling him to come on, hurry up. That’s when the priest who’s not a priest turned around and stared at me. It was like the moment when he first said my name. There was something so sad and deep about him that it went through me like the knife that killed my mother. I must have knocked three people over trying to get out of the place, tears wreaking serious havoc with my mascara and people yelling at me to slow down and take it easy. By the time I made it to the street, the nasty bus looked like a limo, I was that happy to see it.

It was his turn to watch the clock, his turn to wait for the year, the day, the hour when he realized that I had what he needed. The only thing he needed. Buried deep in the recesses of a four-year-old’s imagination, I had the truth; I had freedom; maybe I even had a little piece of God.

Patry Francis has been published in The Colorado Review, The Tampa Review, Antioch Review, and Ontario Review, among others. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and she has been awarded a grant from the Massachusetts Council for the Arts twice. The Year, The Day, The Hour is excerpted from her recently completed novel, RACE POINT. Patry can be reached at patryfrancis@comcast.net.

 


Top photo of barbed wire courtesy of Kenn Kiser.
Bottom photo of plaid skirt courtesy of Kathy McCallum.



 


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