Pit Bulls, Pascha, & Pretty Faces

by Fr. Stephen Siniari

[Fall, 2003)

   Three questions, a short story by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy.
   “It once occurred to a certain king that if he always knew the right time to begin everything, if he always knew the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid, and above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.”
    Time, people, and above all, task, how could he fail?
   
The ghetto gets hot with summer anticipation once Easter’s over. Boys play halfies curb to curb in cobble narrow streets. Jokers lounge on greasy steps beside mustard ugly corner stores and make noises like a mob atop broken down bleachers Girls dress tight and stroll by. Guys yelling, “Let me holla’ at chu’…” …critique the piercing, parade, and new tattoo. “Let me peek your sneakers.” The girls slow down and laugh.
     Rooftops come alive with shoot new weed. Every lot turns currency green. Porches full of pit bulls. Babies wail. Mothers cry out to their children. Their voices echo in vain down decrepit city blocks. Diptychs in brick, RIP memorials tag the scattered buildings left standing with spray paint portraits looking grander than life. And names, endless names, with dates too pitiful to even calculate, wasted, beautiful young lives, now nothing more than fading urban graffiti.
     Freak eighty-four degrees in April. The screens in every house reverberate with their own special rhythm. Speakers are loud, but they’re cheap. Somebody’s cooking in tin. The smoke is acrid. It vanishes and chokes. Creeps me out, passing the desecrated temple again, dank and dark inside, mildewed piles, strewn crumpled vestments, tabernacles brutalized, doors gaping, iconostasis smashed, Typicons torn to sheds… Under the rubble two young pilgrims brought me the abandoned Antimension, who could have left them? Inside, a single shaft of sunlight pierces the ruptured cupola. Holy Resurrection is still one long week away. I bow my head amid the sadness and strain to hear the Paschal verses “come forth from the tomb like a bridegroom in procession.” Placing them in our parish altar, I keep moving; you can only do what you can do.
      My hands are full. My attention’s rapt. A suitcase weighing me down on one side, and trying to find a place to grip an overly awkward car seat overflowing with diapers, straps, and formula, is taking up the hand I make the Cross with. And right here, I’d like to make the Cross. My shiny car with the out of state tags is parked on 5th Street, two blocks away. My pockets are full of prescription meds and I’m looking for Lucinda and her baby who got booted from the shelter for holding for Jabril, her baby’s father, who was dealing wet, weed-infused, jet fuel laced, embalming fluid marijuana, him and James, a friend Jabril called fam….  Family, they call each other - god and earth, boys are god, girls are earth…
     I spot the address painted on a porch... The one with the lady smoking crack on a sat-out beach chair, the one next door to the pit bull synod.
    “You da’ priest?” says a guy with gold teeth on a kitchen chair with an accent from the islands. Ordinarily I avoid inner city personalities in broad straw hats.
      My eyes are fixed on a barefoot kid trying to hold back a black and white pit straining his leash to get down the steps and introduce himself to me.
    “Don’t mind the dog,” says the straw hat. “Come up. Why you put out ‘dis baby and her mama?”
      The Chapel was dark when I sat with Jabril. Every counselor had come and said he’s out. Don’t you dare let this one back until he’s done his card. Failure to follow case plan for the third time in a row nets a thirty-day card. He’s out for a month. It was Friday in the evening. He had eight days left on his card. I hated being Ombudsman. Gather all the facts, who, what, where, when, how, what if, and why, both sides, and you still just don’t know. 
       I said, “Let me send you to our place at the Shore. I’ll give you the six bucks.”
     
“I have school on Monday, I can’t go that far.” was his reply. “I graduate in a week.”
     
“Ruben said you could stay at his place. Here’s a fifty dollar grocery gift certificate.”
     
Jabril said no thanks. “There’s plenty other ways if they won’t let me back early.”
     
When I told him God created him for good, he said he’d get back to that, eventually.
      
He had some money coming no one knew about. Sunday night he went with James to see a woman in a red Chevrolet about a deal. Saturday at the end of her shift she lit an eight-day candle and placed it on her suicide note on top of the toilet tank in the ladies room in the plant where she worked with James’ mother.
    
Jabril was trying to grab the wheel that Sunday night when she crossed at high speed into the oncoming lanes. James cowered in the back. He was the only one who made it.
     
Monday morning everybody played what if… James, the Counselors, me, all the kids at the shelter…
     
The most important time is the only time we have.
     
There was no answer for the straw hat. Lucinda didn’t say much. Her and the baby walked me to my car. She was very kind to me and thanked me for bringing her stuff. She had a pretty face. It was swollen from crying. I gave her an Icon card of the Theotokos weeping. She asked if we could pray. My hands were free. We made the Cross. How could we fail? It seemed most important above all now. She said, “Jesus, have mercy,” before the wall with Jabril’s name, newly painted, fam… god and earth…

[Additional articles in Fr. Siniari's series:  Good & Faithful Servant] 

 

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