Thursday, March 7, 2013

Cathedral, Part I

Jake looked out from behind the serving table at the sea of dark faces and felt nothing.  He was conscious only of the unrelenting heat and the sick tide of recycled breath. The lone light bulb that jutted down from the center of the ceiling flickered once.  Here and there people crossed themselves.
“Trastes?” Jake called, lifting up his clipboard.  Two Guatemalans who had come the day before volunteered to wash dishes.  He got their names and asked for someone to clean the bathrooms, the floors, the dining room.  After a few minutes all the assignments were taken.
“Quien quiere orar?”  Jake asked them.  Who wants to pray?
Rosa Maria Chavez, an old, pious, crazy woman, led the prayer.  She asked for work and food and faith.  The room was still, her words fading quickly into oblivion.  When she was done Jake served the first plate of rice, beans and tortillas.  As he progressed the room came alive with the exuberant voices of those sitting and eating and the sometimes hushed tones of those still in line.  When he was done Jake made himself a plate with two tortillas he had hidden away, just in case they ran out, and the remnants of the rice and beans. 
He sat down with a Salvadoran guest named Antonio Perdomo.  He wasn’t using his two weeks to find work in Juarez.  Like many Central American guests he only wanted to rest before throwing himself against the increasingly impermeable barrier of fences, water, mountains and automobiles that guarded the American border.
After that, the night shift wound down as always.  Guests carried out their tasks and Jake reviewed them.  He took in a family from Veracruz and explained the rules to them.  At nine he called for mothers to take their children to their rooms.  “Ninos a dormir!” he cried from the center of the courtyard and watched to see that all those under twelve went up the stairs that led to the women’s dormitory and the family rooms on the second floor.  At ten he sent the rest of the guests to their rooms and locked the black metal screen  of the guest entrance that looked out onto the alley behind Casa Maria.  It was pitch black out there.  He closed the heavy wooden door, locked it and turned out the lights before retiring into volunteer quarters.
By ten thirty he finished the bed list; designating where every guest’s bed or stretch of floor was on a photocopy of the floor plans and revising the roster that now registered some eighty names. 
Instead of leaping into bed at this point, Jake began to make coffee in the kitchen.  He poured water into a battered aluminum urn and waited outside while it boiled.  It was torture to boil water in that small kitchen during summer.  He didn’t know how the cooks stood it.  The two heats, the kindled stove and the ebbing swelter of the day, were a stunning combination.
He stood in the central courtyard and listened to the diminishing sounds of the house.  All of the rooms and dormitories were full.  In the men’s dorm there were four men on the floor.  People spoke in hurried, hushed tones, as eager to say what had to be said as they were to get to sleep. The troubled susurrations of so many dreams were like the sound of distant ocean waves crashing against the rocks of the world.
Water sizzled on the stove and roused Jake from his reverie.  He went back into the kitchen and dumped the coffee grounds straight into the boiling water.  He turned off the stove, let it simmer for another minute, and struggled to breathe in the heat.  Then, with a rag ro hold the metal handle, he took the coffee pot and a mug into volunteer quarters and sat down in the front room.  He picked out a book from the rather weighty selection on the decrepit, swaying bookshelves while the grounds settled to the bottom of the urn and the aroma filled the room.
He had come, prompted by a priest who had become something of a mentor for Jake his final year in college.  Not that Jake had undergone a conversion of any kind.  He had never been more or less than an almost fallen away Catholic.  He had never considered himself completely fallen away because he didn’t bear the Church a grudge or feel any anger.  At the University he had gone to Mass every now and then, like some people went on and off Prozac or Zoloft.  There was something about the smell of candles, the dim lighting and the near silence of so many people that recharged some kind of mystic battery inside him.  It wasn’t that he worried about an afterlife or his own fate. Rather, Jake wanted to think that things were not as they seemed, that there were imperceptible currents of mystery running beneath the frozen exterior of reality.
After Jake drank nearly the entire pot he put the book back on the shelf.  He hadn’t read a word.  The coffee buzzed in his head like an irritated wasp.  He went back to his room, turned on his fan, and lay on the bed.  None of the rooms in the house had good ventilation and some had none at all.  Lying in his room at night, the heat dissipating slowly, he felt like he was suffocating and his body became sticky with sweat.
Even with kinder weather Jake couldn’t have slept much, since he was the only volunteer who heard, or admitted to hearing, the doorbell from the confines of his room.  At two or three in the morning, nearly every morning it seemed, someone rang the doorbell and Jake, shoved out of bed by a reluctantly Catholic conscience, put on a shirt and shorts and stumbled bleary-eyed across the patio to the double portal that opened on to the street, beyond the comedor.
Usually, however, the doorway was empty.  Jake would open the heavy wooden door and stare out through the black iron screen at the silent obscurity of the back street.  It was both frustrating and disturbing.  It enraged Jake to think that some drunk or a conspiracy of kids might be ruining his chances of getting a good night’s sleep and he considered not answering the door anymore.  But he never gave up because every once in a while he opened the door to a single mother with five children or a refugee from some hellhole in Central America.  It would unnerve him to think that this time he had almost not answered, that he might have left them on the doorstep, waiting for help that would never come, like an unanswered prayer.
Lying there, trying to sleep, he thought enviously of all his friends from college, starting their careers or going on to graduate school.  Some volunteers were really invigorated by this job, fulfilled by these people, brought closer to God.  Some stayed for years and you could see how they bloomed in this slow hell of other people’s suffering.  They clothed themselves in agony and smiled, as if they had some great secret.  Jake had nothing.  Surrounded by walls of ineffable suffering, he was a naked man in a cathedral of meaning and purpose, his wordless prayers rising with the heat and escaping into space.
According to the work schedule, Jake was supposed to serve breakfast in the morning.  Once more he would have to stand before the people like a priest at an altar table and serve up the daily bread. Lying there, he dreaded the thought of that dirty, groping, needy sea of human flesh, their faces either blank or animated by desperation.

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