A MAN WITH A DIM HALO
A MAN WITH A DIM HALO
A man with a dim halo
by Luis Vocem Núñez
First published in Zoetrope All-Story Extra
Shaving one morning, half awake, half asleep, Julio Mejias noticed in the mirror a light emanating from behind his head. He turned, but was unable to see the source. He continued shaving, glancing occasionally at the area in the mirror where the aura had appeared. He didn't see anything, but the moment he looked down to rinse the blade, there it was again, reflecting on the water, glowing right around his head.
Distracted by the light, he cut himself several times and came to the conclusion that it could only be visible through peripheral vision, and somehow it resembled a halo. He didn't even want to call it that, since it was not a halo like the gilded ones on top of the figures of Christ, the saints or angels down by the old church. This one was more like a fluorescent tube getting ready to go out, producing a dim glow that threw his face slightly into shadow.
He rinsed his face and put some alcohol on the cuts, while thinking that maybe the halo was caused by intoxication from the fish he and Matilde had eaten the day before. But intoxications usually came along with aches and pains, vomiting and diarrhea, and he felt fine. Maybe it was that woman at work from the islands, who might have put a curse on him, or mal de ojo. But why? He had never done a bad thing to her or anyone. And he'd never heard of halos appearing on the intended victims.
He went into the main room of the shack to wake up Matilde, to see if she could see the halo. But she slept so peacefully that he didn’t have the heart to wake her.
Julio Mejias lived high up a mountain in a shack made from plywood, a few red blocks he had managed to bring up there, and a tin roof. Like he did every day to go to work, he walked down the dirt stairs that went like a maze in between the other shacks to a paved street of the old town. He walked alongside stucco-white Spanish colonial houses with their protruding windows and wrought-iron fences. He thought that perhaps he had stared at the sun too much, and that maybe the problem was with his eyes.
He arrived at the plaza of the old town and walked under the massive tree branches spreading in every direction. Trickles of light filtered through the leaves, spotting the ground where pigeons searched for food. An old man in his government uniform hung leaves for three-toed sloths. Guacamayas cawed loudly, breaking the morning silence, initiating the daily reverberance of children playing, birds chirping, cars honking.
In front of the plaza stood a four-hundred-year-old Baroque church — a towering mass of crumbling brick and falling stucco that had survived tropical rains and heat, the wars of independence, a share of civil wars and careless dignitaries, to then fall prey to neglect and the effects of automobile exhaust and air pollution.
Julio Mejias crossed the street and noticed that the children who headed towards the church were staring at him.
"Mira, mira, mira," some of them yelled, pointing at his head; others laughed, placing their small chubby fingers in their mouths, covering their giggles. The school teacher apologized for the children’s behavior, then she hushed them to leave the Señor alone, and telling them to hold hands dragged them across the church courtyard to the parochial school side entrance.
Julio Mejias shrugged and turned away, deeply embarrassed, and thought that perhaps other people besides himself could see the thing. Obviously it had nothing to do with his eyes.
He looked at Father Santayana, who stood by the large gates of the church, bowing his head to all that passed by. But the priest in his black soutane just bowed his head to Julio Mejias with his usual glee without noticing anything.
Maybe what the children had seen was something on his hair, so he combed and straightened it into place. For added measure, he patted it with his hand.
It took him an hour and a half and two crammed buses to go from the old town, across the large city, to the industrial zone where he worked wrapping transformers in newspaper and placing them inside small boxes. He walked among a mass of people hurrying to their factories. That was when he noticed something different: nobody stared at him, like the children had done, but rather passed him, then jerked their heads back, as if they had seen something they were not supposed to and veered away. Almost everyone who passed him did that. He was now convinced that what he saw suspended above his head emanating light was visible to everyone, making him feel awkward.
In the solitude of his work, he anguished over whether he had just imagined it all. Was he just being paranoid about people watching him? Was something wrong with his eyes? Maybe it was some type of intoxication. He concluded that the best thing to do was to go see Dr. Corrales, the factory doctor. He would know what type of malady this was and more than likely have the medicine to correct it.
The lunch bell rang and he headed to Dr. Corrales office. He arrived at a sterile looking room with a small glass window in the middle of the door. The window slid open and a female voice asked him what he wanted.
"Can I see Dr. Corrales?" he asked.
"Can't you see it's lunch time," the female voice retorted.
"I can come..." Julio Mejias started, then cleared his throat. "It's the only time I can see him. Could you please ask him, it's very important. And, I. I have to get back to work."
The woman didn’t answer, but closed the small window. He stood for a while by the window, not knowing what to do.
Then the window slid open. "It will be a minute. So take a seat," she said, shutting the small window again.
The door opened and a nurse dressed in pink with white tennis shoes came out. “Come in,” she told him, in a dry tone of voice. He followed her into a small room. The nurse left and came back a few minutes later with a clipboard, asked him some questions, filled in several forms and left. He stared at a chart of the human body hanging on the wall. Dr. Corrales came in with the same clipboard in his hands and greeted him by his last name. The doctor asked him what was wrong with him. Julio Mejias hesitated about telling the doctor what in his mind didn’t make a lot of sense. He hoped that maybe the doctor would notice the halo right away and would ask him about it, but that didn’t happen.
The doctor looked at him slightly annoyed, waiting for an answer. Julio Mejias stammered a few words, trying to find a place to begin, feeling as if he were elaborating some huge lie. Finally, he gathered up his courage and quickly, without stopping, regurgitated that he had a halo around his head that could not be seen directly, but only out of the corner of the eye. The doctor looked at him without blinking an eye, then lowered his head, and fumbling with his glasses, began to read through the file. He asked Julio Mejias if he ever had encephalitis, syphilis, and a list of other more obscure names that did nothing but confuse Julio Mejias and scare him to death since they all sounded so grave. Then, Dr. Corrales asked him to loosen his shirt. The doctor checked his heart and pulse, told him to stick out his tongue, prodded into his ears and checked the glands under his neck, flashed a light in his eyes and all this without cracking a smile or changing his all-knowledgeable severe expression.
When Dr. Corrales was through, he sat on a bench and told Julio Mejias that there was nothing his instruments could find wrong with him, and that unless the halo began to give him some discomfort, he could not treat it. But just for good measure, it would help if he went to see the company’s psychologist, who worked in Personnel. Doctor Corrales wrote on a small piece of paper the name of the psychologist, the office number and a few notes in a gibberish Julio Mejias couldn’t understand.
“Please see him today,” Dr. Corrales stressed.
Julio Mejias left the room, confused. The doctor seemed to understand everything that Julio Mejias had told him and even looked at his head in the way that would bring the halo into full view but seemed totally indifferent. Maybe he got a lot of halo cases everyday? Maybe it was not a big deal? All kinds of questions began to plague him; but worse, he couldn’t understand why he was going to see that crazy people's doctor in Personnel, where they could decide you were stupid for failing to see something in a huge ink spot that just looked like bird poop. He decided to go back to the shipping warehouse. But Dr. Corrales had never been wrong and had always been good to him. He stopped and took a deep sigh and poised between going down or up to the psychologist office: he went up.
He opened the door and a man, sitting behind a large metal desk lifted his head and glanced, perturbed, at Julio Mejias.
“Please, next time knock on the door,” the small, balding man with round glasses and a bow tie, told him.
"I didn't mean to... I'll come some other time," Julio Mejias said.
The small man rolled his eyes and waved him to come in and sit down. Julio Mejias handed the small man the note. The psychologist read it and motioned him to different chairs to the side of the office.
“Are you having problems with work?” the psychologist asked him, clasping his hands together and leaning forward. Julio Mejias stumbled over his words.
"It's okay, why don't you just tell me about yourself," the small man asked, softening his expression and producing a faint smile.
Now feeling a bit more comfortable, Julio Mejias told the psychologist everything that he had told the doctor.
The psychologist seemed very understanding, and repeated “I see” every time Julio Mejias said something that seemed important. He noticed that the small man didn’t take any notes, like the doctor had, nor asked him about his sicknesses, but instead asked him about his past, about his parents, about whether they loved each other or not. All of the sudden, the psychologist looked at his watch and told him that it was a good session, but that it was time for him to get back to work, and that he should not worry for the time being about the halo.
“I believe it will eventually disappear, and you’ll wonder what were you worrying about,” the psychologist concluded.
Julio Mejias left the office feeling much better about himself and sure that the halo was just something insignificant to deal with and that in time it might even go away the same way that it had come.
When Julio Mejias got back to his working area, a few of his co-workers came by and asked him questions and made general jokes about the psychologist.
"Have you seen the stupid test he does on the new workers?" one of them asked. “That man belongs on the funny farm,” another one said.
They all laughed.
Then they all became quiet.
“Hay, Santa Maria Purisima,” one of them said, almost whispering, while they all stared with their eyes wide open, mouths ajar, not believing what they were seeing.
“But it goes away when you look at it,” another one said. They looked at him at an angle.
Another one whispered, “How do you do it?”
“This is unbelievable, wait till I tell the other guys.”
“Please! No. Don’t tell anyone.” Julio Mejias cried, blushing, waving his hands at them. “Please, leave me alone. I beg you guys. Just, go away!”
They started to walk away. One of them said in a satirical tone, “Mejias has turned into a conceited angel.” They stopped, looked back at him and laughed again.
When the bell finally rang and all working activities came to a halt, workers from all over the factory, came to look at Julio Mejias. They gathered in the shipping warehouse, but Julio Mejias was nowhere to be found.
“You mean he has a halo around his head.”
“Naw, you guys are pulling my leg.”
“That’s what we need: an angel working with us.”
“Check the bathrooms, maybe he went there.”
“You mean angels pee? This is ridiculous, I’m going to miss my bus.”
“But I am not kidding you, he has a halo, just like angels and saints do. I am not making this up, ask Carlos...”
"I know Mejias. He's no saint."
A security guard came by and told them that the party was over, that it was time to go home, and hurried everyone out. Right before they locked the warehouse, Julio Mejias came out from a bin where he had been hiding.
“Hurry!” the guard screamed at him before locking the warehouse. Julio Mejias rushed to the gate. He too had missed his bus and it would be another hour before the next one would pass.
He walked for a long time, trying to get to one of the big avenues where the buses ran all the time. He climbed on a bus going to the center of the city. Most people stared out the window, read the paper or looked tired. He went to the back and slid way down in his seat, hoping nobody would pay attention to him.
“You've been drinking again,” Matilde scolded him as he came inside their shack. She was ironing clothes while watching TV.
He went to the kerosene stove and picked up a couple of empanadas from the large pot. He dipped a cup inside another pot containing fresh boiled water, mixed himself some instant milk, and sat by a small table facing the TV set. They talked for a while, but she never looked at him, and she confused the glare of his halo with the glare of the TV.
After five batches of ironed laundry and two soap operas, Matilde finally noticed that her living companion had something glowing around his head. Her first reaction was laughter. “Very funny Julio,” she said, and went back to ironing and watching TV. About an hour later, she asked him to please disconnect the light, that the joke had gone on long enough and it was time to go to bed.
“Matilde, I have to tell you something,” Julio Mejias said to her in such a serious tone that she came to the table, sat next to him and asked him if he had gotten laid off.
“No, Matilde it’s not that.”
“What is it then? What is it! Talk.”
He didn’t like it when she became so inpatient, so he took his time.
“Something happened this morning--”
“Can you turn that thing off Julio.”
“Matilde, listen to me. And don’t say a thing until I finish,” he said to her in a stern tone of voice that was not typical of him. He explained what had taken place that day. She didn’t interrupt him, but every now and then whispered “Dios mío.” By the time he had finished, she had the look of a sympathetic mother willing to forgive a son after some wrong doing. She held his hand and told him that everything was going to be all right. They stayed that way for a long time until she got up and pulled him by the hand. “Come on, Corazón, let’s go to bed.”
The following morning he went to see Father Santayana, who was by the gates of the church, bowing his head with his usual friendliness.
“Father, can I talk to you?”
“Yes my son,” Father Santayana responded, smiling, bowing his head, lifting and waving his hand.
“Father, can we go inside?”
“Confessions will begin in twenty minutes, my son.”
“No, Father. I need your help. I mean, more like your counsel.”
“After confessions, I'll have about an hour before geography class.”
“I need your help now, Father. It’s kind of grave, I think.”
“What kind of trouble are you in, my son? Are you okay with the law?”
“What is it son? What can I do?”
He tried to tell the priest about what had happened to him, but kept being interrupted by all the greetings going on. The father tried to respond politely to him “yes my son.” But Julio Mejias got nervous and began to tell his story in fragments.
“You mean the doctor laughed at you? How could he!” Father Santayana replied, mixing the scattered pieces of information that Julio Mejias supplied.
“You saw a halo? What a great figure of speech, my son. So what is the problem?” At that moment Julio Mejias felt intensely confused. He swallowed deep and told Father Santayana that he was going to be late for work and had to go. Father Santayana told him to go in peace and to come by when he could, that he would be happy to help him in any way possible.
When he arrived at the factory, he noticed right away that people lounged casually around his working area. Many said hello to him, others stared and whispered to each other, or looked at him in a skewed way. They were so obvious and rude about their curiosity that Julio Mejias decided to ignore them and went to stand in line to clock in. The bell sounded and still people hung around. Two of the foremen yelled for them to go to their working areas. But from the crowd, people screamed back “I’m not going until I see it.” “Save me, save me!” someone cried mockingly. Others laughed in the background. The foremen screamed “who said that?” pointing fingers, disturbed by the indolent attitude of the workers.
One of the foremen shoved Julio Mejias along with the others onto the factory floor. Only after seeing the green color badge for the Shipping Department, did the foreman realize that Julio Mejias didn’t belong there. Then before turning, the foreman noticed the halo. “So you're the one,” he said, appalled by what he was seeing, the very thing he had thought was only a ridiculous rumor spread around by unionist, who wanted to keep everyone from working.
"I am not going to fall for your tricks, so get back to your station."
Everything finally calmed down. Julio Mejias was able to pick up his share of work for the day and go to his area in the shipping warehouse.
By mid-morning several older ladies sneaked through the second floor balcony and after looking at him, began to recite their rosaries. Their prayer was picked up by other workers, spreading to other departments, and soon the hum of their collective voices could be heard even above the machines across the factory. All work came to a halt. Workers rushed to the shipping warehouse out of curiosity to see the reciting ladies. They gathered by the doors and overpowered the foremen who tried to keep them away.
The floor managers, foremen, and upper management had an emergency meeting and decided that they had to find and remove the problem from the premises.
Julio Mejias was escorted by a security guard to an empty office in the air-conditioned area of the building.
On the way there, he heard people commenting around him, "Is this the man? I don't see it." "It's all a hoax, isn't it?"
Then there were those who kept staring, but when he tried to make eye contact with them, they veered away.
Before noon the psychologist came in and apologized. He told Julio Mejias that he had spent the whole morning trying to convince the President of the company to keep him under his supervision, maybe move him to another, less disruptive department, but he had lost.
"Somebody told the President that it's all a unionist trick to start a strike."
He paced back and forth and then looked at Julio Mejias. "He even said," he continued, talking through a frowned expression, "even if God worked here; if he disrupted the place and reduced productivity, he was out in a heartbeat."
The psychologist apologized again, mentioning that he had arranged for a ride home and escorted Julio Mejias, surrounded by four security guards, out of the building.
A taxi stood by the gate.
Julio Mejias thanked the driver when they arrived at the old church, got out of the car and walked across the red tiled ground. Pigeons dispersed as he walked by. He went inside the church, passed a wall full of candles, into the long nave. He smelled the musty wood and incense. He stopped, looked at the figure of Christ, genuflected and sat on a pew. He looked straight at the altar, no longer sad or scared but simply confused, wondering why all that had to happen to him.
He heard a voice come from a confession booth and remembered that Father Santayana was probably in one of them. He had not gone through confession in decades. Suddenly he felt the urge, not because he thought that he had to get closer to God, or that was the only way he could find an answer, but because he wanted desperately to tell everything to someone that would understand.
A woman with a dark veil over her head came out of one of the booths. He went in and began to talk. Soon enough, after hearing a few “yes my son” he recognized the voice of Father Santayana. In the middle of his monologue Julio Mejias noticed that Father Santayana had become utterly quiet. He asked the Father, if he were there, but instead there was a long silence. The Father, in a distressed tone, asked for his forgiveness for not recognizing ‘the work of the Lord’ when he was first exposed to the halo that morning and repeated what sounded like Bible passages.
Then Father Santayana told him not to worry, that God had his own ways of showing men what he wanted them to do, that God was calling on him to do His work.
Julio Mejias felt ashamed because deep inside he didn’t want such a powerful and important job, and honestly, all he wanted was his old job back and to let everything go back to normal. Well, Matilde could use a refrigerator, but he was sure it was not up to God to provide such worldly goods.
“Nothing Father, thank you,” he said, and silently left the confessional and went home.
When he arrived at his shack, he smelled the aroma of cooking meats, of cumin spice and sofrito, and saw laid out the corn flower dough, ready to be filled and shaped into crescents and deep fried into crisp empanadas. Matilde was halfway through the batch she would sell at the school yard and the plaza during lunch time. She raised an eyebrow when she saw him, but continued molding dough with her hands. Then she pointed to the stove and went back to working the dough. Julio Mejias went to the kerosene stove and lowered the fire on the guiso. He dipped the wooden spoon inside, stirred it a few times, tasted it, and stirred it again.
He helped by filling the dough with the guiso; shaping the empanadas the way she liked them; placing them in the hot oil -- all without talking, without asking what to do. Then finally, he gathered the air to say his first word, but his voice came out all broken up.
“I know,” she interrupted.
The absurdity of events confused him to the point that he could not think straight. So he chose to go to the plaza, to see if he could clear his head, think of something. He waited in the shack for Matilde to come back from selling empanadas. He saw her climb the hill with a new stack of laundry she had picked up from a seamstress with a laundry service. He went down and gave her a hand and told her that he was going to the plaza. She looked at him with disbelieving eyes, wondering if he were going to go to a bar instead.
“Promise -- I just want to be by myself.”
Matilde looked at the halo, dimmed by the brightness of noon, and felt that he was not lying, that perhaps this time he was just going to the plaza.
“Just stay out of trouble,” she told him as she watched him walk away down the steep stairs.
After lunch, it was siesta time and most of the shops around the plaza were closed. The cries of the parrots, a distant car honk, a bus changing gears, children playing on the school ground behind the church, gave a lazy tone to the warm afternoon. Sitting on a bench, Julio Mejias stared at the sloths hanging upside down. He felt as if he were one of them, climbing around the trees, eating leaves slowly, ignoring the whole world moving frantically around him.
He didn’t notice the people who walked by, or the buses and cars, or the old women dressed in black with veils covering their stooped heads going to church. However, they did notice under the shadow of a tree, a man with a halo looking into the sky. An angel was the only words most people could find to describe what they had just seen, pulling their companions by the sleeve. So word got around that right in front of the Church of Santa Maria del Rosario was an angel sitting on a bench, lost in meditation, looking into the deep blue sky, as if he had fallen from the heavens down to earth and were contemplating how to get back there.
Julio Mejias went home a few hours later, after the noises of the afternoon activities resumed and cars honked, buses roared and the old town became, again, part of the big city.
Later that afternoon, the church was invaded by a mass of old women asking Father Santayana and the other priests about the angel they had all seen in the plaza staring into the heavens. The priests responded politely that faith was good, but that such visions had no foundation, that they couldn’t have seen what they said they had seen. Father Santayana did not say anything, since he too, had seen the angel, but felt inhibited to admit to it openly. So he limited his comments to the old women that they could not all have hallucinated an angel at the same time. He didn’t elaborate any further and felt slightly embarrassed to find himself in support of something so typical of charlatans and fanatics, something that only a few hours before, he would have considered preposterous.
“Tell’m Father Santayana. We know what we saw. And we did see it.”
After the ladies left, the other priests told Father Santayana to explain himself or they would have to report his strange behavior to their ecclesiastical superiors.
At home Julio Mejias tried to think about what he could do now to make ends meet. He thought of getting another job, but he knew the moment they saw the halo, they would ask questions about his last job and why he had been fired. Maybe he could go to the country and work on a farm, but he remembered the small town where he came from, how hungry and poor his family had always been, about the diseases and pestilence that constantly took the men, women and children without discrimination, without mercy -- yellow fever, Mal de Chagas, malnutrition, all scorching under the unabatable sun. He couldn’t think what to do. So he searched for a bottle he had hidden from Matilde somewhere in the shack, but he couldn’t remember where he had put it.
The word that an angel was seen in the plaza spread, first from the old ladies that went fervently to church, and then to other people that had seen Julio Mejias in the plaza that day, staring into the sky. People began to gather around the church, describing the miraculous incident, and then they began to come in hordes and to pack the church.
After a few days in seclusion, thinking about his future, Julio Mejias decided to go down to the post office to see if he had received a check from his former employer. He arrived at the plaza only to find crowds of people living, sleeping, eating, littering and urinating in the courtyard and grounds that surrounded the church and the plaza.
Most people ignored him at first, but after a while, they began whispering to one another and looking in his direction. Then they rudely pointed at him, alerting others. They stared. They shouted. They moaned. They prayed on their knees. “It’s true,” some screamed. “The angel is back!” some women began to cry and raised their arms to the skies thanking someone up there. They walked, then ran in his direction. They wanted to touch him, feel his skin, see the halo up close. They wanted to talk to him, to ask for his blessing, to receive his healing powers, maybe even have a memento from him, a piece of his shirt, a lock of hair.
Julio Mejias looked at the approaching crowd in shock, horrified.
He ran away. To his benefit, he knew the area very well and jumped a wall into a yard, went past a few houses to end up on a deserted street that ran behind the church.
He went inside the church, hoping to find safety there. But he quickly realized that the place was packed with people praying, rocking back and forth, humming their words into a syncopated rhythm. He reached the aisle and saw two priests come his way. He hid behind a column and waited for a while, trying to find a clear path to the outside. Then he saw Father Santayana coming in his direction. He whispered to the priest. Father Santayana heeded his voice.
“Father, can you do me a favor,” Julio Mejias whispered. The Father smiled after seeing the halo, feeling reassured that the memory he had was not a delusional dream trying to take grip of his mind.
“Can you help me get out?” Julio Mejias whispered. “They are after me and I don’t want them to see me.”
Father Santayana looked at the crowd. He bowed his head and using his soutane as a cloak, walked with Julio Mejias along the corridors of the church into the school to a side door leading to the outside.
“Thank you Father, thank you so much,” Julio Mejias said. Then, after a long pause, he asked the priest if he would go to the post office for him to see if his check had arrived and if it had, would it be a problem to bring it up the mountain where he lived.
The mundane nature of the request surprised Father Santayana, somehow expecting a holier request. Yet he happily agreed. Julio Mejias then told him how to get up the mountain where he lived. Father Santayana smiled, wondering what criteria God used to pick the hands that helped him. He looked in both directions of the street and went towards the post office.
Father Santayana went up the mountain that afternoon and gave him the check from the factory. Since Julio Mejias had been fired and he had worked at the factory for a long time, he was compensated handsomely, as required by law. He found some consolation in the amount of money he had received and asked Father Santayana with some remorse if he could now cash the check for him. The priest obliged.
Matilde arrived a few minutes after the father had left. She no longer ironed any clothes and instead devoted her entire efforts to the making and selling of empanadas. She brought with her two plastic bags filled with all the necessary ingredients to make a days worth of empanadas.
“Julio, if this keeps up, all you have to do is go to town once a week, let people see you, and we can have all the people in the world coming into the plaza.”
Julio Mejias sneered, disgusted at the idea.
“Can’t you see?” Matilde responded, a little agitated. “We could buy a refrigerator with the money, a TV that actually works, even a big antenna. We could move down the mountain closer to the paved road. And all this, by feeding all those hungry people looking for you down there.”
“Is not me they see,” he said, shrugging his shoulders before sitting by the table.
"Who cares who they see, we're doing better," she said. " Here, this is for you,” and took out of her bag some of the empanadas left over and put them on a plate. He ate without interest, tearing the empanada carefully with his hands, chewing for a long time, sighing, staring at a beam of sunlight coming through a hole on their tin roof.
In the following weeks he remained a recluse in his shack, visited only by Father Santayana, who tried to read him passages from the Bible, but could only get his attention when he read the newspaper's sports page, particularly about "Las Ligas Mayores" and that team "Los Rojos de Cincinnati," which had a famous ball player Julio Mejias claimed to have known since the kid barely knew how to throw a ball, back in his home town.
"Those kids were so poor, Father, I taught them how to make their gloves from old milk cartons."
Matilde was the only other person Julio Mejias came in contact with. But their new fortunes now kept her so busy cooking larger quantities of empanadas that the only contact they had was when they ate together in the afternoons. She would tell him stories about how fanatical people had become, some claiming to have conversations with him all the time; about how hungry and thirsty they were by 11:30; about how far some of the people came with their fancy cameras and video recorders. She would tell him that someday they might be able to buy all those things, maybe even a used car and live like the people down by the town, in a real house, with a real street instead of dirt and steps, and clean city water.
Every now and then, Matilde would bring him a bottle of agua ardiente and place it where he had hidden the last one. She would pour some of it out so he wouldn’t get too suspicious about the little pleasures she had decided to let him indulge in. When he drank, that was the only time when he would let loose, scream and complain about his condition, build his courage and venture outside to the world, until he was accosted by the crowds, and driven back into the dark shadows of his own shack.
A story appeared in one of the not-so-reputable newspapers in the city. The headline read, “Angel roams the streets.” When it first came out, Matilde thought it was great, for business did increase to the point that now she had four other women doing the cooking and six boys helping her sell empanadas. Also she began to brew coffee, which sold very well early in the mornings and mid afternoons. But with the new crowds and increased popularity came competition. Three trucks with stoves inside came by selling hamburgers and bottled sodas, and she began to lose business to them.
The magazine had interviewed people who had seen the angel and people who desperately waited to see him. They spoke of the healing powers of the angel, about how only the faithful and pure of heart could even see him, about the appropriate technique to clearly see the halo, about how he managed to appear and disappear so quickly.
After a few months all the grass around the old plaza had died and the parrots and sloths had to be removed and placed in small cages in the City Zoo, where they would be better cared for. The old man who fed the sloths was asked to retire and was fired after refusing.
One day as Father Santayana went up the mountain to see Julio Mejias, a cameraman and a reporter followed him on a tip that the angel was always spotted first on the south part of the plaza. The two men hoped to uncover the farce and perhaps win a great journalistic award in the process. They saw Father Santayana enter Julio Mejias’ shack. The two men looked for an open window, but all the windows were covered with towels and blankets. So they went higher on the mountain, crawling through the maze of steps and levels between shacks until they found an angle from which they could actually see inside. The cameraman focused his long lens on what looked like a man seated. Then he directed a powerful microphone to that point and picked up a conversation. The two men inside the shack spoke of loneliness, of happiness, of hope and betrayal, and what was going on in one of the soaps.
After a while, the reporter told the cameraman that he didn't think they would find anything there worth a story. The cameraman looked at the reporter and at that moment jerked back and looked at the shack.
“Oh, my God did you see that,” he whispered, looking at the man with a halo above his head getting up from the chair and talking to the priest. He re-aimed his camera and began to tape. They rushed to the TV station screaming with excitement, jerking their way through the afternoon traffic.
They stopped by a public phone, called the TV station and told the senior news editor that they had uncovered the story behind the angel, that they had it all on tape. The station manager, who considered these two men their best and most serious reporters and had a deep concern with keeping their ratings up, decided to release the story and air quick commercials about the report on the angel. They showed a halo on the TV screen while a voice read: “Truth or scandal? Find out at eleven.”
When the two reporters arrived at the TV station, a whole machine was already in motion. They rushed to an editing suite, placed the tape in one of the video players. The room was filled -- even the president of the TV station came over. They explained all the leads that they had followed, all the interviews they had taped, from the ones that were complete hoaxes, to the ones that sounded legitimate. Then they rolled the tape.
The tape showed a picture of a dusty, dark shack, and the outline of a man sitting, having a conversation with a priest, mixed with what sounded like a soap opera. The reporter pointed at the man in the monitor and looked at his audience, but noticed no one saying anything or acting any different. The cameraman told him to look at the monitor again. Their mouths opened wide as they stared at the images, realizing that the halo was not captured by the optics of their camera.
"It can't be. We saw it."
"I recorded enough tape to make sure that it was not some reflection from the back of the shack."
"Hey, even if the halo was fake," the reporter said in his defense," it would have shown. It has to show, Goddammit."
The two reporters were almost fired. The general manager reviewed the tape to see if there was something in the interviews that they could use.
They had to find something before their eleven o’clock newscast.
That night the newscast showed some of the footage of Father Santayana’s dialogue with Julio Mejias. The story indicated that the whole thing about the angel was a scam between a priest and some man who lived in one of the worse barrios in the city to attract people to the area and scam them for miracle cures. They quoted the local merchants who had seen the angel, and who admitted that their business also had profited greatly. At Paco’s they remarked that they knew the guy that was said to be the angel, that he usually stopped there for a drink, was good at dominoes, was quiet, but he was no angel. At a bank they remembered Father Santayana cashing a check from a big company, endorsed by the alleged angel. Then they quoted the daughter of a woman who had recently died with an incurable type of cancer. She said that they had slept in the park for a week waiting for the angel to come and help her. They had used all their savings to come to the city. They lit candles and made donations to the church everyday and yet nothing. The angel never showed. They felt betrayed, the woman indicated, clearing her tears.
In the aftermath of the report, Julio Mejias decided to confront the people at the plaza, hoping if anything to get his life back. But he was scared and nervous of the mob, of how they had screamed for him, how irrational they had gotten, and how angry they might now be. He practiced in his head what he was going to tell them: that he was no angel, that he was just an ordinary man, just like them, and that the news report was all a fabrication. And that they should go home and do something with their lives instead of depending on him to give it to them.
He arrived at the plaza and found trash and empty bottles all over. The truck that sold hamburgers drove around the plaza several times, and then left. At one corner there was a boy holding a large pot with empanadas. Further down was Matilde, waving her pot of hot empanadas. She smiled at Julio Mejias.
"Where's everybody?" he asked her.
"You should have seen this place early this morning, " she said, looking at the empty plaza, at the newspapers carried by a soft breeze, at the pigeons pecking the dirt where once there used to be grass. "It was packed. People cried and asked for you. Then they called you names. Oh, I heard their talk. They were wrong! All so wrong!"
"Matilde. This can't go on."
"They'll be back." She looked at his head.
She looked away to the mountain at the area where they had their shack, pursing her lips, trying not to frown.
"How will we eat? You can't get a job looking like that!"
The old man who used to feed the three finger sloths came across the street into the plaza holding a broom. He nodded at them and began to sweep the grounds.
"Viejito," Matilde called him in an endearing tone, " I haven't seen you in a while?"
"They fired me," he said, looking up at Julio Mejias head, producing a broad smile.
Matilde opened her pot and gave the old man an empanada.
Three old ladies heading to the church stopped and whispered to each other, every now and then lifting their heads and glancing in Julio Mejias direction. He felt awkward but decided to wave at them anyway. The ladies rushed inside the church.
"Matilde, we didn't have much before, but we had something."
"But we can have anything we want."
"Not this way, Corazón."
# # #
After a few months, those who had actually seen the man with a dim halo came back to the old church to pray. They talked to one another. They found out that some of the people affected with devastating maladies were indeed recovering. Others had felt happier and at peace. They agreed that they had indeed seen something, that their lives had changed and that the scandal must have been in fact a cover up, probably plotted and orchestrated by some covert office of the government.
In the plaza, people raised enough money to paint the baroque church, bring back the quacamayas and three finger sloths, even put a little box for donation to pay for the old caretaker's salary. And in the first week of May, the old town holds festivities. Under the trees, they sing ballads about an angel that had lived among them, revived their faith, cured the sick and made the weak strong. Who, after completing his task found his way into the heavens and brought harmony back into the old town.
But at Paco's they'll tell you after a brew, that Julio Mejias moved back to the Llanos, the plains, where the sky is so blue and the sun so bright that no man in his right mind would be caught dead without his straw hat. Father Santayana went there as well, and built a small parish school from adobe and straw. And every afternoon, as a cloud of green Loro parrots cover the sky, and the breeze carries the aroma of empanadas across the hot plain, Julio Mejias can be found in the back of the parish with kids recuperating from yellow fever, malaria or malnutrition, running around the dusty field, tossing and catching a ball with their milk carton mitts, teaching them how to play the great game of beisbol.