A convict working at Lincoln Meadows Racetrack and his alcoholic friend get in trouble with security and are forced to spend 75 hours in community service with the local chaplain; by Forest Arthur Ormes.
Even though his problem was mental, it was the booze that woke up Rafael's demons. If he drank, he started answering the empty seat across the table from him in the kitchen. Before long he and that empty seat would be involved in an intense discussion ranging from the finer points of bandaging the legs of his favorite horse, Christmas, on up to the disrespectful manner in which Tom McCain's assistant trainer spoke to him when he arrived late to work.
Unlike Rafael, I didn't have a problem with alcohol. Cocaine was my problem. That minister in my city church used to tell me Satan put the thought of cocaine in my head. In treatment, they told me the thoughts and urges came from the chemistry in my brain. The chaplain in prison told me the desire came from my failure to rise above the flesh and live in the spirit. I sold my car three years ago for drugs. Thirteen years ago I did two and a half years for dealing drugs. All I wanted now was to keep those thoughts and urges and desires outside of me - wherever they originated.
The first rule at Lincoln Meadows: Don't attract attention. Security watched you wherever you moved. The chief of guards patrolled the track from the back seat of an open-roofed jeep like some kind of general. He wore an ironed tan uniform, along with a square jaw and cold look that made even me uncomfortable. I just had a run-in with him the night before over an unauthorized visit to the barns where the Clydesdales were specially stabled for the upcoming Independence Day celebrations.
I had already talked my way past the sergeant. Under the dim light I stared at the hoofs of the Clydesdale in the first stall. Out of habit I ran my gaze over his knees.
"Hey Clydesdale, honey boy," I said softly.
I moved to the second, knowing I was touching the crown of royalty as I rubbed the top of his head. By the time I was stroking the neck of the sixth Clydesdale, I had a tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.
"Johnson!" I suddenly heard. "You know prisoners are not allowed in here!"
The chief of security appeared in front of me, glaring into my face.
"Look at them, Chief. Holy Christ, aren't they beautiful?"
The chief briefly turned his head from the three stalls on his right to the three stalls on the left. A slight smile momentarily softened his face before it hardened back into ice. Then he pushed his nose six inches from mine.
"Get out of here, Barabbas. Get out or I'll handcuff you myself."
The chief let me off with a warning. The last thing I needed was what happened next.
I was lifting weights when, Shawn, a groom who worked with Rafael rushed into my dorm room. He couldn't stay because he had to get back to the barn to help keep his horses calm during the fireworks.
"Barabbas," he said to me. "You better go get him right now."
"Get who?" I snapped.
"Rafael. He's out there."
"Out in front of barn nine looking at the fireworks."
"No harm in that," I answered.
"He has Christmas with him."
I set the weights on the floor, put on my T-shirt and hurried out.
The backstretch where the stables were located was surrounded by a 12 foot-high barbed-wire fence paralleled by a fence with the same height and barbed-wire twelve yards beyond and spotlights at the midway guard shack and the guard offices at Gate eight. The squirrelly religious numbers in the security arrangements - twelve and twelve - came from Arthur T. Doorlander, owner of Lincoln Meadows. He was a religious freak who had this thing for religious numbers. He had a brother worse than him whose son had inherited his father's fetish for crosses. So I was told. So I would learn. The son, Doorlander's nephew, was the chaplain for the backstretch workers. I attended his services twice a week as a a kind of good-will investment with the track authorities.
When I got in front of barn nine, I found Rafael holding Christmas on a shank just like Shawn said.
"Rafael. Neither one of us can afford security problems," I told him.
I heard the brief whistle of a rising rocket. A sudden barrage of red, white and blue exploded far above us. I cursed Uncle Sam and Arthur T. Doorlander as I watched Christmas rear up. Rafael gave him all the shank he needed, allowing him to come down on his own. Then Rafael gently stroked Christmas on the neck. Christmas calmed down.
"Leave me alone, Barabbas," he said to me.
"I'm already on the man's shit list, Rafael," I said. "Let's not attract his attention a second time."
Rafael continued stroking Christmas's neck.
"If you stay here, one of those uniforms is going to notice us. They are going to call the chief and he's going to send a truck over here. The men in that truck are going to see you standing with Christmas. They are going to get out of their truck. They are going to smell how you've been drinking. Then Arthur T. Doorlander is going to light up the sky again with his toy rockets. Christmas is going to rear up on his hind legs and those two men in uniforms are going to think - 'Rafael's drunk. He can't handle his horse.' They're not going to think: 'He may be drunk, but he can still handle his horse. He can handle his horse because Rafael is the only man on this racetrack who knows how to handle Christmas like the first-class professional prison-groom that he is.'"
I had his attention now.
"They're not going to think these smart thoughts. They're going to think: 'The man can't handle his horse.' Then they're going to make the big mistake. They're going to try - try, I said - to grab Christmas's shank from you. Of course Christmas is going to rear up. The guard is going to grab that shank like only a real asshole would grab the shank from Rafael, the groom to Christmas. Then you're going to jump on the man for trying to take Christmas out from your hands. The other security man is going to jump on you and pull you off."
"Do you see the trouble we're in? I've got to pull the man off who jumped on my man, Rafael. In the meantime, both you and the asshole guard have lost the shank and now Christmas has started running down the midway."
Rafael was even more attentive now. He was holding Christmas's shank and staring at me just as another rocket whistled to the heavens, then exploded with its red, white and blue sinking back to earth. Christmas reared up and came down. Rafael immediately began stroking him, placing his face against the cheek of Christmas.
Rafael turned and stared at me.
"Damn you, Barabbas," he said.
Rafael took Christmas by the shank and began leading him back to barn 28. By now the explosion of fireworks had stopped. Rafael slipped the shank out from the rings of Christmas's halter, and then closed the half door permitting Christmas to lean out and stare down the shed row. When he spotted me standing in the shed row, Rafael said:
"I'll be all right, Barabbas. Leave me here... with Christmas."
"The condition you're in... I'm not going anywhere until I see you back to your room."
We left the barn and began walking toward the dorms. Rafael staggered beside me. I grabbed his arm and pulled him along. When the work release truck approached, I muttered: "Walk straight. Guards."
Rafael continued to stagger. I tried pulling him against me to get him to walk evenly. Instead, Rafael wobbled and began to fall. I tried catching him. He pulled me down with him. The work release truck stopped in front of us just as I was pulling Rafael to his feet.
A guard we called Red was driving.
"Barabbas," he said to me. "I got a call telling me Crazy here had his horse in front of barn nine. Of all people back here, he's the last one who should be drinking. This one gets called in, Barabbas. I have to act on it."
"Red," I said to him, spreading my hands. "What do you mean?"
"Where are your brains, Barabbas! It's Fourth of July celebrations! And both of you are falling down drunk."
"I haven't been drinking!" I answered.
"I don't want to hear it! Both of you get in."
Rafael and I rode in the back of the pickup. Red was good enough to drive Rafael back to his dorm room.
"You sleep it off tonight. The Chief will see both of you tomorrow," Red said as he dropped me off in front of my dorm.
I felt so low that the thought of cocaine appealed to me like a magnet.
I climbed the cement stairs, opened the door to my room and collapsed on my bed. I fell asleep thinking: if I used cocaine tonight, where would I be tomorrow if the chief decided to test me?
I entered the side room of the guard offices, closing the door behind me before the chief could ask me to do so. He remained in his chair. I took a seat across the desk from him.
"I received a report that you and Rafael Veloz walking around the compound drunk last night," he said to me.
"Chief. I wasn't even drinking last night. Your report says I was falling down drunk. That's a falsehood," I told him. "Alcohol has never been my problem."
"Barabbas," he drawled. "You've done time for dealing. You've been in treatment for cocaine addiction. When my security personnel tell me they witnessed you intoxicated, I have to make a decision based on what they tell me. Not on what you deny."
"Can I discuss it with you?" I asked.
"I don't negotiate my decisions with convicted felons."
He paused. "I am mandating you, along with your friend, Rafael...."
"Rafael? What about Rafael?"
"Rafael Veloz. The mental case who drinks too much. I'm mandating the both of you to seventy-five hours of service with the chaplain's ministry."
"Seventy-five hours with Doorlander's nephew, the chaplain? I don't have that kind of time, Chief. What if I report to security every night before I bed down? That way you'll know I'm sober and off the drugs. You can call it 'intensive monitoring.'"
"You never stop, do you, Barabbas? Now you're telling me how to word my report to my superior."
"If I have to help Mr. Doorlander's nephew, the chaplain, with his ministry, then I guess..."
"I'll need a phone call from him confirming that you both started. Then I'll need a letter written on his stationery saying both of you have completed no less than seventy-five hours. Understand?"
"Understood," I answered.
"Oh, and Barabbas... I intend to assign one of my security guards to monitor your progress and report back to me. You're not going to smooth-talk your way out of this one. I'm going to get my seventy-five hours or you and Lincoln Meadows are history."
He nodded toward the door. I got up from my chair, looked him in the eye and left.
He was sitting at a desk in one of the ghetto dorm rooms when we knocked on the door.
"Come in," he said. "Both of you. Please come in."
I pulled the screen door open and stretched my hand forward as he rose from his wooden chair.
"Chaplain Jesus Peter Doorlander," he introduced himself.
The chaplain's father was married to a Mexican woman, making him one half Mexican, one-half German and bi-lingual.
"Barabbas Johnson," I said as I shook his hand. "That's B-A-R-A-B-B-A-S J-O-H-N-S-O-N."
"Good to meet you," he said.
He gripped my hand and squeezed. I gripped his hand and squeezed back
Chaplain Jesus shook Rafael's hand, uttering, "Mucho gusto."
"I have never met a man called Barabbas," he said to me.
"And I never met a man named after the son of God," I answered. "I didn't ask for the name Barabbas. My grandma gave me it to me along with my upbringing. My mother died giving birth to me. Whenever I defied my grandma, she would remind me that my father was shot dead by a state trooper while escaping a bank robbery. She would tell me that the same road waited for me if I didn't walk a straight line."
"Barabbas is a beautiful name from the Bible. My mother is Mexican and gave me the name Jesus."
"And your uncle is Arthur T. Doorlander?"
"He is my father's blood brother. You are my spiritual brother, Barabbas."
When I told him about the chief of the guards mandating Rafael and me, he said: "Doing seventy-five hours service with my ministry will not be a problem."
"I need for you to call the chief personally and tell him. He won't take my word for it."
"I'll call him now," he answered.
Chaplain Jesus picked up the phone. When he got the chief, he thanked him. He said that he would be happy to type up a letter on his stationery after we had completed the seventy-five hours. Then he hung up, and stepped back. He stared us up and down.
Chaplain Jesus Diego stood around five-six and carried about a hundred and sixty pounds. He had a fine Roman nose, high cheek bones and a square jaw. His ears were like anybody's ears. His long black hair narrowed into a short pony tail held together by a thick blue rubber band, the kind they use to fasten broccoli together in the produce department of a grocery store. I worked in one of those stores for two years before they laid me off. I went back to dealing after that. You couldn't help but notice his blue eyes. The eyebrows above those blue eyes were thick and dark. Perhaps Chaplain Jesus's gym shoes were white once, but they were dirt-gray now.
"As you can see," he said, "I am not as tall and strong as the two of
you. Your strength and effort will be needed in this ministry."
"Beats getting thrown off the track," I answered, smiling over at Rafael.
Rafael and I attended both English and Spanish-speaking church services. It was part of our duties to bring in and set up the coffee maker, paper plates, paper cups and boxes of donuts. It was also our job to set in the middle of the table of refreshments three wooden crosses that Chaplain Jesus had informed us measured precisely six inches high and five inches across. During services, whenever any of his worshippers knocked over one of the crosses while helping themselves to a donut and coffee, it was my job to set the crosses upright.
If this was the measure and extent of the chaplain's cross fetish, I figured I could handle it. That's what I figured.
The services were held in large hall adjoining the kitchen, built especially to accommodate the services offered by Doorlander's nephew. The Auditorium, as we called it, was a rectangular room which could seat two hundred people. It was attached to the pool room of the kitchen. The pool room contained three video games, two pool tables, chairs, drunk and sober Whites, Mexicans, Blacks and sometimes a fist fight which always brought security within minutes.
The double doors leading from the pool room to The Auditorium were kept locked until two hours before the first of the two services began on Tuesdays. The doors leading from the pool room to the kitchen - where racetrackers played cards, drank beer, bought a good meal for cheap and gambled at the windows during races - were always open.
We had been doing our service hours with Chaplain Jesus for over three weeks. I passed through the door leading into the pool room, and then through the doors to The Auditorium. Inside The Auditorium, I began unfolding the aluminum chairs. I was thinking about the extra work the assistant trainer had given me that morning when I noticed that Rafael had disappeared. I hurried back out into the kitchen.
Rafael was sitting alone in a booth, drinking from a can of beer. He had three empty cans sitting on the table in front of him, along with a fading green pear. He was having a conversation with himself. As he stared at the empty seat across from him, two older white trainers got up and moved to a booth further away.
I walked over to his table, and took a seat on the other side.
"Rafael," I said. "This is not going to help us finish our seventy-five hours."
"Leave me alone, Barabbas," he answered.
Then he took a small knife from his pocket, opened it, grasped the pear and began cutting it into sections.
"Are you going to set up church with me or not!" I snapped.
"This knife isn't very sharp," he said, pausing from slicing the pear. "The knife I keep in my trunk in the barn... that knife is sharp."
He resumed cutting the pear into sections.
Rafael was staring straight through me now. I knew the look. When I did those two and a half years, one of the young bucks in prison with me had given me the same you're-nothing-but-meat kind of stare before he went off on me.
I slid out from the booth, stood up, turned my back to him just to let him know I had no fear in me, and then walked off.
When Chaplain Jesus arrived at The Auditorium, I told him what was going on with Rafael. Immediately he went out into the kitchen and took a seat across from Rafael who by now had half a dozen beer cans lined up in front of him. I watched from the open door of the pool room as Chaplain Jesus raised both his hands, palms open, and began talking. A few minutes later he reached across the table and laid his hand on Rafael's shoulder. Then Rafael got up and without stumbling or staggering walked out the kitchen door. Chaplain Jesus returned to The Auditorium and began reading his English Bible in preparation for his English-speaking church service.
When I arrived at Tom McCain's barn to begin walking horses the next morning, Rafael was kneeling under Christmas calmly applying poultice and bandages to his legs.
Chaplain Jesus was driving northeast to a wealthy suburb to pick up a couple of donated mattresses. I didn't ponder on why he needed both of us to help with the mattresses. I was grateful to be far outside the confines of Lincoln Meadows.
The donated mattresses were securely tied to the back of the chaplain's pickup. I sat in the front passenger seat. Rafael sat in the back of the cab. He was buzzed, but he hadn't gone mental. Chaplain Jesus wore a face of sad acceptance as he drove along the drive.
"Chaplain Jesus?" I said.
"These seventy-five hours Rafael and I owe the chief?"
"You both will get a letter from me saying you have completed them."
"You're all right, you know that. When Rafael slips and starts drinking, you don't report him to the chief. That's nice of you."
"He's doing his best, Barabbas. I can't report a man who's doing his best. Both of you could do better... with your Bible reading."
"Are you going to preach to me, Chaplain? I don't mind if you do. I just want to know if it's coming so I can... brace myself for your words."
"I'm not going to preach to you, Barabbas," he answered, as he exited at Montrose Avenue. "But I am going to ask you to assist me in a duty."
He turned again, driving the pickup along the narrow road parallel to the lake.
"Duty?" I asked. "What duty?"
The chaplain backed the truck into a parking space. He had a focused look in his blue eyes as he climbed out. I climbed out from the other side. Rafael woke up and squeezed out between the seat and ceiling of the cab. He stumbled and almost fell as he set his feet on the concrete.
"It will become clear," he said, as he unfastened the ropes holding the mattresses in the pickup.
The two mattresses had been wrapped in plastic coverings. After we had taken them out and placed them on the cement, Chaplain Jesus asked Rafael and me to help him remove the four wooden beams that had been sitting in the bed of his truck beneath the mattresses. They looked like railroad ties to me.
Rafael stood on the grass while I began to pull the beams from the truck.
As I slid the last beam from the pickup, I noticed that each beam had been chiseled at different spots.
I watched Chaplain Jesus open the door to the pickup, reach inside and come out with four long, thick bolts. He set them down on the grass, reached inside the pickup to come out with several large nuts and washers. He held a wrench in his left hand.
"They called this crossbar the 'patibulum,'" he said to me. "They called this the 'stipes,'" he continued.
I steadied the crossbar as he ran two of the bolts through two holes that had been bored through the chiseled sections of the patibulum and stipes. He expertly held the bolts in place. Then he took a washer, dropped it over the bolt, attached a nut and tightened it with the wrench. He pulled to tighten it securely. He moved his hands over a few inches and repeated the same maneuver with another set of bolts, washers and nuts. The patibulum and stipes had become a secure six-by-five-foot cross.
As I helped him lay the crossbar across the upper end of the longer beam, I was thinking: "Now it's becoming clear all right. A squirrel-job for a chaplain with a high-intensity cross fetish."
But then, what choice did I have? Doorlander's nephew, a chaplain with a cross fetish, or thrown off the track into the kingdom of the homeless.
Chaplain Jesus repeated the same construction with the two remaining beams. Patibulum and stipes became a second six-by-five-foot cross.
"I didn't know you were a carpenter, Chap," I said, tactfully.
Rafael was weaving in half-circles as he stood on the grass. Chaplain Jesus turned and said a few words in Spanish. Rafael straightened. The breeze blew through Rafael's uncut black hair, ruffling his shirt and baggy cotton pants.
Chaplain Jesus turned and said: "Next time I'll have a cross for you. Now, follow me, Barabbas."
"If I have to follow you in order to get my letter of completion..."
"I'm right behind you, Chap."
Chaplain Jesus pushed the cross upright. He lowered it on his shoulder, lifted and began carrying the cross through the trees toward the sand along the lake. Rafael lifted the cross to his shoulder, and then steadied himself.
I followed Chaplain Jesus. Rafael followed behind me.
We were crossing the beach toward the shoreline when Rafael stumbled and fell. His cross tumbled into the dry sand. A breeze picked up and began covering it up.
Rafael was kneeling on all fours, his head lowered.
"I can't carry it," he said.
Then he said something that cut into me like a broken bottle.
"Borrow me your shoulders, Barabbas. Mine can't handle it today."
It was squirrelly. I knew it was squirrelly. I looked in front of me to see Chaplain Jesus hunched, the cross weighing over his right shoulder. He stared at us for a few seconds, then resumed walking toward the shoreline.
I pulled the cross from the sand, tilted it upwards, lowered it to my shoulder, lifted and began following Chaplain Jesus. Rafael had gotten up and was stumbling behind me.
Wet sand cushioned our steps as we moved along the lakeshore. Light waves broke at our feet. A man passed holding a child by the hand. He said something to the child in Spanish as he glanced up at us, and then continued walking.
I had begun calculating at what spot Chaplain Jesus might turn around when a white man and woman jogged past on the gravel path separating the sand from the grass and trees. They came to a stop and, standing in their tight black outfits, began staring at us. Chaplain Jesus had turned and was walking along the steel barrier separating the deep water from the rest of the beach. Rafael worked at keeping up.
The couple continued to stare as the waves broke harder at the ankles of our feet.
Finally I got fed up.
"It's not polite to stare," I turned and hollered. "Do you two have a problem?"
I was about to lay the cross in the sand and walk over to them when I felt a hand squeeze my free shoulder.
"Barabbas, no!" I heard Chaplain Jesus' voice. "Not while you carry the cross."
As I swiveled to jerk the hand free, the bottom of the cross clipped Rafael. Rafael tripped and fell into the lake. Waves washed ashore, soaking him as he lay in the shallow water. Rafael tried pushing himself up. Another wave washed over him. Finally he pushed himself up and stepped back onto the sand.
"Rafael..." I started to say.
"Just leave me alone, Barabbas."
At that moment the boyfriend started to laugh. His girlfriend stared at us blankly. I scoped the guy up and down, from the top of his nice haircut down to his silver-striped running shoes. I figured with his build and youth that he might try to get me in a headlock to prevent me from using my fists. I knew I had him on reach and speed and probably strength.
I moved away from the water, dropped the cross in the sand and started walking toward them.
"You like laughing at people!" I yelled.
The couple backed up a couple feet, turned and went back to jogging.
Rafael and I turned and caught up with Chaplain Jesus. The three of us made our way along the narrow, steel barrier. The dry deep sand made walking with the cross a heavier task. I could feel the pain in my calves and thighs. Deep water flowed on the other side of the barrier. I kept my distance from the edge.
"Rafael," I said. "Stay behind me. Don't get too close. The water's deep here."
I could feel my body relax as we arrived at shallow water, turned and began walking along the shore.
When we reached a dilapidated fence blocking us from walking further, Chaplain Jesus reversed his step and started walking back. By the time we were within sight of his pickup, I could see that a squad car had been driven onto the sand to block our way. Two of the city's finest had gotten out. They stood there waiting for us.
"What do you think you're doing with those crosses on your shoulders?" the black cop said to us.
Chaplain Jesus stared silently back at him.
"Hello officer," I said, setting down the cross and propping it against me. "This is sure hard work."
"Who are you?" the white cop said. "The pied-piper? What is it with you guys carrying those things?"
I spotted the black-outfit couple standing on the grass among the trees, watching. I moved my right leg with its ankle bracelet back a foot, tactfully trying to keep it from the white cop's view.
"This is the racetrack chaplain where I work," I answered him.
"The who?" said the black cop.
"The racetrack chaplain. He ministers to all of us on the backstretch who work with horses."
"You didn't answer our question. What are you doing here?"
"I believe my chaplain is trying to make a statement," I said, turning to the black cop and ignoring the white cop's question.
Chaplain Jesus stood there with the cross still on his shoulders.
"Here's a statement for you. You're coming to the station with us. All three of you."
Rafael stepped forward now.
Both men shot him a wary look. I put my hand on Rafael's shoulder.
"This is my business partner, gentlemen. Mr. Rafael Veloz. He works for the same trainer as I do."
They looked Rafael up and down, wet pants, wet shirt and all.
"You decide to take a swim with your clothes on, fella?" the white cop said.
Then he looked at my blue shirt hanging out from my pants. He stared at my new black gym shoes.
"You're not trying to raise money for some charity, are you?" the black cop asked. "You're just crazy... and wet. Right?"
"I've done some work for charity in my time, officers," I answered. "But at this time in my career I am employed at Lincoln Meadows International Racetrack working for McCain Racing Stables."
"You got to be kidding me," said the black cop.
I turned my head toward the black-outfit couple on the grass.
"Did that lady and gentleman call you?" I asked.
"We got a call that someone with your description behaved in a threatening manner toward a gentleman and his companion."
"And how might they have described me, gentlemen?" I said.
Rafael moved beside me now. The two policemen stepped backward.
"Remain exactly where you are, fella! Not one foot closer!" said the white cop. His hand moved toward his holstered pistol.
"Help! Officers, help. Please!" I suddenly heard.
A young white woman in army pants, black T-shirt and black combat boots
had come running up behind us.
"Help us, please!" she repeated. "They just pulled a child from the lake. He's not breathing! For God's sake! Please help us!"
The officers hesitated, turned and started running across the sand toward the barrier, leaving Chaplain Jesus, Rafael and me standing there with the two crosses.
Suddenly Chaplain Jesus set his cross down in the sand. He said something to Rafael who came over and balanced the cross upright. The chaplain began running after the two policemen.
I dropped my cross, and ran after him. By the time I came up behind Chaplain Jesus, the policemen were standing over the body of a child. Chaplain Jesus stood a few feet from the child's feet. The man who had passed us earlier stood at the head of his son's body. The black cop was radioing in for an ambulance.
"Can't someone do CPR!" pleaded the same woman who had begged the police for help. Her dark hair was braided into a pony tail like Chaplain Jesus.
I spotted the couple who had called the police standing ten yards distance from our circle.
The black policeman bent over the child and gave two breaths over the child's nose and mouth. His white partner bent down on his knees, and began pushing on the child's chest with both hands until the count of thirty. They repeated this combination for ten minutes until finally the black cop stopped. With pain in his eyes, he looked around at each us.
"I can't get any breath into him," he said.
At these words the father pushed in front of him, bent over his son and awkwardly attempted mouth-to-mouth. He gave two deep breaths before moving in front of the white policeman who had remained on his knees. The father began pushing with both hands on his son's chest. The black policeman moved backwards to give the father space. The father repeated the same process three, four, five more times while the rest of us stood there silently. Then he paused for a second. As he nudged forward to resume giving his son the chest compressions, he looked over at Chaplain Jesus and said something in Spanish. When Chaplain Jesus answered him, he immediately stopped.
The father leaned back on his thighs. He started crying, rocking back and forth.
"What in God's name did you say to him, Chaplain!" I said.
"He stands at his head," Chaplain Jesus answered.
"Death stands at his son's head."
"What do you mean, 'stands at his head?'"
"I mean nothing, Barabbas."
"One drowned boy. Community service with a squirrel-job for a chaplain. Chaplain Jesus, if you can do something to save this man's boy, you need to do it."
"Not save, Barabbas."
"Don't play words with me, Chap. You've got a dying boy in front of you!"
"You cannot rob Death. If I prevent Him from taking that man's son, He will choose another."
"The man would give up his life rather than lose his son."
Chaplain Jesus looked sadly at me. Then he raised his right hand. He moved his hand along the child's body, starting at his head on down to his dirty gym shoes and the lifeless feet inside.
The child coughed up water, then began gasping for breath.
The father grabbed his son in his arms.
The black policeman kneeling over the child bowed his head. The white policeman gazed up at Chaplain Jesus. The black-outfit couple gaped. The woman with a ponytail and combat boots crossed herself.
Later, after the ambulance had come and taken the child and his father to the hospital, Chaplain Jesus and I walked back to the spot where Rafael stood, guarding the two crosses. His clothes were almost dry. Rafael and I carried the crosses back to the pickup where Chaplain Jesus dismantled them as carefully as they had been assembled. We laid the patibulum and stipes into the bed of the truck, set the mattresses over them and tied them securely. Rafael squeezed into the back of the cab. I climbed into the seat beside Chaplain Jesus. The chaplain maneuvered the pickup along the road, onto the street and out to the drive.
He said nothing.
"Back there. That child. What did you do? I mean... That boy wasn't breathing. Before you raised your hand, he looked like the life had gone out from him. You snatched that child from Death, Chap. Right out from Death's grip. I almost want to say... a miracle, but..."
"Barabbas," he said.
"What, Chap? What is it?"
"Death nodded at you."
He remained silent as he changed lanes. Finally, he said: "Will you help me deliver these mattresses to the families in dorms nine and ten?"
"Sure I will, Chap. I'll help you even after you've given the chief my letter of completion."
"I'll give you your letter of completion tonight, Barabbas."
I sit here in my room at the racetrack. I have my TV, my DVD, my bed, a refrigerator full of food, my weights, everything I need. I sit here in my room, trying to remember everything that happened.
Rafael I know is crazy. But between his script of pills and staying off the alcohol, he's been holding it together lately.
Chaplain Jesus on the other hand. Now that is another matter. Squirrelly. For sure. Carrying crosses on the beach. Attention from the police. Raising the dead. Death nodding at me. Squirrelly. But I keep thinking: what if it's true. And if true, do I have an appointment with Death? And if so, when? Where? I know one thing. If Death has chosen me in place of that boy, then He'll be waiting for me in a gangway alongside a certain crack house on the west side of the city.
Whether the chaplain is squirrelly or not, I, Barabbas Johnson - spelled B-A-R-A-B-B-A-S J-O-H-N-S-O-N - I have to keep any and all cravings at a distance. For me, it's a matter of: Get high, and better the chances that Death will take me. Stay clean, and better my chances to watch my hair grow gray.