KEITH MEATTO


TIERRA SANTA

Photo by Lauren Henley

Gavin landed at Ezeiza in a fog from three whiskeys that had failed to put him to sleep. The red-eye to Argentina had been endless, even without the added delay in São Paulo. He hated business travel, but this trip had a perk: a long overdue reunion with Thomas. They had been best friends in college, editors of the school literary magazine Orpheus, and the only two guys in the senior seminar on Paradise Lost. But Gavin hadn’t seen Thomas in 10 years, not since their post-graduation road trip, a three-week odyssey from Phoenix to San Francisco, camping in the Painted Desert, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon, playing blackjack and blacking out in Vegas, crashing a movie premiere in L.A., and soaking in the splendor of the coastal highway.

At baggage claim, a guy with a beard and an army jacket tugged his sleeve. 

Spare some change, señor?

You bastard, Gavin said and laughed. As he hugged Thomas, his friend kissed him on each cheek, then pinched Gavin’s lapel and rubbed the silk between his fingers.

Nice threads, Thomas said. You look like my dad.

Gavin brushed away his friend’s hand and smoothed his suit, his second skin since he joined the law firm. Thomas had gone to Ecuador with the Peace Corps, married and then divorced a local schoolteacher, and somehow won custody of their daughter. Gavin waved to the girl, who looked like Thomas, but with darker skin and thicker hair. Mariela stuck out her tongue and ducked behind her father.

Gavin followed them to the parking lot and a Renault with dented doors and rust spots. Mariela climbed into the back and buckled her teddy bear into its own seatbelt. The car smelled like incense and the floor was strewn with papers and crushed Cheerios. As Thomas merged onto the highway, Gavin picked up a book with his friend’s name on the cover. Inside were poems in Spanish.

That’s my latest, Thomas said. You write anymore?

Only legal briefs, Gavin said.

Too bad. I always dug your sonnets.

Gavin swallowed. He had tried to write: a legal thriller, poems about a girl from Wisconsin, sketches about urban love and loss. But after the initial burst of inspiration he would always slow down, flounder to find the soul of his story, and then finally stop and add another file to the unfinished folder. He’d even quit keeping a journal. 

Thomas turned on the radio and syncopated music leaped from the speakers, something about a guy with a broken heart and a black shirt. Gavin stared out the window until he saw they were driving away from the city and asked where they were headed.

Tierra Santa, Thomas said. It’s a religious theme park.

Seriously? Gavin said. We only have a few hours together.

Thomas smiled and cocked his head toward the back seat. I promised Mariela, he said. And our coupon for free admission expires today.

Gavin waited for Thomas to laugh and turn the car back toward the city. He was raised Catholic but hadn’t been to Mass since confirmation in his school. His last memory of Thomas in church was when they broke into Battell Chapel, stole communion wafers, climbed to the top spire and flung the holy bread like Frisbees onto Elm Street.

As they drove, Gavin found he had a signal and checked his phone. His inbox had 50 new messages, all marked urgent. A few were from his associates in New York; most came from Martín, his Argentine colleague. For the past year, Martín had done the legwork, massaged the client, researched the local laws, navigated the regulatory agencies and made nice with the Buenos Aires judges.

Hot date? Thomas asked.

Gavin explained: a Belgian pharmaceutical company had sued an Argentine competitor for stealing cholesterol drug research. He was defending the Argentines.

Are they guilty?

It’s complicated, Gavin said.

That sounds like yes. Thomas laughed. Fancy phone.

Gavin felt his skin flush. They drove in silence until Mariela asked to go to Freddo. Thomas said it was too early for ice cream. As they argued in Spanish, Gavin’s confidence in his command of the language slowly vanished and the car seemed to shrink until Thomas yelled basta and Mariela turned to sulk out the window.

I don’t want her to get spoiled, Thomas said.

Gavin swallowed. For years after his parents’ divorce, his mom had fumed that his dad bought his affection with baseball tickets and trips to the record store. They drove past a soccer stadium, and then crossed the highway, where Thomas pointed out the domestic airport, which seemed like a shabbier bleaker version of Ezeiza. Mariela dropped her pouty mood and read the airline names off the sides of the planes. They passed a driving range and Gavin watched golf balls cloud the sky like artillery. Then he saw the T-shaped silhouettes in the distance. Crosses.            

The Tierra Santa parking lot was packed with cars and buses and it was only eight in the morning. Gavin followed Thomas and Mariela through the gates and was stunned at the full-scale replica of ancient Jerusalem with rock walls and palm trees and grottos and huts. Some employees were dressed as centurions with armor and swords and shields. Others were Hebrews with robes and scarves and shawls. Gavin watched a young woman with dark hair and eyes lined with kohl, mesmerized as she swung a straw basket.

Mariela ran ahead. Thomas chased her through the crowd and Gavin followed. They caught the girl by a statue of Jesus poised to drive the moneylenders from the temple. Thomas grabbed her collar and told her to stay close. The sharpness in his voice startled Gavin, but Mariela seemed unfazed. Thomas said he needed to use the bathroom and asked if Mariela had to go. She said no. Thomas hesitated, then asked Gavin to watch her, and left them at the temple. Gavin checked his phone: Three more messages from Martín. Christ, he thought, then regretted it when his eye fell on the statue of Jesus with a whip cocked above the moneylenders, fat and bearded, swaddled in silk and jewels.

Why does Jesus want to hurt them? Mariela asked.                        

Gavin paused. How to explain usury to a seven year old? He imagined a religious nut storming into the stock exchange to whip the traders and smash their computers.

He wants to scare them, he said. They stole money from his friends.

Mariela nodded as if the answer made perfect sense. Then she kicked the ground and churned up a cloud of dust. A centurion approached. In his chest plate and thong, he looked like a god or an armored horse. Gavin put a hand on Mariela’s shoulder and her feet stopped, as the guard lectured about the park’s rules.

Cuidado, he said. This is a holy place.

Gavin got the gist of the guard’s words then did his best apology. When the guard left Mariela explained: she was helping Jesus scare the men who stole his friends’ money. Gavin checked the crowd for Thomas. The sun was brutal, as if the heat was imported from the Middle East. He moved under a palm tree and fidgeted with a leaf before he realized it was plastic. Mariela looked bored.

So, Gavin said. How’s school?

Good, she said. Next week is my first communion.

Really? Your dad and I did ours together.

Mariela brightened, as if she could see the memory. Gavin told her how they marched to the altar by height. He was the shortest and first in line; Thomas was the tallest and last. Now Gavin was a head taller and had 20 pounds on his friend.

Where do you go to church? Mariela asked.

Nowhere, Gavin said.

Are you Jewish?

He laughed and said no and checked over his shoulder. Where was Thomas? For a while neither one spoke. Then Gavin heard familiar music, tinny through a speaker: Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Everyone in the crowd lifted their heads and swelled across the park toward the source of the sound. Mariela moved to follow, but Gavin said wait until her dad came back. Mariela pouted, sniffled and began to cry. Gavin panicked. What were you supposed to do? If he wanted to take care of a kid, he would have had one. He took his phone from his pocket. 

Here, he said. Do you want to play with this?

Mariela wiped her nose with her sleeve and then took the phone.

Be careful, he said.

She studied the display then began to press buttons like a pinball player on speed. By the time Thomas got back, her eyes were inches from the screen, glazed in focus.

Sorry, long line, Thomas said. Everything OK?

Gavin was embarrassed. They continued through the park. Mariela stopped every few feet at a new cluster of statues. Each showed one of the miracles in the Gospels: The wedding at Cana; The Bethesda Fountain; Loaves and Fishes. Mariela knew them by sight and narrated as if she were talking about her friends. Gavin hadn’t attended church in 15 years, but –like song lyrics and ex-girlfriends— Bible stories stuck. He knew the references, if not their exact context or spiritual significance. Unlike Protestants –or Jews or Muslims for that matter –Catholics were discouraged from actually reading the sacred text; they were just supposed to accept the priest’s hearsay as evidence and have faith.

They came to a fountain where a statue Jesus was walking on water, his feet firm on the sea, while his disciples gaped in disbelief from their rowboat. Thomas put an arm around Gavin’s shoulder and squeezed.

Glad you’re here, buddy, he said.

Sure, Gavin said. How could I resist the glories of Jesus Land?

Thomas paused. Keep it down, he said. Mariela believes.

She’s young, Gavin said. Give her time.

For a while they were silent until Thomas said Gavin looked pale and asked if he wanted water. He did. His shirt was too soaked to take off his suit jacket. The park was now mobbed with thousands of people. Even at ten pesos apiece, Gavin thought, Tierra Santa must make money. It wasn’t as if they paid licensing fees to the Vatican.

Gavin slurped the warm water at the fountain until his gut ached, then splashed his face and head and slicked back his hair. Thomas and Mariela drank and then they all walked the perimeter of the park. Gavin recognized the Wailing Wall. His Jewish friends, even the secular ones, had raved for years about their trips to Israel, and the warmth, community, and pride they felt in their homeland, their birthright. He had often been tempted to accept their invitations to travel to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. But then a suicide bomber would blow up a bus or Hamas would lob rockets over the border and he’d lose his nerve. Maybe Tierra Santa was the closest he would ever get to the Holy Land.

At the wall, Gavin saw the woman again, the beauty with the basket. He told Thomas he’d be right back and went and tapped her on the shoulder. She turned and they traded awkward smiles while he hunted for words. It was not just a language problem. He was clueless in English, too. She held out her basket, filled with paper slips, and explained he was supposed to write a prayer and stick it in the wall. She pointed to people stuffing paper into the cracks between the rocks. Oh, this was her job. Maybe she could give him a private tour of the park? He took a sheet from the basket. She handed him a pencil and their fingers touched. He told her his name; she said hers was Luna.

Like the moon, Gavin said. But before he could say more, something tugged his leg.

Come on, Mariela said. We’re going to Golgotha.

Que linda, Luna said. Is she your daughter?

Gavin tried to explain, but then Thomas appeared and joked with Luna in Spanish too fast and slang for him to follow. Luna said she had to get back to work and before Gavin could stop her, she had gone and left him with a pencil.

Gavin took a cigarette from his pocket and flicked his thumb in the air to ask Thomas for a light but his friend shook his head. Really? The guy used to smoke in the shower. Gavin looked around until he saw an old man with a cigar and bummed a match. In the distance, the Hallelujah chorus started again, followed by the roar of applause. Thomas opened his backpack and gave Mariela a pad and some markers. He pointed to the palm tree and told her to go draw for a while. She hesitated and then scurried away.

Luna like the moon, Gavin said.

Isn’t New York filled with beautiful women?

Yea, Gavin said. In the movies.

You’re a lawyer. She works in an amusement park.

What? I’m egalitarian.

Thomas took Gavin’s cigarette, took a drag, coughed and passed it back, as if he had done something illegal. Gavin glanced over his shoulder and saw Mariela slash the paper with her markers, head down. She lifted her head when she saw them approach her and held up her drawing: a giant Jesus floating over a mountain, palms turned up, arms spread. Then she ripped the page from the pad and offered Gavin the sheet. He said thanks, but it would get crushed in his suitcase. Mariela’s lip wobbled. Before she could pitch a fit, Gavin said he was joking. Mariela smiled and said he should hang the picture on his refrigerator. She was a perfect little missionary.

Gavin folded the drawing and put it his pocket. He was tired and hot and wanted to leave. He could feel his inbox filling up with messages. They followed signs to the Via Dolorosa and waited in line behind a tall, fit couple with Swiss crosses sewn to their backpacks. The wife dabbed her face with a handkerchief while the husband studied a guidebook. Gavin checked the crowd for Basket Girl, but she was nowhere to be found. And tomorrow he’d be on the plane with his depositions, and then back to the cold and snow.

They reached the base of Golgotha, as tall as a real mountain. Thomas told Mariela to tie her shoes and they began the climb. The crowd was thick and Gavin walked, elbows out, as if he was crossing the Times Square station, between the Shuttle and the 2/3 lines. The path wound around the mountain, too steep for his lungs. Every few minutes Gavin saw life-sized statues of Jesus on the road to death, the Stations of the Cross. Jesus falls. He says goodbye to Mary. A disciple carries His cross. A woman wipes sweat and blood from His face. He falls again. He meets a group of women. He falls a third time. Gavin felt nauseated, as if he might fall. His eyes saw plastic and paint, but his stomach saw flesh and blood. He wanted to turn back, but the crowd behind him was too thick. Via Dolorosa was a one-way street. He swallowed and forced his legs forward. The sun burned his neck and his pants stuck to his thighs. The path narrowed. Mariela whined that she couldn’t see over people’s heads. Thomas lifted her on his shoulders and every so often her sneakers bumped Gavin’s arm. He told Thomas to go ahead while he caught his breath. Moments later, the Swiss guy asked if he’d take a photo of him and his wife.

We’re newlyweds, he said in English. This is our honeymoon.

Before Gavin could refuse, the camera was in his hand and the Swiss couple was posing, arm in arm, backs to the mountain. Gavin framed the shot and then he saw him: A bearded guy, bloody and thin, with a crown of thorns, hanging from two planks of wood, the real Roman T-shape, not the plus sign you see in churches and necklaces.  Jesus of Nazareth. King of the Jews. The Swiss guy squeezed his wife’s thigh and she giggled and he nibbled her neck, as if they were on the beach in Belize. Gavin pressed the button, once, twice, then handed back the camera. A moment later, his stomach seized and he fell down and retched in the dust.

He lay there for a while until his phone rang. Martín was the last call he wanted to take. But he knew that his firm would use any misstep as an excuse not to make him a partner, especially in the recession. And after seven years in the stables, three meals a day at his desk, depositions in every minor American city from Detroit to Fort Worth, seven years of work with no chance at a real romantic relationship --he deserved that job.           

So Gavin wiped puke from his lips and dust from his pants and answered. The reception was worse than his Phone Spanish so he had to shout. Pilgrims gathered to stare and then a centurion approached and said phones were forbidden on the Via Dolorosa. Gavin held up a finger and told Martín he’d call him back in ten minutes.

We need you now, Martín said. The witness changed his testimony.

Then the centurion grabbed his wrist. Gavin squirmed and told him to let go or he’d sue the armor off his body. But he didn’t really know how to say it in Spanish and the guard looked more confused than angry. Martín asked who was shouting. Gavin said he was visiting a friend and when Martín didn’t reply, he added: a sick friend.

The line went quiet. The crowd tightened. Gavin saw Thomas and Mariela fight their way down the hill. Meanwhile, on the phone, Martín said get a taxi and hurry before the partners found out and they were both in trouble, re copado?

Gavin spat on the ground. Yea, he said. Everything’s cool.

Thomas arrived and argued for a while with the centurion. The crowd lost interest in the scuffle and dissolved.

I need a taxi, Gavin said.

Thomas crossed his arms. We just got here, he said.

It’s an emergency. 

What, an earthquake? A tsunami?

We depose our witness tomorrow and then I go straight to the airport.

Thomas looked at his watch. So I get one hour, he said. 

I’ll visit again, Gavin said.

Sure you will, Thomas said. In another ten years. At least you used to answer my letters. Now I get a two-line email once a year whenever you’re stuck at the airport.

Come to New York. I’ll buy your ticket.

Thomas laughed, short and hard and bitter. Blessed are the poor, he said. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to Heaven.

I’m not rich, Gavin said. And we can’t all live in the ghetto and write poems. 

Go to hell, Thomas said and stepped closer, his breath loud and hot. He looked like a malnourished swan. Gavin could floor him with a punch. But then what? The centurion would haul him away and he’d miss his deposition and get fired and beg to work at a pathetic law firm that advertised on the subway. No. He fought with his mouth.

For a while the two friends stared at each other: The gringo and the expatriate baby daddy, the suburban kids who drove their parents’ cars in circles until they escaped. Then the phone rang again. Gavin stared at the lump of plastic that ruled his life.

Let it go, Thomas said.           

Gavin would. But Martín would call back. And then he’d call again. But before he could reply, Thomas swiped his phone and the dream snapped.

Give it back, Gavin said.

Thomas pointed at the sign: Aviso: Se Prohiben Teléfonos Móviles. Gavin felt his chest tighten. He counted to ten in his head: forward, then backward.

Look at you, Thomas said. You’re an addict.

Gavin paused and then lunged for the phone, but before he could reach, Thomas had passed it to Mariela. The girl looked at him, then back at her father, confused. Gavin could pry open her fingers in two seconds. Instead, he knelt in the dirt so their eyes met at her level. People slowed to watch.

Hey, he said. What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

Dulce de Leche, Mariela said 

Give me the phone and I’ll buy you one. Two scoops.

Her eyes shone. Gavin stayed on his knees as pilgrims flowed around him, as if he were a blown tire in the highway. Then the phone rang and Mariela shrieked and threw it where it ricocheted off a statue of Jesus and then tumbled to the ground. Gavin scrambled through the dust to pick up the phone. He wiped dirt from the face and saw a crack in the plastic and a blank screen. He pressed every button on the keypad, then removed the battery and snapped it back into place. Nothing.  He held the phone like a piece of evidence, too angry to speak. Thomas offered money from his wallet, but Gavin raised his hands and let the bills fall. The two friends stood still like two gunfighters as the wind swirled and the pesos fluttered like confetti.

Then the Handel started again, but louder. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Something rumbled and the mountaintop opened, as if a missile were about to launch. First Gavin saw the hair, then the eyes and then the bearded face. Mariana squealed and clapped and now he understood her drawing.

Jesus rose slow and steady from the mountain: First, his face, then his shoulders and torso. He was 15 or 20 stories tall, in a white robe with a heart painted on his chest. Thomas put his arm on Gavin’s shoulder and they stood and watched the giant statue rise. His mechanical eyes blinked. His mechanical palms waved. His electric heart glowed. Absurd, yes, tacky, yes, but Gavin’s arms prickled. Thomas made the sign of the cross. Mariela did, too. Then she looked at Gavin.

Your turn, she said.

Leave him alone, Thomas said.

He has to, she said. It’s Jesus.

Gavin felt as if the entire park was watching him. He looked at his friend and his daughter, and then at the dead cell phone in his hand. Martín had probably called ten more times. He put the phone in his pocket and as he lifted his right hand his fingers trembled as if he had Parkinson’s disease. Tierra Santa was fake. But it was no less real than the church of his childhood. It was no less real than the Vatican, where his mother had brought him in the Year of the Jubilee to hear the Pope: his sagging skin and white hat splayed on a screen bigger than any movie theater or sports arena, while an invisible interpreter translated the Pontiff’s Polish mumbles into lucid English and Italian, while thousands of international pilgrims of all ages, shapes, and colors –teenagers in Boy Scout uniforms, crippled and deformed children and adults in wheelchairs, and newlyweds in tuxedos and gowns— waited for the Pope’s blessing. Tierra Santa was no less real than the subway preachers, the Hasidim who read Talmud on the J/M/Z, the Muslims with incense for sale in the stalls on Atlantic Avenue, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their headquarters in Brooklyn by the ice cream stand and the brick oven pizzeria. It was no less real than the Biblical scene in the desert where Moses asks Yahweh his name and the God of Israel replies: I am What I Am. That was Tierra Santa. It was what it was.

His right hand wavered, then moved from his forehead to chest, then left, right, and down: In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. For the first time in his life, the Sign of the Cross felt like an act of will, not obedience, a choice, not an instinct, movements not motions. As the Trinity lingered in his mind, he pondered the paradox of polytheism as monotheism, the mystery of three gods in one, or why, when there was already God and His Son, there even needed to be a Holy Spirit. Then he felt a pull at his sleeve and turned to see Mariela smiling and pointing at the giant Jesus, now descending into the heart of the mountain, his torso and head slowly disappearing until at last the plastic peak slid and covered his plastic halo. When he saw Thomas take Mariela by the hand, Gavin took her other hand, tiny and warm. As they walked together in silence toward the park exit, a voice over the loudspeaker announced –in Spanish clear enough for Gavin to understand -that the next Resurrection would be in 15 minutes.  

 

BIO

KEITH MEATTO is a writer, editor, and teacher in New York. His fiction publications include ArtificeHarpur Palate, and Opium. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York TimesThe ForwardThe Millions, and elsewhere. He is the editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist, where he writes about music and books. A Yale College graduate with an MFA from the New School, he teaches writing at LIM College and Marymount Manhattan College.