Father Delgato

[Set somewhere in a USA east coast barrio.]
Si, si, I knew Father Delgato, some twenty years. But he was here long before that, you know? When this barrio was new, he came then. You ask the old people, they remember. Maybe thirty years back it was. Even twenty years ago this was a different barrio. Different south side, too. Better or worse, I dunno. People was poorer then, maybe more chances today. But back then people was more honest, and less in a hurry. Well, times change, no? Them times gone. An’ priests like Father Delgato, them gone, too.

You know that church on 4th? Si, si…that one all closed up now. That was his. Long time back that was something. Everybody went. Mass, weddings, baptism, funerals, you know. But then, kinda slow like, it died off. Times change. Father Delgato used to hold the Mass anyway. Necesscito, comprendi? Only some of the old people went though. I know, I used to bring my mother. God rest her.

But when I was a kid we’d go every Sunday. Father Delgato, his Mass, easy to understand. Simple stories, simple Spanish. Was just a kid, but even I knew his meaning: some things is right, so do it, an’ some things ain’t, so don’t. My mother, god rest her, said he was a genuino padre. I didn’t know what that meant. Now I do.

All the barrio kids in them days, a couple of times a week, we’d play soccer behind the church. You know that parking lot for the convenience store? Si, si, that used to be a grass yard, part of the church. Now kids don’t care nothing for soccer, just wanna play the video and computer games. But we lived for that. And Father Delgato, he used to play, too. If he was your goalie, you were safe, nobody got nothin’ past him. Real fast, just like his name, you know?

You know my son Orlando’s in the community college now? Only reason he made it was ’cause of Father Delgato! I tell you – in high school, that’s 4 years back, Orlando was getting’ into something bad. Failing the English, failing the maths. I thought, Oh god!, he’ll end up on the streets sellin’ the drugs, or maybe, at best, just a janitor like his father. No estoy de acuerdo! I went up to that school – just habla, habla, habla. No help. They say, too many kids, no enough teachers. All that. What can I do? I went to Father Delgato. Then, every night for months, he come up to my apartment, showed Orlando the English, the maths. Teached the boy chess, too.

Too old to play soccer but still playin’ for god.

You know, every morning I sweep up in front of the building, an’ these last few years I always see Father Delgato walkin’ down to the shelter, over on 10th. Got to be a habit seeing him, say hola. Made me feel good.

I always sez, “Padre, Buenos Dias! Que tal?”

He wave his hand like that – don’t matter – an’ sez, “Estoy bien!” Then, fast-like, he look at you real good an’ sez, “Pablo, y usted?”

That old man, these 30 years on the barrio, he seen everything, knew everybody. All the families, the working people, the homeless people down to the shelter, even all the hookers an’ dealers over on 10th.

When Father Delgato look at you, he knew you.

Nothing would surprise Padre . I remember some young one moved into this building – ’bout 20, 2 kids, no husband, on the welfare. Now, Padre always used to say hello to anybody new ’round here. Say, I’m the padre here, that’s my church on 4th, you welcome to come; you need something, I’ll try my best. She answer the door, Padre sez hola. She just look at us like we crazy, an’ then sez, “I’m not Catholic!” an’ slams the door in our faces.

I was angry, but not Padre. He just shrugged and sez, “Sometimes you so lost you don’t know you need help.” He took his card an’ wrote he was lo siento for coming at a bad time an’ put it in her mailbox.

Maybe it was things like that that made him stop wearing his black pries clothes, no? These last years he just dress like anybody else. I always thought he look like a gardener.

Si, si, I’m the janitor in this building, fix things, too. That was why Padre asked me to go down to the shelter sometimes. It’s just volunteers, the government don’t give nada. Mucho habla, that’s all.

Eh, you know that alotta people down to the shelter didn’t even know Father Delgato was our priest? Once I heard him say hola like this, “Me Iiamo Luiz”. Some of them whores they called him Louie!

One Saturday I was down the shelter trying to fix the light in the hallway, an’ this woman sez to me am I Louie’s son? Maybe ’cause I never knew my real papa, I felt happy to think Padre was my father. Anyway, I sez no, he’s our priest, 4th ave. church. She looked shocked an’ sez, “Eh, Louie’s a priest?!” I sez , yeah. She sez, “I never seen no priest like him before!” I thought that was funny: what does hookers know about priest? I sez, “How many priests you met?” She was laughing then, an’ sez, “None, but I seen lots on t.v.!” I sez, “Well, you seen a real one now!”

Si, si, it was two days ago. We was all down to the shelter, big painting an’ fixin’ job. Took all day. We didn’t even start cleanin’ up till past ten. You know, I think Padre was always happiest fixin’ something. Once joking I sez, “Eh, Padre, you happier with a bible or a hammer?” He sez, “Neither – give me a paintbrush!” A strong old man.

It was late an’ we was walkin’ back. He looked a little tired, but mucho happy. So I sez, “Padre, let me buy you a cup of coffee.” We went into Coffee Times, over on 9th. That place ain’t too good, ‘specially at night, if you know what I mean, but it was closest. So we went.

That time of night, Coffee always crowded up with night people: you got hookers, dealers, truckers, third-shifters. Anyway, ‘fore we even sit down, three people say hello to Padre. ‘Course he starts chatttin’ with this an’ that one – I’m 20 years younger but exhausted from paintin’ an’ fixin’ all day, but he’s askin’ some skinny drug addict where he livin’ now, an’ some hooker ’bout her baby. Mucho bien man.

It was getting near 12:30 so most of them people was driftin’ out. I was glad ’cause soon as one stop chewin’ Padre’s ear, another one come an’ sit down. Midnight confessions at Coffee Times, no? It was always like that with Padre – if he was in an airplane he’d make it slow down to ask some bird flyin’ by if it was cold. If the bird sez yes, Padre give him his coat.

Anyway, I don’t want to butt in, the old man was so happy. After listen’ to their problems, give some advice and good words, telling ’bout the free lunch down to the shelter, new jobs posted at the unemployment office, or anything else he thought importanto, he sez, “When you visit the shelter, notice that new paint job. Pablo and myself did that!” Then he slap me on the shoulder. He was as proud as if it were his own casa.

We was almost through with the confessions. Padre had another cup of coffee and a plain doughnut. He wouldn’t let me pay for that. He always had his coffee black, no cream or sugar, said life could be sweet enough without them. He told me once that those simple brown doughnuts reminded him of when he was a boy in Brazil. It’s only after that you remember things like that, no?

Anyway, then, kinda shy-like, this young hooker come over an’ sit down. I thought, great god, another one. I order two more coffees, an’ pay when Padre wasn’t lookin’.

She was just a kid. Maybe 18…19 if you wanna lie. I think she was a runaway, an’ new to being a whore, too. She really didn’t have no hard look to her.You know? She just look afraid.

I wasn’t surprised that Padre somehow knew her. He called her Poquito. She start tellin’ him, sometimes lookin’ at him, sometimes lookin’ down into the coffe cup, what’s goin’ on with her. I couldn’t follow too good. She was kinda whisperin’, and speakin’ that neuve Espanol. But Padre could understand anybody. Didn’t need no language.

Then she starts cryin’. Big, hot tears drippin’ down. I tell you, seein’ that girl like that I felt awful. Had to look away for a moment not to cry myself! But Padre was calm like always. Handed her a napkin from the counter.

Then he sez like this, “Eh, Poquito, maybe this trajbajo you got no good.” He waited a minute. She was lookin’ down. Then when she nodded, he sez “Me y amigo Pablo know people. Video store, grocery, all places. New trabajo, bien?”

Her chest was goin’ up an’ down real quiet like. Then she sez, “Mucho bien!” an’ start cryin’ again. Jesus help me, I had tears in my eyes now.

Then Padre nods to me, puts his arm around Poquito, and stands her up. We walks her home, an’ at the door he sez, “No work tonight! Manana, you come see my amigo Pablo. Comprendi?” She sez, “Si, comprende, Padre.”

We walked back, didn’t say nada. It was real black now, but still hot. When I left Padre at the church door I sez, “What if she don’t come?”

Padre put his hand on my shoulder, that strong, old hand, an’ sez, “She’ll come, Pablo.”

She did, ’bout 9:30 in the mornin’. I was sweepin’ up like always, an’ up walks Poquito! I tell you, I was glad to god she came. I walked her over to Gino’s bakery over on 6th. I sez, “Eh, Gino, do the Father an’ me a favor, give my friend Poquito a chance!”

Gino, he’s good people. Got two kids himself. Gino he know what’s what. He look at Poquito an’ sez, “You had a job before?”

She sez, “No. But I’ll work hard!” Looked Gino right in the eye; that was good. An’ spoke the right English, too.

Gino kinda scratches his beard like he thinkin’ it over. I tell you the truth, I was prayin’ in my heart. Then he sez, “Ok, for the Father an’ Pablo, you got a job!”

I wanted to hug Gino, but I just smiled an’ said some good word, he wouldn’t be sorry, like that. Then he gave Poquito some forms to fill out. I had to help her a bit with that.

She was smilin’ like she won a million bucks! Poor kid, just a clerk job to make her happy!If it works out, maybe I can get her off that ghetto street she live on. Maybe a place open in my building in a month or two. Quien sabe? God willing.

I was leavin’ an’ Poquito was puttin’ on a apron, an’ Gino sez, “Eh, Pablo, you tell Padre I said hola!”

Si, si… I never got to do that. Died that night. In his sleep, the doctor sez. Very peaceful he went. God rest him.

Jesus help me, I’m cryin’ again.

February 8th, 2004 by