Beto sat in the convent basement and watched the Space Shuttle Challenger explode over the Atlantic Ocean and rain down million-dollar space trash. He watched the CNN live feed with his class on a black-and-white Magnavox that he had helped wheel from the rectory across the playground for Sister Viramona. Thinh Nyguen and Chris Chavez pressed their fingers to the screen, announcing solid rocket boosters here and fuselage there until seventy-three seconds into it when everything space-aged burst into a pitched-fork column of smoke and indistinguishable super-plastic parts. While the other kids huddled together in front of the television, Beto sat in the back of the room, his feet propped up on the desk. He held the remote control out in front of his body in a way that suggested he might’ve masterminded the whole thing, right there from Continuation Catholic Development camp.
“Say something,” he commanded the television with escalating ticks of volume as the telecast fell silent. “Man oh man, did you see that? That was something else. There are special effects and then there are special effects.”
Sister Viramona pushed Beto’s feet off the desk and took the controller. “I expect more from you. Especially you.”
“I’m sorry, Sister, but did you see that thing all blown apart to smithereens?”
Sister Viramona grabbed Beto’s arm and directed him to stand with the other children who had all come together to make a circle in the prayer room, under the large crucifix that filled the space on the far wall from floor to ceiling.
“That’s a giant-ass Jesus,” exclaimed Beto.
Thinh Nyguen nodded in agreement.
Sister Viramona passed out a prayer book to each child with very specific instructions on how to pray at a time like this. She said it was a sad time in history and that all of the children would remember this day forever. “We need to say a prayer for the families that suffered a great loss today.”
Beto leaned back on his legs to get a look at the television. He tapped on Chris Chavez’s shoulder to get his attention, “Check it. Space trash takes a long time to fall.” He watched the looping footage of the shuttle breaking apart into a fireball that seemed to eat up everything inside itself before spreading outward across the sky. He was surprised every time the shuttle took flight, that it did the same thing over and over again, anticipating its destruction, each time with a great Whoa! “I bet it’s ten-thousand degrees in that cockpit.”
Some of the kids continued to sniffle and cry softly. Giant-ass Jesus has that effect on the little ones, Beto thought. “What are you crying about?” He addressed two girls holding hands. “You didn’t know no one on that rocket ship.”
“That’s enough, young man. And when we’re done here, we are gonna have a little talk.”
He inhaled deeply Sister Viramona’s lavender scent as she walked back to change the channel. Little bolts of blue static shot from under her polyester robe as it dragged along the carpet. “You don’t smell like a nun,” said Beto. “You smell like the perfume my mom used to wear when she she’d go out dancing.”
“I don’t wear perfume. And I don’t appreciate…”
“You wear makeup, too. I can see it, right there. It’s not as much as my mom used to wear. It would take her almost an hour sometimes to get her eyebrows just right.” Beto clasped his hands in prayer and bowed his head. “It looks tight on you, though.” Beto concentrated on the last image he had of his mother. Her hair arched high in a great wave. He had buried his face in her chest to say goodbye, and the glitter from her lotion stayed on his cheeks the entire weekend. Beto thought she resembled the caged naked woman in the oil lamp that hung over the far end of the couch for most of his life. They both had wide hips and sparkled. The bars of the cage were set at an angle so droplets of hot oil could run down in a spiral, evenly spaced and lighted by a red bulb.
Sister Viramona wore soft hints of makeup that he had never seen on a nun before. That’s the only reason he had mentioned it. Beto had never seen such a pretty, young looking nun. She looked as young as some of the high school girls who lived three doors down from his grandparents. Her habit cupped the edge of her face and forced the flesh around her lips into a pucker. She was attractive, much like the makeup counter girls at the Pico Rivera Towne Center. They were the same height. He noticed their hands were the same size, hers matching evenly over the top of his as she dragged him to the prayer room. They were soft baking hands, always in oil and corn flour, and unlike the other nuns’ hands, the old nuns who looked like the stocking dolls he had made for the craft fair, potato faces and pinto bean eyes. Their hands were callused stumps from spending so much time in the church garden pulling up crab grass and daffodils. No, Sister Viramona was the freshest nun he had ever seen and was someone he might consider inviting out for a game of bones with his boys. When the other kids Our Fathered, Beto repeated in his head, You are the prettiest, you are the prettiest, to Sister Viramona, then he prayed that she had somehow gotten the message.
“I don’t know what you are up to, but you better take a moment young man to realize there is no room for your actions,” said Sister Viramona.
“The Space Shuttle don’t blow up every day, Sister,” answered Beto, “I know peoples died, but peoples die.”
“You scare the other kids, you know. They look up to you because you are older.”
“Eleven years old ain’t old,” said Beto. “Someday they’ll be all baptized up like me.”
“Who used that word, baptized?”
Beto pointed to giant-ass Jesus across the room. “Baptized by fire,” said Beto, “Just like them, all burned up.” Beto tapped on the screen and counted down the seconds until the shuttle vaporized for the twentieth time that morning. “Right there, see that. It’s the metal box that holds all the astronauts. Falls any faster and there’ll be a mile of dead fish in the ocean before it slows down.”
Sister Viramona shook her head at his response.
Beto turned his attention away from the television to a collection of crows outside the classroom window. Crow after crow dipped into the church garden, heads pecking at felled tomatoes like it was some kind of game. They were on the convent roof that stretched around the courtyard to the rectory. They flew out from the garden and landed on the telephone wires. They cawed and pecked at the plumage that rose from their backs in blue-black mohawks. It were as if they were taunting Beto, who could do nothing but watch their growing numbers from inside.
Beto karate kicked the curtains and banged on the window before unplugging the television. He pushed it back across the playground, past Father Lynch, who smoked a cigar and played kickball with some of the children, ash swirling around and on them like some sort of blessing. He pushed the television up the back ramp into the living room of the rectory, and lined up the wheels with the divots already cut into the carpet. He plugged everything back into the outlets and turned it on. This time there was no footage of the Shuttle, only a picture of a woman he had seen on the news for the last few months. She was the teacher, Christa McAuliffe. Under her image it read, First female teacher in Space. Beto looked around to comment to someone that she never actually made it into space, but the rectory was silent. The entire Challenger crew had their picture on the television. One looked like Sulu from Star Trek. Another, Issac from the Love Boat. When CNN came back to McAuliffe’s picture, planned in parenthesis had been added to her title. He felt relieved knowing NASA wouldn’t be sending Carmelite nuns into the space program anytime soon. The newscast said that it was possible that the crew could still be alive, that the cabin of the shuttle was made of reinforced aluminum and could handle a significant amount of G-force. Beto thought about the time he had ripped a Coke can in half in one try then shut off the television.
The morning’s excitement had driven a hunger stake through Beto’s stomach. “Gotta get me some eats.” He remembered the altar boys telling him after serving mass on Sundays, how they had to stock the Christ crackers. He knew what these were. Beto grew up going to mass with his grandparents. This was so his mom could get away for a while, take her trips to visit her cousins in Monterey Park, when she’d go dancing all night at Peppers. He’d go to mass those weekends and be amazed every time that Father Lynch reached into the chalice after the consecration, that there were enough pieces of Christ’s body for everyone to get their fill, like some kind of magic trick. Every time, he thought that Sunday would be the Sunday they’d run out of Christ. It never happened. The more people who came to the front, the more pieces the Father held in front of his face reciting, The body of Christ. But it made sense now, standing in the rectory storeroom, there on the shelf in a cardboard box, Jesus, wrapped all up in wax paper like a Ritz.
He rubbed his sweaty palms against his jeans and opened the package’s seam at one end. The hosts appeared like a roll of gold coins, each with a cross on one side in relief. Beto pulled one cracker out and hesitated then put it deep into the back of his mouth, half-expecting his head to explode. Instead, he felt a slow dissolve on his tongue, and a wood-like taste that he surprisingly did not mind. Jesus dried Beto’s mouth all up, and when the good Lord started to stick to the roof of Beto’s mouth, wine did the trick to help pry Him out.
He couldn’t wait to tell his boys. He would stand in baggy-pants on the corner and his boys would say, you did what? And Beto would respond, that’s right, putos. And when they called him “crazy-ass Beto,” he’d do his best to act as though the next thing didn’t happen. He wouldn’t mention how the scent of vanilla mixed with lavender from around the corner filled his head, or that he never expected act like a girl the way he did after spilling a box of red wine down the front of Sister Viramona’s robe. It froze the nun in place. He could tell that she was using all her divine interventions to stop the words coming from her mouth, a hundred different responses broken up into fractured syllables that floated and fell on Beto like scorched space-trash.
“Why in God’s name do you do these things, Beto?”
He shrugged, “It just takes over sometimes.”
“Beto, I think you are talking about the devil,” she corrected him while drying herself with Kleenex from her pockets. “What do you expect from life, acting the way you do?”
His mom would ask him the same question when he’d get in trouble at home, usually for coming home late from Cabrillo Beach. He gave her the same answer he always gave his mother, “To take over the World.”
“Great, we have ourselves a super-villain.”
He liked the sound of that, and fist pumped.
Sister Viramona shook her head and told him that he just needed a clean slate and that his next confession might very well be his longest. She told him that he would be spending a late afternoon at the convent cleaning the largest Jesus in the World as the first act of penance before a sit down with Father Lynch.
“I have to get cleaned up. Come with me because I don’t want you out of my sight for too long.”
Beto had already had his first and last confession. The confessional always smelled like old Mexican women, incense and bacon grease. And you know, that sour body odor. They were the ones who went to confession most often. He wondered what old women did to warrant going to confession once a week. Then he remembered Mrs. Mendoza. Mrs. Mendoza had taught first grade to three generations of his family. She was the oldest teacher in the school district when she retired at dinosaur. On Thursday nights, she chased Mr. Mendoza down the block with the family molcajete. Thursday night was the night he came home drunk and only spoke of pretty girls named Lola. Everyone knew this. Go ahead and ask. And after the couple attended mass and confession on Sunday, all was forgiven. Just like that. Beto watched them on those Sundays as they walked out after mass, hand in hand, laughing like the school children. He knew confession worked. So, as long as the confessional did not shift and fly like the Swirl-n-Whirl amusement park ride at the Santa Monica Pier, Beto felt okay about some small talk inside. He threw up two years in a row on the Swirl-n-Whirl. His mother had yelled at him for wasting good money on churros and hotdogs. She told him they would never come back to the pier because, after all she has done for him, including giving up streamlined hips to bring him into the World, that he was becoming the kind of boy who would have to make his own way into manhood. That was a week before she died in the rollover on the 60, driving home from Peppers with her girls, like some kind of stupid motherly lesson.
Beto stood in the hall while Sister Viramona changed into new clothes.
“You know, Beto, you’re lucky no one else is here.” She walked out from the bedroom and pulled her black straight hair into a plastic clip. “Because I’d get in trouble for not having another habit to wear.” She had on navy sweatpants and a 1972 Sacred Heart Volleyball sweatshirt. “I didn’t plan on you pouring wine on me.”
Beto’s body felt like a firecracker, his spine the lit fuse to a head that was going to jettison at any moment. He swallowed hard. “Nuns play sports?”
“They actually play four years on varsity.”
Beto stepped closer to her. “My mom went to that school.”
“I know she did, Beto. Stay here, and I’ll get the supplies you’ll need.” She walked into the kitchen.
The crows were back, darting from the roof again into the remains of the garden. Beto pointed out the crows’ tactics to Sister Viramona as she reentered the room, tracing their flight patterns overhead with his index finger against the large bay window. “See how they look out for each other? It’s a damn stupid thing, those crows.”
“You missed them this morning, Sister. It was just like that movie The Birds. You watch. I bet Father Lynch goes crazy and machetes those birds someday. That’ll be a day to remember for the parish, sister. Every year there will have a parade. I wouldn’t blame him. If they poked around in my trash, I’d do the same thing.”
Half dozen crows danced in the middle of the street with a ripped apart, unripe tomato.
She placed her hand on Beto’s shoulder. “You know that I didn’t know her.”
Beto nodded as she handed him a bottle of lemon oil and two rags made from t-shirts from the last year the Dodgers made it to the post season, a cartoon version of catcher Steve Yeager leaning on a large-headed cartoon version of Fernando Valenzuela. Beto had the same shirt and was excited to mention it, but thought twice. He took the rags from her hands, again feeling the softness of her touch.
You’re the prettiest, he tried one last time.
She let go, and for the first time Beto could smell the real air in the convent, no vanilla or lavender. Only lemon oil and the musty convent rot of a building that had trapped moisture problems.
Sister Viramona bent at her waist to get a good look at Beto. He tightened his body like a statue, and through the slits in his eyelids, he watched as she ran her finger between the top of her head and the plastic band, pulling her hairline tight. She squeezed his arms to undo his spell. Her warm breath on his face pried his eyes open like oysters.
“Beto, there is a time and place for everything,” she told him.
These words, time and place, sounded like something he’d expect an adult to tell him.
“Time and place for what?” asked Beto.
“Taking over the world.” She turned him around to face the prayer room, and whispered across the back of his neck. “And falling in love.”
Beto balled up his fists and shadow boxed his image against the wall. “Man, oh man, watch out, watch out.”
“The Lord won’t let you off so easy.” Sister Viramona lined up the cleaning supplies on the counter and walked to the back of the convent.
Beto mumbled as she turned the corner out of the kitchen. “I’m gonna need me a good woman, you know.”
The only thing left to do was clean that giant Jesus all up. He scrubbed between each toe, both calve muscles, the knees and behind each thigh. He cleaned the concave of the stomach and gently over the cut below the ribcage, looking to Jesus’ face to measure His pain. Beto moved to the chest and under each arm, where he spent a considerable amount of time measuring the biceps. “Boy, you all ripped up.” Down each arm to the nail in each palm. He used WD-40 on any part that looked metallic and moveable. He didn’t miss a finger, then under the chin and behind each ear. It looked as though it was the first time this Jesus had been cleaned. The water in the pail was black. With a life-sized crown, he was careful not to cut himself on the already bloodied thorns as he leaned in from the top step of the ladder.
When he finished, Beto put the rags and oil under the sink in the kitchen. He didn’t know if it was where they belonged, but it was where his mother had kept such things. Sister Viramona was in her room at the end of the hall. She hadn’t told him to check with her before leaving. He could hear music coming from her far room, a popular song he knew from the radio. He wanted to go down to her, to let her know he was no mistake. The shadows in her room flickered and the music grew louder. The other nuns were off on retreat. Beto thought about the first time he was alone at home, back when his mother had to work two full-time jobs. He spent the evening practicing the dance moves she had shown him from the club. He ate ketchup and pickle sandwiches, turning the television volume to fifty and running around the empty house at full-speed, stopping for no one.
Bryan Allen Fierro grew up in the environs of Los Angeles, California. He received his B.A. in English-Writing from the University of Colorado at Denver, and his M.F.A. in fiction from Pacific University’s low-residency program in Oregon. He currently lives in Anchorage, Alaska where he serves his community as a firefighter/paramedic for the Anchorage Fire Department. He is the 2013 recipient of the Poet and Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award in fiction.