I sat comfortably in the sunlit square in front of the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, resting before I fulfilled my promise and undertook, one last time, the task I’d come here to do.
It was then that the old man appeared. Clad in blue jeans, a dusty gray shirt and a white cowboy hat, he hobbled slowly into the square with the help of an intricately carved cane. His back was bent and his head permanently thrust forward, vulture-like, by some crookedness in his neck bones.
He stopped, looking at me through a mist of cataracts. I shifted sideways on the bench, making room for him to sit down. He did so, slowly and with a deep sigh.
There we sat in silence, listening to the whir of humming bird wings and the soft song of the wind among the cottonwood leaves.
“It’s bin a long time since I wuz here,” he said. “But I still come when I can git myself outta the house. I come here to remember.” He wiped his mouth and looked slowly sideways to gauge my interest. “But a young dude like you wouldn’ want ter hear an old man’s story – you’ll be itchin’ to git away someplace.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I told him. “This is where I was headed. I’ve arrived.”
He took this as I meant it, an invitation to launch into his story. A chance for me to sit and think some more before I completed my task, closed a door and moved on with my life. His story unwound slowly over the next half hour, punctuated with long pauses when his breath came hard.
“It wuz some thirty year ago I met her. I weren’t young even then, and neither wuz she. She worked at a campground nearby, just outside of Albuquerque; I wuz a ranch hand in them days, an’ I traveled round from job to job, jist passin’ through this place an’ that, all over the state.
“Her hair wuz yellow, like yours, young man. Color o’ butter, I thought, but she called it “flaxen” like in them fairy stories she told to the kids round the fire at the campground. It wuz long enough fer her to sit on, an’ she wore it in one long, thick braid right down the middle of her back. It swung like a bell rope when she walked, swayin’, swayin’ with ev’ry step. Jist think, I never saw her hair hanging loose, that would’ve bin quite a sight, now! It would’ve bin like a golden curtain!
“She used ter come here ter sweep out this chapel; not that it wuz her job, like, she jist did it becos she wanted to, outta love, as a sort of a prayer, a sorta gift to the Lady of Guadalupe – folks aroun’ here hold that Lady in high regard y’know. An’ so that’s how this place has always bin looked after, by folks who do it jist because they wanna keep it nice, jist for the love o’ the place an’ the Lady. I sat here an’ watched her sweepin’, wi’ that flaxen braid swingin’ in time to the brush strokes like a long ole bell pull.
“That summer, thirty year back, we spen’ just five days togither; five perfict days. We hiked out into the hills; looked for the flowers she loved so much; poked in packrat middens; watched for turkeys; found plenty of them Indian rock paintings in hidden places. We listened to the crickets; we waded in the crick; I played my ole penny whistle for her by the campfire at night: we did all them sorts of things you do when you’re a young man an’ in love with a purty girl. But the best thing about her – well mebbe not the best,” with a twinkle in his eye, “But one o’ the best, wuz the way we would talk, like I never talked to no one before. She talked about anythin’ and everythin’ and her talkin’ wuz like singin’, kinda low and sweet and purty. I found myself joinin’ in, like I wuz the harmony - a bit deeper, a bit scratchy, but meant to be there, fittin’ right in as if we wuz made to be together.
“We talked about the past and things to come. We talked about families, hopes, plans, happiness and sad things. We wuz like two li’l lovebirds in a tree, chatter, chatter, chatter and it all meant so much becos it wuz her and me, and it didn’t matter what it meant becos it wuz her and me. We wuz like two streams comin’ down the mountain over miles of rocky ground that meet up and become one deep, lovely river. I never felt so close to another person. Never, not before, not since.
“But I didn’ tell her that I loved her. I already had me a girlfriend in Silver City, an’ it wasn’t none of her fault that I’d found someone else. I wanted to do the right thing by that other woman, do the honorable thing, like, so I set off to Silver City to tell her what had happened and to bid her goodbye.
“It weren’t a purty sight, the time I told her. She didn’t take it kindly. But we patched it up a bit and parted friends and no harm done, an’ I left Silver City a free man.
I’d bin gone jist two weeks, and when I got back to that campground near Albuquerque I found that another man had gotten there before me and laid claim to the flaxen braid.
“What could I say? I hadn’t told her I loved her. I jist thought she kinda knew. I hadn’t told her I wuz goin’ to Silver City to break it off with Doris, becos I wanted to come back a free man an’ surprise her, sorta sweep her off her feet.” He paused a long, long time, as if the words would never come. At last he ground them out from somewhere deep within him: “Two weeks, two weeks was all it took for this other dude to win her heart.
“They looked so happy together, fer all the world like two li’l lovebirds, like two mountain streams meeting in the valley. I couldn’t bear to stay. “Jist passin’ through” I said, and within ten minutes I wuz gone. I left them standin’ there outside her trailer, laughin’, arm in arm, holding cans of soda, fizzing over with the glow of their new love. They had no idea, no idea at all, of my hurtin’.”
Honey bees buzzed around the listening square; humming birds whirred; the afternoon sun beat steadily down on my uncovered head; the sounds of passing traffic wafted in from the highway. Three glossy grackles started to squabble and their squawks roused the old man from his reverie: “I came here, to sit on this very bench, lookin’ at that little chapel as if mebbe she’d appear, sweepin’ away, singin’ sweet an’ low, braid swingin’ an’ tell me it wuz all a bad dream. I sat here all day, and half the night ‘til the sheriff moved me on. Then I vowed I’d never come back here agin and I took to the road.
“It’s bin a long, long road since them, an’ I’ve had me a purty good life. I’ve worked in ev’ry state in the west, and made me a pile o’ cash in some of them jobs, doin’ things no one else wanted to do down mines an’ in deserts. I wandered away from this country, went to furrin’ lands, worked in jungles, out on the ocean oil rigs. I seen places you wouldn’t believe, old temples, cities swallowed up by the steamin’ forest. An’ I met all kinds o’ people, straight and crooked, people scrapin’ a livin’ from the bare soil, people livin’ in the lap of luxury, gold drippin’ from their fingertips. I had my share o’ both, hard times and good. I’ve even bin happy sometimes, happy with a woman, or a job, or jist lookin’ up at the stars at night and feelin’ the ole night breeze. But I never forgot her, never forgot those five heavenly days, and I never met any woman who could hold a candle to her.
“So when this old body started seizin’ up an’ breakin’ down, when I couldn’ travel no more, I come back here to Albuquerque. The climate’s good for us oldsters, y’know. Nowadays, whenever I kin git outta the house I come here to the Guadalupe Chapel to sit and remember. Sometimes I even cries about it – I think that’s OK now, don’t you? Now that I’m an old man, no one bothers if I
cries a tear or two.” He paused again, smiling ruefully. “And so you never saw her again?” I asked.
“Jist once, jist once, a few years after we first met. I found myself around here, not that I planned it, y’know, jist found myself near here. I thought I’d visit the chapel, jist for ole times’ sake and as I come into the square, in the shade of that there cottonwood, there she wuz, sweepin’ the chapel floor, that flaxen braid still swingin’.
“Weel, my heart near about stopped still as I stood there. I couldn’ believe it. I jist stared an’ stared.
“There was little boy with her, flaxen-haired too, mebbe six or seven years old, and they wuz laughin’ an’ talkin’ as she swept. Still the same, her talkin’ wuz, like low sweet singin’. They looked so happy togither, mother and son, though she seemed to be movin’ more slowly, like, than before, like she had a bit of a stiff leg. They wuz so happy togither, I jist couldn' break in. I could see she had a good life, fam’ly an’ all and I wuzn’t gonna interfere with that, so away I crept, coverin’ my tracks. That was the last time I ever saw her, an’ I hope her life has bin a good one. She never knew what she did to me.”
Tears brimmed in his eyes as he turned to me: “But here I’ve bin doing a load o’ talkin’ and you bin sittin’ good an’ polite listenin’ to an ole man’s ramblin’s. Hows about you? What’s brung you here today?” “Well, yes,” I said, “I have a story about this chapel, too – I guess it’s that sort of a place!
“I lived round here as a child, and when I was five years old my parents were involved in a terrible car accident. They were both badly injured and my father survived only a few days. My mother took months to recover and she never again walked with the grace and freedom I remember from my earliest youth.
“She mourned my father deeply, but after a while the memory of someone else surfaced in her mind and she began to think about another man whom she had known in the past. She never told me much about him; I think it was too painful for her. She would bring me here from time to time while she swept the chapel floor. I think that had something to do with him; perhaps she hoped that he would appear, that he would be somehow called back to this place where they had been together. He never came, though.
“We moved away to be near her family in Oregon, but over the years I believe that she kept seeking this man. She tried to conceal her search but there would be odd letters and phone calls from strangers in strange places, none of which ever led to anything definite. It was as if he had disappeared, covered his tracks, as if he didn’t want to be found.
“Then the cancer took hold and began to absorb her energy. For nearly two years my mother held onto life, but at last, just a month ago, she finally gave up her ghost.”
The old man murmured his sympathy and we sat in silence, both occupied with our thoughts, our feelings and our memories.
“That’s why I’m here,” I continued. “It was her dying wish that I should come to the Guadalupe Chapel to sweep the floor one last time and to leave this.”
I took from its leather case the letter my mother had so painfully written in her few last days of life. She’d addressed the envelope with just one word – his first name. What faith! I had thought as I watched her unsteady hand, to imagine that a single word could reach out across so many years and miles to find its home, when all her other efforts had failed.
The old man carefully read the envelope through the mist of his cataracts. He looked up at me, gazing deeply into my eyes, clear across the years into my heart and soul. Then he slowly reached out a gnarled and trembling hand to take the letter that bore his name.