The church is quiet except for the nun’s approaching footsteps. You could imagine the sound of the soft soles of her shoes scuffing down the center aisle, coming toward the last pew, barely growing louder as they approach. Or you could imagine that someone has just finished playing an organ, practicing before the morning mass—is it really only four, didn’t it feel like the sun was about to come out?—the notes echoing off the high ceilings and moving into silence. You could imagine the church’s entire frame rattling from the distant boom of the bass beat at a near-by dance club. Any of these will work fine.
Hidden in the candlelight of hundreds of prayers sits Jesenia, whose face seems solemn, though she didn’t bother to cross herself or kneel. Her halter-top is bluish-silver, hanging from her neck and made of a material that ripples like a bothered puddle when she breathes. The blouse is dark under her arms, and her hair sticks to her still-damp forehead. You decide she must have come straight from Shadow Lounge—she still wears a paper wristband, and she winces when she swallows. She closes her eyes as if to hear the bass leftover from a dance floor; she traces an imaginary line up and down the length of her arm, and frowns. The only thing left to decide about her night up to this moment: acid or ecstasy. Maybe both—from the way she rubs her jaw muscles, she could have been candy-flipping. A friend of yours might have tried this once, probably at a club; he claimed it made him see people’s faces melt off and their souls (which he described as looking like Slimer from Ghostbusters) pour out through their eye sockets.
The nun is not at all old, and that makes sense; of course a young nun—in her mid-twenties maybe, not much older than Jesenia—would be in charge of these early morning hours, when drained young people were most likely to stumble in. The nun reaches Jesenia’s pew and sits very close to her, so close that her habit presses into the girl’s bare shoulder. These two might know each other, you can see; perhaps they were close friends before either received any sort of calling. Jesenia keeps her eyes closed, puts her head on the nun’s shoulder, and offers her the arm to stroke, but the nun does not move.
The church is empty except for these two women and the candles behind them.
—I was rolling, two pills, Jesenia says. I’m checking, but it’s gone.
She slumps further against the nun. A car starts outside the church doors directly behind them. She barely turns her head to listen for it—her ride there, you imagine, a beefy boyfriend with earrings who shaves his arms. The engine’s grumble fades away.
—I told him to leave me here, don’t worry, Jesenia says. Sister, I need to ask you a favor. Her throat pulses with another dry swallow. She says, It’s about my job.
The nun slides away from her on the pew, and from the way her eyebrows carve closer together, you change your mind; the nun has never before this moment seen Jesenia.
—Where do you work, mi hija?
Jesenia juts out her lips as she runs her tongue over her teeth. She probably tastes chalk—she wrinkles her face at the tang of it. She does not answer the nun, but stands and walks to the arched entrance of the church. She cups her hand and says, I’m so totally sorry but I’m freaking gonna die if I don’t. She leans down, drinks from the holy water.
The nun might have rushed to stop her, but her eyes are soft with understanding, so she only stands and steps forward. You can see from the way she bows her head to stare instead at the mosaic of tiny tiles encrusted in the floor that the nun lets many thirsty people drink when the church is empty. This church is too close to South Beach, and like the clubs, it’s open all night. And like the clubs, the water is free. But here, at the church, there is never a line.
Jesenia is barefoot, her feet blistered where straps from heels have cut into them. You can see smudges of dirt on her ankles and shins. She wipes water from her mouth.
—Tell me how to bring someone back from the dead, Jesenia says.
The nun does not move. Maybe she thinks the Ecstasy is still working its way out of the synapses of the girl’s brain. Or she could be troubled by these kinds of questions, and the kind of people who ask them. But when the still-thirsty woman crosses her arms over her chest, looking down to make sure she’s covering the cleavage she’d so forcefully propped up earlier that night when she’d squeezed her breasts together in front of her bedroom mirror, you see that it is Jesenia who’s troubled.
—Where do you—
—My bad, Jesenia says. I work at Radio Salsa 98.1. I have an internship—they don’t pay me or nothing. I got it through my cousin, who knows a guy who goes part-time to Miami-Dade Community College. He’d heard about it.
Jesenia looks down at her feet, at the bright red polish on her toes, magically still intact. She begins to wiggle them and says, I need to bring somebody back from the dead for work, to get a promotion.
The nun snorts from her nose, as if she were a small bull. You can’t tell from the sound if she’s amused or angry. She crosses her arms to match Jesenia’s, but Jesenia frees hers, letting them fly as she tells the nun what she might have told anyone in any other church anywhere else in Miami had her boyfriend taken a different road home from Shadow Lounge.
—I swear I’m a good person, Sister. It’s just, between school and this job – where I don’t even get paid! – sometimes I wanna get torn up, feel like more than I am, and that’s why God gave us weekends, and Ecstasy. And I’m sorry, but it’s not like coke because it is mostly natural and not addictive. Except that you wanna feel that good all the time – it’s not the chemicals that do that to you. Like you with God, but I’m not giving my life to it, though seriously I respect all this church stuff like crazy – my mom baptized me and I even got confirmed.
This is how these pookie-heads talk; you know that; even the nun knows that.
Jesenia must have wanted the nun to nod, because here she stopped until the nun did just that. Then Jesenia swallows hard and smiles widely, showing a row of perfect but caked-on teeth. They’re covered with such a thick yellow film that, if you could, you’d reach through the page and brush them for her.
—Which is why God brought me the idea to raise Celia Cruz from the dead for this concert I’m promoting.
The smile vanishes, the crud back in hiding, much to your relief. Jesenia takes a step toward the nun, whose mouth is twitching as if she might laugh, or maybe spit.
—Because me and Jorge were at Shadow Lounge, and I’d taken two DGs, like him. In the middle of this trance set, the deejay cuts in with this remix of Celia’s La Negra Tiene Tumbao. And I swear on my grandfather that is not dead that the beat and her big hot voice came up through my legs, and up into my chest, and right into my heart, Sister.
Jesenia has put her hands at the tops of the nun’s shoulders. She curls her heavy-knuckled fingers into the black robe, pulsing them down into the buttery tops of the nun’s ham-hock arms.
—Jorge sees me smiling and starts to massage my neck. The trumpets in the song match up perfect with the lights trailing like a freaked-out rainbow, and I’m so happy I start thinking I might fall down, and then it comes to me—and it’s hard to hold onto stuff when you’re rolling, so I know God wants this—that this happiness is something everyone has to feel, Sister, and that Celia Cruz needs to come back to bring it to them at the Radio Salsa 98.1 Semi-Annual Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival, which I, as an intern who does not get paid, was put in semi-charge of organizing. Because she’s only been dead a couple months, and I think if we pray hard enough it can happen.
The nun grabs Jesenia’s hands, jarring her from the trance of her own voice. You wonder if she’s still rolling, figuring she might be, a little. The nun’s short nails cut into Jesenia’s wrists.
—This is notGod’s work, the nun says.
Jesenia pulls her hands away from the nun’s grip, rubs her wrists, crinkling the paper band.
—I’m trying to fix something, Jesenia says.
She raises her arms over her head and starts tying the long rope of her hair into a knot. She says, It’s a good idea. I have ideas. You’re just pissed about how I got it, which I understand, seriously, I do. But still, please help me bring her back. Something that big will definitely, without a doubt, for sure, probably get me a real job at the station.
The nun says again, shifting her voice and her eyes, This is not God’s work.
The nun lifts her eyebrows and stares at Jesenia long after the sentence has been left there, and then Jesenia figures it out—even if you haven’t yet, but you’re sure you will soon—and she nods and says, very softly, Oooh. The nun leans over to the pew and removes a white card tucked into one of the programs for mass. On the blank side, using a small, blunt pencil stored somewhere underneath her long robe, she scribbles the address of a santera.
—Ocila might help, she says, handing the card to Jesenia. Might. Take her una ofrenda of a hundred and fifty dollars. Put the offering in a white envelope tied with a red bow. Take her flowers, any kind, as long as they are white—all the way white.
Jesenia puts the card in the waistband of her skirt.
—And tell her hi from Marcela her sister—her Sister sister—and that I say to stop smoking those unfiltered cigarettes. She sounds like a man with that voice.
Jesenia nods at all of this. These are the kinds of practices she’s been raised not to believe in, but nonetheless respect, because of the time her mother took her to a santera to undo un trabajo that her mother thought was causing Jesenia’s acne – she’d come down with her first period the day after the visit.
Jesenia grabs her shoes from the pew and says, Thank you thank you thank you. She kisses the nun on the cheek and says as she runs out, I’ll tell you if I get the promotion. As she leaves, Jesenia crosses herself, moving her hand too fast to register what you notice—that she does it in the wrong order.
* * *
You’re not sure how she gets there—and with all the requisite supplies no less!—but you care only vaguely about these questions. You go with it, you figure what the hell—and there’s Jesenia at Ocila’s santera table, which squats in the middle of her bedroom, too close to the bed to feel like a separate space. On it is a small seashell-framed placard that says All sales final – aquí no hay ‘refund.’ They sit facing each other, the table between them. Jesenia’s back is to the television, which is still on, but muted—Ocila killed the sound not after taking the money, but later, when Jesenia mentioned Marcela’s name.
Ocila is a hefty woman whose neck ripples when she talks, her voice as rough as the nun had suggested. Her thick brown hair sits on the very top of her head in a bun so perfect it looks like a plain donut. You would guess she was almost forty years old from the flower print housedress and straw-colored cardigan she wears, but she must be younger; there is a photo on the wall of the narrow hallway that leads back to her bedroom, or her office as she calls it, of Ocila next to the nun (the former wearing a robe, but not a nun’s one) at what looks like a high school graduation.
—Okay, so I telling you now, Ocila says, that I can no control lo que pasa. Especially this early in the morning. I can no say your santo will no be mad at you for waking him up.
She stops here, probably waiting for Jesenia to say she understands the terms, but she—Jesenia—is looking around the room, frowning. A half-finished bowl of cereal waits on the nightstand, turned to mush. The walls are ivory, and she sees no candles or statues perched in the corners. The ceiling fan is still, and from each blade dangles a thick cord of dust. You could say the room, even the whole townhouse, seems more regular than any room in any townhouse you had ever seen, except for the oddly placed table and its little frame, and a jar full of pennies and feathers on the floor propping open the bedroom door. So you reason that maybe santeras don’t necessarily like advertising their religious affiliations through their home decor.
—Señora, Jesenia says, if you don’t mind, how long you been doing consultas like this?
—Eh? Cómo? Many, many times. And yes, I am minding. Okay.
Ocila smoothes the red tablecloth with her palms, her rings thumping against the wood underneath, her gold bangles crashing into each other. Without the TV, and with the day barely started outside, you’d think it was the only sound for miles.
How many consultas, you think, does one need to perform to acquire the kind of money that buys so much jewelry? But then you see them (Jesenia doesn’t notice), the bands of skin turned green at the base of each of her fingers from the fake gold.
Ocila finally says, So. What is your problem that you come to me like this?
She gestures with her noisy hands to Jesenia’s halter-top.
—I wanted to see you right away, she says. Before I forgot, and before I figure out I’m probably wrong.
She is coming down hard now, the cereal on the nightstand rocking her stomach. She can barely feel her legs and she is sticky with sweat. She wants water almost as much as she wants it to already be next Friday.
—Can I have some water, please? she says.
— You no come here for water, Ocila says. Her eyes flick back and forth to the TV. She clutches the edge of the tablecloth in her hand.
—Right. So, I need help with something for my job which is actually just an internship.
Ocila’s grip loosens on the tablecloth. She sits back in her chair and rests her hands on her belly.
—Okay, work related? Very, very easy. For that we no even need the flowers you bring.
Jesenia puts her palms flat on the table.
—I need you to bring Celia Cruz back from the dead to do one last concert.
Ocila pushes back from the table with both arms. Then she crosses herself three times, the last time kissing her own hand. At first you assume that she’s thinking of her very holy sister Marcela and suddenly feeling guilty. But what you don’t know is that santeros actually do believe in and pray to God, to Jesus, to the Virgin Mary. It’s just that they have alternatives, these other spiritual connections that they can consult should the heavy hitters turn a blind eye your way. You can think of them like religious bonuses, like a 1-Up in a video game.
—Ay Dios mío, Ocila says, That is a very different thing that you say.
Ocila looks at her lap and grabs the underside of her chair. She scoots closer in, so close that her breasts spill onto the table between them. She brings her hands up and uses just the middle finger of her left hand to scratch at various spots around her head, spots right underneath the bun. Jesenia winces at the sound of so many rattling bracelets. Ocila clears her throat over and over again, then presses the same middle finger into her ear and begins wiggling it—as if trying to get at a deep itch—while making a hacking sound. Even Jesenia can see that Ocila is stalling.
She clears her throat twice more and finally looks back up at Jesenia.
—Bueno, chica, I have to tell you, is no gonna be easy, and you see my sign, I no do money back guarantee.
You knew Jesenia’s money was gone almost as soon as she’d walked in the door, from the way Ocila had folded the cash and tucked it into her bra, the strap snapping the money in place. But still, Jesenia hopes for a miracle, so she nods.
—Okay, Ocila says.
She clears her throat again, then readjusts the cardigan on her sloped shoulders. Her eyes are huge, and her heavy chest rises and falls so quickly that the gold cross lashed around her neck looks as if it’s about to launch itself toward the ceiling.
—Let’s begin, she says, placing her palms on the table.
* * *
What happens next is up to you because it relies on your knowledge of Santería. Maybe Ocila mashes the flowers into a paste and smears it on Jesenia’s upper lip while playing Celia Cruz’s Greatest Hits on a loop. Maybe she makes a powder that Jesenia must then sprinkle over both Celia’s grave and the stage where she wants her to perform. Maybe she spreads chicken feathers on the ground and has Jesenia lay out on them while Ocila douses her with sugar water.
The point is, barring your own attempts at research—and you know how lazy you can be, how else do you find the time to read stuff like this?—you need to be told, preferably by someone you’d consider an expert, an insider. Someone who knows enough to drop the name Changó (a.k.a. Santa Bárbara) or Babalu-aye (a.k.a. San Lázaro) in the same way Ocila does to give her act credibility in front of Jesenia. Maybe your narrator—me—then tells you about the santeros that lived across the street from my childhood home. How one morning, I woke up to find our entire driveway covered in pennies. I tell you how my mother made us all—my father, my grandmother, my two sisters and my younger brother—pee in a bucket so Mom could pour it over the pennies and sweep them out into the street to undo the trabajo they’d done on our house for only Changó knows what reason. I might admit that that’s pretty much the extent of my firsthand experience with Santería. Your narrator, however, thanks God for such ignorance.
But what kind of story would such a confession leave you with? Not the one you expected—you wanted chicken blood, people wearing burlap, goats maybe, statues eating fruit and drinking bottles of beer. You want zombies. And Jesenia—she just wants something real to happen, and she fools herself weekend after weekend into thinking that she is a VIP. She just wants to forget that she can’t stay behind the velvet rope come Monday morning.
But here’s what happens: Jesenia watches Ocila heave herself around the room, chanting to the ceiling, and after twenty minutes of this, when absolutely nothing has happened except Ocila suffering a coughing attack midway through, she figures out she’s being ripped off. She realizes—just as you are, reading this—that Ocila cannot really do what she claims to do for a living; she can’t conjure spirits, she can’t make you hear voices, she can’t convince you to believe in something you don’t trust. Jesenia then leaves the room—she abandons her shoes, feeling too stupid to ask Ocila where she’d put them—and she walks down the block, ignoring the rocks scraping the soles of her feet.
She makes it as far as the corner two blocks down, where a car—a brand new Mitsubishi something or other with the windows rolled down—is stopped at a red light. You and Jesenia recognize him as another member of the Beautiful South Beach Weekend Elite (maybe he bags groceries during the week, maybe sells sneakers in the mall; of course he still lives with his parents). He’s heading home from a night (then morning) of dancing, pimping, and random ecstasy-encouraged massaging. His music plays so loud that the entire frame of the car rattles on the chassis.
Jesenia knows the blasting salsa remix. She puts her arms over her head and starts to dance, right there on the corner, the sun barely up. The driver has just received a text message containing the directions to the after-party’s after-party—we won’t be attending—and because he’s looking down at his phone he never sees Jesenia’s hips grinding against a NO PARKING FROM HERE TO CORNER sign. The light turns green and her fellow Yo-bouncer-I’m-on-the-list velvet rope clinger spins his tires, but even the scream of the car peeling out doesn’t overtake his system’s bass, or the clear, robot-like voice of the singer. Even when the car is blocks away from her, Jesenia still feels the song, and she figures she has nothing better to do, nowhere to be, so she keeps dancing, the memory of the music enough to last her all the way to next weekend.
And you, you keep watching her, hardly believing people like this exist.
First published in Ploughshares. Included in the collection, How to Leave Hialeah, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, the John Gardner Prize, and the Devil’s Kitchen Award in Prose.