"You gotta let me make a phone call!" Julio hollers as they drag us into the station house. "I know my rights!"
"Yeah, yeah," says the fat, grey-haired cop walking next to him. "You punks all know your rights. Why is it none of you ever exercise your right to remain silent?"
"Hey, really, this is some kinda misunderstanding," I say to the younger of the two cops that busted us. He's on my right, hand on his nightstick. "We didn't do anything!"
"Tell it to the judge," he says, like maybe everybody says the same thing. His partner is yawning, and I don't blame him, I'm yawning too. It's going on one a.m., and I'd just as soon be home in bed, pulling some z's.
They eventually get around to giving us our phone calls. I can't figure out who to call. I live with my grandma, and if I call her at this hour and say I'm in the lockup, she'll have a heart attack. I’m freaking out enough that can't think of my cousin Tonito's number, and I finally shake my head and say I'll take a raincheck.
Julio, though, he pounds the buttons on the phone with vigor. "I need to talk to Javier, right now. It's an emergency." He covers the receiver with his hand, looks over at me. "Don't worry, I got this covered, you'll see." Into the phone: "Ay, Javier---it's Julio. Me and my homey got busted out at the school---we wasn't doin' nothing, and they hauled us off and you gotta help, please!" He listens. "No, no, I swear! Nothin' like that." he says at one point. "Okay. Thank you!"
"So?" I prompt him when he hangs up. "Are we gonna get bailed out?"
He grins like a dog who knows you're gonna feed him something good. "That was my cousin, Javier. He's gonna handle it personally."
"Wait---your cousin Javier the priest?" Julio nods proudly. He's also got a cousin Javier who installs aluminum siding, but I don't think he'd be too much help, except for bail money.
Everybody in Corona knew about Javier the priest---he was the first Cruz ever to go to college. He'd gone through law school, and then, after he'd graduated and everybody thought he was gonna start making a zillion dollars the way lawyers do---he went and entered a seminary to become a priest. He told his family and anyone who asked that he'd realized that God's law was more important than secular law, but that sometimes they intersected, like a cross.
I thought he was crazy. Then it came out that what he was really doing was helping the archdiocese gather evidence against pervert priests...you know the kind. There was a lot of fuss in the Church about how he'd "turned against his own", but I'll tell you what, every kid who ever made a penance on his knees with a black robe in his face was rooting for Javier one hundred percent.
While we're waiting for our lawyer, a big cop marches us off to the men's room and hands us each a plastic cup. "Pee in those," he says.
"In that?" Julio asks in disbelief. "I'm gonna need a bigger cup, jefe."
"Fill it to the line, smart guy, and then use the urinal if your bladder's going into overtime." He takes the samples we produce and sticks little labels on them. He isn't even wearing gloves, eww, gross! I make up my mind that if this guy brings the meals around, I'm going on a hunger strike.
After that, we get escorted to a little room with table and a couple chairs and a mirror on the wall. Julio's not stupid and neither am I. We both know that they've got this place bugged and there's probably some cop on the other side of that mirror, having coffee and donuts and listening to find out what we say to each other. I look and the mirror, and at Julio, and he looks at me and rolls his eyes.
"Wake me up when my cousin gets here," he says. He folds his arms on the table, puts his head down on them and falls asleep.
Not me. I'm too scared. I just sit there in the beige box of a room, with a round fluorescent fixture overhead that blinks like moths are attacking it.
When Father Javier Cruz comes into the room they've stashed us in, there's another man with him, but he's so ordinary, it takes a minute to notice him. Javier is very tall and dressed all in black. He's so lean that the skin of his face looks like it was stretched tight over the bones of his skull. There are a few white threads in his dark hair, and little wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, which study us like they see everything. He'd be impressive even without the collar he's wearing.
Right away, I feel better. It's easy to believe this guy has God on his side, even though I gave up going to church after my altar boy days at St. Anne's. I've heard about him, but I never expected Julio's cousin the priest to be hot.
"This is Ishmael Cranfield," Javier introduces his companion. He's about my height, 5-foot seven, but kind of tubby. With his plaid shirt and khaki pants, he looks like he plays on a bowling team in his spare time. Something about him reminds me of our shop teacher, Mr. Dawson---I halfway expect him to tell us to put on our safety goggles. "He's a reporter doing a feature on my work. Do you mind if he sits in on this?"
"Anything you say, Cuz." Julio says. "Just get us out of here!"
"You're not gonna print our names, are you Mr. Cranfield? I don't want my grandma to find out about this."
"Call me Izzy. Nope, don't worry about it. I'll change your names to protect your privacy. John Smith, Bob Jones, something like that."
"Thank you, Mr.---Izzy." Maybe I can get out of this and Grandma won't be any the wiser.
"Hey, you gonna make up a name, I want something better than that," Julio laughs. "Juan Valdez! Can you call me Juan Valdez?"
"I'll see what I can do," Izzy says, smiling a little.
"Meanwhile," Javier says, getting our attention. "They've got you on possession charges and trespass. You were caught on school property, the cops found that lit roach you tossed when they drove up, and according to a witness, there were three of you. Who's your friend?"
Julio looks at me and we both look at the padre. "Nobody," says Julio. "It was just us." He just lied to a priest! I feel a little queasy.
Javier turns his searchlight gaze on me, and I want to confess, no sinners here, oh no---but I'm not going to rat out Rosario, who'd disappeared at the sight of the patrol car. "I didn't do anything!" I protest instead. "Not even tagging!" I hold out my hands to show they're clean and he catches the right one. Still holding it, Javier steps closer, and he starts sniffing like we're in an aftershave commercial. I can feel my face getting warm.
"No," he drawls, raising his head and winking at me. "You weren't doing anything." He releases my arm, which tingles where his fingers had gripped me. "I need to make some calls. You'll go in front of the judge in the morning. Be polite, no joking around---" Julio smirks. "---and I think we can get you off. Even if you're not being completely honest with me."
The plastic tabletop looks like fake wood, and there's a sticker on it for a bail bonds company. I study that, because it's easier than facing the intent stare Javier is sending my way. Giving up Rosario would only cause more trouble, I know, so I use my right to remain silent.
Corona is a small enough town that the jail only has two cells. They're both empty, and we don't have to share. Julio stretches out on the hard bench and falls asleep I listen to him snoring for a long time before I'm in Dreamland.
The jail cell is all draped in dark cloth like a confessional, and I can't hear Julio snoring any more. There's an ominous click-click-click sound that I recognize...rosary beads. My heart beats faster. I turn around...
"Wickedness!" thunders Father Carew. He's right in my face, and I can smell the garlic on his breath. "You lied to a priest. That's a very serious offense. You know what that means."
"No, stop it, get away from me!" I run over and try to get out through the drapes, but the bars are there and I'm trapped. There's a hand on my shoulder and I scream---but then I see it's Father Javier.
His craggy face is somber. He glances over at Father Carew, who is sitting on the bunk fondling his rosary. "You've got to tell me the truth," he says.
"I can't," I whisper.
"I can't help you if you won't tell me." His hand rests on my shoulder, but it's a caress. His voice is gentle. "You want me to help you, don't you?"
I do want him. I sink to my knees, and then a fist knots painfully into my hair and it's Father Carew again and I can't breathe, I'm choking---
Starting awake, I'm still in the cell, but the black draperies are gone. Ten feet away, Julio's still snoring. My throat's so dry, my tongue comes away from the roof of my mouth with a scritching noise like it's been velcroed. I'm coughing and gasping---it takes a minute for me to work up some spit and stop gagging.
I go over to the bars and wave my hands to attract the attention of one of the cops. "I never had my phone call," I say when he comes over. "I need to talk to my lawyer."
For a minute, I think he's going to say 'too bad'. "Who's your lawyer?" When he hears it's Father Cruz, he rolls his eyes. "Back in a minute," he says. It's longer of course, but he does come back and let me out of the cell. Instead of taking me into the squad room where we were when Julio made his call, he steers me into the room where we waited for the padre.
Javier is already there, him and that reporter, Izzy. It doesn't look like either one of them has had any sleep. I'd forgotten about Izzy---he can't hear this....
"I have to talk to you alone," I say to Javier, who nods.
"Client confidentiality," he says to Izzy, who doesn't appear bothered by his eviction.
"I can write up some notes," he says. "Don't worry about it."
The door closes behind him, and it's just me and Javier. I'm pacing on the other side of the table from him, wondering what I was thinking. It's like being in a swimming pool with a shark. No matter how much room you've got, that panicky feeling still sets in.
"Okay, what's so important at four-thirty in the morning?" He doesn't sound mad, just tired, and I take a deep breath.
"Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It's been five years since my last confession." I think about it. "Maybe six years. Something like that."
He's not expecting this. For a minute, his eyebrows arch, then he says, "Go ahead."
"His name is Rosario, everybody calls him 'Rosie'. He had some weed, and we were just hanging out---" No. I can't lie to a priest. "I---he---he likes to party. And if you party with him, he'll...do things." I can't even look at Javier, so I don't know how this is going over. "Gay things," I whisper, wishing I could melt into the floor.
"I know Rosie," Javier says meditatively, and I sneak a look at him. He doesn't seem angry or disgusted, just thoughtful. "He could get into a lot of trouble for fooling around with kids your age."
"I'm seventeen!" I protest, wounded. "I know what I'm doing! And at least with him I'm doing it because...I want to." Well, that and Rosie does for me what I used to have to do for Father Carew. "He likes doing it, I really like when he does it, nobody's getting hurt, it's all good, right? Except...it's a sin."
"Father Carew always said so."
"That asshole!" he growls. He's sexy as hell when he's angry like this, and I'm probably going to hell just for thinking that. "The archdiocese finally put him at a desk job, and he hasn't been held accountable for any of his crimes. I'd like to lock him up for what's left of his miserable life!"
"Let me tell you something." I nod, wide-eyed. "This isn't breaking the seal of the confessional, because I wasn't a priest in those days. Your friend Rosie? Back in the day, he had his share of problems with Father Andretti. In those days, nobody talked about it, that old bastard was at St Anne's for forty years, forty years of abusing altar boys, the kids in his classes: communion, confirmation, the parish little league...and guess what? The bastard died in the act."
I never imagined I'd hear a priest call another priest an a-hole. Or a bastard. But then, I'd never imagined a priest like Javier, either.
He's pacing, and I think he's forgotten about me. "A couple women from the Altar Guild walked in, found him collapsed on top of an eleven-year old boy who was too terrified to move, even though he knew something was wrong. The whole parish knew what had happened, but the sick bastard got a full burial with honors and the kid was in and out of psych wards for the next few years...until he OD'ed on sleeping pills and cheap wine. When I heard about that, I made a decision. That's when I decided God needed a good lawyer on His side, someone who could crack down on scum like that who were taking His name in vain." He gives a little laugh that's not really a laugh at all. "Pretty radical, huh?"
That's got to be the creepiest story I ever heard, and I feel really bad about that dead kid. Really bad....
"Hey, sit down!" Javier says, catching my shoulder and steering me to one of the chairs. "I don't need you fainting on me. Stay there."
The beige walls seem to be wavering like the mirrors in a funhouse while the fluorescent light overhead strobes, an erratic lightning bug. I close my eyes and concentrate on taking deep breaths. I'm so tired my head is spinning, and I feel sick to my stomach.
A styrofoam cup is pressed into my hand. Black coffee...with about eight sugars, I find out when I sip it. It's crappy coffee, but it's hot and strong. And there's some kind of pastry from a vending machine. As I consume them, the room starts coming back into focus.
"Don't worry," Javier reassures me. "The trespassing charge is nothing. I can get the rest of it thrown out. Just hang on for a few more hours---you'll be out of here by lunch time. You'd be in a whole lot more trouble if they'd caught you messing around with Rosie. I know, I know, you're young, you've got a lot of crazy feelings and you're horny all the time. Let me give you a little free advice---if you don't have a place to go for sex where you can be private, it's a sign that you shouldn't be having sex."
"What about my penance?" I ask in a low voice, trying to meet his gaze without blushing. I know he's not going to want the same kind of penance Father Carew did, but I want him to absolve me.
"You're a bright kid," he says, smiling. "Making it an act of confession keeps it all off the record. And you're right, bringing Rosario into the picture isn't exactly going to help your case. Your penance is, no more sex until you've got a place for it to happen. It can be a beautiful thing; some day I hope you'll find that out. Meanwhile, don't risk ruining your life with another dumb stunt like this. Okay? You're forgiven. Go, and sin no more."
The last couple swallows of coffee are mostly sugar. My teeth hurt for a moment.
"So, what was my cousin doing there?" Javier asks, a little too casually.
I guess that means the cops didn't find the bag of spray paint he had stashed, or spotted his artwork on the gym wall. I hadn't quite lied about that---I hadn't been tagging, just Julio. "You'd have to talk to him about that," I say. "I can't make his confession for him."
Javier laughs outright, a heartily laugh that makes me feel everything is all right. "You're right. I'll ask him myself, later. For now, you're going back to lockup. Try to get some sleep before court, okay?"
Miraculously, I do sleep, without any dreams that I can remember, and when they wake us up at eight o'clock, I feel calm. I'm not worried about seeing the judge, I'm not worried about what my grandma is going to say, none of it can touch me. Javier said it would be all right, and I believe him completely.
We get CARE packages before they take us to court. Javier has sent fast food breakfast sandwiches, which we both make short work of, and clean white button-down shirts. There's also a comb, and we take turns using it before they lead us into the courtroom.
I look around on my way to the table where Javier's waiting for us, and spot Izzy in the front row, next to two other familiar faces. Now I know why those cops showed up---the Pappas called them. They run the little store across the street from the school; everybody calls them "Mama" and of course, "Papa". Papa catches my eye and spits---can you do that in a courtroom? Isn't that like spitting in church? But nobody calls him on it, and I'm really glad Javier is there. He's gonna get us out of this, he said so.
The bailiff has us all stand up when judge comes in. He enters through a different door than we did and sits down behind his pulpit and the rest of us can sit back down, too.
"Move to dismiss, Your Honor" Javier says firmly when they read out the charges. "The case against these young men is without foundation."
"Hmm." The judge is looking at some papers. "Trespass?"
"There's no fence around the schoolyard, and my clients are both students there. It's a popular shortcut, and not just for students. For instance, for people going to the grocery store across the street who don't want to walk all the way around the block."
"They're a couple of dope fiends!" Mama bursts out from behind us. "I saw them from my window, they were passing it around, I saw them!"
"Order!" says the judge, just like on TV.
Javier turns to Mama, and Julio and I turn to look. Usually when she's running the store, she has on a housedress, but today she's wearing a plain black dress and is swagged with a bunch of necklaces, pearls and gold chains. She's at least my grandma's age, with Coke bottle glasses and coal-black hair, except for an inch-wide white racing stripe next to her scalp. "You saw them, Mrs. Pappas?" he asks respectfully.
"From my bedroom window. I saw them passing their filthy reefer back and forth."
"And how far away would you say they were?" She hesitates, and he coaxes her to answer. "Were they closer to the road, or to the school buildings?"
"By the buildings," she says at last. "But I saw them!"
"Near the buildings? You were able to distinguish the faces of the defendants from a distance of forty yards? Mrs. Pappas, you have the eyesight of an eagle."
"The cops caught the little delinquents red-handed!" Mr. Pappas snaps. Like his wife, he's dressed with care for this solemn occasion. No white apron---today it's a black suit, shiny with age, and green tie with red squiggles on it. "I know those two! They come into my store, always standing there reading the magazines, getting them all wrinkled so nobody wants to buy them! Those two never buy them! What am I, the public library?!"
The Corona Public Library doesn't subscribe to Muscle and Fitness or Custom Street Rods, or we'd be there instead of at the Pappas. The library doesn’t smell like cabbage.
"Your Honor, I'd like to call Officer Kevin McCarthy to the stand." This is the younger of the two cops who got us, and he's yawning as he ambles up to the witness stand. "Officer, when you took my clients into custody, what evidence of wrongdoing did you find?"
"I took into evidence a hand-rolled cigarette, still lit---one of them tossed it when my partner and I arrived, but I was able to locate it because it ignited a scrap of paper, which flared up."
"Very astute police work," Javier compliments him. "No more questions. I'd like to call Mr. Erik Anderson to the stand." Anderson looks like a photo that's been in the sun too long. His suit is light grey, his complexion pasty, and his oily comb-over makes grey lines across his scalp
"Mr. Anderson, you are employed by Corona Laboratory Services?"
"Yes, I am." He speaks in a monotone, not giving any more information than necessary. Maybe he's really an android.
"The Corona police department asked you to test several specimens relevant to this case, is that correct?"
"That is correct. I received two urine specimens and a partially burned, hand-rolled cigarette."
"What, specifically, did you test them for?"
"Tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the active agent of marijuana."
"And did you find any trace of tetrahydrocannabinol in any of those samples?
"I did not."
Javier beams at him. "What did you find?"
"Nepetalactone." Anderson pouts, as if nepa-whatever it is wasn't worth the bother of putting on his faded suit or oiling his comb-over and coming into court for.
"Is nepetalactone in any way a controlled substance?"
"No, it is not."
"Thank you, Mr. Anderson. No further questions." Javier shifts his intent gaze to the judge and spreads his hands in a gesture that says, 'Now what?' "No case, Your Honor. I move to dismiss."
The judge thinks about it for a moment. Javier stands watching him---we're all watching him---I'm holding my breath. He picks up his wooden hammer, bangs it on his desk. "Case dismissed. You're free to go."
"No, no---lock them up!" screams Mama, and Papa spits again. He nails Julio right on the pocket of his new shirt, and the judge starts pounding his hammer like he's trying to drive nails into his desk. Javier grabs Julio by the shoulders and hangs on, because Julio's ready to jump over the little railing behind us and punch Papa out.
"Mr. Pappas, that was out of line!" the judge thunders. "I find you in contempt of court. The punishment will be $200 or two days in jail, it's your choice. Any further outbursts and I'll add filing a false police report to that and charge you for court costs."
"You can't do that!" Papa shouts. "What kind of crooked bastard are you? You should be locking them up, not letting them go!"
"Bailiff, take that man into custody. No one talks to me like that, especially not in this courtroom."
"It's not right!" Mama protests as Papa is hauled up to the judge's desk.
"For blatant disrespect toward myself and this bench and the malicious filing of wrongful charges, Mr. Pappas, I sentence you to seven days in jail and you will pay all court costs." Bang! He slams his hammer down again, and Mr. Pappas is led out---through the door Julio and I came in by. Mama is wailing and muttering curses at us---not all of them in English---and Javier shepherds us from the courtroom.
"That was so cool!" Julio is gleeful as we make our way out of the building. "That old fart, always bitching about his damn magazines."
"Thank you, Father," I say as we get to the front door of the courthouse. "You saved our lives."
There's a photographer on the steps of the courthouse, and a series of flashes as we walk out into the sunshine. The very next week, our picture appears on the cover of Newsweek magazine under the headline: "Radical Priest Seeks to Stop Injustice". In the story, our names are given as Juan Valdez and Sancho Panza. In the picture, Javier has a hand on each of our shoulders, and he's smiling that beautiful smile of his. Julio is smirking, and I've got a goofy grin on my face in response to Javier's words.
"Hey, they can't lock you up for smoking catnip."