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Authors: Roni Teson

Heaven or Hell (5 page)

BOOK: Heaven or Hell
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“I think I am too.” The small dog’s eyebrows lifted in some show of emotion.

“It’s like I’m in between places,” Angel said. “And I really can’t remember how long I’ve been here. My life now is real, but not really real.”

“Yes.” Belle nodded.

From that day forward Angel shared her cloud with pretty little Belle. As soft as a bed, and peacefully away from the world below, the cloud served as their escape.

The two spent their days apart, out in the world, but when they tired, usually at night, they met on that special cloud, to rest. Wherever the cloud may have floated to in the meantime, Angel and Belle always found their way back.

Then one day Belle brought home Kail, and they became a family of three. Angel loved her girls, and for some reason it was easy for her to trust the pups. Angel’s trust issues were with the few unknown people who somehow managed to see her when nobody else could. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, Angel moved her little family as far away as possible.

Belle and Kail would be interested in this newest twist to Teresa’s life, though Angel couldn’t leave quite yet to catch the girls up on these thought-provoking happenings. She wanted to be around for the upcoming visit. For years she’d watched Teresa simply exist. If what the women now were talking about had actually happened—the accident, the cancer, and all the rest—it explained a lot of the emptiness in Teresa’s life. And probably why Teresa, like Angel, avoided people, or relationships.

A while back, Angel told Teresa to get a dog—her life would be a lot less lonely; at least that was what Angel had discovered for herself. Since Teresa never heard her, Angel had tried to visit Teresa’s dreams, and in waking moments she whispered in Teresa’s ear. Eventually, Angel had managed to guide Teresa toward a pet store where Teresa looked for a while at the puppies. But Angel’s plans hadn’t worked out, because in the end, Teresa left the store empty handed.

Now, Angel decided to stay close to Teresa and be with her when she met the priest. She also intended to visit Teresa’s dad, regardless of whatever decision Teresa made. Angel was curious about this man and wanted to learn more.

 

CHAPTER 4
 

THE WAITING AREA AT THE CHURCH office smelled musty. A graffiti laden, three-legged desk had been balanced in the corner, and Jessie sat on one of four plastic, wobbly chairs scattered randomly about the room. Next to the second, double door entry, a bulletin board was propped up against the wall on the cheap laminate floor. The words ‘Sober Living Program’ were posted across the top.

It took Jessie a moment to recognize her brother’s face. A picture of Joe had been pinned to the middle of the board. A few more wrinkles and some gray hair, but she knew it was Joe. And from where she sat, it appeared he’d aged well. The alcohol must’ve preserved his skin.

Remaining seated, Jessie stifled her desire to walk over and see the picture close-up, for fear of Teresa also seeing the photo. Jessie believed it was too much, too soon. The poor girl needed a moment or so to catch her breath. It’d been less than an hour since she’d learned of her father’s being alive and his request to see her.

Jessie watched Teresa scan the small lobby from the entryway and quietly sighed as her niece’s eyes lit up in recognition of the man in the picture. Because Teresa rarely missed a thing, she’d tuned into that photo within seconds. And without pause, she went directly to the board and knelt down to look. Her voice echoed in the room as she read out loud, “Juan Torres, founder of the Sober Living Program.”

Jessie walked over and placed her hand on her niece’s shoulder as she squatted down next to her.

“He looks the same, only older,” Jessie said, and they both studied the photo. Behind them, a clock ticked on the wall.

“It’s like a time warp,” her niece said as she stared at the photo.

“I really didn’t want you to see it,” Jessie told Teresa. “I thought you’d need more time.”

“Oh, Tia, I’m not so sure I want to be here. My dad makes me so angry.”

“I know.” Jessie stood and returned to her chair. She patted the chair next to her. “Sit down, Teresita.”

“I always thought he’d died and that is why we never heard from him. I made up my mind he was dead. It hurt less that way, or at least that’s what I thought.” Teresa stared at the floor as she sat down. “I don’t know what to think, now.”

“We take it a step at a time.” Jessie took her niece’s hand in her own as she thought back to the night, long ago, when she tried to bring Joe home.

Jessie went to Joe’s favorite bar on Lexington Street, because she knew he’d be there. She shook her head now, trying not to think about the horrible incident in the parking lot. The bar was in a rough neighborhood. She wouldn’t have gone to the bar or been in that part of town, had it not been for her brother’s indiscretions. The son of a bitch had refused to return with her. He’d called her every name imaginable, including the “C” word.

Jessie had told him about what the men in the parking lot did to her, and Joe laughed at her. He’d told her to go home. “This is a man’s place. You have no business being here,” Joe went on and on … And what was she doing in this part of town anyway? Women didn’t belong here. He’d said she’d gotten what she deserved, and then physically pushed her out the door.

Up until the moment that had happened, she’d never seen her brother behave in that manner. Jessie wouldn’t have believed it, had it not happened to her. Afterward, when they found him passed out in the front yard, she’d hoped and prayed he’d snap out of it. Jessie thought he’d hit rock bottom then. In retrospect, she didn’t know if she’d been naïve, or simply stupid. Her father—Joe’s father—had drunk himself to death. It was in their blood, a part of their history. Why hadn’t she done more to stop her brother?

Jessie’s stomach went into spasms at the sound of approaching footsteps. The double doors flung wide open, and she immediately sat upright and at attention. Posture had been her biggest issue with the nuns in grade school, and her head began playing those terrible old tapes. She straightened her shirt with her hands and checked her niece with a quick sideways glance.

Teresa always looked like perfection. She wore tailored suits and the finest silk blouses. Jessie was very proud of her niece, in fact. The girl, well … the forty-year-old woman, had been through more in her years of life than most people would ever have to go through in several lifetimes, and she’d handled it all with remarkable courage.

“Father Benjamin?” Jessie’s knees cracked as she stood and moved toward the man. She felt like a child being sent to the principal’s office. The many years she attended a Catholic school had instilled a fear in her of religious authority.

The priest went directly over to Jessie. “I’m sorry I’m late.” He revealed a set of flawless white teeth and piercing blue eyes as he reached out to shake Jessie’s hand. “I’m Father Benjamin.”

“Hello Father, I’m Jessie and this is my niece, Teresa.” Jessie heard a stranger’s high-pitched voice come out of her mouth. Her left hand fluttered at her thigh while she stretched out her right hand to accept the priest’s handshake.

Father Benjamin took her hand in both of his and looked at her. When he finally turned to address Teresa, Jessie let out a silent sigh of relief. She felt as if the priest’s eyes had penetrated her soul and somehow learned more about her then she knew of herself.

“Come with me into my office, please.” He motioned with his arm and led them back through the doors into a long stretch of hallway. Jessie’s throat tightened. Perspiration broke out across her upper lip, and her limbs began to shake. In this brief second the walls seemed to close in around her.

She moved double-time to keep up with Father Benjamin, and thank goodness for this distraction. The closed-in feeling was quickly forgotten with her efforts to stay right behind him. The building was much larger than it appeared, but the priest obviously knew all of its ins and outs intimately. He moved quickly down the hall making several turns without hesitation. Jessie hoped she and Teresa wouldn’t have to find their way out on their own.

“This office, right here.” He pushed open the final door within a long maze of stark white halls. A large wooden desk filled one side of the office, and with a mismatch of colors a visitor seating area filled the other half of the space. Jessie was touched by the lack of decor rather than dismayed by it. The father seemed to truly have a calling here.

As he sat in an overstuffed chair across from the couch the women had settled on, the priest spoke again. “I’m sorry we meet under these unhappy circumstances.” With manicured hands, polished patent leather shoes, and his priest collar rising from a black, freshly dry-cleaned shirt, the priest looked impeccable.

“I think we’re a little unclear about the circumstances,” snapped Teresa.

“Well, unfortunately, the outlook isn’t good. Your dad, Juan, was admitted to Memorial Hospital. His liver isn’t functioning,” explained the priest. “It’s one of the reasons he cleaned up five years ago. They discovered the cirrhosis when he’d had a gallstone attack.”

Jessie swallowed and quietly asked, “Does he know you called us?”

“He requested it.” Father Benjamin rested his arms on his legs and tilted his body toward the women, while he continued in a soft tone. “I’m sure this is hard. From what I’ve been told, you haven’t seen or heard from him in many years.”

Jessie reached for a tissue from a box on a table to her right. “Oh, Mija, I’m sorry. I was going to be strong for you,” she said as the tears started in earnest.

Teresa put her hand out and grabbed Jessie’s other hand. “It’s okay, Auntie. His behavior was bad to all of us.” She took a deep breath and turned toward the priest in indignation. “If he’s been clean for over five years, why no attempt to contact us during all that time?”

“I think he wanted to contact you. I hope he has an opportunity to explain to you personally. He told me days turned into months, and months turned into years. He’d had bouts of staying clean and working over the last twenty years.” The priest sat upright as he spoke in a more formal voice, “I’m not sure how this will sound, but in his mind he had one more chance to be around his family and not disappoint. He claims every time he got near the point of reentering your lives, he broke under the pressure.”

They all sat quietly for a few minutes, then Jessie stood and deposited her wet tissue into the wastebasket. Heat filled her cheeks as rage took over. “Father, what do we make of this? He abandoned his wife during her darkest hour and left his daughter to fend for herself after she was in a car accident that killed her sister, his other daughter. He refused to accept help. We spent the first several years after his disappearance trying to find him.”

Jessie’s heart pounded. She licked her lips and continued, “Every birthday, graduation, wedding, and holiday were excruciating to live through the eyes of his beautiful daughter he’d abandoned.”

Jessie paused and looked at her niece. “She didn’t say it, but I know she silently waited for him to reappear. And then one day, all of us quietly accepted his death. We’d heard the house had been foreclosed, and we all grew tired of worrying about Joe. His cousins, uncles, aunts, and his daughter—all of us—we were done.”

Father Benjamin raised his hand and shook his head left to right, “I understand.” He looked at Teresa.

“How can you understand? Did your father leave you?” Teresa made no attempt to hide the fury in her voice. “And I’m not sure what I want to do now. I may opt to go back to my life untouched and treat my dad as he was to me yesterday, dead.”

The priest nodded and continued to maintain eye contact with Teresa.

“You know, Father, my dad has a specialty of bringing drama with him everywhere he goes. I can’t help but think …” Teresa looked down and swallowed. She then lifted her head and met the priest’s eyes. With her cheeks red and the vein across her forehead bulging, she continued as Jessie, trying to control her sobs, reached for yet another several tissues from the box. She’d always wanted to shield Teresa from this precise pain.

“Where was he when his wife lay dying asking for him, over and over again?” Teresa demanded. “Why should we be there for him now that he is dying? Selfish, selfish man.”

Father Benjamin stood and paced back and forth for a few seconds. He stopped in front of the women and nervously rubbed his chin as he spoke. “I can tell you about Juan’s most recent five years. Juan has lived in the maintenance quarters. He’s been employed as the church’s maintenance man the entire time. Over the last few decades, however, he’d somehow managed to take some college course work.”

The priest cleared his throat. “This put him in a position to finish a college degree when he first arrived at our center. Juan then became a licensed counselor. He’s been one of our most successful addiction counselors. He also founded the Sober Living Program, which has helped so many souls.”

Then the father knelt down to the eye level of the seated women. “I know Juan isn’t any saint. But, the man also continued to work as the church maintenance person while acting as a counselor. His time has been spent with the outreach programs, with his groups, on skid Row finding missing sober lifers and always, always reaching out to others.”

Father Benjamin stood up, turned around, and slightly above a whisper he said, “I had a better understanding of why he seemed so selfless, when he finally told me his family story.”

“As a part of the Twelve Step Program, don’t most people make amends to those they’ve hurt?” Teresa asked. Jessie noticed the moisture beneath her niece’s eyes.

“Yes, it’s considered a critical element to maintaining a clean lifestyle.” Father Benjamin sighed.

“How could he counsel people when his own house wasn’t in order?” Teresa asked.

“A question to ask your dad, if you decide to see him.” The priest rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead and frowned. He then looked up, and to Jessie it appeared he forced a smile.

With a deep breath, the priest continued, “I’d like to show you his living quarters and where he has worked for the last five years. Would you like to see it?”

BOOK: Heaven or Hell
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