I PERSUADED DIEGO to make the drive two hours south of Tucson. At first he hadn’t wanted to, but he changed his mind because of the painting.
That and the prophecy: for it was said that one day this whole place would be resurrected. That even the aged windmill, its rusted wings clattering with every gust of desert air, would find new life, and the sanctuary’s ravaged remains would once again be packed with people. Fifty years ago they flocked from all over the world for a touch from F.R. Republic, the healing evangelist. Some stayed and formed a small community. You could still see their various outbuildings, dormitories, orchards, and barns, now the haunt of tumbleweeds and mice.
People still visited, in a trickle now—curiosity seekers, pilgrims, border crossers. They hung rosaries, left notes, and stuffed papers with prayers into crevices between the old foundation stones.
Recently a young couple had gotten permission to start the services back up; they’d repurposed one of the outbuildings as a makeshift sanctuary. They were trying to renovate the grounds with donated funds—there was a box with a slot and a sign for a website. A Sisyphean task, Diego said, in his imperious way. Some things never come back.
Diego was an imposing man, heavyset, with bushy eyebrows and intelligent eyes. He was an artist; after the service, we planned to see the painting.
We sat in metal folding chairs while the wife, who doubled as pastor and song leader, led us in old-fashioned Pentecostal hymns on the upright piano. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, her glossy dark hair neatly pinned at her nape, yet she dressed like a woman of the last century, in a long-sleeved white blouse, silver brooch, and full-length burgundy skirt. As she preached, she paced the room, the tiny windows beaming about her, while her husband, a handsome man in a black-fringed western jacket, stood in the corner, watching her protectively. I liked this couple. Who said they couldn’t bring it all back? Sometimes I resented Diego’s pronouncements.
Afterward, I helped stack the folding chairs against the wall. Diego was talking to a stooped man with a long, white prospector’s beard. I could hear the man telling Diego how he’d been an original member of the community and known F.R. Republic himself.
“Even the tribes came,” the old man was saying. “Camped out in teepees for a month of services, and F.R. served them barbecue, dishing it out himself. He was a servant—a real miracle-worker too, despite what the newspapers said. They made an issue of alcoholism being the cause of death on his autopsy report,” the man went on. “But the truth was, F.R. was raised sucking a rag soaked in whiskey—poor people did that when they needed their babies to sleep. He battled the drink all his life. But even so…” The man looked up, his blue eyes shining. “Even so…”
He went on to tell how he’d been changed in those meetings and so full of the Holy Ghost that one day he heard God’s voice and walked straight to the Otomi nation—stayed a decade, maybe more, he’d lost count. Learned their language too. Diego perked up. He was part Otomi, and they spoke for a while in delighted staccato phrases. The old man went to his rusty pickup and came back with a jar of honey from his bees, which he gave to Diego.
I’d have liked to talk more with the man, to ask how he left everything and wandered hundreds of miles, unafraid, but Diego said he was tired and steered me out, one arm around me, the other braced against his cane.
“Mija,” he said, after we had walked a little, “I have to rest.”
Diego always called me mija, daughter, instead of Lisa. Once he called me by his ex-wife’s name, and ever since, he always called me mija. I thought he might have forgotten my name altogether, but he had his pride, and I took care not to embarrass him.
Once as Diego and I left a gallery, a security guard perked up. “I remember you,” he said, pointing at Diego. “We kicked you out of a baseball game!” Apparently, Diego had disagreed with an official’s call. “The umpire said he feared for his life,” said the guard, grinning. Diego managed a smile. I didn’t ask him about this. I didn’t want to think of him as a crank. He was an artist. Some of his paintings, the geometric squares and double images that had, early on, made his reputation, were in museums or the hands of collectors.
We found a bench in the shade of an acacia tree. I wound my long hair into a bun. Diego rested his silver-tipped cane, the one with the lion’s head, against the bench. “I am a lion,” he liked to say. “An old lion.” He’d read a book that grouped personalities into four categories represented by animals. There was the otter, the fun lover. The squirrel, the administrator, detail oriented. The lion, the born leader. “And then there is the golden retriever, which is you, mija,” he would say, “with the heart of gold, always helping everyone.”
The jar of honey was cool against my fingers, the glass weighty, a heart not of gold but of amber. Was I a golden retriever? Was that how people thought of me? Sometimes I wished they wouldn’t think of me at all but would see beyond, to what was greater. I remembered the Otomi saying: The river flows; it never comes back. Life flows; it never comes back. But I wanted to ford that river—was it wrong?—and catch a glimmer of what had gone before and hold it to myself so that it would become a part of me and never leave.
We sat, listening to the drone of cicadas. We faced south, where the mountains of Mexico shimmered blue-purple in the summer light.
Diego was born in Sonora. He was mostly Spanish, but part Otomi, part Tohono O’odham, and part German—his great-grandfather was a submariner in the First World War, the lone survivor of a wreck off the coast of Matamoros. A few of Diego’s relatives had blue eyes, his legacy. Diego himself was tall, almost six feet. He would compare my tanned forearms to his. “You are browner than I am,” he would say, for he kept out of the sun because of his numerous medications. If anyone questioned his Mexican identity, he would rise up and declare that he had the blood of the Virgin of Guadalupe flowing through his veins.
I touched his arm, the one with the fistula. Once, I’d leaned my head against it; “Listen,” he whispered then, and I could hear the blood coursing through, loud and furious, like Niagara Falls. They’d had to knit the vein and artery together for the dialysis that preceded his kidney transplant, which he liked to call his kidney transfer.
I met Diego while helping my pastor with hospital visitations. “You’ll learn a lot about human nature,” my pastor said. “Helping others will help you heal.”
Had it? It had given me perspective. There was Diego’s suffering, with his surgeries, and there was mine. Two years ago I was in my kitchen when officers knocked on the door. “Ma’am, may we come in? We’re sorry to inform you that your husband…. Speeding down a hill”—speeding, was that a crime?—“His bicycle”—yes, he’d gone riding. Something about a construction ditch. The officers lingered at the door. When they asked what to do with the body, I couldn’t answer. He was only thirty-five, an allergist. I’d helped him in the office. We’d hoped for children—but now it was as if I’d turned a page in a book that had suddenly become unreadable.
Afterward, I took the clothes out of the washer. I dried Ben’s shirts and ironed them. His papers, too, I left on the desk. I had to go through his essential papers, of course. But everything else I kept as it was. Someday I would pack up his things. But he’d touched them once, and if I touched what he touched, perhaps he would come back to me, and the world he took with him would come back too.
At the hospital, Diego asked if I would be his friend. “Yes,” I said, without thinking.
So, I drove him to doctors’ appointments or to visit museums. Sometimes I helped in his studio.
I had enough money to live on for a while. I’d done editing for medical journals and occasionally jotted a few poems, which hardly seemed worth mentioning, especially to Diego, who liked reading his books to me—Cervantes, or Octavio Paz.
“Okay, mija,” said Diego, rising from the bench. “I’m ready now.” He took my arm, and we forged a path through the pear orchard. Dried grasses crunched beneath our feet. Miniature daisies and little purple asters lined the way past the old mechanic’s shop with its peeling paint. Swallows dipped and banked in the eddies of the wind, dive-bombing through the shattered windows of the ruined dormitories.
Before us the sanctuary loomed with its cupola and cross. We entered through a side door half off its hinges. Holes in the roof let in swaths of light. After F.R. died, these grounds had been turned into a school for a time, and the sanctuary was repurposed as an indoor basketball court. The concrete floor still had faded yellow lines. I could see where basketballs had hit the mural above the stage and cracked it in places.
The story of the mural was that the famous artist Manfred Müller had traveled the world in the seventies with his daughter, Gwendolyn, offering to gift a painting to any church he found worthy. It was his service to God, he said. It was here, in this place, with F.R. serving barbecue and the tribes camping on the grounds, that he painted it. The roof did not leak then; the stained-glass windows, pale yellow and blue, were still in their panes, unbroken.
We found some plastic chairs and sat to study the mural, with its larger-than-life Jesus, his painted arms outstretched. From his feet with the nail holes a river flowed, filling up the bottom of the painting and blending into the rest of the colors, turquoise and vivid cerulean, passing through villages with women washing clothes, whole families going to market, through mountains and valleys, and above it all the sun broke through. The painting was at least a hundred feet long. There was the pale green of dawn with its morning star, the flaming coral of evening, the colors, like melodies, fusing in a kind of symphony. I felt an urge to pray, to walk the stage, touch the crutches left leaning on each side, get a closer look at the scroll unfurling at the bottom of the mural that read: take from me, eat, and all who are thirsty, drink, and, come all ye who labor and are heavy laden, but Diego was restless.
“Yes, yes, it is beautiful, but Müller was of course an illustrator.”
Diego preferred abstraction, though he was as good a realist as anyone. I could see Müller’s skill as an illustrator in the swaths of fields, the workers harvesting oats, the pear orchard we had just walked through, a semblance of the old mechanic’s garage.
He painted this place. We walked through it. I shivered. The revelation was like a joy, flaring up, fire to filament.
Had it been the same for F.R. Republic’s grandson? He’d been addicted, homeless; he’d come here as a last resort—they’d told the story in the service—slept on the stage and woke up healed—took up his mat and walked, as they say, into his life as it was meant to be.
“We have our legends too,” said Diego, later, as I tried to articulate these thoughts on the drive back to Tucson, the elevation dropping and the iconic saguaros coming back into view, their green arms lifted to the sky, as if in blessing. “The O’odham call these the ancestors,” he said, of the cactus.
Diego went on to tell me of the rabbit who lives in the center of the moon. He sang “El Reloj,” a song about a clock that was all the rage in his grandmother’s day. “There are ballads too, about the land we lost. All of this”—he swept his arm across the saguaro-studded hills—“was Mexico once, mi gente, my people, our home.”
He reached for his black hard-backed journal, the latest of many sketchbooks. “Have you heard of Nezahualcoyotl, mija?” He flipped through pages of rectangles, cityscapes, phone numbers, and a drawing of a woman with a basket of nopales. “I have copied some of his verses. He was called the poet king of Texcoco. He believed in the one true God, like we do.” Diego found the page. “Here,” he said, and recited: “With flowers you paint / O, giver of life! / With songs you give color, / With songs you shade / Those who will live on the earth. / Later, you will destroy eagles and tigers… / With black ink you will blot out / All that is friendship, brotherhood, nobility… / We live only in your book of paintings, / here on the earth.”
“With flowers you paint…” I repeated, and tried to think of purple asters instead of the white and green Border Security van we had just passed—or the silver surveillance blimp, tethered, with all its equipment, floating like a UFO in the middle of the day.
As we approached Tucson, we stopped at Denny’s, Diego’s favorite restaurant. He called it the Denny’s. “Let’s stop at the Denny’s, mija,” he liked to say.
Our waitress was plump, middle-aged. Diego ordered a burger and mixed vegetables. When he said vegetables, his v sounded like a b, as in begetables.
“Where are you from?” asked the waitress.
Diego glared at her from under his bushy eyebrows. “I am from here,” he said. “My people have lived here for hundreds of years! Where are you from?”
She stood, pen and pad in hand, her mouth a pink-lipsticked O.
“England?” He glanced at her red hair. “Scotland? They call us wetbacks. But you came across the Atlantic!”
She stuttered, confused. “Um, I moved from Wisconsin.”
“Wisconsin!” He almost yelled. “My ex-wife was from Wisconsin!”
People turned in their bright red booths, staring.
I could hear Diego ripping napkins out of the dispenser. Across the street, a man was soliciting customers at the Circle K. His cardboard sign read Hungry.
“I think we should go, Diego.”
But he did not move. Eventually, the people in the booths turned back to their meals. The waitress brought our food.
As we ate, I ventured into uncharted territory. “Forgiveness—”
“Pass the salt, mija.”
“Sorry. But Diego—” I took a breath. “There must be something good about your ex-wife.”
He was quiet.
“She has a head,” he said, folding his napkin by the plate of half-eaten vegetables.
“And two arms.” He took a sip of water and set down his fork with a clink. “Also, two legs.”
He sketched the waitress on a napkin in ballpoint pen. The ink bled, forming blobs around the edges. He said it was one of his abstract pieces. “This will be worth a lot of money someday, better than a tip.”
On the way home I thought about how I’d wanted the patients in the hospital to heal, how I prayed for them. But sometimes people died, and there was nothing you could do about it. Sometimes they suffered. And it was true, I thought. Some things never come back.
In the car Diego confessed that his three grown daughters block his calls.
“My ex-wife poisoned them against me.” His ex-wife was also the cause of his high blood pressure, which was the cause of his kidney transplant. He could see her imprint everywhere, destroying his life and his reputation: “That evil woman is the reason I am in this backwater place, instead of New York or LA. They love me in LA. Here, nobody knows art!” He opened his sketchbook to a drawing of a woman and held it high: “They say I hate women! But I love women!”
He thrust his finger at the ink-slash eyes, the enormous breasts, the buttocks ballooning off of the page. “Put this beside any Picasso,” he went on. “Put it in a museum, in a frame, by the Picassos. Which would people be drawn to? This one, of course! Here all they want is decoration for rich houses.” He snapped the book shut, brandishing it in the air. “Sellouts to commercialism! My art is for the ages!” He went on to tell how, in Paris, he’d stood painting by the Seine, where a man saw the work on his easel and cried, “Here’s a real artist!” And people gathered, admiring, nodding their agreement. “They called me maestro. The French have great sensibility.”
I waited at a traffic light. “Honk!” yelled Diego. An old man was in the car in front of us, finally noticing that the light was green. “Honk, mija!” he yelled.
I did not honk.
“Diego,” I said. “He’s going.”
“Nobody knows how to drive in this town,” he said. “Everyone’s a bunch of Sleepy Lous.”
The next week at his doctor’s appointment, we learned that Diego needed a parathyroid operation. His enlarged parathyroid was pumping out too much calcium for his body to absorb. “This could be damaging your newly transplanted kidney,” the doctor said. “And you don’t want this to go on too long, or the excess calcium will damage your brain.”
Diego raised his eyebrows. “How will it damage my brain?”
“It will make you psychotic,” the doctor said.
On the walls of his house, which doubled as his studio, Diego had painted a series of bulls, like cave paintings. “I love my little bulls,” he would say. His people were more complex, with multiple faces layered one upon the other, as if each were an aspect of personality. One eye was split into many. The bodies, too, were fractured.
On the walls were his diplomas. He’d gotten a genius grant to study at UCLA. “You always have to prove yourself,” he said. “I learned, in this country, they respect these,” he waved at his accolades, his posters for gallery openings. The last show, from fifteen years ago, was called “Madmen, Artists, and Saints.”
Sometimes, Diego would get upset and yell.
His calls became more frequent: Mija, are you in your casita? Mija, I just want to hear your voice. Mija, you must forgive me, there is a buzzing in my head.
“Diego,” I said one day. “I can’t always take your calls.”
“It’s not like you are running a factory,” he said. “What do you do, anyway?”
When he called later, he said, “Don’t listen to the voices.”
“The negative voices.”
“I don’t hear negative voices, Diego.”
The next day, I bought hiking shoes. I knew all the street signs, potholes, and landmarks by my house but had never explored this other neighborhood, filled with acacia and wolfberry trees. A lunar landscape, or rather, a Ray Bradbury–esque one—with spikes of ocotillo, stalks of blue-gray agave, and the skeletons of saguaros, their ribs worn smooth from wind and rain. These were little-known trails frequented by deer, coyote, and sometimes rattlesnakes. Everything had scales, spines, or stung. But after a rain the air was fragrant with the creosote and turpentine bush. Flowers sprang out of nowhere. Even now, barrel cactus buds were readying to erupt into waxy, orange blooms.
More and more, I left my phone at home. If I missed a call from Diego, it felt like freedom. Once, I found a canyon I’d never seen before. I stopped just long enough to see a doe pick her way down the steep side, her tawny flank camouflaged, the black tips of her large ears barely visible.
The next day I set out early. When I reached the canyon, I felt faint. Perhaps I’d not eaten enough or drunk enough water. I put down my poles, stripped off my pack, and sat down on the ground. I listened to the rasping of tiny insects and birds until the noise seemed to be coming from the rocks themselves. My eyes grew heavy. Everything blurred, as if I were seeing through rain, and then the whole surface of the world seemed to shimmer and open up, as if the side of the saguaro-dotted hill was lifted and peeled away, and I glimpsed for an instant the unseen reality undergirding it all. As if the earth rolled back like a scroll: Come to me, all ye who are weary.
I lay back and closed my eyes. White-bellied canyon wrens called, their mournful descending notes echoing across the expanse—across that great gulf between what is and what could be.
My body was vibrating now, as if all the molecules were moving at a higher frequency, like water heated on a stove.
When I got home, I couldn’t sleep. I picked up an envelope from Ben’s desk, turned it over, and placed it back again. There. I’d made a change. It wasn’t so hard. I scooped up the rest of Ben’s papers and put them in a grocery bag.
I brought other bags to the closet and went through his shirts—the striped one, which I never liked. The wrinkled ones, hard to iron. I put them all in bags. I now had room for my own clothes, which I’d stuffed in bureau drawers. Why? I didn’t know. Ben had never begrudged me space.
And then I found it: his soft, brown flannel. I took it off its hanger. “Ben,” I said out loud, clutching the shirt to myself; it smelled of musk and sweat and something sweet, like clove or cinnamon. Once he’d put my arms through its arms and turned me to face him. “It brings out the gray of your lovely eyes,” he said. Lovely. His touch, his hands through my hair, my hands through his hair—soft, sandy—his stubbly face. I lay on the coolness of our bed with the shirt wrapped tight and felt him near.
“You are like the sun,” he would say. “If you weren’t there, what would I do?”
What would I do? Mournful, descending notes, lost in the great gulf between what was and what can never be. The river flows; it never comes back. I pulled the shirt closer. For a long time I savored the warmth—his head, his arms, his legs—what shall we do with the body—until I realized it was not Ben but only the morning, with the sun streaming in. That, and the smell of damp flannel.
Thankfully, Diego’s parathyroid operation was successful. Afterward he joked, “Now what is my excuse?”
Later that week, he called. “Mija, you are a true golden retriever, with a heart of gold,” he said. “I could never have made it without you.” He went on to say that his dishes were piling up.
“Diego, I know you mean it as a compliment, but I’m not a golden retriever. And—I want you to get better, but—I can’t do everything.” I tried to sound upbeat. “You can call social services, or home health. Pima Council for the Aging is a great resource.”
He was silent.
“And—my name is Lisa,” I blurted, right before I heard the click of his phone.
He called early the next day. “Mija,” he said. “Lisa. You must forgive me. Forgive my locuras. I fear I am becoming like Don Quixote.” He told me about an appointment he had for an operation on his left eye. “It is terrible for an artist to lose his sight,” he said.
Fortunately, this operation, too, was successful.
When I brought Diego home from the hospital with his bandaged eye, it was starting to rain. I was pleased to see that the front room he used as his studio was clean.
“A lady comes by and helps me,” he said. He showed me a large canvas he’d prepped. “I haven’t started it yet. It is hard, painting with one eye. But I am getting better—” He paused, searching. “Lisa.”
“You can call me mija,” I said. “I like it when you call me mija.”
Behind us, the walls were covered with his paintings. When I first met Diego, he’d showed them to me: “Here is the girl I loved in Sonora—a beautiful large-eyed girl, she was fifteen and I was sixteen. Later, she got married and had thirteen children, can you believe that? And here are the pickers in the date grove, and here is the farmworker family in their makeshift living room, migrant laborers following the crops, picking watermelons, onions, lettuces. And here is mi abuela beside her kitchen table, listening to ‘El Reloj’ on the radio with her wood-burning stove and her plants. And here, the menudo seller with his cart—how he would call out! And the ice man with his cart. And me at ten—I had a raft and charged a few cents to ferry people across the river—and here I am ferrying a father with his daughter holding his hand.”
He opened a drawer and absently touched his bandage. “Here is something I’ve never shown you,” he said, reaching for an old sketchbook. He thumbed through the pages. “I made this when I came out of the hospital, after my kidney transfer, when I thought I might die, but I didn’t die, instead I came back to my home and painted this view. See the painting?” He gestured through the window and I looked at its miniature in the black book.
Standing near, I could feel the pulse of blood in his arm, like Niagara Falls. I thought of the past and the future shimmering in our reflections, fractured, superimposed upon the window, the curb, the luminescent sky, the houses with their gates and orange trees, the hills—which were not green, but fuchsia and mustard and purple—canyons, arroyos, deer paths running through forests of living saguaros, their study, accordion arms raised—come, all who are thirsty—flowering now—I could almost smell it—with the advent of the rain.
I held Diego’s book, touched its cover, inky-black. My hands trembled. I turned the page.
Elizabeth Brown has published stories, poems, and essays in the Christian Science Monitor, Cutthroat, The Daily Beast, and elsewhere. She has worked as a pastoral counselor and taught at the University of Arizona’s Eller School of Business. She lives in Tucson.