This story appears in Berfrois: The Book, published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe. You can get a copy here.
In honour of ST. ALBERTO HURTADO, lay brother of the Society of Jesus
& his truck
Your mind was always analytical, its gears working, crunching past one another, evaluating the variables in your own country after years abroad. There were so many absences — where were the country priests? — and excesses — the labour unions had such brio. This in turn derived from another absence, an anemia, a lack of that soul you would try to instil in them. You zeroed in on the root of it all, those boys who would grow up into drifting adults, without nourishing food perhaps but more importantly without a project, the boys who every day waited with such expectation for your green pickup, whistling and hooting when it pulled into the neighbourhood.
‘Poor of spirit’ is the worst kind of poor; this was your fundamental revelation. Then pancreatic cancer took you, and the church made you a saint. Everywhere, in churches and avenues, statues still recall you to passers-by — not only you, but the spirit of humour you brought with you, which appeared in your wry unsurprised look, your ironic eyebrows and thin lips that suggested a kind of eternal determination. The gold circle round your head you accepted, though you would have preferred to see it glowing round those social problems that so obsessed you, aureate rings that made people point toward whatever place they appeared, before running to gather and draw to them the poor thing haloed.
What of the ones left behind? The boys would keep expecting big slabs of bread with butter, which they believed would always keep coming, along with that gold light, those wheels skimming past thick poppies at the road’s edge for eternity. The old lady who lived next door had also grown used to the truck, one of a number of ways to combat the long held ache in her chest. ‘I loved that pickup not for what it brought, but because you could always count on the man to show up,’ she said. Her neighbours had grumbled about the noise, but this model parishioner had waited calmly with her Nescafé, now one mug set out not two as before, when they’d talk of good and evil over slices of whipped cream cake. You’d have understood the anxieties of the boys, and the old lady, and also the shrine manager, who feared some unscrupulous type would appropriate the vehicle for scrap and so had it properly installed. You’d have understood the fears of your posthumous editor, concerned to get the mixture of abnegación and alegría in your selected texts just right. You’d have understood those hard-pressed to think of their life as a compact density, thinking of it instead as an empty vessel that needed filling.
I’ve got nothing against a beautiful theory, for even if it isn’t true in a certain way, it is true in another. So I’ll tell you what occurs to me when I approach your life. I think that all sounds are fragments of the original sound, broken up into cries, shouts, traffic noises, and the like; all things are fragments of the original thing, cracked into discrete objects; all acts are fragments of the original act, shattered into bad, good, evil, love. The world is glittering fragments from the original shining whole, and your truck is a reminder of this. What transformation took place in your truck after you died, Alberto? In what ways was your green pickup a rupture into the everyday? Could something of its owner have permeated it even after your death? Has it reverted to being a mere truck, or does a fragment of your presence still exist in the world?
This was the start of the life of the saint I was going to write. It would have gone on like this, a direct letter to Hurtado, a monologue, a hagiography not intended for publication. To write is to talk out loud to a person whose identity remains opaque but becomes ever more present, taking on shape through a continued act of reception. Hurtado’s answers would come to me, I was at first convinced, through the posing of the right questions, at first abstract but gaining in solidity. How should one recount a life, in what form? As I wrote, the anecdotes of Hurtado’s story and his writings and my thoughts about him began to condense into the form of an object, the green pickup belonging to the Padre. The lives of the saints are incomplete without a consideration of the lives of the others they knew and transformed, both people and objects. If saints are vehicles of the divine, is it so wrong to consider the literal vehicles they drove to carry out their acts of goodness? François Trochu and André Frossard in France, G.K. Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh in England, Raymond of Capua and Maria Valtorta in Italy, Jesús Capo and Telmo Meirone in South America wrote modern biographies about people who scrambled over the path between God and human reality, conducting and conveying, transporting and transfiguring.
The job at the shrine was a fluke, almost. The interview went smoothly. Just one requisite was necessary, that I have faith. I spoke of my family life, past jobs, political votes. This interrogation of antecedents stripped me bare for the analysis of others. What was there within me that they didn’t and couldn’t know? Or was the physical me, what was written on my resumé, all the ‘me’ that existed? It was not the first time that I’d been asked these questions. My previous job had been as gatekeeper at an apartment complex. A screen before me was filled with tiny rectangles showing views of front entrance, driveway, garden, hallways on each of the five levels of the building. Every morning and afternoon I watched people drive. In and out, out and in. I anticipated them, opening the gate just before their car slipped through. I’ve always loved cars, though I’ve never owned one myself. Often I would imagine driving those vehicles for a few hours, taking them for a spin around town. When the theft occurred, it wasn’t me on duty but the night guard. A resident had left his keys in the car while running upstairs for a bag, and in those few minutes the car went missing. The guard was new; no one knew much about him. His name and details had been forged. Of course there was a massive outcry on the part of the building’s organising committee. My background was probed. I felt naked and curiously detached as I answered questions about my past. The more I talked of myself the less I felt like myself. The external facts are not what make us who we are. Yet something in those external facts made my employer say: ‘Thank you for your service, but there is no need for so many gatekeepers at this time. The residents feel more comfortable with a minimal staff and additional cameras. As the second most recent hire, you must go.’ He mentioned that he did know about an opening, however, and would put in a good word for me. The other gatekeeper on shift admitted his involvement in the theft, but the committee’s decision was final.
The shrine: I knew what every local knows about Hurtado, and recognised him from statues around the city. But if I was going to work at a site dedicated to his memory, I wanted to know more. Before my first day I practiced my commute to the outskirts. The conversation about the job had taken place in an office at the entrance, and I’d gone no further. Now I could explore. The place was huge, almost an amusement park, and the layout was a small version of Chile, long and slightly curved. It reminded me of an evangelical theme park in the south my sister and I had visited when we were children, where to our embarrassment our grandfather had jumped up and shouted at the priest giving the mass: ‘You are not Catholic! You are pagan!’
Hurtado’s tomb was circular and cool, a refuge from the heat, with a delicate moreno Virgin and child. Outside three big crosses painted in psychedelic colours loomed over the grass opposite the amphitheatre for the staging of religious plays. In the middle of the second cross, a dark Satan howled and clawed. Behind it, a woman sat on a bench, clutching a blaring radio that advertised a new programme, Si yo fuera rico… I sat near her and looked at the row of stone walls with plaques announcing favours granted, from the disappearance of cancerous tumours to the homecoming of prodigal sons. The phrase favor concedido made the business of granting favours a bureaucratic affair and these plaques a stamp that registered correct processing. Inside the museum everything from Hurtado’s old sweater to his typewritten papers to his spartan bed were carefully preserved as relics. The green pickup, a Ford T, was there too, no exception. The real thing, not a replica, more itself than I was.
To go incognito is a funny experience: you’re invisible yet exist; you are yourself yet no one recognises you. Or perhaps you’re not yourself. I hadn’t announced my arrival to anyone. In a few days I’d be protecting everything I saw, yet for now I had no obligations whatsoever. I was a nobody, a spirit not yet committed, in that huge place that would later seem small. Once you are responsible for something, you get to know every centimetre, and the obligation to each centimetre becomes a set of chains. Non-involvement is invisibility, lightness.
Looking around the gift shop I noticed a kid slip a Hurtado postcard worth a few pesos into his pocket. I thought of saying something, but I didn’t. My professional mantle wasn’t on quite yet. That is what it would be, I already knew: a mantle, not an identity essential to me. Professionally I would be a defender of justice, an enemy of criminals, but my private self would remain dazzlingly free of official opinions. This child’s motives might have been legitimate. Who was I to judge? On the way back to the metro, a green truck painted on the wall was spray painted with the telephone number of a dealer. That part of the city was a desolate cement jungle without plazas or parks, not to mention bookstores or coffee shops, though some yanqui fast food joints had begun to make inroads. If the greenness of Hurtado’s truck could be extracted and infused into the air and the buildings to saturate them with hope… stop dreaming, sister.
The job began, and all day long I sat in the museum and watched people. In and out, out and in. The green pickup that rested beside me was the most vivid object of those around, which included faded cassocks, papers full of spidery old script and sepia photographs. It seemed more alive even than Hurtado, who has been canonised into an airy symbol of goodness and charity. The truck, in contrast, was big, thick, heavy — real. Its biography, its complete history, would start before Hurtado entered the picture. I am fond of pickup trucks. My dad, a civil engineer, had a Ford T back in the day, and was more proud of it than anything else he owned. Sometimes I suspect he was more proud of it than his own children. We just popped out willy-nilly, without too much thought, but the truck was a conscious decision saved up over years. Yes, she was a fine thing. Of course Hurtado’s use of it is what made it special, but one can’t deny that it had excellent qualities from the start.
The green pickup patiently inhabited that space all day long. I wanted to know more about it, but the bookshop was useless. You could find toy plastic versions of the Ford T, but no biography graced the shelves. Was this some Jesuit prejudice for works over texts, or had such a volume just never been written? This was when I started thinking seriously about writing the life of the truck. During breaks sometimes I’d go lie in the shady part of the grass, under the three crosses. Then I’d drop into a light sleep, and the strangest ideas would come to mind. Before I knew it there I was, driving the pickup up and down the Chile-shaped premises, now and then braking to get out and toss roses from the flatbed. The dreams filled me with a great peace. I didn’t think of telling anyone, since I would sound cuckoo.
But I hadn’t reckoned on the lady with the radio. She was a member of the nearby population who appeared frequently. That day her radio was turned off, and it sat beside her on the ground like a pet. Her hair was heaped on her head, her shirt was bright pink and her pants were white, like she was some kind of movie star. Cross-legged, she leaned slightly over the grass like it was her reflection. Instead of looking down, though, her eyes remained fixed on the three crosses, intensely waiting for something to happen. Just after I walked past I heard the muffled sound of her crying. I stopped. Had I heard correctly? I walked back and sat with her. She kept crying. I said something. No more of that, come on, you can’t do that here, what’s there to cry about anyhow, it’s a beautiful day and here a saint once walked, or drove, he had a big green truck, the one in the museum, he’d drive right past, soon you’ll see in real life, you’ll see… and her eyes turned to me and I saw she was listening, and then everything slid out, not even tumbled. She became calm. ‘Thank you head-in-the-clouds,’ she mumbled, when I stood up to go.
My dream had been a private world; I knew that to talk about it would make it different and strange, an object no longer part of myself. But now it was out, and Marta asked me about it again and again. It was impossible not to pass her on the bench every day. Nor was I trying to avoid her. The population living in the surrounding neighbourhood shouldn’t frighten us; the people there are mostly peaceful and don’t create problems. On occasion someone would show up to rest on a cool bench, but less often than one would expect, as if shyness or self-restraint were being exercised. Marta was one of the few regulars, and I didn’t mind her presence. The shrine was really for these people, not the tourists who stopped in. The others didn’t agree, I know. The man who sold tickets at the entrance and the ladies who worked at the café openly expressed their thoughts on hygiene. I caught the girl at gift shop eyeing one of them in a strange way, like she’d seen a ghost. My own position was non-intervention. I rarely expressed my own views shrilly because in truth I had no strong views, and inhabited the status quo with a certain comfort, at least until the green pickup.
My conversations with Marta gave me pleasure, though they were really me talking and her listening, as she twisted the dials of the radio and picked grass out of her shoes and in general put on a hostile performance to pretend she was just there to humour me. I knew she enjoyed the company. I was more interesting than the chattering voices that came from her metal box all day; I was real. It was as if the voices in the box had popped into a three-dimensional life. The relief from her loneliness was palpable. I don’t say this to be condescending, but as a simple fact. The conversion of an idea to physical form was meaningful in the extreme: perhaps there was nothing at all that was more meaningful.
And what was to stop my own fantasies from taking on similar substance, as a materialisation of thought? The best way to commemorate the life of the green pickup would be not to write about it, but to take it on a spin around the museum premises. To bring the truck back to life, to liberate it from its confines in the museum, would be a triumph. What was the point of writing a biography, after all? To bring the object from the past to life, to plump it up with anecdotes, to paint descriptive scenes, to analyse virtues and defects: what arduous exercises. Wouldn’t my purpose be better served by taking the vehicle for a spin? To care for something is not just to oversee its deadness, but to encourage its living possibilities. The surprise of the act would be a wonder to behold. The green of the paint would gleam in a different way in the sun; the glass would sparkle.
Of course there were practical matters to arrange. The tires would have to be inflated. I’d have to smuggle in cans of gasoline. The pipes and tanks would have to be checked. All of this would have to be done in secret. It was daunting, but not impossible. The staff went home at 7.30. If I could figure out a way to remain on the premises past that time, it wouldn’t be overly difficult to make the necessary preparations. Where would I drive the truck? Around the neighbourhood, or only within the shrine? Would this be a public spectacle, or an act performed between myself and the stars? I wasn’t sure about the fundamentals, except one: that the past would cease to be past and breeze gloriously into the present. I would strew roses over the pavement, bright pink blots of color against moist earth, long and regal emerald stems. Any thorns would naturally have been removed, so that the roses presented no danger to human hands. Perfume from the flowers would fill the air and a song, a simple chant, would rise of its own accord from those watching, capable of being heard miles away. Then the roses would be collected and pressed to make a special rosewater, in which everyone present could wash themselves, before they dressed in white and found their seats at a long banquet table piled with delicacies and a rose centrepiece. Why roses? asked Marta. All of the marvels should be accompanied by roses, all the hagiographies seem to have been written under a rose bough, I tried to explain.
Marta said she would get the population to support me. They would come down from their tall buildings and watch. It might seem strange that I entrusted a task so important to someone I hardly knew, but at that moment it seemed right, an act of faith. To let the population onto the grounds after hours was against the law, but already we were operating with another logic, beyond human law. The act would take place in the dead of night. The truck would be in its usual place before morning. I’d do a slow loop up and down the shrine in darkness. I’d never even get out of the vehicle; that wasn’t the point.
The act was no longer mental; it was something I could touch. I poured in the gas and started the car. The metal was cold and took a while to warm up, but then there was the motor, trembling, purring. The move off the platform and out the door would be tricky. It would be necessary to accelerate hard to exit with the required velocity. The doors had been opened wide, and I aimed for the black rectangle beyond. The truck burst into the silence. A terrifying silence that seemed the opposite of everything previously trying to analyse me, make sense of me, figure me out. The silence was interested in neither myself nor this act. It was opaque; it anchored the darkness. The silence of a cell is different. That is my silence, a silence that permits thought. This, in contrast, was clarified stillness; it was awe. But at last the applause came. A few timid claps followed by shouts and thunder.
Just one turn was the plan. Marta hoisted Hurtado’s portrait onto the back of the truck, then hopped in as we’d agreed. It had been a pity to give up the strewing of roses, which had seemed so important in my vision of the pickup’s completion of a loop. But we were practical people. They would be too difficult to successfully sweep away before morning. We had to make do with a few rose wreaths propped beside the portrait. Marta waved a very thin lamp, a golden spindle of light. Meanwhile I manoeuvred the vehicle. The truck’s weight surprised me; I hadn’t reckoned on it. My own body felt insubstantial as the heaviness of the Ford swung round the curves. I couldn’t see the faces of the population but I knew they were there in the darkness, watching. Now and then applause burst forth again, each time from a different location. There must have been more people than I imagined.
O Lord, but there were red lights flashing — so soon, as if they’d already known. They must have been tipped off. Who had pointed the finger? Or had the population’s movement into the shrine called the cops’ attention? What unknown author had engineered my fate? The machine had performed beautifully — perhaps I was a little in love with it; anyone with a machine like this could perform miracles. But now I was done for; the motor had stalled. I was next to the wall with the favors granted. A Virgin Mary dangled from a nail. Si yo fuera rico… sang Marta’s radio, against static, that same incessant advertisement, starting up with perfect nonchalance as the disastrous scene of the brief drive unfolded: the green pickup, me, the population melting away, the police cars.
I am a good woman, I explained. Lying, cheating, committing adultery, willingly harming another and the like are not in my line. This event is extraordinary. The green police cars that surrounded me flashed their lights and made their sirens whine with a certain sympathy. They understood. I was always the guarder, never the guarded. But the police chief who asked me questions looked at me like I was an insect, a jumpy green grasshopper he’d smash beneath the heel of his boot. He laughed. ‘Looks like your parody of a miracle didn’t come off,’ he said. It hadn’t even crossed my mind the act might be read this way. The distortion sickened me. No doubt the headlines in the press would be similarly exaggerated. Woman seeks to assume premature canonisation, security guard’s head turned by proximity to greatness, etc. I have no desire to be canonised and no interest in power — that kind of power, at least. What am I after?
‘You’re lucky,’ said my lawyer, a public attorney assigned to my case. ‘The population and public are clamouring for your release. There are protests and rallies. It will be difficult and unpopular for the police and church to pursue you. At the same time, it’s true that you did break the law. Your actions merit some time in the lock-up, but I’ll try to reduce it as much as possible.’ He said something else that stayed in my mind. ‘You didn’t actually have to drive the truck, you know. You could have just talked about doing it. It would’ve had the same effect.’ I prepared myself to wait out a long trial, taking the attorney’s word that the public was behind me and the sentence would be light. But the Marta arrived, representing forces greater than herself, motivated by social idealism, personal guilt or possibly boredom. ‘I’m friends with one of the guards,’ she whispered.
Would you, green pickup, think my escape a miracle? Are you the one responsible for it happening just this way? You will understand the extreme joy with which I left for the secret place in the dead of night, such a brother to the night that I drove you. Before we left the prison (of bars, of words) Marta dropped a single rose into the cell. It landed lopsided but with dignity. Who is paying attention to my rambling as Marta clutches the handlebars of an old Hyundai motorbike and I cling to her waist as we exit the city? To be a saint is also a kind of prison. All day long you must listen what people say, complaints, laments, questions. You must give their concerns due consideration and help if possible, locked into your halo. But no, of course that’s silly. There’s freedom in another sense, in losing one’s personal preoccupations to surrender to others, in becoming less oneself and more an object. I drive onto another plane; I leave behind my physical body, the corpse of this character. In the miracle of the event, time splits open: thus not only is the object glorified and the past restored, but another person can become a vehicle for the story of a life. ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.’ Three birds with one stone. This weekend I have to write an essay for a essay workshop, a story for a narrative workshop, and a story-essay for this book. After visiting Padre Hurtado’s sanctuary I had intense dreams, reiterated, in which I pinched his green pickup and drove it for a minute, a single perfect moment of radiance—the symbol of a beauty that dazzles and does not last. What is my story, what is anybody’s? Here is a good woman ever on the point of not being one. Here is a human who buckles to fantasy. Here is a truck as the trial of a soul. Here is the hagiography of an object. No language is innocent. I did not steal but thought of stealing. I did not kill but could have written a scene of murder in cold blood. With these words I am a sinner and a saint; a thief and a guardian; everybody; God; a green pickup; Marta; a poor devil scribbling away on the 513 bus taking her home; a museum guard with time to build airy castles; a policeman who almost lets an incarcerated culprit escape but thinks twice; and a vehicle that is both a fragment of the whole and fully itself, possessing no nostalgia for drivers, capable of inventing a self-portrait from behind sanctuary gates, and dreaming of a utopia when people shed or exchange identities so that only objects remain, solid, sublime.