Nobody walks in L.A. This is a well-known fact. Everything spread too distantly, too arrogantly—the city, the county, the Southland, however you want to categorize it all. The only connection the great roaring freeways, like clogged ancient rivers, carrying commerce and travelers, people making their way in the world, industrious and air-conditioned and unaware, but not walking, no, never.
Nonetheless, Father Jim Hinshaw isn’t going to let the limitations of his adopted hometown—three years and running, still genuinely flummoxed to be among what he used to think of as the chosen of Southern California—ruin his lifelong love of a good, brisk walk. Growing up and living in a small liberal-arts college town in Ohio (as exotically foreign as France around here, he’d quickly discovered) for most of his life, he could walk anywhere, and did so, habitually, spending many a morning or afternoon or early evening on a leisurely stroll or therapeutic jaunt with no specific destination in mind, just a desire to cover ground and clear the head, and he’d never lost his attachment to the saintly idea of taking the more difficult yet ultimately more rewarding path/route/road/whatever (he had become a priest, after all) and to the practice of traversing streets and neighborhoods by foot and thus seeing and noticing things you couldn’t see and notice from a car. Life’s different when viewed from the sidewalk as opposed to the insularity of metal and glass, and given his vocation Father Jim believes it’s important to have as many vantage points as possible from which to contemplate, to understand, the human parade.
You can’t, for example, ignore the stench, the urban affliction of this smeared section of downtown Los Angeles that he treks through twice a week, Sherpa-like, as he makes the three-mile commute in his scuffed and city-stained Air Jordans, from his apartment to the Archdiocese’s building on Wilshire, not only for the exercise and subsequent endorphin rush but also to remind himself of the reality of where he lives and works and breathes. Here he passes the forgotten, the banished, the surging homeless, with their layers of clothing despite the unyielding wattage from above. Here he witnesses the man—always the same block, the same spot, the same anorexic dog curled dutifully at his side—with the sign that says HUNGRY BUT NOT HELPLESS on one side, the other less popular B-side bearing the proclamation WILL WORK FOR SPIRITUAL SUSTENANCE. Here he’s subject to a steady stream of impressionistic yelling and ranting, usually religious and/or antigovernment in nature (“Father, son and holy spirit—you are being watched by an unknown source!” and “God’s real name is Denise. And she’s Mongolian!” being two fairly recent examples that have stuck in his mind like commercial jingles). Here he can inspect, close-up, perhaps too close-up at times, the graffiti liberally splashed on dumpsters and bus benches and both abandoned and occupied businesses, the messages behind the boxy letters escaping him, so difficult to decipher in a nonsuspicious, nonjudgmental three- to five-second glance, which is all he allows himself. Here—where it’s all too easy to rely on such adjectives as postnuclear, postapocalyptic, postsomething, yet there is an element of truth to this kind of overly dramatic classification, definitely a trace of the end times in the ravaged scenery and contaminated air and the inhabitants’ purposeless shuffles and coded murmurings; something had happened, or is about to happen, some vast severing or shaking, a before and after, and now they’re not sure how to proceed. Something almost medieval about their squalor. All of which brings to mind that quote from Revelation that had scared him as a child and scared him still: “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” Then a little later, this whammy: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”
Walking these streets, encountering these souls, one death seems enough. Where, he often wonders, are the swimming pools, the ocean views, the affluent suntans, the epic blue of magazines and movies that can make a man, a woman, ache all over and cause them to migrate hundreds, thousands, of miles in search of the promised—or at least more promising—land? Where are the chosen? Not here. Not in this stretch of rapidly de-valuing real estate. But he walks it, he gets to know its edges and smells and eccentrics. And when he doesn’t hoof it to work, he either takes the bus or rides the mountain bike that was donated by some parishioners last year, although none of the other priests had ventured to ride it yet, meaning that he has exclusive use. The robes can be a little cumbersome, that is, for those who still wear them regularly.
This particular Tuesday morning in the fall of 1999, his foot odyssey now well underway, only a few more blocks to go, the sun berating and beating down, Father Jim halts at a crosswalk, presses the Walk button, waits for the greenly lit frame meant to represent an anonymous pedestrian in motion (male, presumably). In Ohio the crosswalks all said WALK. But here you have this combo plate of cultures, a different language every block. He now knows how to say “Hello, how are you today?” in nine different tongues: Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, and so on. So naturally you had to go with pictures, the visual. Otherwise imagine the consequences, the potential for accidents.
After crossing the street (noting a new influx of graffiti on a movie billboard for another would-be blockbuster, a weather-wasted man wearing a USC sweatshirt and delivering an impromptu speech on Ronald Reagan and voodoo economics to a mute crowd waiting for the bus), he stops in a corner store where he buys some orange juice, doesn’t even mind the inflated price, says “thank you” to the proprietor in his native Korean, which triggers a smile from the chap-lipped middle-aged man, who, like everyone else Father Jim comes across (himself included), sweats like Shaquille O’Neal deep in the fourth quarter and is reduced to the same old similes about the heat.
“Hot like sauna,” says the owner.
“Hot as the devil’s armpit,” offers a more inspired fellow customer, a broken, toothless man meticulously extracting crumpled dollar bills and blackened coins from his pocket, handling the currency with the care of a jeweler, while simultaneously eyeing the big tub of beef jerky sticks on the counter by the cash register.
“Try wearing black all the time,” jokes Father Jim, giving the toothless man his change, wondering if he’ll just suck on the jerky or what.
Back outside, the sun resumes its award-winning special effects, seeming stronger, more brutal, a bleaching, lancing light. (And as for the smog: you just deal, hope your lungs can withstand another day of laughably exceeded federal air standards, ingesting ozone and carbon monoxide and various airborne particles you don’t want to know about.) Father Jim tugs at his collar, then rolls the could-be-colder bottle of orange juice across his damp forehead and takes a pirate’s swig of the name-brand beverage. He continues onward, northward, making progress and silently, hurriedly, blessing those he passes who seem in need of some kind of benediction (there are many, and a quickie is better than nothing) while also mapping out the morning ahead of him, multitasking, as he maintains his purposeful businessman’s stride.
He figures first thing Father Lewis will want to see him and he’s right—once he’s in his office and finishes toweling (well, paper-toweling) himself off, Nancy knocks and informs him Father Lewis would indeed like to see him. Nancy already looking frantic and the day barely begun. Ever since the Miracle Girl story broke, the phone has been ringing nonstop and poor Nancy has been overwhelmed by the onslaught of inquiries, scribbling messages and assuaging relentless journalists on deadline and dispensing the standard unsatisfactory answer: The Archdiocese is currently investigating the matter and has no comment at this time.
It all started with the usual stories of weeping statues, tales of the sick making miraculous recoveries after a visit to an eight-year-old girl from a largely unknown suburb of eastern Los Angeles. Word spread: TV, newspapers, the Internet. Something apparently transcendent (and necessary, and needed) about the girl, who almost died in a car accident—who should have died—but didn’t, and now she can’t speak or move, paralyzed, mute, in a coma-like state called akinetic mutism, hooked up to machines and tubes, her body a living statue, but also, according to her believers, holy, blessed, a gift from God, a child who heals and gives hope to those in need. More and more people arriving at the house every day, waiting in line outside, congregating and gathering, some even camping out and spending the night to ensure their time with the girl.
And so, as part of that investigation, Father Jim and Father Lewis yesterday had driven to the house to find out all they could about young Anabelle Vincent, doing what Father Jim jokingly liked to think of as their good priest/bad priest routine. Throughout the interview with the mother and the visit to the girl’s room and the discussions with the faithful in line and lingering in the front yard, he could tell Father Lewis did not want to be there, did not want to be there at all, did not want this kind of tricky situation so close to his impending retirement at the end of the year (“I like the…poetic synchronicity of bowing out at the millennium,” he had explained after announcing his decision), like a lame-duck president who’s hit with a major calamity in the final weeks of his administration. On the drive back he wasn’t interested in debriefing or talking, choosing instead to console himself with the distraction of AM radio and Ed from El Segundo who expressed his concern about the lack of concern regarding the Y2K crisis.
“You’re right,” the show’s host agreed. “You’re absolutely right. Can I just say how right you are? Here we are on the cusp practically, and we’re hearing about these thwarted terrorist plans, right, and but who knows what else is going to happen really. You don’t have to be a Nostradamus or Jeane Dixon to know that people aren’t ready.”
“When are we ever ready?” Ed added, his voice getting more excited the more he spoke. “And that’s a rhetorical question, Marty, so don’t answer. No, my real question for you, for you and your guest whose name I’m sorry—my real question is, is this: What does it take to truly galvanize people these days? What is required to make an honest-to-goodness impact on the consciousness of this country? And I’ll take my answer off the air.”
Father Jim attempted to prod Father Lewis into commentary by mentioning how some religious communities—usually located in states like Montana or Idaho—had recently released statements saying that they believed we were in store for some kind of divine punishment come January 1.
“I don’t think God works in round numbers,” Father Lewis said.
That was typical Father Lewis: always to be counted on for a good silence-inducing one-liner. Many a debate (theological or otherwise) had abruptly ceased because of one of the old man’s acerbic barbs. But his brusqueness, his outdated churlish manner and impatience with non-English speakers, and the abundance of SAT words that he regularly inserted into his speech and sermons (perspicacity, magnanimous, mellifluousness) didn’t sit well with some of the younger priests, who certainly wouldn’t miss the Hemingway-bearded Father Lewis, who also wore his hair long, too long for an old man, giving him the appearance of a crazed prophet, and Father Jim was not the only one to speculate that their elder foreswore haircuts in order to convey this very look. Still, he was a favorite of the Archbishop’s, had been for decades, and even though Father Jim sometimes tired of Father Lewis’s ways, he also appreciated the anachronism that the man represented. And no matter what you thought of him, you could not deny his oratory prowess, his ability to infuse an audience with wonderment and awe.
The only other verbalization that Father Lewis uttered during the rest of the drive was to note, out of the blue, the increase of “fusion” restaurants in Los Angeles and could someone please explain to him what that meant (Father Jim, being from the Midwest, could not). And for the rest of the day their paths did not cross, meaning that the two colleagues hadn’t yet spoken about their visit to the Miracle Girl.
Now, apparently, Father Lewis was ready to talk. Or rather his version of talk.
“Tell him I’ll be there in five,” Father Jim tells Nancy, who’s already halfway out the door to deliver the message.
“Nancy,” he calls after her.
“Oh you know, busy-busy-busy, buzz-buzz-buzz,” sighs their most dedicated volunteer, a retired bookkeeper with a husband on disability and a son housebound with lupus. “What with all the phone calls, though, I don’t think I’ll be able to get the newsletter out on time. And then there’s the annual holiday mailing which is coming up fast, with all these names that need to be added to the database which I don’t see happening because Phyllis had to go out of town unexpectedly for a funeral and Enid has some kind of viral thing and they’re the only ones who know FileMaker besides me. And there’s been this horrendous typo on the website that’s been there for I don’t know how long. ‘Got’ instead of ‘God.’ ‘The word of Got.’ It looks bad. Plus the links need updating. Don’t get me started on the links.”
“If there’s anything I can do to lighten your load let me know. I’m sorry, Nancy. It’s got to die down sooner or later, but for now we’re in semicrisis mode. And don’t let those media people get you down.”
“Oh they’re all right,” says Nancy, remaining in the doorway, her posture as rigid as a ballet dancer’s, her ink-black hair, dyed monthly, in the same reliable bob that she’d probably had all her adult life, Father Jim thought. Sixty-, seventy-odd years old, and where did she get the energy? “They’re just doing their job I suppose. But some of them are, well, a little pushy. I’m about to bust a cap at that reporter from Channel 7.”
“Sorry, Father. I watched NYPD Blue last night.”
Nancy gone, Father Jim sifts through his messages, fires up his computer. The internal network is down—again—so he can’t check his e-mail. His screen flashes an “unable to connect” message, which bites because he has to get a press release out today, just one of the many duties that fall upon his shoulders as Media Relations Coordinator and general all-around Spokesperson (“Spokespriest,” they kid him) for the Archdiocese. So in addition to his normal priestly duties, Father Jim crafts policy statements, coordinates interviews, provides sound bites when necessary, and pesters various media outlets about issues they’d otherwise ignore. His minor in Modern Communication Theories, as well as his supposed uncanny resemblance to a primetime hunk, no doubt had helped him secure his current job and relocation to the west coast. Not feeling very hunky now, however, just sweaty. Sweaty and stinky. He keeps some deodorant in the bottom right drawer of his desk, the way private detectives are known to stash bottles of whiskey, at least according to movie lore. He applies a few generous swabs under his arms before setting off down the hallway to Father Lewis’s office.
The old man is writing, bunkered behind his fortress-like mahogany desk, which is huge and of another era and inundated with paper and books and mail. Father Jim half expects him to be writing with a quill, laboring over a manuscript by candlelight. But instead, sunlight streams into the office and casts a Jesus-y glow over the elder priest’s head, causing Father Jim to squint as he sits down and waits for Father Lewis to look up. But Father Lewis doesn’t look up. Part of the dance. Part of the everyday power struggles and mind games that go on here. Like any other workplace.
“So the girl,” Father Jim says finally, ceding defeat by speaking first and not waiting until Father Lewis has peered up from his important work. And when he does, having set down his pen (yes, it’s a pen, a regular 20th century Bic), he smiles the smile of the cunning victor.
“Yes, the girl,” repeats Father Lewis, as if referring to the stock movie character. “The Archbishop has made it be known to the necessary parties that this matter is to be of the utmost priority, of the, the…exigent precedence, when he gets back from Honduras. He’s concerned. Very concerned. Which means, concomitantly, that we, too, are very concerned.”
“I thought it was El Salvador.”
“Maybe it was Guatemala, come to think of it,” the older man replies, his speech uniformly slow and cadenced, emphasizing certain words, usually the big ones, in that grandiose manner of his (which works better with a congregation), each syllable carefully, reluctantly, chosen as if somehow he’s distrustful of language, groping for a preciseness and clarity that’s just not possible, eluding him yet compelling him forward to the next sentence. “At any rate, somewhere down there,” he continues. “Some groundbreaking for a memorial for the disappeared. But when he returns, suffice it to say, he’s expecting a, a, well…meticulously exhaustive report and presentation by the end of next week.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“But what are your thoughts? What are your impressions? We should be talking about this. I need to start fleshing out some position statements. ‘The Church believes this, the Church believes that.’”
“My thoughts, my impressions in toto are thus: this is the kind of hornet’s nest that we all secretly dread.”
“And I’m dreading it. I’m in full ceremonial dread.”
“With all due respect, Father Lewis, I’m going to need a little more than that. What about the girl? What about the mother? How do we feel about the claims that these people have been making? What is the Catholic Church’s position on miracles circa 1999? This isn’t something that’s going to go away. We’re beyond that now. We’re on speed dial for just about every major network and newspaper in the country. Poor Nancy’s talking like a rapper. What do we tell these people? I’ve got to tell them something.”
Father Lewis resorts to an old tactic of his: the slow, there’s-nothing-to-get-excited-about-here working of his tongue over his teeth, which are, incidentally, startlingly white, vigorous, like the rest of him. Despite his advanced age, despite the sea-captain limp that no one knows the origin of, he looks like he still throws the medicine ball around every morning, does his daily regimen of jumping jacks and other obsolete calisthenics. He’ll probably outlive them all, many have predicted, up on his mountain or wherever he retreats to when he retires.
“We say we’re continuing the investigation,” he says, orchestrating calm in the wake of the younger man’s growing panic. “We reiterate. We make no commitments. We say a, a…comprehensive release of our findings—which include the conclusions, we emphasize, of not only theological but also medical professionals—is forthcoming in due time once the evidence has been properly…accumulated and…analyzed and…scrutinized. These things take time, we say. They cannot be rushed like so much else these days. We add that we generally do not approve of the veneration of weeping statues and the like, and we certainly do not like the, the…egregious equation of religion and the Church with superstition and miracles that cannot be quantified. We add as well that what is inexplicable might just remain that, inexplicable, but we acknowledge the hunger, the…clamorous need for guidance and comfort in these, these…let’s say ambiguous times of ours, and if that brings people closer to God, well then, that’s a good thing.”
“All right. That I can use.”
“But you see the dilemma we have here, Father Hinshaw. Say we say these aren’t genuine miracles. Then we look like we’re against the thousands of people, the…hopeful masses, who say they are genuine. On the other hand, say we say they are—well, I don’t know what. For one thing, in the secular mind, the Catholic Church has just jumped back two hundred years. So what’s likely, what I’m assuming we’ll do, unless of course the investigation is one hundred percent…conclusive one way or the other, which I doubt, what we’ll do most likely then is articulate some middling response. Or rather you will. So think middling. Middling is your word.”
And at this point Father Jim knows that that’s about all he’s going to get from Father Lewis for now. Eye contact becoming less frequent, fingers straying to documents and religious-themed paperweights and beard hairs. He senses the old man shutting down; five minutes of one-on-one conversation is about his limit. Not because of age, but because of patience, his lack of it, which has nothing to do with the accretion of years and everything to do with temperament. Resigned, Father Jim says he’ll have a preliminary status update on Friday, and the old man picks up his pen, returns to the hermetic universe of his desk.
ANDREW ROE’s debut novel, The Miracle Girl, is now available in paperback. It was recently named a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. His work has appeared in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, The Sun, One Story, Writer’s Digest, and elsewhere. He lives in Oceanside, California, with his wife and three children. You can find him online at andrewroeauthor.com.
Adapted from The Miracle Girl, by Andy Roe, Copyright © 2015 by Andy Roe. With the permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.