Brian lives in Ireland with his wife and two sleepy Pit Bulls who were rescued from a dog pound. All four moved to Ireland from New York about six months ago. Brian was an advertising executive but found the purposeful deceit and long hours disheartening. He walked out of what had become a trap and hasn’t looked back.
He and his wife bought a stone schoolhouse in the farm country of County Leitrim. The house was built in 1891 and was where the Irish patriot and martyr Sean McDermott received his early education.
Brian writes about things that interest him and that he can form into coherent stories. He has also published in Three Penny Review and Jelly Bucket.
The Santeria by Brian Wright
Rafa O’Bannon was sitting in a dark corner watching a video on the tiny cramped screen of his cell phone. The show was called “Just Kill Someone,” the adventures of an assassin named Chelsea. Chelsea was smart, blonde and sexy. When Chelsea reached under her jacket for heat, she meant business. It was a good show, especially if you were—like Rafa— toasted. In the conflict, gunman swooned liked jilted lovers as fields of fiery red flowers bloomed across their chests until the body count assumed epic proportions
Rafa rewound and watched again. Attackers moved at awkward tempos, drawing Chelsea’s attention and causing her respond with deadly accuracy. He toggled back and forth between different views—he could have done this all night as Chelsea’s butt was sumptuous—but a waitress wearing a gold-flecked leotard top interrupted. “You drinking or leaving?”
He took inventory of the bar. Prospects were dismal. A depressive male bartender in a filthy T-shirt, a few other hard-core male hangers on, two large females at a table by the window were probably gay and a woozy transvestite solo dancing to the sounds of ear buds stuck beneath a frowsy afro wig—a definite no go.
“You’re the hottest thing around here,” Rafa said to the waitress.
“Forget it,” she said. “Drinking or leaving?”
Rafa laid a small bill on the table and pushed his chair back.
Outside, chill night air hit him like a blast from the fridge. As Rafa walked, he warmed up. The city stank of its unique aroma of garbage and ozone. He flicked on his smart phone locator. “Friends” that were interested could find him. His status was “feeling sexy,” so if anyone responded, knew what to expect.
The illegitimate son of an Irish priest and a Mexican prostitute, young Rafa was a drug addict. When his mother did tricks in the next room to pay the rent, Rafa lay on the couch watching the shadows his mother’s candles made on the wall. His mother believed in Santeria and each candle was a different Saint. The flickering light from the candle represented the soul of the Saint freed from imprisonment. Eventually his mother would finish with her business in the next room and the John would leave. She and Rafa would sit on the couch praying together watching the light dance on the bare walls until Rafa fell asleep.
When Rafa got older the play of light from the candles became the light behind the video games he enjoyed playing. After his mother died, the video games became his reality and the wild and aggressive villains and heroes of the online world replaced the bloodthirsty Santeria saints of his childhood.
Rafa was mildly intoxicated. He’d had a few beers at the bar and together with some OxyContin tablets he’d taken earlier, was unsteady on his feet. As he walked home the New York night seemed to vibrate around him with energy he was all too familiar with. He settled in to the feeling like a role player in his own RPG. In every shadow he saw a mugger. He located snipers up on top of the brownstone rooftops and mentally calculated his own line of return fire. The night had a soundtrack all its own and the screech of tires, women shouting and the cackling laughter of maniacs played through his mind.
Near the river, the water was a cold oily black smear that made the chill air feel colder. On the other shore lights pricked the velvet darkness. He entered a park by a broken down playground. In the daytime, ex-cons worked their muscular bodies on the disused swings. Tonight there was nothing but the creaking of chains in the breeze.
The sidewalk was a cracked concrete coil that wound its way around back into itself. The lighting overhead buzzed and flickered. The broken smokestacks of an abandoned power station loomed before him. Cars raced by on highway over his head supported by huge T-shaped pylons.
Within his real and imagined cacophony, he heard something else. A cat was crying to itself. Behind a graffiti ravaged pillar, he saw a bundle of rags moving.
Rafa walked over to where the figure lay. “Are you all right?”
She was a black woman with blonde streaks in her hair. When she turned toward him, her face was bloody and bruised. Her dress was made of white gauze and was torn in several places. There was a scattering of feathers around her body like torn wings. Over the dress she wore a leather motorcycle jacket. Rafa looked but there was no motorcycle. Just graffiti scarred pillars holding up the highway.
“Can you help me?” She said.
“Can you walk? Should I call a cop?”
“A cab. Get me a cab.”
Rafa bent down and helped her sit upright, leaning her back against the pillar. Her body smelled like fresh meat. She straightened for a moment then her head sunk to her chest. He couldn’t leave her here and he couldn’t move her. When he tried to call 911, the call wouldn’t go through. More than likely, his service was turned off.
He went out to the main street. The bars were closing and cabs were cruising expecting stragglers in the night. The third one stopped for him but the driver would not go into the park to pick up the woman. Rafa went back to get her and bring her out.
There was nothing under the pillar except for bloody feathers. The river seemed to be moving backward, in a different direction. He went to the edge of the water and looked down. Snakes of light from the city writhed back at him. The sound of cars moving overhead made him feel dizzy. He looked and the ground was moving underneath his feet. When he fell, the wet surface broke across his face pulling him down and then up again and finally down.
He woke up in his own bed and tried to piece together how he had gotten here. He remembered the bar and the woman. But that was it. His hair was damp and he was naked. The blanket felt warm and good against his skin. His mind was still buzzing and he went back to sleep.
He woke again and the black woman from the night before was standing over him. The blood was washed from her face, which was broad and unattractive. There was a large gap between her front teeth, which were strong and white in contrast to her skin. Her hair was wet and she was freshly showered. She wore one of his white T-shirts and her large breasts swung freely.
She was holding a cup of coffee and, a look of concern flashed across her face, which was otherwise open and friendly. From outside he could hear the sounds of morning and a grey light of day flashed through the windows.
“It’s my turn now to ask,” she smiled. “Are you alright?”
On his third try he was able to sit up, although awkwardly. He wasn’t sure what she was doing in his apartment or how he had gotten there. He arranged his filthy pillow behind his head and reached for the cup. The coffee was hot and his senses started coming back
“I saw you fall,” she said.
“Yes but then what?” The world had inverted on him. It was his apartment but she seemed in charge.
“A cab driver helped get you out. I got your address out of your wallet. We brought you home.”
Rafael reached for a pack of cigarettes he kept handy on the dresser and lit up. He offered the crumpled pack to her but she shook her head.
“Those things will kill you.”
Rafa inhaled deeply. The smoke filled his lungs but when he breathed out nothing came out but air. He did it again. Smoke spiraled from the end of the cigarette, the cherry glowed but when he exhaled--nothing. The woman looked at him expectantly. “That’s a neat trick.”
“Trick? But I’m not doing anything?”
She ignored him and walked over to the tiny galley that served as his kitchen. He heard the clatter of dishes being washed.
Her name was Maria Vicennes and she was in no hurry to leave. After she washed the dishes, he could hear his wheezing and broken down vacuum cleaner rattling between the floor and the living room rug. When she went out he though she would be gone for good, maybe having stolen something, which was the way things should have gone. But later, she was back, and heard paper bags rustling and the smell of hot spices came to him.
He realized he was hungry.
The fish she brought to him on a plate still had its head on. He could see a kind of delicate rainbow skin beneath the layer of brown and red breadcrumbs. It was delicious.
That night, after turning out the lights she crawled into his bed and pushed her body against him until his responded. They went about their business, she with a workmanlike attention to detail while he acted in the same dream state that he had felt since he fell in the river.
In the morning he had his appointment at the methadone clinic. He had been in bed for too long. When he got it up he almost fell down.
She was sitting in his newly clean living room, with her feet up, reading one of his graphic novels, when he came out of the shower.
“That was really nice of you,” gesturing toward the tidy room. “Thank you.”
“What do you want to do now?”
“It’s not what I want to do. It’s what I have to do.”
He worried that if he told her, she would go away. But at the same time, part of him questioned what she was doing here and wanted her out of his apartment.
“I need to go clinic today for my methadone.”
“Methadone?” she said and she tossed her head like a horse. “Aha. That’s why you fall in the river. You’re a drug addict!” At this she slapped her hands together as if she just realized something that had been puzzling her. The sound was startlingly loud in the tiny apartment.
“You don’t understand.”
“Okay, so I don’t understand,” Marie said.
“I go to the clinic because I am not a drug addict.”
“Good” she said and stood up. She had a large straw bag by her feet and removed a bright orange and green scarf she wrapped around her hair and tied it with a precise knot. “You are not a drug addict and now we will not go to the methadone clinic to get you drugs.“ She opened the door and waited. “Okay?”
Rafa liked to think of himself as cipher that moved through life unnoticed. But it was difficult not to feel people staring as he walked with this flamboyant black woman in her bright scarf. Every time he lagged behind or walked ahead of her, Marie grabbed his arm as if she owned him.
On the subway, and even though the car was almost empty, she sat right against him. He worried that the few people who were on the train, were questioning what the relationship was between this light skinned boy with reddish hair and this large black woman. The more anxious he became the more she seemed to swell into the space, until the large black woman with the bright scarf on her head, took up the entire car. These thoughts bothered him as sat on the hard plastic bench. Her soft warm hip pressed up against him and station after station flickered by through the cloudy windows. The already thin crowd thinned out even more until his vision—her swollen presence—matched the reality of an otherwise empty car.
On the street, people were doing normal things like going to work, shopping and buying coffee. The sun was shining although it might rain later as the sky was clouding up.
The clinic was an unassuming one story brick building jammed into a unassuming block. Up and down the street there was nothing but parked cars and cracked pavement. Not even the graffiti was promising. Just a few halfhearted attempts at writing that petered out and then were overlaid with someone else’s failures. A larger than life Manhattan shone through gaps between buildings that had fallen into various stages of decrepitude.
“It is a beautiful day,” Marie said, as if her saying it made it so. “Why you want to go to this crappy place?”
He felt her watching him as he bent down to the window and handed in his forms to the shapeless, featureless man behind the counter. He could still feel her eyes on him when he drank his dose from a small plastic cup. The liquid was sweet his mouth. He looked over to her quickly but she was studying a poster on the wall the outlined ten steps to good mental health.
The drug calmed him and focused his thoughts. Maybe she was a little crazy, but she could stay with him a little while. After all, what did it hurt and who cared?
Their sexual encounters left Rafa breathless and even more confused. What started out as a workmanlike grouping soon became something else. As if the darkness could assume a corporeal form. Maria threw herself at him furiously. One moment they rolled this way and then the other. He soon had no control as she took the lead. Hands came out of nowhere and pushed him back on the bed. Voices told him to be quiet, animal eyes glimmered out of the dark and then disappeared and reappeared. When he thought it was all over it all started up again. He had, it turned out, needs that had always been buried somewhere deep inside of his psyche, unsparing, unrealized and unspeakable.
He lay next to her after she had finally fallen asleep. Her body was black and chunky--anthracite gleaming in the light from the street lamp outside.
He placed his arm over next to her and compared the colors against his rumpled sheets. His arm was dark and hers was darker. Her palms were pink like coral and her fingernails were a legacy of a different age, before people, when all living things wore shells and claws.
His own arm was covered with crude tattoos from several months he spent at Riker’s. A misshapen cross and a naked woman, her breasts and vagina emphasized to the point of obscenity.
The depth of their passion revolted him. Part of him hated walking with her in the street or even being seen at the bodega when they went out to buy something as mundane and wholesome as milk or bread.
Sex with a black woman was a rite-of-passage and gave a young man street cred. But this was different. He was giving too much of himself up in return for what he was getting. She moaned in her sleep and rolled over, she took her hand back but threw a leg over his, pinning him to the bed so he couldn’t move without her waking.
She was good for him and he knew it. Living alone, doing his drugs and playing video games was no life at all, but he had never asked for much. His fantasies were all of blonde haired seductresses like Chelsea the assassin. Maria was something else altogether and he didn’t know how to process that. Her body, her face and her fierce attention had no context that he could comfortably understand but it began to change something.
“I need a sacrifice,” she announced one morning.
“How much?” He had twenty dollars and he hoped that would be enough. Any more would severely compromise his weekly budget, which was based on an artful combination of welfare and unemployment.
“Ha. You think money is sacrifice, You crazy like this whole fucking country. The man on the TV from the bank, he can sacrifice money. You got to come up with something else.”
“Why do I have to sacrifice anything?”
“You so happy with your life the way it is? You got it all figured out? You don’t want to change nothing? Fine stay the way you are. I’m going to make some coffee. You want coffee?”
“No, I want to know why you think I have to sacrifice.”
“The evil spirit baby. Don’t you feel it. Evil spirit got a hold on you so deep, you and he the same thing. You want to get rid of him you got to sacrifice something. How you take it?”
“Milk and sugar. Not too much of either.”
Her weird logic was starting to work on him. He started to make sacrifices. First it was his marijuana. The few joints he had stashed around the house, got flushed down the toilet. He watched them go down, like little turds that at first resisted the pull of the whirling water and then succumbed and flowed out of his life. A few days later he made another sacrifice and threw the OxyContin pills off the rooftop. The video controller was gathering dust by the PlayStation. He hadn’t been online in weeks.
The worst part was, after all that, nothing changed. He had felt miserable before and he felt miserable now. He was just eating better and having regular sex.
He began skipping appointments at the clinic, even though this put his income in question. They kept track and if they thought he was back on hard drugs they could cut him off. But her weird logic was right. As long as he took methadone, he was admitting to himself that he was an addict. When he stopped, he became something else. What that was he wasn’t sure.
A woman was cooking bacon in the apartment next door. He didn’t just smell it, he heard the bacon crackling through the thick walls. Someone else was using the toilet. A child was playing with plastic blocks, clicking them together and babbling softly to himself. Outside someone had just lighted up a cigarette. He didn’t think these were hallucinations but how could they not be?
“So ‘Mr. I-am-not-a-drug-addict,’ what you want to do today?”
Her question snapped him out of his trance.
“I got nothing. “
“Then why don’t you come with me. C’mon, put your sneakers on sweetie.”
She took him to a small store. It had a glass front that was set right up against the sideway. The window was a hodgepodge of candles, statues and bottles of ointment and herbs. It was like a kind of apothecary. The owner, a wrinkled, yet refined black woman in a bright yellow dress, greeted Maria like a sister. They babbled at each other in a patois. It was English—sort of—and Rafa could understand every third or fourth word.
The store smelled strongly. In addition to body odor, there was peppery smell that was overlaid with a rich flowery scent that made his eyes water. There was also fainter smell of blood and decaying flesh. Almost like when a mouse dies and is trapped inside a wall.
Obatala, Chango, and Eleggua—he read names from the glass candles and it made him feel as if he were crossing some sort of line. Behind him, Maria and the old woman chattered away, grabbling powders and leaves and sticks, placing them in bag along with glass vials containing liquids. Their conversation dragged on and Rafa looked out into the street. A tall thin woman walked her dog by the window. Two boys, with scraggly beards wearing almost identical T-shirts and tight jeans strode by purposefully. A mother watched her child in the playground on the other side of the street. He felt the two worlds. The one inside the shop—dark and unknowable. The one outside—bright and impenetrable. Rafa belonged in neither.
Her bag was a big flouncy straw satchel with garish woven straw flowers on it. Inside it she placed everything the old woman had given her—everything she needed. No place was so permanent that it could not be left in a hurry. The spaces of the earth moved out from under her but she was ready.
He knew she was up to something. She had carved a small altar for herself in the corner of the room. Here she kept her statues and candles. There were cowrie shells and herbs. A cabinet she kept closed. The skulls of small creatures with tiny precise sharp teeth. She performed rituals before dinner and before she went to bed at night. In the morning he often found her there, muttering to herself. Everything became something else.
He watched Maria prepare their dinner. Shaking her head from side to side. She worked fast, as if she were on a mission. Not working so much as dancing. There was a rhythm to the world he could not feel but could only see through her. As if she were a transmitting signals from far away that he could barely pick-up.
She handed ingredients to hold. Asked him to chop onions. Measure out cups of flour. Salt, pepper, cayenne and turmeric. Simple things. Water, fire and blood.
Out of the dance came transubstantiation. Their supper— chicken salad and rice.
He wondered if he was going mad, And with no one else to talk to, he asked her.
She stopped abruptly and threw her head back and laughed in way that made him think he really was insane. “You one sorry ass son of ‘I-am-not-a-drug-addict.’”
“What do you mean?”
“You got to see what you see. Feel what you feel. Don’t question what is. You think you crazy now but that’s because you see what is.”
She reached across and punched him so hard in the chest he was two feet further away from her than he was before.
The bracelets on her arm rattled. “What are you feeling now?”
“I don’t know,” Rafa said.
“You’re going to die someday. That what you want on your gravestone? I don’t know and I never asked?“
“What should I want?”
“Look at this,” she said. She rolled her eyes skyward. Even though they were in his mall cramped living room the ceiling seemed to shift as if it was no longer there confining them in the small dark box of the apartment. She began to moan to herself, but rather than a cry of pain it was a kind of music, a keening wail that picked up speed and rhythm. As the rhythm became a song her shoulder started to sway in time to it the music. A dance sprang out of nowhere and he saw behind her other figures, moving in time to the music, and behind them more and behind them more and with them he saw himself, moving and dancing, one of the many, the dead and the undead.
The fire once started could not be put out. What did he care what anyone thought? At the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was Maria. Let them take Maria into the office with them. Let them talk about her at lunch. She was after all, just another black woman on the subway or in the street. She was the one you hired to take care of your children or clean your homes.
She lived in your mind in a way you couldn’t talk about. Not to your wife, lover, boss or friend. What could you say, when you finally got home. “I saw a black woman on the subway today?”
Rafa shook his shoulders and danced to the rhythm of the earth’s rumbling core. People could see him or not. It didn’t matter anymore. The world was large.