For days after the meeting with Bro. Billy Joe, Héctor was too angry to communicate with his wife other than in monosyllables. During most of this period, the reason for his anger eluded him. It was not until the third or fourth day that he understood the cause of his distress. Whether the kid Abdul converted to Christianity or not, Héctor Villa did not want his daughter taking up romantically with an Afghan—period. And he couldn’t comprehend how AveMaría could want such a thing, let alone act as a facilitator of it. Though he was angry with the preacher as well, Héctor tried to be fair: The man’s job, after all, was saving souls; AveMaría’s was to see that their daughter was properly brought up to make a suitable marriage, at the appropriate time and with the right sort of man—which, in Héctor’s view, definitely did not include bearded Central Asians in turbans who rode camels and herded goats back home, while covertly keeping Osama bin Laden and his Qaeda supplied with food, weapons, and (so he understood from a reliable source) a steady stream of voluptuous virgins from Pakistan.
Héctor knew enough popular psychology to understand that facilitator is an unpleasant term for a nasty thing. But he couldn’t think of another word to describe his wife’s behavior in welcoming Abdul in every afternoon, after he’d delivered Contracepción to the house, for cookies and milk. (Though only fifteen, Abdul carried an official-looking laminated driver’s license identifying him as being sixteen years of age.) Since the first afternoon, when the boy had made known his preference for goat’s milk over cow’s, AveMaría had taken care to keep a half-gallon of the wretched stuff on hand in the refrigerator. The children ate their snack in the kitchen to allow the Señora Villa to keep them under her watchful eye. The kitchen was the one room in the house devoid of a crucifix, thus sparing AveMaría the trouble of veiling the Lord Jesus from Abdul’s gaze with a handkerchief, as the young Islamist piously insisted she do. (When her husband pointed out a certain inconsistency between converting the boy to Christ and removing from his gaze the central symbol of His religion, AveMaría had countered with the argument that, before Adbul could open his heart to Jesus, he needed to be set at ease and made to feel comfortable and at home.) Promptly at six, Contracepción walked her young man out to the car, where, furtively observed by AveMaría, Abdul took formal leave of her before driving off. Her heart aflutter as she watched the affecting scene from behind a curtain in the sitting room, the expectant mother hardly knew whether to be reassured or disappointed when he failed to kiss the girl. How had Jesús “Eddie” got the notion that the couple went joyriding about town, passionately necking behind the wheel? Not for the first time, AveMaría wondered whether Jesús “Eddie” might have a dirty mind.
After Contracep and Abdul had been “going together,” as AveMaría phrased the situation for herself, for two weeks, she decided to let Teresa Aguilar in on the romance. After all (she reasoned), the relationship, having behind it the honorable Christian purpose of salvation, could hardly be called a pagan one—not even by a devout member of the Roman Catholic Church, which AveMaría recalled from her girlhood as unpleasantly judgmental and irrational. Though only four or five years her senior, Teresa herself had seven children, the first two of whom were grown and married already with children of their own, while the second-youngest—Castidad, a year older than Contracepción—certainly didn’t look like a girl who’d ever been kissed by a boy. AveMaría was not given to boasting, and she certainly had never been one to take pleasure in making someone else feel envy. Still (she couldn’t help thinking), Teresa was bound to be impressed by Contracep’s success with a serious young man of Christian intention—perhaps to the point even of giving poor Castidad a nudge in that direction herself! You just never knew, AveMaría reflected, how sharing an inspirational story with someone could change that person’s whole life, and perhaps the lives of many others as well. And, naturally, what goes around, comes around. The life you save may be your own!
AveMaría called her friend late one morning when Héctor was away on a job in Quemado, after she’d dropped Contracepción at the mosque. (For some reason Abdul never offered to drive her to, only from, work. She must ask her daughter about this sometime, AveMaría reminded herself.) Teresa Aguilar picked up on the fifth ring, just as AveMaría was about to hang up so as to forestall the answering machine playing the introductory bars of Franck’s “Panis Angelicus.” It was her turn to host the Catholic reading group, Teresa explained; this week, they were considering The Exorcist, in Spanish translation. Teresa promised to phone back in fifteen minutes after the girls had gone, and AveMaría sat in her favorite armchair with the phone in her hand, awaiting the call and treasuring in her heart the miracle of love between her daughter and Abdul Agha, the Afghan boy.
When, at last, the telephone did ring, she fumbled and nearly dropped it in her excitement.
“¡Oiga!” The voice was, indeed, Teresa’s. “Finally, we can talk. I thought the girls never would leave! We get together to discuss the Great Catholic Books, and all they want to talk about is their husbands. But what’s up with you, AveMaría? You sounded as if you’d won the lottery a half-hour ago.”
“Oh, nothing much.” AveMaría was doing her best to sound casual. “Héctor’s gone for the day, so I did a little shopping at the mall, just a few odds and ends, including a gorgeous Donna Karan suit I found on sale—in case Héctor decides to run for office again, you know. And Dubya’s been talking a blue streak all week—something he must have learned from the neighbor’s parrot, I can’t understand a word!” She paused, casting about for more trivia in the attic of her mind and not finding any. “Oh, I almost forgot to mention: Contracep has an admirer, her very first—isn’t that sweet! Fifteen years old and such a guapo, too! You know, Teresa, if I was ten years younger—and didn’t have Héctor, of course—I think I’d be halfway interested myself.”
Teresa’s voice sounded dubious, and perhaps a little cold. “Your girl’s just thirteen, isn’t she? Don’t you think that’s a little young for . . . that sort of thing?” Teresa always avoided speaking the name “Contracepción,” whenever politeness allowed.
“She’ll be fourteen in August. And they’ve never even kissed, they’re so content just to be together! You remember, Contracep had a little . . . problem at school last fall. Me and her father feel sure her relationship with Abdul is going to be a real learning experience for her, one that helps her find maturity by discovering herself—” In her enthusiasm, AveMaría had revealed more than she’d intended to tell her friend at the outset. Confused, she broke off in mid-sentence, searching for a way to cover her tracks, and found it already too late for that.
“His name is Abdul?” Teresa spoke in the voice she might have used had the name been immediately preceded by the title of “Pope.”
“Well, yes. His family happen to be immigrants from Afghanistan, you see. Very hard working, doing the kind of jobs Americans won’t—”
“They’re Muslims, then?”
“Oh, Abdul’s promised Contracep to convert! Everything’s being arranged by Brother Billy Joe. It’s going to be a nationwide story, Billy Joe says.”
“AveMaría, are you and your husband locos? First, you abandon Holy Mother Church for a gringo circus tent, now you encourage your daughter to become involved with a follower of the Prince of Lies, a member of the Devil’s Own Religion that teaches Our Lord is boiling alive in a pot of hot oil this very moment! Not to mention, she’s only thirteen. Next thing I hear, you’ll have found a girlfriend for Dubya. Listen to me, querida! Us Méxicanos up here in the Estados Unidos need to become Norteños in our pocketbooks, not in our heads.”
The conversation was not going at all the way AveMaría had imagined it. By turns surprised, aggrieved, and resentful at her friend’s reprimand, she felt in the end abashed, even slightly guilty. Of course Teresa, not being intimately familiar with either the peculiarities of the situation or the characters involved, couldn’t help but view the entire business from a distance, as it were. Even so, her admonition against thinking too much like an American struck home. How often, AveMaría thought, had she herself, observing the same tendency in her husband, warned him against it? In his determination to become a real American, Héctor was far more obsessive than she. True, America was for Mexicans the Promised Land, but only for so long as they remained Mexican at heart. To that extent, she found herself in reluctant agreement with Teresa Aguilar. If Anglo parents, worshiping diversity as Americans did, were content to see their children marry Islamists, that was their business. Clearly, a Mexican mother could never consent to such a thing for her child. But Abdul Agha was going to become a Christian himself, first! As for the rest of it—regarding the propriety of Contracep’s having a boyfriend at all—that was just Teresa’s outdated, restrictive, and superstitious religion talking. It was too bad, AveMaría considered, that her best friend had to be what Bro. Billy Joe called a Mackerel Snapper (and worse), but what was she to do about that? Only the week before, she’d considered discreetly inviting Teresa to join her for the prayer meeting that was meant to kick off the Crusade for Souls. Now, as a result of this conversation, it appeared to her prudent to postpone all evangelistic efforts until such time as Teresa Aguilar seemed more receptive to God’s Call.
Therefore, all AveMaría said in answer to her friend’s outburst was, “Well, in America, do as the Americanos do, ha ha! Héctor and I want to throw a party for Abdul when he’s saved, I’ll call to let you know when we have a date to invite you, we hope you and Augustín will come—oh, and Castidad too, of course, if she wants to and has nothing better to do. Who knows; she might even meet someone nice there!”
That evening, Abdul, after dropping Contracepción at the gate, drove off at once without coming inside for cookies and milk. AveMaría, surprised and fearing a lovers’ quarrel, asked why.
“Oh, Mamá, it’s Friday and he has evening prayer service to go to. His father is the Ihop, so he can’t skip church or be a minute late, even.”
AveMaría, who had no idea what an Ihop might be, nodded sagely and said nothing. An hour later, after her husband had arrived home and the two of them were seated together in the den watching the six o’clock news, she asked him about it during the commercial break.
“An Ihop? No idea. Sounds like a pancake house to me.”
“It’s something to do with the mosque. Contracep says Abdul’s father is the Ihop there. And it’s pronounced ‘Ih-Hop,’ not ‘Eye-hop,’ by the way.”
Even had he not made it a matter of patriotic duty for the past five years to follow developments in the War on Terror conscientiously, the televised interview from Baghdad that had concluded just before the break would have supplied Héctor with the answer. He hit the MUTE button on the remote and set his dripping beer bottle down on the coffee table without bothering to place a coaster under it.
“Imam!” he exclaimed in a harsh whisper to his wife. “The word is imam, meaning an Islamist priest! This fellow’s father is the . . . uh . . . pastor of the Belen mosque, the head gazzink! Do you have any idea what this means, woman?”
AveMaría hesitated before giving an answer that to her seemed so obvious she had to imagine her husband’s question was really a trick one.
“Why, I suppose he’s just the same as Brother Billy Joe in our church,” she said at last. “Just stick a coaster under that bottle—¡por favor, querido!”
Héctor regarded her momentarily with hopeless despair. Then, he put his open hand to his forehead and ran it down his face as far as his chin. When he had done so, his expression was changed entirely, as if the despairing one had been wiped away and replaced by a look of determined aggression.
“A so-called mosque is nothing but a terrorist cell,” he began, “and the imam is the head terrorist. Do you see now what it is that you have done, AveMaría? Through your crazy desire to find Contracepción a novio, you have invited a dangerous viper into the bosom of the family!”
AveMaría at first was too shocked and ashamed to speak. Slowly, however, she became emboldened, her conversation with Teresa Aguilar that afternoon having encouraged in her a strange and unaccustomed confidence.
“In that case,” she said in a strong voice, rising from the sofa beside her husband, “we must see that Abdul gets saved as soon as possible. Gracias a Dio, the Crusade for Souls begins just two weeks from tomorrow!”