On a morning less than a week before the kickoff to Bro. Billy Joe’s Crusade for Souls, AveMaría, after she’d dropped Contracepción off at the mosque, was in the middle of a U-turn in the street when a car rounded the corner ahead on two wheels, heading directly for the Subaru. As there was nothing to do but sound the horn, AveMaría did so, striking the top of the steering column with the side of her right hand, in which she held an open can of Sprite. The jet of carbonated liquid blinded her momentarily, so she never saw the car leap the curb and run for a distance along the strip of sidewalk. By the time her sight cleared, the vehicle had regained and crossed the street and was pulling into the parking lot beside the mosque. Indignant, AveMaría put the Subaru in reverse and backed it as fast as she dared into the road with the intention of giving the driver a piece of her mind through the window.
The car, an ancient Dodge Dart that was the sun-faded color of a spoiled tomato, looked familiar. (AveMaría was not given to noticing automobiles especially, unless it was something she thought she’d like to own.) So did the young man with dark, curly hair and wearing a white T-shirt and tan cargo pants climbing out on the driver’s side. Why, she thought—it’s Abdul Agha! But who was the turbaned man emerging from the passenger door wearing dark glasses and carrying a stick? Though she was too far away for a good look at his face, something about the typo made AveMaría’s skin crawl. Had not Héctor warned that every mosque was a snake pit of terrorists? Surely, this man looked the part. On second thought, AveMaría put the Subaru in DRIVE and drew away from the mosque. She’d find a way to get the information she wanted out of Abdul when he delivered Contracepción home that afternoon.
But Abdul Agha did not bring Contracepción that day. Instead, the girl called around two o’clock to request that her mother come for her at three. Abdul, she explained, had to drive his father somewhere. Feeling slightly peeved—besides having planned an afternoon’s uninterrupted work at the church helping prepare for the Crusade, she’d been looking forward to having her curiosity regarding the spectacled man gratified—AveMaría met her daughter as requested at the mosque, where nothing much seemed to be happening except for an after-school religious class, and neither Abdul nor his former passenger was about.
AveMaría, having prepared her strategy in advance, waited until they’d driven a few blocks and were already ascending the access ramp to I-25 before remarking, in a jesting tone: “You know, Abdul almost ran smack into me after I dropped you at the mosque this morning. He must have been going at least thirty miles an hour around that corner—like a maníaco! If Gallegos, the cop, were to catch him doing such a thing, he’d have him deported all the way back to Afghanistan. I hope he doesn’t drive that way when he’s with you, mia vida! Did he take driver’s ed in Kabul, do you know?”
“Mamá, he must have been hurrying! His papá had an important meeting with a guy came all the way from Pakiland to see him. He had to get him to the mosque on time!”
A sickly light, the color of a dying sun, rose at the back of AveMaría’s mind. “Does his father wear glasses and carry a cane?”
“¡Claro—he is blind! That’s why poor Abdul has to drive him everywhere.”
So that was the answer, AveMaría thought to herself. Aloud, she added, “He drives his dad to the mosque every morning, then. Why doesn’t he take you along, too, querido?”
“O Mamá, don’t be silly. His father can’t ever know about me! Abdul said he’d have, like, a heart attackt if he knew his son was going with a Nasrani—a kafir.”
“What’s a Nasrany Café?”
“It means Christian, infidel, in Arabic. Abdul explained it to me.”
AveMaría was shocked at first, then angered. “An infidel? Who’s an infidel? Me, or that blind towelhead in glasses? Is your father, then, an infidel too, picarona?”
“Mamá, don’t get excited! It’s like they keep telling us in school, all religions are really the same.”
AveMaría saw clearly that it was not just Islamists who stood to benefit from Bro. Billy Joe’s Crusade for Souls, but her own family as well. (What was the good of Sunday school, she asked herself, when the public-education system spent five days a week undoing the lessons that nice Mrs. Bradford taught the kids?) She said as much to her husband that evening after supper, when Contracepción had retired to her room for what AveMaría presumed was her good-night talk with Abdul.
“Won’t it be wonderful,” she added, “to see Abdul and Contracep feeling Our Lord’s breath on their faces and receiving the Spirit from Him, hand in hand together?”
But Héctor only grunted as he took another Corona from the fridge on his way back to the den, where he’d taken to isolating himself of late. He was drinking more than was usual for him, AveMaría had noted in some consternation. Solitary drinking was unhealthy, she’d read, but the alternative for Héctor was the Taberno Aztlán where Jesús “Eddie” Juárez hung out every night. More and more, AveMaría was coming to suspect Jesús of being a bad—or, anyway, unwholesome—influence.
The great problem AveMaría foresaw lay in enticing Abdul Agha into the revival meeting before he could recognize it as a Christian gathering. Fortunately, the Crusade was to be held in Bill Bradford’s large equipment shed south of town, a decision made by Bro. Billy Joe, who feared the shabby and decrepit-looking church roof might be off-putting to potential converts. And the organizing committee had scheduled an indoor barbecue before each meeting, which would give the first hour or so the atmosphere of the secular picnic Abdul would be expecting, rather than that of a religious gathering. Even so, AveMaría felt, it was going to be a touch-and-go situation, with much dependent on Contracepción playing her part to the hilt. Having impressed upon the girl the magnitude of the stakes involved, she felt fairly confident of her daughter’s success in pulling the thing off. Still, you never knew. The entire business was very much a calculated risk.
At last, the great night arrived. Abdul, having arranged for his best friend Zamari to stand in for him at his job with the falafel shop on Sosima Pidaloa, left for “work” in his Dodge, as usual. He collected Contracepción at the Villa residence, and the two proceeded directly south on Route 314 to Bradford’s machine shed, where AveMaría awaited them while Héctor sweated over a grill on which sausages browned. AveMaría, who’d been keeping her eye on the door, was impressed once again by what a fine-looking couple her daughter and the young Afghan made. She bustled over and, taking the boy’s arm, led the pair directly toward her husband and the sausages, which were already producing an enticing odor. In the past, AveMaría had been conscious of some reservations regarding the Assemblies of God’s teachings on the matter of alcohol. Tonight, its teetotalist theology seemed nothing short of a godsend—no beer kegs and makeshift bars standing around.
“Try one of these pork sausages,” she urged Abdul. “They’re almost as good as the ones we used to get in Mexico when I was a girl!” To her surprise, the boy preferred shish kebob prepared with mutton from one of the tough old sheep Bartholome Naranjo raised on his ranch along the Rio Puerco.
AveMaría kept a fond eye on the loving twosome as they strolled through the crowd, a surprising number of whom, she saw, were young people, all of them wholesome and many of them—the girls especially—good looking. Observing her daughter’s progress around the shed, she began to suspect herself of having underestimated Contracep’s popularity as one young woman after another approached the girl in a friendly, giggling, and generally ingratiating manner. Then Bro. Billy Joe ascended the platform, and everyone took a seat, Contracepción and Abdul toward the back of the building, AveMaría and Héctor up front. AveMaría held her breath in suspense as the preacher lifted his arms toward Heaven and began to pray: “O Father God-duh, have mercy on us miserable sinners as we gather here together—teetering on the smoky brink of Hell—in Your Holy Name!” Though she had to admit Billy Joe conducted a moving revival that evening, her appreciation was somewhat spoiled by her concern for its possible effect on Abdul Agha, who must surely realize by now he was in a vipers’ pit of Nasrany Cafés. However, the boy seemed cheerful enough afterward, AveMaría thought, chatting comfortably with Contracepción and a knock-out redhead of about sixteen she didn’t recall having ever seen at church.
When the time came to leave, Abdul shook hands gravely with Contracepción and drove off in his car, leaving the Villas standing in the parking area outside the machine shed.
“Mi vida, how did it go?” AveMaría demanded anxiously of her daughter. “Was he touched by the Spirit, do you think?”
The girl shrugged. “¿Quién sabe? I don’t think he paid much attention during the meeting, he kept muttering something about a lockbar. Later, when it was over and we were talking with Kathleen O’Malley, he seemed to be in, like, a better mood.”
“Is she the redhead girl? I don’t think I’ve seen her around before.”
“Her and her family moved here last year from Ireland. They used to be Catholic before they joined our church. I see her at Sunday school every week.”
AveMaría felt greatly relieved. “It sounds like it was a success after all—don’t you agree, Panchito?” Héctor, who’d been scraping a semicircular clearing in the gravel with the side of his cowboy boot, looked glum and said nothing.
AveMaría was in a state of high anticipation the next week as she contemplated the second Crusade meeting on the following Saturday night. There were to be four meetings in all, and she had no doubt that, sooner or later, God would touch Abdul Agha’s heart and bring him, weeping and staggering, up the center aisle to Christ. All that week, she kept an anxious eye on Contracepción, noting the girl’s every mood and pestering her with questions regarding Abdul, from which she learned nothing of interest, save that the boy’s father had inadvertently discovered his son’s absence from the falafel shop the previous Saturday and that there had been hell to pay. How cruel and inhumane of these Islamists, she thought, working their children like slaves for just a little extra money on the side! Meanwhile, Abdul continued to deliver Contracep to the house in his Dodge, where, after cookies and goat’s milk, he bade her formal farewell at the front gate.
That Saturday evening, the Villas again departed for the Crusade in two cars, Contracepción chauffeured by her handsome admirer and feeling like royalty. How envious Kathleen O’Malley would be when she realized that last week had not been a casual date, and that she and Abdul Agha were in a serious relationship! At the barbecue, she made a point of seeking Kathleen out and hanging possessively on Abdul’s arm while the three of them chatted. Then Bro. Billy Joe clambered up to the podium, and it was time for everyone to take a seat and turn his thoughts from the heaven of pork ribs to a world of sin and the agonies of Hell.
As they had the previous week, Héctor and AveMaría sat in front while the lovebirds took seats toward the back rows of chairs. Bro. Billy Joe began once again by invoking Father God-duh and, in a short time, had the congregation warmed to a fervor that seemed to sweep through Brother Bradford’s shiny new machine shed like a Pentecostal fire. Contracepción did her best to get in the mood, but, in fact, she had a care only for the turbaned hunk beside her. He had never looked handsomer, she thought, his color high beneath his dusky complexion and his eyes flashing fire. Only what, she wondered, could he possibly mean by this word lockbar, repeated over and over again, in fervent tones, under his breath?
The ushers with their long-handled baskets had just started to take up the collection when a disturbance sounded from outside, beyond the wide steel doors of the shed. Contracepción heard rough voices raised in a roaring chant which, she realized dimly, somehow approximated the sounds Abdul Aghar was still making beside her. “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” There came next the sound of the doors being rolled back on their metal track, followed by the riotous noise of trampling feet and the crash of the barbecue apparatus being overturned. A horde of dusky turbaned men laying about themselves with staves and crowbars swept down upon the Crusade for Souls, high in oath and praise of the One True God.
In the melee that followed, Héctor and AveMaría, frantically seeking their daughter, came upon her at last in tears of hysteria, barely in time to see Abdul Agha, hand in hand with Kathleen O’Malley, escaping through a small side door of the shed.