Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Villa slept much that night from worry over Contracepción and her love interest. From time to time, one or the other would drift off—AveMaría into nightmares of a Muslim wedding, Héctor to dream of thrashing the lusty young Islamist within an inch of his life. But they would soon wake and lie side by side in the darkness, discussing in hushed tones the necessary measures to be taken before AveMaría delivered Contracep to work at the mosque the next morning.
Héctor was all for confronting their daughter at breakfast and forbidding her outright to see the fellow again. His wife favored collecting Contracep herself after work on pretence of driving her to the Los Lunas mall to shop for new shoes and postponing the unpleasantness until after supper in the presence of Bro. Billy Joe, who was expected to drop by for dessert and coffee. Héctor, who considered AveMaría’s plan a classic example of weak-minded female indirection, held his tongue anyway. If only his children were reversed in age and it were Dubya he had to deal with tomorrow! For some reason he didn’t understand but which had nothing to do with cowardice (he assured himself), Héctor felt he’d rather face a firing squad than have to lay down the law to his daughter on an issue of romance. And, was she really his daughter anymore? A great part of his anguish, Héctor realized, derived from the fear that he wasn’t going to recognize Contracepción when, for the first time since learning the news from Jesús “Eddie,” he laid eyes on her at 7 A.M. across the breakfast table.
In fact, he avoided her gaze over breakfast, ate almost nothing, and excused himself from the table after ten minutes, saying he had an early appointment in Mountainair, 45 miles away. When AveMaría gave him a significant look, Héctor couldn’t help feeling like a coward in spite of himself. The sense of having ignominiously abandoned his post stayed with him as far as Blue Canyon, where he stopped at the roadside café for several more cups of coffee and a sweet roll, so as not to have to wait in his truck for forty minutes outside the client’s place of business. Thank God—Héctor reflected fervently—he had but one daughter to give to his country!
When her husband had departed for Mountainair, AveMaría called Bro. Billy Joe on the bedroom phone to inform him of the current crisis chez Villa and enlist his help that evening. Then it was time to drive Contracepción to work. The girl complained all the way of being forbidden makeup and jewelry and having to wear a headscarf on the job, and acted offended when her mother failed to offer sympathy. AveMaría had not, in fact, been very surprised to learn that Contracep had a boyfriend, having spotted the telltale signs over the past couple of weeks. But she had been totally unprepared for the news that the boyfriend was an Islamist, a sworn enemy of America and the Lord Jesus. Contracepción had been brought up, at home as well as at Sunday school, to know better. Concerning what might have gone wrong, AveMaría could not have said, anymore than she’d understood why her youngest sister, Angélica, had run off to Ciudad México at the age of fifteen to work as a call girl. Of course, the money was good, but Middle Eastern people didn’t have any money, they were all poor, except for the Jews—besides which, they looked exactly alike. How could you fall in love with one of them when you couldn’t tell the one you loved from all the rest? Bro. Billy Joe would have said it was the Devil, but AveMaría knew better. It was the way young girls were. After all, she’d been one herself, once. And it was true her father had never considered Héctor much of a prize—though at least he’d been Méxicano, not one of those look-alike Islamists with a bomb under his turban. Thinking of bombs frightened AveMaría to the point where, by the time they arrived at the mosque, she was in near panic from imagining it to be a terrorist religious cell like those she’d seen American troops smashing their way through in Iraq on the evening news.
The place appeared peaceable enough, and AveMaría managed to regain sufficient control of herself to say, in a more or less normal voice, “I’ll pick you up myself this afternoon, ¡vida mía! We’ll run up to the mall in Los Lunas and buy you the shoes you’ve been wanting since Día del Muerte!”
In that instant, the daughter’s expression told her mother all that she needed to know. For the rest, there was the glimpse she had of a young man peering furtively around a corner of the mosque toward the car, a Moorish Adonis with a black beard and black curly hair—absolutely the handsomest boy, AveMaría caught herself thinking, she had ever laid eyes on.
“¡O Mamá!” Contracepción wailed, “I don’t need those dumb sandals! Honest, I don’t! And the mall is always so crowded on Friday afternoons!”
AveMaría did not know what to say. If she were in her daughter’s shoes, she wouldn’t want to visit the mall with her mother this afternoon, either. Contracep, of course, was a beautiful girl and very well developed for her age, who’d attracted admiring glances from men from the time she was ten or eleven. Even at that, the mother couldn’t help being impressed. She herself had never attracted a boy like this one when she was thirteen—or ever. The kid looked to be just the right age for Contracep, plus he was hot! Anyone could see that, AveMaría thought, just by looking at him.
“OK,” she agreed, “we’ll look for shoes some other time. Only, I want you back by five o’clock sharp, before your father gets home. Otherwise, he’s going to be very angry—and so will I.” Be sure and tell me the first time he kisses you, she wanted to add, but didn’t.
“¡O Mamá, gracias—muchas, muchas gracias!” Contracepción jumped from the Subaru and started at a trot toward the corner of the building, from where the gorgeous visage had withdrawn itself. AveMaría watched with a kind of fierce indulgence as she went, her headscarf fluttering on a stiff desert wind. It was the fastest, she thought, she’d ever seen her daughter move. (Contracep, far from being an athletic girl, was rather lazy.)
AveMaría’s first thought on reaching home was to telephone her best friend, Teresa Aguilar, who had a daughter the same age as Contracepción, and give her the news that Contracep had found herself a hunk of fifteen or sixteen. In the end, she decided against doing so, as Teresa was not only a Catholic but an actual practicing one, who could be counted on to disapprove of a Christian girl dating an Islamist, no matter how great-looking. AveMaría had just reached this decision when Bro. Billy Joe called to postpone dinner with the Villas until the following evening, owing to the suicide that morning of a member’s son who’d left behind a note explaining that his father had refused him the sports car he’d wanted for a graduation present. Though AveMaría was relieved at not having to put herself out as a hostess on so eventful a day, the mere thought of the preacher caused her a pang of anxiety, produced by dark foreboding. What, she wondered, would Billy Joe have to say when he learned of Contracepción’s conquest? Although she chose not to dwell on the subject for now, AveMaría believed she could make a pretty good guess. Between them, Billy Joe and Héctor would constitute a formidable opposition that was likely to carry the day against herself and Contracep. What words would get said on the way to a decision scarcely bore contemplation, she found. Why couldn’t the preacher and her husband understand that this boy was just exactly what the girl needed to bolster her self-confidence and help her find the way to maturity? Every talk-show host and advice columnist she knew of would agree with her, rejecting the ignorant and unfeeling viewpoint of the two privileged men who shared between them the power to determine poor Contracepción’s fate.
Her worst fear, that the young man would delay in delivering Contracep to the house until after her now-watchful father had reached home, proved unfounded. Instead, with faultless oriental tact and prudence, he dropped her off a block away and just on the stroke of five o’clock, a good half-hour before Héctor’s van pulled up to the curb.
“Where’s Contracepción?” Héctor demanded first thing of his wife, even before he’d gotten a beer from the fridge.
“In her room, studying her Sunday-school lesson,” AveMaría informed him. “And Brother Billy Joe called this afternoon to say he can’t make it tonight. He’s coming tomorrow instead.”
“¡Bueno! I want to know what a preacher makes of this mess, but I’m too exhausted to discuss it with him this evening. And since Billy Joe won’t be here, after all, I can drink beer with dinner—¡gracias a Dios!”
When Contracepción took her place at the dinner table that evening, her father regarded her furtively with eyes from which the scales had fallen at last. How, Héctor wondered, had he failed to see disaster looming? His daughter, not yet fourteen, was what in Mexico is called a guapa and in America, a piece of ass. He saw it all now. The wonder was not that some starry-eyed Muslim kid had become smitten with his daughter, but that she didn’t have a train of Hindus, Buddhists, Rastafarians, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, Falun Gongists, Mormons, Episcopalians, and Catholics slobbering after her as well. That was the downside of multiculturalism, Héctor thought bitterly. Perhaps, after all, the Villas ought never to have left Mexico, where life was socially less complicated. He drank more beer than was good for him and went to bed ahead of AveMaría, full of dread. And this was only the beginning! No sooner would he succeed in driving this typo off than the guy would be succeeded by another, and another, and another still—each and every one of them responding to that same primordial urge, each one after that single, so very basic thing that precedes every race and creed in the world. Well, he was going to leave it to Bro. Billy Joe—a real professional—to sort things out.
AveMaría, hoping for a second glimpse of Paradise when she drove Contracepción to work the next morning, was disappointed by the failure of Abdul (the girl had shyly confided her suitor’s name after the father had gone early to bed the previous night) to make an appearance. All day she fretted, contemplating the coming scene she imagined for that evening when patriarch and prophet joined in righteous wrath against the scandalous liaison contracted between innocent girlhood and ardent youth. At four-thirty, anticipating Adbul’s imminent delivery of Contracep, AveMaría swallowed a Lorazepam to quiet her nerves. Then, she went on to her daughter’s bedroom, selected from the closet the most modest article of clothing she could find there, and laid the dress across the bed with a note pinned to the bosom: “Bro. B. Joe coming to see your Father tonite.”
Dinner went off quietly, despite Héctor’s glumness and the preacher’s excessive volubility regarding his planned “Crusade for Souls” that winter. Immediately afterward, AveMaría sent Contracepción away with Dubya to give the child his bath while she followed the men into the den, ignoring their surprise at her joining them there. But when his wife gave no indication of leaving, Héctor plunged in, and, in less than five minutes, Bro. Billy Joe had heard the entire sordid story.
“So, what’s a father to do?” he ended in a tragic voice.
The preacher sat dull-eyed, his plump hands crossed on his belly. Having dined heavily at AveMaría’s table, he found himself unable to summon his usual alacrity of thought.
“Ah—shotgun marriage?” he suggested sluggishly.
“They haven’t done anything yet!” AveMaría almost shrieked. “Contracepción is a virgin—I guarantee you that!”
“It was the boy’s family I was thinking of, really. Islamists have a very rigid code of honor—you know, for unbelievers. And the two seem to have been dating for a couple of weeks now.”
“My daughter can’t possibly marry one of those people!” Héctor informed him passionately. “I’d rather see her dead first—almost. ‘Kill the body but not the soul,’ and so forth. Besides, the girl isn’t fourteen yet!”
AveMaría had a flash of inspiration then—as blinding, she thought later, as the light that knocked Saint Paul off his horse.
“What if Abdul converts?” she cried.
Brother Billy Joe’s eyelids had drooped as the conversation proceeded. Now they flapped wide open and the preacher pulled himself up straight in his chair.
“Why of course! Our Crusade for Souls! Contracepción must bring the kid with her to the very first meeting next month! First we save him, then we bring along the entire mosque—we convert everyone! It’ll be a nationwide story, folks! Then, there’s no question we can afford to put that new roof on the old dump!”
To Héctor, his wife looked to be on the verge of swooning—from sheer pleasure, it seemed to him. His own reaction to the catastrophe was coldly formal, wholly impersonal. If this was how the Man of God proposed to defeat his archenemy, Héctor thought, the First Assembly of God could not be long for this world. The same went for the Villa family, so far as he could tell.