Crown 23

Or, This Was a Terrible Idea, Part Six.

[TWO DAYS REMAIN]

The story of the day I die is an interesting one and (like a lot of my stories) it starts in my car. I was driving down the 5 with my best friend, Justin, on my way to become a Godfather. We’d spent a lot of time together in that car, driving that freeway up, down, and back again through California. My name for the Jetta was Franz. Justin called it The German Whip. It would vessel me across the continent on the journey I was meant to take. Of course, I never made it, since I’m dead now and telling you this story. I wanted to take Franz the German Whip from the west coast to the east in a typical Giovan Journey. That is: poorly planned, last minute, and with heavy existential undertones.

Justin and I had almost died in that car once before on the overnight trip from Santa Cruz to Lancaster. It takes six hours, but we would do it in four, and at ungodly speeds. I remember getting passed by a few cars near San Luis Obispo and screaming “If I get pulled over, I’m going to jail! What the hell are they gonna do to you?!”

We were reeling through the desert when I ran a stop sign and had to swerve to save our lives. We didn’t hit the car coming at us (the car that had the right of way) but we did end up colliding with a coyote that actually turned out to be a Hopi trickster god. We almost ripped him in half we hit him so hard.

But he put himself back together again and cursed at me when he was finished. He said he could smell the Spaniard in me, smell the Catholic in me, and thanked me very much for murdering his people. He bared his teeth and stole the car. Made us hike about five miles in the cold Mojave night before we found where he’d ditched it since (thankfully) it was already out of gas. He didn’t leave much damage to the car. Just scratched up the seats a bit getting in and left it smelling like fleas and faintly of piss. There was also the coyote shaped dent in the bumper. But I’ve already told that story and you can read about it in my book. And as always, I’m getting away from myself.

As I said, we were on our way to a baptism, the baptism of my white niece held captive to history and to Mexico even three generations later. And this is how:

In the 1880s my bisabuelo Papa Miguel (a baker, a piano player, a builder, and apparently a pretty good dancer) married my bisabuela Mama Nina in a small pueblo in Sonora, Mexico. They had nine kids. They named the first one Miguel, but he died as an infant. Later on, they would name number six Miguel again and this time, it took.

In the early Twenties they moved to the border town of Nogales, Mexico then to Nogales, Arizona, and finally settled in Tucson, Arizona. My 93-year-old Nina Susie, their second youngest daughter always made it a point to remind me that in those days it was no trouble at all to walk from Mexico to the Land of Dreams.

It was in Tucson that my grandmother was born, the first American of her family, into that huge and overbearing Catholic tribe. None of her other sisters ever married. I think Mama Nina drove the men away, crying and screaming “Why you want to leaaaaaave me? Porque me quieres abondar?!”

My Nana probably couldn’t take it anymore and was looking for an out. That’s how my theory goes because when my Tata (the blue-eyed, blond-haired, Spaniard Sailor boy from New Mexico) was stationed at the Navy base in Tucson, they were married a few months later and on their way to Los Angeles. That’s where my uncle, then my mother, and then my aunt whom I would be going to live with on the east coast (had I not died) were born.

And that’s where my mother met my hairy-chested, mustachioed, Anglo-Saxon father who had just driven across the country from Michigan. After five drama-filled years, they married and she had six children with him. One day, while driving, he swerved to avoid a coyote and crashed his car in the process.

And through all of that, the Catholic religion survived through my family, and all the guilt, too. Mama Nina’s ghost had been crying in my ear since I made my decision to go. “Why you want to leaaaaave me?” With her face full of nopal tears. And I didn’t even know her.

But it was her religion, and Miguel’s, that had transfused into this mostly-white family and left such an impact. So profound that Josh (my sisters’ husband) would marry in the Catholic church (just like my dad did), despite not being Catholic, and that her daughter would be baptized in it. What makes this whole situation so interesting to me is the choice in God-parents, and my mothers comment that indeed, I (the atheist) would be the most Catholic influence on this baby’s life. Well, I would have been. If I hadn’t died.

But it was true. My godwife was a secular gay woman who ducked her head in only half-ironic fear as we entered the church. She’s Josh’s sister. We both certified to become godparents in an online program. I did mine only hours before I walked across the border to visit Tijuana two weeks prior. I had to cross that off my list before I left; I couldn’t care this much about my strange and complex roots if I had never stepped foot on Mexican soil. Even if it was just TJ. Although (in some sense) living in California meant I had spent my entire life on Mexican Soil.

The strangest thing about Tijuana you ask? All the Viagra. And all the dogs. Didn’t see one coyote though. Thought that was weird.

We had to kill six birds with two stones. Brynn’s birthday in an LA park on Saturday, and then Giani, Gabe, Andrea, and Ainslee’s birthday the very next day in an OC Park. We would party there for a few hours before we hauled up the tribe and made our way to the church to go splash a baby. At the park, I did my usual routine, playing with the toddlers, children, and infants to avoid saying goodbye. My aunt said that this was the first time she was hearing about me leaving. But didn’t I tell everyone at Christmas? I had to have told everyone at Christmas, well at least I thought I did and man, I’m sorry Nina, there’s just so fucking many of you, I thought I told you I was leaving at Christmas.

Justin sat beneath the Gazebo going in and out of consciousness. He was running on one hour of sleep from playing Super Smash Bros and watching movies all night at my house with Giani. I still forced him to wake up early and help me set up this party because it meant a lot to me. Because I hadn’t realized it until my sister asked me, but I’d wanted to be a godfather for a very long time. And the fact that it was my cute and squishy just-turned-one-year-old ahijada made it mean that much more to me. Her cheeks were huge and I liked to nibble on them when I held her. I let her talk her baby talk to me. Goo-goo ga-ga said in such earnest joy. I was the same way at her age, apparently. Very eager to say things before I even knew there were things to say. I just saw everybody else doing it and felt I should be involved.

It’s hard to describe your relationship with a baby that isn’t yours. I know I love her and she’s beautiful and that even at that young of an age I’m sure she knows who I am and that feels good. I spent a lot of time in the tent we built for her and filled with toys and bouncy balls to keep her occupied. I let her crawl all over me and drool on my face. Her cousin Brynn, my other niece, and all my siblings came in the tent and we were all crawling around acting like babies because that’s the gift that babies give. You need to come down to their level. And crawling around there (all six of us, ages one to twenty-four) made my heart ache a little because I was leaving. I tried to turn that ache into a profound appreciation, and it kind of worked.

Through the mesh on the tent, I saw something I kept to myself because I didn’t want anybody to freak out. That, and I didn’t know if anybody else could see it. But it was a huge dog (the kind you’d see in a medieval painting) and a small coyote. They were eating a raven together at the edge of the park. Bloody mouths and fire-white teeth. Smiling at me. They looked like the best of pals.

Oh fuck. I looked closer at the coyote’s ribs and noticed a familiar set of scars from when The German Whip chomped into them somewhere near Neenach, CA going 96 through a stop sign at 4 am. He looked up at me, face covered black in raven blood, and gave me a familiar wink before returning to his snack. So chalk that up to a total of seven dead birds.

The party went on and I continued to run around with my siblings, my niece, my cousins’ kids, and my cousins’ boyfriend’s daughters, one of whom is a half Mexican girl who spent most of her life in Japan with her mother and doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish or English. My siblings and I now have the mantle of “Big Kids” at these parties and we take our role seriously. We’re the fun ones. We’re the ones who chase. Justin did a little bit of playing but spent a lot of time resting.

Justin’s role in our family is an interesting one. He comes around often enough to be as close as family, but he’s removed enough to make certain observations about us. The first is that all of us boys are in competition with each other. And that each of us is trying to be stronger than our older counterparts. The way he puts it is that I’m coming for Gabe and Garrett is coming for me and Giani is coming for no one because he’s already stronger than all of us, and Angie is making everybody cookies. Rocky doesn’t need to be in competition. Well, until today.

Because today she pulled a major flex. We all gathered around the baby to sing her happy birthday so she could smash her face in a cake and Rocky thanked us all for being there. Said it was a special day because this was the last birthday that Ainslee was going to have as an only child. The crowd applauded and Justin burst out laughing because only a month earlier Gabe and Laura had pulled their own stunt to announce their pregnancy by giving my mom an early birthday card with an ultrasound inside.

If Justin’s theory is correct then my older two siblings will be locked in an old testament style battle for more offspring. He’s also got a list of superheroes for all of us. My mom’s Sue Storm, Gabe’s the Thing, I’m Spiderman, I’ll find the rest later, what did you think this was? A final draft? Fuck that.

“You have to tell me what to say,” my godwife tells me as we enter the church. “I know you’re not Catholic but you’re way more Catholic than me, and I’m a little nervous.” Rocky emailed us both a sheet with just what we were supposed to say and precisely how and when. I think we both read it exactly 0 times.

“Just wing it,” I tell her. “I’m pretty sure it’s just call and response anyway.”

The baptism is set up like an assembly line for inducting babies. The chapel is filled with the families of all the infants come to join the church of Rome. My niece is looking especially adorable in her little dress that makes her huge blue eyes pop. She’s making that bashful face babies make while my dad and Giani play peekaboo with her. I wanted to sit next to her and hold her but the priest showed us the exact spot where the godparents must sit. My god-wife is sitting to my right and to my left is Justin, sitting straight up and completely asleep. He looks like he’s in a place of complete and serene prayer.

Since he’s sleeping, he doesn’t notice the dog and the coyote walk right up to the door. All the families pouring in don’t seem to notice either. They just walk right past them. I can’t tell what they are saying, but it’s clear they are arguing. Finally, the dog walks in the church and the coyote stays frozen at the door. “Have fun, you fucking dirty heathen bastard!” He yells at the dog and runs away into the West Covina Street. A car almost hits him and has to swerve out of the way, blaring its horn.

With almost unnoticeable graduality the dog becomes a man as he walks down the aisle and sits right next to Justin. A huge man, just under eight feet tall, very black skin and grey curly hair that turns into volcanic smoke which floats above the aisle. It floats out the huge chapel door to the coyote, who is sitting across the street, staring at him with hate. “The blood of his ancestors! The blood of her kinfolk! Natives, gays, and slaves all slaughtered at this very doorstep! How could you?” Screaming, shaking his paw in hate.

I recognize the dog-man instantly as Saint Kristopher, though I don’t know why. He looks nothing like the white man carrying the white baby Jesus I’ve seen in medallions on the rearview mirrors of minivans my entire life. He does have the huge cane and characteristic red robes, though. But the cane is attached to an ax blade and the robes seem to be more decorative than as a form of covering. He’s not shy about the fact this spirit-dick is bouncing out of them as he walks. Far less modest than any modern Catholic medallion would allow.

He leans over my sleeping friend and his face becomes a dog’s again. Some kind of hunting dog. Pointed ears, long nose for smelling, and teeth that could crush my skull.

I come to console you on the journey you will never take.”

“Excuse me, what?”

Then his face turns back into a man’s and he watches the rest of the ceremony in silence.

Before the baptism begins, the priest gives a small sermon. He addresses the crowd about the importance of godparents. How it’s our job to guide these babies on their spiritual journey away from sin. My godwife and I look at each other with equal parts guilt and humor. The lesbian and the atheist in the Catholic church. “I think we’re going to do great,” I whisper.

Then, it’s time for us all to line our babies up and baptize them. One by one. I can tell the godwife is nervous. “You have to stand in front of me the whole time. It’s nippy in here and I forgot to wear a bra. I don’t want the entire church to see my glass cutters.”

“You got it,” I tell her.

Each family is given a candle. The flame of the babies faith that we are meant to guard well and the godwife had to carry it. On the way from the huge candle (the source of the flame) back to the baby, Stacy’s candle blew out and she has to run back and light it again. Our whole family giggles a bit which causes the whole church to giggle a bit. “Oh my god, that was so embarrassing,” she says from behind me as I guard her nipples against the crowd.

“Oh my god, you can’t say ‘oh my god’ on the altar,” I reply.

We say a prayer of exorcism to keep anything that is not of God away from the baby and then the baptism is over. The family comes up to the altar to take a picture of us, and I ham it way up. I’m in the dead center of the picture pushing the baby’s actual father to the very back. But hey, the baby looked cute as hell and we took the picture in the middle of her laughing.

And then I walk down the alter to go say goodbye to most of my family for the last time. But I don’t move. Well, my body moves, but my spirit stays frozen up there on the Altar. “What is happening?” I ask Saint Kristopher.

“You’re dead,” I hear from a child’s voice behind me. It’s six-year-old me standing next to his constant companion, the fourteen-year-old. Being a spirit myself, I can see them much more clearly now. I see that the flames floating above the child’s head are actually a crown made of green fire. The number 6 is burning in white at the center of it. The fourteen-year-old has a crown as well, one I hadn’t noticed before. It’s made of ice with ‘14’ etched into it.

I can see all my other spirits, floating above the altar as well. I see 17 with his crown made of water, swimming the butterfly above the clergy in a Speedo. I see 1 with a crown of horns, throwing spirit shit on all the unsuspecting clergy. They don’t even blink as it invisibly rolls down their faces. I look up, and I have a crown floating above my own head, too. It’s made of silicon with a screen at the center. The number 23 is glowing out of it.

I remembered what J had told me yesterday. That 6 and 14, who were always following me around, were ghosts of who I’d been. I never thought to connect the dots. That I would soon have to join them in the parade of ghosts of all the people I’d been before. But looking up at Death now, riding on her horse made out of a Joshua Tree covered in white roses, her hair blowing over her skeleton face, her ten-gallon hat, I knew it was true. I was dead.

All the families had left the altar now and it was just me, Death, and twenty-two other spirits standing there, staring at him, the newly born version of myself. The one who in two days would embark on his journey.

“I always wanted to go on adventures. I can’t because I’m dead. So I’m really happy he’s doing it for me,” the six-year-old-says. I feel the warmth of his flame. “Do you want to hear all the stuff I know about dragons? They have these holes in their teeth like snakes and they shoot out venom like snakes, but the venom is flammable and they have this rock thingy in their stomach that causes a spark and that’s how they can shoot fire! It’s like putting a match in front of hairspray. Cool, huh?”

The new me is hugging and kissing his family goodbye for the last time, but he misses some of them. Papa Miguel, Mama Nina, Miguel Jr., and Miguel Jr. Jr. (both long dead now) my Nana, and all the rest of my deceased great aunts and uncles who had come to see their great-great-niece be baptized. To celebrate that the religion of their people had survived another generation. Among that huge tribe, there is one little spirit girl I can’t recognize. But I know I’ve seen her before…

Saint Kristopher puts his arm around that new version of me, invisible to him, ready to guide him on his journey. The coyote is still across the street, flipping him off through open double doors. As he passes Mama Nina she cries out:

“Whyyyy you want to leaaaaaave me?”

FINAL CHAPTER COMING SOON.

CLICK HERE TO START FROM THE BEGINNING.

The Writer for the Non-Readers.