Church pews | We'll Burn in Heaven by J Saler Dreesby J Saler Drees

The three of us walk down the aisle between rows of pews, away from the confession booth and toward the large wooden doors of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. The priest encouraged me to turn myself in, and I wonder if he told Rojas and Santiago to do the same.

I step out from the church and into the bright afternoon, feeling less absolved than ever. My face burns in the warm light. Scents of sizzling carne asada from the taco truck and churros from a street vendor fill the air. Children laugh on a playground nearby. Faded beats of bass from a drifting car, mingle with birds greeting the day.

We don’t deserve this beauty and it hurts so much I can no longer breathe.

No person, no priest, no saint, no mother of God or any god can forgive us for what we did. Those wet eyes. And their begging. How the woman begged, her sweaty, calloused hands daring to grasp mine. Mine that held the gun. How Jiménez cried. Iremos. Iremos. We’ll go. We’ll go. You’ll never see us again. He groveled, blood spilling all over while his children screamed.

The restrained sounds from the silencers. A series of pops. Popcorn explosion. White. Red. Against the blue wall.

Then we ran.

You don’t rat out De La Vega. You don’t disobey De La Vega. Why’d Jiménez think he wouldn’t get caught? Cabron. We had to finish him.

Madre de dios, por favor, este vez, dame fuerza. This once, give me strength, Holy Mother of God. I have to turn myself in.

Hombre,’ Rojas says, pulling out a pack of smokes, ‘¿Qué onda? You look sick.’

Estoy bien,’ I tell him, although I wish God would send a lightning bolt from the sky, incinerate me out of this world. I’m burning in its perfection. The mother kissing her baby, the girl jogging past with her dog, the boy eating ice cream he just bought from the cart, little bells jingling as the vendor pushes it away. Jazz music swells from an open window across the street, the saxophone, syrupy as it rolls across the scales. Park benches line along the clear sidewalk, patches of grass sparkle, squirrels scamper, smells of heating tortillas. I’m still here in this paradise. Shouldn’t I be suffering?

Rojas stops in the middle of the sidewalk, under the dappled light of an oak tree, its leaves shift slightly in the sluggish breeze. His greased black hair gleams under the oak’s swaying branches. Santiago stands behind him, hard face with the wide features, his square forehead and frog mouth and brick chin, staring past me. I turn.

Nearby a bus pulls up to the curb and an old man shambles up the steps before the doors shut. The bus rolls out from the curb, massive engine groaning as it picks up speed.

And here we stand. Guilty. While grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins mourn. During Vigil Service last week they wailed in black and clutched their crucifixes. We mourned too, in the back pews, the sun streaming through the stained glass like jewels of ruby, sapphire and gold, pouring down those windows and into the church where upfront the closed caskets sat like giants. Candles, their waxy smoke, the organ playing. We sang the hymns. Bowed our heads and prayed. Took the bread and drank the cup during Mass, where I begged and begged. Father, forgive me, forgive me. But I knew He could not.

‘Let’s get drunk,’ Santiago says. ‘Confession always makes me thirsty.’

His casual manner makes my mouth dry.

Another bus rolls up to the curb. I observe when it slows down, when it speeds up, pulling back into the street. Down the block, no stop sign, it revs the engine, jolts forward. I want to follow the bus.

‘This way,’ I point. ‘There’s a bar this way.’

Sirens screech in the distance and we all freeze. Cars pull over to the side, white orbs of sun glowing off their hoods. The sirens intensify, echoing off the surrounding buildings. Por favor. Let them come for me. Let them cuff my hands behind my back. Slam my body against the trunk of the car. Hit my head on the door frame. Let them prosecute me.

But the flashing blue and red lights whiz past in a blur.

Santiago lets out a laugh.

‘You ever think we’ll get, you know?’ Rojas asks, taking a drag on his smoke.

Cállate, cabron,’ Santiago snaps, his eyes black stone. The gold cross hanging from a chain around his neck sparks a white slash of light in the sun.

But I press on. ‘Did the priest suggest to you—’

‘What?’ Santiago’s thrusts his square face in mine. ‘You want your family to know too? And put them in danger?’

I wince at the word family. My sister Marisol wants to be an artist like Frida Kahlo and I give her money every week to save up for art school. She looks up to me, thinks I’m the older brother of shining light.

‘Keep walking.’ I push past them.

‘No one will find out,’ Rojas adds.

Vamonos.’ I pick up my pace. Have to keep us moving forward. Toward the freeway ramp. Swiftly, I glide across the gum riddled side walk. Buildings become industrial. Tire shops smelling of rubber, rent-a-tractor, Jerome’s Construction. Everything bright under the sun, the blue sky stretching beyond. The rush of the cars on the freeway just few blocks more. A horn honks. Two men chatting, gesture toward an open car hood. This wonderful world, too wonderful. Even prison is too good. Better than the dark. I deserve the dark. Alone, forever forsaken in all eternity. Then I can rest, knowing I suffered.

Santiago and Rojas struggle to keep up with me and I wonder if they feel the same way I do. I want us all to feel it, the shame of our action. Us, murderers of mother and children. We caught Jimenez hurrying his family along, to flee back to Mexico. Prisa. Andale, ándale.

We corralled them in the duplex, pointing our silenced pistols at their heads. The children’s big eyes darted this way and that, chubby hands gripping their mother’s skirts. Mama. Mama.

If only I could believe excuses. We did it because no one disobeys De La Vega. We did it because it was us or Jiménez. We did it because we were young. We did it because the other options were bending in the fields like our fathers or cleaning houses like our mothers. Tired and weary, our parents slept in crowded apartments barely knowing where their children ran off to, barely noticing whether they ate dinner. No para mí.

I wanted to belong. I saw De La Vega’s boys with fancy guns and black tattoos and tripped out cars and fast women, all promising success. I thought I could help my family with the extra money. I thought I could be tough. Esta es la vida para mí.

But it’s not the life for me. Those children, their mouths open. These orphaned witnesses forever branded by violence, crying out huddled in the corner. They weren’t supposed to see. The panic in our fingers, shaking in our limbs. Our brains unhinged, our bodies acting out with an instinct of survival. No choice. We closed our eyes and fired into silence.

Oye, homie, you sure there’s a bar over here?’ Santiago asks.

‘Yeah, I’m sure,’ I reply over my shoulder. ‘Just beyond the freeway.’

I focus straight ahead.

Our life now is no life. Even if we sat in the confessional and spilled our sins to the priest, goodness isn’t for us. Goodness hurts. Heaven will scorch our sinful hearts. And on Earth, living with those children’s cries in my ears, their eyes in my eyes, their pain pulsing in my heart, I don’t deserve forgiveness. I don’t belong here.

But I mustn’t let my suffering hinder my family, especially Marisol, her innocent hands smeared in colorful paint. Her bright smile whenever she sees me.

The sidewalk disappears. I continue forward, toward the ramp.

‘Where you going? We can’t cross here!’ Santiago yells.

Cars honk, slow down, drivers shout. Rojas and Santiago stop behind me, their cries muffled against the freeway rage. Below, the bus approaches, accelerating up the ramp.

I look back at the two men, gesturing wildly for me to come back.

‘Tell my family this was an accident!’ I shout.

I crouch against the cement wall, and hidden for a moment, I wait.


J Saler Drees lives in San Diego, California, and when not at work or writing, enjoys bicycling around the city.