A Minor Death
The unfortunate thing about Porfirio Garza’s death was that it didn’t have to happen.
The unfortunate thing about Porfirio Garza’s death was that it didn’t have to happen. It was of course “shocking” and a “tragedy” that a thirty-eight-year-old man, reformed after a prison stint and recently baptized into the Catholic Church, had died in the street in front of his nephew’s house, shot in the chest while trying to break up a fight between young hotheads.
But it also, Justina Gregg could not help but observe, smacked of appallingly bad judgment, implicating other, surely more intelligent members of his family. Though pushing forty, Porfirio (may he rest in peace) was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Despite his faded forearm tattoos and shaved head, he was baby-faced, short in stature; he dressed in too-big clothes, a backwards cap, and sneakers like a child. In their Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults class, he was fondly regarded as a sort of mascot: someone who didn’t appear to understand much of the class but got an ‘A’ for effort.
“And… Porfirio’s here!” the instructor would say at fifteen minutes past the hour, every week. Rex was a tall man in an oatmeal-colored sweater and seemed to know Porfirio from some prior attempt to take the class.
“Sorry I’m late.” With a sheepish smile at the dozen people drinking coffee around a table, Porfirio would slide into his usual seat, to Rex’s right.
“No worries. Glad you could make it. We’re on page 248, ‘How is the morality of human actions evaluated?’ As Denise was just explaining: by the object chosen, the intention, and the circumstances. Go ahead, Denise.”
Here Porfirio would assume the gentle, uncomprehending expression he would wear for the next forty-five minutes, like a sixth grader enrolled in a college seminar through some computer error. Ten minutes in, he’d bravely pipe up with a question: “So, when you say ‘object,’ that’s not, like, a physical thing, right? It’s the – yeah, got it. I got it. Just checking.”
So why did no one realize Porfirio should not be at this party, in this neighborhood, surrounded by drunk or high young people who had not yet come to renounce a life of crime? Where was his sister, mother of the wayward nephew, in all this? Where was Porfirio’s own mother, with whom Porfirio shared a house in a quieter part of town? From the news reports, the Garzas appeared to be a multigenerational local family. Justina could not help but feel they had let Porfirio down and stood guilty of some collective negligence. Even in the last moments – as he strode into the dark street, palms up, shouting “Hey, hey, hey!” – couldn’t some quick-thinking brother or cousin have physically held him back?
But no one did, and now they were having his funeral Mass on Friday.
“Do you think we should go?” Justina asked her husband Louis. They were newly Catholic and had never been to a funeral Mass before.
“I think so, yes. He was a member of our class. It’s terrible what happened.”
“It’s just awful,” agreed Justina. “I’ll never forget how he looked at the Rite of Election at the cathedral. Afterward, he turned to me with an expression of such happiness, a sort of beatific look, and said, ‘Congratulations!’ And I said, ‘Congratulations, Porfirio.’ Who knew he had only four more months to live?”
“Have they arrested anyone?”
“I don’t think so. Everyone at the party probably knows who did it. They just don’t want to tell.”
“Snitches get stitches,” said Louis dryly. “It’s a shame. His killer should be brought to justice.”
“There hasn’t been much about it in the news,” Justina remarked, gazing into her empty coffee cup. “Just that he was shot and killed, no follow-up. I’ve Googled it.”
“Maybe we’ll learn more at the funeral. More coffee?”
“Yes, please. With some of that French Vanilla cream. Thanks.”
The Greggs were not a local family; most of their relatives lived elsewhere. With their parents, siblings, nephews, and nieces, the Greggs communicated by sporadic calls, emails, and group-texts. Their familial responsibilities ended, more or less, at the doorstep of their own house, though their lives were slightly complicated by Louis’s previous marriage.
Virginia (Ginny) Gregg had kept her ex-husband’s surname and occasionally blew into town, demanding to see their son, Zander. Never mind that Justina had raised Zander since the age of ten; Ginny seemed to retain in his mind a quasi-celebrity status, and when she showed up out of nowhere, all plans were subject to change: Mother’s Day, Zander’s birthday, even one infamous Christmas, all upended to accommodate, as the family called her, Zander’s Mom.
“How come Zander doesn’t call you ‘Mom’?” their younger son had asked, years ago.
“Because I’m not his real mom. He has another mom.”
“He does? I don’t have another mom, do I?”
“No, of course not.”
“What about Dad?”
“Dad is both your and Zander’s dad. That’s why you’re brothers, technically half-brothers.”
“Oh.” Henry chewed this over. “But you love Zander, right?”
Justina did love Zander, which is to say, she felt concerned about his future. He had been a sunny, uncomplicated boy – athletic but not a star, content with Bs and Cs – and now, at nineteen, worked bagging groceries and stocking shelves. In his considerable spare time, he played pickup basketball and went on trips with friends, spending his paychecks on clothes, fast food, who-knows-what. He had expressed a polite interest in college but appeared in no hurry to enroll. Living in his childhood bedroom, with its twin bed and tacked-up pennants, seemed not to bother him at all, though he was not home much these days.
How different things were with Henry, Justina mused, looking on with approval as he bent his head over his homework, frowning with concentration. At nine years old, he was an unusual boy, highly intelligent according to his teachers. Where Zander had thrown himself into any team sport, Henry was solitary and disliked rough-and-tumble play. Torn from his books and Lego towers, his preferred activities were family hikes and riding his narrow red skateboard.
Though the boys got along fine, they were on very different paths, Justina felt. Certainly Henry would go straight to college. With any luck, he’d get an academic scholarship, though it was too early to think about such things.
Five days before Porfirio Garza’s funeral Mass, Justina said: “I haven’t seen Zander for a few days. Have you heard from him?”
“I texted him,” Louis said, spooning parmesan-dusted roasted Brussel sprouts out of a dish, “and told him to come home.”
“Can I have some carrots?” said Henry.
“Please pass the carrots,” Justina corrected. “Do you know where he’s been staying?”
“Please pass the carrots,” Henry obediently repeated. Justina passed him a white serving bowl and silver tongs.
“I asked him, but he’s being cagey,” Louis said with a hint of irritation. “I’m going to have to talk with him. We aren’t running a hotel.”
“I’d like to know, at least, if he’ll be home for dinner,” said Justina. “I never know how much to cook. Henry barely eats anything, but Zander–”
“Zander eats Taco Bell,” Henry piped up. “He eats it in his room.”
“Well, we like having Zander at family dinner. Don’t we, Henry?” Louis said.
“He gets the munchies,” Henry reported thoughtfully. “What are the munchies?”
Justina shot Louis a look. “It’s when you want a snack,” she said. “Now eat your carrots.”
Later, drinking wine in the kitchen while Louis loaded the dishwasher, Justina felt a tickle of anger at the back of her throat. Louis had always been lenient with his elder son, whom he seemed to regard, guiltily, on some level, as motherless. Now look at the result: a young man with no ambition, no plans, who came and went. What kind of example was that setting for Henry?
“Are you okay?” Louis asked her, pre-rinsing a plate in his orderly way. “You look like you’re brooding over something.”
“I’m not brooding,” said Justina mildly. “I’m just thinking.” Increasingly, in her forties, rage seized her unexpectedly like a physical force. It grabbed her and shook her till her teeth clattered, sometimes for hours or whole days, then vanished suddenly, leaving her limp and the whole family stunned. She wasn’t herself during those times (or, she was more and horribly herself), and the episodes were louder and more irrational if she drank anything, even a half-glass of Shiraz. So, rather than saying more, Justina took another sip of wine.
After a moment, Louis said: “If it’s about Zander, I agree things have become–”
They heard the front door swinging open. Louis paused.
“Zander’s home!” Henry shouted from the living room.
Justina arranged her face in a pleasant expression and, seconds later, her stepson materialized in the kitchen. At 6’1”, he loomed before them, larger-than-life and exuding some primitive but vital energy, as if a puppy were exploring a doll’s house. His hair was tousled, and he looked rumpled, tired.
“Hey Dad. Hey Justina,” he said.
“Hey buddy,” said Louis. “Long time no see.”
“Have you eaten yet?” said Justina. “We can fix you a plate.”
“Thanks, I’m good. Dad, can I talk to you a minute?”
“Sure, I’ll be right there,” Louis said.
“Go ahead. I’ll finish the dishes,” said Justina.
Beneficently, she waved the men out of the kitchen. Whatever Zander had to say, she’d hear about it soon enough. The sight of him tugged at her heart in complicated ways. She’d met him as a little boy, blue-eyed and dimple-cheeked like Ginny. Who wouldn’t have tender feelings for a child whose mother had relinquished custody and moved two hours away?
When she married Louis, Justina vowed to be a good stepmother. But when Henry was born, it was a bond of a whole different order. The more Zander grew to resemble his pretty, irresponsible mother, the more Justina found herself thinking of him as Ginny’s son.
The previous spring, for several weeks before Easter, the unbaptized catechumens were dismissed after the Liturgy of the Word. Louis, who had been baptized at six months at the behest of his French mother, stayed in the pew while Justina edged past him into the center aisle. Slightly embarrassed by all the fuss, she joined a small group of people before the altar, where the young Filipino priest flicked drops of holy water on them with a little wand. Then the catechumens marched down the aisle and left the church, solemnly led by Rex, while the congregation readied itself for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
It was just one of those small rituals you tolerated as a Catholic: not to Justina’s taste, exactly, but there was no point in resisting. At Easter, she would undergo a final public ceremony in the church – baptism and confirmation, along with the rest of the RCIA class – and then be released into the quiet anonymity she craved. They would enroll Henry in catechism class in the fall and settle into life as a churchgoing family. It would be charming to see him in a Christmas pageant or youth choir, robed in white.
Porfirio’s family, though Catholic, had never gotten around to having him baptized. He was the youngest of four sons, he said, and there was always something going on. By the time he was old enough to have an opinion about it, he had other, more pressing interests than being baptized, culminating in a seven-year sentence for armed robbery. So here he was at thirty-eight, joining the rest of them around a wooden table in the parish office to reflect on that day’s readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the gospel. Rex sat at the head of the table with a chalkboard behind him, usually flanked by Justina on his left, Porfirio on his right, and the other class members down the table.
Behind Justina, Henry sat quietly in an extra chair by the window. He liked to leave with her at the dismissal, and no one minded if he sat in on the adults’ discussion, swinging his feet. It was good for him, Justina felt: a preview of his Sunday-school future. What was she doing all this for, if not for Henry?
“Could you start us off with the first reading, Consuela?” Rex intoned.
At the end of the table, a mousy girl – a single mother in her twenties – lowered her head self-consciously and began reading that day’s Old Testament passage. When she finished, Rex asked what people thought of it, and there was a brief, awkward silence.
“What Isaiah is saying here, I think,” Rex began in a patient tone, raising one upturned hand as if feeding small birds out of his palm.
It was all so familiar, so like the classrooms in which Justina had spent many years, that she found these sessions pleasant and relaxing. She glanced back and, catching Henry’s eye, gave him an encouraging smile.
For years, Justina had seen up close what the culture did to children. Despite Louis’s and her best efforts, they had at some point taken a back seat in raising Zander: behind YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat, behind videogames and targeted ads, behind his friends, whose minds sloshed with the same ephemera and trivia.
Justina had been a serious girl raised by Saturday Night Live, and in her lapsed-Catholic family, the Church had held some vague appeal. Experimentally pious at sixteen, she had acquired a print of Michelangelo’s Pietà, framed it, and hung it in her room, where she stared at it for long periods (it seemed familiar to her, somehow) but soon moved on to other things. Not till her own child was on the cusp of the teen years did she feel motivated to convert, along with Louis, for the general good of the family.
Now, after months of church, she knew that Michelangelos were the exception; most Catholic imagery was sentimental, tacky. Key figures were always gesturing toward their own hearts – aflame, pierced by a sword, crowned, bleeding – with meek expressions, as if their bodies were transparent, red organs floating in their chests for all to see. Justina’s heart was decently concealed, thank you, and if once in a while some psalm or parable gave her the fleeting sensation that it was closed tight as a fist, the moment soon passed like a dream.
One gray spring day, when half the catechumens were out sick, Rex asked Henry if he’d like to sit at the table next to his mother. He clambered into the big chair, and someone handed him an extra missal.
After the readings – Porfirio doing the New Testament in a low, halting voice, like someone called to recite in a foreign language – Rex looked around the half-empty table and said: “Anyone want to go first? How about you, young man? What do you make of the first reading?”
Henry Gregg had been a good student all his life. Now he sat up straighter, thought for a second, and began speaking in a clear, unhurried voice: “Well, it reminded me of the time . . . And, I was just wondering… So, anyway, it seems to me…”
Later, Justina tried to remember what passage Henry spoke about that day – some metaphor involving nature (a sheaf of wheat, a tree, a star) like lines from a fairy tale, lines a child was as qualified to discuss as anyone – but all she recalled was the impression his words made. When he stopped speaking, there was a moment of silence.
“Wow,” said Rex. “That was excellent. We need you in here every week!”
“Thanks,” Henry mumbled, blushing.
“Man,” said Porfirio, open-mouthed across the table. “How old are you, again? Nine? Wow, good for you.”
He looked at Justina with new interest, as if she had produced a wonder. She smiled modestly. She couldn’t take credit for all the advantages Henry had, but he’d been lucky, and it showed. Now he would have a religious tradition as well, all boxes checked.
Outside the building after class, Justina told Henry he had done very well.
“You’ll make a good Catholic,” she said approvingly.
“Is that all there is to it?”
“No, but it helps to have a feel for the material.”
Four months later, three days before Porfirio Garza’s funeral Mass, Justina said to her husband: “You can’t be serious.”
Even to her own ears, she sounded icy, supercilious – a Disney version of a wicked stepmother – but this was a crisis and, unfortunately, very real.
“It’s just an idea,” Louis said. “We’re just throwing out ideas here.”
“Well, it’s a bad idea.”
“We can’t control what this girl does. We have to face the possibility she’ll want to keep it.”
“He needs to talk her out of it. Can he do that?”
“I don’t know. She’s twenty-six. For all we know, she has him wrapped around her finger.”
“How could he be so stupid?” cried Justina. “Didn’t you talk with him about this?”
“Once or twice.” Louis sounded miserable. “I should have said more, I now realize.”
Justina began to pace back and forth in front of their bedroom window, which looked down on a patio with four striped chairs and a table covered with potted summer succulents. She clenched and unclenched her hands, trying to think clearly. She was now officially pro-life, or at least leaned in that direction, but wished this particular girl (“Tammy”) and her baby, supposedly due in the spring, would somehow wink out of existence.
“Couldn’t she give it up for adoption?” she offered.
“According to Zander, she feels that would be too hard.”
“Too hard! She has no idea what’s hard.”
“The family isn’t great,” said Louis. “Not a lot of support there. She’s basically on her own, Zander says.”
“Well, he can forget about college!” Justina said. “He’s going to be paying her child support for twenty years. Does he know that? His entire future is at stake.”
There came two soft knocks on the bedroom door. Both swung around and stared at it.
“It’s me,” a small voice said.
“Oh, Henry. Come on in,” said Louis.
Henry cracked the door open and squeezed into the room, as if trying not to take up space. “Can I go out and skateboard?” he asked.
“Why don’t you wait,” Justina said. “I’ll take to you the park later.”
“Please, Mom? I’ll stay right outside the house.”
“You promise you won’t go in the street?”
“I’ll stay on the sidewalk, I promise.”
“Right in front of the house, so I can see you out the window. And wear your helmet.”
“Thanks.” He slipped out of the room, and they could hear his swift, light footfalls down the stairs.
Justina turned back to Louis, feeling the headache gathering behind her eyes. “I can’t believe we’re in this mess,” she said. “But I do know,” she added pointedly, “that it’s not my fault. I have my own life, my own child who requires my attention, and if you think I’m going turn this house into a nursery so Zander and some random woman can work their Safeway shifts when they’re not getting high, you are sorely mistaken.”
“Fine. Never mind, then. You’ve made that clear.”
“And don’t think you can guilt-trip me, either. It’s easy for you to ‘throw out ideas’ when you’re at the firm all day, and I’m the one stuck here with–”
“I said never mind. All right? I’ll talk to Zander.”
“Oh, now you’ll talk to him! More A-plus parenting from you. Great job.”
Porfirio Garza’s funeral Mass was surprisingly well-attended. Dozens packed the church, few of whom Justina recognized from regular Sundays. Old black men in suits and fedoras; young Latina women in full makeup and hoop earrings; every combination of mixed-race couple hauling their toddlers into the pews; middle-aged white ladies in cardigans and skirts; teenagers with bleached hair and colorful tattoos. The pre-Mass atmosphere was informal, almost familial, people straggling in and lumbering towards each other for back-claps and hugs.
Louis and Justina hardly knew anyone there, so when they saw Rex and a few RCIA classmates sitting together, they waved enthusiastically and sat down in the pew behind them. Though Justina had recently regaled her friends with the details of a wonderful vacation they had taken, including a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that served the most amazing Thai food, she found she had little to say while waiting for Porfirio’s funeral to begin. Instead, she studied the program, which featured a photo of Porfirio (smiling under his cap with eyebrows slightly raised, as if unsure what was happening but hoping to be pleasantly surprised) and set out the order of the Mass, including hymns, prayers, Bible readings, and communion.
Justina had expected something more personal. At other funeral services she’d attended, a long line of guests stood up to vocalize their memories. There had been funny stories, dramatic breakdowns, a soundtrack of the deceased’s favorite songs, cradle-to-grave slideshows.
Porfirio’s funeral Mass, on the other hand, was basically church. The most personal thing about it was when six stocky, Porfirio-like men (the three remaining brothers, two cousins, and a friend) carried a coffin down the center aisle and lowered it to the floor in front of the altar. Inside, almost unimaginably, was Porfirio.
Beside the coffin, the priest delivered the homily, matter of fact. Having spent every Sunday of his working life under a giant crucifix on which the Lord perished in agony, he seemed unruffled by the passage of an ordinary Catholic into death. Hadn’t he been warning them about this the whole time while their minds visibly wandered, and now here another one was, finally still and attentive in a wooden box, called up from the pews to be for one hour the center of the action.
As row by row stood up to shuffle toward the Eucharist, each person passed Porfirio’s closed coffin and touched it. Under Justina’s fingertips the polished wood was cool, yet the moment felt intimate, as if she were touching Porfirio’s bristled cheek or even the soft face of her own child. Someone had piled red roses on the lid, so that Porfirio’s last hour above ground (he was to be driven to the cemetery afterward) was spent amid all the gaudy beauty and ceremony the Church could muster, in a rose-scented cloud of faint, lingering sweetness.
The day after Porfirio Garza’s funeral Mass, a Saturday, was an important day in Justina’s life. Years later, caring for her grandchild, she seldom went an hour without thinking of it: It had become a walking meditation, a rosary prayed on infinite repeat, even as she tied his shoe or retrieved some little toy he’d dropped on the floor.
Alternatively: Years later, after Justina and Louis split up, she married a retired surgeon and developed an enthusiasm for world travel, chasing some constant state of disorientation and forgetfulness.
The day itself began with a huge fight with Zander. After breakfast, Louis went upstairs to have a talk with him – which required waking him up – and before long, Justina heard raised voices coming from his bedroom. There was a clattering clash like trophies swept onto the floor, and then Zander’s door slammed as his voice moved into the hall, followed by Louis.
“Don’t worry about it,” Zander was saying tersely.
“Wait, excuse me. Don’t just walk out. We need to have this conversation.”
“You have it without me. I’ll handle my own business.” Zander appeared at the top of the stairs, and Henry, sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, looked up from the Lego castle he was assembling from yellow bricks.
“It’s everyone’s business,” Louis said to Zander’s back as he jogged down the stairs. “This situation concerns all of us. Justina, even Henry–”
“Sorry to mess up your perfect family!” Zander swung around and shouted in a deep, ragged-sounding voice he never used. “Sorry to embarrass you, sorry to disappoint Justina one more time. But it’s my life and my kid, and I’m going to handle it.”
“You’re a kid yourself!” Louis’s voice sounded high-pitched and thin. “Let’s get real here. You still live at home, you barely have a job, and you are in no position–”
“Or maybe you’re just jealous,” Zander said acidly, one hand on the knob to the front door, “that I’m obviously getting laid, while you follow Justina around this place like some–”
“Excuse me!” Justina shrieked from the kitchen doorway. “We have a child in the house, and that kind of language is not appropriate.”
Zander muttered an obscenity under his breath.
“What’s gotten into you?” snapped Louis. “That’s no way to speak to your mother.”
Zander gave Justina a hard look, and the force of his judgment rocked her back like a physical sensation.
“She’s not my mother,” he said flatly. “Are you kidding me?”
Then Zander was gone, and the house thrummed with the reverberations of the door slammed behind him.
“Mom?” Henry appeared at Justina’s side and slipped his small hand into hers. “Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry, honey,” Louis said, coming toward them. “I shouldn’t have dragged you into this. He didn’t mean it.”
Justina removed her hand from Henry’s and patted his back, saying, “I’m fine.” She hated pity and felt a strong need to be alone.
Over the next few hours, she reorganized the pantry, swept the floor, and folded and put away laundry, all while working herself into a state of red-hot indignation, the rage her body wanted to be in. After all she had done for Zander – driving him to countless practices, packing his lunch, insisting he do homework before the hours of video games that followed, serving nutritious family dinners he didn’t bother to attend – while his own mother got her massage therapy license and dated men she met online, breezing into his life with the latest popular toy or sneaker and being treated as a glamorous figure who graced Zander with her presence, things had finally gone too far. It was incredibly unfair, and she had been too nice about it for too long.
“Can we go to the park?”
“Later, okay? I’ll take you later.”
And now she was supposed to welcome Zander’s baby with some little tramp (not unlike Ginny when Louis met her) and do the whole thing over again while Zander pined for his “real” mother and Louis in some way took his side? It was too much. The woman had nerve, dumping a ten-year-old on her and taking off.
In a flight of inspiration, as if filled with irresistible words of searing truth by something outside herself, Justina took out her phone and, with her thumbs, composed a few sentences to Ginny. Just wanted to let you know, she began, and the phrases flowed from her two hands into the bubble on the screen: another irresponsible whore (sound familiar?) . . . not my problem . . . officially sick of his shit . . . Over to you, Mom!
With a deep, cleansing breath, Justina pressed send. She felt better.
It was late afternoon, about two hours later, when the sirens started. They were preceded by the loud squeal of brakes and a high scream. Later, when the authorities pieced it together, it seemed the car had been going fast around the corner of a residential street, up and into the long driveway where the family SUV was parked. On the other side, hidden from view, the boy was riding his red skateboard down the slope, wearing a helmet that made no difference in the end. (Virginia Gregg pled to involuntary manslaughter and served no time.)
And in the days that followed, when the horror of what she had done threatened to overwhelm her every second, Justina could not even begin to speak to God. But late one night, the crazed thought shot across her mind that she might reach out to Porfirio, ask him to intercede for her or pray for her – whatever those words meant – somehow petition God to show her some small mercy, whatever that might look like now, because, being a simple man, he would not judge her but just say he would.