The missionary turned away when the young woman removed her bikini top. He didn’t turn away when she reached for the clasp, but once he saw her naked breasts he averted his gaze. The missionary’s wife smiled. She was proud of his chastity, of the purity of his heart for the Spanish people, even though they made it hard for him. She imagined the day, not far now, when she would be able to explain to their daughter that her father was a man of God; that he left the spiritual comfort of America because of his devotion to the kingdom of heaven. She rubbed her belly.
The missionary had been in Rota for sixteen months, long enough to know the difference between Rota and Summer Rota. The Rota of winter months was quiet, reserved, respectful; like a neighbor who keeps his lawn mowed and closes the windows when he shouts at his wife. But in June, July, and August, the seaside town is visited by travelers who show their skin and drink their cervezain embarassing quantities.
The missionary went to the toldo and ordered two Coca-Colas. “Hace calor muy temprano,” he said to the clerk with a smile.
The clerk was an old man wearing a straw hat. He nodded and looked past the missionary toward the young woman without a top. He said something that started with “Si.” The missionary understood most of it. For two years, he had thrown himself into language training and fundraising and succeeded at both. But the advice from the missions agency had only gone so far. It helped the missionary get supporters but said little about keeping them. Two had dropped him this month. And it didn’t account for this Andalusian viejo who spoke with a lisp and dropped letters at the end of words. Undaunted, he made a second pass. He asked where the locals go when the partyers arrive. The viejo shrugged. “Aqui,” he said. “Por las vistas bellas.”
The viejo finally looked at him. “Algo mas?”
“No, gracias,” the missionary said and dropped two Euros on the counter. “Hasta luego.”
He delivered the Cokes to his wife who sat splay-legged on a pink beach chair. “The old man at the concession stand is a pervert,” he reported.
“He just needs Jesus, dear.”
The missionary was not Católico. At a fundraising dinner in the home of a friend in Oklahoma, someone had asked, “But isn’t Spain already a Christian nation? Didn’t they replace all the mosques with churches way back during the crusades?”
“Catholic churches,” the missionary had corrected.
“I’m going to see if I can join that volleyball game,” the missionary said. “Can I get you anything else, dear?”
“Where’s that sunscreen?”
He retrieved the tube from an enormous polka-dotted beach bag, told her she was glowing, kissed her on the foreheard, and trotted over to a net where a half-dozen bronze young men were bumping non-competitively. He introduced himself and learned that they were all employees of a tire shop on the east side of town. Locals. Bueno. The missionary suggested a juego. The young men shrugged, divided into teams and played halfheartedly. With three points to go, one of them trotted off the pitch, which was marked by nylon webbing staked in the sand, and answered his cell phone. The others seemed content to abandon the game unfinished. The missionary objected but then remembered his purpose.
“Tienen ustedes una iglesia?”
The men looked puzzled and shuffled their feet.
“Soy un pastor.”
More puzzled looks.
“Un sacerdote,” he said reluctantlly, using the word for priest, which they were more likely to recognize. He invited them to church. They nodded and shook his hand. One of them asked where the church was. The missionary trotted back to his wife with a grin.
“One of them seemed interested. Pray for Paco,” he said.
“Good job, honey.”
That Sunday, Paco did not come to church. The missionary preached about lust. His small audience comprised mostly Spaniards who had an axe to grind with Catholicism. The missionary spoke passionately about the evils of the flesh and the loose morals his sheep would soon witness in their own hometown.
Itwas June and a parishioner invited the missionary to a fútbol match. Sevilla against Alaves. The missionary was pleased. I should have done this a long time ago, he thought. They parked. Google told them it was a fifteen minute walk to the stadium. Right away they were joined by other Sevilla supporters chatting excitedly about their favorite players as they streamed toward Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán. Fathers and sons. Chants. Posters carried in hopes of an autograph. A bewildering sea of red and white stripes. The missionary had worn his favorite polo shirt. He didn’t know Alaves was blue. How could he have known?
In the stadium, they sang a hymn: Sevillista seré hasta la muerte.
The missionary played soccer in grade schoool. He knew the rules. He talked with the parishioner about strategy. Colón should have gone forward there. The parishioner agreed. The men sitting around them agreed. They did not ask the missionary about the next play.
The singing didn’t stop. Once the ball was kicked, the crowd chanted throughout the entire match, a medley of throaty, catechismic coveteousness, broken only by applause for notable efforts, and always returning to the refrain: Sevilla supporter until I die.
The parishioner was just asking the missionary if he would like a water from the concession stand when Colón scored. He tamped down a curling cross from Baútista, spun on his left foot, and struck it low and hard to the keeper’s right.
The stadium was visited by pentecostal fervor. People shouted. Strangers hugged. Banners unfurled and lifted over the crowd. Colón ran to the corner of the pitch and slid to his knees, arms in the air. A posture of penitent adoration. The missionary marveled at the devotion.
That turned out to be the only goal of the match. On the drive back to Rota, the missionary was pensive. The parishioner recounted the play many times, remarking about the difficulty of settling a pass that quickly, with defenders closing in, noting also that Colón is left-footed so the goal was scored with his weaker foot.
“Why do they go to their knees like that after they score?” the missionary asked.
The parishioner shrugged and adjusted his red and white striped mantel. “Out of gratitude, I think. This isn’t like American football, you know, where points come in dozens. A goal is a rare and wonderous thing.”
That Sunday, the missionary preached about idolatry. After the service, someone asked the missionary about his own idols. He said that he works hard not to have any idols, but to worship only the Lord Jesus.
In July, the missionary was invited to participate in the Rota Ecumenical Council. Ecumenical was a dirty word to the missionary, but participation in the group was certain to open doors. There hadn’t been a visitor to his church since March, and it wouldn’t hurt to know some of the city leaders. The previous fall, the missionary had tried to organize a neighborhood party in the park. He was told that his paperwork wasn’t in order. When he asked what he needed to do to get it in order, the reply from the city clerk was, “Le pregunta a un Catolico.” Ask a Catholic.
It was expected that each member of the ecumenical council visit another member’s place of worship at least once per quarter. Since every other member of the council was Catholic, this meant four masses per year. The missionary chose an obscure celebration — Feast Of the Sacred Heart — for which a small chapel across town held an evening mass. He sat in the back.
The missionary did not kneel, gesticulate, or receive communion. He did listen carefully to the homily. The priest read from John 13; the Last Supper. The irony did not escape his notice: the priest in ornate vestments in his gaudy chapel reading about Jesus wrapping himself in a towel and kneeling at his followers’ feet.
The priest made note of the order of events in John 13. First, the disciples had their feet washed, then they participated in the first eucharist. This, the priest said, was important. He motioned to the wafer and wine on the linen-covered altar. “Before we can come to the holy table of God, we must also wash our feet. We must be clean of sin to approach the most holy sacrament.”
Two days later, the missionary preached about heresy and the “false gospel of good works.” The messages was received with clapping.
In August, the missionary found himself at a bullfight. It was hot. He could see nothing but death. One by one, the bulls charged and pitched and flaunted not knowing that they were being played; that their lives were sliding away like the rivulets of blood over their slick shoulders. The missionary was aghast.
On the sombra side of the ring, spectators wore their best clothes, brought their best cigarillos. There mixed drinks and slaps on the back. A barker with metal buckets: one of chilled cerveza, one of snacks. Toupees. Machismo. Kisses on the cheek. On the sol side, hard concrete bleachers were covered with red and yellow cushions and shaded by a layer of straw hats worn by every adult male and some of the boys. The sides were separated by a spiked iron fence that perfectly matched the line of shade at the beginning of the corrida. The place was soaked with smiles, a ring of hyenas awaiting carrion.
The bulls endured piercings by banderilleros and picadors,each jab mincing the same imposing muscle along the back, and yet the magnificent animals kept coming, kept charging at the ephemeral, red cape. The missionary saw pride in the toros: not the selfish, ambitious pride of Lucifer, but the tenacious dignity of purpose, a refusal to bow one’s wounded head even though frolicing men had all but severed the muscle that holds it up. Instead, that dedicaiton was rewarded with jabs and bloodletting and martyrdom.
The missionary could barely watch. He sat with a friend from his church who had grown up going to corridas every summer. They sat in the sun just against the iron fence. The missionary’s friend assured him they would be in the shade before the last bull came out.
Four bulls were dispatched with aimless precision. First, the bull was teased and taunted; no tortue is complete without a psychological element.
Then the picadors entered, their own animals blindfolded to save them from the terror of the ring. Two stabs from the mounted men. Then it was the banderilleros turn, each popping a pair of harpoons into the already-wounded back.
Then more taunting. The matador pranced about in his slippers and pink socks saluting the crowd and flipping his chin toward the dying bull who, eventually, from exhaustion and blood loss, staggered slowly, his head swaying low, his tongue out.
Then came the act for which the matador gets his name.
First, permission had to be asked of el presidente de la corrida to kill the bull. The president was a grey, bespectacled man in an upper box who responded to every request with the wave of a certain number or color of handkerchiefs.
This done, the matador sighted down the blade of his sword, incited a charge from the animal, sidestepped and plunged the blade past the spine into the organs. The bull, now bleeding from the mouth, was dizzied by a flurry of colorful capes, thrashed his horns to the side, lost balance, fell. A banderillero stepped forward with a small knife and severed the spinal chord. The bull gave a final twitching jerk and then lay still. He was chained by the horns and two horses drug him from the ring to the handkerchief-waving applause of the crowd.
There was more adamant applause for the fifth bull. He charged the picadors more times than the others and lifted one of the horses off its feet. The crowd endorsed this with clamor. The bull was lanced, then stabbed with banderillas. The missionary sighed. Then the matador stopped his work and turned toward the president. The crowd roared and the handkerchiefs came out.
“The matador he is asking for dis bull lifes.”
“He’s taken all their lives. Why is everyone cheering?”
“No. He is asking to spare dis one lifes. He sees something especial in dis bull. But the matador cannot decide dis. He must ask el presidente.”
Seeing no response from the president’s box, the matador pulled the bull through a few more passes, each time allowing the beast very close. In the last pass, he pulled the bull around himself with the cape in his right hand while he hugged the animal with his left, his arm reaching across the rump and pulling at the whithers on the opposite side. Then he broke from the embrace with a flourish of his sword and opened his arms to the president’s box.
This time, there was a sign: an orange handkerchief. The crowd stood in rapturous roar.
“He has done it! He has save dis bull,” the missionary’s friend said, his whole torso jerking with the force of his clapping hands. “Dis is very rare. You should be proud!”
The missionary was not proud. He was ashamed at having given money to this brutality.
The bull was destined to go free, but first he had to be appropriately dominated by the man. The matador lined up for the final charge as before, but this time, instead of shoving a blade into the bull’s body, he reached out with his hand and slapped the wound. The bull was ushered out of the ring and the matador stood with his slippered feet together, his shoulders back, his left hand on his hip, and his red right hand lifted above his head in a proud, bloody salute.
The crowd went berzerk, throwing flowers and bread and hats and cushions to the matador who walked slowly around the ring with a look that the missionary interpreted as false humility.
The following Sunday, the missionary preached about pride: the Luciferian pride of playing God with the lives of others, and the virtuous pride of persistent service to the kingdom of heaven despite setbacks.
Themissionary had met Fermin Romero once before. Over lunch after one of his sermons, they had discussed the twelve steps of recovery and why Fermin was well-acquainted with them. Fermin had left the next day to return to Argentina. That was almost a year ago, so the missionary was surprised to see him on a Thursday morning in September sitting in front of his café con leche on the sidewalk at the Cafe San Antonio. Fermin hailed him warmly and the missionary took a seat.
“Que hace aqui, amigo?”
“My son is back, so I am back.” Fermin explained that his son, a leiutenant in the Spanish Navy, had tours of duty that lasted three years each at ports of call throughout Europe and South America. He was allowed to take his wife and two daughters with him. As a retiree, Fermin moved every time they moved. “I’ll do anything to stay with those niñas,” Fermin said.
The missionary remembered that Fermin was single. Tentatively, he asked if anyone else travelled with him.
“No, pastor. My wife decided she could do better long ago.”
“I’m sorry Fermin. I didn’t mean to bring up a bitter subject.”
“It’s fine. She was right. About doing better. She remarried a hell of a guy. An attorney for an oil company in Sevilla. He is better to her than I was.”
“Those things are never one-sided, Fermin. Whatever you could have done better, she could have—”
“I could have drunk less. I could have helped her raise our boy. I don’t know where he learned to lead men, but it wasn’t from me.”
“There’s no use beating youself up now—”
“I even hit her once. I have prayed for forgiveness a million times for that.”
“The limits of God’s mercy—”
“But you know my biggest mistake, pastor?”
“What was that, Fermin?”
“I only saw her flaws.”
“My ex-wife had many flaws, but she also had many virtues. Virtues that made me fall in love with her. Once we made our family, I lost sight of the virtues. I didn’t notice that she was beautiful or graceful or poetic or made in the image of God. That was my downfall. Even more than the drinking. That is what cost me the love of my life, pastor. If there is anyone you love in this life, don’t be blind to her virtues.”
Fermin finished his coffee and smiled at the missionary.
“What are you preaching on this Sunday?”
“Virtue, I think,” the missionary smiled.
“Bueno. After the service, let’s have lunch. We can discuss the twelve steps. I remember you wanted to start a program here.”
The missionary thanked him and watched him walk away. The old man limped and walked slowly, hunched forward, as if shouldering a heavy load. He waved to someone in a shop as he passed. Then he turned the corner out of sight.
The missionary stared at Fermin’s empty street. The street blurred and tears streaked his face.