Post Road Magazine #20

Alamo Nights

by Sumanth Prabhaker


What happened was, I remembered a TV movie I'd seen when I was little, right in the middle of everything. I didn't say anything at the time, with all the yelling and screaming, the strange kinds of bleeding to attend to, because who would stop and listen, at a time like that, all of that happening? Most of the others, when I talk to them, they won't say what TV show they had in their head while it was happening, or how God was speaking to them. I don't talk to them much anymore, anyway. We tried, at first, exchanged phone numbers and emails, even the ones who weren't able to write by then, who had to dictate and have others write for them, due to finger injuries from reaching out too far. And we called each other a few times afterward, but they were quiet phone calls, a little awkward, and there wouldn't be very much emotion when one end spoke up. Most often we just talked about how now there's a Super WalMart there instead. Or maybe it was more emotion than I'm used to.

I want to make clear that I wasn't one of those kids with eight hours every day in front of the TV. I played, or I read books. I'm not saying that's better, that's not my place to say, but what I am saying is, this remembering a TV movie and thinking so hard about it that I forgot momentarily where I was, despite all the yelling and everyone grabbing at me, that was not a thing I could have predicted. It did not fit my character. I know people who are like that. I have friends who, when they heard about the New York bombings, they said it was just like in a movie. They never say if they were thinking of one scene from one movie, or if they meant it just as a thing to say.

And see, this is where, on my arm, I can't bend it anymore. It doesn't hurt, but I just get stuck when I try. I have to use my left hand to eat when I eat, or use a very long fork. They sell extended forks in a mail order catalog I have somewhere around here.

One guy was an actor in the movies. I don't remember his name, he wasn't very popular back then, but now he's in a lot of the famous movies and his picture is on the sides of the CTA buses. There were photographers waiting outside when I showed up, and they asked me if I knew him, if I'd ever seen him snort cocaine. They called it coke.

At the time I was a pastor. I've since given up this position and am now working as a chaplain at a hospital. This was a very difficult decision for me to make, after twelve years of being with my church, but my feeling was, the memory of that TV show was a sign. Have you ever received a sign from God? I believe they come when your life is about to change in a major way, or is at least in need of major change. So I prayed for Jesus to tell me what he wanted me to do, how he wanted my life to change, and Jesus said, Leave your church, Hank, you have other callings. That is when I decided to leave my church. And my new job came to me soon after that, though it was actually two months, and I had to work temporarily at Sears, but two months is very quick for Jesus, who is known to bide his time before opening doors for his children. And the door that was opened for me was, I became chaplain of Northwestern University Hospital in Chicago. Now my job is to pray with inpatients for safe and speedy recovery, especially the ones who come to me rather than my going to them, which I often do. I often go to the section of the hospital where the victims of third-degree burns are placed, and I tell them, take it from me, pain is pain, it hurts and then it leaves, but the matters of the spirit are everlasting. They are by and large a receptive group of listeners.

I knew most of the other people who showed up. One was a girl everyone used to call a slut, and now she had a husband and a daughter, and socks to cover up her tattoos. One was a guy named Jacob, who always carried a calculator with him, and it was no surprise to any of us when we discovered that he was a customer support technician for a computer company. I found all of this to be very nostalgic. There was the old gym, and there was the classroom I led intramural Bible study in, and there was the back entrance to the old gym. Every few seconds someone would sigh or shout that they recognized something, and when we walked past the vending machine, Jacob asked me if we thought it was still stocked with the same bags of Hot Fries, and everyone shared a good laugh.

Most of us are thirty-three or thirty-four by now, so that makes it different. Most of the group was married, I found out, and the ones who weren't kept their hands in their pockets the whole time. I wasn't married at the time. I had tried the internet for a while, but it was an anxious period for me, always wondering, how do I know I'm chatting with who I think I'm chatting with? How do I know it's not actually a man in disguise? I'm not saying I hold anything against them, the men who like other men, they are children of God just as we all are, and without the blood of Jesus how different am I, but my feeling was, find your own internet dating site for once instead of crashing mine, which is reserved for Christians of the Baptist denomination, not gays or those like them, whom I am sure have their own personal dating website. That is why it is called baptistcourtship.com and not something else. And I was matched with a woman named Patricia, and we fellowshipped in the monitored chat rooms for a few months, but when she asked if I thought we were finally able to trust each other enough to exchange pictures, I prayed about the status of our relationship for a long time, and I said, Jesus, if this is what you want, for me to be with Patricia, then don't hesitate to let me know, and I looked down just then and saw the spot on my knee where Helen's fingernail had caught and given me a small cut so long ago, and I immediately cancelled my subscription, thinking, Thank you, Jesus, for giving me an answer, as much as I dislike being alone.

And Helen was there, too. And she was stunning. She waved at me through the window in the door, and I waved back, and it was very much like fifteen years ago, and I felt as nervous as I had back then, the same feeling of being punched in the stomach by numerous fists, and then two little girls walked in ahead of her. I almost turned to leave right then, but I told myself, Keep your cool, Hank, anything is possible, perhaps they are someone else's children. And then Helen walked in looking more pregnant than any pregnant person I'd ever seen, so I went up to her and said, I would like very much to hug you, Helen, but I'd better not, and she laughed and patted me on the shoulder and said, Hank, it has been too long.

See and this is where I have to do this kind of high-five thing from the side instead of shake hands, because of all the nerve damage to my fingers.

And I am not someone who looks at internet pornography, though I feel compassion and understanding towards the men who do. But I do not struggle with pornography like other men, I have learned to suppress my desires by slapping myself in the face whenever unclean thoughts come to me, and when that doesn't work I stretch a rubber band out and snap it on my thigh, and if that doesn't stop me from entertaining my depravity then I will stretch out the rubber band again, only this time I will aim it directly at my organs, and by that point I will be in too much pain to objectify God's creations, and that is what keeps me from looking at the internet or flipping through my old high school yearbook with lust in my heart like other men. I did not have her in mind when I filled out the RSVP. The idea only came to me just when I arrived.

When we dated, I was much thinner than the way you see me now. I had more hair on my head. Also I had less hair on my shoulders, though I wore a shirt that covered up all the way to my neck, which I bought new, just for the occasion. But what I am saying is, she is stunning and pregnant and I am less thin and more bald and hairy-shouldered and I am thinking, how could I have thought would happen what I thought might happen?

But there is a thing you learn in Seminary, and that is, keep your cool, no matter what happens, and if you get scared, pretend like you're keeping cool anyway. So I kept my cool and said, How far along are you, and she said, Twelve months. And I didn't think that was possible, but she just shrugged and said, Neither did I. She looked sad, saying that, but I've been told there are certain psychological consequences of being pregnant, such as mood swings, so I kept quiet about it and said, I would like to meet your husband, and she said, Hank, I'm not married, it's just me and the kids.

And boy, did that change things.

I do not think it was a very famous movie. It was in black and white, on one of the classic movie channels. I was very little when I watched it. Our babysitter then was our next-door neighbor, Jenny, but as soon as our parents left she would call her boyfriend over and they would go up to our parents' bedroom and shut the door. My brother was old enough that he could read in his room by himself and listen to Jennifer and her boyfriend through the wall, but I had to stay downstairs and watch television.

There were many other women in attendance at the reunion, but there is a reason that Helen was more important to me. And that reason is, she was the one who loved me back.

And it has been fifteen years since then, and now here is someone who knows what my underpants look like, who actually has one pair of underpants I gave her one night, here with her pretty twin daughters and no husband, and I am one who believes in divine intervention. I know Jesus. I have known him since I prayed the prayer and invited him into my heart at age six, and I am well acquainted with his personality. And Jesus is the kind of God who, sometimes he looks down at his creation and sees one of his children in misery, not quite misery, but not at his best, alone and without anyone to keep company, still with the friendship bracelet his girlfriend gave him so long ago, tied around his bedroom doorknob, and Jesus says, Enough is enough, Hank, some people, they've just had it far too hard, and guess what, you're one of those people. And he arranges everything better than I could ever have imagined, and my job is only to say, Thank you, Jesus, for being so understanding, and walk right over to Helen and tell her everything Jesus wants me to tell her, though at first maybe not in front of her children.

So later on, we were all sitting in the auditorium, and the movie star was up on stage, finishing his speech, and it was actually a very inspiring message he had to say. Even now I remember a lot of what he said. Here before you is an example of a true rags to riches story, a true American success story that began right here, in this very room, in these very seats that you people are occupying. Everyone was standing and clapping, and that was when I put my hand on Helen's back. And that felt good, to be near her like that. It was like being on fire, much better than that.

This is how far I can lift my arm now. It's difficult, because people wave hello, and all I can do is nod my head up and down like I'm listening to music.

The movie was called Alamo Nights. It was a war movie, in black and white. It was about three Mexican soldiers, but one of the soldiers had a fake mustache, and there were a few scenes where it was falling off. I don't think they were Mexican in real life. I hadn't yet remembered all of this at the auditorium, though, it only came to me later.

The movie star was saying, I look at all the people here, all the beautiful many-hued eyes, all the clean teeth, and I wonder if really, deep down where my soul is, if I haven't strayed too far from this magic place. If really I was born here, and will remain here until the day I die. Then he looked up at the ceiling and lifted both arms, which is the pose he makes on the posters for all of his movies. I remember all of this with clarity.

And by then Helen was crying, due to its being such an emotional speech, and I was moving my hand across her back in slow, soothing motions to show her that I still cared for her and felt deeply about her, especially when she was crying, especially knowing all the mood swings that come from being pregnant, and I would still be there for her even if she never called me back after we went to her grandparents' lake house and did all those things I never thought would happen to me. And her girls were crying as well, due to the actor's references to the emotional scenes in his more famous movies, and I leaned over to touch their backs as well, but they didn't seem to notice, because they were crying so hard.

After that it was time for dinner. And dinner was okay at first. Helen and Jacob walked out of the auditorium with me, and in the hallway there was a circle of people from our class, including my old friend Jonathan, and this minor league baseball player, and a woman who had attended my church for a few years, and the movie actor, and a few people who snuck in to take pictures of him, and when they saw us, they pulled me into the middle of the circle and said, Hank, what perfect timing, we were just in the middle of deciding who could take care of the kids while we eat dinner, there are more than a few of us who had no time to find babysitters, and the alumni coordinator said that was our responsibility, and we thought at the exact same moment, Hank is a strong, Christian man, he would never allow our children to be hurt, why not give him this chance to shine, right here at our fifteen-year reunion. And I looked at Helen, hoping to see her shake her head no, but she must have been caught off guard by another mood swing, because she said nothing. And though I wanted very much to sit next to her and make slow, soothing motions across her back while eating dinner, there is another thing you learn in Seminary, which is, a pastor is always on duty, though duties should not be performed just to win someone's heart.

So they gave me a bag dinner and a plastic spoon, and I led a few of the children down to the gym where the others were.

The plot of the movie went like this: first there is a group of three Mexican soldiers, and they are running away because they stole a brick of gold from an American military base. This was the general's idea, and the other two soldiers are just helping him out. There is very little talking during the movie.

I will say that I felt more than a little left out, eating my hamburger, when through the vents I could hear everyone else talking about champagne, but I knew God had given me this task, and I knew it was a very important one. Was I about to shirk my responsibilities and leave these children unattended to pursue a crush? A crush from fifteen years ago? I was not. I watched those kids harder than anyone had ever watched them. I saw it when a boy took his pants off so he could sit on another boy's face and fart. I saw a little girl climb to the top of the bleachers and try to jump off, and I caught her before she jumped. I talked to Helen's daughters while they sat in a corner and wrote their names in the air with their fingers, Audrey, Blanche, which was very harmless compared to jumping and farting, but I watched them anyway. They were beautiful.

This is how it makes my nose twitch when I try to make a fist. See how it twitches?

The American soldiers chase after them, but pretty soon the Mexican soldiers believe they have gotten away, in their desert hideout, which is an abandoned house that they believe is too hot and without water for the American soldiers to get to. They kill a deer and cook it over a campfire, and then they spend the night telling stories to each other. The general's story is about his wife and kids, and how they eat burritos with hay stuffed inside because they are so poor. He says he needs this gold brick to live. The two soldiers are whittling around the fire, nodding their heads.

Seeing Audrey and Blanche play together so quietly, it gave me an idea, which was, if I found Helen by the time the reunion dinner was over and everyone dropped off their kids at the hotel and changed clothes to go to the late-night reunion party at the Brando Memorial Dancehall, which the movie actor had been kind enough to reserve for us, we could tell each other all the things that had happened since the night after the prom, like college, like jobs, and the time I was almost hit by a car, and I could explain the ways my theology has changed, and that I would be a good match for her if she would only let me, that I think children are the most important thing in the world.

And I started to talk to Audrey and Blanche, and they said that they were adopted, that they played piano, that Chopin was their favorite. I learned that Helen worked as a caretaker at a museum, and they often joined her in giving tours of the museum, when they had the day off from school.

And I thought, what a perfect life for Helen, almost perfect.

The movie ends with the three Mexicans hiding in their desert house, and in the background is the sound of footsteps. And the general says, Oh geez, it's the Americans, they've found us. And the other two soldiers shrug. The footsteps get closer. This was all my idea, the general says, I have endangered the lives of two good soldiers, how stupid of me, just for a brick of gold, we all will die and I will be responsible for your deaths. And the footsteps get even closer. And the soldiers nod their heads. The brick of gold is in front of them, on a log. And then the general says something that I found to be deeply sad, even at the age of four or five. He says, I regret doing what I have done. And he walks to another room, and after a long pause, there is a sound of a gunshot, and a sound of falling, and the two soldiers don't even flinch.

And by this point all the children were screaming, and when I looked up I saw something strange, which was, the left side of the gym was on fire. I found out later that it was the movie actor's son who had done it, with a lot of twigs and a pile of gym shorts and some lighter fluid, but I didn't know that at the time. He looked as scared as the other kids. I started shouting for everyone to crowd in the center of the gym, where the fire was farthest away. How many children were there? I couldn't tell you. I cannot to this day tell you. All the doors were blocked by the fire, which was growing into a circle around us, and already two or three of the kids had tried to jump over it to get out, and I couldn't see if they made it, but their screaming was the loudest now, and it was also with a funny gurgling sound, which only made the rest of the kids start crying even more, and there was one boy sitting on top of the basketball hoop, and he wouldn't climb down, but he was choking from all the hot air and smoke, and he kept making the universal choking signal, which is to wrap your fingers around your neck like this, and I kept shouting for him to climb down, and finally he got too dizzy from all the smoke and he fell. There was a sound when he hit the floor.

And that is an awful thing, to see a child die. It is the worst thing you could ever see.

All the flags from sports tournaments started to catch after that, and it looked like the entire wall was on fire. Some of the flags fell, and all the pieces of hot ash got on our skin and in our eyes, so we had to run to the other end of the gym, but the bleachers were starting to catch, so we had to backtrack. By then the parents had left their dinners to come stand near the doors and shout for their kids, which was not very helpful, due to when the children heard their parents, many of them ran straight through the fire, and after that the parents would scream and cry for a long time, and pretty soon the parents stopped calling for their kids at all, even when the kids were calling for them.

And that was when I decided that if there was no exit, then it was my job to make an exit. So I took a chair and set it just before the fire, which had grown taller than me, and all the kids lined up behind me. My plan was for each of us to step on the chair and jump over the fire and then run out the gym doors. And I put Audrey on the chair first, but she was too scared to jump, and so was Blanche. No one would jump. I said, we have to jump, there is no other way, but no one would jump. And my feeling was, someone had to jump, at least to test the plan out, and the person to test it should be me. That way, if it were too high, I would be the only one

to die, and they could stay safe in the middle of the gym for a few more minutes.

So I got on the chair and jumped over the fire.

And when I did finally land, some people came over and patted my arm with their coats and sweaters, and I ran to the doors and said, Kids, do like I did, step on the chair and jump over, but the kids said that the chair had caught fire, too, and now the fire was too high for them to jump over.

And then I saw Helen, and she was crying, and I tried to put my hand on her back to make slow soothing motions, but it hurt too much to lift my arm. And then I thought again about the general and his two soldiers, sitting in that tiny desert house, eating the deer they'd shot. I thought about the brick of gold, and burritos stuffed with hay. A man came up to me and grabbed my shoulder. He asked me what happened, if I saw. He asked if I saw his boys. The footsteps keep coming closer. The general looks out the window, to see how far the American soldiers are. The man grabbed my neck and punched me. They are coming closer. He covers up the brick of gold with deerskin and looks at his two loyal soldiers. And he speaks. He says, I regret doing what I have done. Then he leaves, and there is a sound of shooting, and a sound of falling, and the footsteps coming closer, and a bugle noise that sounds very authentic and Mexican, and then silence.

And this is what Jesus was telling me with this memory. Do not be like that general. Do not regret doing what you have done, which is to stand by and do nothing to help those children.

And all the parents were calling the fire department or throwing water from the drinking fountain, and the fire kept growing larger and the heat kept pushing us back farther, and I thought, there is nothing we can do within our power. And I knew I had to do something, so I will tell you what I did. I prayed for them. I prayed every prayer I could remember, the Lord's prayer and the 23rd Psalm and the famous prayers of Martin Luther King, Jr., and when I couldn't think of any more I started making up my own prayers, for safety and for deliverance, and for the blood of Christ to put out what needed putting out. In the middle of everything I prayed. And when finally I had run out of words and I opened my eyes to look inside the gym, peering through the parents and through the flames, I saw an angel come down, dressed in a white robe that was brighter than any fire, and I saw him open his arms to embrace all the children.

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