Tales from the Blue Archives (Lawrence Thornton)

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  At eleven o'clock in the morning on the Thursday he broke his leg, Juanito Miara sat between his grandfathers in the Church of All Souls, waiting for the priest to christen his baby sister. Because the boy was willful and easily distracted, General Rodolfo Guzmán had suggested this arrangement to his other grandfather before going inside. Agreeing it was the best way to keep him in line, Tobias Miara had tousled Juanito's hair and said that while good behavior was expected, it might just lead to a reward, maybe tickets to Saturday's soccer match. Juanito accepted the admonition and bribe with a nod calculated, Guzmán thought, to preserve his independence. He loved this rebellious streak and winked conspiratorially at his grandson as he took his hand.

Inside, Guzmán breathed deeply of the flowers. He admired the ivory statue of the Virgin and the stained-glass images of saints looking down with a special benevolence, so it seemed, upon the people come to witness Marpessa's christening.

Like all soldiers, Guzmán had an abiding love of rituals, seeing in both the exalted and mundane a profound expression of human need for order and civility. The conviction extended to all matters involving his family, and as they followed him to the front-row pew he gave free rein to feelings about his bloodline that bordered on the mystical. Of all the Latin words he had learned in parochial school, paterfamilias remained his favorite.

He sat between Juanito and his wife, Gloria, who glowed bright as a flower in her new Chanel outfit. He had chosen a black Italian suit, a custom-made Egyptian cotton shirt, and a red tie, aware that the colors complemented his gray hair and pale blue eyes. After he finished dressing, he had applied to his cheeks a few drops of the lemon-scented cologne his mistress had shipped to her from Santiago twice a year.

Guzmán smiled at Juanito and was patting his knee when Father Von Claussen appeared at the altar. His face still bore signs of the humiliating scandal that had erupted with the Scilingo affair and left his reputation grievously injured. Fortunately, the sad story was coming to an end. The priest's first official act since the bishop absolved him would go a long way toward allaying his bitterness and refreshing his spirit. Marpessa's refusal to be born until after the suspension was lifted had been a piece of luck because now Father Von Claussen could christen her as he had done Alicia's other children.

Luck and grace, thought Guzmán. He would be hard-pressed to say which made him happier, his old spiritual adviser's rehabilitation, or Marpessa's embrace by the Church.

Gloria began sniffling with the first words the priest spoke in his gravelly voice. When Alicia glanced up and caught his eye, Guzmán felt like crying, too. Standing beside her husband Hugo, who looked on proudly as the baby's forehead was anointed with holy water, she looked as beautiful as the Madonna.

Guzmán relished every word, every gesture of the rite, wishing it would go on and on, fill the day. It seemed as if the priest had only just begun when he delivered the benediction.

With a sigh, he turned to Juanito, winking to let him know how pleased he was with his behavior. Then he stepped into the aisle, genuflected, and made sure his grandson did the same.

Led by Father Von Claussen, the families went up the nave and emerged into a flawless summer day. Guzmán accepted Violeta's congratulations and made a date to go shooting later in the week, warning him that his new over-and-under would wreak devastation on the clay pigeons. He wandered from group to group before stopping to talk to Alicia about the party at her house that evening. He had ordered lavishly from the caterers. Did she think there would be enough food? What about place cards, punch bowls, chilled champagne?

"Oh, Daddy," she said, kissing him on the cheek. "Why do you worry so much? Everything will be fine."

"You know how he is," Gloria said with an affectionate laugh. "He always has to be in control. I'm going over to her house this afternoon to help," she told him. "Promise you won't tire yourself out. You'll want to stay up until everybody's gone."

Guzmán said he planned to go for a swim and then take a nap. Juanito came over and took his hand, complaining that there was no one his age to talk to. Guzmán gently reminded him of his promise and was about to suggest a walk around the church when he saw Father Von Claussen and told the boy he needed to speak to the priest. They could spend time together later.

He had been right about the effect of the christening; the priest was beaming as he clapped a hand on Guzmán's shoulder.

"You don't know how good I feel today."

"Oh, I think I do. You'll be there tonight?"

"I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Twenty minutes after he left the church, Guzmán stopped at his bank to cash a check. He put the bills into two envelopes he requested from the clerk, writing "Pablo" on one, "Guido" on the other. He had not felt so happy or fulfilled in a long time. With the christening over, he could still look forward to fine-tuning his arrangement with Sánchez-Macias and Berletti before the party.

Determined as he was to enjoy the afternoon and evening, it was impossible to ignore the irony that lay behind his need to milk the pleasures from a single unusually busy day. Of the things he missed since being cashiered from the army none was more painful to remember than his hectic, demanding schedule. He had thrived on juggling time and commitments, solving one problem while thinking about half a dozen others. The truth was that losing his place in the world of affairs had been more devastating than the trial or imprisonment. The humiliation had been terrible but finite, whereas the days of unstructured existence went on and on, one sliding into the other without differentiation.

His colleagues' talk about accepting the pleasures of forced retirement fell on deaf ears. With sufficient effort he could lose himself for a while in simple tasks. He always felt wonderful in the company of his grandchildren, but there were too many times when he found himself alone with nothing to do other than listen to the clock, the rush of traffic, sounds that had begun to seem like the not-so-distant trumpets of the grave. Well, today was not one of them, he reminded himself. Today he intended to savor every hour, squeeze out every ounce of satisfaction.

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Excerpted from Tales from the Blue Archives (forthcoming) by Lawrence Thorton. Copyright © 1997 by Lawrence Thorton. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.