Julio wriggled his toes in the dirty socks. Maybe she wouldn’t notice. Maybe she wouldn’t notice that they smelled, too. He shifted on the couch. He felt uncomfortable laid out on it like a sack of potatoes. It was leather, cocoa brown and very soft. It was too nice for the likes of him. His clothes hadn’t been washed since the day he stole them off the line. Could be a year. Maybe more.
He grinned sheepishly at the fine lady doctor, keeping his lips shut so as not to subject her to the toothless mouth.
"It’s fine Mr. Perez. Just relax. I won’t be but a minute."
She was such a good lady. He watched her at her giant desk as she went over the notes, flipping through the crisp pages one by one with hands so smooth and white. They were speckled with brown freckles like a flour tortilla. His mama used to make flour tortillas, would fill them with rice and beans and cheese and a hot chile sauce that would make his ears sweat. But that was long ago, over thirty years. He wasn’t a boy anymore.
He could smell the treat she had waiting. The brown bag was sitting on the desk next to the cup of pens and pencils. Empanadas, hopefully filled with apples. That was his favorite. His stomach growled.
The fine doctor grinned. "Have you eaten today, Julio," she asked without looking up.
"No. No, ma’am."
"Well, I have two apple turnovers with your name on them when we get done here. What do you call them, empanadas?"
"Yes, ma’am. Gracias. Muchas Gracias."
He’d never been to a head doctor before her, but he suspected she was much different than most. She cared. Really cared. His eyes wandered about the small house that was her office. She had all the fancy papers on the walls in fancy frames. She was a smart señora. Very smart. Wanted to learn about the human mind, she said. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t pay, that he was a homeless nobody who slept on a park bench every night. He had a mind, a mind she could learn from. And she always had snacks. His mouth was watering. And it was making his nose run. He sniffled loudly.
"Uh, no ma’am," he lied. He didn’t like the idea of being put under no spell. And the drink she gave him to relax was making his stomach feel funny. She was gonna put him under a spell to find out about his past lifes. It was gonna help heal him so he could get a job, make muchas dinero. It sounded loco, like crazy garbage.
"You know, a lot of people don’t give credence to past life regressions. But I happen to know that it’s quite legitimate." She flipped another page and scribbled something down. "It’s my belief that events that occurred in our past lives can have a major affect on our current lives. Have you told anybody what we’re up to, any of your. . . .compadres?"
"Well, I. . .no ma’am."
She peered over the rim of her glasses. "It’s fine, Julio. You don’t want anybody to know you’re seeing a shrink. Pride can be a good thing. It shows that you still care what others might think of you. It shows you haven’t given up. That’s very good."
Julio scratched his head. He’d made a special trip to McDonalds to wash his hair. It looked good, all shiny and black. But the hand soap didn’t agree with his scalp.
"I, myself, was regressed. Yes, that’s right. It’s been, oh, ten years ago now. And it was very, very helpful. I was too timid before that. Like a little mouse. I could barely speak to my patients. All that came out was squeak, squeak, squeak."
Julio grinned his closed-mouthed grin. "You speak very good now, señora. Strong, like a lion."
"Julio, you’re very sweet. I am much stronger now. What I was in my past life has had a great impact on my present life."
"You are a very smart señora. I trust you with my lifes," he said.
She smiled, white evenly spaced teeth that lit up her face."And you have a very good head on your shoulders, señor Perez."
Looking to the ceiling, Julio grinned. He felt a bit dizzy. She said he was smart. No one ever said he was smart before. And she had smiled at him. She was a handsome lady. She was older than he was. A few years, maybe five, maybe more. She could be forty, maybe older. It was hard to tell. Her skin had no wrinkles. It was so white, like a cloud. Her hair was light, very blonde, gũero. She kept it pulled back in a bun, but he imagined she was very beautiful with it down, spilling on her shoulders. Sumamente bonita.
"I was a warrior, if you can believe that. A member of the fierce Shuar tribe. I crept through the Amazon jungle with a poison tipped spear in my hands."
The sound of her voice was like music. He wanted to dance, to hold her close and sway real slow. "You are still a brave warrior," Julio said, emboldened by his earlier success. "Your spear is just smaller now."
She stopped writing to eye the pencil. "Yes. Yes it is," she said, giving a chuckle. "You are certainly in good spirits today. That’s good. That’s very good. A good sense of humor is almost mandatory to make it through life in this day and age. You impress me, Julio. Bravo. How are you feeling, more relaxed?"
With a sigh, Julio looked back to the ceiling. The couch was so soft. Like cotton. Mucho softer than a wood bench. "I am feeling very good, very relaxed. I think I am ready, ready to meet my past lifes. Maybe I will be a brave warrior . . . carry a . . . a pencil." Julio rubbed at his temple. Thoughts were all jumbled in his head.
"Maybe." He didn’t remember seeing her get up, so he was confused that she was standing over him. "You have the coloring of the Shuar people, the same bronzed skin. And your hair really is quite striking. Silky black. You will make a magnificent tsantsa. Come," she said, grabbing his hand. "I want to show them to you."
It was difficult, but she helped him to his feet. He leaned heavily upon her. She was tall, taller than him. But only a little bit. And she was strong. That was good because his feet didn’t want to walk. He giggled at the odd feeling, like walking on two heavy stones that had been strapped to his ankles. With his arm around her shoulders, he felt like he could be her lover out on a nice walk. She smelled good, like flowers. He brought flowers to a girl once. Sandy Akler, fifth grade. She laughed at him and threw them in the garbage. The whole class laughed. They were laughing still.
He turned his head and came face to ear, mere inches away. Her ear was beautiful. Sumamente bonita. "I love you, ear. Te amo."
"This is my prized collection."
Julio tried to focus. They were in a different room. It was small. The walls were made up of shelving. He had been a carpenter once, had built shelves like these to hold a rich man’s trophies. "Ohhhh," he sighed. "So many! So many . . . dolls."
"Oh no, no, Julio, not dolls," she corrected. "Tsantsa. Have you ever seen anything as beautiful?"
He swayed as he looked at the odd faces of her dolls. She held him firm. His lion warrior was very strong. "Beautiful," he said, though they weren’t beautiful at all. They were quite ugly. They did not look like Santa at all. They did not even have white beards. And their eyes were so . . . sad. They were the saddest dolls he had ever seen. But he would not tell this to his bonita señora. He would not hurt her feelings.. "Beautiful . . . like you, señora."
"Oh Julio, you are so special."
He looked back to her. She was busy admiring her sad Santa dolls. "You are special, señora, my love," he spoke to her ear.
They were moving again, his feet of stone uncooperative. It took great effort to slide them forward. And he could barely feel his loves shoulders where his arm was thrown around them. But he persevered, if only for his beautiful, special señora. His love. His one and only love who thought he was special, thought he was smart. She even thought he would make a good Santa. He would not disappoint her and all her treasured dolls with their sad eyes. He would put on a red suit, would stuff it with a pillow. He would say "Ho, ho, ho" and pass out presents to all the children. He would give her flowers and she would weep happy tears and the class would laugh no more. No more laughing at Julio. Julio loved a lion, a warrior, one brave, strong.
"You are . . . are . . . warrior, señora." His words were slurred, but his love understood.
"Yes, Julio. You are a very smart hombre. I am a warrior, a Shuar warrior, fierce Ecuadorian head hunters of the rain forest. Infamous headshrinkers. It’s hard to believe that a human head can be shrunken down to one quarter of its normal size. It really is quite fascinating. The skull must be removed, of course. You can’t shrink bone. But then, it's really quite simple. You must first boil the flesh. Not too long, though, or the hair will fall out. Then as it dries, you must manipulate it back into the shape of a face. It takes a bit of practice. It’s artistry. Like a sculptor, almost."
"My . . . brave . . . lion . . ."
He didn’t remember falling into the hole. It was a dark hole. The smell of moist earth was strong. He was flat on his back, but he was not afraid. His warrior was crouched beside him. She reached to his hair. He felt the caress just barely, soft like a feather. He could not see her beautiful white face in the dark hole. This saddened him. At least he could still smell the sweet flowers. She had not thrown them away. He looked to the heavens. A bird was soaring on high, its outstretched wings so very black against the white cloud. The bird blurred and then cleared, and he knew that tears had fallen. He wanted to speak, but his words were gone.
She still had words. Not squeak, squeak mouse words. Strong . . . strong lion words. He listened, clinging to each and every one.
"I will have to sew your eyes shut when all is done, otherwise your spirit will come looking for revenge. I will have to sew your mouth shut, as well, dearest Julio. Please forgive me. It’s tradition. But you will keep your beautiful shiny hair. You will keep it forever."
He caught a glint of the blade. He knew this tool. Hacksaw. He had been a working man once, a carpenter, had built houses with his very hands. The boss man didn’t like him, though. Called him Chihuahua. Would bark at him like a little dog, would pant real fast with his tongue hanging out, and they all would laugh. Were they laughing at Julio now? No. The laughing was over. No one laughed at Santa Claus.
He wanted to shut his eyes, wanted to picture his mama, to picture her at the table rolling out flour tortillas. His mama made wonderful tortillas. But his mama did not know how to love. Not like his warrior. His warrior who had hands the color of flour tortillas and who always gave him empanadas with apples inside. He focused on a cloud and saw her face there, so pure and white and beautiful. It blurred, and then cleared.
"Don’t be sad, Julio," she whispered in a loving voice. "You tried. You really did. This world can be so cruel. You didn’t stand a chance, really. One day you will be somebody great, somebody who can stand tall and proud."
"Ho, ho, ho." He wanted so badly for her to hear, but she could not hear him laughing.
She leaned in, shrouding him in darkness. "Perhaps in your next life."