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Property of the Church
a story by James Iredell

We were late, as usual. My mom would always clean the house or leave to go jogging a half-hour before church started. Then, when she screamed and ran around frantically, trying to get ready, it was always our fault. My brother and sister and I sat timidly in our station wagon until my mother came with the red-faced fury of an Irish Catholic woman who was late--again. She started the car and she swore to us about how we didn't help her clean.

“You damn kids! If you'd just pick up your shit! We wouldn't be late!”

Of course we wouldn't say anything back. We all knew that it was like teasing a dragon to rebel against mom when she was like this.

My mother threw the transmission in reverse, backed up, then jumped forward, peeling out of our steep driveway. She reached highway 156 and climbed to her comfortable seventy-five mile per-hour cruising speed.

The church we attended was Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church, in Castroville, California. Castroville sits snug in the middle of the Monterey Bay, fourteen miles to Monterey, fourteen to Santa Cruz. All of us kids had been baptized there. We had been born into the religion, and my parents more or less forced us to go.

As my mother pulled up on Castroville, a white pickup truck tried to pass us in the merging lane to the right. My mother saw the truck in her rearview mirror, and she was pissed off already, so she wasn't going to let “this asshole” cut her off. Instead, she swerved into the merging lane cutting off the pickup. My mother looked in her rearview and stuck up her middle finger, “fuckin’ asshole!” she yelled. My brother, sister, and I all turned around to see who my mom was yelling at, but the glare of Sunday sun shot off the windows making any view of the driver impossible.

The pickup followed us to the church parking lot. My mother parked the car and told us to get out quickly. All of a sudden, she seemed very calm. She hurried us as we walked toward the main building of the church. The pickup parked next to our station wagon. A woman in cowboy boots, cowboy jeans, and a thick, buttoned shirt jumped out of the cab and yelled at us.

“Hey! You bitch!”

“Don’t pay attention to her, kids,” said my mother.

“Hey you fuckin’ bitch!” the woman yelled again. My mother turned around.

“Watch your mouth in front of my kids!”

Fuck you!”

“You're on church property!”

Fuck you and your church! Why don’t you come down here? Ya chickenshit!”

I watched in awe. I’d never seen anybody directly confront my mother in such a way. It was scary; it was fascinating. My mother turned us all around, and we walked to church together.

At the end of mass, I asked my mother if she was afraid the woman would still be in the parking lot.

“No, Larry,” said my mom.

“How come?”

“‘Cause this is church property. Nobody will mess with you on church grounds, it’s safe.”

We went to the car and drove home. The woman, of course, wasn’t there. She hadn't even vandalized our car as I’d expected. As my mother drove us home, she was relaxed and peaceful. It was a beautiful day.

I started walking to my mother’s business after school every day when I was thirteen. I hung out with some of the local Castroville kids. They were all Hispanic. They were the children of migrant field workers. They followed the harvests around California. The southern gangs fought with the northern gangs. They were poor and lived in small apartments. There were always family members crowding the halls, the bedrooms, and the kitchens, but there was a strong reverence for extended family. Many of them were of the latest generation, from a long history of gang members. I was the outcast white boy--the gringo. But over time, through many bloody noses and knuckles from street fights, I gained my respect.

Most of those fights started because one guy was talking shit about another guy, who found out about it and told all of his buddies. The first guy found out about the second guy and his buddies. So the first guy got his buddies. Soon, you had fights in the streets involving up to ten people at one time. It was all craziness.

My friends and I generally tried to stay out of trouble. We liked to hang around in back of the community center and smoke cigarettes and drink whatever form of alcohol we could get our hands on. But sometimes, you couldn't avoid the juvenile gang warfare. At that age, none of my friends were true gang members. It was like training to become a gang member. We walked the streets and flashed our colors and signs and got into fights, but it wouldn't become serious for a few years. We just thought it was cool at the time.

I was with two of my friends, Omar and Rafael. We were walking towards the community center when Omar noticed David Dapilla hanging out in front of the church.

“That mother fucker said he fucked my sister!” said Omar.

“No shit?” Rafael said.

“Yeah, someone told me he was saying it around school.”

“Let’s get him,” I said.

“Naw, we can’t now,” said Omar, “He’s at the church.”

Fuck it man,” I said, “We’ll drag him around back, nobody will see us.”

Omar and Rafael looked at me like I was nuts. They both believed strongly in the Catholic faith. I didn't believe it so much. I just kind of went--because I had to. For them, it was okay to kick somebody's ass if they weren't on church property. Church property was neutral ground. Enemies were safe there. I didn't see things the same way. I couldn't see the difference between church grounds and not church grounds. But more than that, I simply felt angry; the frustration became unbearable. I don’t know what it was, maybe I was mixed up because of school, which I really did try hard at. Or maybe it was because David Dapilla had taken my position as first baseman on our little league team the year before. Maybe it was my parents. It was one of those manic moments when the sun doesn't seem to shine in the right light. Time ceases to exist and everything moves fast, then slow, then fast, then slow. It was like one of the times when I hit my sister, when she made me so mad that things got blurry. There was no rationalization behind it. I was beyond reason. I was mad and mad.

I walked across to the church. Omar and Rafael followed. David Dapilla didn't move when he saw us coming. Then he smiled.

“Hey guys, what's up?”

“Did you say you fucked Omar’s sister?” I asked.

“What? . . . Larry, I don’t know what you're--”

“Did you say you fucked Omar’s sister!”

I grabbed David Dapilla by his shirt collar and dragged him to the lawn underneath a large oak tree. Omar and Rafael followed me, but I didn't realize they were still there. I was angry at nothing, and my anger was going strong.

Under the tree, I socked David Dapilla two or three times. The blood ran from his nose. He fell to the ground. I looked behind myself at Omar and Rafael.

“See man!” I said, “Nothin’ to it, give him a good kick.” Omar and Rafael stared at each other.

“I'm not so sure, man,” said Omar.

“Come on, you pussies!” I yelled.

Rafael kicked David Dapilla in the ribs. Then Omar did. Then I did. David Dapilla was crying. His face was red and the tears ran down his cheeks. My fury left me. I saw David Dapilla as a helpless little kid. I no longer cared if he had fucked Omar’s sister. I no longer cared about proving myself to my friends. I felt like shit.

I looked up. Omar and Rafael were running away down the back lawn of the church grounds. I looked around to the parish house. The priest--my priest--was hurrying towards me and David Dapilla, holding a broomstick in his hands. I ran away as fast as I could, but my priest had seen me.

By the time I got to my mother’s business that afternoon, she had already received a call from the church.

“Did you have a nice time with your friends?” my mother asked.

“It was all right.”

“What'd you do?”

“Nothing.”

“Bullshit you did nothing, you little bastard!”

My mother hit me over the head. She didn't hit me hard. She never did. But then she grabbed me by the ear. She yelled holy terror at me for a good ten minutes. My parents never really hit me or my brother and sister, but they could make you feel like shit with what they said. My mother made me feel ashamed. She had found out what I did to David Dapilla. I felt bad for it. I beat him up for no reason, and I did it on church property.

That night I had a long talk with my father, and the next Saturday, I had a long talk with my priest. I didn't talk with David Dapilla. A week later I was walking home with Omar and Rafael. We had decided on getting straight to Omar’s house and staying there. There had been a lot of bad blood between us and another group of kids, of which David Dapilla was a member. Days at school that week were spent getting hard looks from other kids. Some even came up to me and said, “David Dapilla’s gonna kick your ass, Dawlripple! And your friends too!”

“Oh yeah?” I said, “Who says this?”

And they replied, “He said it, man, he says he’s gonna find you and kick your ass.”

It was scary shit to be in class, on the playground, in the cafeteria. But more than anything, it was the walk home that would get us. We knew that if a fight broke out, it would happen on the walk home. So we left school on Friday in a hurry. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. We were ahead of the group of kids pouring out of the middle school. We walked through the first block, no problem. We walked through the second block, still, no problem. We walked past the ball park and the community center. One more block would be the church, and just past it would be the safety of Omar’s home.

Standing on the next corner, less than twenty feet away from us, was a group of about thirteen boys, all clad in black with Raiders football caps and jackets and hard, British Knights tennis shoes. They all saw us at once. We were a group of three against thirteen. We froze; then the gang broke into a run. So did Omar and Rafael. I hesitated while my two friends took off in different directions. Then I realized that I was alone. I bolted as hard as I could.

I hopped a fence and ran through a tennis court. The group was still behind me. I took a right at the community center and headed back up behind Omar’s house. I thought that I might be able to get there in time. But the gang had broken into two groups. They tried to cut me off at an intersection. I took a left though, and dodged them for a few blocks. It must have looked crazy, seeing all these kids running through the streets. But I don’t think half the adult population of Castroville paid any attention. They were busy with jobs or televisions or drinking or with their own, grown gang problems.

I was quickly getting winded. The gang still persisted. And by now, we were all tired and I knew that if I slowed down, they would be all the more pissed when they caught me. Then I saw the ball park. Right behind the ball park was the back of the church. I could try to sneak around and get in through a side door. I sped up. Then I was at the rear of the church. The back of it was just a big brick wall. I had to get around to the side or front before I could get in.

As I got there, I tripped on the root of an oak tree that grew out of the sidewalk. Then David Dapilla and his crew surrounded me. They were breathing heavily and their faces were red from running. I lay on the ground and my leg felt like it was bleeding underneath my jeans. David Dapilla spat on me. I looked up at him and I could feel the tears welling up behind my eyes.

I began to plead, but I stopped myself--they wouldn't have given a goddamn anyway. I yelled for help--help from my priest, from a passerby, from anybody. But there was just the group of angry adolescents and the hard brick wall of the church, and I waited for what was coming.


"Property of the Church" Copyright ©2000 by James Iredell.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology, should send inquiries by email to the author. Inquiries by mail may be sent to: James Iredell, c/o collectedstories.com, Columbia U. Station, P.O. Box 250626, New York, NY 10025.
ADAPTED FOR SCREEN

The short story, Property of the Church has become a short film. Dara Albanese, co-publisher of collectedstories.com, adapted and directed the screen version. For more information, click here or please visit the website, afilmby.com.

Also check out the Reno News Review which recently published a profile of the story's author, James Iredell, along with his thoughts about having a story made into a movie.

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