Panchofire & Marina
by Fernando A. Flores
Last night, after finally watching the documentary on the unsolved murder of the young nurse in south Texas, realized all I had was a can of tuna in the pantry—in the fridge were half an onion, mustard, and a nearly empty carton of expired milk.
Looked in all the drawers for the can opener, then with a kitchen knife stabbed all along its edge, the tin cringing like a viola popping strings. When I cleared nearly half the can, I pried it open with a fork and thought, How funny, remembering the days I lived next to Father Chabelo Andrade in the east side, forcing clumps of shivering tuna into my mouth.
His name was never mentioned in the documentary, titled Preying on the Holy, which was odd. But, having known Father Andrade personally—and piecing together only now the events that occurred back in 1957—it didn’t surprise me.
When I learned about the documentary, it interested me because it took place in south Texas, close to where I’m from. It begins as the story of a young Mexican-American woman, studious and charismatic Linda Salazar. She is the first person in her family to receive a high school diploma and, later, a college degree. At McAllen Renaissance she gets hired as a nurse. In her twenties she still exchanges letters with former female classmates; they are narrated by an actress, and sometimes passages are highlighted on the screen that reveal Linda to be a romantic and pious young woman who still wears her promise ring and goes out on dates with young doctors.
Dealing with the sick on a day-to-day, Linda learns to love God and attends church every Sunday and Wednesday. She is attractive and known in the community to dress well. Single men start attending church hoping to have an exchange with the young nurse. She goes to confession frequently and even befriends one of the priests, Father Sims. One Ash Wednesday there is a thunderstorm before mass, and Linda Salazar had agreed to have dinner with a young doctor afterward. At the service, according to eyewitnesses, Linda was fidgety. Waiting in line to confess, she asks a few gentlemen if she can cut ahead, for she is in a hurry, and they modestly acquiesce.
The following day her parents report to the police that she never came home, and her car is discovered: it never left San Juditas Church. The doctor she had a date with is suspected, and in the documentary he is interviewed already an old man. He is found with a reliable alibi, and the doctor explains how this incident ruined his reputation and upward mobility for a long time. A few blocks from the church Linda’s purse is discovered, with her driver’s license and money intact. Six miles northeast a pair of black ladies’ dress shoes are in the mud, apparently thrown from a moving vehicle. The shoes are identified by her family as having been worn by Linda.
Five days later her body is found by construction workers, floating along the Rio Bravo River in Anzaldua Park. The autopsy reports she’d been dead three days. Linda Salazar’s blouse was ripped open and her panties missing; the left side of her face bruised and swollen, having been beaten with a blunt object. Any evidence that could’ve been left by the killers was washed away with the river. Within a week, everybody in the congregation, her family, coworkers, suitors since high school are interviewed by the authorities. The name that keeps popping up is Father Sims. She confessed on Ash Wednesday with him, and it’s reported by a few people, including another priest and acolyte, that Father Sims and Linda Salazar went off privately to the back room of the church for it. This was not out of the ordinary since this type of confession is offered to anybody who requests extra privacy.
The service ends shortly after, and nobody sees Linda Salazar alive again except Father Sims, who it turns out is the youngest and least experienced priest in San Juditas. He’d come down from Tulsa, and after living for a time in Premont made it all the way down to the Valley in south Texas.
It is discovered that a week prior to Linda’s disappearance, a male matching Father Sims’ description was reported to have attacked a lady named Estela Casas in the middle of the day—by the shrine with the votive candles. She later is able to identify Father Sims as her attacker in a lineup, but there’s still insufficient evidence—Father Sims denies all the allegations and has believable alibis that are confirmed by others for the investigators. Suspiciously, during Linda’s disappearance, other priests at San Juditas notice cuts and scrapes on Father Sims’ hands and around his neck—they go on record to say the explanation Father Sims gave was he got locked out of his apartment and had a rough time climbing a tree to get through a window.
The film makes you believe Father Sims committed the crime and gets away with it. He moves back to Tulsa the following year, continuing with the clergy—then ten years after the death of Linda Salazar, Father Sims is found dead in a chapel surrounded by snuffed candles and statues of the saints, his cassock stained with his own semen. He appears to have shot himself through the chest with a revolver—the weapon is found at the scene and the incident ruled a suicide, the events shrouding it just as mysterious and elusive to the authorities as Linda’s death.
The documentary ends with a giant question mark: Why would this priest, Father Sims, commit suicide, and was it related to the murder of Linda Salazar?
Why the semen?
Where did the gun come from?
Though the bulk of the evidence tells us he in fact killed Linda, he never confesses to the crime—moves away, doesn’t change his name, lives unharassed. Then one day at the chapel jacks off and kills himself?
It doesn’t add up to the police nor to the documentarians.
I was attracted to the documentary because I love a good south Texas story, but ten minutes into it, I sensed something ominously familiar. Something within it emerged like a sleepy bear from the deep woods of my memory, like the story was reworked from an old faerie tale or myth, and I felt I held some kind of answer to it—then I remembered it wasn’t me, but my old neighbor from the east side, the other priest, Father Andrade, the man who this story is really about. He was an old, blind, brown man who was never a priest, but everybody in the block called him Father because the younger nuns of the convent Sala Sagrada had been his volunteer helpers most his life. They maintained his house, shopped for groceries, made sure bills got paid, and thrice a week Father Andrade played the organ at their church. He had learned to play piano as a boy from his uncle, who in his youth traveled with the Familia Nievesverdes Circus. Father Andrade also heard his first Bible story from his uncle shortly after going completely blind at age six. He always said he knew Bible stories well before learning anything about organized religion. His uncle explained to him the books of the Bible and its different authors, their lives, and how their voices together try to harness the One Voice. Later on when he learned Braille, the books available to him were mostly the classics: Virgil, Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Sappho. He read everything he could and memorized various passages—from Aesop and Chaucer, and Edward Lear nonsense that gave him a chuckle.
One day, when I lived in the duplex adjoined to him in the east side, he heard my typewriter and learned I was trying my hand at writing. His way of dress reminded me of gamblers from my grandfather’s generation in Mexico. He wore shaded reading glasses, and I never got to see what his actual eyes looked like, which I’ve always been grateful for.
Thinking about it now, I’m proud to have formed a friendship with a man like Father Andrade, though at the time I was drinking too much and took it for granted. I wrote everything using a typewriter, with the door open, so sometimes when he heard the machine he’d come over. I’d stop writing, relieved, and invited him in every time.
In those days I recorded a lot of conversations I had at home, and many of these were with Father Andrade, whom I found fascinating. After watching Preying on the Holy, I borrowed the boss’s car and drove five hours southwest to Atascosa, where my old roommate from the east side, Beth, lived. Neither of us held a grudge over our failed relationship and subsequent falling-out anymore. She invited me in for barley soup with her husband, Elian, then brought out a milk crate with things from the old days that weren’t hers. There were seven 120-minute cassettes in there, and in my excitement asked Beth if she’d seen Preying on the Holy—she hadn’t and I told her it was fucked up, highly recommended it. When I grabbed the cassettes and started my thank yous and goodbyes, Beth and Elian commented on the immense time we have in life and propositioned a threesome. I very gentlemanly declined and got in the boss’s car out of there. I popped an unmarked cassette in the tape deck, screwed with the controls of the stereo, then immediately heard my own voice—like it always does, it gave me a sense of horror to hear what I actually sound like.
Took that cassette out and shoved another in, thinking how creepy everything back there was with Beth and her weird little husband. I heard a parrot and soft jazz playing in a distant room—I heard footsteps and a montage of various squeaky doors closing—I flipped the cassette over and it was drunken people talking at some kind of party. Played another cassette, and again my own voice—I seemed to be reciting something and turned up the volume as the accordion sun started to set. I sped the tape up, played, and I’m still reciting—then I listened to the words and realized it wasn’t my voice but Father Andrade’s, and the words he is reciting are Homer’s—the Fitzgerald translation. “Where are the purists now,” I yelled—orated by a blind man, this is the way we are meant to experience Homer.
Listening to how clumsily and naively I spoke of literature embarrassed me, then when I got home I finally found the passage that started all this. I’m transcribing it here verbatim from the moment it began recording, and Father Andrade is already in conversation:
“…had much talent and disappeared in long stretches. For a period I was taken care of by the state, then the Sala Sagrada nuns. I digress in telling you more than this story needs of my uncle, but after the last time my uncle left, I started to be looked after by a nun from Argentina, Santa Juanita Espada. Never knew how old she was, but I can hear her voice. It feels like the texture of construction paper, always, to this day. I was in her care starting at fifteen. Santa Juanita came from an industrious family that in the years she’d left Argentina had prospered, which I hear was rare for those times. I think it was a sister of hers that died and there was a small inheritance that had been wired to Phoenix, Arizona, through some confusion. We lived in an apartment in San Antonio together when she explained we must take a bus trip to Phoenix. Now I’d never been outside of Texas and this excited me, to go to another state, and I remembered being fond of the word phoenix from my uncle’s stories. See, I wasn’t very educated yet but had a great curiosity and imagination. I thought magical things could happen at any moment in a city named Phoenix. When we got there it was in the extreme heat, and they gave Santa Juanita some forms to sign. On the ride back to San Antonio, the bus broke down. In the middle of the day and in the desert. All of us got off the bus with that fruit-gone-bad radiator smell, and later I heard another car pull over. The bus driver asks the couple in the car where they’re going, and they say Texas. The only ones going that far in the bus were me and Santa Juanita. The couple in the car offer to take the nun and the blind boy while the others wait for repairs. Here we are, the story of this couple. They were named Panchofire and Marina. Pancho like Pancho Villa, and fire like that which burns. Marina, I’ve always like that name. Makes you think of the way poets described the sea in the old days. Santa Juanita didn’t speak much English and the couple not a lot of Spanish, though I could tell they were Mexicanos from out west. Santa Juanita was prone to fall asleep in vehicles, and I must say I felt good inside that fast car with those young people. They whispered to each other and were nice enough to talk to me. Especially the girl. When I asked what kind of plans they had in Texas, Panchofire told me he didn’t know why he lied to the bus driver that they were heading to Texas when they were really going to Tulsa. Do you want to know why Tulsa, he asked me. He said it was because often people are chosen to right wrongs. And after some silence he and Marina whispered for a long while, then Panchofire asked if I’d ever heard of a nurse from Texas killed on Ash Wednesday and her killer was never caught. I said no, then he asked if I knew why the killer was never caught. When I said I didn’t, he said, Guess. I couldn’t guess, of course, and was starting to get scared. I was still a naive young man in that back seat. Then Marina said it didn’t matter. That they were gonna visit the priest who last saw her, who crossed the ashes on her forehead the last night she was alive. Crossed the ashes. On her forehead. Me and Santa Juanita got back to San Antonio that evening and honestly hadn’t thought of that couple Panchofire and Marina in a long time. Something in the blue yard-dog howl of the wind tonight I suppose just reminded me.”
Fernando A. Flores was born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and raised in the U.S. He is the author of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas Vol. 1, and winner of a 2014 literary award from the Cisneros Del Moral Foundation. He lives in Austin, Texas.