|He was a follower of Don Bosco|
Saturday, August 13, 2016
PADRE ARGENTINO PART 1—THE HANDWRITING SPECIALIST
“You really ought to try it,” my brother-in-law was saying.
“Because the guy’s an amazing graphologist. One look at your handwriting and he tells you everything there is to know about yourself.”
It was the end of autumn and the seventies were also quickly drawing to a close—1978, hard to believe Argentina’s dictatorship was already more than two years old. In ways it seemed like only yesterday that, in stunned yet hardly surprised expectation, we had witnessed Argentina’s March ’76 coup, the start of the Proceso, as it was called and wondered, “What next?” Like I say, it seemed like only yesterday…unless you counted the bodies in the Proceso’s wake, which were already into the thousands, and many more people “missing”. Just about anybody you talked to knew of someone who had either been killed or whisked off the street or out of their bed and spirited away in the night.
And still we wondered, “What next?” We wondered even while knowing the answer: More of the same, more killing, more dying, more hardship, suspicion, torture and fear. More abuse of power and contempt for the civilian population. In fact, more of what had come before, under a supposedly democratic government, ostensibly run by a warlock who wore a presidential widow as a hand-puppet, and who got a pusillanimous Senate President to declare a State of Siege, thinking they could use the milicos and the cops to fight their internal political wars but ending up being the deserving victims of their own dictatorial designs. The only ones undeserving of their ultimate fate were, as per historically usual, the common citizens, whose only choice was to stoically take whatever came next and deal with it on a day to day basis or leave and live in exile.
But ironically, it was precisely there, in the day-to-day, that life went on. Back home in Ohio, when we’d heard of dictatorships elsewhere in the world, we’d thought of hopeless people cowering in dark corners as tyrants invaded their every reality. But that wasn’t the case. Life indeed went on—a little sadder, a little more desperate, perhaps, but with a semblance of normality. If living under a dictatorship was frequently stifling, politics, at least, was not a preoccupation. It was a given, something taken care of by an “external” force, something imposed, not chosen, a case of “Them and Us”.
It was drizzling and the aluminum awning over the patio was cranked shut. It wasn’t raining hard enough to make a constant drum roll on the slats of the awning, but we could, nevertheless, hear the syncopated drip of droplets that formed on and fell from the branches of the paraiso tree that hung over the terrace from the street. It had rained hard a few days before and then turned cold. Before that it had been unseasonably muggy and sultry. Now, however, it felt good to be inside out of the dampness and I was off work today.
Miguel and I had transferred our mate-drinking from the patio to the kitchen, closed the door, opened the transom above it for ventilation and had the four burners on the gas range lit to keep us warm and to drive out the humidity. The single-bulb light over the counter was on, but we’d left the one over the kitchen table in the adjoining comedor diario turned off, so that, with the patio awning closed, we were sitting in a kind of twilight, even though it wasn’t quite noon yet. My sister-in-law was at work and my wife and mother-in-law were off on I-don’t-know-what errand, so Miguel and I had the house to ourselves. He tilted the little stainless steel teakettle and gently poured another thin stream of water over the grass green yerba in the gourd, taking care not to “burn” the tea and end up with a tasteless mate full of tiny floating sticks. Miguel was a mate veteran who consumed several kettles a day. With him, getting the temperature right was essential—not too cold, not too hot, about to boil but not quite boiling, and if he should leave the water on too long and hear the first murmur of ebullition, his remedy would be decisive. The entire contents of the pot would be tossed unceremoniously down the drain and he would start over from scratch, placing a kettle of cold water on the stove.
I took the frothy-collared gourd from him and sipped the warm, bitter green tea through the metal bombilla. “Mmm, good mate,” I said.
“Nah,” he said, “I think the damn water’s gone cold.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Look at it steam. Look how frothy!” I held it out for him to see.
He frowned, made a face and put the kettle back on one of the flaming burners. “Here,” he said, taking the lid off of a cookie tin and holding it out to me, “have a bizcochito while this warms up.” I reached into the tin and grabbed one of the deliciously greasy, salty biscuits and took a bite, before having another sip of mate.
“So, are you listening or what?” Miguel asked.
“Yes, yes, this grapho…whatever-he-is reads your handwriting and tells you…your fortune, is it?”
“What a jerk you are. No. Pay attention, boludo! He looks at a sample of your handwriting and tells you everything about yourself.”
“And he’s called a graphowhosis?”
“And that’s like a, what then?”
“It’s not like anything, ¡carajo! He’s a handwriting analyst.”
“Why do I need him to tell me all about myself? I’m me, after all. I already know all about myself!”
“Yeah, right, or you think you do until he reads your handwriting and makes you realize all the things you’ve never realized about yourself.”
I rolled my eyes and then, glancing at the stove, I said, “Hey, the water’s about to boil.”
“Shit!” He jumped up, grabbed the kettle and set it on a hot pad on the counter. He lifted the lid, stuck his index finger in, promptly scalded it, said, “Shit!” again and then dumped the contents of the kettle into the sink, refilling the pot with cold water and putting it back on the stove.
“You could have just put a little cold water in it,” I said irritably.
“No, if it boils, it’s flat. It’ll only take a minute,” he said. “Here, have another bizcochito.” I accepted the biscuit and handed him back the sucked-dry gourd.
“So this guy, what? Charges for this?”
“No, he does it for his health,” he said sarcastically. “Of course he charges for it. He needs the money for his school.”
“He has a school?”
“Yes. He’s a priest and has a school. Did I tell you he was a priest?”
“Yes, a priest…but one of those the Church isn’t altogether happy to claim. One of those who actually do something for people.”
“Ooooooh, one of the usual suspects!”
“So, what? Are you going to?”
“Let him analyze your damned handwriting!”
“Oh, uh…I don’t know. What’s he charge?”
“Whatever the hell you want to give him. Get the damn crocodile out of your wallet and just do it!”
“Okay. What the hell…”
So I took a sheet of loose leaf notebook paper and a pen and wrote a couple of paragraphs telling this priest cum graphologist who I was without really telling him anything, as I had been forewarned to do, placed the paper in an envelope—which my brother-in-law provided—accompanied by a few peso notes, and said, “Whom should I address it to?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Miguel said, “I’ll take it to him.”
“Okay, but what name do I put on the envelope?”
“Padre Argentino.” Miguel said.
By ten days later or so, I had completely forgotten about the note I’d sent off with Miguel to the graphologist, Padre Argentino. But when I went to supper at my mother-in-law’s house one evening Miguel excitedly handed me my resealed envelope and said that Padre Argentino had just finished his analysis and delivered it the day before.
“Well, don’t just stand there,” Miguel said, “open it up and let’s see what he says!”
“Here,” I said, handing the envelope back to him, “you read it.”
The obvious things were there first: left-handed, probably a large-handed or very strong man by the pressure of the stroke, young to middle-aged, etc. But then he talked about my character: foreign, creative, temperamental, highly-strung, stubborn, full of anger, often self-righteous and highly idealistic, contemptuous of authority but with a strong sense of prudence and survival, mixed feelings of both superiority and inadequacy...and, “Oh, you naughty boy! The sordid thoughts and fantasies you have!”
I had to admit, I was impressed. “I’d like to meet him,” I told my brother-in-law, “maybe write something about him.”
“Well...mmmmm...I don’t know,” said Miguel doubtfully. “He keeps a pretty low profile. I’ll have to talk to him first and see what he thinks.”
So Miguel did talk to the priest and, somewhat to my brother-in-law’s surprise, Padre Argentino said that he wanted to meet me. We arranged to meet in a little coffee shop off of Plaza Flores, near which, I would later find out, the padre lived in the covered patio of the apartment of an older woman and her teen-aged daughter.
In the course of our conversation, I became even more interested in his story. It was apparent just by looking at him that he was a man of the cloth who took his vows of poverty seriously. The ladies he lived with obviously kept his clothes properly washed and pressed but his blue-gray rabat had been washed pale sky blue and his clerical collar was threadbare and frayed, as were the elbows of his black jacket. His utilitarian rubber-soled black oxfords were carefully shined but worn thin and down-at-heel. He told me that he was of the Salesian Order—followers of the nineteenth-century Italian saint, Giovanni Bosco (better known as “Don Bosco”, himself an admirer of the humility and service of Saint Francis of Assisi), known for their work as missionaries and, especially, as youth pastors.
When I asked right away about the graphology gimmick, he shrugged it off and said, “That’s just one of the things I do to raise money for my mission, an evening hobby that serves my work. But most of the funds come from ‘doorbelling’.”
He made a gesture as if ringing a doorbell. “I spend every morning ringing doorbells and begging for money. Sometimes I find a good soul who pledges a regular donation, like a baker who provides us with bread, or some ladies who gather old clothes for us. But mostly, my daily rounds of different neighborhoods are what allow us to continue to operate.”
I pressed him on the handwriting analysis again, saying I’d found it pretty accurate in my case and also pretty amazing considering that he had never even seen me in person. But again he shrugged it off. “Listen, if you want to write about my mission, I’ll be more than happy to accommodate you, my son, but not if you plan to write about me personally.”
“Well, Padre,” I said, “what I’ve usually found is that the man and his mission are seldom separable in writing a human interest story.”
But the priest shook his head stubbornly and said, “No, my son, that’s the deal. You can write about my mission and mention me as its architect, but you can’t write about my life, are we clear.”
“Well, okay. Let’s start with your mission and see where the story leads,” I said.
To be continued