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Rafael Alvarez walks the streets of Baltimore the way his ancestors did.  He walks the streets of the city the way the homeless and the tourist have walked for decades.

He walks to see and remember the ways of others — the cops, the robbers, the addicts, the working-class men, the women attending the lives of their husbands and children, the Greeks, the Poles, the Italians, and the boys with baseball gloves.

In his walks he saves it all, the people and their street corners, their coffee shops, their churches, and their row houses long gone but still alive in his stories.

A collection of his essays titled Storyteller opens with an excerpt from a poem by William Butler Yeats, The Circus Animals’ Desertion.  To me, the lines from this poem are the perfect testimony to Alvarez’s accomplishments as a writer who not only embraces the complexity of his city and its history, but who tells the story with humility and compassion that makes me believe in all the everyday miracles he describes.

Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweeping of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till.  Now that my ladder’s gone,

I must lie down where all the ladders start,

In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

Here is an unpublished story by Alvarez, from a “rag-and-bone shop of his heart.”  Can you believe this miracle?

Jude the Impaler

by Rafael Alvarez

A perpetual Novena — every Wednesday — to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes.

Acts of faith in the City of Baltimore a few years after the King assassination riots; devotion and sacrifice and Ma Tazza dragging the kid she’d raised as a son to the St. Jude Shrine on the other side of town.

Sometimes Cherry wanted to go and sometimes he didn’t. It all depended on what kind of trouble appealed to him when Novena night rolled around.

“Don’t give me a hard time,” barked Ma, three broken rosaries in the pocket of her raincoat, no way of knowing that what was hopeless today was a bowl of ice cream compared to what was coming.

“Get in the car, Cherry . . . last time I let you stay by yourself it cost me a fortune. Maybe I’ll drop you at the game on the way home if it don’t rain.”

The Baltimore Orioles were playing the Detroit Tigers that night in a ballpark consecrated to America’s war dead, one of whom had long been a bead on Ma’s rosaries; baseball behind a wall of steel letters promising that TIME WILL NOT DIM THE GLORY OF THEIR DEEDS.

Cherry loved playing ball, music, girls, and taking things that belonged to other people and he was very good at all of them.

He’d taught himself to play piano by breaking into Protestant churches at night and on Sunday playing the organ at Our Lady of Pompei, where a woman with a baby grand in her living room gave him lessons until her husband complained that there was no milk for his coffee in the morning.

Ma pulled the old Chrysler away from the curb and Cherry punched the radio until something came out of the dashboard that moved.

“When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer . . .”

– o –

Ma never told anyone but Jude what she prayed for, confusing perpetual with perennial, like a Lily of the Nile.

“Don’t get lost,” she said, going inside the shrine, where she would stay for at least an hour.

Cherry grabbed his baseball glove and a screwdriver from the back seat, knowing that a 13-year-old strolling with a baseball glove was not likely to be taken for a car thief, and walked across the street to the Lexington Market.

Cruising the stalls of pork and fresh vegetables, the grilled sausage stand and soft shell crabs on beds of ice, Cherry pocketed five Chincoteague oysters and went back to the shrine and a drone of petitions muffled by wooden doors.

He’d enjoy an appetizer, pop an ignition with the screwdriver, take one of the girls he was seeing for a ride and be back at the shrine by the time Ma was walking out.

Squeezing the leather mitt around the biggest oyster, Cherry worked the shell with the screwdriver. It opened easily and he sucked it down. Same with number two. The third resisted, oyster juice making it hard to hold the shell in the mitt.

Gripping the mollusk in his bare hand, Cherry used the strength in his shoulders to force the screwdriver into the shell, where the wide, flat head of the tool slipped and ran clear through his palm.

Blood everywhere and nothing ever the same again.

His taste for oysters and knack for popping locks. Catching a fastball and the things Ma prayed for. Which hand he slipped beneath a woman’s dress.

And the way he played piano, from this moment on unlike anyone who’d played it before.

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