The next day, Sunday, I felt I should at least call Selena, see how she and the kids were doing. No answer. I tried again before dinner. Nothing. After dinner, I told Rachel I should drive over there and at least check in.
I wasn’t sure how I’d be met. I could only imagine the things Lulo had likely told her. But when I pulled up, she and her brother Reginald were in a panic and seemed relieved to see me. I fumbled some awkward admission that things had been terrible lately between me and her husband, but the look in her eyes told me she had no idea what I was talking about. Lulo had told her nothing about the last two weeks.
“I mean, he said there was some hard stuff going on at work last week but didn’t want to talk about it. You heard about Espie, right?”
“What?” I said.
Apparently, Lulo’s mother, Esperanza, had been calling him the last two days from Guerrero, Mexico, saying <quote-01>the cartels were after her<quote-01>. Selena’s grandparents had been helping her flee to their home in Matamoros—just over the border from where the rest of her family lived in <quote-02>Brownsville, the very bottommost point of the state of Texas<quote-02>.
“I begged Lulo not to go down there,” Selena told me inside on their couch as diapered Royal and Noni played on the carpet around us. “My family could handle it fine, I told him. I need you here. You go over that border . . . you’ve been acting so strange lately . . . please don’t go, I begged him.” Even so, he spent the rest of their money on flights to Houston with her nephew, who—like Reginald—had also left Brownsville to try life in Skagit County. But back they went on a new mission. “Lulo and my nephew got in this big fight with my uncle, who wouldn’t let them take his big new truck over the border, but Lulo took it anyway, I guess, and that’s the truck the Matamoros police pulled them over in. They say they found guns and bullets or shells or something in the back. And, Chris, now they’re saying they’re going to ship him to the big prison in Reynosa if we don’t get him out in the next 48 hours.”
I looked to Selena’s brother Reginald. He shrugged then nodded. “Reynosa’s bad.”
I asked him to say more.
“Well, that prison, it’s all cartel, right? The cartels run that shit completely. You got a guy like Lulo showing up in there—SUR tattooed all over him, lifetime gang member, speaks English and Spanish, connections up and down the west coast. They’ll probably learn about his contacts in legit society. You think they’re not gonna own him?” Selena stared at the carpet. “We won’t see that dude for a long time is what I’m thinking. I don’t know what to do. I mean, I like <quote-03>Lulo?<quote-03> He and my sister here helped me get where I am now.”
Lulo’s own sister Gloria showed up at the door next and took a seat on the couch. Then a couple from church knocked and came in, folks Lulo had recruited for childcare and community garden help over the last couple years. The house got full. How do we get our guy home?
Lulo’s sister said she’d finally heard back from the defense attorney in Brownsville, who’d opened a line with the defense attorney in Matamoros, where Lulo and Selena’s nephew Miguel were sitting in the small jail with the clock ticking. It all works on bribes down there, Gloria reminded us, and Reginald nodded with big eyes. Yep. So the Matamoros attorney said if she could get $2,500 to the judge’s assistant before the 48 hour hold was up Monday night, they’d let the guys out no problem. Call it bail. “Plus, the attorney would charge an extra thousand, cash, for her special weekend service.”
Selena would need to deliver this money to the attorney in person along with proof of Lulo’s life, ministry work, and support in the US. She’d already started packing a backpack before we all arrived, she told us.
But all their money had gone to Lulo’s airfare a couple days before; Reginald’s payday at the lumber mill wasn’t for another week. Gloria had a few hundred dollars available that night, but—she checked her phone—the cheapest flight leaving in the next few few hours from Sea-Tac to Houston was over six hundred. She could help buy that flight. But where would we get the rest of the money for the judge and lawyer?
I said I would look into what we could do to help.
I sat on the floor, baby Royal in his summer tan and diaper pawing at Selena’s knees, toddler Noni inviting me to ride with her on the springy horse creak-creaking back and forth as she watched the low-volume widescreen just behind me. Lulo’s disastrous failure in our organization aside, he was still my brother, and he was in danger. His family did not deserve to have their dad swallowed into the bowels of the cartel underworld by Monday, no matter the fate of the marriage.
I had what remained of my book’s advance in savings still—my book that did not sell. My book that told stories of friends and homies in the various underworlds of Skagit Valley, Los Angeles, Mexico, and Guatemala. My book that told much of Lulo’s early story, the one he’d entrusted to me, that he’d helped me tell and promote on <quote-04>two coasts<quote-04>. I was furious with this motherfucker, yes. But I kept thinking of one of my favorite books, A River Runs Through It, the haunting lines about the narrator’s sense of being—trying and failing to be—his brother’s keeper. Will I look back in ten years, I thought, or as an old man like Norman Maclean, and regret not doing what I could, not doing the obvious right thing at this moment?
I told the gathering in that living room—adrenaline-focused siblings and loved ones all gripping phones alight with text messages or bank accounts or flight reservations—that I could help secure and wire the money Selena needed in Texas the next morning, the cash bribe to break my brother out of yet another tomb.
As I drove home in the early autumn sunset, I knew I’d be up all night. I rehearsed how I’d share my plan with Rachel, how I’d frame it: there’s a higher designation for these funds, honoring where they came from. Remaining calm was essential.
As I pulled into a gas station, an incoming video call filled my screen with <quote-05>the contact ID photo that had greeted me several times a day for years<quote-05>.
“Ey—ey, Chris. You hear me? I gotta whisper.”
“Where are you?”
“Shhh. Check this out. I’m still in here. We got one of the guards to help me charge my phone in here. Shit’s different in Mexico, fucken look: me and Miggy are still in our street clothes an’ everything. They don’t hold your property up front. They just lock you in these drunk tanks and wait for the bribes at the front desk.”
He turned the screen as he spoke, and I realized that after thirteen years of incarceration chaplaincy, I’d never had a real-time video tour of a cell from an inmate. Miguel waved from the lower bunk, looking both bored and scared. The floor and walls looked crude—crumbling cement and plaster, as you’d expect. My gaze felt voyeuristic, an uncommon, illicit angle. Wuck and I: still shy to get caught staring into cells.
I heard Lulo laugh—a laugh I hadn’t heard since his collect calls from Clallam Bay’s solitary confinement years before: a learned veil over his terror, <quote-06>a way to exhale through anxiety<quote-06> that doesn’t burst into tears but instead sounds casual, disconnected, amused.
“I can’t talk, really. I don’t want them to take this phone, or use up the battery. I just wanted to see if you’d pick up. I dunno. <quote-07>So much shit’s been going on<quote-07>.”
I told him we’d talk about everything when he got home. For now, we had a plan, and Selena would be there tomorrow to pay, sign, and get him out.
“Alright, cool. Hey—thanks.” The digital portal between us closed. I sat there beneath the blaring gas station lights and took a deep breath.
Into rescuer mode I went.
The next seven hours were spent typing a letter in Spanish to the judge on ministry letterhead, photo-scanning Lulo’s legal documents, attaching photos of his family and of him speaking on stage at different conferences, and texting Selena’s family to get someone’s Texas ID photo so that I could use the Western Union app to wire it all to them by the time she touched down.
I forgot, however, that my bank puts an auto-hold on such large sums, and I received an auto-message telling me I’d need to clear the hold during business hours. My local branch wouldn’t open until well after Selena needed the money two time zones away. So I drove to a Western Union courtesy desk, called Texas, and prayed. I needed to throw away all of our savings into the night and was growling in frustration that I somehow couldn’t. Finally, we roused another of Selena’s brothers in Texas to drive to an all-night WalMart so that I could wire him $500 at a time. The old lady in the blue vest helping me didn’t know what I was purchasing with these swipes and signatures.
Neither did I, I guess.
So Lulo got out. At dawn, I woke to a flurry of photos: hugs in a hazy Mexican parking lot, bleary eyes, thank yous.
Late that afternoon—still Monday—the board sent an email to confirm a conference call during which we’d finalize the termination. I didn’t tell them all that had happened, only that he was in Mexico over the weekend, something with his family, and that he’d said nothing about wanting the job or the offer they’d extended. I wanted to call Lulo to ask for an answer, one last time. But a new part of me was tired of living someone’s life for them. He knew the offer. Friday had already passed. He knew how to ask and hustle for the things he really wanted. How many more ways can a man give his answer?
Tuesday they met. Another e-mail: termination with three months’ salary as severance to support his family while he looked for his next job—plus a certain amount to help his family, his marriage, or for counseling or some kind of repair should he want it.
Lulo, via email, replied to the board hours later, asking if he could meet up with them—without me—to talk over his ideas for where the organization could go. Instead they dropped off his termination letter. The chair said Lulo was polite, said, Cool, and left it at a handshake.
But my phone blew up.
<quote-09>Lulo was screaming at me<quote-09>.
I haven’t shared much of what I’ve written in these last pages—not with anyone—but especially not what happened next.
He told me he knew how to be rejected, tossed aside. He could handle this shit all day long. But to have his pastor throw his family, his wife and kids, out on the street? He never knew I could be so fucking soulless and grimy. That was the real shocker, he said.
I tried to slow him down, remind him of the board’s proposal. He argued with me about what it said. I asked him to read the damn words, did he have it there in front of him?
“I threw that shit in the trash can as soon as I left that lame-ass church.” I asked if he meant literally in the trash. Yes, he literally threw the board’s offer and his job in the trash can.
I told him that if he would have read it, it might have been helpful to correct the shit he was saying now. <quote-10>But he was too far gone at this point<quote-10>.
“Wait till all the homies hear about this,” he said. Did he mean those in prison, I asked, or on the streets in our community? “Everyone,” he said with menace. “You’re done, bro. You’ll be lucky if you have anyone that fucks with you after this.”
He told me he just needed a little time to start his own thing, a different nonprofit. I’d taught him how to do precisely this over the last year, after all. Then he’d make sure that no homie in Washington State would ever talk with me again, he said. And I’d be lucky if he told them to just leave me alone and not something more.
I shouted over him to stop. I told him this was absurd. He sounded like a gang member again, threatening me, as if we were going to war.
“Oh, believe me,” he said—I can hear it still—“we are. That’s a promise. I don’t think you realize who you’re fucking with.” And the line cut off. He hung up.
Lulo didn’t get as high as he did in the gang tiers by being all talk.
An hour later, my phone started to buzz: <quote-11>long green text bubbles<quote-11> full of angry threats from guys whom Lulo and I had been working with closely—driving them to courts, helping them get jobs, treating them to lunch by the water on their first day home. “i know all you white ass pastor people judge the fukc outa people who aren’t perfect like us but i thought u were different Cris how could u do the homie so dirty like that putting his family on the streets??? I cant believe i trusted u dam take my face off yr website and my name out yr phone please respect that if you have any heart left in u . . .”
Those came in every fifteen minutes for a few days, and <quote-12>my heart didn’t stop racing for the next six months<quote-12>.
But maybe the worst was from Esther herself. I was in the middle of a Walmart helping a guy fresh out of prison get some hygiene and bedsheets, just about on our way to the halfway house we’d set up for him, when I got her text message. I felt it in my body: animal fear, like deer when they look at your high beams and their legs don’t move.
She threatened to sue me, said she was already talking with two lawyers; she trusted I’d keep what she told me in confidence, not tell the whole valley. Now people all over her hometown were calling her a whore on social media and blaming her for ruining a solid homie’s life, threatening her family. How could I take what she told me to this level? <quote-13>What kind of a fucking monster was I?<quote-13>
Lulo knew how to create wars in prison without laying a finger on anyone, without leaving a trace for internal Intelligence and Investigations (I&I) to pin on him. He’d told all the right people in the valley what they’d need to hear to feel they had to defend their poor friend and take this scandalous woman to task. She was terrified. When she cussed Lulo out, I can only imagine, he must have said he hadn’t said a word. Why would he rat on himself? It must have been Chris telling everyone.
I got handwritten letters from the jail, JPay email from three different prisons, message after message telling me I needed to learn the meaning of forgiveness. They told me never to write them again, they were with Lulo till the end, and I could go to hell.
This all came to a head, I remember, while Rachel was taking Abram trick-or-treating around her parents’ house in Spokane. I was spinning, unable to stroll the boulevards blanketed with crunchy golden maple leaves or carouse alongside children in superhero masks and mummy costumes. Rachel had stormed out, holding Abram’s hand in his little construction worker costume complete with bright yellow hard hat. She’d had enough of me being so consumed, so lost, so unable to see beyond the screen in my palm, reeling at each new email that came in from prison.
<quote-14>“Fuck them, then, Chris!” she had yelled, something she’d never said before. “I hate them, all of them. Why can’t you?”<quote-14>
It was no use. <quote-15>I bit all my fingernails off<quote-15>. I would try to read to Abram in his toddler bed each night, but I’d lose myself, Rachel finding me sitting on his bed alone, Abram clinging to her shirt: “I thought you were reading to him.” I was consumed; I couldn’t see who was right in front of me for hours at a time.
The war Lulo threatened was indeed underway. And I was surrounded, out-strategized by someone with a lifetime of experience in such relational chaos. I watched as the delicate gardening of these many mens’ hearts—the years of trust-building and letters and prayers and kindnesses and visits to dying aunts in hospitals—all my steady relational work as a pastor was coming undone, destroyed. Swayed utterly by Lulo, too many people I’d loved took everything I’d given them, broke it, and threw it at me in final disgust: “I don’t want anything to do with you or your god. Maybe you should practice what you preach and learn a little forgiveness and compassion you fucking hypocrite.” Too many of these to count.
My life became that zombie movie where your loved ones aren’t just suddenly taken from you but transmogrified into something hostile, coming for you, all around.
<quote-16>You both must be exhausted reading this<quote-16>.
But there’s just one more episode. I might as well finish.
That December, I found myself on a walk along the Skagit River. I was considering moving to Spokane, applying for a PhD program somewhere—<quote-17>something<quote-17>. And yet I couldn’t shut the door on Lulo. I felt there had to be some breaking point where his pride and rage run out of gas, where reconciliation begins. Where love wins in the end.
Just as I was about to head home, I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. I ignored it. Then a text popped up from the same number: “Chris its me Lulo plz pick up Corita is in the hospital I need your help call me.”
Corita, as you both likely recall, is the little girl who drove around the state with me for three years, singing from the back seat, teaching me how to one day be a dad. She had redefined Thanksgiving for me.
“Maybe this is the turn,” I thought.
Lulo was pacing outside the hospital when I arrived. Selena was there with him. She saw me and avoided eye contact. Lulo moved to hug me, stiff, apologetic, awkward. Corita had run away, he explained, with all the shit going on. They were so scared. Selena had been on social media the last few hours putting alerts out, and someone told her they’d seen Corita in the emergency room intake. Now Corita’s mother’s family was in the waiting room, accusing Lulo of hurting her. “They’re smart,” Lulo explained. “They’ve been trying to get custody of Corita back since they lost her in the courts to me. And whenever Corita doesn’t get what she wants at home—she’s a teenager now, bro—she runs to them. And they know they can flip the courts if they say I hurt her. And you gotta get a hospital visit documentation to make a claim like that.” Made sad, familiar sense. “I’m so scared, bro. I’ve lost so much already. Not Corita.”
He said the cops in the emergency room took his phone number and that they’d be coming outside to ask him some questions soon. He asked me to just stay by his side.
I said nothing. I had no warm feelings—only a calcified love in my bones, in my feet that stood there and did not walk away.
The police officer came out and said it’d be best to head on home, that they had his ID and address, and they’d instead come by in a few hours for questioning.
“What are you doing right now?” Lulo asked me. I’d forgotten what his face looked like over the two months of digital warfare: the tattoos on his cheeks now faded, a dark tan, black hair gelled back, the pleading eyes contrasting a strong jaw and goatee. This was the face I saw weep through prison visit glass and in my kitchen late night. The face that nodded and smiled to me across banquet rooms and lecture halls, that smiled to greet me at our office most mornings and betrayed mortal terror from the seat beside me as our airplane lifted into the air. It was the face of my <quote-18>brother<quote-18>, I’d thought not so long ago. “Can you just, I dunno, come back to my house, just walk with me around the block like we used to?”
We started this tradition in that field outside the Nooksack cabin, in the days after his release. He said in prison if you wanted to talk with someone you walked around the track together. His first days out of the institution, he wasn’t quite ready to hike up into the hills and forest, nor along the river, so he suggested <quote-19>we just “spin a few laps” out in the field every day<quote-19>. It was our thing.
“I haven’t been this scared in a long time.”
We walked the blocks around his little neighborhood. Christmas lights were already up, the first week of Advent. I buttoned my thin coat up to my chin. I was cautious. I didn’t say much as he gushed, rambled, processed, wondered where we went wrong. You hold still, don’t speak, when the timid creature of repentance might be coming out of its den to look around. If it wants to come out, you let it come to you.
Maybe two hours later he said he felt better. The cops never came. He needed some sleep. He loved me. He said let’s put this shit to rest, show the homies a better way to deal with conflict. We hugged. I drove home.
Did that creature come out? I wasn’t sure. I turned up Christmas carols on the only station that plays them anymore: the annoying Faith Radio from the Dutch hinterlands up near the Canadian Border an hour north.
September 4th Pt2
September 4th Pt2
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