Winter Holidays - Story 4 - Jesus loves Jorge Hernandez by Melissa Watkins Starr

It was seventy-two degrees at 2:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2012, in Cocoa Beach, Florida, when a surfer found a dead man on the dunes near Lori Wilson Park and called the police. My news editor, Wallace Norton, picked it up on our police scanner and called me into his office. “Some guy just died on the beach,” he said. “No sign of foul play, maybe an overdose. Go see if there’s a story in it.”

Because our office was near the scene, I arrived before the ambulance and took the park trail by the bathhouse out to the dunes, where a small group had gathered, including Grady Flynn, a red-faced, gray-haired cop, a middle-aged surfer in a partial wetsuit, and Flynn’s patrol partner, Robert Johnson, who was younger, but looked enough like Flynn to be his son.

I glanced at the body. The old man wore blue flip-flops, dirty jeans with torn-out knees, a long-sleeved gray t-shirt, and a red Santa’s cap. He had a full white beard, a real one. I studied his face, which seemed familiar, and blurted out, “This looks like Jorge Hernandez, someone I knew in Texas years ago.”

Flynn chuckled and said, “That would be some coincidence.”

“There’s no ID on him,” offered Johnson.

“Check his right arm,” I said. “The Jorge Hernandez I knew had a tattoo of a smiling Jesus on the inside of his right forearm.”

Flynn snorted and said, “Knock yourself out. I’m not touching him again. I’ll let the medical examiner deal with that.”

When I didn’t move to push up the sleeve, Johnson grinned at me and said, “I thought you were an investigative reporter, Rick.”

Ignoring him, I turned to the surfer and asked if the waves had been good, and he said they had. “Could I get your name, please?” I asked.

“I’d rather not get into all that,” he said, looking down and tugging at the belly of his wetsuit with sun-browned hands. “I know you can get it from the police reports if you want to, but I’d appreciate it if you left my name out of the news.” He glanced up at Flynn and asked if it was okay for him to go, and Flynn nodded.

When he was out of hearing range, Flynn said, “We called the director of the Mercy House over on Atlantic Avenue, and he said he knew a guy with a white beard named Jorge who sometimes dropped by to help serve meals in their soup kitchen. He thought maybe he’d stayed there a couple of times last winter.”

Suddenly, I felt certain this was the same Jorge Hernandez I’d known. In my mind, I was back in San Antonio in 1997.

***

I remembered Jorge for what he’d always said while limping about River Walk Street that year, a double question: “Qué mas? Qué mas?” What more? What more? Jorge apparently had suffered a lot in his lifetime. I remember he was already starting to get old then. He’d had a talent for woodcarving and liked to make little figures for his own amusement. He wasn’t retarded, but he was slow, and sometimes people made fun of him. For my part, I tried to be nice to him. I heard that Jorge had grown up in an orphanage, but, at that time, he stayed with Father Méndez, an elderly priest, and did chores to help earn his keep. Jorge tried to get everyone he knew to use his real Spanish name, but it was hopeless. A group of men that frequented the local bars dubbed him “Pedro”. I once heard him tell them, “My name is pronounced ‘hor-hay’.”

Then one of them roared, “Whore hay! What’s that, fodder for harlots?” All of them laughed. From then on, Jorge simply answered to “Pedro” as well as to his name.

Back then, I was fourteen years old and had my first part-time job in my stepfather’s convenience store, where Jorge often came to buy milk or bread. Sometimes, I’d see Jorge go up to total strangers near the sidewalk cafes on River Walk Street and tell them he was from Devil’s Knee. If people responded with something like, “That sounds like a worthless place,” he would look at the ground and limp away, muttering, “Qué mas? Qué mas?” But if someone looked at him and said something like, “That sounds like the sort of place where the wind whispers and moans in the cottonwood trees,” he would nod and speak of the ghosts of outlaws and Indians. And if that person asked him his name, he would say, “Jorge Hernandez,” stick out his right hand, smile, and continue his yarns, pacing the stories just right, until the stranger offered to buy him a sandwich or a soda.

On Christmas Eve in 1997, I heard that Father Méndez was gravely ill with pneumonia and wasn’t expected to live. There was talk of what would become of Jorge if the priest died, but no one had an answer. That afternoon, I found Jorge sitting with his back to an oil drum and crying in the lot behind my stepfather’s store. “What’s wrong, Jorge?” I asked.

“Nothing, Rick, all is good,” he said, wiping his face with his hand. “Jesus has promised me He will heal Father Méndez.” Then a fresh flow of tears came, and he said, “Jesus will do this for me.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

He patted the middle of his chest and said, “I know it in here.” I sat down beside him for a few minutes, and then he declared, “Since Jesus will do this for Jorge, Jorge will do something for Jesus every day.” Then he got up with a smile and walked home. He didn’t appear to be limping as badly that afternoon, and that was the first time I got a close look at his Jesus tattoo.

The week after Christmas, I heard that Father Méndez had recovered, and the next time I saw Jorge, he appeared happier and his double question had changed. From then on, I often heard him asking, “Qué siguiente? Qué siguiente?” What next? What next? He started looking for ways to help people, and he would run errands and do chores for elderly people, refusing any pay. Sometimes he’d carve rabbits, dogs, or cats from wood and place them in the hands of indigent children, making them smile. Once, he even stocked shelves for me so I could go take a girl to our homecoming football game. Jorge’s kind deeds continued until I left for college and lost track of him.

***

Johnson nudged me when the ambulance workers arrived to take the body to the morgue, and I looked up from my reverie to see them heading toward us through the sand. They covered the old man and took him away on a stretcher. We lingered for a few minutes, and Flynn had just asked me if I was going to write a story about the man’s death when a little barefooted boy ran down to the beach and asked, “Where’s Santa Claus? Have you seen him?” He appeared to be around seven years old, and his clothes were ragged and at least one size too big for him.

“Sorry, son. Santa Claus isn’t here,” Johnson said.

“But he was here this morning! He said he’d carve a piece of driftwood so I could give it to my mother for Christmas.” The boy looked around at the sand, as if expecting his driftwood carving to appear magically. I scanned the dunes as well but saw nothing but white sand and sea oats. The boy’s eyes filled with tears, and I looked over at Flynn, who motioned to the boy and said, “Come here.”

The boy padded over to him, and Flynn asked, “What’s your name, son?”

“Billy.”

Flynn took out his wallet, gave the child ten dollars, and said, “Take this, and buy something for your mother.” The boy brightened and thanked him, and we watched the child sprint back toward the park trail. Then Flynn said, “Let’s go,” and he picked up his first responder kit.

The driftwood was lying there in the sand. I picked it up, turned it over, and found a remarkable likeness of little Billy’s face carved into it. I showed it to Flynn, took off running, and caught sight of the boy when I reached the bathhouse.

“We found it, Billy!” I shouted. I placed the carving in his hands, and Billy looked at it in wonder and murmured, “Santa did this for me.”

I remembered what Jorge had said.

Before going back to the news office, I stopped by the county morgue and asked if the medical examiner, Calvin Hobson, was in. He was, but he was getting ready to leave.

I told him what had happened on the beach and asked, “Could we just check the man’s arm to see if he has that tattoo? It would mean a lot to me, and, if it’s him, it would make a nice Christmas story.” Calvin rested his hands on his paunch and raised an eyebrow, so I added, “And I’ll owe you one.”

“One what?” he asked.

“One thank you,” I said. By this time, Calvin was smiling, so I knew he was going to say yes.

He took me back to the room where the old man’s body lay on a metal slab and pushed up the sleeve on the right arm. The tattoo of the smiling Jesus was there, along with a more recent addition. Inscribed below it was Jesus loves Jorge Hernandez.

---

A former news reporter, Melissa Watkins Starr holds an M. A. in English from Old Dominion University. She has published short stories and poetry in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. Writing as Harper Courtland, her first novel, Indiscretions Along Virtue Avenue, is set for release by Five Star Publishing in December 2019.

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