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A Nun On The Pill

A discalced nun on the pill lent me a car for the summer. I was home in sunny San Diego from the seminary with a life of celibacy and priesthood to discern and berth. Instead of a beach resort vacation getting sand in my toes, which I couldn’t afford or even the airfare from frigid South

Bend, I got a seasonal minimum-wage job with no way of getting there.

“You need a car for work,” Sister Katherine said in coif, habit, and sandals made of recycled tires she kicked aside as if barefoot and pregnant with baby Jesus, the son of God, in the convent kitchen. Rictus and strict, the prioress who doubled as math teacher pursed pale lips. Back in grade school she never tired of me or took a wood ruler with a sharp metal edge to my knuckles like she did some unruly. And, for an older woman with no mascara or smile, she still dazzled the eye. So, needing wheels, I hid my knuckles anyway and didn’t argue.

But quick as an apparition, Sister Katherine is gone – God has taken her, dead from cancer in the cervix where a fetus grows when a woman is pregnant. Ironic for a celibate nun. Especially on the pill. And also, I don’t need the car anymore. I quit selling paper-back novels, travel books, and coffee at the cafe on the waterfront – not that the job was a significant or wild missionary gig in New Guinea where the converts eat the Body of Christ and fried weevil larva. To start with, I didn’t even go back to the seminary.

And now, Mom mimics a biblical decree, papal bull, or Sister Katherine wielding a ruler. “The car!” she bullies over the phone. “Sell it!” Her voice pierces my pickled liver, billows bile up my esophagus. I drown it with cold beer. “That lemon in front of the house. What an eyesore. It’s all I see out the bay window instead of the new brick driveway. I wish you’d make it vanish! You’d think Coach Earl from Little League gave you that piece of cagada.”

Coach Earl from Little League, among things, was the church mechanic, volunteer, and gift giver. So it’s possible. And Cagada is Mom’s soft, idiomatic way of saying poop or caca in Spanish to a child instead of the vulgar hard shit or mierda to an adult. She’s always maintained a dignity of language – why she and Sister Katherine were friends. Another reason, Mom noviced in Guadalajara but left the convent, emigrated to California after World War II, married, and had kids. It’s something she and Sister discussed over single malt scotch time and again at Mom’s kitchen table.

Mom says on the phone, “You remember Coach Earl? Always driving a fixer-upper to games and Mass? Whatever happened to him? He really loved you.”

Too much, I think, and almost bleed and vomit at the sodomizing thought. I say, “Don’t know what happened after the last time he fixed the school bus or Sister Katherine’s car.” And I don’t want to know, I think. Heaven help I don’t run into him again. Don’t know what I’d do.

The car, a brown Chevy Nova, couches with torn cushion seats in front of Ma’s Spanish-tile lace-and-skip stucco house. It’s a four-door sedan with peeling paint and bald tires not suitable for a nun’s sandals. Moreover, one rubber roller has a bubble about to burst. The fabric is shredding from the steel cord like a fat butt in corduroys, limping gammy-legged as a lame mule. Trunk rust has spread to the dented bumper. The car’s been curbed under the alder tree since Hanna and I eloped.

“Ma, can’t you sell it?” I say, nearly bang the phone against my skull. But my head already clusters with aches. “You sell it and keep the money.”

“No, you do it.”

“Can’t you just give it back to the church or the convent?”

“The convent closed, and the sisters moved to LA.”

“What about the church? It didn’t move too, did it?”

“They don’t want it.”

“What do you mean they don’t want a dead nun’s car? Is it haunted?”

“Come take care of it. Besides, I sold your last car.”

“But I’d have to fly down.”

“Then fly down, you and Hanna. Besides, it’s Christmas. You must come for that. Everyone wants to see you,” she says. “Your sister and the baby. My god, you should see the baby, so cute, she never cries. And Fred–”

“Fred?” I interrupt, “he never cries either?”

She laughs. “No, he’s a big boy, he doesn’t cry.”

Fred is Mom’s new husband. Both widowed, they married four months ago, when Hanna and I ran off to San Francisco. Fred’s full name is Federico Ernesto Salazar Garcia. Like Mom, he has two surnames or apellidos, honoring both families in Latin fashion. At least eight names between them, including first and middle. Good thing he’s an accountant to keep track. He’s also a kind, accountable soul with a strong Salvadoran accent. But I can’t understand what he lectors at Mass. God bless him, but who’s Cheesus and why was the crowd on the bitch?

Sister Katherine set them up after my teenage sister, Rachel, got pregnant. Katherine thought it might be a divine match and distraction. Maybe they’d kindle a spark, maybe Fred might woo and soothe Mom with pomp and circumstance. A bit of wine and dine, opera and ballet, picnics in the park. And he did, phoning at bedtime. Dulce suenos, or sweet dreams. He earned her trust. And love.

But I kind of sparked outrage suggesting it was too bad Rachel wasn’t on the pill.

First, Rachel gasped, “What? That’s against Roman Catholic teaching.”

“So is premarital sex,” Mom roared. So much for soothe and distraction. “But that didn’t stop you, you Jezabel!”

I had a biblical lapse. Who’s Jezabel? I thought and later looked in Mom’s encyclopedias – Old Testament whore! Of course. Yikes.

But that’s when Sister Katherine, in a rare stroke of levity, said she’d been on the pill for decades. I was thinking a decade of rosary beads but then got it.

“What!?” we said. “You’re celibate.”

“Of course, don’t be silly,” she echoed from grade-school algebra where we mistook pi for apple. “I took it for cramps,” she said at mom’s kitchen table holding scotch with ice and aplomb akin to a holy grail.

“Cramps?” I asked.

“Her period,” Rachel said. “To lessen the pain and duration.”

I wished I had the pill for the sores Earl gave me; I bled for a period of years plus a decade of the rosary. I said, “A woman’s period isn’t like baby Jesus passing through the Virgin like light through a window?”

“No,” all three said.

Then both sisters – mine and the church’s – touched their bellies.

“Excuse me,” Katherine said. “I have to use the restroom.” She struggled to stand, suddenly cupping her backside.

“Let me help,” I said.

“I can manage. You just answer God’s call and become a priest,” she said, wincing. “Matter of fact, the car is yours. It was donated to us, so I’m just passing it along. Take it to the seminary.”

That’s when I wondered if Earl had given it to the convent.

Sister couldn’t run fast enough before the runs spotted the linoleum floor.

+ + +

“About Hanna,” Mom says over the phone, “you guys worked at the bookstore? Fred wants to meet her. He loves your black-and-white elopement picture, says she’s a tall drink of water.”

I say, “Put a blond wig on a bottle of beer and let him look at that!”

“What?” she says. “So when are you coming?”

A pain screws in my chest. “Don’t know. Have to check with Hanna.”

“I need to know. We’re all going whale watching and I need to get tickets.”

I recall a whale-watching excursion in grade school on a gloomy day. The ocean was choppy as a biblical storm. Sister Katherine, paler than usual, clutched her bloated abdomen instead of rosary beads or an abacus, vomiting with half the class over the fishing deck. Bottle-nosed dolphins flashed and darted ahead of the boat. Gray whales surfaced off the port bow, breaching and fluking. I scoped through sea-sprayed binoculars for barnacles and scattered berserk hairs about the sleek heads Sister said to look for. Just wished she’d said to look out for Earl and his nasty stubble flashing me. But how could she? How could anyone? He parked the yellow bus and its flashing lights motorists knew to look out for at the dock, ready to drive us back to school. I was last off the boat, not wanting the trip to end. Mostly I didn’t want to see his ugly pocked face behind the atlas-size steering wheel.

I tell Mom, “Don’t think we’ll be there that long.”

“You gonna sell the car that fast? Maybe you could drive it back to San Francisco.”

“Parking’s a headache in the city.”

“Well, it’s giving me a headache.”

“So, what do you want me to do?”

“Come for Christmas, sell the car, and go whale watching.”

None have meaning. I cave, say, “Fine. Get me a ticket.”

“What about Hanna?”

“Don’t bother, she’s got work the following Monday.”


“That’s business. She’s not just a pretty face, she’s learning portfolio management at an investment firm.”

“What do you know about investing?”


“At least she’s got a firm job.”

I have to pee, say, “I’ll call with the flight info.”

“Okay, I love you. Do you need money for the plane tickets?”

“As you say, God will provide.”

“Good. And stop drinking.”

I hang up, grab a cold beer from the fridge, and head to the bathroom. Gentle singing floats over the creaking wood floor under my steps. Que Sera Sera, as if Doris Day charming in 1950 on the radio. I knock softly.

The cadence changes, baritones big tenor from behind the door. “I take it we’re going?”

“You got it, Slim.” I go in, sit on the toilet, pee. The shower curtain opens like the greatest peep show ever. I hand the beer to her bathing in a 1920’s midnight-blue, claw-foot tub like a siren gypsy or leggy naiad. The stippled walls mural a forest scape of pine trees and white doves. A pastel river leads to the faucet. She spent a weekend painting it, one of her many talents. She sits up and perky breasts emerge from a meringue of soap bubbles, sloping to a long, lean torso. She tilts back the can and her blond marcelled hair wet spaghettis to her skin – pale as a heavenly apparition, pale as the naked women I saw at the beach way back with Earl.

I must look vacant or haunted; Hanna says, “What is it?”


“Don’t let her keep you.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Just a feeling.”

“Like the feeling you knew I’d come to San Francisco with you?”

She finishes the beer. “More like I stole you and she wants you back.”

“You did, but she has a man now. And before that, my brother Jake.”

“But you’re her baby.”


“You sound like Jake, from what I’ve heard.”

“No, he’d say, fuck that.”

“Okay. Anyway, mothers hold on.”

“So do babies. But not this one.”

“You want a baby, a child?” She smiles playfully.

“Not what I said.”

“Hop in,” she says, extending an alluring hand. Warm water drips on my toes. I stand, zip up, turn away.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m gonna take a pill, then get drunk.”

“You’re on the pill? Me too!”


“B-o-o-o-o-o,” she says. “Then bring another beer so I can take the pill!”

+ + +

Rachel, baby, and Mom greet us inside the airport terminal. Mom is tall but hunchbacks with scoliosis and anticipation. Wrinkles dribble behind orange-rimmed trifocals. The temples are attached low on the frames as if upside down.

Before I can introduce them, she and Slim magnet, say hello, nice-to-meet you, almost-hug. Rachel mullets a haircut, eye sockets sunken as moon craters. She’s arm-rocking the baby with an embracing smile.

Hanna fawns over the giggling bundle of slobber, gushes, “Oh, my goodness,” like she wants one. Then she smiles, says to Rachel, “Oh, hi. I’m Hanna.”

“I figured,” Rachel says, laughs, proffering the baby. “Here, she’s yours.”

“No,” I say. “Absolutely not.”

We go for luggage. The tin carousel spins but doesn’t dispense. Hanna walks over to investigate – her leggy model-like gait in cream-colored stretch pants alone is worth a look.

“How are you?” Rachel asks, looking for dirt rivaling Phil’s rubber tearing – how she got pregnant.

I can’t tell her Earl tore me without a prophylactic, so I say, “Peachy.”

“Hanna’s got such wavy hair,” Rachel says. “She’s gorgeous as one of Dick Semen’s perfect models.”

“R-i-g-h-t? Haven’t heard that name in years. Still can’t believe mom dated the president of a modeling firm. Mom, what were you thinking?”

“I was a widow with five kids, and he was rich and handsome. Why wouldn’t I?”

I ask, “Fred know?”

“Of course.”

Rachel says, “Anyway, thank God you didn’t marry Dick.”

I say, “Wouldn’t have gotten into the seminary with that first or last name.” I non sequitur, say, “Wanna buy my car?”

“You mean Sister Katherine’s?” Rachel says.


“I’m trying not to cuss, but that piece of poop? Hell no.”

“See?” Mom says.

“Speaking of,” Rachel says, hand on steamy diaper.

I ask, “What’d we call that?”

“Skubala,” she says smiling. “The only cuss word in the bible.”

“Blast from the past. Hadn’t heard that in years either,” I say.

“You haven’t heard plenty,” Mom says.

“Like what?”

“You’ll see,” she says, like a present under the tree.

“Where’d we learn skubala?” Rachel says. “Sister Katherine?”

“Na,” I say, still leery of Mom’s you’ll see… “It was my Big Brother, Lebanese Father George, during a soccer game, cussing at the Mexican ref in Greek – the original written language of the New Testament.”

“You mean it wasn’t Latin?” Mom says.

“Nope. Anyway, Father George took off his Roman collar, shoved it in his beast pocket, then plugged his nose, referring to Paul’s letter to the Philippians about life before finding Christ.”

“Life was cagada back then?” Mom asks.

“Also a crappy call by the ref, I take it,” Rachel says.

“It was. An unwarranted penalty kick in fact. But, no it wasn’t Sister Katherine who taught us that. She was just on the pill,” I joke.

“And went skubala on the kitchen floor,” Rachel piles on. “God rest her soul.”

Hanna returns with our baggage, her flat soles coming to a rest. “What’s skubala?” she says.

+ + +

In the lot, dim lamp posts flicker as dusk turns to dark. We can’t find mom’s car, a four-door Buick sedan. Thick wind, warm for winter, whips wrappers around my ankles like little ghosts. My stomach suddenly goes sour.

“There it is,” Rachel says.

Inside, a small pewter figurine of Saint Christopher hangs from the rear-view mirror. When Mom turns the key, the dash neons red gauges like a stained-glass cockpit.

“Oh, God,” I say, “What did that baby eat? Roll down the fucking windows.”

“Language!” Rachel choruses back. “I’m trying not to cuss.”

“Understood,” I say, plug my nose, then ask, “Mom, should you be driving at night?”

“Saint Christopher will protect us,” she says.

“Not from skubala,” I say.

“Quiet, you,” Hanna says. “Who’s Saint Christopher?” she asks from the back seat. The baby’s got a handful of her spaghetti hair.

“Patron saint of travelers,” I say, “martyred in the third century and became the protector of Catholics in cars.”

“Except from hungry babies,” says Rachel.

“You do remember Saint Christopher,” Mom says.

“Oh, yes,” I say. “Still got the medal Sister Katherine gave me in my wallet.”

Mom says, “Si en san Cristobel confias, de accidente no moriras.”

“What’s that mean?” Hanna says, freeing herself from the baby’s grip. “How much history, Bible, and theology do I need to know?”

“That’s right,” Mom says. “You’re converting to Catholicism.

“Yes,” Hanna says.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “It’s not a test. You don’t need to know much. Besides, The Pope removed St Christopher’s feast day from the calendar of saints.”

“Why?” Hanna asks.

“Motu proprio,” I say. “Cuz he said so,” I say. “Saint Christopher lives between attested history and verbal legend. He was a Roman soldier who refused to kill Christians and died defending them. Outside that, no one knows if he lived a holy enough life to be a saint.”

Hanna says, “So how does he go from that to protector of Catholics when there were no cars in the third century?” The baby dives at her hair again. “Did he perform a miracle?”

“You need two miracles,” Rachel says.

“I can’t remember either,” I confess. “Slim, you’re not getting attached to the child, are you?”

“Testy…No, you can stop worrying.”

“R-i-g-h-t,” Rachel chimes.

Mom continues. “Well, Saint Christopher is still a saint; he died defending the church, and his devotion can’t hurt. We just don’t honor him on a particular day anymore.”

I admit, “That’s what sister Katherine said.”

“R-i-g-h-t,” Mom says.

“Are all the windows down?”

+ + +

At home, a knee-high white cross illuminates the asphalt shingles on the roof. Christmas lights flicker red, green and blue from the eaves. Below, alder leaves mulch the shaggy lawn which needs mowing, and the Nova reposes under a new tarp at the curb as if entombed by a Chernobyl sarcophagus.

There’s a something duct taped about the windshield. I panic it’s a parking ticket, docked fifty bucks I can’t afford. But it’s just a note: “Is this car for sale?”

“M-o-m?” I ask.

“Well, I’ll be a son-of-a-gun,” she says. “Somebody wants to buy that cagada.”

“How long’s the note been there?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Maybe today.”

“R-i-g-h-t,” I say. “The note is dated a week ago with a phone number. Why didn’t you just call the person?”

“I didn’t see any note two weeks ago.”

Inside, I grab the phone.

“You can’t call on Christmas eve,” Mom says.

I ignore her.

“Wait a couple of days,” she says.

I look at Hanna, she shrugs.

“Get settled,” Mom says.

I look at Hanna again. She nods in an obligatory fashion. I oblige, hang up.

We settle in the room I shared with Jake growing up. I remember nights praying the Magnificat while he masturbated under covers. There’s new bedding, army-green carpet, and white louvers. On the oak dresser, the alabaster Pieta’s been dusted but filial Mary still mourns and contemplates Jesus dead in her loving arms. The room has a chill so I lovingly wrap my arms around Hanna, grab the hot magnificent behind but am caught red-handed.

“Is it as you left it?” Fred pokes his bald head in, cartoonishly large, and the rest follows – white polo and plaid pants with a stretch waistband. He smells of a cigar, apricot aftershave, and well off even though he moved in with Mom.

“Si, señor,” I say disengaging my hand.

Hanna’s annoyed with me. Her look changes, though, when Fred shakes her hand with both of his, making a soft handy hello sandwich.

“I’m eh-pleased to meet you,” he says, smiling.

“Federico is it?”

“Si, pero, call me Fred,” he says in TV Ricky Ricardo Spanglish.

“Fred,” she says. “You’re very kind.”

He whispers, “The tub in the bathroom is ready when you want to have eh bath in private.”

+ + +

At 10 o’clock, Mom herds us like cats for midnight Mass, which starts at 11.

“I’m gonna pass,” I say, remembering the first time I wanted to say that. “I don’t feel well.”

“What?” she says, head covered by a black-lace mantilla. “You have to go.” She flashes a lectionary with the brio of a bible-wielding missionary rivaling Sister Katherine’s ruler.

“I’m going back to sleep.”

“People are expecting you.”

“Hanna can meet them. You joining the act, Slim?”

“Your mom had an extra scarf.”

“Mantilla,” Mom says.

“Mantilla,” Hanna repeats.

“Wow, Slim, it suits you. Look out Monaco.”

“Monaco?” Mom asks.

“Jimmy thinks I look like the actress Grace Kelly.”

“For once, he’s right.” Mom looks at me. “But you are no prince.”

“Counting beads, Slim?” I say as a distraction.

“Your mother had an extra one of those, too,” she says, and I wonder where I last saw mine.

“Don’t run off to the convent. Mom’s been there once before. Hanna, you’d have to give up your shoes.”

“I like tire sandals.”

“Fregado,” Mom says, an archaic Mexican idiom. But it sounds Italian mob for forget-about-it. She means I’m hopeless and obdurate.

While they’re gone, I down beers, sip Scotch like Sister Katherine. Two fingers, one ice cube.

+ + +

In the morning, hungover, I dress and stumble to the warm kitchen, smelling turkey in the oven already. I brighten myself up. “Merry Christmas,” I cheer. “Something smells good already.”

“Merry Christmas,” choruses back, except for Fred, who’s slaving at the stove.

A viola plays on the veneered antique radio. The peppy recording crackles through the woven grill cloth akin to a confessional screen. Fred hums along, simmering chorizo in a cast iron skillet, the #12 etched into the handle like a station of the cross and the number of times Earl exposed himself. Fred’s arms go akimbo. With nimble hips, he dances Latin Mambo-style to the groovy Baroque gamba. Then he adds beaten eggs to the pan and stirs figure eights with a fork, the pork fat swirling yellow curds a reddish clay. Rosemary papas fry in a #11 enameled pan, corn tortillas warm on a #10 comal. Nine side dishes wait in turn.

Fred sidesteps, turns, says, “Ju no,” sounding affectionate calling me a Jew who knows. “In Spanish, no va means no go.”

A colloquial I get.

“So,” he says, “good eh-luck selling the Nova car that doesn’t go.”

“Órale!” Mom laughs. “Ju so funny.”

Fred hyenas, wipes tears from his laughing eyes. Rachel cracks a smile. So does Hanna, holding the baby over her shoulder. She’s a natural and it frightens me.

“What’s got there, Slim?”

“Now you notice,” she says.

Mom says, “So what parish did you get married in?”

I say, “We didn’t.”

“What do you mean?” Mom says. “You got married, didn’t you?”

“A woman judge married us,” Hanna says.

“Oh,” Mom says. “When’s the church ceremony?”

“As soon as women are ordained,” I say.

“Funny,” Mom says.

“When will that be?” Hanna says in earnest, giving the baby back to Rachel in earnest.

“Not in God’s lifetime.” Dying for a subject change, I say, “Slim, how’d you enjoy midnight Mass?”

“I loved it,” she says. “A little old usher asked if I was Grace Kelly. So why can’t women be priests?”

“Mom?” I say.

She says, “Too bad Lebanese Father George couldn’t marry you in The Church.”

“Couldn’t?” I say.

Rachel says, “Hadn’t you heard? After Big Brothers and missionary work in Nicaragua, he left the priesthood and got married. He’s got a kid now but is divorced.”

Mom says, “We got a letter from Lebanon the day of Sister Katherine’s funeral, which you missed. We toasted with Scotch at the reception. There was a name card and place setting for you in the church hall.”

A place in my head floods with memories of a dead nun on the pill and a celibate priest my Big Brother before Earl, now divorced with a kid. It’s not a happily-ever-after evolution. Dazed with guilt, I say, “Going back to bed.”

Mom says, “Aren’t you gonna mow the lawn?”

“Isn’t that Jake’s department?”

Her glare burns worse than chancroid sores.

“Hanna,” Fred says. “I know you just sing hermosamente. How about some Christmas canciones?” He goes over to the radio. She follows. “One, two, three,” he says.

+ + +

Everyone arrives in droves and wool sweaters, except for an aunt in a pelisse the color of myrrh. They bear wrapped gifts, casseroles, and candied yams. There are cackles, hugs, awkward handshakes with politically incorrect Senator Bob Dole jokes given his World War II deformity. But funny. Basketball is on TV, hot cider mulls in the kitchen. Someone uncaps some Paul Mason just in time for Hanna.

“Why does this feel like the last supper?” she says.

“Have more wine,” I say.

“Good idea.”

Then Jake walks up, mullet longer than Rachel’s, and gives Hanna the once-over twice. He says. “So, you’re the one who became Catholic to save Jimmy from celibacy? Talk about a cross to bear. You should be sainted.”

“I g-u-e-s-s,” she says. “Why don’t I leave you boys to catch up.” She escapes to the kitchen for more Jesus juice, and Jake eyes the sway of her hips.

“So, what are ya gonna do for the rest of your life,” he says. “Besides her?”


He’s stoned and holds a beer like an old woman a cup of tea – hairy pinkie out. His knuckles bear a grade-school scar from Sister Katherine’s ruler after saying she had nice chesticles.

“You know,” he says, “I drove that baby out front. She got power!”

“Nice English. You mean the car? Want to buy it?”

He laughs. “Fuck no.” Then he says, “I see you sort of mowed the lawn.”

“Just like old times. Mom hates that you moved out.”

“She got married and found a new Mexican to do the dishes.”

“He’s Salvadoran.” I go for a beer.

“Hey,” he says, following, thumb bent back as a dacca banana. “Hey, what’d she say about this half-Mexican?”

+ + +

At dinner, I peck at turkey, mash potatoes, raisin stuffing. I skip dessert, chuckle at apple pie and pi, go liquid.

“Another beer!?” Mom scolds. Then she calls out, “It’s time.”

“For my intervention?”

“Not yet,” she says. “Just hold it together.”

We gather at the tinseled tree which incubates presents. The globe ornaments glitz like boobs, as Jake used to say. The finial inchoate angel atop the tree has red cheeks as if blushing.

Now Jake says, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” entering the den dressed as Santa with cotton beard, red suit, hat, black buckled belt, the works. There are cheers, hoots, and hollers.

“Ju no,” Hanna says in my ear, “he’s got the right color but doesn’t he need horns and a pitchfork?”

I chuckle.

“Oh, and a sinuous tail with an arrow on the end.” She laughs like Fred. “Where is that sweet old man? I have to tell him.”

Jake is smoking one of his cigars. “Ho Ho Ho.” He coughs. “Look at you ho’s! Putas la toda. Chinga puta.”

Laughter explodes.

“You’re awful,” Mom says, pretending not to smile.

Hanna comes back after laughing with Fred, says, “Jake’s like a pet devil on your mom’s shoulder.”

“How?” I ask.

“How she admonished with a smile.”

My hearing is sometimes dyslexic; I hear sodomized and nearly vomit.

Hanna is saying, “One of her babies saying what most people shouldn’t and wouldn’t but want to.”

“Ho’s, Ho’s, Ho’s!” Jake raps. He coughs and tosses presents from an army duffle bag. The opening begins, ribbons cut, wrapping paper ripped to shreds like my scrotum skin as a kid.

“Here,” Jake plumes. “Maybe it’s Sister Katherine’s ruler or chalkboard erasers to pound, you teacher’s pet. Merry Christmas.”

“You!?” Hanna says to me, still smiling. “Really?”

I shrug, proffer the present.

“A bird feeder!” she says sweetly, unsealing without tearing the festive paper, masking tape intact.

Mom watches in upside-down glasses, smiling with down-right approval.

“It has a hook for hanging,” Hanna says.

“Perfect for a downtown apartment,” I say.

“It’s the thought,” she whispers. “The pigeons will love it.”

“Rock doves,” I say.

“Rock doves,” she says, touching my hand like Earl.

+ + +

In the morning, I dial and get an answering machine, a man’s voice, deep as Don Cornelius from the TV show Soul Train.

“I’m calling about the car,” I say and leave a number. “Call any time. It’s a great transportation vehicle.” I almost say transubstantiation by accident, my head in the Catholic clouds. No need to be car salesman of God and make it the end all to transform life. I almost state facts. “A little old nun drove it to church on Sundays, no joke. There’s even a St. Christopher metal in the glove box for travel protection. Better than auto insurance. Let’s talk.”

I hang up to acid reflux from too many tin cans of beer. My stomach gurgles and jumps when Mom insists on driving to the airport. I’m shotgun, glance at Hanna over my shoulder. She looks concerned.

“When are you guys moving back?” Mom says, blindly switches freeway lanes and swerves back to a blaring horn. “Oh, dear,” she says.

Hanna gasps. I look in supplication above the dash. Saint Christopher hangs like a convicted outlaw.

At the terminal curb, we get out. Hanna jitters, says, “Thought a third-century death was coming.”

We hug, I fondle. She squirms, pecks my cheek, says, “Not here, you devil.”

“Got your bird feeder?”

She jostles the carry-on. “I’ll put it in the bathroom after more painting.”

“Hang it on a new branch.”

“Exactly.” Then she whispers, “Don’t let her keep you. And don’t forget the breviary. The ribbons are set. Say your prayers, mister.”

She’s beyond catechumen and knows the Liturgy of the Hours better than me. I smile at her hip sway. She looks back, grabs her behind playfully, vanishes inside.

+ + +

Next morning, I skip prayer, fold the Nova cover like a purificator, and put it in the trunk. I find cigarettes in the glove box, light up, and drive the streets I walked as a kid. There’s a schoolyard I took extra batting practice with Earl but never hit better. I see the house of a girl I fingered once. A different life. I drive with no purpose, roll through stop signs sans traffic.

Back home, a portly black man stands in Mom’s new brick driveway. Gray pinstripe suit, coke-bottle glasses. He extends his large hand; we shake, and he has a firm grip.

“I got your message,” he baritones. “What’d you say your name was – Jonah?”


“Don,” he says. “Ready to sell me your ride?”


“Your car, I want to buy it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How much?”

“You can have it.”

“Come again?” He tilts to the right.

“It’s yours, for free.”

“For free?”


“Come on now, what’s the catch?” He tilts the other way, tambourines change in pocket.

“No catch. I need to unload it. It’s yours and runs but needs work. I just want to get out of here and move on.”

“Where to?”

“San Francisco.”

“What do you do there?”

“Nothing yet. My wife’s there.”

“Good enough.”

I hand over keys, say, “It’s registered to a dead nun.”

“Understood. May the DMV bless her soul.” He snaps a crisp $100 bill. “And may St. Christopher protect me.”

“What’s this?”

“Payment.” He struts to the car. “Just printed it this morning.” He turns, breaches a smile. “Hope I got the right president.”

I have no idea who it should be. “There’s a cover for the car in the trunk.”

“Thanks,” he says. “Hopefully, I won’t use it.” He gets in, starts it up, drives off slowly. A shadow remains on the pavement like a spot on an x-ray.

+ + +

Inside, I call for a plane ticket. The person on the phone sounds like Hanna. I grab my behind, give a credit card number and expiration date.

After, I say, “Okay, Mom. Tomorrow morning. First thing.”

She ignores me.


“Yes,” she says.


“Yes, yes,” she says, stirring turkey soup in a stockpot. It’ll simmer all day, then she’ll add fideo noodles. She calls out, “Listos? Ven aqui, viejo.”

“Ready. The old man is coming,” he says, hurrying into the kitchen in a plaid derby hat.

“Que lindo,” Mom says, clapping like he’s an opera star coming on stage. She kisses his shaved cheek. “Vamanos, let’s go.”

“I thought we were all going?” I say.

“It’s just us three,” she says. “No one wanted to go.”

I shake my head and buckle up. On the freeway, Fred tailgates, cars get out of his way. The sky dulls as Mom’s unpolished silver. I brood and don’t feel well.

We arrive early; there’s a deep-sea fishing boat at the dock, only a seagull on deck. No one in sight.

Slowly a line forms in pairs, except for me, as though for Noah’s Ark. But it says Crystal on the stern. Who’s she? And how do boats float? I’ve never understood water displacement, but I feel displaced as we load, trying to find a place.

Over the loud speakers, the captain instructs like commandments and location of life jackets. The boat leaves port, putters, knotting the harbor. The jetty passes, then dinghies. The motor revs, gathers speed. Seagulls hover, squawking for scraps and handouts. Eventually, land disappears from the horizon.

After an hour, choppy waves wash the boat. The day grows darker. I look through binoculars, hoping for a sleek sign. I wonder what Slim is doing.

Mom and Fred huddle under an army blanket blocking the wind. Nothing blocks my sternum from tightening. I galley for a hot dog anyway, add mayonnaise from sticky packets. I dip my fingers in beer, pretend it’s a lavabo bowl after Offertory. No napkins or manuterge, I lick my paws clean no matter who’s looking.

Finally, an apparition. Two gray whales surface with barnacles, blowholes spraying the air, a sort of holy water spindrift. There are oohs and aahs. Pictures taken. Then the whales bookend the apparition, disappear.

No bottle-nose dolphins flash or dart ahead, no one is getting seasick. But I might; the dog and bun are gumming up the works.

When we dock, I’m first off the boat. Fred drives like hell but I’m glad. Near home, I plead to pull over at the 7-11.

He says, “Is everything all right, Honey?”

Honey echoes. He pulls hard into the lot, nearly takes out a Harley, the kind Earl rode. I go in, buy abysmal pink medicine from a peppy blue hair at the register who wants to chat. Mute, I unscrew the bottle and chug the chalky liquid.

At home, I run to the backyard and into the past.

I woke with an upset stomach. Mom came in, saying Big Brothers had called; Earl was back from flight school and coming by for the beach before it got hot. I’d be home in time for noon Mass.

“Won’t that be nice?” she said. “God is looking out for you. Not all kids get a friend after their father’s died. Earl stepped up after Father George went to Nicaragua. You’d think Earl was a relative wanting to spend time with you.”

“Don’t want to go. I don’t feel good.”

“He’s on the way.”

I dressed and skipped breakfast. I expected a motorcycle or dirt bike, but Earl drove up in a pickup fixer-upper, hood and front doors different colors, no tailgate. He wore chrome-rimmed chopper shades, lenses the color of root beer above oily whiskers.

“You make Pony League All-Stars?” he said, speeding on the freeway.

“Yeah.” I pressed the floorboard, trying to slow us down.

“How’s your knee holding up?”

“It’s not. I’m going to my uncle’s next week.”

“Digging furrows?”

“Yes. How was Florida?”

“See this tan?” He was toasty as a turkey in the oven.

We pulled up and parked on a sea cliff.

“Thought we were going to the beach behind the roller coaster.”

“This one’s better,” he said.

We rutted a path steep as an escarpment. The sun behind, the light still hurt my eyes. Warm sand sunk my flip-flops. Wind blew dirty wrappers against my ankles. We spread a blanket for cards and divided the poker chips. We opened pretzels, but I still couldn’t eat. The ocean swelled with whitecaps. Jagged rocks statued in the surf – one like a tufa Christus, ten feet tall, hands out. No one was swimming. Then two leggy women walked by. Except for sandals, they were naked, skin white as guardian angels where their underwear should have been. One grabbed her own behind.

“Don’t stare,” Earl said.

I must have been because he said my name again. Then I realized he didn’t have any trunks on. He reached over and put my hand on his stubby erection surrounded by berserk short hairs. Then he dealt five-card stud.

On the way back home, he said, “Reach in the glove box.”

I hesitated. Inside was a miniature pewter statue of Saint Christopher and a prayer card.

Earl said, “Sister Katherine sent it to me after I nearly crashed my helicopter in the Keys. Hey, is it me, or does she have a Cover-Girl face?”

Something gurgled in his throat and I wished I was a girl so he’d leave me alone.

“Anyway,” he said. “Put it in your mom’s car.”

I thanked him, though it wasn’t the same as last year’s catcher’s glove.

“Want a hot dog?” he said, driving fast.

“I have to fast; we’re going to Mass.”

“Helicopter ride next week before you go?”

I nodded. He raced home and dropped me off. I walked in and dropped Saint Christopher on the table. Then I went to the backyard and threw up on the lawn.

Jake was standing there. “Christ,” he said. “I just mowed it.”

+ + +

Now, I rush out back and paint the half-mowed grass hot-dog pink. I look for Jake; he’s not there, and it still hurts.

I come back inside, sit on the couch, shivering, shaking.

“Oh, Jimmy,” Mom says.

My head feels sliced by a wire hanger; my throat as though I threw up Jonah and a whale fish. Just like me to get a biblical story backward. Mom brings a red bucket, I oblige with vomit. I rock back and forth, feeling tested, trying to find the rhythm to stop it all.

I feel Fred’s hand on the back of my head.

“Honey,” he says. “I brought you aspirin and tall drink of water.”

“You brought my wife?” I joke.

“Que?” he says as Mom makes the phone call.

“Hi, Hanna,” she says. “Jimmy got seasick. He’s not flying back.”

Fred mutters, “No vas. Estas enfermo.” He empties the bucket, returns it with what looks like weevil larvae in the bottom. I hear Mom still briefing Hanna, grab for the phone. I fall back.

“You’re taking me to the airport. I’m not staying.”

Mom hangs up.

“Call her back,” I say.

“You can’t go, I won’t take you.”

“Then I’ll cab to the airport.”

Rachel chimes in, “Fuck that, I’ll take you.” She’s holding the baby, who starts to cry.

“Jimmy, you’ve upset the baby,” Mom says. “Now you’ve done it. Does she need a change?”

“No,” Rachel says.

I lean over, throw up and defecate. “But I do.”

+ + +

That night, cowled in a blanket, I hardly sleep, rocking hard as a Hasidic Jew in a Tallit praying at the Wailing Wall. It’s only when I stop that I heave and miss the bucket. Then I put the bucket on the puke like Jake did the Pieta on cum spots.

In the morning, I wake cold and purged. Delirious, I somnambulist to the bathroom stuck in a bad dream. I scrub and rinse skubala-soiled underwear in the sink. I want to snap out of the gross act, just throw them out. But I wring the briefs and put them on, then don jeans. I dry-heave and wet-crotch through the kitchen. The burner plate on the coffeemaker hisses as I push the green button to open the garage door. It’s still dark out, the hours of Lauds. Of late, I feel nothing praying. Stars flicker in the sky and the Southern Cross is no closer than God. It fades like a frayed connection, unraveled as this oblate.

I load the suitcase in the car’s trunk and my gut seizes. I step gingerly to the kitchen, wait in limbo. Or purgtory. I can never get the language or terms right. My head hurts like hell.

Finally, they appear from the bedroom with empty coffee mugs, loiter like they’re homeless at a warm stove.

“Let’s go,” I say and taste vomit.

They exchange looks. Fred touches her wrist; Mom nods, leads the way. Fred takes the wheel. Rachel waves from the door. Baby latches on to a breast. Then Rachel eyes me, grabs the other with a grin.

From the back seat, I give a half-hearted thumbs up and Fred turns the key, but the car won’t start.

“No va,” he says seriously.

I nod to a very sharp chest pain.

“See,” Mom says. “We shouldn’t be going and grabs Saint Christopher hanging on the rear-view mirror.

I think it’s time to cut down the dead.

Mom says, “I smell cagada.”

Cagada, dung, crap, mierda, skubala, poo, poop, shit – they all stink, I think.

Fred tries again. It starts. He quickly backs out the driveway. In the street, he jams the brakes, puts it in drive, and we see Sister Katherine’s Nova approaching. One headlight is out. It limps past and Don honks. I’m surprised the horn works.

Mom says, “Well, at least someone bought that lemon. Who’d have thought?”

I say, “Who’d have thought a nun would be on the pill?”

Looking in the rear-view mirror, she says, “How much you get for it?”

“Enough for airfare and a beer.” Then I say, “Want it for the collection box?”

“Keep it. Buy a plane ticket for Easter.”

I shrug at the most important day in the Christian faith – the Resurrection, life from death, the eternal hope turned to baked ham, Easter-egg hunts, and chocolate bunny rabbits. I feel rancid.

“Cagada,” Fred says.

Mom says, “You smell it too?”

Windows down, on the freeway, my stomach swims with each lane change.

Mom says, “Slow down, Viejo.”

“Look who’s talking,” I say.

“You be quiet,” she says.

At the airport, I say, “Just drop me at the curb.”

Fred veers over like at the 7-11.

I get out, and he pops the trunk. I unload the suitcase; wheels click the curb, and Mom hugs me.

“When will I see you again? Easter?” she says, squeezing.

“Don’t know.”

“Call me when you get there and shower.”

I bend to the window, wave at Fred. He gropes the air with curled fingers sans ruler scars. Mom got a good one. I turn and go inside to the ticket counter where it’s bright as the pearly gates.

After inching through the snake of a line, I get the sixth ticket agent.

“Hello,” I say, squinting at the thin blond.

Raised pale collar bones accentuate the sky-blue V-neck like a Roman numeral and she has a pointy nose. The name tag says Veronica. Wanting to ask if I’m at the right station of the cross, I proffer confirmation number and license. She smiles in a congenial way.

Sorry if I stink or vomit, I think, as her fake nails tap the keyboard.

She says, “Have you left your bag unattended?”




She issues look, says, “You okay?”

I wipe my face with my hand. “Fine.”

She hands over license and ticket. I’ve answered enough; she waves me on.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she says with a curt, perfunctory smile.

Walking to the gate, I think of Hanna on the other end of the flight and smile, knowing she found room for the bird feeder in the bathroom. Probably invited in some city-slicked rock doves for a tepid shower, too.

I stop at the bar, order water and a draft – so many on tap. “You decide,” I tell the scruffy bartender with no name tag. He looks like Earl and gives me the creeps. I want to duck out and run like hell but need a fix. I reach for my wallet and the C-note. Instead I find the Saint Christopher medal and its impression on the worn leather like a papal seal. I behold the sterling silver and notice the child on Christopher’s shoulder. I doubt toddler was pulling hair. But legend says Christopher carried the needy traveler safely across a swollen river, maybe it was the Jordan, who knows, while almost pulled under by the current and almost drowned.

Lucky kid.

Then the kid, the apparition of Christ, vanished into thin air.

Maybe the miracle happened. Who knows, what are the odds? But I won’t fault the Pope for removing Saint Christopher’s feast day. I hold the medal for protection but feel odd, wishing I could remove the days Earl feasted, leaving me bloody and swollen. But life never works that way or erases memory. It’s a cross to bear or throw up. But since I can’t vomit the medal, I barely open my hand, letting it drop and vanish into the trash can.

But just in case, I cross my fingers anyway for luck, hope not to have blasphemed with the consequence worse than Sister Katherine’s ruler.

Then, a late Christmas present. The bartender presents a sunny Belgian pint with a lemon wedge – seeds, pulp, and all. “Thought you could use a refresher,” he says.

“Thank heaven.” Better than the pill, I think.

“Anything else? Aspirin?”

“Nope.” I pay, avoiding the vulpine smile.

Quick as he brings change, I tip, but he’s nowhere to be seen.

Until he delivers a tall drink of water.

Thomas Weedman has a BA in English from Notre Dame and an MFA from Lindenwood. He’s been a seminarian, truck driver, forklift operator, bartender, barista, and professional gambler. What steers his writing and rewriting is trying to get it right – faulty yet resilient character, first and last sentence, and the language in between. His short stories have appeared in the Acorn Review Literary Journal to The Write Launch. A publication list can be found here.

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