AN INTRODUCTION BY LUCIE SHELLY
The nuns we meet in Marie-Helene Bertino’s story “Carry Me Home, Sisters of St. Joseph” are familiar to me. From the age of five to 18, I went to Catholic school. Nuns, for me, aren’t the caricatures of sexy Hallowe’en costumes and heartwarming Hollywood musicals. They are sometimes maternal and sometimes terrifying. They are women of religious faith whose conviction I can’t comprehend, and, perhaps like Ruby, the young woman who works at the convent in this story, I don’t really desire to. They are curious women, but at the end of the day, nuns are just women who chose a very particular path to try and survive this world.
Bertino is a deft comedian and writes with the kind of empathy that would melt a grudge or warm a broken heart.
Ruby, who is decidedly not religious, has lost her boyfriend, a lawyer-turned-Lone Star Steakhouse rodeo clown, to a waitress also under Lone Star employ. She is hired by the Sisters of St. Joseph as the new groundskeeper and general helper. For her, the job is part necessity, part therapy. In short, she is working through a trial of life that most women, except perhaps nuns, will experience: romantic heartbreak. Ruby begins the story by telling us she is “quitting a boy like people quit smoking.” A few weeks into her new life at the convent, she is settling in. She is helping in the Sunday school classes, and, at the behest of Sister Charlene, talking to the tomatoes in the nuns’ vegetable patch, all with her own particular flair: “Sister Charlene smiles. ‘Say: how are you doing today, tomatoes?’ … I say, ‘How you bitches doin’?’” Ruby is learning the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of the nuns, who enjoy a good pogo stick hop, keep an unexplained line of slippers on the stairs, and take covert expeditions on Friday nights. But through all of this, is Ruby healing? And if so, whose version of healing? The nuns’ version overcomes Ruby’s absence of faith. Ruby’s idea overcomes the absence of her ex-boyfriend, Clive.
Bertino is a deft comedian and writes with the kind of empathy that would melt a grudge or warm a broken heart. This story appeared in a different form in American Short Fiction Spring Issue of 2010, and in the author’s debut collection Safe as Houses, published by the Iowa University Press in 2012. Bertino said that since then, she has made some careful retouches, including reverting to the original final line that she intended to “leave the reader with a more existential feel, not be tied up and happy.” Likewise, in revising the work Bertino realized she wasn’t concerned whether Ruby’s behavior was “likable” (though I would argue Ruby’s honesty is, at the least, endearing). We are thrilled to revitalize the piece now; it is a rare talent that can distill into a single story comedy and loss, sanctuary and journey, the power of both independence and desire, and the universal need for survival, whatever that might look like.
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading
“Carry Me Home, Sisters of St. Joseph” by Marie-Helene Bertino
I am quitting a boy like people quit smoking. I am not quitting smoking. The pamphlet insists: Each time you crave a cigarette, eat an apple or start a hobby! Each time I think about Clive, I smoke a cigarette. If I have already smoked a cigarette, I eat an apple. If I have already eaten an apple, I start a hobby. I smoke two packs a day. I pogo-stick, butterfly-collect, macramé, decoupage. I eat nothing but apples. I sit in my kitchen, a hundred of them arranged on the table. If I can eat this pyramid of apples, I will be over Clive.
The pamphlet insists: Identify then eschew all triggers! Clive was a rodeo clown. When a rodeo comes on TV, its riders attempting to buck and kick into my mind, I turn it off. I eschew you, rodeo. Clive was also a devout Christian. I drive two blocks out of my way to avoid Saint Terese of Avila. I eschew you, Church.
The pamphlet isn’t all hard love. After time passes, it admits, you can reclaim your triggers. For instance, answering an ad for a groundskeeper and general helper and moving into the basement of Saint Terese of Avila.
Saint Terese of Avila’s convent shelters fifteen sisters of Saint Joseph. On the first day, Sister Crooked Part leads me around the halls, pointing out significant rooms and answering my questions. Terese is the patron saint of headache sufferers. Her symbols are a heart, an arrow, and a book. The sisters of Saint Joseph are a teaching order. They do not fly and they do not sleep in cubbies built into a wall, their names spelled out in puffy paint. Do I have any serious questions?
“Are there patron saints for everything?”
Nuns should wear nametags. Another one, wearing the same drab dress and habit, leads me to the basement where I will be staying. My room is dimly furnished and contains a bed, a small desk, and rough-looking blankets the color of dirt. The air is wet. The gaping mouth of a vent hangs over the bed and through it I hear singing.
Sister Whoever says: “That’s the Sunday choir. Their voices are God’s messengers.”
She asks if I have any dietary needs as I hoist my bag on the bed. “All I need are apples.”
On the desk I prop up the pamphlet on how to quit smoking. Next to it: three cartons of Marlboro Lights.
Sister Whoever says, “Trying to quit?”
“Dear Christ no.”
By the stairs, we pass an ordered line of silk slippers, fifteen pair or so, different colors and sizes.
“What’s up with the shoes?” I say.
She doesn’t answer, but continues to the courtyard I will be expected to maintain.
She frowns toward a line-up of sagging tomato plants. “We don’t have much luck. Lots of vines but no tomatoes. One or two for sandwiches. Maybe you could talk to them?”
Into the courtyard sweeps another nun, followed by a line of children. They walk with their index fingers poised over their lips. Each child wears rain gear designed to look like an animal or insect: tiger, fish, ladybug, duck. The procession halts at Sister Whoever, whose name turns out to be Helena. Helena introduces me to Sister Charlene, who removes her finger just long enough to whisper “hello.” Sister Helena explains what I will be doing at Saint Terese. I sense movement near me and look down into the big browns of a little boy. He has a frog rain slicker and a bowl haircut that went out in, what, 1984?
“Meow,” he says.
“I’m afraid you’ve received wrong information.”
“Your nose moves when you talk.” He looks disappointed in me.
Sister Charlene makes two sharp claps with her hands, startling us both. “Christopher! Back in line!”
He rejoins his classmates. Sister Helena says, “Charlene thinks you should talk to the tomato plants. Encourage them to grow.”
Sister Charlene smiles. “Say: how are you doing today, tomatoes?”
Sister Helena: “Reward their progress.”
I wait for them to reveal whether they are joking. The kids jostle in their slickers.
Sister Charlene leads them out of the courtyard and Sister Helena has business in the kitchen, so I am left alone with the tomatoes. I feel nervous like a newcomer at a party, trying to small talk with a person I’ve just met.
I say, “How you bitches doin’?”
I do laundry. I dust shelves. At dusk, I sweep the courtyard. It is a catchall, a dust collector. I start by the corner where the tomato vines slouch toward hell, and end up near my small window. The sisters of Saint Joseph allow me to keep my pogo stick in the courtyard. When I finish sweeping I pogo around, inordinately proud of the clean space.
Sister Helena takes a turn. It’s her first time on one; I yell pointers from where I lean, crunching an apple. Her skirt tucked between her small knees, she makes a happy zigzag through the courtyard. She doesn’t know how to disembark, and wobbles into the vegetable garden. The tomato plants break her fall.
Later she says, “What is your relationship to God?”
I fill a plastic bag with ice cubes. We sit at the mahogany breakfast table, where every morning I serve oatmeal to the fifteen sisters of Saint Joseph. Some like it milkier than others. Sister Helena never complains.
“Relationship with God,” I say. “Let me think about that.”
She waits. The ice cubes arrange themselves around her swollen elbow.
I want to know more information before I answer. “Does everyone have one?”
“With different gods and in different ways. Yes.”
“So it doesn’t have to be a go-to-church type thing?”
She smiles. “There are no wrong answers, Ruby.”
“I think there might be,” I say.
“What do you think happens when we die?” She sounds for a moment like a little girl asking about clouds.
“Atheist is the answer to the question you’re asking.”
“No God for you?”
“Sorry to say.”
“That’s all right. Each of us holds a piece of the puzzle.”
“Here’s a question: is there a patron saint for everything? Like, disappointing movies? Or turnips? Socks you can’t find? And outlet malls?”
Every night on the roof they switch on a giant, glowing Saint Terese. Palms facing heaven, she implores her god. Her heart is on the outside of her chest, it shines in porcelain. The light fills the courtyard and squeezes through the bars on my window. It doesn’t bother me. I chain smoke until dawn, blow smoke rings to her.
The first Friday night I am painting a ceramic cat and eating apples when I hear scuffling in the hall. Muffled whispering and the sound of a large door closing. In the hallway, the slippers are gone. I run to my window and stand on a crate.
The sisters are crossing the courtyard, quiet as secrets, each of them wearing a black coat. I can make out Sister Helena, the arms of her coat tied around her joyful shoulders. They move through the gate, the last one closes it behind her, and they are gone.
The next morning the slippers are back, pointed toward the wall in a perfect line. The toes: immaculate arrows.
I water the tomato plants. I’m not a fan of tomatoes, I tell them. They make bread soggy. But I like tomato gravy and bruschetta. Is it broo-shetta or broo-sketta?
They don’t answer.
I list other things I like.
Every week I assist Sister Charlene at Sunday school. My job is to walk the kids to recess and church, administer their snacks, generally make their stay comfortable.
Charlene runs her class like she is half clairvoyant, half yoga instructor. “I’m wondering why I hear talking toward the back of the carpet.” She holds her hands out like a sleepwalker. “I’m picturing a class that is ready for snack time.”
Order is maintained by a giant construction paper “stoplight” on the front board, comprised of a green, yellow, and red face. The green face holds a wide smile, the yellow face a constipated wince, the red a murderous frown. Every kid has a clothespin with their name on it, which begins every day clipped on green. If the kid misbehaves, their clothespin moves to yellow and the kid can’t participate in snack time. If the kid does anything mortal like strangle the goldfish, they move to red although, Sister Charlene informs me, no kid has ever moved to red.
“Most stay on green the whole day.” She beams.
If everyone stays on green all day, it’s a gold sticker day.
Sister Charlene passes a bookmark to each kid, face down. She counts to three. On three, they flip them over. Whoever has the rainbow sticker gets to feed the goldfish. The kids seem jazzed about this possibility. Rachel, a girl who constantly touches her nose as if confirming it is still there, wins. She tosses flakes into the aquarium under the reverent gazes of her classmates.
A kid near me starts to cry. It’s the frog with the bowl haircut.
“I never get the rainbow sticker,” he says. He seems to have an ongoing argument with the letter “r.” I nevell get the rainbow stickell.
“Christopher,” Sister Charlene warns.
“It’s just a sticker,” I say. “Two ninety-five for a pack of ten.” Then I realize he probably doesn’t have money.
“But I want to feed the goldfish!”
“It’s just a goldfish,” I say. “Do you want an apple?”
He does not want an apple and won’t calm down. In his distress, he accidentally backhands a little boy named Sergio.
Sister Charlene moves Christopher’s clothespin to the yellow face. “You are on yellow. No snack.”
Christopher stumbles forward and back. He screams, “Yellow!” and “Why?”
Sister Charlene looks away. “No elephant tears.”
I want to explain to him that yellow is just an idea, an arbitrary way of maintaining order. At my job they would give us written warnings. In the comments section, they would write “belligerent with clients,” or “sleeping at desk.” It’s the same thing. Belligerence is a matter of opinion, anyway. I got that warning after my work revamping the Trix slogan. They had Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids for something like 30 years and asked for something fresh. I made up storyboards and posters for what I thought was a brilliant new direction: Stupid fucking rabbit, not everything’s about you.
Sister Helena and I work in the garden. She informs me what each plant needs and I inform her when a bee is near her by saying “bee.” She arranges the trumpet of a lily. “I think nature has within it the cures to all human illness.”
“I’m curious how you know that.”
“It’s a theory, Ruby. It’s my own.”
I am disappointed. “I thought you had some inside info.” Then I say, “bee.”
She lets it land on her arm. “He’s part of the group.”
“Let’s see after your head swells to the size of a hot air balloon.”
I tell the tomato plants about the rainbow sticker. I tell them I’ve begun to differentiate the nuns. I tell them who my favorites are. In order: Sister Helena, Sister Charlene, Sister Mary. My least favorite nun is fat Sister Georgia.
Fat Sister Georgia scares the creamy lord out of me. She is a rotund woman who takes up two chairs in the dining hall. When you smile at Sister Georgia she does not smile back. Her green eyes are unamused always, and she does not think I am funny, which bothers me. She arrived at the convent years ago with a letter from her parish in Germany and a small valise Sister Helena said smelled like bacon. Her sound is a clipped, disapproving tsk. She sits in the dining hall surveying those around her with the unimpressed look of a gymnastics coach. The other sisters regard her with respectful fear. The occasion of her waddling by is a five-minute holiday in the courtyard. The sisters pause their trowels, mark their pages, scuttle out of her way. Their eyes follow her sadly, as if she were a specter or a town crazy.
“Please stop calling me at work,” Clive says.
I hang up the phone.
I walk the Sunday school kids to recess; single file, index fingers poised over their lips.
“You are a line of quiet ducklings,” I remind them.
Christopher breaks rank and walks next to me, body completely out of his control, like he is shaking something off every limb. He talks. To himself, to others, to Jesus, to the goldfish. He is never not talking. He is already on yellow for interrupting morning prayer with his thoughts on robots.
“Where do butterflies sleep?” He swings his arms.
“In the forest,” I say. “Back in line.”
“I’ve been to the forest,” he says. “And I’ve never seen a butterfly sleeping.”
“Then they sleep in chimneys,” I say. “Back in line.”
“Your face is weird.”
“You have an outdated haircut.”
“What’s an outdated — ”
“Back in line.”
We reach the yard and pray. Sunday school is an orgy of praying. Amen, and the ducklings scatter.
Minutes later, Tyler is screaming. He has not been offered the opportunity to turn the jump rope and has decided to become a lunatic bitch about it.
“Francine’s had five turns already!” he yells.
Francine is a little girl who looks like she could get you a job somewhere great. She holds her end of the jump rope in an elegant hand.
“What can I do to fix this?” I say.
“Tell her to give me a turn!”
“Francine, give Tyler a turn jumping rope!”
She shrugs, drops the handle.
Tyler bounds off, the pain of the previous five minutes gone. All he wants is the jump rope and once he gets it, he is fine. He does not wonder if it is something in him that makes Francine think he is undeserving of the jump rope. There is no longstanding rift. The needs of kids are simple. They want a turn jumping rope. They don’t want anyone to call them ugly. They don’t want their snot on them, they don’t want anyone else’s snot on them. Devoid of sarcasm, they are quivering, earnest-eyed balls of sincerity. When Tyler rejoins the game, he and Francine hug.
After fifteen minutes, I line them up.
“Let’s blow this pop stand,” I say.
Francine raises her hand. “We pray now.”
Once in a while, I smell Clive on my skin and it stops my day. It’s a train crossing, I wait to pass. Eventually the lights stop flashing, the barriers lift. I keep moving.
“Amen,” I say.
“Amen,” say the ducklings.
Bookmarks are on each desk when we return. Whoever gets the rainbow sticker hands out the singing books. This time it’s goody-goody Francine. Christopher supports his sad face on his fists.
“Stupid sticker,” he says.
“Christopher,” Sister Charlene warns.
A moment passes. The goldfish snaps at a flake of food.
“Stupid singing,” says Christopher.
Sister Charlene says, “Principal’s office.”
I escort him. We sit in folding chairs.
His voice is sober, finite. “I’m unlucky.”
I say, “You just need to learn how to zip it.”
Later, Sister Helena makes a blindfold out of her small hands and leads me sightless to the courtyard.
She counts to three and pulls her hands away, and I am face to face with a garden of green tomato vines and one bashful tomato. “And there are buds everywhere.” She points. “Here, here, and here. There. There. A bunch on this side. Look.”
I hold the tomato in my hand. The color red is just occurring to it, having reached halfway down its green body. But, it’s strong. You don’t have to be a gardener to know. This tomato has moxie. I bite into an apple.
Sister Helena folds her hands. “It’s a miracle.”
“I don’t believe in miracles,” I say.
“Yet there it is.”
Not long after, the tomatoes are cartwheeling from the vines. They swoon, they somersault, they enact big scenes.
“Now you’re just showing off.” I frown, but I’m proud and they know it. I tell them: I don’t think there is such a thing as luck. If there were such a thing as luck, tomato plants, I would be the unluckiest person on earth.
Consider my life.
Clive and I met at church; he was attending, I was asking directions to a bar. He spent five years as an attorney for a ridiculously named law firm before quitting to become a rodeo clown at Lone Star Steakhouse, reasoning a discount on Lone Star’s Frisbee-sized steaks was more appealing than helping millionaires iron out their real estate problems. He dropped g’s from his speech and added phrases like “no bigger than a minute” and “rat’s ass.” Twice during the dinner shift Clive galloped out on a broomstick and performed tricks. He became lauded in the steakhouse circuit for his “leaning tower” trick, where he encircled a patron, normally a woman eating a basket of steak bites, in a quivering column of rope. He left me for a waitress at Lone Star who posts pictures of herself on the Internet wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and chaps.
Being without Clive felt as absurd as seeing an ostrich counting exact change for the bus. Or, an ostrich doing anything, anywhere. Ostriches are bizarre and unrealistic. I was so upset I couldn’t sleep, which I remedied by sleeping at work. Because of that and the Trix people, I lost my job writing commercials.
Unemployed, the most I could hope for in a day was that one activity would set off a domino effect: check mail, mail has catalogue, call to order candlesticks made from found wood, operator has Southern accent, pull down book on Louisiana, realize book is dusty, dust bookshelves, celebrate over glass of wine with no clear memory of how the afternoon’s activities had begun, knock head against coffee table, die.
I know it’s not cancer. But, am I unlucky? Am I?
Clive says: you must must must stop calling me at work.
I hang up the phone.
Sister Helena and I sit near the glowing Terese and throw tomatoes across the courtyard to the other roof.
“Will we go to hell for this?” I say when one hits the opposite wall and slithers into the courtyard.
Sister Helena is fifty-five and still a giggler. At first she reminded me of a saucer-eyed French movie star, then a Muppet, now I’m back to French movie star. Her left eyebrow is a miracle: capable of expressing every human emotion.
“You have strange ideas about Catholics, Ruby.” She winds up and pitches her tomato. She has a surprisingly good arm.
I ask what it’s like being married to God.
“I feel protected and safe,” she says. “I don’t have to shave my legs.” The giggle again.
I stop, mid wind-up. “You don’t shave your legs?”
She shakes her head.
“Like, ever? You must have some growth. I’m just saying. When God gets home, you are going to have some serious maintenance to do.”
“I think God has more important things to think about.”
“Maybe,” I frown. “Maybe not.”
She asks if I pray and I say, “Praying is…involved.”
She says, “It’s like making a phone call.”
“A phone call to God.”
“I know you are saying that sarcastically but yes, a phone call to God.” She throws the last tomato and faces me. “Let’s make a phone call to God.”
She holds her hand as a receiver. “Ring, ring,” she says.
“Ring, ring.” She covers her pinkie, the “receiver.” “Answer the phone.”
I can’t do anything but blink. She keeps ringing. Finally, I answer.
“Ruby!” she says. “It’s God!”
“God,” I say, “where are you calling from?”
“You sure have a lot of explaining to do. There goes my other line.” I hang up.
“You can’t hang up on God,” she says. “Call him back.”
“Ring, ring,” I say.
Sister Helena pretends to do her nails. “Ring, ring,” I insist.
She answers her hand. “Hello?”
“God,” I say. “Ruby here.”
“How did you get this number?”
“Information,” I say. “You’re listed.”
“There’s my other line. So long!” She hangs up.
“You can’t hang up on me!”
We sit for a moment in silence. Sister Helena seems pleased with herself.
I say, “Where do you ladies go on Friday night?”
She shrugs. “I’m glad you came, Ruby. Things are more fun now.”
“Don’t fall in love with me, Sister. I’m a runaround. A real slippery fish.”
“You talk like a gangster.”
A voice calls to us from the courtyard where Sister Luisa Nosy Pants stands with her hand shielding her eyes. “What are you doing up there?”
Sister Helena says: Run.
On First Fridays, I escort the ducklings to mass.
The Church at Saint Terese was built when people still feared God. It is shaped like the business end of an arrow. Built to, in the event of apocalyptic quake, wrench free from the earth and rocket straight to heaven. Serious pews. Stained glass windows throw colored lights onto our faces. Genuflecting, shaking hands: religious exercise. A lot of fuss. All this for me?
Maybe God gets nervous in places like this, the way I feel in restaurants with linen napkins, because if He does exist, I don’t feel him here.
Afterward, I water the tomato plants. I tell them, I did not eat one apple today. Not one. I hold a few of their bigger leaves, the exact size of my palms.
That night, I am decoupaging a lamp when I hear scuffling in the hall. The sisters of Saint Joseph slip into their shoes. I run to the window and stand on the crate. Whispers, multi-shouldered shadow, gate click and gone. I pace the floor. I wind a scarf around my neck and leap the stairs to the courtyard.
Don’t wait up for me, tomato plants!
The sisters shuffle up Route 1. I follow a spy’s distance behind, catching snatches of talking and singing. Summer is hanging on. The trees I pass showcase their leaves: gold and silver. Truck high beams light me; I leap into a bush. When I climb out, the sisters have vanished. I look up then down the road. A billboard above me says: Call Today! I run. Several yards ahead is a stucco building with a sign: The Slaughterhouse Bar. Down the highway I hear the defeated bleating of a horn: a cut-off, a missed signal. I decide to go in, drink whiskey, and figure out how I was given the slip by twelve women of the cloth.
It’s a saw-dusty local’s hole with pear-shaped men lining the bar. Walking through the vestibule I encounter a strange tableau: Sister Charlene feeding a bill into the beat-up jukebox. Fat Sister Georgia ordering beers and saying something I can’t hear to the bartender, a cute remark; he winks as he slides the tray to her.
Sister Helena is at the bar, sipping from a pint of beer. She notices me. “You have leaves in your hair.”
The rest of the sisters exchange worried glances.
“This is not good,” says Charlene. Then, “Trampled Under Foot” blares out of the speakers and she yells “Get the Led out!” The sisters of Saint Joseph hold their beers and wag their bodies around the dance floor.
Sister Charlene takes my arm. “You can’t tell anyone about this.”
“No one would believe me. Also, I have no friends.”
She nods. We drink.
“The rainbow sticker thing,” I say. “Is it necessary?”
Her shoulders pulse with the music. “The bookmarks?”
“It bums the kids out when they don’t get the rainbow sticker.”
“That’s part of life, Ruby.”
“I know it’s part of life…but they’re five. They have their whole lives to be disappointed. Maybe they don’t need a lottery enacted every Sunday.”
“It’s not a lottery, it’s a way of making a decision.”
“Well now, Sister, it’s a lottery.”
Sister Mary is playing an air drum solo. Her technique is chaste, virginal. “Lookin’ good, Mary!” Charlene yells, then to me says, “Agree to disagree.” She holds out her beer and we clink. “You’re here now, so you might as well dance.”
The sisters play every Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and ELO song the jukebox holds. I crochet in and out of them. Heaven exists, maybe. I drink to it, to the bar, these women and this night. I drink to the tomato plants. I drink to Christopher. I drink to all the ships at sea.
They seem to have an inside joke about “Houses of the Holy,” a joke I am trying to shoehorn myself into when the door opens and a group of men trudge in. One of them careens into Sister Charlene who pulls her skirt away and says excuse me as he passes.
Same man gets to the bar, and knocks Sister Helena with his elbow. The beer she holds splashes onto her habit and face. The man turns back to his buddies at the bar.
“Hey!” I call. “You spilled beer on Sister Helena.”
He turns around, his face blank. “What happened?”
Sister Helena dabs her nose with a napkin. “Ruby, it was an accident.”
I am having trouble keeping my balance. I lean on Sister Mary. “You spilled a beer on a nun,” I yell. “A nun!”
He stares blandly in her direction. “Sorry.”
“Are you the patron saint of dickheads? Say you’re sorry and mean it.”
When he looks up to see who is yelling at him his face takes on a look of bemusement. “I did.”
The sisters of Saint Joseph close ranks against, unbelievably, me. Sister Charlene gets between me and the man, whose look of bemusement is fading into something more volatile, which delights me. There are only two things I know how to do: encourage plants to produce tomatoes as bright as the sun, and fight. I paw the ground like a bull. I rev up.
“Calm down,” he says. Then, thinking about it, adds, “Bitch.”
I charge. The sisters of Saint Joseph spring into action. They rush me joyously, a line of wide receivers shouldering a tackling dummy. I am knocked ineloquent against the floor.
“You bitches are crazy,” I cry to the tin ceiling. “You crazy bitches are crazy!”
I try to get up. My drunk blooms. My head wants to stay down. The sisters pull me to my feet. They hang me like a wet T-shirt on a clothesline made out of the shoulders of Charlene and Mary. “Our apologies,” one of them says.
“Is she a nun?” the man says.
Sister Mary says, “Dear God no.”
They carry me out of the bar. Sister Helena walks in front, conducting us like an orchestra. “Don’t let her head loll around like that,” she says. “Hitch your hip against her thigh, Mary. Pin her hand to your shoulder, Charlene.”
Slowly, with Helena conducting, we make our way down the road to the convent.
They pause halfway to rest. I ignore Sisters Charlene and Mary, who rub their dancing hips in pain.
“Quit exaggerating.” I take a seat on a tree stump. The tree stump is swaying. Or, I am swaying. “I’m no bigger than a minute. No bigger than a cricket. No bigger than a very small thing.”
A voice says: Give her to me.
It is the brusque, masculine tone of Sister Georgia. I am struck by otherworldly fear.
“Don’t give me to her! She’ll crush me!” My legs pedal uselessly against the ground. Sister Georgia takes me into her arms.
“Go easy on me!” I say. “I’m not a kielbasa!”
The voice says: Quiet.
In the arms of Sister Georgia, I am surprised to find a soft place. The fat that hangs like half hula-hoops below her arms stabilizes me on both sides. Her dress holds a sweet smell, and through its coarse fiber I hear her flapping heart. She hauls me easily down the road.
“Did you learn how to carry someone like this in prison?” I say.
She makes her tsking sound. On every other occasion this fills me with worry and regret, but when you are tired enough, anything sounds like a lullaby. Crickets hum in the bushes we pass. “Those crickets are the same size as me.” I drift off against her soft bosom. My eyes are closed, but I know there is a moon. “I miss Clive,” I tell her metronome heart.
Then, Sister Georgia says so quietly I am unable to know with certainty if it is her voice I hear, or the forest sounds we pass that can be linked to neither animal nor bug: I miss Germany.
When we reach the gate of the convent, she hands me back to Charlene and Mary. I watch as she thunders into the night big-ly, as round as the moon that persists above her, until they are indistinguishable: the moon and my vestige of safe transport.
I am yanked through the opened gate. The courtyard fills with the shushings of women struggling under the weight of a drunk. I am that drunk, but am too drunk to feel bad about it. My inebriation is ebullient, wide enough for everyone. I forget about Sister Georgia because I have come up with a brilliant idea.
“Let’s do bell kicks.” I throw out my left leg and wag it. What I succeed in doing
is not a bell kick, but the effect is pleasing to me. I request the attention of Sister Helena.
“Admire my kick.” I do it again.
Helena’s mouth is knotted.
“You’re not even looking.”
Scuffling at the basement door: which sister has the keys buried in her vestment and who should hold me while they look?
“Flip a coin!” I demand.
Finally, we get in.
The sisters of Saint Joseph carry me down the stairs to my room. They arrange their shoes into a perfect line by my door. I hurl my boots on top. They carry me to bed. I am certain they have asked me to list every commercial tagline I know, so I, supine, call out to heaven:
Cardinal Bank: Named after a bird because Birds. Know. Money.
Kiwi Air: If you can beat these prices, start your own damn airline!
I hear rustling by the foot of the bed as the sisters root through my drawers. Then, into my vision intrudes the head of Sister Charlene.
“Where are your pajamas, Ruby?”
“You’re not Sister Helena,” I inform her.
“No, dear. I’m Charlene. We want to get you into your pajamas.”
I say, “Put Sister Helena on the phone!”
Finally, after what feels like a year, Sister Helena appears with a towel wrapped around her head.
“Thank god.” I lean forward, attempting to make a private space where we can gossip. “There are all these people pretending to be you.” I hoist my head in the direction of the doorway, where the blurry form of Sister Charlene leans in the shadows.
Sister Helena looks disappointed. “You’ve had a lot to drink.”
I have the rationale of whiskey. “You’ve had a lot to drink.”
She gives me an aspirin and I sit up to take it. Immediately, I feel it dissolve and fill my insides, making every atom in my body quake.
“This aspirin is frying me!”
“It’s not in your system yet, Ruby.”
“It is in my system. I feel it in my system.”
“You’re not making sense,” she says.
“You’re not making sense,” I say. “You’re the patron saint of not making any — ”
“Try to sleep.” She pushes my shoulders into the pillow. Then, she sits on the bed while I try to get my scrambling atoms in order. Fall in, ducklings. After a while, my quivering head slows. I begin to wonder what Sister Helena is thinking, if she feels she is wasting her night with me, a drunken sinner. I want to give her something so her time with me is worthwhile. An invaluable tip she will benefit from and, later, be able to trace to my good counsel.
“Leave the S off for Savings,” I tell her.
“I will,” she says. “Tomorrow.”
“Today,” I insist.
“See the world in your Chevrolet,” I say.
“I will,” she says. “I promise.”
“You say that.” I close my eyes. “But you never will.”
I don’t remember anything else.
Dawn. I wake up with a headache. My limbs are attached to an invisible system of weights and pulleys. When I move them a glacier of pain descends on me.
I munch a palmful of aspirin and lay with a damp towel on my head. At noon the pain has not receded. Sisters Charlene and Mary visit after lunch with a bowl of onion broth and salted crackers. They adjust the curtains. Before they leave, they bow their heads by the foot of the bed and I catch a few words of Latin. By four when I should have been helping Sister Mary with dinner, my headache, as if acquiring strength from the advancing night, takes possession of my entire body. I throw up into a bucket, viciously, like I am trying to prove something to the bucket. I can’t keep my vision straight. I am slipping off the earth. This earth will go on without me I think, swing on after I’ve swung off. I am the patron saint of shit. My symbols are a pogo stick, a pack of Marlboro lights, and a tomato. Then, the bucket is full so I throw up onto the floor, my throat shifting into new gears to rid itself of every poison. I can barely keep up. I am flattened by sweat. I am stark naked, with no memory of taking off my pajamas.
“Terese of Avila!” I cry. “Patron saint of headaches. Release me!” It is the closest I’ve come to prayer.
Around midnight I pass out, still in pain. I have brief, thrilling dreams about apricots. I wake up, it is dusk, and I realize with a different pain I have missed Sunday school.
I find Sister Helena in the garden, where she is harvesting the last of the tomato plants, smiling into each tomato’s small mug.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
A smile she has extended to a nubby tomato is still on her face when she looks up. She holds a trowel.
“God told Saint Terese: no longer do I want you to converse with human beings but with angels. Terese felt different from everyone else. She had fire in her. She prayed for it to go away but it is good to have fire. Not to be eaten by it.” Sister Helena could pull it off, starting a conversation with a quote, because she was so frustratingly sincere. “Ruby,” she says. “Anger keeps you from God.”
As always she speaks in the quiet voice that makes it impossible to gauge how upsetting or special I am. She employs the same level of intensity to tell me we need more oatmeal as she uses to promise I will get into heaven. Ruby, they are showing Roman Holiday at midnight. Ruby, place your anger beside you and sit with it.
I squirm where I sit holding a gnarled tomato between my index and middle fingers. I picture it with arms and legs. I can teach this tomato how to walk and dance. Anything so I don’t have to look up and face Sister Helena’s disappointment in me full on, and in facing it, accept it.
“Please don’t be mad at me,” I say to the tomato.
With the last of the tomatoes, we make gravy. It simmers for hours, filling up the hallways and courtyard, picking up the corners of an otherwise regular Wednesday. That night, we feast. Lasagna, pizza, gnocchi. The sisters are giddy with good food. Even fat Sister Georgia eschews the constraints of her own personality to soak a hunk of bread in the gravy and bite into it with an erotic moan.
Good job, tomato plants.
In December I begin to see a man named Levon who sings in the choir. He visits me in the basement and we lie on top of the sheets of my bed. Sometimes we watch game shows on a television I buy at the Charity shop. He has more freckles than he needs and won’t sing for me. He believes when we die we get forgiven.
When I ask how certain he is about that he says, “Dead-bolt positive.”
I see his wife in Church sometimes, her purse clamped in her armpit like a wide receiver holding a football.
Levon asks if I love him and I say, I love cigarettes, they are my only, truest love. Sometimes I am still in the middle of smoking one when I already long for another. You tell me what is more love than that.
One afternoon, a storm collects around me as I sweep the courtyard. Dusk descends though it’s 2 o’clock, and the wind picks up, negating my match as I try to light a cigarette. Sister Helena calls: Ruby, better get in. She has the news on and there are advisories. Record-breaking winds and flooding. Biblical rains start and we can’t hear the television anymore. Thunder makes Sister Helena jump. I laugh every time.
Two quick pops, then a sound like a boulder detaching from the center of the earth. An explosion in the courtyard. The convent rattles. We rattle, too. What was that and will there be another one? Sister Charlene darts in, cries “Terese!” and darts out. Sister Helena and I look at one another then we dart too. The courtyard is gray and swirling. It takes a moment to figure out what we are looking at.
The glowing Terese has performed a swan dive into the courtyard, head planting into the tomato garden. She has embraced the garden with her concrete arms and broken the fence on two sides.
We can’t lift her. She stays until morning when the rain slackens. It takes ten of the sisters with ropes, calling instructions to each other, to get her off. When they do I scramble underneath to survey the damage. Terese has ripped the earth with her hands, taken out roots and vines. The work nature did for next year, demolished. I kneel. I hold an unattached leaf. It trembles.
Sister Helena says, “We’ll plant a new garden in the spring.”
“Right, yes, certainly.” I am polite with shock.
I feel her hand on my shoulder. Sister Charlene places her hand on my other shoulder. Then Sister Mary, Sister Georgia and the others I haven’t mentioned by name due to time constraints but who each had their own idiosyncrasies, likes and dislikes, they place their hands on my shoulders, my head.
The day before Christmas break, rainbow stickers decide who puts the angel on top of the tree. Chrissy gets it: an I-lost-my-sunglasses-have-you-seen-my-sunglasses-oh-they’re-on-my-head kind of girl.
God damn it! someone says and when Charlene and the kids turn around I realize I have said it. I have sullied the Lord’s name in a Catholic classroom.
Christopher is too in awe of the curse to be upset about the sticker.
“Maybe you are just unlucky,” I say to him.
At the Christmas party I realize I haven’t thought of Clive in weeks, so I do this to my mind: I goosestep into thoughts of him, toe first, testing what is still raw, where I will fall through. His ludicrous, twisted feet, his rope theatrics that bordered on genius. Turns out nothing is raw, and I think of him as an autonomous being I hope is doing OK.
One of the presents under the tree bears my name. The sisters gather around as I open it. Red silk slippers.
“Red because you’re unique,” Sister Charlene points out.
“Red because her name is Ruby,” Sister Georgia says.
Sister Helena says, “Your dancing shoes.”
Then, the sisters of Saint Joseph and I dance to “YMCA.” We put up our hands to make the letters. I play my leg like a guitar. They look at each other while they prance around, nodding approval and showing each other their hips, their rumps. They look at me, too.
Valentine’s Day: holiday of choice for five-year-olds. Each kid brings in enough Valentines for everyone in class, even an extra for Miss Ruby. We use felt hearts, sequins and scissors to turn brown lunch bags into mailboxes. In the morning, we arrange the mailboxes on the floor in anticipation of passing out the Valentines. Christopher goes on yellow for crushing a few of them in an excited carpet slide. During recess, he shows me his Valentines with the care of a scientist; pale blue robots each bearing his earnest signature. Then, trying to reach the highest monkey bar, he knocks Tyler’s head into a pole. In the moment before Tyler reacts, I will the world to stop. He begins to cry, slowly at first, then with virtuoso feeling.
Christopher looks at me with scared eyes.
Sister Charlene exhales. “Christopher, you are now the first child ever to go on red. Miss Ruby, take him to the office.” Balancing the weeping Tyler, she leans into Christopher. “While everyone else is getting their Valentines, you will be sitting in the office. We will pass out your Valentines in… your….absence.”
She turns on her heel and leads the ducklings back into the building. Christopher and I are alone in the courtyard where it has begun to rain. From his backpack he pulls a kid-sized Spiderman umbrella and opens it. As we walk, he looks around wildly. Something in him knows there is a way to get out of going, but he’s too young to know what it is.
I leave Christopher in the office and rejoin the class. Tyler milks his injury, holding an ice bag to a swollen knot in his head. He gets to read on the beanbag while we clean up the morning’s art supplies. Every kid wants to sit next to him. More than they want ice cream. More than they want God’s love. They beg, they twist, they plead. So Sister Charlene lets them take turns, two at a time. At what age does the sick kid become the least popular?
I think of Christopher in the office. This is his Valentine’s Day, and he has to spend it surrounded by brown light and the aggressive penciling of fat Sister Georgia.
I imagine my anger as a thing I can hold, and place it beside me. Anger, you are one ugly looking pile of crap.
The happiness of the Valentine promenade seems forced and wrong. I ask if I can be excused.
Sister Charlene glares, but nods.
Christopher sulks on a folding chair, legs high above the floor. His weeping has downshifted to small chokes of despair.
Sister Georgia looks up when I come in. I ignore her.
“We have to stop meeting like this.” I take the chair next to him.
He raises his tear-streaked face. “Is Tyler OK?”
“He’s fine, Christopher. He’s a big baby. He’s the patron saint of being a baby.”
Sister Georgia clears her throat.
I clear mine back at her. I feel a soft pressure on my hand. It is Christopher, reaching out to me. “I am a bad boy.” His eyes are pretty with tears. He shakes his head, as if there is nothing to be done in the matter of him.
“You are.” I nod. “But there are worse things.”
The door to the office swings open, revealing Sister Helena.
“Ruby,” she says. “There’s a cowboy in the courtyard to see you.”
He is in his Lone Star uniform, complete with steakhouse-issued chaps, wig of red corkscrew curls, and cowboy hat, which he doffs when he sees me.
“Howdy.” He holds his lasso. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“You haven’t called in a while.”
He releases the rope and it hovers over the ground obediently. He keeps small circles going as we talk. He says to the center of the swirling rope: “Come back.”
I strain to hear into the office, whether Christopher is crying again. All I can hear is Clive’s rope. “That’s so nice,” I say. I mean it. It’s a good day when someone, anyone, wants you. “You’re about six months and a couple weeks too late.” How amazing, I think, to be completely free of this, and how sad, and how pointless. Why do we pretend the people we love are special? I light a cigarette. The shelf life of getting over a rodeo cowboy is one year, tops.
“It’s never too late, Rubes.”
“That statement is inaccurate, Clive.”
He looks up from his rope for the first time. “What do you have to stay around for?”
Around the area of my heart, I feel a sharp pain. It is allegiance, or loyalty.
“Tomatoes,” I say. “You have to talk to them in a certain way. The soil has to be right. You can’t just throw them in.”
Suddenly in a motion I at the last second perceive could be aggressive, Clive advances toward me. When he is inches away he halts. I exhale smoke into his face. I hear the sizzle of the whip and feel cool air around me. The leaning tower.
“Enough,” I say. One by one, the columns of rope fall against the concrete. He bows his head, summons the rope.
“Goodbye, Clive.” I toe my cigarette out and walk away.
He rat-tails the wrought iron fence where the tomato plants sleep. It makes a pa–twink sound each time. Pa-twink. I used to love all the sounds of him, but now his tricks seem empty and tinny, the activities of a little boy.
Little boy. I am anvilled by a brilliant, sober idea.
“Clive,” I say. ‘Bring your rope and follow me.”
Christopher is staring into a corner, little boy mournfully. When he sees Clive his eyes widen.
“This is my friend,” I say. “He wants to show you some tricks.”
“Me?” he says.
“Just you. All the other kids can go to hell.”
Behind the desk, fat Sister Georgia clears her throat loudly.
I sit next to Christopher. “Do your thing, Clive.”
Clive bows to us. In our chairs, we bow. Clive gallops around the office. He yee-haws, he hitch-kicks, he yippie-skiddly-doos. He hurls his lasso to every corner of the room. When it is time for the Leaning Tower, Christopher can barely contain himself. Inside the whistling column of rope he claps and screams. Even fat Sister Georgia is moved. Over her paperwork, a smirk. When it is over, Christopher throws his arms around Clive’s knees. In the convent office that day, a private rodeo show for a bad little boy.
“You gave him the wrong message,” Sister Charlene says. It is after dismissal and I am being disciplined. We sit on beanbag chairs. Pinned to our blouses, construction paper hearts say Charlene! And Ruby! “You rewarded him for being bad.”
“I certainly understand,” I say, “how you could see it that way.”
Sister Helena and I order Chinese and eat in the kitchen. The other sisters are sleeping, reading or praying. We are lit by a single track of lights, and sit with the wide counter between us, passing containers of shrimp fried rice and corn soup back and forth. I tell her about Christopher’s Valentine’s Day. I reach the part when he realized he would not be passing out his Valentines when my throat closes and I am unable to breathe. I put my fork down.
“Sister,” I say. “I am going to cry.”
She touches her silverware lightly with her fingertips and nods.
I have big eyes that don’t produce tears often. When they do, they are prizewinning bulbs. Elephant tears. The first two smash against my collarbones.
We continue to eat. The soup is salty and warm.
I don’t want to cry in front of Sister Helena. My eyes twitch with effort; my throat fills with sorrowful carbonation. Sister Helena does not seem uncomfortable as she eats her fried rice.
I croak key phrases: Christoper, robot, why. “He has trouble printing. You know how long it probably took him to write his name on 14 Valentines? One lowercase h alone takes him five minutes.”
Remembering the curved handle of his Spiderman umbrella, it becomes impossible to continue. I cover my eyelids with my thumb and forefinger and shake the worst of it out. Sister Helena watches, giving me permission in her quiet, reverent way.
“I’m almost finished,” I squeak.
She moves onto her bowl of corn soup.
Finally, my crying subsides. I resume eating a forkful of shrimp. I say, “You tell me this: if God created everything, why did he create the brain I have that holds these thoughts? If he wanted us to think of nothing but sweet peas, why not engineer our brains so we can think of nothing but sweet peas?”
“What makes you different makes you special,” she says. “Don’t wish it away.”
She doles soup into my bowl.
“There is a word for these kinds of mushrooms,” she says. “The ones that look like houses.” She pins one with a fork and holds it out to me. “Shis-stack?”
“Shiitake,” I say.
That night Levon visits me and undresses by the foot of the bed. In the light a trick occurs and for a moment I think he is Sister Helena. I am glad for it. I would like her to lie next to me and press her woolen thighs against my stomach. Does she think of me in her prayers?
After sex, Levon and I lie in bed and glow. We are God’s messengers.
He says, “I have to go back to my wife.”
I admire them. They are good Christians. It must be comforting doing errands believing that when you die you’ll be wrapped in absolving light. The rest of us fight it out. Take medicine and say we’re sorry.
In March, we plant the new garden. The Sisters of Saint Joseph stand in the courtyard and say intentions as I walk by with a bucket of seeds.
“Go, tomato plants, go,” says Sister Helena.
“I am picturing you big and strong,” says Sister Charlene.
And so on, until we get to fat Sister Georgia, who looks away and tsks. “This is stupid, talking to seeds.”
I cover the bucket with my hands so they can’t hear. “Say an intention.”
“Come on, Georgia.” Sister Helena calls from the back of the line. The other sisters urge her until finally she says something in German.
I narrow my eyes. “Tell me what you said.”
She grins. “It’s between me and the tomato plants.”
“Georgia, if they grow up lopsided, you and I are going to have a come-to-Jesus.”
Her face contorts. She makes short barking sounds.
“What’s she doing?” I say.
Sister Charlene squints. “She’s laughing.”
Dear Apple juice Lord Tuscaloosa softball wonderful.
I kneel on the ground to say my own intention in private. I take a few of the seeds in my hand. No one knows what’s going on down here, guys, so just do your best. Try to be miracles. Be impetuous and stubborn. I will be here for you, every day.
I straighten up and realize what I have done is made a promise to be around.
“Fuck,” I say. “I have to quit smoking.”
Tonight, the sisters of Saint Joseph and I are going to the Slaughterhouse Bar. I have four rolls of quarters and we are going to dance until there’s blood in our slippers. It’s June, and the last day of Sunday school at Saint Terese. It’s barely 10 a.m., and Christopher is already on yellow. I’m proud of him; this year he has not learned a blessed thing.
Today, the kids will place a year of Sunday art projects into brown bags decorated with pipe cleaners. They will sit on the carpet and sing. Sister Charlene will walk around the circle and place bookmarks in front of them. The four kids with rainbow stickers will be allowed to pull out of the candy bin all their hands can hold.
The other kids can, essentially, suck it.
This lottery still infuriates me, but Sister Helena says my mind is on overload due to nicotine withdrawal.
Each time I want a cigarette, I eat an apple. If I have already eaten an apple, I start a hobby. Or, I talk to the tomato plants. Or, I sing a song with fat Sister Georgia who, it turns out, has a voice not unlike a cement mixer. This is surprisingly not unpleasant. If I have already done all that, I think of ways to mess with Sister Charlene. For example, today I was in charge of placing rainbow stickers on four bookmarks.
These kids will grow up. Some of the boys will never feel tall enough. Some of the girls will look great in pictures but in real life will be dull and forgettable, the girls on the bench at the mall you ask to move so you can throw out your soda. Some of them will never be able to find their keys. Some will triumph. One day, a person they love will say I do not love you. One day every one of them will die.
Today is not that day.
I think when we die, Jesus or Peter or whoever wheels in a VCR like they did in grade school to show us whatever we want from our life. We can rewind, fast forward, watch the good parts over and over. Life is shit mostly, but everyone has moments. Even me. Times when the clouds part and I am able to summon up a little hero.
Since Miss Ruby was in charge of placing the rainbow stickers on the bookmarks, today everyone gets one.
Today no one is lucky.