The Inside-Out Woman
CHAPTER 2: PINK LEMONADE
Iam sat indulgently alone in the foyer of Holy Redemption’s Parish Center at the end of a short row of metal folding chairs placed there by Father Chapas for the convenience of parents who arrived early for their children. The doors separating the foyer from the cavernous hall were closed, but the happily excited voices of the children and teens working behind them leaked through to Iam. Soon, she expected, parents would begin occupying the other chairs, and the peace of the moment would be lost.
Father Chapas, he was an oddity in Sullivan County, unmistakably Mexican, darkly complexioned, with pronounced mestizo features, barely taller than Iam, and susceptible to modest stoutness; he was also indisputably Midwestern, undeniably pious, hungrily gregarious, and, to Iam’s mind, urbane, perhaps too much so.
He grew up a fortunate Mexico City orphan, brought up in Colon at Santa María de la Salvación. He studied at St. Mary of the Lakes seminary, north of Chicago, drawn to it after years of choral missions to elicit donations from the wealthy and compassionate gringos. He served for several years at a church on Chicago’s west side, developing into an activist who, it seemed to those in authority, relished too much the championing of immigrants, exceeding the bounds of priestly duties when he provided sanctuary to a family badly wanted by ICE. For this reason, the archbishop searched for a suitably isolated appointment, to rekindle the priest’s vows of humility and obedience. The archbishop of Evansville, desperate for priests, gratefully accepted Father Chapas on behalf of Holy Redemption, a parish squarely in the rural and conservative quarters of the diocese.
Five years ago, Sullivan, Indiana, was an alien world to Father Chapas. Its placidity, its conservativeness, its boredom, the very characteristics Iam prized, as well as its homogeneity, had engendered discomfort in him. His first year proved miserable. For Lent in his second year, he forswore, in addition to the beloved extravagance of his Veracruz cigars, his melancholy. He adopted the virtue of acceptance. Afterwards, he resumed smoking the occasional cigar in the privacy of his rectory, and came to view his parish in a new light. He vowed to immerse parishioners in the reality of the world outside the boundaries of Sullivan County.
He began with Santa María, inviting the bothers to bring their fund-raising boys and girls choir to sing at Holy Redemption each year. He adopted his former Chicago church as Holy Redemption’s urban sister, periodically leading adult and teenage parishioners to Chicago for weekends of repair work, branding these missions of sharing and education. He initiated a Saturday evening mass in Spanish to encourage participation by Sullivan County’s sparse Latino population in parish activities. His parishioners, in the spirit of fellowship he preached and practiced, responded well, and the Holy Spirit, Father Chapas believed, filled him up with contentment.
Iam waited in the hard folding chair in the name of Father Chapas’ fellowship. Dominic and Dominica worked behind the doors helping pack boxes with food staples for distribution to county residents in need. Father Chapas coined the program “Sharing Sullivan’s Wealth with Sullivan,” though today it was “A Hand Out to Knox,” a slogan he regretted after he’d spontaneously announced it.
Women entered in singles and pairs and soon no empty chairs remained.
“How are you, Maryam?” and “Good to see you, Maryam,” they greeted, though everybody had seen and chatted with everybody else as recently as yesterday picking their children up from school. Several asked, “What’s Billy say about Knox, Maryam?” She replied Billy reported the situation pretty much what he expected, cars and pick-ups dinged by falling branches, two flattened by fallen trees, many houses stripped of siding, two sheered of their roofs, some businesses damaged, but no serious injuries, or, thank God, deaths. In response, a few eyes drifted impatiently toward the doors. Iam may have misread the meaning as politeness born of tedium, but saw no harm in adding, “Billy says those poor people will certainly appreciate what the children are doing.” The women smiled and nodded and several of those seated brushed their jeans. On second thought, Iam concluded, perhaps she’d been right.
At last, the doors exploded open, banged against their floor stops, and disgorged more than a dozen grade-age children exuberant over their morning of charitable work and anticipating an afternoon of freedom. Behind them charged Father Chapas urging, “¡Caminen niños! Walk, walk,” to little effect.
Amid the pleasantries exchanged by mothers and children and Father Chapas and his ushering out of them, Dominic and Dominica regaled Iam with what they had done, how they had prepared boxes consisting of wrapped sandwiches and chips and fruit and juice boxes for children like them, except these were poor unfortunate versions who did not know where their next meal was coming from. They went on and on, allowing time for Father Chapas to wish the departing families well, and position himself next to Iam and beam at her and her children.
“Dominic and Domincia did wonderful work, Señora Brick. Hermosos niños, debe estar muy orgullosa.”
“Yes, I am. Thank you, Father,” she said, curbing the urge to answer in kind that would encourage him to engage her, to dredge blindly and unknowingly her buried past with solo Ricky, with Pater’s L.A. crusade, with the Raisin City locals and pickers, with the ghosts in the box. “And happy to hear they work for someone,” casting an eye on Dominic, who responded by examining his feet.
Sometimes kindness was a mistake; sometimes you had to harden your heart. There it was, too frighteningly vivid in her mind, a theological derivative of Pater. “Marcella,” he would repeat as the apocalypse approached, “you must love with a hard heart. To be of use to me, to my Father, to the Anointed People, you must make your heart impenetrable like armor.” No, she could not believe such a thing, could not accept it, would not any longer allow herself to be wielded as a strong arm of the Universal One with this as a precept. The memory was like talking to him, as if he stood next to her.
She blinked. She felt her children’s hands tug hers. She brought Father Chapas into focus, smiled at his attempt to dress casually, his black lace shoes and socks, his black clerical suit slacks, his bright blue polo shirt that emphasized the hillock above his belt. Though, yes, there was truth in the idea. In the case of Father Chapas, the occasionally hard heart was required as a barrier to a past she did not want intruding on her life, the best life she’d ever had, ever could have imagined. It had been a mistake to comfort him with kind words in his own language his first year at Holy Redemption. She’d done it in privacy, away from her children and Billy, after he’d wished her, as he had everybody, “Feliz Navidad.” She’d responded that Christmas in Colon and the mountains of Querétaro must have been very different, very beautiful; that he must remember it fondly and with longing, especially during these interminably dark, cold nights; all spoken softly, kindly, compassionately in his language. “Señora Brick, estamos de acuerdo,” he said, for he surely missed the land, the warmth, the love of his orphan brothers and sisters, the manifested kindness and love of God contained in them, and more, too, above a whisper, so she had to shush him, to say good night abruptly, hard, in English.
“Well,” Father Chapas said, “I must wish you a good afternoon. Los jóvenes probably have filled the truck already and are asking, ‘Where is Father? Sleeping on the job?'”
Iam glanced at her children and said nothing.
“Okay, well, I will look for you at mass tomorrow,” he said, retreating through the doors.
In the car, Dominic whined he was hungry and wanted to stop at McDonald’s like normal kids. Iam ignored him and made lunch for both and herself at home, tuna salad, a vegetable, an apple each, and, as a treat, a reward for their good work, pink lemonade. It was from concentrate in the freezer with the vegetables. She couldn’t recall buying it, never bought it because she preferred water and milk for the children; truly, though, she despised it for other reasons. Billy might have picked it up at the market; but he wouldn’t; maybe it was her mistake. She couldn’t say what possessed her to make it. But that seemed an excuse for something. For what? She tried ignoring the question, paying attention to the children.
Eating, Dominic and Dominica playfully disputed the events of the morning, who packed more boxes, who earned more compliments from Father Chapas.
Iam drifted, half listened, shifted her gaze here and there; she tried not to stare at Dominic.
How did he find the box? She was certain she’d hid it well, not for fear the children or Billy would discover it. They didn’t know it existed and had no reason to search for it. No, she hid it for fear the sight of it would compel her to look inside, as she had. When she escaped Pater, when she satisfied herself that Billy was what she sought and needed, that Sullivan was her salvation, she spent an afternoon destroying nearly every remnant of her past: childhood, mother, her time in El Cajon, her life in Universal One. Yet, when she finished, links to whom she had been remained. For an hour, they occupied the table, things alive, people in the photos weirdly animated, not in her mind, but as miniature beings on the table, Lilliputians parading about pleading their cases for survival. I bore you. I love you. I will save you. Each argument appealed to her. If she destroyed them, everything would vanish and it would be as if she had not existed before Sullivan, that what Billy had professed would be the whole truth of her life. “I don’t need to know anything you don’t want me to,” he’d said a week after rescuing her. “It’s enough to know you love me.” And, strangely, he was among them on the table. Would nothing exist if she tore up these photos and clippings and dropped the pieces in the garbage, no past, no present, no future, no beautifully average tomorrow with Billy Brick? No, she needed certain connections with her past. For an indefinable reason, she knew she would be lost without some of it, extant though hidden.
“I like lemonade. More, please,” Dominic said.
Iam poured him a second glass from the pitcher on the table and asked Dominica if she wished a refill. She didn’t.
Dominic said, “You should get it all the time.” He drank greedily, slurping.
“Slow down,” Iam said, “you’ll choke.”
This is what you provide for the son my Father recalls to life, a naughty, disobedient snot? I vow to be a more pleasing son. Without delay, Marcella, demonstrate you remember what I taught, the virtue of hard love. Let him suffer the hard love of Righteous Wrath. He will become the superior vessel worthy of the world’s salvation.
“No!” she shouted, her thundering vehemence reverberating in the kitchen.
The children suddenly scraped back their chairs, perched on the seats, and stared at her, their eyes big with shock.
“What?” Iam asked. “What? Your father home? What is it?”
“You’re mad, Mommy,” Dominica whimpered.
“Mad? No, I was just thinking.”
“You yelled. You hit the table,” she said. “You’re mad at us.”
Iam turned her hand and studied it. “Hit the table? Me? Angry? No …” Her red palm and its aching startled her. She wrapped her other hand around it, rubbed it. “I don’t know. No, I’m not mad. It was an accident. Look, if you’re finished, why don’t you go into the yard and play. It’s beautiful today. Go on, go play.”
They slid off their chairs cautiously. It wasn’t fear radiating from their eyes; it was concern, as if they were in the kitchen with someone other than their mother, not a complete stranger, not that foreign, but a new, frightening dimension of the person they loved. It wasn’t that Iam never lost her temper with them. Dominic afforded her ample opportunity to display her exasperation, like the current incident with the box; she was sorely tempted to extract the story of how he found the box, of why he assumed he could put it under those little microscope eyes of his, prying into the secrets of her life. By what right?
Anger! Yes, Marcella, educate his smart ass with the very definition of angry. Convince me once again of your worthiness. Play a song of love and adoration for me on the backside of that you have prepared for me. Ensure nothing will turn the boy against us before the time, the time that is almost upon us. Punish this despicable prier ….
“No!” Iam screamed.
“Mommy, you’re scaring us,” bawled Dominica, mysteriously in Dominic’s arms, the two huddled, their eyes moist, tears on the verge of cascading down their innocent cheeks.
Dominica could irritate her with her passiveness, with her prissiness, and with her weepy meekness, her disgusting weakness.
What weak meat. Repulsive. Mealy. Our enemies will devour her like treats after she betrays us. Harden the little bitch, Marcella. Show her she can withstand any pain our enemies can serve up. Visit upon her Righteous Wrath …
“No, no, no!” Iam cried, “Please, no.”
“Are you sick, Mommy?” Dominic asked, pretending courage though his voice cracked.
“Sick?” she repeated. “No, no, I’m not sick. It’s just … just, for a moment … for a moment I thought of the tornado in Knox County. Yes, I thought about it, and it frightened me. Can you imagine?”
“Will it come here?” Dominica asked, trembling, Iam hoped, at the prospect of swirling up and away in a funnel, and not at her.
“Oh, no. It’s all gone. That’s why Daddy’s there. He’s helping those poor people put their lives back in order.”
“And we helped, too,” Dominic said.
“That’s right, both of you helped.”
“You aren’t sick?” Dominica said, calming.
“Me, no. Just there for a moment, you know, the sadness caused by the tornado. Well, I guess your mommy is an old cry baby.”
The children released each other and rushed to their mother who was once again the person they loved, the same familiar person inside and out. They hugged her waist.
“No you’re not, Mommy,” Dominic said. “You’re brave, like a boy.”
“Well, thank you very much for the compliment, Dominic. I’ll tell Daddy you said so the next time he calls me an old softy. Now, look. It’s a beautiful day. Don’t waste it in here with me. Go outside. Play. Let me finish cleaning.”
Dominic ran out the slider, Dominica skipped behind him, and Iam breathed deeply several times.
Clearing the table, setting the plates in the sink, she muttered, “It’s the box. It’s getting to me. Iam, you must forget the box.” She saw an inch of pink lemonade in the pitcher and absently poured it into her glass and drank.
The taste froze her solid in her place at the sink. Her vision blurred and the backyard and kitchen vanished.
She’d been walking with her mother and her aunt throughout the grounds of the hospital, up and down hills, around bends that revealed lovely small ponds, thinking it was like a park, but better than the park at home, bigger, more interesting, filled with buildings and people, everybody dressed as they would on Saturdays for shopping in the city. That part was pleasant, the walking, the surroundings.
Next, she was in the small, suffocating room, the walls dingy green, a horrid, revolting, institutional bile. That was it, she remembered; she hadn’t added enough water and the lemonade was sickly sweet, nauseatingly syrupy. It was the lemonade she drunk with Aunt Margie back at the hospital, back years ago as a little girl no older than Dominic.
She was in the building containing the concession stand. Oh, it was so incredibly distasteful. It was not an actual building but a mere hut, a squat brick shed of a structure fit for not much more than storing things. But it wasn’t the worst of it; nor was the cloying lemonade that clung to her tongue and exacerbated her thirst, or the black licorice Nibs that lost their taste in her mouth. Not her mother, either, her sour face, her resentful tone, her barely disguised anger at being the only sibling decent enough to visit Aunt Margie.
Aunt Margie was the worst. Aunt Margie was crazy, and the woman knew it because Iam’s mother told her she was nutty, a lunatic; she said, right to Aunt Margie’s face, “You’re in the right place with all the other nutburgers in the county.” Said this and more right to Aunt Margie’s face and Aunt Margie responded by staring at her mother and her vacantly. “Look at her, Iam. Why do I bother? Tell me, Margie, why do I bother the least little bit with you?”
It was horrifying, almost unbearable, knowing Aunt Margie was empty; that upon each return some doctors in the tower on the hill, the edifice of the county, had electrified into oblivion everything, good and bad, sane and demented, every memory, including of a girlhood like her own, every last shred of her humanity, every last thing Aunt Margie had been; and even more, every last hope, eventually, of ever existing as more than a lump of flesh that was … was there, present, and nothing else, a silent column of breathing, insensate meat. And though this could not be, Aunt Margie whispered to her now:
I have come for you. I am returned to help you, dear.
She was back in her kitchen, a sheen of sweat coating her arms and chest, chilling her, sending shivers through her, as she stared out onto her yard, at Dominic and Dominica playing, past them, out over the land blasted naked by tornados a decade ago and not fully restored.
She rubbed her arms vigorously. She couldn’t wipe away the chill. She considered going to the closet for a sweater. But a sweater in June, in a heat wave; it was ridiculous, insane … insane like her Aunt Margie who died in the winter a few years after that summer.
It was an accident, said the hospital. She’d been on the grounds, those beautiful park grounds, with a group of other patients and an attendant and for some inexplicable reason had wandered into a roadway unnoticed by everybody, including the driver of a van. The call came at dinnertime, a night her mother served fried hamburgers to her sister and her. She had just doused hers with ketchup, a thick, rich red layer of it, to hide the blackened meat, when her mother answered the phone, listened for a moment, mumbled for another moment, hung up, and shook her head. Iam was about to slice the red glob with her fork, when her mother said, “Bad news, children. Aunt Margie is dead.” “Dead how?” asked Ruth. “Run over by a truck delivering fruit of all things,” answered her mother. Maryam looked up from her plate precisely when a smile flashed across Ruth’s face and vanished quickly into her usual state of solemnity. “Let’s bow our heads and pray for poor Aunt Margie,” her mother said. They did, and her mother concluded the prayer with the codicil, “It’s for the best, children. Aunt Margie’s happy now, for the first time.” Maybe, thought Iam, but now I can’t ever eat ketchup again, never, because on her plate she saw the fried hulk of what had been Aunt Margie after the hospital and the doctors and the electrotherapy and the truck driver finished with her; Aunt Margie cloaked in blood bright as her condiment.
Iam cried uncontrollably, silly, stupid gales of tears, when she confessed how she greeted the death of her aunt to the Anointed People and to him. She loved Aunt Margie she wailed. She loved her and pitied her and took refuge in her and all she could do at Aunt Margie’s death, while her sister burned up her rosary beads in sorrowful prayer, was fret that she could never eat ketchup again. Pater understood. Many times Pater understood before you yourself did, before you ever expressed what troubled you. He possessed the power to enter your mind and soul and heal you with a few tender, consoling words. “Filia, you were a liber. Liberi always believe God created the world for them alone. They resent anything disrupting it. In your heart, you loved your aunt. In your head, you were merely a child. Today, you suffer guilt, and the ketchup reminds you of your guilt. It is nothing but an association. You have nothing of which to be guilty. See for yourself.” It was her second meal at the Worship Temple, hamburgers and hotdogs the fare, and Pater personally offered her ketchup for her burger. She hesitated, but he urged her with his glowing, heavenly smile. She accepted the bottle and squeezed out the tiniest dollop. He shook his head. She squeezed twice more until the blotch of ketchup covered the meat end to end. He nodded affirmatively, gently. She ate a bit of the burger with ketchup. “And?” he asked. “Delicious,” she said. “And Aunt Margie?” “I love Aunt Margie and I was just being spiteful,” she said. “Be happy, Filia, with all God’s gifts.” “I will, Pater.”
She found herself in the living room on the sofa. Over her shoulders was the afghan she’d crocheted for Dominic’s crib. Billy’s mother taught her and she’d crocheted a spread for Dominica’s, too, and the scarves the family wore during the bitter winters. Dominic at six protested first about his afghan, that it was for a baby and he certainly wasn’t a baby. Dominica followed his lead almost immediately. Iam was too practical to discard the afghans and too sentimental about them to donate them to Father Chapas’ annual clothing drive for the poor unfortunates of the county. Instead, she draped each over an arm of the sofa, where they stayed winter and summer.
She shook under Dominic’s afghan. She reached for Dominica’s, opened it over her chest, and still she shook. She fastened her eyes on the ceiling. It was the box and she was like Pandora awhirl in the phantoms of its contents.
“I should have destroyed it,” she said. “I will destroy it now.”
She struggled to rise in the cold, when the phone rang.