The Inside-Out Woman
CHAPTER 3: HOLY MEN
She was hot now, and sticky, and preoccupied, shifting her gaze between the wall phone receiver she gripped and the kitchen wall clock observing her from over the slider, until the eyes in the clock’s face seized her attention completely and refused to release it.
It was a dumb blue cat clock she and Billy had from the outset of their marriage. Billy bought it on their honeymoon in Indianapolis a minute after she randomly and facetiously uttered, “Cute.” Billy had a tin ear for sarcasm and she hadn’t the heart to tell him it repulsed her; its colonial blue feline body; its epicanthic eyes that moved in time with the stuttering sweep hand; the curved pendulum tail, dangerously sharp at the tip, that swung back and forth, clicking each second; and the mouth, the mouth that shouldn’t move, that had never moved, but that pursed exaggerated lips at her that very moment.
“What?” she shouted at the clock. “What? What? What?”
“Iam, it’s Billy. Are you all right? It’s one. I said I’d check in at one.”
“Billy,” she said to the clock. “It’s Billy. That’s it, right?”
“Iam, what’s going on? Are you and the kids okay? Will you please speak to me?”
Into the receiver, Iam said, “It’s one-ten … no one-eleven.”
“What?” said Billy.
“It’s one-twelve, Billy, not one o’clock. You’re late.”
“I’m sorry. Hey, is something wrong?”
“Everything’s fine, Billy, fine and perfect here. Peachy, I might say.”
“Peachy? Everything doesn’t …”
Lowering the receiver, leaving him expectant, she mumbled, “What are you saying?”
What had possessed her? Peachy, it was an Aunt Margie expression.
“How are you today, Aunt Margie?” she’d ask on each hospital visit.
“Peachy, Iam, peachy keen is how I am, dear.”
Was it the absurd clock, the way it stared at her, seemed to speak to her? But it was silent, except for its incessant, noisy flagging of life gone on by, second by second.
“No, Willy, we’re fine,” she said into the receiver. “It’s just we miss you. I miss you. And the tornado striking so close to Sullivan, it’s kind of unnerved me.”
“Sure, honey, I understand. Look, I know I said I’d be home by six, but it’s taking longer than I first thought it would. The damage is more extensive than I expected. I have appointments straight through the early evening. I don’t think I’ll be done until late, maybe after nine.”
“Oh, good, Billy. I’ll wait on the couch for you.”
“Honey, I wish I could get home earlier. I really wish I could. But it might be tomorrow if I run late, if the weather’s bad. But if it’s tomorrow, it’ll be early, first thing in the morning. I’ll call.”
“Billy, I miss you terribly. I need you, Billy.”
“I miss you, too, Iam, and I want you. I’ll try to be home sooner. I will.”
“Please try hard, Billy.”
“I will. I promise. How are the kids? They around?”
“Outside playing,” she said, and told him about school and Father Chapas’s hand out program. He laughed and said he couldn’t wait to get home when he could wrap her in his arms in their own bed. She said she couldn’t wait either.
She went to the slider by the kitchen, in the family room. Billy described it as a technically; the space barely extended beyond the width of the slider. The children used the area as their playroom. He promised to expand the children’s play space, what he called it, and had installed the slider as a down payment on the pledge. Family room was her joke, which he took as a reminder.
She averted her eyes to avoid the cat clock reengaging her, and stepped onto the small deck she and Billy had spent a summer building; it had been a harmonious, beautiful experience, more evidence she had chosen well in Billy.
She called to Dominic and Dominica. They were on the far end of the property, the back acre of the two of twenty acres they reserved for themselves, the rest they let during corn season to Mr. Ben Wilson and Son, contract farmers.
The children ran and skipped to her and sat on the step, a child on either side of her. The news their father would be home past their bedtime disappointed them. Iam assuaged them by promising a surprise later on.
“What kind of surprise?” Dominic asked.
“Oh,” Iam said, after a moment, “a big one.”
“How big?” probed Dominica.
The phone rang and saved her from hastily adding dimension to her vague promise. She asked Dominic to answer, if he didn’t mind; she always requested, never demanded like her mother had, to teach good manners. He raced inside because he liked the idea she trusted him to answer the phone politely. In a second, before Dominica could pursue a better definition of the surprise, Dominic pounded onto the deck, exclaiming, “Father Chapas.”
“Father,” she said into the receiver, focused on the window, tracking the children with her eyes to avoid the clock. But she could hear it; the seconds ticking louder it seemed, and faster, as if time had speeded up, or the cat clock was summoning her attention.
“Por favor, Señora Brick, llámeme Mario.”
“Oh, sure, Father Mario.” She disliked the informality, the friendship it implied, how it conveyed the false idea the priest was just folks, in it just like the masses, and perfectly able to understand your circumstances and emotions. There was more, too, something unarticulated but sensed, something unsettling. When she occasionally complained to Billy about the familiarity, he’d say, “Be grateful it’s not Father Bob, Father Carl, or Father Larry. How creepy is Father Larry?”
“I am sorry for the confusion this morning, Maryam,” he said.
“Not nearly as creepy as Father Chapas’s treacle, Billy,” she’d responded. Immediately, guilt rose in her for, after all, he was kind and his intensions were good and pure, though she wasn’t entirely certain, detecting an undercurrent of worldliness in him; that, maybe, it was this indistinct something that unnerved her.
“I don’t remember any confusion, Father … Father Mario.”
“Lo siento, it was my confusion, Maryam. I forgot to invite you to a little thank you celebration tomorrow.”
“I mean the children and you, Maryam. And Mr. Brick … Billy. It won’t be much, cookies and punch. But I believe showing the children God rewards His people for benevolent acts is instructive.”
“Okay, sure, Father Mario.”
“Forgive me, Maryam, but more confusion. I forgot to mention the eleven o’clock mass. It’s a special mass for the victims of the Knox tornado and for those who helped, like Dominic and Dominica, and Mr. Brick, too. It’s really the most important part of tomorrow’s thanksgiving. I hope it won’t be much of an inconvenience.”
“No, none. Actually, Billy might not be home until very late, so we’d probably be going to the eleven anyway.”
” Perfecto. Hasta mañana, Maryam.”
No, on second thought, it wasn’t the clock ticking that distracted her. No, it was a noise from within her, from the past.
It was the metal shell of the bus pinging in the hot summer sun on Pacific Coast Highway south of Carmel. Pater had CBed the drivers of the three-bus caravan to stop. Outside, with the ocean as his glorious backdrop, he thanked the Anointed People, and especially the five new converts, for a successful mission. He preached that God had spoken to him and commanded he reward the Father’s chosen for their accomplishments. Covertly in San Francisco, he had sent Iam and two others to a supermarket, where they bought cold cuts, bread, condiments, and beverages, everything necessary for a picnic.
“God rewards his People,” he proclaimed. “Let us enjoy His rewards for the next hour.”
When Pater finished, as was his practice, he strolled among the People, touching shoulders, drawing some close to whisper a personal thank you, offer encouragement, or inspire them to strive for greater enlightenment. To Iam, whom he’d come to trust and accept into the circle of leaders who surrounded him and on whom he had bestowed the Universal One name of Marcella, because she was indeed his mighty little warrior, he breathed, “Please, Marcella, go to my bus and wait for me. I have a special gift for you alone.”
“No,” she hissed at the face of the cat clock, “I will not do this again. I will not endure it again.”
She closed her eyes, and purled, “Please.”
On the bus, she waited alone. Lately, Pater had been entrusting her with more responsibilities, divulging secrets about the loyalties of Anointed People closest to him, and allowing her to glimpse his fears for Universal One and the world. And now he was about to confide something new. In the heat of the bus, she sat dizzy with anticipation.
“Marcella,” Pater said, sitting beside her, folding her hands into his. How soft they were, as hands that healed must be, as hands dispensing hope and love should be. “Marcella, are you devoted to your Pater?”
“Pater, you saved me. Of course.”
“Sometimes, Marcella, being the Chosen Delegate of God is a tremendous burden. It drains the very life from your Pater. At those times, your Pater must beg help to replenish his physical and spiritual strength.”
His proximity, his fragrance of fresh-washed purity, his penetrating eyes—polished blue ice that reflected back her, that communicated a divine understanding of who she was, of what she was capable, of self mysteries she could not hope to unseal without his guidance—his closeness set her mind whirling with adoration, for she believed she must be in the present of God’s true representative, and that this true prophet was calling upon her for rejuvenation.
She opened her mouth to speak and faltered.
He crinkled his eyes, smiled with them, and squeezed her hands to encourage her to overcome her nervousness.
“What do you need from me, Pater? I will do anything for you.”
He pulled her hands up and she submitted them to his control with willing eagerness. He guided the tips of her fingers up and down his cheek and over and under his lips. How smooth he is, how warm, she thought. He exudes care and love through every pore. Yet, if she allowed herself to step outside the aura that seemed to engulf them, his actions were strange, reminiscent, a reminder of solo Ricky so powerful she finally muttered, “Que?”
He probed her eyes. “What did you say, Marcella?”
“What, Pater? I said, what, in Spanish.”
“Spanish? You are Spanish, Mexican? I didn’t know.”
“No, Italian, Cardinale, Pater. Well, American really. I picked up some Spanish, you know, living in San Diego.”
“A little more than some. Enough to … to survive, I guess.”
“Get around, I mean. Get by.”
A small laugh escaped from him. “You truly are my little warrior, Marcella. I named you correctly, little one.”
Iam nodded demurely, disguising her pleasure, not wishing to reveal in the presence of the Chosen Delegate of God her pride.
He returned her hands to her, placed them on her thighs and patted.
“Marcella, I would like very much for you to see my room. Would that please you?”
“Yes, Pater,” she trilled, unable to restrain herself.
He led her to the compartment in the rear of the bus. It was a small space, created by removing three row of seats. In it was a letter table with a bench and a cot made up with a chenille spread in Pater’s favorite color, the white of the returning Lord. Pater worked day and night on behalf of Universal One and its Anointed People and was always among them, ministering to them, and with them, as in San Francisco, recruiting hungry souls with his promise of meaning, fulfillment, and salvation. His faithful built the space for him and insisted, against his protest, that he use it for his good, for his good was synonymous with that of the Church.
“It’s small,” she murmured, at once contrite for passing judgment.
“It is more than I deserve.”
She sensed his modesty and his embarrassment at being granted such riches when others had only the seats in the coach or the floor for resting.
“There are times, Marcella, when I require more comfort than this meager room can provide.”
“What I mean is I need for you to comfort me, Marcella.”
“Yes, of course, Pater. How, Pater?”
“I must go to the People for a few minutes. When I return, please be on the bed, Marcella, undressed.”
Iam stepped back from him, bumped the table, and reached behind to grip it both to steady it and herself. She was unable to utter a sound.
“If you are here, I will know you are truly devoted to your Pater, to strengthening him, and to the mission of Universal One.”
Without lingering for her response, he left the cramped room, closing the door behind him.
Impulsively, Iam grabbed the doorknob, but it would not move in her hand; her surprise over Pater’s direction had atrophied the muscles in her arm. She turned and stared at the bed, and she was not alone.
“Heh, heh,” cackled solo Ricky, a miniature of him seated cross-legged on the pillow. “Bueno, bueno, chiquita, sin duda eres popular entre los hombres santos.”
She screamed at the apparition, at the bed, at the loud, tormenting clock that insinuated itself into her memory, at its burning, relentless eyes, “Go away. You are not real. You aren’t. I know you aren’t.” She found distinguishing which of the two were real nearly impossible and shuddered with the long-held fear she’d caught, from years visiting the hospital, from hours in the bed in the attic, Aunt Margie’s penchant for delusion.
Ricky vanished, not leaving even an indentation on the pillow. But the bed was there, a tangible object in a substantial hut of a room, like a frightful shed where she would drink pink lemonade, the taste of which would linger with her for hours, days, forever.
You do not have to do this, dear. Walk off the bus, pretty as you please. Go away from the imposter.
No, he was a true savior, the new incarnation of God’s promise, who saved her, who worked authentic miracles in the Los Angeles Temple. How could she refuse Pater? How could she do any less for God’s representative on earth than she had for solo Ricky’s amigos? She belonged in the community of believers, where Pater and the People accepted and respected her. And, after all, hadn’t Mary Magdalene comforted another incarnation of the Father?
No, not anything remotely like the amigos; union with Pater would be sacred.
She undressed quickly and laid on the bed, first on her back, next shifting to her side, pulling up her knees and covering her breasts with her arms. She thought it was cold in the little room, when will he return, why has he forsaken me, when can I dress?
It was an eternal ten minutes until the door opened and Pater entered. He looked down at her, his face stern, as if her acquiesce displeased him, as if he’d tested her, presented her with a moral dilemma, and she had failed.
It wasn’t that at all. He said, “I prefer you on your back.”
As she obeyed, he unbuckled and unzipped his pants. They dropped to the floor and she saw he was erect. He climbed onto the bed, wagging like a dog she thought, and positioned himself between her legs, hooked his arms under her knees, lifted her, and thrust himself into her. He finished in a minute, almost prematurely. He put himself in order and consulted his watch. “You have five minutes before everybody boards,” he said, and left her in the room. She scurried off the bed and tossed on her clothes. Before opening the door, she straightened the bed. In the bus, she assumed her regular seat, and, shortly, the People, everybody in raucous spirits, piled on.
Pater climbed on last, accompanied by his wife Fidella and his number one aide Osma. They preceded him to the rear. He stopped at her seat and rested a hand on her shoulder. “You rendered a wonderful service today for the Church,” he said kindly. “I don’t want you under the impression we did not notice or appreciate your offering.”
Elated, she watched him follow the two women to the back, and disappear into his room with Osma. She understood how he had used her, but for the longest time she convinced herself she had succored him, el hombre santo.
Now, what, she thought, another holy man needed her?
“Is that what you’re telling me? Is it?” she bellowed, transfixed by the clock’s cat eyes.
Suddenly she was cold, dripping with freezing sweat. At the hospital on winter days when it was too cold to walk outside, they’d visit Aunt Margie in the great room on the first floor of her building, the Romper Room she’d overheard the attendants call it. The room was always tropical, too hot to bear wearing a coat, but she could not remove hers no matter how many times her mother commanded her to. She would sweat profusely, and the sweat would chill her, and in the hot room she would shake. “Iam,” her mother would say, “you’re as crazy as these …” Her mother would finish variously with idiots, nuts, loons, whackjobs, and sometimes with Aunt Margie, “You’re crazy as your aunt.”
Iam rubbed her arms, squeegeed the sweat off them, but could not warm herself. She went into the front hallway closet, took her cable cardigan from the top shelf, and put it on, and laid down on the sofa. She continued shaking and moaned, too, oblivious to everything but her desire to be warm again, and to forget, when a small faraway voice disturbed her.