Mom was a world class liar. Once in a lifetime. She believed that a solid lie should have few moving parts; this theory allowed her to capitalize on the specious notion that true-sounding things are brief. Mainly, Mom got her whoppers over with a confident attitude,brevity and something in her eyes that told you not to fuck with it further.
“He had an accident” was all Mom had to say about our late father, who died when I was two, shortly after my sister Tess was born. Although it was terse, there was an uncharacteristic open-endedness to the statement that stank of a lie. But that hardness in Mom’s eyes closed the subject. And quizzing our only other living relative (a pill-head grand aunt from his side) was pointless because old Anna-Lou knew better than to cross Mom.
Still, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t as though we knew him; he was little more to us than our surname and another smiling ghost trapped here and there in photographs. But that changed in 1971 when I was twelve and Tess had just turned ten. One of Tess’s subhuman classmates had teased her about not having an old man. He said that ours had shot himself in the head to avoid knowing us–Tess especially.
“Tell me, fuckface, or else.” I collared the boy after school, in the alley near our apartment, and held his face inches above a freshly pinched pile of dogshit. He told me that he’d heard his parents talking about it. Though I believed him he got a quick shot of the or else on account of making Tess cry.
I usually did my best to commit assault in private. I don’t know how Mom felt about it, but people are usually more forthcoming when facing “or else” without hope of rescue. Tess had stood guard as I dealt with Mr. Little Big Mouth, but as we soon found out, there had been a witness.
We lived in a basement apartment in an immense old house that should have razed decades before. Our place had three rooms, a bath and rented for thirty bucks a month. There was only one (often rain-swollen) door, which opened into the kitchen. Being mostly underground the place was a cave and the walls sweated no matter the weather.
It was Friday and Mom was seated at the kitchen table talking on the phone with her best friend Nora (who died three years later from ovarian cancer at just twenty-nine). Not even an hour had passed since the action in the alley.
“Let me call you back, hon–double trouble just blew in.”
This was around the time when Mom had stopped speaking directly to me unless absolutely necessary, or was pissed off enough to do so. Tess had the charm of ten and served as our go between.
“Hiya Mom,” Tess said.
“Hi yourself,” Mom said, cradling the phone. “Goddam old bat Graydon called a few minutes ago. She says she saw you two working over a little boy in the alley.”
Mr. and Mrs. Graydon ran the little store in our neighborhood. He had one arm and she was a Jesus freak. It figured she had seen us, she was always more interested in other people’s business than her own.
“Oh, Mom,” Tess laughed, “it was nothing. He started something, that’s all.”
I was nosing about in the fridge. I found a bottle of orange soda that I opened by holding the edge of the cap against that of the counter and giving a good whack with my palm. I drank my half in one swallow and gave the rest to Tess. “Miz Graydon’s soft in the head,” I said to the room in general. “She thinks my name is Susan.”
“Good thing they go by numbers where you’re headed,” Mom, sufficiently pissed to speak to me, said. And for a second there I almost told her about it, just to see if I could hurt her with the information, to let her know we’d caught her in a lie. But Tess and I had agreed to keep it to ourselves; I broke faces not promises.
Still a few months shy of thirteen, I already towered over both Tess and Mom, as well as most of the kids at school–no one ever dared to call me “just a girl.” I only mention that because I was certainly big enough to trade swings with Mom even though it didn’t first happen until 1972. I’m positive something would have gone down that afternoon if Tess hadn’t been able to defuse the situation.
Sensing danger, Tess wrapped her arms around Mom’s shoulders from behind and kissed her on the cheek and offered her a drink of orange soda. “We’re sorry mama,” Tess laughed, “puleeze don’ give us to the cath-lick orph-nage with the mean nuns.”
It was odd to watch Mom, who, next to lying, took pride in her ability to manipulate people (mostly men) get played herself, utterly ignorant that it was happening to her. And to her dying day Tess could ruthlessly play Mom like a fifth ace no matter how deep the shit got.
A sinister smile appeared on Mom’s face. She had something to play herself. She never smiled like that unless she held the advantage.
“No orphanage,” she said, “but I did agree to send you guys to some Christer thing the Graydon biddy runs called ‘Good News.’”
Before I could protest, Mom raised her voice, just a touch. What she said next was both the best and worst in Mom; it still rings fresh in my mind after more than fifty years.
“I woulda told any other Christer to eat shit–which I hear you two know something about. But since Graydon lets us have credit, and since you guys prefer eating to starving at the end of the month, you can go till the check comes.”
Religion was one subject on which I had respect for Mom’s point of view. She had been born in Canada, was orphaned at three and became a ward of the Catholic Church. Sometime around the age of eight or nine, and for reasons unclear, she was “shipped” to the United States. Mom ran away from Saint James Academy in Seattle for good at fifteen, got married at sixteen, had me before turning seventeen and was a widow with two kids at nineteen–and learned late, like so many, that she wasn’t cut out to be a mother because she didn’t like children. Though Mom habitually embroidered the details of her eleven year war with the nuns, the soul of the experience sounded true enough. One thing was for certain, the great hostility she had for all things Christer was unimpeachable.
Still, Mom wasn’t an idiot. She knew Tess would do as told, but my attendance hinged on Tess’s strange ability to get me to do things I would not normally do. I don’t think Mom cared much as long as one of us went; she figured it would be enough to shut Mrs. Graydon up, thus protecting our line of credit. Anyway, a fifty percent salvation rate for the Spahr sisters was about as good as any Christer could hope for
“Good News Club” was held on Wednesdays after school at the Presbyterian Church. Turned out that all the Christian churches (except the Catholics, who had their own thing) took turns hosting what was best described as a weekday version Sunday School–just in case the urge to sin rebounded by the middle of the week. The Baptists, Methodists and Luterans and such were all in on it. Not that Tess or I knew anything about Sunday Sunday School–since we’d never set foot in a church of any kind before, but that was the gist of Good News.
And there we were on Wednesday. We because Tess had managed to get me to come along once–though I let it be known that I’d probably ditch the first chance I got. Tess’s charm had nothing to do with my appearance; she had found a brand new Swiss army knife just lying there in a parking lot on Saturday, and the little witch wouldn’t trade it for anything else other than me accompanying her to Good News.
The meeting room was in the clean, well lit basement. About half the size of a regular classroom, the walls were that faux knotty pine paneling you could not get away from in the seventies. There were three rows of folding chairs facing a lectern that had a portable blackboard behind it.
The defining theme of the room, surprise, was Jesus. Although the sober Presyterians had hung only one picture of the Lord on the wall, it was big and inescapable. Tess whispered that he looked like George Harrison with John Lennon colored hair; I thought he looked constipated. Seems to me there was a copy of the Ten Commandments hanging somewhere, as well as a poster containing the Lord’s Prayer, but I really don’t remember. I do recall that there were no plaster crosses, Madonnas or anything else that could be interpreted as a “graven image”–none of the stuff you see in a devout Catholic home.
The other kids ranged in age from seven to thirteen. They were the usual assortment of goody-goodies and spazzes that I associated with obedience.
I really have nothing else to add about Good News because I soon asked some kid where the girl’s room was before Mrs.Graydon arrived. And that was the last the Christers saw of me.
Throughout her hectic forty-eight years, my sister was a sucker for spiritual mysticism. Mom called such “Tessie’s phases”–as though Tess was perpetually seven. It was Mom’s catchall for the things about Tess she didn’t want to understand. Although Tess would immediately go all in with whatever nonsense had stuck her fancy, she wouldn’t remain in love for long. When something like Transcendental Meditation was over it was dead to her and stayed that way. She endlessly and fruitlessly sought the dreampurple in the material world–a state of being better than reality, which she found only in opiates and a special sadness that lay beyond her words, but was within the reach of her paint brush. As I saw it, organized spiritual pursuits inevitably disappointed Tess due to the participation of other people.
Jesus Christ fared a little better than the others to come during the late Winter of 1971, but in the end the Lord again wound up on Calvary Hill, this time via Ivy Green Cemetery, and this time there would not be a resurrection.
Still, for about three weeks Miss Hester Marie Spahr was an honorary apostle. She filled up the blank sash the Good News Club had given her with the buttons they awarded students who memorized Bible verses. Tess wore the thing to school on Wednesdays. If she didn’t have it concealed under her jacket, she would have walked alone.
And yet I believe that she got Christianty. She understood grace and kindness and already believed that faith was a relationship with God, and had nothing to do with the cessation of smoking or drinking or saying fuck. Even though it didn’t last, Tess was more of a Chrsitian than most who fill the pews. And her phase left me to assume that people who have genuine, unshakable faith are the luckiest people by far. If they are right, it’s hallelujah ever after–if not, they never know.
It was the day after Tess’s last attendance at Good News that she convinced me to come along with her to visit our father’s grave in Ivy Green Cemetery. Anna-Lou had told her where to find it; frankly, until then I never thought about him having a grave; ever since I see both him and Jesus occupying the same hole.
Ivy Green lay about a half mile from the apartment and I bitched every inch of the way as though I was the little sister. Tess had guilted me into going because she said it was the sort of thing daughters should do. I didn’t see the sense in it, but I was also curious to take a look anyway, for it seemed strange to have someone who helped make me already dead in a box.
“This is dorky.”
“You hate everything.’’
“Only the stuff I’m forced to do…Man, it’s gonna rain. You ain’t wearing that spazzy sash are you–Molly Kewl?”
Tess usually got shitty about being called “molecule.” But there was a change in her attitude that day that I was too busy whining to notice. Anyway, as a personality, Tess was as variable as springtime weather; tracking her shifting moods would have left little time for anything else.
But I really should have noticed the death of God and Jesus and the Saints and Good News Club.
We found his stone toward the foot of the long slope in which Ivy Green was seated. It was a flat granite square which contained his name and “1961”–nothing else.
“You think he shot himself for real?” Tess asked, turning her head to face me, already knowing the answer, yet there was a dim flicker of hope in her eyes.
We never questioned our sloppily gained knowledge. It explained the strange quiet that fell over Mom when either Anna-Lou or Nora mentioned “Roy” in even the slightest passing, as though a terrible secret was edging in on her. I don’t know about pithy truths, but I do know that ugly things are usually the gospel.
She bent over and tapped on his stone and looked up at me. “Mrs. Gradon said at yesterday’s meeting that people who kill themselves kill God’s Image and go to hell–Mrs. Ray said so too.”
“I dunno Mrs. Ray, but I know Mrs. Gradon’s a cooze. She probably said it ‘cuz she knows.”
A primitive rage began to rise in me. I imagined hurting Mrs. Graydon, bad, in an unnatural sort of way, the kind that makes the papers and gets you locked up for good.
“Yeah,” Tess said. And there was a softness in her eyes and voice that only came about when she loved something. Unlike her crushes and phases, when Tess truly loved something she never stopped. I guess that the self murder of the father is as dreampurple as things can get.
So, Jesus died. His memory lay at the bottom of our closet in the shape of the discarded sash, until it somehow got tossed out. As well as the Bible the Presbyterians had given her. I was shocked when Mom found it in Tess’s stuff at the end. I opened it and confirmed that it was indeed the genuine article. I had “autographed” it for Tess some time after she’d buried the Lord at Ivy Green.
Can’t walk on water without you–
Miss you bunches–
Jesus H. Christ