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First Pages. Chapter One. Illustrated Novel "Where the Lines Cross"

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Cars gathered in the Saint Jude’s parking lot. Cars with Saint Christopher medals and pine air fresheners swaying in unisoncars with crank windows and dirty ashtrays, Turtle Waxed sedans in from the suburbs and garages of their very own, a car with one red door and Bondo over the left rear fender. The gentle widows, the steadfast, the devout, the terrified of dying, the good wives clutching handbags in the passenger seats, the ones who were brought up to do the right thing. One after another, they surfed the derelict potholes, exhaust pipes scraping the asphalt. Then came the hearse, jostling the dead, and the bagpipe player (he drove a Lexus.) The news van was no surprise. The random attack and subsequent demise of an elderly nun was a trophy headline after all. This on top of all the rest.

At the far end of the Saint Jude’s parking lot sat a six-family apartment building the color of grime, its once beige aluminum siding detaching like bark from a sickly tree. From the perch of his third-floor window Florian watched the lot below. If asked why, why this fixation with the church outside his window, Florian might have contended that the practice of atheism occasionally called for an active, if not ceremonial renunciation of faith. As far as attending the funeral? Absolutely not. He could watch it from the comfort of his herringbone chair. With his binoculars. And here is where we find the 42-year-old Florian Lutz, immersed in his own contradictions, negating the very history that made him.

Inside Saint Jude’s, a mother in the second to last pew wiped a menopausal flash of sweat from her forehead with a Burger King napkin fished out of her oversized purse. The Mass was set to begin 15 minutes ago. It was hot, wasn’t it hot? Her twin boys were whacking each other with rolled up bulletins/nun-chucks. Gritting her teeth, she yanked the nun-chucks out of their hands and tossed them onto the pew. She paused at the sight of it: Mother Bertram’s name and dates, 1921-2010, the gargantuan force of her now reduced to typeface.

Illustration: Photo of rolled up church bulletins/nun-chucks

Music was initiated in an attempt to offset the delay. The bishops had hired out for the musical accompanimenta voluptuous woman and dashing young man, both with the same remarkable nose (her son?). The woman played a harp and the man a viola.

The harpist, now harboring a sizable resentment (her contract clearly stated a single pre- service selection,) launched intoyes she was countinga fourth pre-service selection. All this plucking was unnerving the parishioners. This duo was not the osteoporosic Mrs. Hall they were used to, so delicate with her portable keyboard and curvature of the spine. This viola player wore a full tux and the harpist’s dress was form fitted, black velvet. Liberated breast flesh, (not cleavage per sea, but not not cleavage either) declared the space between her pearls and velvet neckline. Her posture was exceptional, so poised on her dainty little bench, so brazen in her self- assurance.

Across the parking lot, Florian opened his window to better hear anything he might otherwise miss: the idling news van, the resonant drone of the violin (if that’s what it was.) Still, attending was out of the question. But what was going on over there? The monsignor should have been delivered to the church’s rear door, over a half-hour ago (the top brass always came with chauffeurs.) Just how long could they all be expected to wait?

Florian saw the cards when he got up to replenish the milk in his cereal bowl: two Christmas cards (vaguely familiar) which had lived for as long as he could remember in the upper left quadrant of his refrigerator door.

Illustration: Photo of vintage Christmas cards affixed via magnets to Frigidaire door

He extracted the dusty cards. As suspected, they were signed by Mother Bertram. Dense writing. Cursive of course. Before reading any further, Florian armed himself with a nice red Sharpie. He yanked the lid off with his teeth.

Back in the church, the harpist considered increasing her fee (from $550 to $750, that would be fair) as the parishioners tallied up losses of their own. Noontime doses of diuretics would be delayed. A woman on respiration therapy in the second row (both baptized and married at Saint Jude’s) grew anxious concerning the battery life of her portable oxygen concentrator. The mother in the second to last pew (Saint Jude’s class of 1987) appeased her disarmed twins by letting them root through her garbage-pail purse. Before hyperactivity had been invented, before the endless Goddamn sticker charts and IEP modifications and behavioral therapists and sensory balls and chew sticks, there had been the likes of Mother Bertram.

A dozen or so sisters occupied the front pews. Two were in habits, the rest were wearing jackets, slacks, even a chipper floral dress. It was hot, warm anyway, so the sister in the floral dress folded her bulletin into a fan thus initiating a wave of sanctioned origami. By the 30- minute mark, the delay had spawned the following:

Illustration: Photo of church bulletin origami: football, swan, fan, fortune teller

The pews still were more vacant than filled, a hundred people at most. Lament was in the air, parents recalling long ago baptisms (where did the years go?) the leotards and snap on ties, the patent leather. In its heyday Saint Jude’s held 11 Masses a week, and Sundays were standing room only.

At 34-minutes and counting, the interim priest tentatively proceeded to douse the casket with holy water for an unreasonable amount of time, sprinkling also a nearby walker and diaper bag. The bombing of incense was also excessive, an obvious ruse to buy time. The compressor of the portable oxygen machine (it sounded like an old Volkswagen,) randomly kicked in, startling those nearby. By the time the interim made it up to the altar (in a fog of frankincense,) the Mass was running a full 45-minutes late.

Meanwhile, in the back of an immobile Lincoln Town Car, Monsignor McHugh had the diocese PR man on speakerphone. His first mistake occurred at the intersection of Commonwealth and Chestnut Hill Avenue where the monsignor insisted that his driver take a shortcut by merging into the left-hand lane. Saint Jude’s should have been a 15-minute drive across town, but this ill-fated maneuver led them directly into the seized heart of the Jimmy Fund Walk for the Cure. The walkers had infiltrated Beacon Streetthousands upon thousands of them in their matching T-shirts, buttons, and visorsa trail of orange slices and livid motorists in their wake. “They’re like locusts.” McHugh had reported, “I’ll never make it through.”

The diocese PR team was firm on the following: Under no circumstances could the Saint Jude’s interim priest (what was his name?) be trusted to preside over this high profile funeral. A dead nun was one thing but a dead mugged nun was another animal entirely. It hardly mattered that Mother Bertrum had only sprained her ankle as a result of the attack (she died a week later of a stroke)a story was a story and the diocese could not afford another that was too-little-too late. Besides, calls had gone out to the press. What was worse, a no-show or an electronic “alternative.”

The monsignor called it a harebrained idea, improperthis was a funeral Mass for God’s sake. You can’t Skype a funeral mass from the back of a car!

The voice of the PR man was breaking up inside the Town car. “People will understand. Your Skyping yeah, but Skyping for Cancer. Say I’m a reporter. The city shuts down so the kid wi... the Neuroblastoma gets a fighting chance—the rest of us can... make a few adjustments. I’m not touchin’ that story. Are You? You gonna tou... that?”

“I guess not,” the monsignor told his phone. “I’m not touchin’ that. But—”

“Your name is on the bulletin, McHugh. I’m not messing wi... that. Are you? You gon... mess with that?”

“I suppose I’m not.” McHugh surrendered to a clammy flush of heart-palpitating dreadthe first of many in the hour to come.

After 85 million in payouts to victims, the near bankrupt diocese had liquidated over 70 local parishes. The ailing Saint Jude’s would have been sold off long ago if the PR team hadn’t insisted otherwise. How could the diocese contend that the closures were not directly related to the abuse crisis if they went ahead and closed churches that were directly related to the abuse crisis? Now, nearly ten years later, Saint Jude’s—once the epicenter of the scandalswas finally deemed safe to unloadthe convent included. A send-off befitting the loyal Mother Bertram would play nicely in the press.

The monsignor’s second mistake was asking if his driver, by any chance, had a laptop computer. Fortunately (or unfortunately for McHugh), the 26-year-old driver had not only a laptop with built-in Wi-Fi, a Skype-to-go account, but time to burn.

By 11:50 both the monsignor and Florian, across town, were weighing their alternatives. A single option remained for each. In utter resignation, the monsignor slipped his vestments over his head. Florian, with his fists fully clenched, slipped into his own ceremonial attirea green camping vest with no less than seven pockets—one of which held the dead nun’s Christmas cards now liberated from his Frigidaire. Five minutes later, he was heading down his stairwell. Then back up before heading down again. The monsignor’s car had moved a mere half-block by the time Florian’s hand lifted the latch on his gate.

Back inside the church, the sisters traded wry glances as two ushers emerged from the sacristy with a large computer monitor. Prayer books were necessary to level the screen on top of the lectern, yet aside from this, the operation appeared to be on target. “Slide show?” One of the sisters whispered to another. The one in the floral dress fogged and cleaned her glasses for the second time.

With a single click of a Bluetooth mouse, the interim priest brought the monitor to life. Seconds later, the Skyped head of Monsignor McHugh appeared on the screenyet only momentarily, like an apparition, then he was gone.

“Hello, hello?” pleaded a disembodied voice. Still no video. “Saint Jude’s, am I coming through?”

The interim reported to the monitor. “We’ve got sound monsignor. We’re working on the video. Can you hear me, monsignor?”

A still of the monsignor materialized on the screen:

Illustration: Photo of Skyped head Monsignor McHugh on computer Monitor with a small view of the Saint Judes interior with parishioners in the lower right-hand corner.

It went on like this as the congregation remained tolerant, forbearance in their very blood. Men in old hanger-marked suits, pancake-powdered women scanning the pews behind them hoping to lock eyeballs in agreement that yes, this was an odd turn of events. The disarmed twins even looked up from the art projects they’d been working on so diligently. Art, the mother had learned, was code for clandestine activity, for too-quiet-and-most-likely-disturbing-activities.

They had gotten into her gum, this much she could smell. One of them, she couldn’t remember which, had achieved in-school gum-chewing privileges (yet another IEP modification) as the chewing supposedly allayed the “H” in his ADHD. The other, sick with envy, was now determined to achieve the same. Bertram’s cure for gum chewers, if the mother remembered correctly, was wearing it on the nose.

The video cut in: The lone head addressed the congregation at last. “Through the miracle of technology, I join you today,”—the image froze once more— “despite the heinous traffic out here near Boston College,” the monsignor chuckled nervously. “I’m afraid The Jimmy Fund Walk for the Cure has taken us all hostage out here on Beacon Street.”

The joke landed flat. Could a monsignor on a computer screen even make a joke? A young man, standing near the choir loft stairs, jotted something onto a small pad (a reporter?)

It was 12:15 by the time Monsignor McHugh approached the resurrection phase of his homily. From the back seat of a Lincoln Town car, he was ad-libbing the story of Lazarus rising from the dead. The parishioners could see Jimmy Fund Walkers marching towards the rear window, occasionally peering in, because, as luck would have it, the Town Car’s windows weren’t tinted. Apparently, the monsignor’s strange angular hat, (a fanciful pom-pom sprouting from its center) was drawing some interest. The PR team had insisted on the hat. McHugh was beginning to feel like an aquarium exhibit. His own digital face, framed within the larger image of the puzzled congregation, was greatly disconcertinghis nostrils cavernous. Intermittently, radio calls came through from the car service dispatcher (the driver unauthorized to silence them) and McHugh had to speak louder, over the dispatcher, nearly yelling the account of Lazarus’s doubting sister.

This time when the oxygen compressor kicked in, the nearby sister-in-law didn’t even jump. In fact, she was happy that the compressor was drowning out the homily because the initial novelty of a disembodied monsignor was waning fast. Wasn’t this just like the diocese? Appearances, appearances. If she skipped out for her birthday party now, before communion, her Brio Roundhouse might still receive the attention it deserved.

“But Lord,” the pixelating monsignor went on, “Lazarus has been three days dead.” More Jimmy Fund walkers were peering through the windows. Not knowing what else to do, the monsignor had begun to nod pope-like at his onlookers. “Christ promised her that he was not speaking rhetorically when he vowed to bring her brother back to life.” McHugh couldn’t even remember the name of the damn sister of Lazarus. Was it Martha or Maria? This was an appalling idea. The whole thing, idiotic.

The term “three days dead” initiated a fit of giggling from the twin boys who had now dumped most of their mother’s purse onto the pew. She tried NOT to look, yet failed.

Illustration: Photo of two origami guns constructed out of the following: church bulletin paper, Juicy Fruit gum wrappers, tampons, and chewed gum.

While disturbed, the mother was truly impressed with the gun’s craftsmanship not to mention the application of chewed gum as a bonding agent. It was a ridiculous idea, bringing the twins to Saint Jude’s in the first place, her old Alma mater. What had she been hoping to glean from this...this pilgrimage? Permission from the dead Mother Bertram to shame her kids into submission? Most likely that was it. The sad truth of it.

“Remove the stone...” McHugh waited for an ambulance to pass. “Remove the gravestone and call for your brother! Lazarus come out!”

This was when Florian made his entrance. Remarkably, and (it could be argued) biblicallyas if Lazarus himself were answering the call, the enormous double doors of the church flew wide open. And Florian was there, in the threshold smiling. Every head, save the monsignor's, was turned. A baby cried, but only once. The harpist gasped, the twins grinned, a woman (who’d been on her way out) shimmied back into her pew, diuretics be damned. Florian Lutz had just blown in with the wind.




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