Living with Saintsby Mary O'Connell
Mary O'Connell's wonderfully inventive debut collection takes dusty icons down from the shelf and sets their spirits loose in the modern world. The result is nothing less than "an extended hagiography of the everyday ... where the sacred and secular blur gloriously into one another" (Los Angeles Times). Praised for her "gift for mordant wit, which at its best is
Mary O'Connell's wonderfully inventive debut collection takes dusty icons down from the shelf and sets their spirits loose in the modern world. The result is nothing less than "an extended hagiography of the everyday ... where the sacred and secular blur gloriously into one another" (Los Angeles Times). Praised for her "gift for mordant wit, which at its best is reminiscent of Lorrie Moore" (The New York Times Book Review), O'Connell draws upon the lives of the saints to show the divine at work in even the most mundane lives. Saint Anne, patron saint of mothers, sits on the corner of a bed offering words of wisdom while a woman, driven to desperate measures to avoid leaving her baby in day care, has sex with her reptilian boss in exchange for time off. A woman left by her glam-rock musician boyfriend tosses and turns in her bed one night only to find that her pillow, stained with his mascara, has become a modern Turin shroud. From the ineffable bonds between fellow sufferers of grave illness, to the mystery of an immaculate pregnancy, to the more quotidian heartbreak of balancing work and motherhood, O'Connell's stories tackle complicated themes with humor that is "biting but never malicious" (Library Journal ). Readers of all faiths (or none) will be delighted by these savvy and highly original modern visitations. "It isn't necessary to be Catholic, religious, or even a woman to enjoy these stories." -- The Hartford Courant "Living with Saints is funny, shocking, and inspirational-a regular book of revelations." -- Time Out New York "Clever, confident and witty." -- Chicago Tribune
- Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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- 5.02(w) x 7.24(h) x 0.65(d)
Read an Excerpt
Holy shit, thought Dymphna, the Women's Center has hired a Moonie. She stared at the walnut nameplate on the desk that read "Pamela Craig, Unitarian Chaplain" until the words snapped in her brain and she remembered that Unitarian meant tambourines and Birkenstocks, not the Reverend Moon marrying a thousand brides to a thousand grooms.
"Dymphna," Pamela Craig said, losing the chummy tone she'd invoked while asking about her Saint Bridget's letter jacket. "I'd like you to tell me how you feel about terminating your pregnancy."
Dymphna said, "Well, of course I feel sad about it."
Pamela Craig nodded.
Dymphna stared up at a poster of a girl kicking an oversized soccer ball. Inside the white spaces on the ball were statistics on low rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases for teenage girls involved in sportsoutdoor sports, she thought, enjoying her little joke until she realized she couldn't share it with anyone. Another poster showed a twisted metal clothes hanger spelling the words "Never Again." And then there was a photograph of a naked girl screaming. A cluster of women had her pinned to the ground, splaying her arms out, crucifix style. The caption below the picture explained that the girl was about to undergo genital mutilation, as was the custom in rural Somalia. Dymphna wondered what sort of art-whore photographer would document a girl's terror instead of helping her.
Was it the effect of the bulletproof glaze on the windows,or had dusk really turned the sky a sheer, sugary violet? The air in the small office carried the smell of freshly glazed donuts from the discount bakery next door. When footage of protesters picketing the clinic played on the evening news, there was usually some slacker off to the side, leaning on his sign and eating a long john.
"Why does it make you sad?" Pamela asked.
Dymphna had envisioned the Women's Center as a medical commune where the staff gave massages, brewed herbal teas, and recited poetry. But, no, brisk nurses and doctors had shuttled her in and out of exam rooms and finally to this psychobabble torture chamber.
Dymphna said, "Well, it just, you know, isn't a super-happy occasion."
She felt teary and fought it, stating into Pamela Craig's plain face, thinking that her pale lashes screamed out for mascara and she needed cream concealer to smooth out her zit scars.
"Yes, Dymphna, it's a decision that women really struggle with."
"It sure is," Dymphna said, her face blank as a tablet.
"Do you feel guilty about your decision?" Pamela asked.
"I feel terrible," Dymphna blurted. Then she flipped her hair over her shoulder and rallied. "Although I realize it's the best thing for me right now."
"Do you think it's a sin?" Pamela Craig asked.
Dymphna posed dreamily, tucking her hand under her chin. If it wasn't for the green felt cross piercing the B on her letter jacket, if Dymphna had gone to Roosevelt High School, Pamela Craig wouldn't be asking that, and surely equal opportunity laws made her question illegal. And what person under the age of eighty talked about sin?
God was ancient and remote, but surely not beyond understanding that she was seventeen, and had plans to go to the University of Kansas, and then to France, to the Sorbonne for her junior year. Sorbonne, she whispered to herself. If she could forgive God, with his noted miracles, for allowing the pregnancy test stick to show two lines, he could certainly forgive her for having an abortion.
"It's not a sin," Pamela Craig muttered.
Why did she answer her own question? Why did this zitty Unitarian think she was queen of the world?
"No offense," Dymphna said, "but, how do you know?"
Pamela laughed. "I guess you have a point, Dymphna. And somehow I think you're going to be just fine."
Dymphna knew she'd passed this last hurdle and would be allowed to get her abortion on Saturday morning. Still, she wanted to ask one shameful question: How much does an abortion hurt? But Pamela Craig was already leading Dymphna out of her office, saying, oh, she hoped it didn't rain because she hadn't rolled up her car windows and bye-bye, nice meeting you!
* * *
Sister Josepha taught Dymphna's first-hour class, "Lives of the Saints for Seniors." When she walked into the room carrying her briefcase and a tin of chocolate muffins, all the girls stood up. This was the rule at Saint Bridget's, but most teachers received a wrathful acknowledgment: girls flew up out of their chairs and grinned ironically, or stood with great effort, crossing their arms over their chests, jutting out their hips.
Sister Josepha shooed at them to sit down and took off her coat and vinyl rain bonnet. Then she walked around the room, placing a muffin and a pink paper napkin on each girl's desk.
Dymphna had just vomited up apple juice and toast in the bathroom, flushing the toilet over and over to mask the sound. She didn't look at the muffin.
"It's such a dreary old day," Sister Josepha said. "I thought we could use a treat."
As everyone murmured their gratitude, Kellie Hayes, Dymphna's best friend, put her thumb to her ear and her pinkie to her mouth. She raised her eyebrows wickedly and whispered to Dymphna, "Any calls?"
"Oh Jesus," Dymphna whispered, "like if Miles had called, it would be such a minor detail in my fabulous life that I would forget to tell you."
Dymphna had met Miles at a college party back in August. After drinking whiskey sours and sharing a joint, they ended up in his pickup truck, flying along the country roads. Just as Dymphna started to feel the boozy exhilaration of romance, he pulled a spiral notebook from his glove box and flicked on the dome light. He drove with one hand as he recited his poety, nearly crashing into the railroad crossing signs as he read the line "Her breasts, like ivory dinner plates, offered sensual nourishment." To keep from laughing, Dymphna thought of Jesus on the cross, car crashes, and the wise, haggard faces of animals at the pound. But Miles smelled of smoke and bourbon and Ivory soap, and there was the velvet sky and all the blazing white stars.
When Miles pulled off to the side of the road and whispered, "I would like to make love to you, Dymphna," she whispered, "Okay." But as he touched the skin of her back, she grieved: now she was just a body. The talking was over; she'd wasted her opportunities to whisper some tender phrase that would seize him, let him see that she knew Latin and loved Emily Dickinson, that she was not just a drunken party girl. In her mind, she rehearsed casual ways of asking him to wear a condom.
"Well, screw him for making you wait by the phone like some seventeenth-century maiden," Kellie said.
Dymphna sighed vigorously. "Of course, it's particularly tragic when one considers the myriad ways of using the phone. You can simply dial, or push the number pad with a pencil in your mouth, or hire a miniature monkey. Anyway, I'm not waiting by the phone. Anymore."
Sister Josepha put on her half-glasses and opened her black binder.
"Girls," she said, "after yesterday's marathon of all the Saint Catherines, today we will be discussing the virgin martyrs Saint Cecilia and Saint Dymphna." She lowered her head and grinned at Dymphna. "Now, Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians and poets."
Everything about Sister Josephaher cigarette-raspy voice, her perpetual cheer, the Lord's wedding band on her thick finger, her purple pantsuit, her adoration of the girl saints, her glamorous, archaic sprayed bubble of gray hairmade Dymphna feel less lonely. But aside from Sister Josepha, some serious rejects taught at Saint Bridget's. Mrs. Hamilton, the English lit teacher, was hagged out from her divorce and especially vicious to the class beauties. The calculus teacher, young Sister Jeanette, sometimes wept openly about her fanatical love for Our Lord Jesus Christ, but she transformed into a sarcastic bitch if you didn't understand an equation. Occasionally, Dymphna's heart opened to the sorrow of the teachers' lives, like the time she'd seen the lonely, bacheloresque contents of her French teacher's grocery list on his desk: trash bags, hamburger, beer, apples, cheese, peanuts. But that feeling lasted about three seconds because he was such a major pervert. As Dymphna turned away from the desk, she sensed him staring at her butt, and when she snapped her head around to catch him in the act, he blushed a horrible, hammy pink and licked at his handlebar mustache. Even the semidecent teachers at Saint Bridget's ran pointless film strips while they read novels in the half-light. But with Sister Josepha, class time was an invitation into her world, the world of the saints, and refreshments were served.
"Saint Dymphna was a Celtic virgin martyr," Sister Josepha said. "She is the patron saint of those who suffer from mental illness."
Kellie stabbed her pencil eraser into Dymphna's shoulder blade.
"However, Dymphna herself was not mentally ill. She was the daughter of a pagan king of Ireland whose wife was a devout, gentle Christian. Dymphna enjoyed a happy, carefree childhood growing up in the green fields of Ireland. Though her father had a tyrannical spirit, he doted on his daughter, and her mother loved Dymphna with all her heart. Young Dymphna was a high-spirited girl, known for her kindness. She took her glory in the Lord and pledged her chastity to Jesus Christ."
Dymphna relaxed. She bit into the warm muffin and tasted the kiss of white chocolate melting in the center. If only she could live in this safe room that smelled of clean girls and chalk, if only she could eat chocolate and listen to Sister Josepha and look out the rain-pegged windows forever, she would never have to go to the Women's Center on Saturday and get a teeny-tiny baby sucked out of her.
"But Dymphna's peace was short-lived," Sister Josepha said. "Her mother died when Dymphna was only thirteen. Brutal sadness gripped her soul, and she burned with rage because the Lord had taken her blessed mother. But these feelings subsided, for Dymphna knew she would someday join her mother in heaven. Her father, being a pagan, lived only for the material world and was unable to envision love's paradise, the kingdom of heaven. He wanted to remarry, but he couldn't find another woman as beautiful and kind as his wife, and so he despaired. His evil advisers claimed that the only woman equal to the king's wife was his daughter, Dymphna, and they told him to marry her. The king, mad with grief, found this plan ingenious. When he told Dymphna about the wedding plans, she wept for the loss of her mother's protection, her father's madness, and her own sorry circumstances. And then she took action. She sought out her parish priest and told him of her father's plan. The priest, horrified, as any good person would be," said Sister Josepha, raising her hands to include herself and the girls in this group, "fled Ireland with Dymphna, and they traveled to the town of Gheel, in Belgium. They found solace there for several weeks, until Dymphna's father followed the trail of Irish money and tracked them down. He executed the priest on sight. When Dymphna screamed that she would never be his wife, her father plunged his sword into her heart. Now, Dymphna had the sensation of takeoff, of her body being lifted by some benevolence, and the burdens of our physical worldtime, space, and gravityevaporated. She was floating past all her heartache, and she did not rue her life's end, or her father's cruelty. And then, a mystery. Her soul slipped into her father's body and she felt his pain as he watched his daughter dying. Dymphna saw the loneliness her father had known as a boy, and the joy her mother had brought him; she saw he was a weak man and that, in looking for a way to erase his sorrow, he'd succumbed to evil. Dymphna died in peace, thanking God for this final mercy, for what could be more precious than to know the true heart of another?"
Sister Josepha closed her binder. "Even now the people of Gheel see the image of Dymphna all over town. In times of trouble her face is etched in the sky. Dymphna Malone, you're lucky to share a name with such a fine saint," she said.
"Thank you, Sister," Dymphna said.
Kellie discreetly kissed her fist.
Dymphna longed to say, Yes, I am an ass-kisser, and what's more, I'm pregnant. But she also wanted to keep her secret. There was no way anyone could find out, unless a maniac walked through the door right now carrying a carton of pregnancy tests and held a gun to each girl's head, forcing her to pee on the test stick and display the resultsMy God, Dymphna Malone shows a blue line in the pregnancy window!
She worried about being kidnapped, held hostage for months, unable to have an abortion. When she emerged from a battered van or a boarded-up house with her stomach round as a melon, people would stare at the TV screen and weep for her tragedy, at least until they ticked the months off' on their fingers.
Sister Josepha took off her glasses and wiped them with a lacy blue handkerchief. Then the bell sounded for calculus class and the world shattered again.
* * *
After school she felt too exhausted to change her clothes; she plowed right into bed and dreamed that she peed out a slender baby doll with rhinestone eyes, a pink velvet dress, and a long, platinum blonde ponytail, then fished the doll out of the toilet bowl and went to church, where she sat in the dark confessional stroking the beautiful doll's hair, kissing it.
The priest said, "Dymphna, most pregnant girls have a plastic doll in their uterus."
"Thank you, Father. Thanks for telling me. I was freaked when I thought I had a real baby inside me."
"You poor dear! But you must know the chance of becoming pregnant with an actual human baby is less than ten percent. The girl before you gave birth to Malibu Barbie."
Now the waistband of her skirt cut into her stomach and she did have to pee. She tiptoed into the bathroom and sat on the toilet in the dark.
Through the heat vent she heard her father telling her mother about the sale on dark roast coffee at Foodland, and how delicious the spaghetti sauce smelledhe'd been looking forward to it all day. The water on the stove boiled over so she couldn't hear her mother's reply, just the singsong cadence of her voice. Her parents' kindness and innocencewas it that, or were they morons?infuriated her.
Back in her bedroom, she clamped on her headphones, not bothering to turn up the ringer on the telephone.
Miles would never call. She thought of praying to Saint Jude, but she'd already prayed for a miscarriage, nine times a day for nine consecutive days, and though this novena had never been known to fail, it failed. Now Dymphna understood that God sometimes said, Hey, screw you, honey, and stripped the saints of their power. She probably wouldn't even like Miles if he did call. But ever since she'd sat on the edge of the bathtub holding the pregnancy test stick in disbelief, she'd imagined that Miles loved her. During her junior year at the Sorbonne, he would fly to Paris to visit. Even after years of happy marriage, even after having six children, she and Miles would still long for the baby they'd aborted. But what could we do, Miles would say, when we were so young? First, though, he had to call. First they had to get to know each other.
God! The terror of a baby, of being a moon-faced, visibly pregnant girl slogging down the hallways at Saint Bridget's, before handing her baby over to some happy, worthy couple. Or of living at home with her baby, trapped, watching Barney videos and changing diapers while the world sparkled on without her.
* * *
In the end she told Kellie. The two of them sat in Dymphna's Chevy on Saturday morning waiting for their escort into the Women's Center. A security guard with a German shepherd patrolled the parking lot, and the sidewalk leading to the entrance was corded off with red rope. On either side a few deranged-looking faces poked out of the crowd, but most people just seemed excited.
"What a freak show," Dymphna said. "It's like the Oscars."
"Except instead of star-fuckers waiting to see celebrities, there's a bunch of losers just hanging around." Kellie lit two cigarettes and handed one to Dymphna.
Jesus, she hoped she could trust Kellie to keep this secret. The power she could lord over her, from this day forward ...
Kellie pointed to a tall, bearded man in a dark cloth suit holding a Bible. "Look," she said, "it's Abraham Lincoln." A pregnant woman stood next to him, and a cluster of children sat at their feet eating sugared donuts. Across the rope, three goateed college-aged guys held round blue signs that read: "Keep Abortion Safe and Legal."
"Check out 'The Three Musketeers,'" Dymphna said. "Why in the hell are they here?"
Kellie said, "My guess is the skin horse brigade want to support their unalienable right not to wear a condom."
A husky man with a crew cut walked out of the clinic. The word "Escort" blazed across the front of his yellow windbreaker. People strained over the rope, screaming at him, the cords in their necks popping up like red snakes.
Dymphna took the deepest drag off her cigarette, then tossed it out the window and watched it smoke on the pavement. Mother of God, if only she could be someone else: fat Ruth Ann Terrell with her public pledge of virginity; Canada Mulligan, so valiant as she battled leukemia; Susan Rush, who wore a bulky metal back brace to correct her scoliosis.
As the escort approached, Kellie said, "That's the guy who takes us in, right?"
"Mmhmm," Dymphna shuddered out.
She grabbed Kellie's hand, which was as shaky and sweat-drenched as her own. Their joined hands draping over the stick shift formed a palsied, wet bird that Dymphna imagined flying through the car window, up, up, and away, its bony finger-wings waving good-bye.
"Oh, Dymphna. It'll all be over by afternoon," Kellie said. "Hey, maybe the doctor will look like George Clooney!"
Dymphna choked out a skittering laugh. "Why in the hell would I want George Clooney to give me an abortion?"
"Oh my God! You are so right! But afterward, I don't know, you guys could go for coffee and cigarettes and you could read him your poetry."
Now the man loomed just beyond her car door. As he crouched down, his windbreaker rose up, exposing a gun holster.
If she felt too horrible, afterward she could always kill herself: Dear Dr. Kevorkian, though I am not physically, ill, it is my wish to leave this world. God, she thought, I am such a fucking chicken. She unrolled her window.
"Which one of you gals is Dymphna Malone?" His breath smelled like cigarettes and wintergreen Life Savers.
Dymphna put her finger to her chest.
"Okay. I'll need to check your pocketbooks," he said.
As they pushed their purses at him, Dymphna remembered she had maxi-pads in her purse, for afterward. She stared down at her car mat.
He sifted his hands through their purses without looking inside, then handed them back.
"Okay, girls, once you get out of the car, walk quickly, but don't run. I'll walk in between you, with a hand on each of your shoulders. Now, be warned, people will be yelling all variety of foolishness at you, but keep your heads down and don't make eye contact with anyone. It'll take us about ten seconds to walk from the car to the doors of the clinic. Ready?"
"Lock your car doors when you get out. My name's Bud," he said. "I won't let anyone hurt you."
Dymphna stepped out of the car praying for God to deliver her from this. She looked at Bud's cowboy boots, and at Kellie's rain-stained clogs, and at her own black boots, imagining herself in the future, walking down the street on a happy day, jarred by remembering These were the boots I wore. She heard shouting, the blare of a horn, a man singing about Jesus leading us out of the darkness, and now, as she stepped from the asphalt to the concrete sidewalk, a man's voice, close and frightening, boomed out, "God's wrath will come down upon you fornicators and murderers."
Sorbonne, Dymphna whispered to herself.
It was hard to keep her eyes on the ground. In her peripheral vision she saw Bud's head, raised and defiant, and the snap of Kellie's ponytail against her neck as she walked with her head bowed. An airy, fatigued child's voice asked Why, oh why do you like to kill babies; an old woman sobbed into her coffee-colored rosary beads.
A man pushed a large jar over the rope at her, and Dymphna raised her head and saw the pale, mottled baby bobbing beneath the lid. The head was huge and vaguely alien, and the legs floated behind the small body like a tail. Though the baby looked as inscrutable as a sea horse floating there in the cloudy liquid, Dymphna felt a rush of love that made her swollen nipples ache.
Bud pushed her head back down. The security guards flung open the metal doors of the clinic.
* * *
A nurse led Dymphna down a long hallway from an exam room to the surgical room. Dymphna wore a blue robe, open all the way down the back, with a soft white tie at the throat. She walked with one hand behind her back, pinching the robe shut. They passed Pamela Craig's office, where a girl dabbed her eyes with tissue blackened by mascara, and the doorway to the waiting room, where Kellie sat curled in an orange vinyl chair, drinking soda and reading People magazine, haloed by an almost visible crown of smug fortune. Hadn't she slept with eight boys to Dymphna's three?
When Dymphna heard a man's voice behind her, she pinched the robe tighter.
"I don't see why I couldn't wear my underwear until I got where I was going," Dymphna snapped.
"Sorry," the nurse said, slapping open the doors to the brightly lit surgical room. She motioned for Dymphna to sit on a beige examining table swathed in white paper, then flashed a mean grin. "The doctor will be right with you, sweetie."
Dymphna lay on the table. She clasped her hands over her chest as if she were lying in a casket waiting for mourners to kiss her cheek.
The doctor walked in, whistling, all hustle and bustle and no greeting. Greasy blond bangs poked out of his green surgical cap. A new nurse flipped though her chart.
"Dymphna," she said, "that's a gorgeous name. Like the saint, right?"
"Yes," Dymphna whispered. She shrugged.
It couldn't be possible, but the doctor snorted out a laugh. The nurse stroked the inside of Dymphna's wrist.
"I'm going to need you to scoot way, way down," the doctor said, tapping his hands on the metal stirrups at the end of the table. Dymphna inched down until her hips were at the edge of the table and placed her feet into the cold stirrups. He inserted the cold speculum, proclaiming, "Thiiings are lookin' good."
Dymphna read newspapers; she knew doctors quit working at abortion clinics because people shot them and picketed in front of their houses and followed their children to school. Abortion clinics had to take any doctor they could get. Dymphna thought of Cindy Duncan, a cross-eyed obese girl in her class who had shown up at the Jubilee Dance with a whippet-thin man in his forties, introducing him to everyone as her "big sweetie Clifford."
Excerpted from Living with Saints by Mary O'Connell. Copyright © 2001 by Mary O'Connell. Excerpted by permission.
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