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The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow
By Joyce Magnin
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 Joyce Magnin
All rights reserved.
Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.
If you get off the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the Jack Frost Ski Resort exit, turn left, and travel twenty-two and one quarter miles, you'll see a sign that reads: Bright's Pond, Home of the World's Largest Blueberry Pie.
While it is true that in 1961 Mabel Sewicky and the Society of Angelic Philanthropy, which did secret charitable acts, baked the biggest blueberry pie ever in Pennsylvania, most folks will tell you that the sign should read: Bright's Pond, Home of Agnes Sparrow.
October 12, 1965. That was the day my sister, Agnes Sparrow, made an incredible decision that changed history in our otherwise sleepy little mountain town and made her sign-worthy.
"I just can't do it anymore, Griselda. I just can't."
That's what Agnes said to me right before she flopped down on our red, velvet sofa. "It ain't worth it to go outside anymore. It's just too much trouble for you—" she took a deep breath and sighed it out "—and heartache for me."
Agnes's weight had tipped a half pound over six hundred, and she decided that getting around was too painful and too much of a town spectacle. After all, it generally took two strong men to help me get Agnes from our porch to my truck and then about fifteen minutes to get her as comfy as possible in the back with pillows and blankets. People often gathered to watch like the circus had come to town, including children who snickered and called her names like "pig" or "lard butt." Some taunted that if Agnes fell into the Grand Canyon she'd get stuck. It was devastating, although when I look back on it, I think the insults bothered me more than they did Agnes.
Her hips, which were wider than a refrigerator, spread out over the sofa leaving only enough room for Arthur, our marmalade cat, to snuggle next to her. "I think I'll stay right here inside for the remainder of the days God has set aside for me." She slumped back, closed her eyes, and then took a hard breath. It wiggled like Jell-O through her body. I held my breath for a second, afraid that Agnes's heart had given out since she looked so pale and sweaty.
But it didn't.
Agnes was always fat and always the subject of ridicule. But I never saw her get angry over it and I only saw her cry once—in church during Holy Communion.
She was fourteen. I was eleven. We always sat together, not because I wanted to sit with her, but because our father made us. He was usually somewhere else in the church fulfilling his elder's responsibilities while our mother helped in the nursery. She always volunteered for nursery duty. I think it was because my mother never really had a deep conviction about Jesus one way or the other. Sitting in the pews made her nervous and she hated the way Pastor Spahr would yell at us about our sins, which, if you asked me, my mother never committed and so she felt unduly criticized.
Getting saddled with "fat Agnes" every Sunday wasn't easy because it made me as much a target of ridicule as her. Ridicule by proximity. Agnes had to sit on a folding lawn chair in the aisle because she was too big to slip into the pew. And since she blocked the aisle we had to sit in the last row.
Our father served Communion, a duty he took much too seriously. The poor man looked like a walking cadaver in his dark suit, white shirt, and striped tie as he moved stiffly down the aisle passing the trays back and forth with the other serious men. But the look fit him, what with Daddy being the town's only funeral director and owner of the Sparrow Funeral Home where we lived.
On that day, the day Agnes cried, Daddy passed us the tray with his customary deadpan look. I took my piece of cracker and held it in my palm. Agnes took hers and we waited for the signal to eat, supposedly mulling over the joy of our salvation and our absolute unworthiness. Once the entire congregation, which wasn't large, had been served, Pastor Spahr took an unbroken cracker, held it out toward the congregation, and said, "Take. Eat, for this is my body broken for you." Then he snapped the cracker. I always winced at that part because it made me think about broken Jesus bones getting passed around on a silver platter.
I swallowed and glanced at Agnes. She was crying as she chewed the cracker—her fat, round face with the tiny mouth chewing and chewing while tears streamed down her heavy, pink cheeks, her eyes squinted shut as though she was trying to swallow a Ping-Pong ball. Even while the elders served the juice, she couldn't swallow the cracker for the tears. It was such an overwhelmingly sad sight that I couldn't finish the ritual myself and left my tiny cup of purple juice, full, on the pew. I ran out of the church and crouched behind a large boulder at the edge of the parking lot, jammed my finger down my throat and threw up the cracker I had just swallowed. I swore to Jesus right then and there that I would never let him or anyone hurt my sister again.
Which is probably why I took the whole Agnes Sparrow sign issue to heart. I knew if the town went through with their plan it would bring nothing but embarrassment to Agnes. I imagined multitudes pulling off the turnpike aimed for Jack Frost and winding up in Bright's Pond looking for her. They'd surely think it was her tremendous girth that made her a tourist attraction.
But it wasn't. It was the miracles.
At least that's what folks called them. All manner of amazements happened when Agnes took to her bed and started praying. It made everyone think Agnes had somehow opened a pipeline to heaven and because of that she deserved a sign— a sign that would only give people the wrong idea.
You see, when my sister prayed, things happened; but Agnes never counted any answer to prayer, yes or no, a miracle. "I just do what I do," she said, "and then it's up to the Almighty's discretion."
The so-called Bright's Pond miracles included three healings—an ulcer and two incidents of cancer—four incidents of lost objects being located miles from where they should have been, an occurrence of glass shattering, and one exorcism, although no one called it that because no one really believed Jack Cooper was possessed—simply crazy. Agnes prayed and he stopped running around town all naked and chasing dogs. Pastor Spahr hired him the next day as the church janitor. He did a good job keeping the church clean, except every once in a while someone reported seeing him howling at the moon. When questioned about it, Pastor Spahr said, "Yeah, but the toilets are clean."
Pastor Rankin Spahr was a solid preacher man. Strong, firm. He never wavered from his beliefs no matter how rotten he made you feel. He retired on August 1, 1968, at the ripe old age of eighty-eight and young Milton Speedwell took his place.
Milton and his wife, Darcy, were fresh from the big city, if you can call Scranton a big city. I suppose he was all of twenty-nine when he came to us. Darcy was a mite younger. She claimed to be twenty-five but if you saw her back then, you'd agree she was barely eighteen.
Milton eventually became enamored with Agnes just like the rest of the town and often sent people to her for prayer and counsel.
But it wasn't until 1972 when Studebaker Kowalski, the recipient of miracle number two— the cancer healing—that Agnes's notoriety took front seat to practically everything in town. Studebaker had a petition drawn up, citing all the miracles along with a dozen or more miscellaneous wonders that had occurred throughout the years.
"Heck, the Vatican only requires three miracles to make a saint," he said. "Agnes did seven. Count 'em, seven."
Just about everyone in town—except Agnes, Milton Speedwell, a cranky old curmudgeon named Eugene Shrapnel, and me—added their signatures to the petition making it the most-signed document ever in Bright's Pond. Studebaker planned to present it to Boris Lender, First Selectman, at the January town meeting.
Town meetings started at around 7:15 once Dot Handy arrived with her steno pad. She took the minutes in shorthand, typed them up at home on her IBM Selectric, punched three holes in the sheet of paper, and secured it in a large blue binder that she kept under lock and key like she was safekeeping the secret formula for Pepsi Cola.
That evening I settled Agnes in for the night and made sure she had her TV remote, prayer book, and pens. You see, Agnes began writing down all of the town's requests when it became so overwhelming she started mixing up the prayers.
"It's all become prayer stew," she said. "I can't keep nothing straight. I was praying for Stella Hughes's gallbladder when all the time it was Nate Kincaid's gallbladder I should have asked a favor for."
Nate ended up with Stella's prize-winning pumpkin and had to have his gallbladder removed anyway. Stella had apparently entered the same contest as Nate and asked Agnes for God's blessing on her pumpkin. Stella forgave Agnes for the oversight, and Nate agreed to share the blue ribbon with her. But, as Agnes said, God blessed her blunder because Nate and Stella got married six months later. They've been raising prizewinning pumpkins ever since.
After the pumpkin debacle, Agnes wrote down all the requests in spiral notebooks. She color-coded the names and petitions, reserving black ink for the most severe cases, red for less dire but still serious needs (marriage troubles and minor illnesses like warts and bunions) and blue ink for the folks with smaller troubles like broken fuel pumps and ornery kids—that sort of thing.
"I got to get going now, Agnes," I told her a few minutes before seven. "The meeting's about to start and I don't want to be late."
"Could you fetch me a drink of juice and maybe a couple tuna sandwiches before you go? And how about a couple of those cherry Danishes left over from last Sunday?"
"I'll be late, Agnes, and you already had your dinner."
"It won't take but a minute, Griselda, please."
I spread tuna salad onto white bread and poured a glass of golden apple juice into a tall tumbler with strawberry vines. I was standing at the kitchen sink rinsing my fingers when I heard rain start—hesitant at first. It was the kind of rain that started with large, heavy drops and only a hint of ice in them but would soon turn to all snow. Most of the time foul weather meant a smaller crowd for town meetings, but with the Agnes Sparrow sign debate on the agenda I doubted the weather could keep folks away.
"I better go," I said. "I want a seat in front on account of the sign situation."
"Phooey," Agnes said. "I told you I don't want a sign with my name on it. I don't want the glory."
"I know." I took a deep breath and blew it out. "I told you I'd take care of it."
Agnes took another bite of her sandwich and turned on the TV while I buttoned my coat and slipped into yellow galoshes. I was just about to step outside when Agnes spoke up. Her high voice made her sound like a little girl.
"The Lord just gave me an idea," she said, swallowing. "Tell that town council of ours that the sign should read, Bright's Pond. Soli Deo Gloria. That's Latin. It means—"
"I know what it means. I'll be back as soon as I can."
That was when all the trouble started. And I don't just mean over the silly sign. I thought the town's enthusiasm to advertise Agnes's prayers got something loosed in the heavens and trouble came to Bright's Pond after that—trouble no one could have ever imagined.CHAPTER 2
I always enjoyed the short walk to the town hall. The rain had turned to snow by the time I rounded Hector Street and laid a thin, white veneer on the pavement and streets. Dog prints dotted the walkways. Probably Ivy Slocum's mutt. That dog wandered the streets like a hobo begging for handouts and fathered more litters than Bayer had aspirin. I watched the snow come down in the glow of a street lamp, multisized flakes that fell at an angle. They had an otherworldly look and for a second I could have been on any planet watching it snow by the light of the moon. I can't tell you how many times I wished I could have left Bright's Pond to visit the sights and wonders I knew existed beyond the brown-purple-green mountains I sailed my dreams over every single day. A dog bark brought me back to earth.
Bright's Pond was pretty much your average small town. Most of the businesses were located on Stump Road, including a small drinking establishment called Personal's Pub. It was run by a man named Personal Best—that's right, Personal Best. He was the last of nine children born to Haddie and Zachary Best. Haddie had said, "When that boy popped out I knew I just did my personal best. So that's what we named him." Down on Hector Street there was a movie theater called The Crown. Movies came late to Bright's Pond, so by the time we got them they had already been and went in the big towns. Cooper P. Stern ran the projector for years and years until he died—died right there, loading the second reel of The Guns of Navarrone. After that anybody who could figure out the machinery ran the movies.
The Bright's Pond Chapel of Faith and Grace, the town hall, and the library were all located on Filbert. I worked at the library even though I never went to college. I taught myself the Dewey Decimal System, which by the way, was not easy. But now you toss the name of any book my way and I can tell you what number it is and on which shelf you'd find it. I spent my days behind the circulation desk or hidden in the stacks replacing borrowed books. It was a good job that kept me busy for the most part. But to be honest, other than the school children and a few regulars, not many folks in town frequented the library. Sad thing. Every September I tried to get a rally of sorts going for books, trying my best to get people eager to read. But it mostly fell on deaf ears, and if I wrote out ten new library cards a year it was a bumper crop.
Anyway, the only business on Filbert Street was The Full Moon Café. Mabel Sewickey's son Zebulon owned it and was the chief cook and bottle washer, as they say. Cora Nebbish, a seventy-two-year-old sprite of a woman with platinum hair and petite features flitted around as waitress and hostess. She did a fine job. She kept all the orders straight and still collected pinches from the good old boys off the turnpike who parked their rigs at the town limit and walked to the café.
Zeb served a heck of a burger, but the menu favorite was the fried baloney sandwich—a half-inch slice of round boloney served on a hamburger bun with any condiment you desired from Tabasco to chili, even applesauce. Most folks ordered the Full Moon pie for dessert—a thick slice of Zeb's homemade lemon meringue pie that resembled a full moon the way it sat in the glass carousel before getting sliced.
Every full moon folks gathered at the café. Zeb served free pie and coffee to the first fifteen folks in line. He always sent a pie to Agnes, ever since she prayed and Zeb's second mortgage on the place went through without a hitch and then he won the state lottery and paid it off in no time.
The town hall was located right next door to the Full Moon, which was convenient for the council members who gathered there at least once a day for coffee.
On my way to the town meeting a brisk, freezing wind swirled around me. I hiked up my collar and hurried to the town hall. I met Ivy on the steps.
"Evening, Griselda. How's Agnes?"
Ivy was a middle-aged widow with long blonde hair and exceptionally large breasts that she tried to keep hidden under oversized sweatshirts. Agnes prayed for a breast reduction for her but no volunteer surgeon ever stepped forward. Ivy never held it against her.
"Lord wanted me to have a big bosom," Ivy said, but often lamented the fact of never having had babies to suckle. "Seems a waste."
"Agnes is fine, Ivy. How are you?"
"I'm doing okay, you know, well as can be expected. Tell Agnes I'll be coming by in a day or so. Got some things to discuss."
"I'll be sure to tell her."
My foot landed on the top step and the thought hit me that just once I'd like someone to ask how I was doing. But it was always Agnes on their minds.
The building was packed to the gills by the time I got there. Studebaker Kowalski was up front. He held tightly to the petition, already in deep conversation with Boris Lender. It might have been my mood, but Studebaker looked like a cheap TV evangelist. He wore a maroon polyester leisure suit with white stitching around the wide lapels, pockets, and seams. His shoes matched his white belt, and I swore I could smell his Brut aftershave across the room. Studebaker and I made eye contact, and he waved the pages at me. I motioned back, feigned a smile, and then turned my attention to Edie Tompkins.
"Well, hello there, Griselda. So this is Agnes's big night." She pushed her persimmon red lips into a smile. "Uh, no pun intended."
My eyebrows arched like a gothic cathedral. That woman made my blood boil. Edie was a nosy neighbor. She stood about six feet tall, which meant she towered over me by half a foot. She wore her frizzy hair piled on top of her square head, adding nine inches to her tallness, and was partial to flowered dresses straight out of 1953. Edie was married to Bill Tompkins, the automobile mechanic and member of the council as president of the commerce association. Bill was a good egg and, I was hoping, the one member who would understand Agnes's situation.
Excerpted from The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow by Joyce Magnin. Copyright © 2009 Joyce Magnin. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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