Pagan Babiesby Greg Johnson
From the fleeting optimism of Kennedy’s Camelot to the fearsome specter of the age of AIDS, this impressive, powerfully written debut novel follows the lives of two young people and their stormy relationship that parallels the moral confusion of America over the next thirty years.
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By Greg Johnson
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1993 Greg johnson
All rights reserved.
Children approach the altar, hands folded as in prayer. Boys to the left, girls to the right, white jackets and white dresses in two immaculate lines down the aisle, every movement practiced and memorized, perfected. A boy approaches Father Culhane with his small pink tongue pushed out, quivering. Hands folded. Eyes that close briefly, the lids trembling. The church packed with family and friends and well-wishers gives an audible Aah as the host enters the child's mouth. One sigh. In unison. Then a girl approaches, black ringlets and pale cheeks. Wobbly knees. Tongue quivering again. Hands folded again. Aah says the well-dressed congregation, attentive and eager, ready for the next child, never tiring of this.
And so on. Janice Rungren is the eighth child, the fourth girl, to approach Father Culhane in his glittering white vestments, the chalice raised in his hand like a bright beacon she must follow, not letting her eyes dart away. Her blond hair shining, brushed lovingly down her back by her mother and her cousin Ruthie, her scapular scratching her chest just Where her heart lies pounding, frantically pounding, she approaches anxiously like all the others, her trembling hands folded so that they almost touch her chin. She closes her eyes, feels the papery host on her tongue, but the pounding of her heart distracts her and she doesn't turn to leave quite quickly enough, Father Culhane has to touch her shoulder and frown and nod toward the pews. Then she understands: it is over. Then she gets moving, turning away from Father Culhane, her legs brittle as matchsticks.
Now she is facing the congregation, the smiling faces, a bobbing sea of faces, but she can't pick out her parents or her Uncle Jake and Aunt Lila or Ruthie her cousin and best friend, who will make her First Holy Communion next year and is surely watching Janice's every move. Janice's heart pounds, skitters, she feels paralyzed before the congregation, but now she gets moving, her hands are folded beneath her chin exactly as Sister Mary Immaculata had instructed and she has reached the girls' pew and nothing is wrong. She can now turn her back to the smiling staring bobbing faces—hundreds, thousands of faces!—and take her place beside the other girls and all will be well. Yet Janice is hurrying, she isn't remembering Sister's patient careful instructions and so it happens, inevitably it happens, that one of her white-patent shoe straps catches against a corner of the kneeler and the church tilts crazily and Janice is falling, she bangs her bare knee against the wooden bench, she cries Ow! involuntarily but not as loud (so her mother and Ruthie will later whisper, consolingly) as Janice believes at the moment, in her extreme embarrassment and fear. The other white-veiled little girls can hardly contain themselves, their heads are bowed, fingers over their mouths, giggling, shoulders shaking, as scarlet-faced Janice sits down at last, her eyes stinging, her heart an anguished lump in her chest, for she knows everyone saw her stumble and fall, they heard her cry Ow! like a little idiot, unable to practice self-control at the critical moment, unable to do anything right.
Her face throbs and glows, her hot eyes look straight ahead as Father Culhane continues distributing the host as though nothing had happened.
Minutes later the pew is filled, the right front pew with its row of little girls, and it might have been that nothing had happened, that Janice Rungren had not fallen, had not become upset, had done nothing wrong at all!—for now she sits quietly, looking no different from the other little girls, her veil in place, hands resting in her lap. Her cheeks pale, her heart perfectly still. Like all the others.
April, that had been; a brilliant April morning when she'd stumbled and fallen during the First Holy Communion service at Sacred Heart Church, had fallen and made a commotion and ruined the ceremony, as Mary Frances Dennehy and Lucia Gonzalez informed her at recess the next morning, sticking out their tongues and flouncing away from Janice. Never mind that her mother had said not to worry about it, receiving the body of Christ in her own little body was what counted, not some tiny stumble that hardly anyone had noticed; never mind that her cousin Ruthie gave her long doleful looks at the "celebration" dinner that night at Uncle Jake and Aunt Lila's, looks of commiseration, looks of deep sorrow; never mind the expensive crystal rosary her Grandma Rungren had sent special delivery from California as a Holy Communion gift, with a note saying how "proud" she was, what a "good little girl" Janice was—never mind all that, Janice knew that Mary Frances and Lucia were right, she could interpret the smug looks of the other little girls who had not stumbled and fallen, she understood the just-perceptible coolness in Sister Mary Immaculata's behavior during arithmetic class that next week, her pale blue eyes not quite meeting Janice's.
How they had practiced, after all! How tirelessly Sister had drilled the boys and girls, showing them how to walk, how to fold their hands, exactly how to put out their tongues when the big moment came! Once reentering the pew the children should walk sideways, Sister said, they should keep facing the altar and let their feet move sideways, methodically, slowly. "Crabwise," Sister Immaculata said. "This is how crabs walk," she said, not smiling, moving herself with great skill down the pew so that all the children could see. Some of them poked each other and whispered jokes, saying that Sister Immaculata was so tiny and frail that she looked more like a miniature penguin than a crab, but Janice hadn't misbehaved during the rehearsals; she had watched closely, hungrily. Though she could not see Sister's legs or feet underneath her floor-length black habit, nonetheless she understood, the toes were to stay pointed forward, you were to make your legs into a pair of scissors opening and closing, as Sister said, but sideways, so that you would always be facing the altar, crabwise, so that your continued earnest adoration of the Host of Hosts would seem to be your most pressing concern, not finding your own seat. Did everyone understand? Yes, Sister, the class had said in unison, day after day. Were there any more questions? No, Sister, the class had intoned, in one practice session after another, until even Sister Immaculata, not known as one of the more relaxed and trusting nuns, had believed that nothing could go wrong.
And nothing would have, of course—except for Janice. All the children, boys and girls, had lived up to Sister's expectations—except for Janice. Guiltily, Janice spent much of her time remembering the pre-Holy Communion meeting that Sister Immaculata had held in the church basement, at 8:00 that fateful Sunday morning; it wasn't another rehearsal, Sister had told the children, but she did want to "inspect the troops," as she said, she did need to check veils, shoes, fingernails, she always felt better if she had the children to herself, during that last nerve-racking hour. And besides, she had something to give them. As their homeroom teacher and as First Holy Communion coordinator she had some gifts to distribute, gifts of little monetary but great spiritual value which she hoped the children would treasure all their lives. (Of course, there were also gifts for Sister Immaculata, purchased by a group of the children's parents and presented by Mary Frances Dennehy's father, Sacred Heart's wealthiest parishioner, after the ceremony: a bouquet of pink roses, a plain but handsome stopwatch inside a chamois pouch and drawstring, and as a "gag" gift a shiny new silver whistle ["Mary Frances says you've just about worn out your old one," Mr. Dennehy joked after Sister opened the gift] of the kind all the nuns employed to get the attention of their students, and as punctuation during lineups and marching drills, and as a symbolic bleep of authority whenever that might be needed.) And what lovely gifts Sister Immaculata distributed to the children! —holy cards of the Sacred Heart, of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and of the "Little Flower," St. Thérèse of Lisieux; a new missal covered in white leatherette with a tiny crucifix embedded inside the front cover, and on the facing page an elaborate gold inscription that read My First Holy Communion and separate lines for "Name" and "Date"; a white pearlized rosary for the girls, a handsome black rosary for the boys; and most important of all—as Sister informed them—a box containing their Holy Communion flower. Janice saw the excitement in Sister's eyes as she passed out the plain wooden boxes, she saw the rapturous pinkish glow in her cheeks as the children opened the boxes and exclaimed over the perfect white flower and its garland of succulent green leaves that lay nestled inside. But Sister told them, clearing her throat, getting down to business: "The leaves of this flower represent your earthly lives, your bodies which eventually will grow and age and wither and die. The white flower, however, represents your soul, which will triumph in eternity. If you look in that box a month from now, or in a year, or in ten years, the leaves will be withered and corrupted. They will die. But the flower will never die. It will stay white and beautiful forever, just as your souls will be white and beautiful after your First Holy Communion. The flower will not die, just as your souls will not die."
Sister paused dramatically to let this sink in, then said she would answer any questions.
"Why did the flower come in such a plain box?—it's like a big matchbox," the plump and freckled Mary Frances Dennehy asked.
"Aah," Sister said, lifting her forefinger, "the box holding the flower represents your coffin, the container of your bodily corruption."
The children looked again at the box.
"But if the flower represents the soul," said Annie Shelton, the only other blond little girl in the class besides Janice, and the pupil who had maintained the highest grade average both last year and this year, "then why would it be in the box? Doesn't the soul rise out of the body after death? Doesn't it go to heaven?"
"Well, yes," Sister said, fumbling, "but once the leaves die, you see, the box no longer represents the coffin. Then it's just a nice little wooden box that holds the flower, which represents your immortal soul."
Annie Shelton was frowning; tiny creases along her forehead were visible despite the white netting of her veil. She said, "But before the leaves wither, while the box still represents a coffin, wouldn't the soul, which is represented by the flower, have already risen up to heaven? I mean, the soul wouldn't still be contained—"
"Well now," Sister interrupted, with her little mocking laugh, her deadly harrumph, "let's leave all that to the theologians, Annie. Are there any more questions?"
"What if the flower does die, just like the leaves?" asked Brian McGreevy, a dark-haired studious boy who already, in second grade, had begun showing an aptitude for arithmetic and science. Although Sister Immaculata taught arithmetic, Janice knew that she wasn't all that fond of Brian: he asked too many questions. Occasionally Sister would ignore Brian when he raised his hand in class.
"It won't," Sister said. "It can't die."
"But what if it does?" Brian asked. "What if mine does?"
"It won't, it can't," Sister repeated, a bit more sharply. "It's impossible."
"But what if—"
Sister blew her whistle, loud.
The look of gentle rapture had left her face, Janice saw, reluctantly obeying Sister's orders to close the little wooden box, put all the gifts away, and begin to contemplate the momentous occasion of Christ's body and blood entering their own bodies less than an hour from now. ("The Host is not a symbol," Father Culhane and Sister Immaculata had both insisted, during the weeks and months of preparation, "it is the actual body and blood of Christ," and one day Janice turned in her seat toward Billy Henson, the profusely freckled but really cute boy she had liked all during first and second grade, and cried, "Yecch!"—which made Billy and several other children giggle uncontrollably and earned Janice a rap on the knuckles and a black cross next to her name for that day.) Clearly, Sister was excited and nervous, and in those last minutes of waiting before they proceeded upstairs to the vestibule for the communion procession she got even more nervous, glancing repeatedly at the ancient wall clock above the main basement doors, taking deep breaths, sighing, once or twice blowing her whistle for no discernible reason; and naturally Sister's jittery behavior communicated itself to the children. Often in the long ensuing weeks Janice had tried telling herself that she was nervous because Sister was nervous, that she wouldn't have stumbled and fallen if everyone—priest and nuns, parishioners, family members, the children themselves!—hadn't made such a big deal of this, and occasionally she went to her bottom dresser drawer and took out the little wooden box as if to reassure herself that the flower was still pure and unsullied and beautiful, and of course it was (though the leaves had turned brown and icky, just as Sister had predicted), and then she would look at the little box that symbolized a coffin and try to imagine her own coffin and herself inside it. Would that be so terrible? she thought gloomily. Lying in her coffin forever, having no troubles at all?
So went those awful weeks between First Holy Communion and the end of school, Janice bothered by her friends' teasing at school and bad dreams almost every night and that vague lumpish sorrow that lay stubbornly inside her chest, just about where she imagined her lily-white soul should have been, though Janice had begun to believe she'd been "standing behind the door," as the schoolyard joke went, when God passed out the souls. Nor was her father any help, saying things like Don't worry, you livened things up a bit—nobody likes a little Miss Perfect, anyway, and another night, while having a few beers and looking through a photo album crammed with Holy Communion pictures (her mother was up in her room, that evening: had not come down for dinner), his murmuring yes, yes, she'd screwed up but didn't we all, his eyes glassy and faraway as he tousled Janice's fine blond hair, rubbing his knuckles along her scalp in a way that Janice, technically speaking, hated, though she loved to hear her father talk and so she didn't complain. And her mother, what of Janice's mother? At least her father was tall, hawk-nosed, handsome; at least her little friends in the neighborhood and at school and even her cousin Ruthie thought he was "cute" and giggled whenever he teased them or played the Big Bad Wolf and said he'd like to eat them up, at least he came home from the office where he sold insurance, sold lots and lots of insurance and won plaques and free vacations to Puerto Rico, came home and bounced Janice on his knee and said she was his sweet little blond-haired girl, and she wouldn't ever forget that, would she? "But what about Mommy?" Janice asked, trying not to sound cranky (though it was Mommy, not Daddy, who complained often about Janice being "cranky," or "fidgeting" too much, or behaving "like a little brat"; it was Mommy, not Daddy). "Why does Mommy stay in her room so much," she asked, "why won't she take me anywhere, why doesn't she get dressed in the morning like other mommies instead of staying in her housecoat till after lunch, why does she"—but her father put one finger to his lip and winked.
"Ssh," he said. "Mommy's tired, very tired."
"Tired from what? She doesn't do any—"
Then her father grabbed Janice's sides and threw her on the bed and tickled her like crazy, and yes Janice laughed and laughed, and no she could not stop.
Excerpted from Pagan Babies by Greg Johnson. Copyright © 1993 Greg johnson. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Greg Johnson is the author of eleven previous books: the novels Pagan Babies and Sticky Kisses; a collection of poetry; a biography of Joyce Carol Oates; three works of literary criticism; and the short story collections Distant Friends, A Friendly Deceit, I Am Dangerous, and Last Encounter With the Enemy. He was named Georgia Author of the Year in 1991 and 1997. His fiction has garnered wide acclaim, from The New York Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Chicago Tribune to the Dallas Morning News, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. A professor of English at Kennesaw State University, he lives in Atlanta.
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