By Maggie Stewart
Mary did not kneel to pray when they arrived early to Mass, as her husband, Connor did. She had quit that long ago. She was a little anxious sitting there as Connor prayed. She felt the bony hands of Mrs. Longo brush against her back. Mrs. Longo tried to kneel in the pew behind her and now had no place to put her arms since Mary was sitting back. She held her back stiff and shrugged it off.
Connor prayed at Mass as if he were Bing Crosby in The Bells of St. Mary’s. His rugby body took up a spot and a half on the kneeler. He smiled, and occasionally looked her way and winked as if he had just heard back from God.
Before the change, The Bells of St. Mary’s was Mary’s favorite movie. She thought Ingrid Bergman was the most beautiful woman ever. When she was young, Mary wanted to be just like Bergman. She believed if Ingrid Bergman could get her prayers answered, Mary too, could get anything she wanted. And why not believe? Things seemed a little bleak if you didn’t. She felt jealous of Connor as she watched him pray. Men never give up. Every time Connor stepped up to the plate, he believed he’d hit a home run. If she still prayed, she’d pray that all Connor’s prayers were answered. She’d do anything to see him not get hurt. Yet she knew this hurt him. Her sitting on the pew watching his back.
Mary missed the slow processional as she watched Mr. and Mrs. Dunsmore flick at a cicada that had somehow made it through the long summer and into the church. She didn’t miss anything she didn’t already know. She sat on the pew; arms crossed tightly, feet up on the kneeler and read the St. Joseph’s bulletin balanced on her lap. Father Bauer was saying 9:00 a.m. Mass. The altar boys were the Dunsmore boys, Tommy and Matt. The reader was that young, bald guy. And the Mass was offered for Mrs. Kay Whalen’s father who died a couple years ago of a massive heart attack at age ninety-six. He was an optimistic old geezer who bought a new car and set of golf clubs the summer he died.
She looked up just as Father Bauer reached the top step of the altar and turned around. Her green eyes met his dark ones for a short beat before Mary looked down. They had an understanding. Father knew some things about her, after all. He knew about her birth control pills and infertility procedures. She knew he was an uptight, holier than thou jerk who had never been married, never been in love, and never wanted children.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
She did the sign of the cross a million times in her life. In her youth, prayers were answered. Her parents and brothers were healthy. She got the Mickey Mouse watch. Her team won the 1972 Girls Softball Championship. Mary was very pragmatic. She chose early in life to believe in God.
Just like all these good people at church sitting in their same pew, as if assigned, week after week. The Dunsmores loved the front pew. Just then, Mrs. Dunsmore eyed Tommy sternly, but she had no control over him up there on the altar. He was whispering to Matt and making him giggle. Mr. Dunsmore’s eyes closed and his bright red face calmed down.
Mr. Dunsmore liked his gin. Every Sunday after Mass he sat at the head of the Dunsmore brunch table at the Country Club and drank tallboy Tanquerays nonstop. He didn’t get up from the table to get a plate of eggs. He leaned back in his chair whenever Mary passed by, balancing his 250 pounds on two skinny chair legs, and would knock her on the arm.
“Hey Mary, you’re going to get fat! I’m counting!” His voice was loud and rough and wet.
“I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault.” The cicada landed on the bench behind a stranger as they prayed. The stranger was a woman. She wore a wedding ring and was very pregnant. Mary eyed her carefully. Her maternity suit was red and brand new. First baby. Most of Mary’s friends complained about maternity clothes. Mary would wear maternity clothes the day after she conceived if she could.
One day during the summer she bought a maternity dress and put it on in the bathroom. It had tiny purple flowers on it and a white bow at the collar. It was the kind her friends hated. She placed her hands inside the baggy stomach area and pushed them out to fill up the material. She stared at her image in the mirror for an hour. Then she stuck the dress at the bottom of the Good Will box before Connor came home.
She stared at the stranger in church and looked at the cheap seams of the red maternity suit. The clumsy, fat cicada fell to the floor and the stranger smiled at it, then raised her eyes to the Blessed Virgin statue.
There was a time when Mary went to Mass alone like this stranger. In and out of church every now and then in her twenties before she was married. Roaming Catholic. Early Mass made for a perfect week, her mom had said, late Mass was for the drunks. She’d feel pretty good when she walked out. Full of the spirit and forgiven and all that – a feeling she loved. It was a feeling that could carry her through Tuesday or maybe even Wednesday. It was good to belong to the Catholics. A big family of people who feared and made fun of the Pope. Crazy, mixed up Catholics. Outside the ornate double doors, big families raced around her, calling to each other, laughing. She felt different, too tall perhaps. It seemed she was always in someone’s way. She started to leave right after communion to avoid the crowds after Mass. Her time would come. Everyone’s did. She looked forward to having a huge family one day and staying long after Mass.
“That I have sinned through my own fault.” Connor followed the words in the missalette.
They had gotten into an argument once about using the missalette. She knew all the words by heart, even used some of the prayers from Mass when she’d hear an ambulance siren going by. These prayers were part of her life. She proposed that if you had been going to Mass for thirty-seven years, chances were you knew all the prayers by heart. Maybe it was even a sin if you didn’t know the prayers by heart. Maybe if you didn’t know the prayers by heart you had really never paid attention to what you were saying for the last thirty years. Instead you had probably been at church saying these prayers but really thinking about whether you were going to order pancakes or eggs at brunch, or whether the game was going to be rained out, or whether or not you thought the woman sitting in front of you needed liposuction. Of course, Connor just laughed. Good old Connor. Big, sweet Irish Connor. Reading the missalette is just something you do, like sleeping. No need to argue over it – or even think about it. No need to beat these things into the ground. He hated that. Beating things into the ground.
When they first began invitro fertilization, Mary went to early morning Mass every day. She sat with the senior citizens and fancied them praying for daughters like her. She watched the occasional businessman come and go. She figured he prayed for a sale that morning or a stock to go up. After Mass, she’d kneel in front of the Blessed Virgin Mary and clank down fifty cents in the metal box to light a candle for her eggs. She loved the tiny enclave that smelled like the heavy stone walls that surrounded her and the smoke from the candles that had reached the end of their wicks.
She’d shut her eyes tighter than Ingrid Bergman’s and say, “Please, dear God, hold this little egg in your hands.” She creatively visualized God’s hands protecting her egg. She prayed and looked to the Virgin.
“Mary, bring me a baby.”
She got it in her head that the statue’s eyes would tear if the Virgin was listening. She had read in the newspaper that a statue of Mary was crying somewhere up North. Why wouldn’t this one cry? She stared hard at the stone eyes and prayed so earnestly that her stomach muscles became sore at night. The stone eyes remained unblinking gray cement.
The congregation sat down for the first reading. What’s-his-name with the bald head got up to read. He had a nice voice, Mary thought. It was gentle and young, like his face. When she first saw him she thought maybe he had undergone chemotherapy. No, Connor said, he’s just premature bald.
“Sort of like premature gray, only a little worse.” Connor joked. Mary didn’t laugh.
This was a voice she could believe in. This bald guy’s voice. It was unlike Father Bauer’s. Father’s voice was too booming, too bold. It was one you couldn’t argue with. When Father Bauer spoke it was as if the whole world was already planned, proofed and printed. Father had the book.
There was a young priest at Mary’s parish when she was a teen-ager. He held the guitar Mass in the cafeteria on Sundays. Mary and her friends would go to the cafeteria and their parents would go to regular Mass upstairs. The kids would sing Simon and Garfunkel or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young songs. At first they giggled, but then it started to make sense.
“I mean,” Mary figured, “God just loves us singing to Him – that’s what’s important.”
They discovered what was important in the cafeteria contrary to the hopes of their parents. They discovered God didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Catholic religion. Religion was more a singing and loving thing that was supposed to be followed after Mass. It didn’t have much to do with nuns or Vatican 2 or even sacred robes.
The young guitar priest had a great voice and such an easy way. Even the boys felt comfortable enough around him to sing along. He was handsome, too. He started a youth group at night in the cavernous cafeteria. All Mary’s class participated and the room became intimate, their own. They discovered church had a social side. Then, too, they discovered each other. They began the holy religion of puberty. The sacred rituals of first kiss and first touch. The seduction of sacrifice. The grief of forfeiture and the frightening cold of impenitence.
When Mary’s book and Father Bauer’s didn’t jibe, Mary gave up on God. If there was a God, Mary and Connor could have children.
This scared Connor. It made him uncomfortable talking about it. Church was part of life. If they wanted to see his family they had to go to church and attend church functions because that’s where they all were. She knew he hoped this was just a stage she was going through and if he left it alone she would forget about it. About hating God. About being an atheist. It never dawned on her that she was being hypocritical by attending Mass. If she didn’t go to church, she felt guilty. A Catholic fixture, guilt. She had to weigh the guilt feelings with the agony over seeing babies in the pews around her. She couldn’t look at them without her eyes welling up. Connor would wink and play with them and look to her in amusement over a cute face or a loud scream. She hated this the most. The fact that Connor could still look at babies.
She still went to communion. She liked to piss Father Bauer off. She stepped out of her line on the right just to receive the host from him.
“Body of Christ, Mary,” he sternly whispered.
“Really?” she answered.
One time when Mary received the host from the guitar priest somehow things didn’t click and the priest missed Mary’s mouth. The host fell to the floor. This had never happened to her. Mary was in horror. This was the body of Christ lying on the cafeteria floor! The same floor the eighth grade boys had filled with milk and Hungarian goulash the Friday before in a massive food fight. Mary froze. She figured it would have to be scooped up with some holy spoon and put into some holy container where the nuns store fallen hosts forever. Mary’s friends behind her were snorting, trying to keep their laughter in. She could feel her clothes stick to her and saw her long nose go red. The handsome guitar priest picked up the host and stuck it in her open mouth. There was no holy container. There was nothing.
She took the host from Father Bauer with a smirk on her angelic face and turned to walk back to the pew behind the Dunsmores. As she walked by the open side door, she felt the cool breeze of October and had a glimpse of the pregnant stranger sneaking out alone. When she got to her pew she sat down and watched Connor fold into his kneel and pray. Bing Crosby. Cocky and sure, but business-like and understanding, too. If God chose to accept one of Connor’s deals, so be it.
Connor had a good family. She couldn’t complain about that. Her parents had long since passed away and her brothers were hard to talk to. Conor’s was a huge Irish Catholic family full of babies and aunts and great uncles and cousins and second cousins. They suffocated her with love after the second invitro didn’t work. It’s not your fault Mary. It’s God’s plan Mary. When God closes a door, he opens a window, Mary. Connor’s family knew every damn cliché in the book.
She was invited to every baby shower, every christening, every baby room-shopping trip. She was never denied entrance into the club. She was a woman and they thought they understood. Sometimes she would enjoy the parties. Other times she would go home and cry for hours. Sometimes she would feign illness so she wouldn’t have to go to family picnics.
She began to hate hanging out with the women and the babies and hearing about the cute things they did. She started not to care what other people thought about her. She acted rude, drew inside herself, wandered parties alone.
“Come here, Mary!” Connor called her over to the softball game at a family picnic when he caught her wandering. “Let Mary pitch – she’s good. She shouldn’t be hanging out with the women!”
When they’d leave the picnics, she’d cling to Connor.
“Let’s just have it be me and you next weekend. No one else. Just me and you.”
And so they formed their own club. Retreated into the house, into trips five or six times a year. They went to the Caribbean, Arizona, Minnesota, Florida, skiing in Aspen and hiking in Jackson. They went to plays and movies and enjoyed weekends downtown at the Ritz Carlton. Their friends who didn’t know envied them. Connor and Mary envied strangers in the grocery lines with babies in their carts.
She quit work and they decided on a third and final invitro attempt. Getting pregnant would be her full time job – she would do it right. She spent hours on the golf course that summer. It was the summer of the seventeen-year cicada. Big black beetles crawling out of the ground to fornicate and die. They were all over the place sounding off like the distant buzz in a sci fi movie. Neighborhood kids went crazy with joy playing with them, abandoning their Big Wheels and Barbies and smashing cicadas instead.
On the eighteenth hole at the Country Club, the cicadas were particularly bad. It was a long narrow hole flanked on both sides by hundred year elm trees. The cicadas were everywhere. They’d land on Mary’s golf ball and her shoulders. They were stupid, silly bugs. Big, blind astronauts; hanging in the air and then bumping into trees, houses, and Mary. The fertility drugs made Mary irritated about small things. The bugs were first on her list.
At summer’s end the St. Joe’s Men’s Club had its annual golf tournament. The bugs were starting to die by then, finished with their dirty deed, they began stacking up along the eighteenth hole. She took her sand wedge and hit a dead cicada on to the green. It was a wonderful shot actually, better than the one she had taken with her Topflight 1. So she struck another cicada, then another. Each bug landed near the next on the green. She hit more and her friends began to laugh nervously.
“Gross Mary! Stop it Mary!”
But she continued to hit. The shots became better and better. Her wedge scooping up the bug just so and sending it into the sky blue, just like television golf, she thought. She filled a spot on the green a foot square with dead cicadas. No one wanted to touch the bugs so no one moved them off the green even though Father Bauer was in the foursome in back of them.
She met with Father Bauer a few days after the golf/cicada incident. Connor thought it might do her good if she could talk with a priest. She instantly agreed. She had some questions she wanted answered. She got the answers. Her body was a temple of God’s. The Catholic church did not condone invitro fertilization. Go home and adopt.
They went ahead with the final attempt anyway.
“Screw Father Bauer.” she said. The summer blazed, sleeveless tops were too warm. Every day after the invitro, she’d walk to Lake Michigan in order to build up strength. The hot air would be heavy with wild flowers, ragweed and grass clippings. The phlox in the beach park sent out such a heavy scent that it reminded her of hot fresh waffles overflowing with sweet butter and maple syrup. She waited out the seven days to take the pregnancy test. The test came back negative and she continued her walks like a zombie.
She smelled the cicadas as they died. They lined the walk and their scent was thick like angle worms stranded on dry sidewalks after a morning rain. Everyone could smell the phlox that summer. No one else could smell the dead cicadas. No one knew what she was talking about.
“Can’t you smell them?” she cried.
“Shut up about the bugs,” Connor said, “You’re beating this thing into the ground.”
Her eggs, the doctor said, behaved as if they were already in menopause. The doctors had done all they could. They kindly offered to write an adoption reference letter. The doctors hated a failure. Hated that Mary couldn’t produce, couldn’t “achieve” pregnancy.
She gave up golf and started biking and dieting. She lost fifteen pounds that she really didn’t need to lose and would bike for hours. She didn’t have to be careful with her body anymore. Can’t nurture a bad egg and she sure as hell knew by then that she wasn’t a temple for God.
The family was all for adoption. Sure, that was God opening the window. God chooses parents he wants for adoption, you know. Connor was uncharacteristically quiet about it. Adoption meant quit in his mind. Mary let the conversation surround her, never becoming a part of it.
Matt and Tommy Dunsmore carried the sacred chalices off the altar and onto the table at the bottom of the altar stairs. Tommy looked exactly like his father, cheeks ablaze, a roly – poly slob really. His dirty high-tops were unlaced beneath his altar boy robe. Matt was tall and slim like his mother. He had a softer voice and heavy eyelids. His robe too short, his shoes dark. Father Bauer sat down on his chair, and Connor and the rest of the congregation followed his lead and got up from their kneelers to sit down. This was a moment of recollection and thought.
She wanted to know what their baby would have looked like. She conjured up the perfect child. Connor’s thin, smooth nose, her green eyes, Connor’s hair thickness, her hair’s curls. All the perfect parts selected and blended until the most beautiful child in the world stood before her mind’s eye. She hated people who had kids who looked like them. Hated happy families, joking over who had which genes. Perhaps she was possessed, had some sort of demon in her.
The nuns told her she was in control over the devil. They promised her peace in Jesus and Heaven. They promised her babies. That was something she never even thought twice about. Babies come like a home and a mortgage, neighbors and dandelions.
The cicada was on the altar. Matt Dunsmore tried to catch it in his hands and she couldn’t tell if he succeeded or not. Irritated, Father Bauer stood up from recollection prematurely.
“The Mass has ended, go in peace,” he boomed.
Connor looked sorry. It was always hard for him, she knew, after Mass. She became argumentative, the devil’s advocate.
As Father left the altar, Mary asked, “Did you pray for me, Connor?”
“Yes,” Connor said, “I always do.”
She fell in love with Connor because he made her laugh. There was never a moment in her life since she met him that she wanted to be without him. The most satisfying day of her life occurred when she took chicken out of the freezer and put it on the kitchen shelf the first morning after she quit work. She left the house for an estrogen test and came back to see the chicken thawing on the counter. At that moment she felt right.
She wanted to be the “Kool-Aid Mom,” she told her friends, “the one with all the kids on the block over at my house. I’ll always have fresh baked cookies and a new pitcher of Kool-Aid ready.” And the meat for the evening would be thawing on the kitchen counter by ten a.m.
After they failed at infertility, they started eating out more. They went to the Club a lot; it was convenient.
They headed to the club after church that morning. It was packed. There was a special deal that day for people who wanted to have brunch and take a bus to the Bears game. The crowd was rowdy and loud, dressed casually and playful. It put Mary in a high mood. She even went back for seconds past Mr. Dunsmore who was also enjoying the crowd and drinking faster than usual.
He slapped her arm as she passed by, “Hey Mary – what the hell did you say to Father Bauer at Communion? He looked like he coulda yanked the host right outta your mouth!”
“What the hell!” Tommy said.
Mr. Dunsmore playfully put his big red hands over Tommy’s mouth.
Mary said, “I told him his sermon was too long.”
Mr. Dunsmore laughed, long and wet, and toasted Mary with his gin, “Touché!”
“Touché!” Tommy mumbled through the big, red hand.
“Tommy!” Mrs. Dunsmore said, and then winked at Mary.
Mary loaded her plate with scrambled eggs, hash browns, pineapple chunks, melon and pancakes with maple butter. Connor had the “do it yourself” omelet and a caramel roll. Connor liked all his food in one entity. Mary kept her food separate. If the pineapple juice should drip into the eggs, she wouldn’t eat the eggs. Usually they joked about their eating habits, but today Connor seemed edgy. He brought up the adoption issue just when Mary finished her fruit.
“Have you given any thought to adoption?”
“What’s in your omelet?”
“I’m not saying we do anything. Just talk.”
Mary lost her appetite put down her fork. She watched silently as the maple butter melted into the hash browns. She hadn’t digested the infertility yet. She heard on Oprah that infertility was like going through a death. She was mourning. Connor hated Oprah, wanted Mary to turn the TV off and get out more.
Connor said, as if she hadn’t thought about it, “We’re not getting any younger.”
“We’re not getting any older either. I mean, doesn’t it seem like time has just stopped for us? Like we’re in limbo or something? Like we don’t even exist?” she asked.
Connor stared blankly at her and then cut a square bite of omelet and put it into his mouth.
“Maybe,” he said between bites, “We’re beating this thing into the ground.” He ate in silent, neat bites until he finished his meal, the last portion of egg spread onto his roll with a knife as if it were butter. Then he excused himself to the dessert table.
“You want anything?” he asked Mary.
I want everything, that’s all. Mary thought, as she shook her head, “No.”
Maybe, she thought, she had been watching too much Oprah. She felt heavy in her chair, sick of herself. The food on her plate was all running together when the waitress removed it for her. She nodded at the waitress and looked over at the Dunsmores.
She saw it from the beginning, before anyone at the Dunsmore table noticed. Mary’s mouth opened with Mr. Dunsmore’s. Where his went slack, her’s felt tight and strained down through her shoulders. She stood up but could get no words out. Fear woke her up like caffeine. Mrs. Dunsmore might have seen Mary before she looked at her husband, slumped over, mouth wide open, drooling. She jumped from her seat and went to him, screaming “Call 911!” The boys stopped batting at each other and Connor put down his dessert plate on someone’s table whom Mary didn’t recognize. He and Mary got to the Dunsmores’ table at about the same instant. Mary remembered it as the instant the red left Mr. Dunsmore’s face. She knew he was dead right there.
Mary and Connor took the boys in their car and followed the ambulance to the hospital. The bus of people going to the Bears game was loading up as they pulled out of the parking lot. She saw the faces of the fans, filled with interest and concern, but determined not to let this thing spoil their day. She turned to the boys in the back seat.
“They’re going to the Bears game, huh?”
“Yeah,” Matt said, “We played baseball this summer for the Bears.”
“It’s Little League.” Tommy said. “I pitched.”
Matt jumped up in excitement. “One game Tom got hit by the ball in the face and went down. Mom was crying.”
Connor glanced quickly at Mary, but she kept her eyes on the boys.
“Fast ball?” Connor asked Tommy through the rear view mirror.
“He didn’t cry or anything.” Matt said.
Connor stopped at a light on Waukegan Road and looked at Mary until she looked back. She held his gaze before turning to the boys.
Mary said, “You were very brave. Like today, you have to be very brave for your Mom, right?”
She grabbed Connor’s hand. The boys nodded their heads. Mary took a long, deep breath that shook on intake with fear. When she let it out, she had more energy than she had felt in a long time.
The golden maples along the road were breathtaking. She saw everything as if looking through just cleaned windows. A cicada clung desperately to the windshield, trying to hold on against the car’s velocity. A squirrel with a half-eaten piece of toast in his mouth bolted three feet onto the street in front of them, stopped, looked at their car, then bolted back the way he came. Connor squeezed her hand and she felt his warm fingers wrapped around her cold ones. The radio was low but she clearly heard the beginning of the Bears broadcast and could smell the crisp brown leaves the car was kicking up outside.
Mary closed her eyes like Ingrid Bergman and prayed that the Dunsmore boys would be okay.