“That part looked like fun,” she said.
He glanced at her and was relieved to see a slightly happy glint in her eyes. It was surrounded by the sharpness of her personality, but it was there, a small, patient and loving glow.
“I want to do that,” she said. “Let’s draw on each other’s backs. I’ll go first.”
She patted the open space in the bed next to her. Jake didn’t know how to feel. His heart beat fast. It seemed wrong to be so close, to touch so intimately the Mother of God. There was also guilt. His mother was the real disciple of the Virgin Mary. Shouldn’t she at least get to meet her? But, in spite of all his trepidation, he knew he’d slide into bed next to her and draw on her back. He wanted it more than anything he could recall in his life. He craved to be close to her, to smell her sweaty, dirty skin, to touch her soft body. It was wrong, he knew, and that knowledge, along with his desire, caused his chest to burn as he got into bed.
“Take off your shirt,” she said, and he obeyed. Jake lay, bare-chested, face down on his bed with his arms stretched over his head. He closed his eyes and felt the tip of her finger graze across his back. In his blindness, he saw that fingertip as a bright light, something like a firefly, forming shapes in the fading white trail it left behind. He almost fell asleep and could have slept for years, Jake believed, but the light went black and a voice whispered, “Guess what it is?”
He had no idea, and told her so.
“You’re no fun,” the Virgin Mary said. She pushed him and then collapsed on her stomach, and said, “I drew your stupid toy snake. Now, it’s my turn.”
She rolled up her shirt, revealing a thin, pale torso that rose and fell slowly with each breath.
“Make it something elaborate,” she said.
Her voice was heavy with sleep. Jake knew she’d fall asleep soon after he started, so he didn’t bother to think up a picture. He merely drew circles around a mole on her lower back and then connected it with a line to the three freckles clustered around her right shoulder blade. He kept telling himself he shouldn’t be drawing, but her skin felt so warm and soft. A few times she moaned, and he was thrilled by her delight.
“Do you think,” the Virgin Mary said while yawning, “do you think your mom might have killed your dad?”
Jake stopped. His body felt hollow, and he heard himself say in an unfamiliar voice, “No. He killed himself.”
“I know he killed himself. I saw him tie the rope and slip his head into it, and I watched him hanging there in the garage for a long time.”
She yawned again, and said, “gosh,” trying to wake herself.
“But I wonder,” she went on, “if your mother caused him to do it. You know what I mean? She wasn’t very nice to him.”
“No,” Jake’s strange new voice said.
“She yelled at him a lot. From what I saw, she tried to make him unhappy.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“It might have been what she always wanted – him killing himself. Now, she’s just pretending to be upset so no one suspects her. She obviously never loved him.”
“No, I don’t think she did.” Jake couldn’t believe what he had just said. His mind didn’t feel as if it were working properly. It seemed altogether separate from him. He’d never once suspected that his parents didn’t love each other. Now the thought not only existed, but something in him agreed with it.
“Hey, keep going,” the Virgin Mary said. She shrugged her shoulders to get his finger moving again. Jake resumed his meaningless drawing, while trying to remember any signs of love between his mother and father. He searched hard through his memories, but found none.
After a while, he heard the Virgin Mary snoring.
“Hey,” Jake whispered. She didn’t react. He kept drawing, however, tracing shapes all across her back. He knew he should stop, but it felt so good to touch her, especially along her sides and across the soft edges of her budding breasts.
The next morning, when Jake woke up, the Virgin Mary was gone, her robe and shawl no longer in a pile on his floor. He worked hard to suppress any memories of what he’d done the night before, and each time one did creep into his head, he bit his finger, sometimes drawing blood, in order to keep his mind clear.
Jake tried to go on with his day as before, but knowing something might be watching kept him from his normal routine. A few times during the morning, he walked into the dining room and slowly circled the table. He looked underneath it, and his face flushed as he considered risking all danger and indulging himself. But he held back. And so the morning progressed slowly. By lunch, when the familiar hunger pains loudly attacked his stomach, Jake went upstairs and knocked for the first time in a week on his mother’s door.
No response came from within the room. Jake tried the doorknob and was surprised to find it unlocked. The door creaked open. All was dark inside the bedroom. The blinds were shut. Jake had to squint to see anything.
“Who told you to come in?” his mother said. Her voice was raspy, and the mere sound of it caused the boy to feel thirsty.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“Then go eat.”
“There’s no food left.” He’d finished off the jar of maraschino cherries for breakfast.
“There’s got to be something. You just don’t want to eat what there is.”
“There isn’t anything. I looked.”
His mother sighed. In the dark, he could see movements but not details, and in the direction from where her voice originated, something moved frantically. A soft scraping noise accompanied the movement.
“Call your father then,” Mrs. Asher said. “Ask him to stop by the grocery store on the way home.”
“Dad’s dead,” Jake said.
She turned on a lamp next to the bed, and the dim, dirty yellow light briefly blinded Jake.
“Who’s dead?” his mother asked.
Jake recovered his vision but was unable to answer. He didn’t recognize the woman in the bed. Was this his mother or some demon impersonating her? If it was a devil, he had donned a poor disguise. The emaciated, yellow-fleshed creature in the bed looked nothing like his mother. It more resembled a vulture because of the way it craned its thin neck and looked at him with one eye shut and one eye wide open.
“Dad’s dead,” Jake said. “He hung himself.”
“Oh. Oh, I forgot,” she said.
She closed her eye and rested her head back against the pillow. The scraping sound Jake heard earlier resumed, and he saw his mother scratching violently at the scabs on her hands. Before visiting Yugoslavia, Father Bill had invited Mrs. Asher to come to his office and discuss her trip. She had left the house elated that morning, expecting the priest to give her advice on how to receive the holy mother. But that evening, she had returned home with her hands bandaged. When Jake asked her what happened, she only said, “I broke his window.”
The wounds now bothered her, and she clawed at them, smearing thin strings of blood across her hands.
“What else do you want?” she asked. “You look like you want to say something.”
Her eyes remained closed, but she turned her head towards him as if she were looking at him. Jake did want to say more. He saw the blood under her fingernails and her frantic scratching, and he wanted to tell her about the previous night’s visitor. He wanted to say, “The Virgin Mary was here, in this house, Mom. She was here.” But then he’d have to explain how she spent the night with him. And his mother would easily read on his face that he did something wrong, that he behaved poorly, that he defiled the one thing she held sacred. He couldn’t tell her, even though the knowledge of this mysterious presence might ease his mother’s suffering.
“Can I stay in here with you?” he asked.
“Can we take a nap together?”
She opened one eye slowly and looked at him. It was red and yellow, this eyeball, and Jake swallowed when he saw it gazing at him.
“Fine,” she said. “You can sleep in here. But not in the bed. I can’t breathe with you on top of me.”
Jake wanted to lay under the covers with her, maybe draw on each other’s backs like they once did. He settled for curling up in a ball in a corner of the room with an old, musty smelling blanket and pillow from the hall closet.
They slept all day, until it was dark outside, and Jake didn’t know he was awake until his mom turned on the lamp and he realized his eyes had been open for some time. He yawned and patted down the hair sticking up on the back of his head. His clothes were wet from sweat, his cheeks pink.
“How’d you sleep, sha?” his mother asked. That was her nickname for him. It meant “dear” in Cajun French, but she hadn’t used that word since her return from Medjugorje. Jake blinked at his mother and noticed she was staring at him with both eyes – not just one. She licked the bad taste of sleep from her mouth and gave him a somewhat weak smile. It was safe, he realized, to ask her what he’d been thinking about before he’d knocked on her door that morning.
“Did you love Dad?” he asked.
Her smiled faded, but she didn’t seem mad or sad. Only annoyed.
“What kind of question is that?” she asked. “I just woke up. Of course I loved him. You should ask if he loved us, considering what he did.”
Jake wrapped his arms around his legs and rested his chin on his knees. He watched his mom lick the dried blood off her hands, while the pangs of hunger again rippled in his stomach.
“How’d you and dad meet?” he asked.
“Why do you want to know this now?”
“I don’t know.”
He asked the question without having considered it before, without ever caring, but now he needed to know. When she said, “I can’t remember,” he pressed her until she closed her eyes and, rubbing her forehead, recalled the last night of 1969.
“It was a New Year’s Eve party,” she said. “We lived in New Orleans, and I was dating a boy named Carl. He wanted to marry me, but…” She didn’t know how to express her distaste for Carl other than shivering, as if someone had touched her bare back with an ice cube.
“Your father and his roommate were throwing the party. I think Carl knew the roommate. I can’t remember. Anyway, your father came up to Carl before midnight and asked if he could kiss me.”
The voice shed its raspy tone like a dead skin, and the new sound emerged soft and shiny, tickling Jake’s ears as if the words were being whispered to him.
“Your father’s date just stood there with her arms crossed. Carl didn’t know what to say, so your father kissed me.”
She laughed and then rubbed her fingers across her lips.
“The girl with her arms crossed said, ‘Oh come on, Henry. You can do better than that.’ So, your father kissed me again.”
“He kissed you twice?” Jake asked.
“He did. And he did a better job the second time.”
Mrs. Asher allowed herself, for the first time in months, to laugh freely. But she must have lowered her guard during this burst of happiness and let the long suppressed image of her husband’s hanging body re-emerge in her mind, because she stopped suddenly, punctuating the end of her gaiety with an abrupt, “Hmmm.”
“He was never a happy man,” she said. “And he knew I wasn’t happy either. I guess we both should have found people who could have helped us be happy, but he argued against it. He said we both had suffered, and only people who truly suffered, who felt some agony in life, those were the ones who truly knew how to love. They understood loneliness and despair. You could feel it in their hugs and kisses, he said. Happy people take it for granted. They don’t know how to love. But because we were so miserable, we’d have the greatest love of all, he said. And then he thought we could end…” She stopped herself. She looked as if she wanted to say more, but she watched her son and decided to remain quiet.
“What about the Virgin Mary?” Jake asked. “Is that why you loved her? Because she suffered?”
“She watched her son die, didn’t she? But I was silly. I was silly for going and thinking she could help me.”
“Maybe she still can.”
“No.” Mrs. Asher inhaled deep. “They’ve all abandoned me.”
Jake decided to tell her about his visitor. He closed his eyes and prepared himself to simply rush through the words building behind his lips, tell her everything.
“I’m tired, Jake,” she said. “I’m going back to sleep.”
“Can I stay here with you?”
“I want to be alone. Can’t you just leave me alone?”
“What about food?”
“Jake!” she snapped. She pointed a bony finger toward the door, and she didn’t drop her hand until her son closed it behind him.
Jake’s hunger turned to nausea. The thought of food sickened him, and he was glad for this new sensation since there was nothing to eat in the house. He belched, and the taste of whatever spoiled morsel remained in his stomach almost caused him to vomit. He had to breathe deeply for several minutes to feel normal again.
But he didn’t feel normal. He was so tired that when he grabbed the sheets to cover himself in his bed, his hands shook. It was such a strange feeling. He lifted his hands in front of his face and watched the involuntary trembles.
“What are you doing?”
Jake jumped at the question. He thought he was alone in his room, but there, lying right next to him in bed, was the freckled face of the Virgin Mary. She absent-mindedly stroked the plastic toy snake in her hands. Jake swallowed when he saw her holding it.
“Where’d you come from?”
“I’ve been here the whole time.”
She lifted the snake to her face and stared into its red eyes. Moved by whatever she saw, the Virgin Mary tilted her head like a curious dog and parted her dry lips. Then, waking from her daydream, she blinked and turned to Jake. She caught him looking at her shoulders and how the tank top hung loose around her neck. Her smile caused him no small amount of shame. He should not be looking at such things. Not on her.
“So,” she said, letting the word hang there seductively. The hissing sound it made tickled his side. “What’d your mom say? She admit she didn’t like your dad?”
“No,” Jake said. “She said she loved him, but that he might not have loved us. Because he killed himself.”
“Why?” he whispered.
“She’s blaming your father when it’s her fault. That’s not right. What else did she say?”
“She told me how they met.”
“At the New Year’s Eve party?”
“Sounds like he sure liked her to me.”
It was as if Jake was hearing again the conversation he’d had with his mother. Now, he was picking up words and phrases that had somehow eluded him before. His father did sound as if he loved his mother. Why else would he have been so bold at the party? How had Jake missed that?
“I don’t think I’d believe a word your mom says,” the Virgin Mary told him.
“Hell no. The only reason you do is because you’re still a momma’s boy.”
“I’m not a momma’s boy.”
“I’m not a momma’s boy. You know what you should do? You should put this snake in her bed. It’d give her a nice, good scare and prove you weren’t so in love with her.”
The suggestion surprised Jake because he had just been thinking that same thing. When she called him a momma’s boy, he had looked down at the snake in her hands and thought, with a red flush of anger, “I’ll stick that in her bed and show you who’s a momma’s boy.” But now that the thought was real, now that it belonged to her and was presented as a challenge, he became nervous. Did he really want to frighten his mother? She looked so weak, so fragile. It would hurt her, and the pain that had permanently settled as a grimace on her skeletal face would only tighten its hold, making her near impossible to look at.
Jake hesitated, and in this silence, the Virgin Mary reached her hand to him and lightly grazed her fingers across his forearm. Her voice, for the first time since their meeting, turned soft.
“When you come back, we’ll draw on each other’s backs. I’ll draw on yours last so you can fall asleep.”
He tried to ignore the suggestion, but he knew what he’d end up doing. He didn’t wait a full minute to depart with the snake, his desire so strong for their little drawing games. Jake tiptoed down the hall, found her door still unlocked and, navigating carefully through the darkness of her bedroom, placed the snake under the sheets. He didn’t once disturb her snoring, and when he returned, Jake marveled at how easy it was to play this prank.
The Virgin Mary and he then began to draw on each other’s backs, their fingers sneaking beyond the normal boundaries of the flesh canvases, and each infraction was met with a coy glance or a muted smile, inviting more boldness to enter the activity. They only stopped themselves from going farther in order to crane their necks, to strain their ears and hear the faint screams of Mrs. Asher.
The Virgin Mary covered her mouth as she laughed, and Jake, looking at her, felt that he loved her more than anything on earth. He laughed too, and though deep in his chest a small fire smoldered, his headache and nausea and hunger were overridden by his joy. He laughed loud and hard, rolling onto his back, resting his hands on his chest and not stopping until he was out of breath and dripping tears.