Archive for June 2004

And Then There Was Owen, Chapter 7: The Diamond Wheel

June 2, 2004

And Then There Was Owen
A Parody of A Prayer for Owen Meany
By James Smyth, Adam Passarelli, Julianne Ellis, Miriam Miller, and Lili Xu

Chapter 7: The Diamond Wheel
By James Smyth

The door opened like the crack of a whip. I jumped out of my seat and started dusting it off as if I were apologizing for using it. It didn’t matter. I could have brushed the grime off that coach until Owen had earned his parking spot in the front of the lot, and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.

Owen peered at me. He looked like a child crusader. His apron, pants, gloves, and boots were all once forest green, but years in the monument shop had stained them the same color as the rocks. His forehead and collar were damp. He wiped his face off with his sleeve, leaving a layer of granite powder on it. He mopped his brow again to get the dust off, but that just made it worse. He thought about doing it a third time – I could see his arm jerking – thankfully, he didn’t.

“AHEM. THANKS FOR WAITING, JOHNNY. EVERYTHING’S READY NOW. COME ON IN.”

We stepped into the shop. It was dark, dank, and quiet, like a mausoleum. There was a solitary light in the back corner of the building near the diamond wheel. Between us and the light were dozens of tables that I didn’t see and that Owen didn’t care to rush through. We zigged and zagged languidly.

I asked Owen how business was though I already knew the answer all too well. “BETTER THAN EVER,” said he. “THAT’S TO BE EXPECTED, GIVEN THE WAY THINGS HAVE BEEN IN THE TOWN LATELY. SOME OF THESE GUYS WANTED ORNATE GRAVES, AND THE DIAMOND WHEEL HAS BEEN THE BIG HERO THERE. IT’S AMAZING. IT CUTS MORE CLEANLY THAN ANYTHING ELSE WE HAVE. THINGS ON THE MINING SIDE AREN’T GOING TOO BADLY, EITHER. THERE’S NOT MUCH LEFT IN THIS OLD TOWN, BUT WHAT’S THERE IS CHOICE.”

He asked me how I was doing and then answered the question himself. He lamented my poor grades in college but said I shouldn’t worry too much about it. He was surprised and apparently pleased that I hadn’t worn a turtleneck sweater although it was so cold outside. He talked about the war in Vietnam and what a quagmire it was. I told him I didn’t want to be there. He said, “I UNDERSTAND HOW YOU FEEL. I HAVE A FEELING YOU WON’T HAVE TO GO, THOUGH.” He hoped that I’d been sleeping well and complained that he’d had some awful nightmares lately.

Finally, we reached the wheel. It looked clean, sterile, and ready for action. “THIS IS PERFECT,” he cooed. “IT LOOKS JUST LIKE I THOUGHT IT WOULD.” We stood admiring it for a while.

Then Owen slowly turned towards me. “WELL….WELL.”

He paused.

“…OKAY. SOON, WE’LL BE GETTING STARTED, BUT FIRST, I’LL FULFILL MY PROMISE AND SHOW YOU WHAT’S BEHIND THE CURTAIN.”

He walked to the far corner and grabbed the rope. It trembled in his hands. My heart was about to pound out of my chest. “OKAY. HERE WE GO.” He pulled the rope end over end, and the mystery unfolded before me.

I was expecting a spectacular structure like a statue of Zeus or a life-sized model of a tank. When half the curtain was gone, and I still couldn’t see anything, I realized something was wrong. When he couldn’t pull the rope any farther, I was certain of it. Owen’s deepest, darkest secret was…

…tombstone.

With my name on it. And my birthday. And today’s date.

I started to turn. “Hey, Owen, is this a joke? I don’t…”

I heard footsteps, rushing wind, and the good old American crack of a bat, and then I fell unconscious.

“LET THERE BE LIGHT.”

I caught a glint of metal, and green and black sunspots burned into my eyes. I tried to shield myself with my arms, but I didn’t seem to have them anymore. I squinted and hope that my eyebrows could at the very least shield me from the flare. I turned my head. I was fastened to the table with very tight ropes. Standing next to me was a very short man with the look of a priest on the verge of consecration.

“JOHNNY,” he cooed. He caressed my face with his bare hand. For a little while, I let him. He reminded me of my mother. I thought of the last time I’d seen here. There had been sunshine and a pretty girl and baseball and…

“I MIGHT HAVE SOME EXPLAINING TO DO,” Owen said. “IT ALL STARTED WITH A DREAM I HAD SOME YEARS BACK. I WAS STANDING IN A GRAVEYARD ON A DARK AND SNOWY NIGHT. I KNOW IT WAS COLD BECAUSE MY EARS WERE STINGING, AND I KEPT SHOVING MY HANDS IN MY COAT. UNDER EVERY TOMBSTONE WAS A FROZEN ROSE. I COULD READ THE WRITING ON EACH ONE. THE SCRIPT WAS MINE, OF COURSE, BUT AT THAT POINT, I DIDN’T KNOW IT. I DIDN’T KNOW ALL THE PEOPLE ON THE GRAVES AT THE TIME, BUT I DID MEET THEM ALL LATER ON. THEIR NAMES WEREN’T THE ONLY THING I REMEMBERED, THOUGH; I ALSO RECALLED THE DATES ON BOTH SIDES OF THE DASH.

“THE DREAM MADE ME WET THE BED THE FIRST TIME I HAD IT. I THOUGHT IT WAS JUST A ONE-NIGHT THING, SO I DIDN’T WORRY. THEN IT CAME BACK AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN. I TALKED TO REVEREND MERRILL, BUT HE DIDN’T BELIEVE ME. REVEREND WIGGIN WAS AN OAF. NEITHER OF THEM HELPED ME. THE ONLY PERSON WHO LISTENED WAS GOD.

“I’M GLAD HE DID. I DECIDED THAT THE DREAM MUST HAVE BEEN HIS WILL, AND THAT I HAD BEEN BLESSED WITH A GIFT OF PROPHECY. AT FIRST, I THOUGHT THE PEOPLE WOULD DIE FROM DISEASES OR ACCIDENTS, BUT WHEN YOUR MOTHER’S DATE ARRIVED, NOTHING HAPPENED AT FIRST. THAT’S WHEN I REALIZED THE ONLY PERSON WHO COULD PRESERVE DESTINY WAS ME. THAT’S WHY I MADE SURE TO BRING MY OWN BAT.

“EVER SINCE THEN, I’VE BEEN HARD AT WORK. SOME OF THE TASKS HAVE BEEN MORE DIFFICULT THAN OTHERS, PARTICULARLY SETTING OFF THE CHAIN REACTION IN THE CONVENT KITCHEN, STEALING LYDIA AND LEAVING HER ON THE STREET, GETTING AN ARMADILLO ON SHORT NOTICE, AND SETTING UP THAT MEETING BETWEEN MORRISON AND PIKE. GETTING TO WALDEN IN TIME TO KILL MR. EARLY WAS A REAL PAIN, TOO. SOME OF THEM WERE REALLY EASY, THOUGH. LIKE SETTING UP BARB WIGGIN AND HAROLD. I’D SEEN RANDAL WITH MARY MAGDALENE BEFORE. ONE OF THE TEACHERS WHO WAS A HISTORICAL REENACTMENT BUFF LET ME HAVE THE SWORD AS LONG AS I DIDN’T TELL ANYONE, AND AFTER WHAT HAPPENED TO MR. FISH, HE DIDN’T WANT IT BACK ANYWAY. GERMAINE FELL INTO MY LAP. THE HARDEST PART OF THE ARMADILLO AND SPIDER MISSIONS WAS SAVING UP THE MONEY TO BUY THEM.

“IT WAS ALL WORTH IT IN THE END, THOUGH. I’D MADE ALL THE GRAVESTONES IN ADVANCE, SO AFTER I ACCOMPLISHED A MISSION, I COULD PRETEND I WAS WORKING ON A STONE WHILE EVALUATING MY WORK AND PLOTTING THE NEXT ONE.

“IT’S BEEN EMOTIONALLY GRUELLING, TOO. I DIDN’T WANT TO SEE ANY OF THOSE PEOPLE DIE. SOME OF THEM WERE REALLY NICE PEOPLE. WHO UNDERSTANDS THE AWESOME WAYS OF GOD, THOUGH? I’M JUST FOLLOWING ORDERS.

“I’M NOT DOING THIS BECAUSE I LIKE IT, THOUGH SOMETIMES I CAN’T HELP FEELING SATISFIED ABOUT A JOB WELL DONE. I DO THIS BECAUSE IT’S MY VOCATION. WE’RE ALL MEANT FOR SOMETHING, AND I AM ‘THE APPRENTICE TO THE ANGEL OF DEATH.’

“IF YOU’RE WONDERING WHY I STOPPED ASKING ABOUT SAWYER DEPOT, IT’S BECAUSE NONE OF YOUR COUSINS’ STONES WERE IN THE GRAVEYARD. I DO ENJOY HESTER’S COMPANY, THOUGH. SHE’S QUITE A WOMAN.

“NOW IT’S YOUR TURN, JOHNNY. AFTER THIS, MY WORK IS DONE, AND I CAN GO ON WITH MY LIFE. I DON’T THINK I’LL GO TO JAIL. I’VE GOTTEN OUT OF ALL THE OTHER CASES WITHOUT A SCRATCH; CLEANING UP AFTER THIS ONE WILL JUST TAKE SOME MORE DIVINE INSPIRATION.

“OH, JOHNNY, DON’T CRY. THIS IS HURTING ME AS MUCH AS IT’S HURTING YOU. I’M REALLY GOING TO HATE TO SEE YOU GO.

“TURN THAT FROWN UPSIDE-DOWN. YOU’RE REALLY VERY LUCKY. YOU DIDN’T WEAR A TURTLENECK TODAY, SO THIS JOB WILL BE DONE VERY CLEANLY. DECAPITATION WILL PROBABLY BE ENOUGH TO KEEP YOU OUT OF THE WAR IN VIETNAM, TOO. ISN’T THAT GREAT?”

By now the machine was humming, and the wheel was spinning at full blast. Above me stood Owen, Inquisitor and Executioner. If I’d spoken, he wouldn’t have heard me, but there was nothing I could say. I’d heard so many thousands of times from him that he was GOD’S INSTRUMENT that all this somehow made sense.

As he brought the weapon down, I thought about how much of a mess my guts would make. I hoped it would be a really big one, so at least one part of my life could be spectacular. Even the tombstone Owen made for me was ordinary.

The wheel continued to descend. I could feel the rush of wind from it now, and I was terrified. I wanted to be anywhere but here. Owen’s face was completely tranquil. “QUIESCENT,” he would have said. “DON’T YOU LOVE THE SOUND OF THAT WORD?”

Of course I did. I loved the sounds of them all.

Owen gazed at me from across the River Styx and smiled.

“JUST THINK OF THIS AS MY LITTLE GIFT TO YOU.”

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And Then There Was Owen, Chapter 6: The Catholics

June 1, 2004

And Then There Was Owen
A Parody of A Prayer for Owen Meany
By James Smyth, Adam Passarelli, Julianne Ellis, Miriam Miller, and Lili Xu

Chapter 6: The Catholics
By James Smyth

Owen often perplexed me. There was, for example, his vexing refusal to eat pork rinds. “PIGS ARE FILTHY ANIMALS,” he chided me when I offered him a bag once. “THEY ROLL IN THE MUD AND EAT THEIR OWN FILTH. THEY ARE MOBILE DISEASE CARRIERS LIKE LARRY LISH’S MOTHER. IF YOU WANT TO EAT PIG’S FLESH, GO AHEAD. I WILL NOT PARTAKE OF IT.”

“What’s the matter with you, Owen?” I asked him. “You’ve always eaten pork chops before. Have you been talking to Mordecai McGill on the newspaper staff?”

The McGills were “the Jews” of Gravesend. Though it was impolite to mention politics, religion, or anti-Semitism in polite company, the people of our town were familiar with each, and some of the elders of the town held Mr. McGill personally responsible for the Great Depression. Old Dan Brown, for example, recalled that on Black Tuesday’s Eve, which happened to be Black Monday, he saw a man with one of those funny little hats looking down into the village well. Danny Boy opined that it was a young Mr. McGill lowering thousands of dollars into the infamous “Underground Jewage Tunnel” that connected the United States to Israel, and that Mr. McGill was donating good Christian money to the Zionist movement.

Even after this scandal contributed to the mysterious creation of an independent Israel in 1948, Mr. McGill remained the president of a successful bank and a citizen of good standing. He was very passionate about his place of business: money-lending was the trade of his father and grandfather and great grandfather and so on all the way back to Hezekiah of the Tribe of Benjamin. The Lord rewarded his good and faithful servant, as He always does, with ark-loads of money and children, of which he had twelve: Mordecai, Dan, asher, Miriam, Leah, Rebecca, Elijah, David, Dinah, Amos, Malachi, and Felix (“we wanted a bit of variety,” said his mother). Mr. McGill called them his “Tribe.” Mrs. McGill called them her “twenty-year pregnancy.”

Mordecai was the oldest, but as so often happens with Semitic first-born, he fruits of the proud family tree passed to his younger brothers. As Isaac defeated Ishmael, Jacob overcame Esau, and Joseph overshadowed ten older brothers and a younger one, so Daniel became the natural leader of his brothers and sisters. Dan McGill, the “Jewish Jet,” was twice an all-state receiver and three times an all-state point guard for Gravesend Academy; dubbed the “Greatest Jewish Athlete since Hank Greenberg,” he backed up Bob Cousy on the Celtics dynasty of the 1960s. The rings proved quite useful during business deals; after succeeding his father as president of the family bank, Dan took Gravesend Bank national and made it one of the largest in the nation. “Gravesend: Protecting Your Dough to the Grave’s End” is still the Hank Greenberg of banking slogans.

Mordecai, tragically, could not compete with his brother. He was a compact little fellow with big, clumsy hands, slipshod brown hair, and expressive dark eyes which were obscured by his mammoth-thick glasses. His mouth always seemed to hang slightly open as if his chin were too heavy to stay connected to the rest of his face. It was hard s a child, distance running was his favorite sport because his lack of talent drew pity there instead of derision. As he passed through puberty (which was, typically, late for its appointment with Mordecai) he realized that the only remarkable thing about him was his religion. As Daniel’s frame and popularity grew, Mordecai grasped Judaism with both hands and held it to his bosom tightly. He wore his kippot to school every day and followed the 613 Mosaic laws with pharisaical devotion; when his parents wouldn’t let him slaughter a sacrificial lamb to atone for their sins, he was ornery for a week. Most people were afraid to touch him. But Owen liked his company. When the local draft board rejected Mordecai’s request for religious deferment by reminding him the Jews spent half of the Old Testament burning the Promised Land to the ground, Owen bought him a box of chocolate matzo and a Hank Greenberg baseball card in commiseration. Mordecai successfully convinced Owen to give up pork rinds, but he had more trouble with others, and eventually he decided he couldn’t tolerate Gentiles any longer. After graduating from New Hampshire, he moved to a Hasidic colony in New York City from which he emerged a couple times a year to celebrate holidays with the rest of the twenty-year pregnancy and its sequels.

Even stranger than Owen’s rejection of pork, however, was his hatred of Catholics. He traced it to an UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE in his past but never explained what happened. IT was as if a Catholic priest had murdered Owen’s little brother, but the chances of Father O’Flaherty committing homicide or Owen’s parents reproducing a second time were slim to none. I loved throwing things at the statue of Mary Magdalene and telling jokes about the penguins with Owen, but I liked everything I did with him. I just didn’t understand it.

After Randal’s desecration of the Mary Magdalene statue, though, Owen couldn’t ignore THE CATHOLICS any longer. He magnanimously decided to make it up to them by participating in community service at the local convent. For eight weeks of that sweltering summer, he swept floors, cleaned drawers, and treated toilets. Eventually, he earned a promotion to the kitchen, and he did some very serviceable work there from the time he picked up the skillet until the end of the kitchen’s existence.

The nuns loved him; they felt like he was the son that they could never have. Though he complained about them when I spoke to him, I think deep down he genuinely liked them, and he missed them terribly later on. I didn’t visit the convent as often as Owen did, but I still find them hard to forget. Sister Mary Fortuna was a rotund old battle axe who handled most of the cleaning when Owen wasn’t around; she considered slovenliness a great sin and often critiqued Owen’s work. One of her main nemeses was Sister Mary Katherine, a flighty woman who always left food on the table or cups of water in the television set. Mary Katherine was a nice lady, but it was really hard to forgive her when she used the last of the toilet paper and then didn’t add a new roll as she was wont to do. God loved her anyway; she prayed for hours every day and never seemed to be in poor spirits. Mary Fortuna also sometimes complained about Sister Mary Claire, who had a tendency to take food from the sisters’ pantry and give it to the bums on the street.

“What need have I for candied yams?” she’d say.

“These were donated by the people of the church, and they’re for us!” Mary Fortuna would reply.

“Well,” Mary Claire returned, “It’s really all the same thing anyway, us or them. It’s still charity.” She was probably a communist.

Sister Mary Scholastica had no red sentiments. She read a lot, particularly about the “glorious history of the Church,” and predicted that Owen would some day return to the Church and become a great leader, as Saint Augustine did. (He laughed and complained about it to me later.) She often advised him to steer clear of cigarettes and loose women. When John Kennedy said that he wouldn’t take orders from the Pope if he were lected, Mary Scholastica was livid. “A Catholic who will not join forces with the People!” she opined. “How will we ever bring about the Kingdom of God on earth?” She considered the Church’s corrupt use of temporal power to be a mere anomaly caused because the Church still not Catholic enough.

Teaching was Mary Scholastica’s profession. She was frightfully good at it. Students who graduated from her class remembered absolutely everything, from letters to state capitals to long division. They also looked like deer which had been bashed in the skull with headlights. Near the end of her career, one of her students had the bad taste to tell her a joke.

“What’s black and white and red all over?” he asked.

“Paul Robeson?” she responded.

“Uh………nope! It’s a nun with a chainsaw!”

He could not speak for a week. He could not sit for a week, either.

They were an interesting bunch, those nuns. Whenever I visited, I wanted to talk to them, but Owen often didn’t let me. Instead, he wanted to work on THE SANDWICH. There was a lock on the wall of the kitchen, and he wanted to see if we could make a ham and cheese sandwich in less than seven seconds. It was an obsession. I’d be listening to Sister Mary Agnes, who was a nurse during the second World War, and he’d tap me on the shoulder and say, “HEY JOHNNY, I’M GLAD YOU LIKE IT HERE, BUT CAN’T WE WORK ON THE SANDWICH FOR A LITTLE WHILE?” I had to oblige. He wouldn’t leave me alone if I didn’t, and whenever I kept Owen from working, Sister Mary Fortuna threatened me with a plunger. I didn’t want that, so I helped him with the sandwich.

Working on the sandwich was quite a challenge. Since we couldn’t make the sandwich and watch the clock at the same time, we got some help from Sister Mary Mary who was always smiling and was probably retarded. When we broke seven seconds, she gave us a big hug and laughed profusely. When we broke six, she sang the Hallelujah Chorus. When we broke five, she danced in the middle of the kitchen. Then she slipped on a banana peel that Mary Katherine probably left on the floor, and on her way down she knocked over a pan on the stove which was frying eggs. The hot grease splashed every which way, and somewhere in that FATED KITCHEN it found a substance that it didn’t like.

The combustion was instantaneous. Owen tried to put out the fire with Windex, but that only made it worse. He panicked and grabbed the plate of sandwiches we’d just made; he carried it out first of all, as if it were worth saving. Equally stunned and stupid, I followed him out. When we were outside, we looked back and realized that the sisters were still inside. We wanted to go back in and save them, but we couldn’t. The building had waited a long time for this moment, and it was not reveling in its cataclysm.

It was a brilliant fire. The flames licked up the building like a hungry dog swallowing his regurgitation. The image of Joan of Arc was quite comfortable with burning alive, having experienced it before, but the other sisters were not; they dove out of doors and windows, their habits askew, and rolled around wildly on the ground to extinguish their incinerating clothing. They were like penguins throwing themselves belly-first on the ice and sliding across it.

The conflagration was the greatest tragedy in the history of the Gravesend Catholic Church. Father O’Flaherty lost half of his two dozen dedicated nuns. The tragedy sparked heavy donations by the church’s members for the purpose of building a newer, better, more fire-retardant home, and Owen produced his most superhuman work. After two days in the monument shop, he emerged with twelve tombstones in tow.

Afterward, he was sullen but resigned. I told him that I’d seen grease fires before and that the accident could have happened to anyone. He was upset with himself over the Windex. He said that he’d had unsuccessful fire-extinguishing experiences with it in the past and should not have repeated his mistake. He quoted from Proverbs: “AS A DOG RETURNS TO HIS VOMIT, SO A FOOL RETURNS TO HIS FOLLY.”

There was no way to gainsay that.