And Then There Was Owen, Chapter 6: The Catholics
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.