[A short story for you today. A dear friend recently told me something I hadn’t expected to hear from her. It was a sad disclosure of a variety I’ve heard before, about a form of abuse the proudly pious often inflict upon those who haven’t yet received the gift of faith. I consider it a form of Christian Pharisaism. I don’t think God would approve of it any more than do I.
My friend is teetering, uncertain of her steps. She mentioned Pascal’s Wager, a consideration that people of above-average intelligence but uncertain convictions have pondered for centuries. What will follow, only God knows. But He gives each of us what we need to find our way to Him, which is the theme of the following tale.
This is from my collection For The Love Of God. — FWP]
The slicing pain in her back as she flopped against the curbstone jolted Frederica Baskin partway back to consciousness. She became sequentially aware of the rough macadam against her bare legs, the damp grass against her cheek, the lump of her purse beneath her, and the early spring wind that puffed out her satin blouse and gusted up her short leather skirt. She writhed weakly against the chill invasions, eyes closed, all but deaf to the sound of the unmuffled engine receding in the distance.
It was some time before she regained enough awareness of her surroundings to do anything but stumble about the borderland of oblivion. In a deep corner of her mind she knew she’d been drugged and abused, but the lingering effects of the drug, whatever it was, withheld the full impact of whatever pain there was to feel.
Her senses returned slowly. There was a foul taste in her mouth, bitter and salty. Her nether parts ached from violation. In her nostrils lingered the cloying acridity of dense smoke and an after-hint of male musk, that the sharp, clean night air only slowly dispelled.
She opened her eyes to find herself lying across the curb of Helmsford Avenue, on the western edge of Onteora. It was full night.
She hoisted herself painfully off the street and looked about. No one else was present. The streetlights shone down on a city asleep. The only sound was the thin yowling of a feral cat in search of a mate.
She swore, struggled to her feet, and shook herself against the April cold. At least she still had her purse and shoes.
She was far from her Oakleigh apartment. There were no businesses open that she could see. For all her bravado, she wouldn’t smash an alarmed window just to spend the night in a warm cell.
She swayed a little on her stiletto heels, balance not yet fully regained, and staggered out of the city, toward the shadowed belt of detached homes and tree-lined streets that beckoned from the west.
There were no lights on in any of the houses she passed. No car passed her on the silent streets. It had to be past midnight, when only such as she were up and about and plying their trades.
Lurching about in the darkness, she caught a heel in a crack in the walk and fell against a large sign mounted on the lawn of what looked to be a church.
Sunday Masses at 7, 8, 9 and 10AM
Come Unto Him
All Ye That Labor
From the ache in her loins, she’d been laboring a lot lately, even if the work was unpaid and unremembered.
With that thought, the details of the night just past flooded back.
Her Saturday evening had started uneventfully. Unusually, she’d had no clients booked, and had been about to settle in with a trash romance and a bowl of popcorn when the phone rang. The call was from a fraternity of the local state college campus. Six of the boys had taken up a collection and wanted to buy a little fun. Six of them. No rough stuff, the caller promised. She said six hundred, and the caller had agreed without argument. He’d given her an address, and she’d rung off without further thought. Ten minutes later she was in her party clothes and speeding toward the frat house.
They welcomed her into a den filled with worn but comfortable-looking furniture and decked with sports trophies. A long, low table sported an array of finger foods and a large bowl of punch. She accepted her fee, grabbed a handful of the nibble bait and a paper cup full of punch, and sat between two of her husky young hosts. They smiled broadly and told her to relax.
Relaxation proved to be involuntary. The punch was spiked with something stronger than alcohol.
She remembered her incredulity. Why drug her? She was a paid performer. For the fee she’d quoted, she’d have given them any thrill they could imagine. But the thought dissolved into blackness as she succumbed to whatever they’d slipped her. Her last memory prior to waking up in the street was of rough hands pulling up her skirt.
One more occupational hazard of a woman for hire.
Out of a vague sense of obligation to her trade, she opened her purse and peered inside. Her wallet nestled among her brushes and cosmetics. To her considerable surprise, she found a sheaf of hundred-dollar bills within it.
They drugged me, but they didn’t rob me. Too weird.
She stumbled up the church walk, paused before the tall double doors, and put her hand to the latch. It was unlocked.
The interior of the church was dim. On each of two tables that flanked the altar stage burned a sparse line of candles set in red glass jars, teasing random flashes of color from the tall stained glass panes nearby. Behind the altar burned a Presence lamp shaped like a conventionalized heart. The ruddy light illuminated a single human figure, a girl about Freddi’s age, sitting motionless in a pew near the center of the nave.
Freddi sidled up to the girl and looked her over as unobtrusively as she could.
The girl was short, fresh faced, and petitely beautiful. Her clothes were stylish without being flashy. Her lush brown hair bobbed fetchingly around her face. She had the sort of understated, unprovocative glamor that subtly commands the attention of men. She sat perfectly upright, but was so still that Freddi took her for sleeping, until she spied the girl’s open, alert eyes. Those eyes were fixed on the altar. Now and then their lids would flutter closed, but their owner showed no other sign of life.
The eyes turned to engage Freddi’s own.
Freddi repressed the impulse to cringe away. There was nothing threatening in the girl’s expression. She gazed at Freddi for a moment, smiled formally, and went back to staring at the altar without speaking. It was as bare an acknowledgement of another person’s presence as Freddi could imagine.
“What…” Freddi’s voice caught in her throat. “What are you watching for?”
The girl turned toward her again, expression still pleasant but a hint of puzzlement in her eyes. “Nothing.” This time, she didn’t turn away.
Uncertain of her ground, Freddi slid down the pew, stopped and sat on the wooden bench with about a yard between them. The other girl didn’t move or speak.
“You got nowhere else to go?”
The girl smiled. “Not quite. I was thinking about some things.” She held out her hand. “I’m Meg.”
Freddi took it. “I’m Freddi. You do a lot of thinking here?”
Meg shook her head. “It’s only my second time here.” She half-turned to face Freddi. “My boyfriend popped the question day before yesterday. He’s Catholic, I’m not. I’ve been wondering whether we’d have any problems because of it.”
“Is he really into it?”
A moment of silence flowed past.
“Yes,” Meg said. “He is. He said it saved his life.”
“Gonna…what do they call it…convert?”
Meg’s lips compressed. “That’s what I was thinking about. Do you have any kids?”
Freddi snorted a laugh before she could think. “No, girls in my…no, I don’t. Why?”
Meg turned a little away and let her head droop. “I don’t know if it would be fair to our kids for us not to have the same religion.”
“What’re you, then?”
“Nothing much. I was raised Jewish, but I never paid much attention to it.” There was a hint of pain beneath Meg’s conversational tone.
Freddi started to speak again, halted herself.
“Say, you got a car?”
Meg looked at her again. “Yes, why?”
“‘Cause I could use a lift and you look like you could use a cup of coffee. How about it?”
Meg’s expression went blank. Her gaze flicked briefly to the Presence lamp, then back to Freddi. She rose, picked up a shearling coat from the pew beside her, and slipped it on.
They had the Idle Hours Diner almost to themselves. At the counter, a middle-aged man in a beige trench coat hunched over a steaming cup. Two waitresses stood facing one another behind the counter, chatting and waving their hands. At long intervals the headlights of a car would swerve around the corner on which the diner sat, then recede into the blackness of Forslund Drive.
Meg sipped at her coffee. “So what had you out so late?”
“I…ah, a little business.”
Meg’s eyes traveled swiftly over Freddi’s attire. “I see.”
Freddi suppressed the urge to explain.
“Do you usually go to church after…business?”
Freddi flushed. “No, it’s just…hey, look, it’s a tough trade, you know? I got blindsided tonight. They tossed me out in front of that church, near enough, and I’m not exactly dressed for the weather, so…”
Meg’s expression of grave interest was unchanged.
“‘They,’ you said?”
“So you’re not a Catholic, then.”
Freddi snorted. “About as much as you.”
Meg’s eyes darkened. “Maybe not. It’s a pretty set of ideas.”
Freddi snorted again. “A lot of stupid rules.”
“Not that many, and not that stupid.”
“You sound like you’re gonna take the plunge.”
Meg’s mouth tightened. “I might.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“I don’t know if I have it.” Meg set down her cup and sat back in the booth. “There’s more to being a Catholic than just following the rules. You have to believe some stuff I’m not sure I can accept.”
“Like God and Satan and heaven and hell?”
Meg grinned crookedly. “Among other things.”
“That’s the part I could never get.” Freddi leaned forward and planted her forearms on the table. “Okay, let’s say you learn all the rules and you think they’re just great. Why do you have to believe all that stuff about Jesus and Mary and so on? What’s the point? You’re here, they’re not, you live and you die and…and whatever comes next is gonna happen no matter what you believe. How does faith make it any better…or worse?”
Meg didn’t answer at once. She looked down at her folded hands, then off into the darkness beyond their window.
“I don’t know, Freddi. I’m pretty smart. I know that what you believe has no effect on what is. You can believe in unicorns, or dragons, or God all you want, and if there are no unicorns, or dragons, or…or God, there still won’t be any. But maybe that’s the important part. Most people abide by the rules even if they don’t believe in God. I always have. But there’s an empty space inside me I can’t fill just by saying, hey, I’m a good person, I do unto others as I’d have them do unto me, end of story, cut to commercial.” Her eyes returned to rest on Freddi’s with an unusual gravity. “Emil doesn’t have that space. He did, once. He said it was faith that taught him how to fill it.”
“Emil’s your guy?”
Just one more reason to take their money, bang ’em, and catch a cab home.
“Sounds like it’s gonna matter, one way or the other. Hey, how old is he?”
Freddi frowned. The fresh-faced young beauty across from her couldn’t be nearly that old. “This’d be the second time around for him?”
Meg nodded. “His first wife died in a plane crash.”
They sat in silence for a long interval. Presently Meg said, “Well, I should try to get some sleep.” She dropped a dollar bill on the table and rose. “Would you like to visit with me for the night? I’d like it very much.”
Freddi’s mouth dropped open. “Hey, I’m not — wait a second. I’ve got a place of my own, you know?”
Meg nodded. “I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. I just thought you might like some company. Someone to have breakfast with. I’ll drive you to your place if you’d rather be alone, but I’d really like it if you’d come spend the night with me.”
Freddi hunched forward against a sudden, inexplicable pain.
“Freddi? Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” She straightened up carefully and did her best to smile. “It sounds kinda fun. You a good cook?”
Meg shrugged. “Not terribly, but what does that matter? We usually have Sunday breakfast here.”
We? “Does your guy live with you?”
Meg shook her head.
“Okay, let’s boogie.”
Meg’s apartment was in a garden apartment colony in Foxwood. It was spacious and cool, sparsely furnished and excessively neat. The walls were lined with bookshelves, all of them heavy with hardcover volumes. There was no television. It looked much too big for a young single woman, as if it had been rented for a larger group of occupants that had unaccountably failed to appear.
Freddi stood just inside the door and waited. Meg tossed her purse and coat onto the little sofa and disappeared into the kitchen. The sound of running water followed.
“You cooking something?” Freddi said.
“Just tea,” came the reply. “I like a cup of tea before I go to bed. Want one? It’s decaffeinated.”
Freddi went to the nearest of the bookshelves and perused the titles. Most of them were about electronics. There were a scattering of texts on philosophy and history, and a bare handful of paperback novels.
This chick’s a heavyweight. A looker like her! Go figure.
Presently Meg came back with a pair of large mugs that trailed steam behind her. She offered one to Freddi and gestured her toward the sofa. Freddi sat and sipped at her mug. It was a delicately minty brew, mildly sweet and gently soothing, the sort of thing one might use to relieve a minor headache.
“This where I’m gonna sleep?” She tested the springiness of the sofa with her free hand. It resisted nicely.
Meg shook her head. “No, I have a guest room with a real bed. You wouldn’t want to sleep out here anyway. Feel the draft from the door?”
No. “Uh, yeah.”
A few moments’ silence passed before Meg said, “So tell me about your life.”
Meg leaned forward, her face suddenly filled with intensity.
“Please? I know you’ve, uh, been around. I haven’t. What’s it like to, uh…”
Freddi locked eyes with her hostess. The young woman was deeply flushed, as embarrassed as she was curious.
“Freddi,” Meg forced out, “Could you please tell me a little about the way it is when you…let yourself get loose?” Her voice sank still further. “Emil’s the only man I’ve ever…been with.”
The pain that had surged in Freddi’s chest at the church returned at doubled force.
“How…” Her voice broke. “How can you…”
Her tears burst forth as she slumped into Meg’s arms.
Meg seemed to know what she was about, so when her hostess led Freddi to a bedroom, told her to disrobe and climb into bed, she did so. Meg did the same, quenched the light, slipped under the covers and beckoned Freddi into her arms. Freddi hesitated only a moment.
“I haven’t held somebody this way in a long time,” Freddi murmured. Meg’s body was a warm velvet presence against hers.
“Hm?” Meg stroked Freddi’s hair and pulled her snugly against her.
“You know. No sex.”
Meg grinned. “Same here.”
“Huh? What about…?”
“He’s only slept here once.” Meg squirmed onto her side and faced Freddi. “Our first night together. It was nice, but the next morning, we practically fell over one another with excuses about why it shouldn’t happen again.”
“But you still…do it, don’t you?”
Meg nodded. “Not often, but yes, we do. Most of our time together is pretty sedate. He’s a very quiet sort.” She paused. “So am I, really.”
Freddi mused in the warmth and darkness.
“You think it’s gonna work?”
“Marriage? Sure, why not? We love each other, we want to be together, we both want the usual stuff. Why shouldn’t it work?”
“Dunno.” Freddi pondered. “I’ve got a lot of married customers. If it’s so great, why do they need me?”
“Need might be the wrong word, Freddi.”
Meg pulled Freddi snugly against her again. “Maybe it’s the right one. I don’t know. I’m twenty-five years old and barely out on my own. What do I know about what happens to a couple after a few years have gone by? Women do turn nasty, sometimes. Hell, men do too.”
“What about…your folks?”
Freddi felt Meg’s mouth rise in a grin. “The ultimate married couple. He’s an accountant and estate planner, she’s a homemaker and charity organizer. They live in Harrison, in northern Westchester. He ‘leaves for work’ by walking down the hall to his office. He ‘comes home’ at exactly five-thirty every evening. They eat every meal together, watch TV together, go grocery shopping together, the works. And every one of their neighbors is the same. There hasn’t been a divorce in that town for about a million years. It’s probably against the zoning ordinances.”
“Do you think…”
Meg squeezed her gently. “Think what, Freddi?”
Freddi had to force it out. “Think your pop ever did business with someone like me?”
Silence elongated between them.
“I doubt it,” Meg said at last. “But it’s not something I’m really hot to think about.”
Or talk about, right, babe?
Meg chuckled. “Not a chance. That’s one I don’t have to research.”
“You really that sure of him?”
“Yup. And when you meet him, you’ll be just as sure.”
“Huh? When I meet him?”
“Yeah, he’ll be here for breakfast. Freddi, this is a pretty big bed, but if you think you’d be more comfortable in the guest room —”
“No!” Freddi’s arms tightened involuntarily around Meg, squeezing a gasp of surprise from her. “Uh, no, this is really nice. I mean you’re, uh, oh hell, let’s not talk about it, okay?” Unaccountably, she felt her tears rise for the second time that night.
Meg’s hands rose to cup Freddi’s cheeks. Even in the darkness, Freddi could see the searching intensity of the young woman’s gaze.
“Freddi,” Meg murmured, “I’m not exiling you, and I’m not going anywhere. Even if we’ve only known each other for a couple of hours, I’m your friend, and I’m going to remain your friend. I practically begged you to stay here tonight, I put you in my bed and climbed in after you, and you’ve got my naked body in your arms right now. I’ll be here when you wake up. I’ll be here when you get out of the shower. I’ll be holding your hand when Emil comes through the door. Whatever he says, and I’ll bet a dollar to a doughnut he doesn’t say one word, I’ll still be your friend. Will you please believe that?”
Meg smiled. “Turn around.”
Freddi flipped onto her right side. Meg spooned in behind her, one arm curled around her waist. “Good night, dear.”
Sleep was upon her at once.
They awoke to strong April sunlight and immediately started giggling like children. Unable to decide who should shower first, they showered together, giggling and squealing all the while. Freddi was amazed at the thickness of Meg’s hair. It seemed to require a pound of shampoo to lather it properly and half an hour to rinse it out. When they’d toweled off, Meg cast a disapproving eye at Freddi’s nails and proclaimed that manicures and pedicures would be their next undertaking.
“Okay, where do you go?” Freddi asked.
Meg frowned. “Don’t be silly. I’ll do you myself. Can I trust you to do me?”
Minutes later Freddi found herself in the kitchenette, her feet in Meg’s lap trapped in foam toe spreaders. Meg labored over her with a craftsman’s concentration, filing the edges of her nails to a perfect smoothness and buffing away her calluses before she reached for her polish. Freddi held completely still, not for the first time wondering if she were imagining the whole experience. When her toenails were finished, Meg went straight on to her fingernails, and with the same degree of care and skill.
Freddi’s nails were just barely dry when there came a knock at the door. Meg scampered to answer it, revealing a tall, huskily built young man wearing a navy blue suit and a shy smile. Meg took his hand and pulled him inside. His eyes lit on Freddi and his forehead crinkled.
“Freddi, this is my fiancé, Emil Deukmeijian. Emil, I’d like you to meet my friend Freddi Baskin. Careful of her nails, Emil, I just did them.”
Freddi rose and extended her hand. Emil took it in a careful clasp and murmured a pleasantry.
“Freddi will be coming to church with us,” Meg said.
“Breakfast too, I hope?” Emil said. His voice was deep and pleasant.
“Of course,” Meg answered for her.
“Where do you know my sweetie from, Freddi?” Emil asked.
Freddi opened her mouth but Meg leaped in first. “We have to get dressed and get to Mass, Emil. Church first, then breakfast, then small talk.” She grabbed for Freddi’s hand. “Come on, Freddi.”
Freddi was five inches taller than Meg, but the two of them were close enough in proportions that one of Meg’s skirt suits fit her adequately well. Her leopard-pattern stilettos didn’t go with the navy blue ensemble, but there was nothing to be done about it. Presently they were in Emil’s car, on their way back to Our Lady of the Pines.
The church was almost full when they arrived. Emil steered them to a back-corner pew where no one else was sitting. They’d just gotten settled when the service began.
Freddi expected the service to be incomprehensible and tedious, but in truth it flowed along briskly. She understood more of it than she expected. The priest’s homily, on the inner significance of forgiveness, was fresh and appealing. When the communion procession began, Emil rose to join it, leaving the two women alone in the pew.
“What are they doing?” Freddi whispered to Meg.
“Part of the faith. The priest supposedly turns the wafers into the body of Christ, and the wine into his blood. It’s a reenactment of the Last Supper.”
“Before they killed him, you mean?”
“Why aren’t you doing it?”
“I’m not…” Meg’s voice caught. “…one of the family yet.”
“Do you think…”
Meg glanced sideways at her. “What?”
Millions of people do this every Sunday. Some do it even more often. Why? How can they believe it’s about anything real? Even that it really happened? Just because it’s written in an old book?
Emil returned and sank to his knees beside her, head bowed over his folded hands.
How could Meg buy into it? She’s as smart as they come. Emil, too, probably, or he wouldn’t have bagged her, and he believes it already! What do they get out of it? What does it have to do with anything real? What’s the deal here?
What happened then, Freddi could never thereafter describe. It was an entirely interior event, without the slightest of external consequences, yet it consumed and shook her as no orgasm ever had.
In a space of time too fleeting to be measured or named, she was overcome by a sense of transcendence, as if her body had exploded to engulf the entire universe. Beyond stood a Presence vaster than vast, that looked down upon Creation as a father might look upon his newborn child. Each iota of its substance, and all the laws that governed its journey through time, had been formed in His thought and cast forth by His will. Though it blended sorrow and splendor, pleasure and pain, jubilation and tears in equal measure, all of it was exactly as He intended; there was no waste. He saw it all, named its name, and pronounced it good.
She heard her name as if it bore no relation to her whatsoever.
“Freddi…?” Meg’s hand closed upon her shoulder.
She shook herself, cognizant once again of her surroundings. The vision had sent her to her knees. Emil and Meg had risen and were peering down at her in some concern. The church was almost empty.
She rose awkwardly, uncertain of her balance. Meg took her by the hand and led her out of the church.
They were back at the garden apartment complex before she could speak again. Emil, apparently aware that the two of them needed some time without him, kissed Meg and told her he’d call that evening. They got out and hurried up the stairs.
When Meg had closed and locked the door behind them, she pulled Freddi down onto the sofa, made a ball of their four hands, and whispered, “What happened to you?”
“I don’t know.” Freddi groped for a purchase on the vision, tried to haul it back into clarity, but to no avail. “You…didn’t see it?”
Freddi started to speak, halted herself, and thought furiously.
It’s not supposed to be obvious. Not the faith part. If it were obvious, it wouldn’t be worth anything. Maybe I got it because I’m not smart. Maybe the guys who are smart enough to work it out for themselves never get a shot like this one.
Meg might never get one.
You got something in mind for me, God?
“I don’t know, babe. Probably I just haven’t had enough sleep.” Freddi did her best to grin. “Or maybe it was all that nail polish. People get high on the fumes sometimes, don’t they?”
Meg winced. “You gave us a fright. Sure you’re okay?”
Freddi nodded, rose, and stretched out the muscles in her lower back. “Yeah. Got anything planned for your afternoon? Wait, we haven’t had breakfast yet. Hungry?”
Meg nodded, her face still tense with uncertainty.
“Then let’s get some. My treat. Think that diner is still open?”
“It’s always open. Like the church.”
Freddi swallowed. “Yeah.”
A dour-faced waitress brought them corned beef, scrambled eggs, and hot coffee. Freddi watched her move away before picking up her fork. Meg was already digging in.
Freddi picked at her hash, uncertain how she should frame her announcement.
“I think I’m gonna stop hooking.”
Meg looked up, a forkful of hash halfway to her lips. “Well, good. Because of last night?”
“But do you have another line?”
Freddi shrugged. “I’ve got a few bucks to tide me over while I look for one.”
“Ever done any data entry?”
“A lot of typing, mostly. My company has a training program. I could probably get you in.”
“Sounds good. Thanks! But I’ll bet the money isn’t much.”
Meg grimaced. “Bull’s-eye.”
“So I’m gonna have to cut expenses. Find a roommate, maybe.”
Meg lost all expression.
“Hey, what’d I say? You okay?”
“Never better,” Meg said. Her tone was completely without affect, almost electronically flat. “Are you…attached to your apartment?”
Freddi felt a thrill wash through her. She closed her eyes briefly and waited until it had passed.
“Naah. It’s a dump. I don’t spend a lot of time there with my eyes open, you know?”
“Freddi…” Meg looked away. “I do have a spare bedroom.”
Freddi said nothing.
“I used to have a roommate. She moved out about two years ago.”
“When you started seeing Emil?”
Meg nodded. “I’ve been kind of lonely.”
You smart gals usually are.
“What about Emil?”
“Not for at least a year. Neither of us wants to go fast.”
“Okay. What’s the rent?”
“For you? Nothing until you’re working again.”
Meg grinned. “Let’s not split hairs. Anyway, would you like to room with me for a year or two? I think I’d enjoy your company. And you might enjoy a change of scene.”
I already have, babe.
“You’re on. Just one thing, though.”
“When we go to church on Sundays —”
“You want to go back?”
Freddi nodded. “Could it be just you and me for a while? Or do you think Emil will make a stink about it?”
Meg’s mouth had fallen open. “I…wasn’t sure I wanted to keep going myself. Okay, sure. But why?”
Freddi scowled. “Some of the things the priest said this morning. I’ve got a lot of forgiving to do. And a lot of learning. I’ve got this feeling there’s gonna be a lot of, you know, girl stuff. I’d like us to do it together, if you’re into it.”
There was silence between them for a long moment. Meg’s beautiful face, soft and round as a medieval portrait of the Madonna, slowly warmed to a brilliant smile.
“I think I am. So when do you want to move in?”
Freddi snorted laughter. “Let’s finish breakfast first. Say, about Emil?”
“Does he have any nice friends?”
Copyright © 2012 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.