Family of God
CHRISTINA O’DEA floats in and out of her body. She’s asking some man questions–what’s his name, anyway?–and he answers in long, flowing paragraphs, but it’s as if he’s speaking German or Dutch, sounding vaguely like English, but unintelligible. She breaks out into a sweat–cold and clammy.
Everything seems distant and skewed at odd angles: the Teleprompter, the cameras, the lights. The voice in her earpiece crackles a command, but it’s too garbled–as if it were being broadcast inside a tunnel.
Christina, weightless in space, floats; if she moves one inch, she might end up in one of those speeding somersaults that the astronauts on the shuttle show off for the weighted masses.
This has never happened before, this vertigo.
When the man finishes his long, flowing paragraph, he stops and waits for another question: Christina’s mouth is moving– what it’s asking, she does not know, but the man answers without acting as though she has totally cracked up. He even laughs at a joke that he tells–she assumes it’s a clean one, given the nature of the show–so she smiles, too.
The man reminds her of Ted, her close friend and mentor. Father Ted to the students at Mercy College and Father Theodore Vaughn to parents and other outsiders. Priest, college president, sitting board member for WFOG–"Family of God"–the TV station where she hosts The Valley Catholic Hour, a daily talk show.
Soon to be past tense. Today’s show is her last.
Her guest seems like a pleasant enough man, about 50-55, silver hair, smoothly combed and styled. No doubt some local dignitary from the religious community. Fashionably slim, a tread-milled and nautilized stomach, yet well-fed and sleek. He smells of trendy cologne and healthy food. She notices the small bulge in the crotch of his pressed gray slacks. He wears a gold band.
He smells of sex.
Can he sense sex wafting from her?
He’s just a man, he’s just a man, he’s just a man...and I mustn’t think of such carnal thoughts.She has to reach back almost 20 years for that scent, but it comes to her, clear and vivid:
Johnny Frank, why did you have to die?After work, she’ll drive to Lancaster County, 50 miles away, to make yet another Confession, her third trip this week.
She wonders if perhaps she should increase her therapy sessions to three times a week...
Perhaps she should talk to Sister Joseph, the Mother Superior. No, that’s not an option. Though only in her late 50's, Sister Joseph is a linear thinker, moribund in pre-Vatican II. She believes that when one gives herself to God and Christ, one does not entertain carnal thoughts.
Christina misses Sister Agnes, Sister Joseph’s predecessor who died five years ago. She was strict, in the old tradition even, but there was an openness about her that made people want to confide in her, at least to a certain extent.
Sister Agnes had a wicked sense of humor, cracking slightly irreverent jokes about their being "brides of Christ," the last of the vestigial virgins.
Sister Joseph would never joke about sexual matters.
Two hours ago, Christina knew all about the man’s pertinent stats, having read his vitae and some articles written about him in the local press.
Impressive religious leader.
Now the haze lifts: he’s Rabbi David Goodson, from the reformed temple in town.
A good way to close out her career: sleeping with the enemy...
Though the Church no longer automatically dismisses other religions out of hand, at least in public.
At ecumenical meetings, priests, rabbis, protestant ministers, Muslim leaders come together, smiling and patting each other on the back, vowing to love and get along together, but when the lights are turned out and the power structure convenes behind closed Catholic doors, talk of the one and only apostolic True Church prevails.
While the Church is Christina’s best choice, it can’t be the only choice. Why would a merciful God condemn billions of non-Catholics just because they don’t subscribe to a limited band of beliefs? Over the years, she has met some extremely pious Protestants and Jews.
Perhaps Rabbi Goodson is one of them.
The rabbi asks a question about transubstantiation, the transforming of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and what does it mean to Catholics?
Why ask me such weighty theological questions? It’s beyond my comprehension, I don’t understand these mysteries any better than you do. What about my body and blood?
She says, "While the body and blood of Christ may appear to be bread and wine, Catholics accept on faith that the transformation has physically taken place."
But do I really believe what I’m saying?
She has discussed with Ted the mystery of transubstantiation, its phantasmagoric properties, and, in her mind, its unlikelihood.
The words of the Lord God: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." (Revelation 21:6)
Circular like the universe, at least according to Einstein–if a traveler embarked across the expanse, albeit for billions of years, she’ll end up where she began, time moving seamlessly around and around, eventually returning to its beginning. So, perhaps, transubstantiation isn’t such an impossibility, but it’s all a jumbled mess of theology, philosophy, and science–where does one end and the others take up? Like Einstein’s universe, arguments become circular.
I am the Alpha and the Omega.
The rabbi’s gold band glares under the TV lights.
Christina’s head spins from all the theological implications of the moment and turns again to corporal matters–
Has the rabbi ever strayed from his wife, like Ted has strayed from the Mystical Body of Christ?
At first, when she discovered Ted’s affair, she was shocked and hurt. Now she’s just hurt, but mostly confused, and when she visualizes Ted Vaughn and Amy Anderson locked together in lust, she feels the aftershocks of their quake, the rumbling that moves through their bodies.
Illicit Love + Sex + Lust = A Deadly Sin.
Oh, Hell, I might as well rack them up.
Yet another pilgrimage to Lancaster County and the spiritual baggage that she’ll be dragging along.
She could take Rabbi Goodson, perhaps show him the Amish country, treat him to lunch at Zinn’s Diner, ask about his wife and his sex life...
"Sister Christina, it’s been a real pleasure. Thanks for having me."
The rabbi’s voice, deep and pious, surprises her. She stumbles over the clarity of his words, the implications of his statement. She has grown accustomed to the garbled non-fluencies, the fantasy of what he might be saying to her.
Her lessening vertigo, like a camera lens sharpening into focus, shows in glaring detail cracks in her character.
But she’s a professional, 10 years experience, even on her last day; she recovers without faltering. "You’re welcome, Rabbi Goodson."
The camera pans closer to Christina–time for "The Farewell Speech."
FROM THAT FIRST DAY, 10 years ago, she has been a natural in front of the camera.
The first thing one notices about those early shows is Christina’s shock of red curls. And those blue eyes, large and childlike, always happily surprised by a comment or joke.
But it was her mouth that really seduced the camera: full lips, not quite sensuous, that naturally turned up at the corners, always a hint of a smile without the TV phoniness of many commentators, gleaming white teeth. The little bit of stage makeup that she used–albeit reluctantly–gave her a fresh-scrubbed perkiness, never a fake "painted lady" look.
She has always viewed her beauty not with conceit or arrogance, but with praise and gratitude that her stunning physical attributes, a gift from God, could be used productively in His service.
Like Christina, The Valley Catholic Hour grew and matured; five years later, the Valley religious community–Christians, Jews, Muslims–came together, bought an old TV station, and changed the name to "Family of God"–FOG for short.
The Valley Catholic Hour airs five evenings a week during prime time, and Christina has become a local celebrity. Her career might have gone on for another 10 years had a national religious consortium not bought out the station and turned it into a national cable network called "The Family Values Channel."
Christina still cuts a fine figure on camera, although she has gained about 15 pounds, the red curls have faded a bit–not quite the ring of fire around her face–and the wrinkles around her eyes require a bit more makeup, although the mouth is still the same.
Still, she likes the extra pounds; she was much too thin, often catching colds and flu, but she tolerated the annoyances of the too thin: her collar bone jutting through her necklines, her skin stretched out over her ribs, her back concave with two bony knobs poking through her blouses, and not being able to sit in hard chairs for very long, a real problem at Mass.
For years, she tried to gain weight, but no matter how much she ate, she remained underweight. Then she decided that her body was God’s will and offered up her bodily annoyances as Penance and praised God that she lived in a land where she could get good food and nourishment. She would be dead if she lived in a place like Bangladesh. It was after this acceptance that the weight slowly came on and stabilized where it stands now.
Now her flesh covers her body just right, and she feels healthier and more empowered than ever.
Jack Motter didn’t see it that way; for at least six months, he harangued her to lose 10 pounds. "You look like a sow on camera!" he said.
But Christina kept her silence, allowing him to rant on about her weight.
Besides, she’s not fat; on camera, she looks normal, like any other 35-year-old woman who might be carrying a few extra pounds. Sure, she has to wear the right clothes, but if she doesn’t go for bright colors or frilly styles, she looks just fine. Off camera, she is still too thin–5'8" and 110 pounds–though not excessively so.
LAST WEEK was the end of it.
Jack, in front of the entire crew, started in on the sow business again, by now almost an automatic response to her very presence.
Without fanfare or major scene, Christina took Jack by the arm, led him into his office, closed the door, and motioned for him to sit, which he did.
Jack registered surprise; perhaps he was just cowed at Christina’s belligerence, but perhaps willing to listen.
She sat at the edge of his desk, folded her arms, and said, "Look, Jack, let’s get this straight. You are not to refer to my body in a derogatory manner, ever again. Not every female wants to lose weight. I like my body just the way it is. And even if I were overweight, I would not be a sow." She tapped him on the chest. "You got that?"
He frowned and wrinkled his eyes. "Yeah, I got it."
TWO DAYS LATER, he called her into his office and fired her, effective 30 days hence. At first, she was hurt because it meant that Jack hadn’t really listened to her, and then she was angry, not for herself, but for the other women in the entertainment business who are slaves to the beauty myth and must depend on their looks for their livelihood.
"It’s nothing personal," Jack said. "Ever since we been bought out, the word’s been that we got to get out of the local mode. Which means national talent."
"You mean young and skinny talent, Jack."
Preferably someone not a nun.
Jack shrugged. "Whatever."
CHRISTINA TOLD TED about being fired.
"I’m afraid I saw it coming, Chris."
"You mean you knew about this and didn’t even warn me?"
"I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon. The board was looking at a replacement host six months to a year down the road." He paused and took her hand. "Look, Christina, you didn’t help yourself very much by marching into Jack’s office and making demands."
"Well, not quite demands. He said you were getting a bit uppity and that it was only a matter of time before you started asking for a big raise and demanding a bigger dressing room."
"Ted, you know me better than that. First, I don’t need the money, and, second, I wouldn’t even think of acting like a prima donna. I’m a nun, for heaven’s sake. I took my vows, and I live by them. My job is not an ego thing; it’s a way of doing God’s work. That’s all."
"So what did you say to get Jack all rattled?"
"I just told him to get off my back about my weight–if I hurt his ego, then I’m sorry.
I’ve always been too thin, so when I finally gained some weight, I started feeling healthy. My body is a temple of the Lord, and I just won’t have some sexist pig yammering about my body." Christina was surprised at the extent of her anger with Jack and the word choices that flew out of her mouth.
Ted laughed. "My goodness, my militant friend, I can see how Jack got bent. And he’s got the power to dump people. And, my dear, you’ve been dumped."
Christina shrugged. "Well, I don’t need the money, so it’s not like I’m in dire straits. I’ll pray on it. The Lord will show me the right path."
"Look, honey, school starts next week. I think I may be able to set up a TV production course for you, one night a week. Interested?"
"Maybe. As long as it doesn’t take a job from someone else."
"No, this would be an extra course. Look, I’ll call the Communication Department and arrange it. They’ll listen to the president, after all. They’ve been hollering for years for just this type of course. So they’ve got only a week to organize it. They’ll get over it."
"What about students? Aren’t they already signed up for classes?"
Ted smiled. "Don’t worry. I’ve got a list of 10 kids who’ve been lobbying for this course for the last two years. You’ll have your class."
The next day, Julia Mullins, head of the Communication Department at Mercy College, called and firmed up her Monday night schedule, effective next week.
A WEEK LATER, Jack called her into his office and offered her a consolation prize: a once-a-month segment on the retooled Catholic Hour.
"We’re calling it ‘Corporal Works of Mercy,’" Jack said.
Hmmmmmm, Christina thought. There’s something not quite right about this...
"Did Ted put you up to this?"
Jack shrugged. "Maybe he put a bug in my ear. But I know you’d be perfect for the job, with all your experience and your, uh, spiritual sensitivity."
"I see. What’s involved?"
"You’ll follow around do-gooders of any religious persuasion and interview them and develop a 10-minute segment on their good works."
"Field work," Christina said.
"I don’t know. I’ve done very little field work."
"Hey, not to worry. We’ll start you out easy, say within a 100-mile radius of the Valley."
"This would still involve overnight travel, right?"
"Well, some, but no more than five or six days a month."
"I don’t know, Jack. You’re asking me to take a drastic cut in my schedule and sticking me on the road like a rookie. Anything else I should know about?"
"Nothing but good news. Kathy Jacobs has agreed to work with you."
Next to her mother and sisters, Kathy Jacobs is her best friend, and Christina loved working with her.
"Well, then," she told Jack. "I’ll consider the offer. I need a few days to think it over."
"Don’t wait too long. I got 150 résumés of young beautiful talent stacked on my desk, and they’re starving for the chance to be seen on TV, even if it’s just a scrap like this."
He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his handkerchief. "Besides, beggars can’t be choosers."
There was something odd about this whole scene. Why was he so nervous? "Sure, Jack. I’ll get back to you," Christina said. "I need to talk to a certain person."
Ted admitted that, yes, he pulled some strings to get Jack to offer her the "Corporal Works of Mercy" segment: Jack’s son’s social suspension at Mercy would be overlooked for the upcoming semester, contingent upon Christina’s taking the segment.
"You can’t do that!" she said to Ted. "It’s immoral and sends the wrong message to the young man."
"So what? The deal got you the job."
"I can’t accept under such circumstances. The young man needs to learn that the rules apply to everyone equally and fairly."
"Christina, you’re wrong. Life’s not fair. Deals are made all the time, even in the Church. It’s how the world runs."
"Not my world," she said, folding her arms and turning away from Ted. "In my world, morality is absolute."
"Look, Ryan Motter is a good boy who made one small mistake–he got caught with one can of beer in his dorm room. And for your moral consideration, I was going to override that suspension anyway. I just never told Jack that. Why not take advantage of my omission and do the right thing? Jack’s being a real bastard–we all know it–so make him sweat a little for his sins."
"I just don’t know. It seems so devious–"
Ted took her by the shoulder, forcing her to face him. He lifted her chin and looked directly into her eyes. "What young person has never, ever made a mistake? Can you tell me that?"
Christina thought about Johnny Frank and little Brittany, how tough, yet exhilarating, life had been years ago...Then there was the shock of Johnny’s death and subsequent coverup...No, she didn’t even want to think about that time...Her secret must remain intact, unknown to even Ted and Kathy.
No, I’ve never had to face the court of public opinion.
"No, I can’t." She put her head on his shoulder and cried.
"I know, honey. Life for the clergy should be less complicated than it is–" his voice cracks here–"but we have our human frailties, too. My advice: take the job, go to
Confession, and forget it."
Christina went back to Jack and accepted the "Corporal Works of Mercy" segment. Politely, she made one other request: until her full-time position ended, could her Monday evening show be taped in the afternoon instead of running live? She told him about the Monday evening TV production course at Mercy College.
"Well," he said, snorting. "Looks like you have me by the gonads this time, sister."
"There’s no need to talk to me like that, Jack. I’m not trying to put you on the spot. I’m happy your son has a second chance. But you’ve really messed up things for me. I know I’ll be okay, but what about all the other women working for you?"
"Goddamn! You women are all alike, all feminists and lesbians, like that Kathy bitch friend of yours, out to cut our balls off and make eunuchs out of us. Even you nuns go in for the kill–you beat our sons throughout grade school and high school, and then you wonder why we hate you so much–"
Christina rose from her chair, and said in a soft voice, "Jack, I’ve never hit anyone in my life. I’m leaving now. We’ll talk when you have calmed down." She moved to the door, opened it, and stepped out into the studio.
"YOU BITCH, I’LL NEVER CALM DOWN!"
Crew members looked up and shook their heads.
"Bye, Jack." She closed the door softly and said nothing to the people in the studio.
Later, Kathy said that Christina should sue the creep for sexual harassment and age discrimination and take him for all he’s worth.
After that last encounter in Jack’s office, she has thought about suing the station, not for herself–she would be financially comfortable no matter what–but to help other women. She prayed on the matter for three days and nights, but God wasn’t giving her any clear-cut answers.
Then she looked at her own life.
Would getting involved in a lawsuit distract her from her vocation? Would putting herself on the political firing line fit in with her basic personality type? No, she didn’t want to get involved in a long legal battle.
But something kept nagging at her, a sense that she couldn’t leave without some kind of fight. She should have fought, maybe, though the fire wasn’t there. She didn’t dislike Jack and the powers at FOG, but perhaps she should have marched up to Jack’s office, plunked down legal papers, and said, "So there!"
Not her style.
THE FAREWELL SPEECH was Jack Motter’s idea, to show no hard feelings exist between Christina and FOG.
It’s true on Christina’s side, even though Jack had acted shoddily.
But no matter. No one can take away those 10 good years.
These thoughts run through her head as she prepares to speak to her audience for the last time as host. The camera pans in close to her, cutting part of her forehead off, an uncharacteristic in-your-face shot.
Okay, Jack, so you want to put me on the hot seat.
She hasn’t written a speech for the occasion–that would seem terribly artificial and contrived. She wants to speak from the heart and share the love she feels for her audience, but the words seem locked up inside. All she can think up are the standard platitudes: "It’s been wonderful, you have been a great audience, I’m sad to leave, but my life has taken me in a different direction, but I’ll think of you always, blah, blah, blah."
They deserve better than that!
She offers up a prayer.
Rabbi Goodson and the crew stare at her, waiting for her to close her career out with elegance and grace.
Then Christina remembers a story from the Philadelphia Inquirer; it was about a year ago, when she, her mother, and Brittany were on their way to the beach house in Cape May to spend a few days before Brittany set off for Penn State. As they rode along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, she felt an urge to pull off at a rest area in the Philadelphia area and buy a newspaper. It wasn’t a major story–it was buried in the Metro section–forgotten by now, she’s certain. A girl, a promising young African-American sculptor, was murdered as she walked home from her opening reception. Her photo and a picture of her sculpture, a marble whale, appeared with the story. It was a sad story, one that clung to Christina for days before receding in the back of her mind.
Maybe I could tell her story.
But she can’t remember the girl’s name or even the details of her life, just the incredible sadness in her heart that someone so young could die such a horrific death–the girl was stabbed several times, her skull shattered with a brick.
No, the best she can do is tell an allegory about the girl. Then she remembers once interviewing a Sufi storyteller, who told her how to create stories that teach the listener a lesson without revealing more than that person was ready to hear. The lesson to be learned has to be decided by the listener, not by the storyteller, so the stories tend to end before they quite end–like dropping off a traveler at an intersection with thousands of roads leading off into as many destinations, each one offering its possibilities and its twists and turns.
Words fill up in her heart, her own words, a modern tale, not quite a Sufi equivalent to a parable, flows from her mouth and throughout the Valley.
COPYRIGHT © 2013, Viva LaRose
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this excerpt shall be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, magnetic, photographic, including photocopying, recording, copying/ pasting on the internet, and/ or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission of the author and publisher. No patent liability is assumed with respect to the use of the information herein. Although every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this excerpt, the publisher and author assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. Neither is any liability assumed for damages resulting in the use of the information contained herein.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locale, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.