My Sacred Flesh
When the timer goes off, I pick up the phone to call my twin sister Ronnie. The pie just came out of the oven, I say, and the turkey’s all done. I roasted it yesterday.
Why’d you do that?
Just to be ready, I guess. And we’ve already set the table, so I’ll just have to mash the potatoes and make the gravy. Is Charlie still saying mass before you come over?
Yes, at four. You can probably make it if you hurry.
This year, my brother Charlie is staying with Ronnie and her husband Lloyd on Hickory Street. We used to live a block over from Ronnie, on Walnut, until we came out to this house in ’74. Maggie, our middle child, never did want to move, so when she’s in town, she always likes to get down there. As a kid, she would race down the sidewalk to walk home with her dad when she saw him drive by at the end of the day—we had room for only one car, so Bob used to park down the street in the neighbor’s garage in exchange for shoveling her driveway all winter. The tree branches met overhead at that end of the street, and whenever we passed underneath them on our way back from looking at houses, Maggie’s head would pop up in the rear view. This would be after she’d begged me to let her stay home. Poor Maggie. She would be on the toilet, reading a book.
It’s so strange, Maggie says now on the way over to Ronnie’s, that we have Father Charlie all to ourselves today. Where is everybody?
He’s really not up to a big gathering, I say.
But how did we get him?
Well, he’s staying with Ronnie and Lloyd, so he goes where they’re going.
But I know what she means. There used to be forty-two people for Thanksgiving dinner—all of my brothers and sisters, and all of their families. When Bob was alive, he never came to the mass, so I would just give him a job. He’s waiting for one more pie to come out of the oven, I’d say, and then he’ll be here. And they all understood.
When we arrive, Ronnie greets us in a whisper; Charlie has opened his mass kit already and put on his stole. The house is cool and quiet and smells of White Shoulders and pinto beans and freshly-baked bread. When Charlie first regained consciousness after the stroke, he spoke only in Latin, and John, Maggie’s husband, who is also a scholar (and also, like Bob, not a Catholic), was so impressed. Years ago, when they first started dating, I said to Charlie, you’ve met him. What do you think? He’s seven years older. And Charlie said, don’t worry, Theresa. Those two are peas in a pod.
Ronnie’s dining room is in the center of her house, and the other rooms lean up against it like cinnamon rolls in a pan. There are five of us now for the mass, in addition to Charlie: Ronnie and Lloyd, Maggie and John, and myself. Under his stole, Charlie is wearing that cardigan sweater we got him last year for his birthday. It was around that time that he finally left rehab and went back to his room. Randy, who worked in the kitchen, was so happy to see him again–he was the one who found him, after the stroke.
Charlie recites the entrance antiphon and the penitential rite and then he leans back in his chair, tucking the tips of his fingers into his belt. Today’s the feast of St. Cecilia, he says. I can still see Mother sitting at the piano. She used to play the Polonaise, and Alice Blue Gown.
Those were the two she taught me to play, I put in. You had piano lessons, Ronnie, but I never did.
We had such a nice breakfast this morning, Charlie says now, grinning at Ronnie.
She points her finger at him. She looks old—older than I do, I think. You kept asking me, did I want some muskmelon next?
Why muskmelon? Maggie asks.
We were having such a lovely—
It was grapefruit, Lloyd interjects. His voice has a bit of a rasp. We were eating grapefruit, but you kept saying cantaloupe.
We laugh, and Charlie gets on with the mass. He was always a tease. When our girls were little, he would capture their wrists in a circle with his thumb and forefinger and challenge them to break their hands loose. They would struggle, twisting their wrists, but they couldn’t get free. And he would pretend they were hurting him, crying out, “oh! my sacred flesh!” with a huge grin on his face.
He asks Lloyd to do the readings; he never asks me or Ronnie to do them, and John wouldn’t expect it, though there’s really no reason at all why he couldn’t do it. Still, I wish he’d ask Maggie for once. Years ago, he would have all the little kids do the communion count, and that was so nice for the girls.
Lloyd takes the missal from Charlie now and stands up. The first reading is from Revelation—something about a sharp sickle and clusters of grapes being thrown into the wine press of God’s fury. During the psalm, I think maybe I ought to peel a few more potatoes when we get home, just in case. But the gospel verse gets my attention: Remain faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Charlie reads us a gospel about the end times, about the beautiful temple being destroyed with no stone left upon another. Many will come in my name, so do not be deceived. Nation will rise against nation. There will be earthquakes and famine and plagues. It’s plenty for us to chew on. But before Charlie can give us his usual one-minute homily, Ronnie pipes up.
I have a question.
Yes, I do, Charlie, and I really hope you can answer this one for me.
All right. What’s on the giant mind?
Ronnie frowns down at her Quaker lace tablecloth. Lloyd gave her that white cardigan sweater she’s wearing for Christmas some ten years ago, and it’s still in perfect condition.
I understand that we have to be good, Ronnie says. But what if you’ve been good all your life, and you maybe slip up a little bit just at the end? And what if there’s some other person who hasn’t been good, but they have a deathbed conversion? What if that person gets into heaven, and you don’t?
She sounds plaintive somehow; maybe it’s because of that muskmelon business earlier. We’re all quiet, waiting to hear what Charlie will say.
Well, Ronnie, he says, we all have to persevere to the end–the very end.
That sounds like Teresa of Avila, Maggie says, leaning toward me. I read one of her books—The Way of Perfection.
And Ronnie says, well, what about deaths of despair? And they go back and forth.
Maggie looks rapt; clearly, this mass is much better than she was expecting. I hope they’ll go on talking now, just for her sake. Because Maggie—well, she wouldn’t come home when Bob died. She stayed downtown instead with that friend of hers, the one who was only here for a year as a nanny. The parents were gone, and her friend was afraid to stay alone in that house overnight with the children. But Maggie, I said, the hospice nurse told us it might even happen tonight. But I promised, she said. And I didn’t argue with her, because she would never have promised at all except that she wasn’t thinking about what was going on here. She couldn’t stand at the foot of the cross for her dad, and that worried me. I went back to the bedroom that day and sat down next to Bob, and I tried to explain. You understand, I said, though I wasn’t sure he could still hear me. Our Maggie just has her head in the clouds.
But when Charlie got sick, Maggie went down to that hospital room every day. This wasn’t the stroke—this was his bypass, five years before. He was hospitalized a long time after that, the poor man. She called me one day–it was a Saturday, I remember. By then, Charlie had been in the ICU for two weeks. Ronnie and Lloyd and I had been up there to see him right after the surgery, but we couldn’t stay, so I was always so glad that Maggie was there. Visiting hours were only from two to two-thirty, she said, and only one or two people could go in at a time, so she was expecting to wait outside for her turn. But for some reason, she was the only one there. And he always said that five minutes was more than enough for a hospital visit. So, every five minutes, she asked him, shouldn’t I go now, Father? And he said, no, don’t leave yet, so she stayed the whole time. He couldn’t say much. He lay flat in that bed, for hours, it seemed, with no company, nothing but his own thoughts. She had to search around for things to talk about—little things, really.
Oh, I’m so glad, I told her; even though, knowing him, he might have preferred to be quiet. And she said, I just felt like I had to do it for you, in your place. I know you’d be here every day if you could.
Well, you’ve been a good congregation, Charlie says now as he packs up his mass kit. Ronnie gathers her pitcher and bowl and her tabletop crucifix that she keeps on the windowsill over the sink, and goes into the kitchen. Everyone’s hurrying now. People are putting on coats. Lloyd wants to know if Charlie will walk down the steps or if he should bring the car around back. John offers to help. It’s so nice that he comes to church with Maggie. Bob never did that, though he never threw up any obstacles for us, either. There were too many rituals, though, that he couldn’t accept.
In the kitchen, Ronnie turns to the stove for the pinto beans, where she stops. With a sigh, she goes out to the dining room table again and sits down.
What is it, Ronnie?
You go on ahead, Theresa, she says. I’ll have to wait for the pressure cooker to finish.
Lloyd gives her a look. What time did you set it for?
You go on ahead, she repeats, determined to smile.
As we are leaving, I think about Ronnie, who has to stay here in this house on this steep little street and be treated this way because she wasn’t ready. Lloyd’s always been good to her; that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, maybe she would have been ready, except for the mass.And we have no timetable, really.
Maggie goes over to Ronnie and says, thanks for having us. We’ll see you soon. She’s always been different from me, and from Bob, and her sisters. It isn’t just preference, or even nostalgia, for her, coming here; when she was a child, she just needed to follow her own inner promptings. The reason she begged me to let her stay home from looking at houses was so she could curl up and read. She has that in common with Ronnie–that life of earnest simplicity, that refusal to budge. Oh, Bob, I would say. Our Maggie just has her head in the clouds.
Joan Bauer holds a master’s degree in English and has worked as a trust officer in a bank. She and her husband Paul live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they have raised three children. Joan’s novel The Bicycle Messenger was recently longlisted for the 2022 Virginia Prize for Fiction.