Wednesday, May 31, 2006


She never thought about being pretty, because no one had ever told her she was – until that fateful afternoon.  Playing quietly with her doll in a corner of the room, she heard her mother’s visiting friend say  Your little Pamela is a beauty.  What adorable dimples!

Pamela was fluttery with joy, but pretended to be unaware of what had been said, hoping against hope to hear more.  Not in front of the child  her mother said.  I don’t want her to grow up conceited.   When the visitor left, Pamela hurried to stand on the very tips of her toes and smile at her reflection in the bathroom mirror.  Her mother, walking by the open door, caught her in the act and said  Go ahead, keep admiring yourself in the mirror, missy!  But don’t be surprised if some day the devil himself looks back at you!   In an instant, fear supplanted Pamela’s delight, and the joy she had felt so short a time ago was now a solid block of ice.  In unexpected moments from then on, when the far-off wail of a train echoed through rain-heavy air or when a siren wakened her in the night, an undefined foreboding lodged in her chest like a stone. 

That fall Pamela entered first grade and Mary Ellen’s family moved in next door.   Mary Ellen enrolled in the same school, and even though she was three years older than Pamela and already in fourth grade, they became best friends.  Almost from the onset, Mary Ellen was her confidant, the sounding board against which Pamela tested her worries and fears.  Sister Emelda called me out of class today and asked me why I always look so sad  she said.  Do I look sad, Mary Ellen?  Mary Ellen said  I guess mostly you do, but what’s it any of her business?  You don’t have to pay attention to everything the sisters tell us, Pammy.  Pamela asked her mother that evening if what Mary Ellen had said was true, and her mother said  You pay attention to everything the sisters tell you. missy!  Don’t be listening to Mary Ellen.  Someday her sauciness will get her in trouble!   

The end of the school year brought a long, happy summer for the girls to spend together.  One day while they were jumping rope, Mary Ellen taught her a new chant:  Oh the girls in France, they wear tissue paper pants.  And the boys in Gaul, they don’t wear anything at all.   They repeated it over and over just to make themselves giggle, and that night at dinner she repeated it for her parents.  Her mother said  That implies impure thoughts, and impure thoughts can only lead to sin!  Promise never to recite the likes of it ever again!   Pamela promised.  And stop spending so much time with that immoral little creature next door!   Pamela was silent.  Promise! her mother said again.  Leave the kid alone her father said.  There’s nothing immoral about Mary Ellen.  Stop filling our daughter’s head with your righteous nonsense.  The next day Pamela asked  Mary Ellen, do you think we will go to hell for impure thoughts?   Mary Ellen said  Of course not!  Pammy, you just have to chill out, okay?  

Mary Ellen and her family moved to Texas, and Pamela had to muddle through the teen years without her.  Pamela was a very comely teen and soon boys by the dozens came calling, asking her to the movies.  Her mother said  Movies are okay, I guess.  But no drive-ins!  They’re dens of iniquity.

A few years later, the young man she dated in college met with her mother’s approval because he happened to have a brother in the seminary.  Her father, on the other hand, accepted him on his own merits.  They were married after graduation, and she told herself that at last she was happy.  The only problem was that because she felt unworthy of such happiness, a complicated covenant compelled her. Certain things had to be done in a precisely prescribed way to insure against disaster. Towels out of the dryer had to be folded just so.  If one seam showed beyond another, the towel had to be refolded, sometimes several times, before she placed it in the linen closet.  All the table knives in the silverware drawer had to be placed with the cutting edges facing the same way.  Each pillow, hers and her husband’s, had to be set atop the sheet and blanket exactly the same distance from the edge of the bed.  So many rules!  Almost weekly, she came up with a new one to suffer under.  Often she was sorely tempted to forget the whole thing, but was afraid of what might happen should she disobey.  What do you mean by disobey?  her husband shouted at her in frustration.  They’re your own stupid rules, aren’t they?  I swear to God you need psychiatric help!  His words stabbed at her, and although she knew it was wrong of her, she struggled a long time before forgiving him.  Afterward, as penance, she was constrained to blow a kiss before she retired at night, to each religious artifact in the house – the print of The Last Supper that hung over their table, the picture of The Child Jesus in the Temple in the room they hoped would someday be the nursery, and the white plastic figurine of Michelangelo’s La Pietá which they had brought home from their honeymoon in Rome.  This ritual, though burdensome, was manageable enough until one fateful evening along about eleven o’clock when she was almost asleep, she remembered her Sunday Missal, a book that contained the liturgy for all the Masses of the Church year.  Depicted, too, throughout were many holy scenes – one tableau after another.  It would have taken her hours to blow each one a kiss.

Suddenly anger boiled up in her.  Enough!  she said aloud, even as she wondered whom she was addressingGod, perhaps?  Fear clutched at her, but she stubbornly refused to repent.  She was sleepless most of the night.  With dawn came an unbearable fear that because of her disobedience, the day ahead augured disaster.  She tried to shake off her dread and said a fervent prayer for forgiveness, but worried that maybe it was already too late.  Depressed and preoccupied, she went about the business of dressing for work.

 As she turned off the main highway onto the road that led to her office (a busy, two-lane road bearing traffic in each direction) she realized she had no recollection of how she had driven from home to there.  Resolved to begin paying attention to what she was doing, she glanced in the rear view mirror to acclimate herself.  Suddenly, superimposed on the mirror’s reflection of the car behind, she saw a horrible horned and leering countenance that flashed for an instant and was gone.  In panic she veered the car sharply left into what she thought was the passing lane.  Unfortunately, she forgot that she had already exited the six-lane highway.

The sound of impact was heard for blocks.