The Relic Thief

A Short Story
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Although Italians were officially despised by the grownups in Paul’s Irish family, everyone seemed to have at least one Italian best friend. His grandmother Jane, in fact, had two. Olivetta, a spinster, was Grandma’s cemetery friend. When she was three, her father had been killed in an industrial accident. “He drowned after he fell into a giant vat of chocolate at the Cocobar factory,” Paul’s mother told him one day as she dipped a Christmas cookie into her scotch. “He was chopped up by the machine. At the wake, you could smell the nougat through the closed coffin.” The poor man’s wife had never forgiven him such a ridiculous death, but made the best of it in traditional Italian style and became a perpetual widow, keeping the rooms darkened and a black-crepe-bedecked, startled-looking portrait of her husband over the fireplace. Such was the home environment of little Olivetta, who grew up to carry the somber darkness of her house in a tight-lipped and dignified manner.

Where Grandma Jane’s hobby was going to wakes, Olivetta’s was going to the cemetery; after finding each other amid the incense mists of a First Saturday Sorrowful Mother Novena, the two quickly realized how much they stood to expand each other’s horizons. Olivetta taught Grandma Jane how to decorate a grave, brushing aside her feeble clumps of faded petunias and mums, and soon Grandpa’s grave was a veritable Amazon basin of jade plants, African violets, and baby’s breath. In return, Grandma Jane taught Olivetta the finer points of wake-going. Whereas Olivetta’s prior practice had been to walk in, greet the family, kneel at the coffin for a silent prayer, then step out of the way, Grandma Jane showed her how to press the hand of the corpse firmly in one’s own while semi-audibly mumbling the prayer, a technique that not only conveyed a greater level of sincerity, but also instilled a stronger feeling of participation in the event. Olivetta was squeamish at first, but soon enough she began to enjoy herself. She also secretly fancied that she might be able to meet men at the wakes. She had been waiting for the right man now for almost fifty years and remained convinced that it was just a matter of time.

Grandma Jane’s other Italian friend was Julia, who lived down the hall in the apartment building. Julia was an entirely different kind of Italian from Olivetta, which she herself attributed to being from Sicily, whereas Olivetta was an uptight northerner from Naples. A widow, Julia was earthy, energetic, and superstitious. If she had a headache, she taped a holy card to her forehead, and the rosaries she wore around her neck clicked-clacked as she maneuvered her three-hundred-pound frame gracefully about, muttering incantations against Satan. Paul loved her apartment, a kind of monastic charnel house where saint pictures suffered in glorious full color and saint statues writhed. His favorite—it hung over the kitchen table—was an almost life-sized painting depicting what he thought of as Jesus Inside Out, a gory, bleeding, Sacred Heart Christ whose chest looked like it had been ripped open by a giant bird.

Julia was forever spicing up Grandma’s devotional life with statues of stoned, flogged, and flailed saints sent by relatives from Sicily. “Got you a St. Sebastian,” she would say, unwrapping a plaster Technicolor saint whose face wore an expression of divine resignation at the twenty-four arrows sticking out of its body. Grandma accumulated a fair number of these statues over time, and kept them on the top of an old dead radio console the family had used before the war, where they stood looking like the disoriented survivors of a plane crash. Paul loved this makeshift altar and would linger by it, hoping God might one day speak to him through the radio.

All this vivid Catholicism left its mark on Paul. At twelve he loved going with his grandmother to Mass, to sit listening as the priest droned the sacred mysteries in Latin and Grandma reviewed her massive collection of holy cards, culled from countless wakes. In time she gave him a few of her doubles to keep in his little missal, and he became an avid collector of holy cards, in the way that other boys collected baseball cards. A group of pale boys from his parochial school shared his hobby; on occasion, this or that male adult in Paul’s family would enter the living room to see the boys sitting on the carpet busily trading cards, and would smile—until he noticed that the players on the cards were holding not bats but orbs and crosses, and wearing not Cubs or Dodgers caps but mitres. One day Paul’s parents opened his bedroom door to discover him on his knees before a statue of the Infant of Prague, a rosary in his hand and four around his neck, a holy card taped to his forehead. They hastily closed his door, Paul’s mother letting out a muffled sob.

“Don’t worry, honey,” Paul’s father offered by way of comfort. “We’ll send him to a Jesuit school. That will knock the religion out of him.”

Grandma Jane thought Paul’s piety a bit overdone, but Julia was delighted. She loaded him with gifts of rosaries and religious medals. Paul liked to put all of them on at the same time, and when he would march out into the living room wearing them, Paul’s father would say, with a sigh, “Here comes Father Superpimp from the Vatican again.” Convinced that Paul should be a priest, Julia took it upon herself to educate him about theology and the church, explaining, for example, that the current occupant of the papal throne was an imposter, a non-Italian put there by the Jews and German Lutherans who were behind Vatican II—in place of the real John XXIII, who had been kidnapped. Paul proudly presented this theory during show and tell at his catechism class, whereupon the smiling nun muttered a blasphemy and rushed forward to cover him with her voluminous brown scapular.

Though Julia was as enthusiastic about wakes as Grandma Jane, Jane avoided taking her, because she tended to get sentimental and invariably ended up throwing herself on top of the deceased and wailing away. Indeed, years later at Paul’s mother’s wake, Julia would outdo herself by launching from the door of the mortuary chapel, racing down the aisle in a high-speed waddle, and slamming herself into Paul’s mother’s shoulders so forcefully that she dislodged the layers of padding used to build up the dead woman’s emaciated body. This necessitated some discreet repair work by the undertaker, who, after a glance over to where a crowd of American Legion Auxiliaries was consoling Julia by the holy-card table, reached down, decisively grabbed Paul’s mother’s breasts, and snapped them back into place—then turned to an awed Paul and winked.

But this disturbing wink was still years in the future on a sixth-grade October morning when Paul approached his mother at the kitchen table, where she was dipping the fifth tea bag into her morning cup. On a saucer were two slices of cinnamon-and-butter toast and four aspirins. Paul waited until she had quaffed half her tea in one gulp and taken a deep drag from her cigarette. Then he presented her with a holy card and a Halloween request he had been formulating for days.

His mother studied the card, frowning. “You want to dress up as Bernard Dolan 1893–1951?”

“No. As St. Patrick. See, in the picture. He’s standing on a snake.”

She sighed, and Paul could see the thoughts pouring across her face, the effort it would take her, the cost. “When’s Halloween?” she asked.


With another sigh his mother picked up the aspirins and tossed them into her mouth, then drank the rest of her tea.

“All right,” she said, to his surprise. “I’ll put something together.”

Within an hour she had set to work, gathering odds and ends from around the apartment: glittery gold bedroom slippers she seldom wore; green curtains, never used, stashed in a kitchen cabinet; rectangles of green cardboard from Paul’s father’s starched white shirts. She measured, she cut and sewed; and when she had finished the basic idea of the thing she rushed out to Steiner’s, the five-and-dime on Madison Street, for a few essential accessories. Returning, she found Grandma Jane and Olivetta in her kitchen; having been alerted by Paul that his mother was working at her long-unused sewing machine, they had decided to drop by. Taking Paul by the hand, the bag with the costume in the other, his mother led him to his room.

Fifteen minutes later they had not yet emerged, and sitting patiently at the dining room table Olivetta and Grandma heard the key turn in the front door. Paul’s father came in. “Hello there, ladies. Are we having a party?”

Before they could answer, the bedroom door cracked open. “Paul has something to show you,” Paul’s mother said. A fully costumed and smiling Paul promenaded into the dining room, wearing his mother’s slippers, a regal gown and cape, and a beautiful green hat that almost doubled his height.

Paul’s father chuckled admiringly. “Nice mitre,” he said. “How many snakes do you think you have there, son?”

“Over forty,” said Paul.

“Most impressive.”

It wasn’t the saint’s snakes that impressed the two old women as much as the flamingos and palm trees adorning his cape. Olivetta recognized the curtains she had given as a wedding present years ago, a fact that had slipped Paul’s mother’s mind until that very moment. “Flamingos in Ireland?” Olivetta muttered—then held her peace, her lips clamped together in simmering Christian charity as Paul shuffled around the dining room table, raising his snakes in benediction and reciting the Confiteor in Latin in a low stentorian voice. Though Grandma Jane remarked that he looked like Zora the Snake Charmer, she had to admit that he was pretty cute.

“I think a drink is in order,” said Paul’s father, heading for the liquor cabinet. They drank scotch (soda only for Olivetta), and by the time Paul made his final bedtime round of the room, kissing the women on the cheek and giving his father a hug, they were all in high spirits.

“It’s nice to see him so happy like that,” said Grandma, when he was safely packed into bed and she and Olivetta stood to leave.

“Yes it is,” agreed Paul’s mother, escorting them to the door.

“Have him stop by to see us tomorrow afternoon before he starts out for trick-or-treats,” said Olivetta.

“I will. You two take care, now,” she said. She stood on the landing for a moment as the two women descended the stairs. Behind her she heard the TV go on in the living room, and the thump of Paul’s father pushing back the reclining chair. From the lobby below arose the click-bang of the security door opening and closing. She headed back into the apartment.

“I’m going to check on Paul,” she said. “Do you need anything first?”

“No thanks, honey,” her husband said.

She went to Paul’s room, opened the door and let herself in. His bedroom had the familiar smell of boy-sweat and incense. When her eyes adjusted, she realized with a start that he was lying on his back on the bed, still in costume and mitre, hands folded funereally over his chest. Catching her breath, she came closer and stood in the dim light. Yes, she ascertained, his chest moved. Silly, she said to herself, and reached down to carefully remove the hat; lifting him gently by the shoulders, she pulled him up to the pillow. He sighed and snorted once, but didn’t wake, and for a moment she sat on the bed and gazed into his sleeping face. Glancing around the room she took in his vast collection of religious gear—all his Holy Hardware, as her husband called it. My son, she murmured, my strange little boy, and felt a welling in her chest. With a last glance at his face and at his small hand, now clutching the edge of his robe, she rose and left the room.

In the living room her husband was stretched out on his recliner. “Darling,” she said to him, “why don’t you come over and sit on the sofa with me?”

Paul’s costume was the hit of the school Halloween party. The nuns took him from room to room to show him off, then to the principal’s office—and from there to the rectory, where Pastor Fahey put down his magazine, stubbed out his cigarette, threw on a black coat over his dickey and white sleeves, and regarded Paul with a beneficent smile.

“Why, it’s Zora the Snake Charmer!” he exclaimed. “Wonderful!”

“No,” said the principal tartly. “This is St. Patrick.”

“Ah, yes. The snakes. The mitre. The green. Of course. Did your mother make this fine costume for you?”

Paul could hardly speak, so awestruck was he to find himself in the pastor’s own house and office. This was the very room to which his grandfather had been summoned years before for a chat with the old pastor, Father O’Naill—emerging so shaken, his desire for alcohol diminished to such a degree, that Grandma never again had to call a desk sergeant on a Sunday morning to find out what Grandpa wanted for dinner that evening. Keeping one’s wits amid such grandeur was no small thing, and it was all Paul could do to blush and stammer, “Yes, Father.”

“Well, it’s Halloween and you deserve a treat. Let me look.” With no candy at hand, the priest went to a cabinet and pulled out a shoebox; it was the church lost-and-found, and he rummaged through key chains, smelling salts, dentures, and wedding rings. “Ah, here we are.” Flashing an impish smile at the principal, he pulled out a sterling cross and chain. “I happen to know this item has been sitting in this box since Prohibition. Who better to give it to than the Patron Saint of Ireland?”

The two nuns who had brought Paul over watched with open envy. “Thank you, Father,” Paul managed to mumble, and was led away.

After school he reported promptly to his Grandma’s, where cabbage, carrots, and potatoes were boiling away, her near-nightly rendition of the Irish flag. Olivetta was there, and Paul proudly showed both women his new silver cross. “Very nice,” said Olivetta. “I buried my mother in one just like it.” She presented Paul with a green trick-or-treat bag to match his outfit. Grandma Jane then secured the gold slippers to his insteps with rubber bands and, declaring the costume complete, sent him next door to show Julia, Olivetta following primly behind.

Julia’s apartment door stood ajar. They pushed it open and called in. Julia’s half-deaf, all-blind, twenty-four-year-old bulldog, Popo, heard the call with his one good ear and came staggering from the kitchen. Behind him lumbered Julia, yelling: “Popo, Popo, Blessed John of the Cross!” Seeing Paul, she stopped. “Look at you! The very image of a young Pius X.” She gave him a crushing embrace. “Come in, both of you.”

Paul bent down to scratch Popo’s head, and the dog panted with delight. He was a miracle dog, covered everywhere with tumors and shingly patches yet still going strong, kept alive on a diet of ground sirloin and steroids, plus a morning dish of coffee (cream, one lump) into which Julia sprinkled a few drops of Fatima water.

“Dog’s looking better,” said Olivetta. “But what’s that stuck to his leg?”

“That’s Blessed Arnaldo of Padua,” Julia said. “Popo was having arthritis pains. He’s better, but I can’t seem to get the holy card off. Now listen, St. Patrick.” Paul stood up, and Julia patted his cheek. “I like your getup. But aren’t you supposed to carry a crozier?”

Paul remembered that indeed he was. It was a disappointing oversight in the making of his costume, and his face fell.

“Hold on,” Julia said. Waddling across to a closet, she opened it and, rummaging among brooms, mops and umbrellas, emerged with a gilded bishop’s crozier. “Here you go,” she said, handing it to him. “It was my great-grandfather’s.”

“Wow,” said Paul.

“You look so cute, like a little pope.” Julia tweaked his cheek so hard he saw stars. From a bowl on the table she took a handful of colorfully wrapped candies and stuffed them into Paul’s bag. “Have fun out there, and watch for strangers.” And with that, he was out in the hallway, beginning his long descent to the street and to Halloween night.

The plan was to meet his friend Ed Doherty in front of the TNT Tap, near the railroad viaduct. But Ed was late, as usual, and Paul had to stand waiting by the tavern as groups of neighborhood men streamed in, fresh from dinner at home. They liked his costume and invited him in to show Ryan the bartender. But Grandma Jane had categorically forbidden him, under pain of mortal sin, ever to set foot in a tavern. And especially this tavern. Paul’s grandfather had shot someone there once. Not dead, and not on purpose, but while messing around with a World War I revolver someone had brought in. He hadn’t gone to jail. Indeed the police hadn’t even been called; it was an Irish tavern and half the men in the place were police anyway. But it had been a close thing and had seriously shaken up his grandfather. Grandma Jane said it had probably taken eight or ten years off his life—and added several thousand years of purgatory that would have to be worked off by her.

At last Doherty arrived. Paul was shocked to see that his mother had dressed him up like Aunt Jemima, with a huge pillow-stuffed bosom, a dress with petticoats, head scarf, and a charcoal blackface. It was the kind of thing to expect from Ed’s mother, a woman everyone considered odd—an artist, from a well-to-do family, who painted watercolors of soft-looking foreign places and scandalized people with her wicked sense of humor. As for Ed, he was short and pudgy, with a deep voice and an upper-class Irish accent that made him sound almost English.

“Good evening, Beirne,” he said to Paul. Ed always insisted on last names.

“That’s quite a costume you have on there, Doherty. Did your father see it?”

Ed’s father was known as an avid racist whose jibes about negroes went well beyond the norm. “Actually, my mother made this costume to cheer him up,” said Doherty, wryly. “And look what I have here.” He pulled his Aunt Jemima sleeves back. Each wrist was wrapped with an ace bandage from under which jutted an inch of aquarium hose. “Watch this, Beirne. It’s not just stuffing in these bazooms.” He pointed his wrists at the hanging TNT Tap sign and squeezed his elbows against his sides. A thick red liquid shot out and hit the sign squarely.

“What the heck is that?”

“Red food coloring mixed in corn syrup. Anyone who calls me a darkie tonight had better come armed. Shall we proceed?”

Their trick-or-treat strategy involved skipping their own neighborhood to hit the bungalow streets off Washington Boulevard, where the lace-curtain Irish lived. Lace-curtain Irish, as Grandma Jane had told Paul, meant having girls with hyphenated names, like Mary-Kate, Mary-Pat, and Mary-Frances. It meant having your own house and your own lawn and keeping it neat and orderly. And at Halloween it also meant no Hershey’s Kisses, but full-sized candy bars, and dimes, sometimes even quarters. Sure enough, though their progress through the bungalow district was slow, since at almost every house they had to go in for Grandma and Aunt Mary-Louise to admire their costumes, the pickings were very good.

“Quality, not quantity, eh Beirney boy?” said Ed after they had covered six blocks. “Hey, look at this.”

They were approaching a bungalow that stood above them with all its blinds up and its lights on. “What, is it on fire?” said Paul.

“I don’t think so. But it’s strange. Maybe someone died.”

The house did have a strange dead look to it. One of the absolute rules of living in the city was that no one must ever be allowed to see in from outside. The moment a single light went on, all shades, blinds, and curtains were to be closed, even in the dead of a hot Chicago summer. Only savages let people see inside.

They climbed to the front porch. Through the front windows they could see the living room, stacked waist-high with boxes, and beyond it the dining room, its table completely covered with stuff.

“They’re moving,” said Paul. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Wait,” said Ed. “If they’re moving, maybe they’ll just give us all the candy they have left. You know, just to be done with it.”

He pushed the doorbell, and they heard the Big Ben chimes. In the hallway a man appeared, carrying a half-sized Santa painted on plywood. He leaned it against a wall. “Hey, trick-or-treaters!” he said, opening the door to let them enter. “We didn’t get any candy, but I’ll bet we can find something. Come on in.”

The house had the familiar three-cooked-squares-a-day smell, plus a certain old-lady staleness and an alarming tang of urine. “Honey!” the man yelled. “It’s the Pope and Aunt Jemima!” Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and a pretty black-haired woman with pale skin appeared, wearing slacks and an old flannel shirt and slapping dust from her hands. Seeing them, she laughed in pleasure.

“What do you think, Mo?” said the man. “Can we scare up some candy for these two?”

“I think Gram kept some in the pantry,” she said, and headed off.

“Mo’s Gram died a month ago,” the husband said in a low voice, “and we’re cleaning the place out to sell it. Can you believe all this junk? We’re trying to figure out what to keep.”

Paul surveyed the cluttered dining room table, impressed by a collection of religious paraphernalia to rival even Julia’s. One end of the table was clearly devoted to the keeper stuff: a pair of beautiful bisque Madonnas; a handpainted San Damiano cross at least two feet long; an Infant of Prague doll in a homemade green vestment; a panel with tiny mosaic scenes of Roman buildings. On the other end were the obvious tossers: stacks of St. Anthony Messengers, half-used votive candles, some warped and yellowed crosses made of celluloid. And in the middle, he guessed, was the stuff they weren’t sure about—piles of rosaries, scapulars in various colors both new and well worn, a heap of religious medals.

Amid this collection of oddments Paul saw something that made his heart skip a beat. He edged closer. It was glass and round and about the size of the lid on an olive jar. A reliquary.

As long as Paul could remember, he had wanted a relic. No one in his family had one. Julia owned many, and kept them in her bathroom medicine cabinet—the last place a relic thief would look, she explained. Her medicine cabinet had three shelves for the three classes of relics. First-class relics, with their bit of bone or twist of hair gleaned from a saint, went on top, on the shelf of honor. In the middle went second-class relics—objects associated with saints, like pieces of parchment from their Bibles or a square of cloth cut from their robes. The third shelf overflowed with third-class relics, which were objects that had physically touched a first-class relic. Julia’s prize first-class relic was an actual bishop’s thumb in a little golden box—the thumb of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, a relic so powerful that Paul was allowed to look, but never touch, no matter how hard he begged to.

His thoughts were interrupted by the wife, returning from the kitchen with an old Barry’s Tea tin. “Gram used to keep star mints in here when I was a kid and I can hear some shaking around.” In vain she pried at the lid with her fingertips. “Can you do this?” she asked, handing it to her husband. As the man went to work on the tea tin, Paul glanced at the reliquary. He felt his insides turning into water. Should he ask straight out if he could have it? It was closer to the toss pile than the keeper pile, he noted. Still, what if they said no?

The husband gave a yank on the tea-tin lid, and mints poured forth, skittering out over the table and onto the floor. A second later, Paul let his crozier fall to the floor with a loud smack. While the adults were distracted by the candy and the stick, he palmed the relic. He glanced over to see if Ed had seen. He had.

“Sorry kids,” said the woman with a shrug. “That candy is all we had. And it probably wasn’t any good anyway.”

“That’s OK,” said Ed. “Thank you for trying, ma’am. We should go now. Come on, Beirne, I think I hear your mother calling you.”

 Apologizing, the husband escorted them to the front door and let them out, and they walked quickly away.

“Idiot!” said Ed. “Why’d you steal that?”

“I didn’t steal it. They were going to toss it.”

“You didn’t know that. What is it anyway? Let me see.”

Paul handed it over, and Ed gaped. “A relic? You actually stole a relic?”

“I didn’t really steal it.”

“Yes you did, Beirne. Come on, let’s see who it is.” They walked over to a street light, where Ed held the circle of glass up and inspected it carefully. Then he laughed. “Perfect,” he said. “It’s Dismas. You stole a relic of the Good Thief.”

Through his flush of guilt Paul was jubilant. He had always wanted a relic, and now he had one; if he was lucky, it might even turn out to be a first-class one. He took it back from Ed and, carefully reaching into his gown, unbuttoned his shirt, slid the reliquary in, then safely buttoned up again.

“Let’s go home,” he said.

“We’ll just finish this block,” Ed said. “Then we can head back.”

They did the rest of the bungalows along the street. Paul was all but bursting with eagerness to get back to his room, where he could examine his treasure in privacy. He wondered if the top screwed off the case. If he could do it without breaking it, he wanted to touch the actual relic. House by house they made their way toward the intersection. At last, having said goodbye to the last grandmother and Auntie Mary-Whatever, they turned and started back toward home.

The street was mostly empty as Ed and Paul made their way down Washington Boulevard, past the old greystone houses. Suddenly, out of a gangway, three dark forms appeared—older boys, dressed as tramps in ripped flannel shirts, neckties, brimmed hats, and burnt-cork beards. Without a word they ran up to Ed, one boy lunging out to push him hard into the bushes. Another wheeled in front of Paul and made a grab for his crozier. Paul dropped his treat bag, seized the crozier near the crook, and pulled back. For a moment the two struggled for control of the stick. Then the boy flipped directions and shoved it as hard as he could into Paul’s stomach. The crook end snapped off and clattered to the sidewalk. The boy dropped his end, and the three ran off, shouting and laughing.

The whole thing had taken no more than a minute. Ed pulled himself up out of the bushes. “Those jerks,” he said, picking up the broken crozier. “They broke your stick.”

Paul probed his stomach where the end of the staff had rammed him. He was afraid to take out the reliquary, afraid even to touch it.

“Don’t worry,” said Ed, holding the two pieces of the crozier. “I can glue this back together and clamp it in my father’s vise. No one will notice a thing.”

But it wasn’t the stick Paul was worried about. With careful fingers he felt for the outline of the case beneath his shirt. He couldn’t feel anything broken; yet tears were already coming to his eyes, even before he had gotten the reliquary out and saw a star fracture in the thick glass, a web of so many fine cracks that the relic itself could no longer be seen.

“Oh God, I broke the relic.” He stared at the thing in his palm as if staring at his own severed fingers. “I’m dead. I’m going to hell.”

“Look,” said Ed, “no one knows you even have it except me. So just toss it.”

“Toss it? Toss a relic? You can’t toss a holy relic! Oh God, I’m dead.”

“No one knows about the relic. And we’ll fix the stick. So calm down.”

But Paul could not calm down. All he could do was repeat, over and over, I’m going to hell, I’m going straight to hell. He was crying now, and he knew he was embarrassing Ed, but there was nothing he could do. He was a relic thief and a desecrator, and now he would be crucified, like Dismas himself. Why had he ever thought he could get away with it?

All week long Paul suffered in a constant state of near-panic. At school he was so distracted the nuns had to punish him just to get his attention, and at home he moped around, staying in his room and hardly eating. Everyone attributed his moping to the attack on Halloween night and the breaking of Julia’s antique crozier. Julia herself had already forgiven him. “Poor Pauli, God bless him,” she said to Grandma Jane over a dinner of spaghetti, green beans, and red wine from the gallon jug that resided permanently on Julia’s kitchen table. “I told him he was lucky. It was the hand of God that that thing broke like that when he was attacked. A good Sicilian crozier can cut a grown man in two.”

Yet even after being exonerated, Paul still would not eat his dinner—not even his favorite dessert of strawberry Jell-O with sliced bananas in it, which his mother made to try to draw him out. Instead, he hid in his room with the door shut, poring over the Yellow Pages like a Talmudic scholar. He was shocked to find that in a city of 4 million people there was not a single reliquary repairman. He checked religious-goods stores, jewelers, glassmakers, locksmiths, antique dealers, hardware stores, candle companies, convents, monasteries, and art-supply stores. He even called a few places, trying to sound as grown up as possible, only to hang up in burning humiliation when his inquiry was met with, “No, ma’am, we don’t do that kind of thing.” Paul had determined that the broken glass on the reliquary was extremely thick. It reminded him of Sister Mary Francis’s glasses, and briefly he considered stealing her glasses and somehow using one of the lenses to repair the reliquary. But he recoiled from the idea with a start; his terrible sin, he realized, was leading him into temptation, and he blocked the idea from his mind.

Even if he were to find a way to fix the case, he had to know first what could happen if he opened it. Cautiously he approached Julia with the question. Why, exactly, weren’t you allowed to touch a relic? What happened to you if you did?

Julia raised her eyebrows. Anything could happen, she told him. “Take my St. Christopher thumb, the one my sister sent from Sicily. She touched it and she was never the same again.”

“What do you mean? What happened?”

“Never you mind.”

Paul needed to find out what terrible story lay behind the thumb. And so he waited until a night when his father was relaxing in his easy chair and his mother sat at the dining-room table with a tumbler of scotch. Taking a chair alongside, Paul asked her to tell him about Julia’s sister and the thumb of St. Christopher.

His mother clinked ice cubes in her glass. “First of all,” she began, “keep in mind that Julia’s sister is even crazier than Julia. Years ago she got this idea that her family was descended from St. Christopher and that she should have a relic. Where she lives, in Palermo, there’s a church with a lot of saints on display. They’re all laid out in pretty coffins like dried sardines. Including one they claim is Christopher. Julia’s sister had her eye on that saint for years, trying to figure out how she could take a piece off without anyone catching her. Not a nose or anything obvious. More like a fingernail. But there was a guard, and he watched her like a hawk. So one day she’s standing at the coffin and sees the guard all the way over on the other side of the church, having some kind of argument with a tourist. On impulse, she bows down to the saint—and bites off one of the thumbs from his praying hands.”

“She bit it off?” Paul asked, incredulous. “You mean, with her mouth?”

 “That’s right. The problem is, the saint’s been lying there for a thousand years, and the one thumb is stuck to the other. So now she finds herself with a mouth full of thumbs. And just as she reaches up to take them out, the guard shows up, practically at her shoulder. So instead, she clenches her teeth together and goes and kneels in a pew. The guard gives her the gimlet eye and walks over to a chair by the doorway. She’s sure he’s watching her. She doesn’t know what to do, so she just keeps kneeling there.”

“With the thumbs still in her mouth?”

“Well what can she do? She can’t very well go over and put them back. She can’t put them in her purse, not with the guard watching. She can’t escape, because he’s sitting right by the door. She can’t even pray. Who is she going to pray to? St. Christopher? With his thumbs in her mouth? At any rate, for two hours she kneels there. At some point she sees the guard’s head tip back and his hat fall off. Then he starts snoring. She gets up, genuflects, and walks out of the church. With those things still in her mouth. Only when she’s outside does she spit them out, wrap them in tissue and put them in her purse. And since she ended up with two, she sent the extra one to Julia.” Paul’s mother raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Julia was very excited, as you can imagine. But I don’t know if I could sleep at night if I knew I had a human thumb in my medicine cabinet.”

“What about Julia’s sister?” Paul asked. “Did anything happen to her?”

“According to Julia, she’s never been the same. From that day on she stopped speaking right and started mumbling. Now she mumbles so bad, no one can understand a thing she says. She’s as good as mute. I think it’s her dentures, but Julia says it’s from having St. Christopher in her mouth for two hours.”

It was a story so marvelous, so awful and mortifying, that Paul could hardly comprehend it. Back in his room he took the fractured reliquary and held it against his heart. With his holy cards spread around him on the floor, he knelt and prayed to St. Dismas for forgiveness. He fingered the rosaries around his neck, but without much conviction. He felt abandoned by God, and was wearing them now mostly for show, so that no one would suspect.

There was a knock at the door, and Paul’s father walked in. “Hi, Dad,” Paul said.

His father looked around and frowned. “I’m going to my mother’s to stop by for a few minutes. Would you like to come with?” It didn’t sound like a question, but Paul didn’t mind; he felt relief at the chance to escape his cell and his fruitless efforts at penitence. He gathered up his holy cards and placed them together with the reliquary on his bureau.

“It’s cold out, so wear a hat and gloves,” his father said. “And take off those rosaries. You know how she feels about that sort of thing.”

Paul for his part was ambivalent about his Grandma Jennie. She doted on him, the only son of her only son. But she also scared the hell out of him—a tall, grim-looking woman with ramrod-straight posture and an excess of dark eye shadow that made her look like a raccoon. Her husband wasn’t dead, just out of the picture, and no one would say what had happened to him, not even Paul’s mother. “After the black widow spider reproduces, it eats its mate,” was as far as she would go. Grandma Jennie was a police officer. Almost-eighty-year-old women police officers were rare, even in Chicago. The truth was, the force was afraid to retire her—and she had so many relatives, Paul’s father said, that the local West Side politicians let her stay just to keep the family voting block in line. And so she would find her dining-room table groaning under the weight of the scotch and whiskey bottles at Christmas time, when the boys from the precinct would bring her share of the honorariums received from grateful citizens. As a truant officer Grandma Jennie had been through a lot: had been punched in the face any number of times; had had knives pulled on her; been kicked down a flight of stairs and pushed out of a moving car. Woe to the truant who mistook her for a pushover.

Her apartment was on the third floor of a yellow-brick building whose courtyard made Paul feel as if he was entering between the walls of an old castle. West Garfield Park, Julia had told him, was a “bad neighborhood,” which meant that colored people had started moving into it. Once colored people began moving to a street, white people began moving out, until the only ones left were the old, the mean, and the liberal-minded. Grandma Jennie belonged to the old and mean categories. She didn’t like what was happening, but she had lived in that apartment for thirty-five years and was not about to move out now—not even if it meant living with five locks on her door.

To Paul, the neighborhood looked exactly the same, nice houses and apartments on a quiet, well-kept street. Grandma Jennie buzzed them in at the entryway, and they climbed the three flights of stairs to her apartment. She met them at the door and gave both a hug.

“You look good, Paul,” she said, making it sound like an order.

They entered, and she locked the totem pole of locks, then left Paul and his father to sit while she made tea. Paul always felt he had to sit at attention in his grandmother’s living room. It was formal and dark, with mahogany moldings and woodwork, brown-upholstered furniture, and a black piano in the corner that no one ever played. The pictures of saints weren’t Technicolor like the ones Julia had, but stern and pious portraits of faces wearing accusatory looks. They reminded Paul of police officers, which was the last thing he needed, because that in turn reminded him of the broken relic and made it uncomfortably clear that, somehow, the saints knew.

Grandma Jennie came out of the kitchen with a tray of cups and saucers. Badly nearsighted but too vain to wear her glasses, she thrust a cup of milky tea in his general direction, and he caught it before she dumped it on his lap.

When they had settled in, Paul’s father asked her how she was doing. “I’m doing all right,” she said, “considering that I’m old and the entire world is going to hell. The coloreds are all the way to Cicero Avenue now. That should stop them for a while.” She sipped tea. “For what it’s worth, they do seem to be Democrats, so at least there’s that. Paul, would you like a slice of cheesecake?”

“No thank you, Grandma. I’m not very hungry.”

“Nonsense. All eleven-year-old boys are hungry. I’ll get you one.”

She did, and Paul sat in silent misery, picking at it with his fork and wondering how much he would have to eat in order to satisfy her. As his father and grandmother chatted, he glanced up to the far wall and the portrait of St. Joseph holding the Baby Jesus. They stared back with stern disapproval, clearly outraged that he could sit there eating cheesecake despite having broken a sacred relic. For the rest of the visit he kept his eyes firmly averted, while Grandma Jennie talked on and on about Police Department gossip and the seemingly endless number of friends who had died since Paul’s father’s last visit, what funeral home they had been waked at, what parish they had been buried from, who had attended, who had skipped.

Finally it was time for Paul and his father to leave. Grandma Jennie escorted them to the door. “Now you be careful down there with all those—well, you know. I’ll be in the window watching. And I have my pistol in my purse.”

“Don’t worry, Mom,” said Paul’s father. “We’ll be fine.”

Paul followed his father back down the stairs and through the lobby. He had his gloves in his hand, and distractedly stuck them in his coat pocket as he stepped outside. It was a crisp fall day and the courtyard was quiet. He walked behind his father toward the car, parked on the street beyond.

A voice called out from behind them. “Son, are these your gloves?”

Paul turned. A black man stood there. Apparently he had come out of one of the other doors in the courtyard. He had Paul’s gloves in his hand and was holding them up. “These belong to you?”

Before he could answer, Paul heard a window slide open somewhere above, and looked up to see his grandmother lean out her dining-room window. Her purse jutted above the windowsill from where she had rested it on the radiator, and she was pulling something out of it—a gun, Paul saw now, a long-barreled black pistol that she proceeded to hold with both hands and aim straight at the man. She was squinting along the barrel, and Paul could see that her hands were shaking. His father meanwhile had continued along to the sidewalk and now was focusing on the car’s front-door lock, which seemed to be stuck.

 “I say,” the black man called, unaware of the mortal danger he was in. “Are these yours?”

Paul was too petrified to speak; his entire body, beginning with his legs, seemed to have turned to stone. At that moment his father came up the courtyard walk. “The man has your gloves,” he said. “Why are you standing there like a statue?” With a hand on Paul’s shoulder he steered him over to the black man. Both Paul and his father now stood more or less in the sight line between the man and the window above. Paul felt he might wet his pants.

“Sorry about my son,” his father said, accepting the gloves. “He’s a bit shy. Thanks for spotting these. What do you say, son?”

“Thank you, sir,” Paul mumbled.

“No problem. Wish I had a nickel for every glove I ever lost.” The man smiled and walked away.

Paul looked up. In the window above, his grandmother had put the pistol down and was rummaging through her purse. As he watched, she took out her glasses, wiped them vigorously with a handkerchief, and put them on. She looked confused for a moment—the black man by now had exited the courtyard and was up the street, out of range—then she gave Paul a small, stiff embarrassed little wave.

Paul’s father had remained oblivious the whole time. “Come on, son,” he said now. “Let’s go home.” He handed him the gloves, and the two made their way to the street and got into the car. His father did not start up the engine, but sat for a moment instead.

“You know,” he said, “you’re lucky that fellow happened to be standing there. He saved you. There’d be hell to pay at home.”

Paul nodded; but he did not feel lucky, and certainly not saved. There was hell to pay still, and there would be at every turn. He knew something else about sin now, a dire truth. Transgression could be punished not merely in hell, he realized, but right here and now, at any moment, with harsh justice delivered by unexpected means—be it a lightning strike, a plague of locusts, or your own half-blind grandmother’s errant bullet.

Art by Sarah Baumann

Published in the 2011-12-16 issue: 

unagidon is the pen name of a former dotCommonweal blogger.  

Also by this author
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