Chapter Twenty-eight: A God-Centered Life
"You were looking for me, Stupid Girl?" Gerry said, appearing as Roj put a foot on the street.
"Yes, I was. Can't you just call me Roj?"
"Oh, okay. You're still pretty stupid, though, for a ghost."
"Well, you're pretty insensitive for a ghost, yourself, so I'll be stupid until I learn, and you'll be insensitive until hell freezes over."
"That's a good one," Gerry laughed, howling her spectral laughter towards the cloudy skies.
"Honestly, I wasn't joking," Roj corrected her with irritation. "You're a jerk."
"You're the stupid one, so I'm the jerk? That doesn't make any sense."
"You told me I had ugly magazines pasted all over me, are they still there?"
"No, they're gone, good job on thinking that through. Bet you felt like a dummy, though, didn't you?" The ghost was just about in Roj's face for a confirmation.
"Then why are you still calling me 'Stupid,' and yes, I did feel like a dummy, but aren't we past that now?" Roj stood in the middle of the street and felt a car pass through her, on its way from a deli for a desperation pickup of a submarine sandwich with bologna, salami, turkey, and lettuce with black olives for the driver. "I'm not all that imperceptive, you know."
"Imperceptive? Now there's a word not too many people use! You must have gone to college or something! But that's exactly what you are, and you don't even know it!"
Someone so stupid they don't even know they're stupid, was how her mother had described a neighbor -- she didn't remember which one, and probably her mother hadn't said which one it was in front of her. Now Gerry was saying she was the very same kind of ignorant.
"I'm glad you're safe, Gerry. I was worried about you."
"I'm here, I'm here. What could happen to me? Nothing's new with your police -- but that emergency medical technician that picked your Matt up went to the County Sheriff. He was really mad that your police didn't follow up and find out why the slut policewoman was ready to let Matt die."
"That sounds good. The County isn't in on the drug ring?"
"Oh no, child, Jimmy Pinheiro is as clean as the water of Yosemite Falls. He has no tolerance for any kind of corruption or wrongdoing on his force. He's a distant relative of mine, and we all know he'll be joining us soon -- he's never going to be in anyone's pocket. He's gone to the DA, wants an impartial investigation."
"Will he get it?"
Gerry shrugged, looking like transparent licorice sticks left in the sun. "God knows, God knows what's right." She looked up at Roj, her ghostly underbite now looking more like a cute bulldog puppy's than a pirhana's. "My angel told me to stop calling you stupid so much."
"I'd appreciate that, considering that I already know I'm stupid," Roj nodded. "The question I have is why I'm still plastered with the STUPID sign."
"Oh, girl -- wait, you wanted me to call you -- what? Roj? what kind of name is that?"
"It's mine. That's all you have to know. Now why am I so stupid?"
"You don't know what you should know about God."
"Desai has told me a lot, like how the Breath of God is in every human, no matter how vile they are, and that Hell is like -- "
"The fact is, they don't know God the same way we do, so he's hedging."
Roj gave a startled chuckle at Gerry's observation. "You're not saying God is different for angels than for us -- that can't be true."
"Not different, God is God. All-powerful, all-merciful, all-loving, all in all, for everyone."
"That I do know, though I didn't really think about God much while I was alive..."
Gerry grabbed her spectral wrist and squeezed it, startling Roj. She could feel Gerry's touch. She pulled away, suddenly afraid. "How did you do that?"
"I've got no hands, girl -- Roj -- I can't touch you. You just understood what I was trying to -- tell you? Show you?" The ghost seemed at a loss for words.
"To convey?" Roj offered.
"Yes! Convey! What I was thinking carried a meaning, and you got it! But that's just everyday stuff with fancy language on it, like putting cake icing on yesterday's bread. Don't worry about things like that, you've done it before, with me. We were talking about how you didn't think about God while you were alive.
"It's a wonder any young people know God the way things are these days. When I was a little girl, life was so different ..."
In those long ago days, each little town had its own church, and the church was the center of its existence. No one had cars except the very rich, so the church that was within walking distance on the narrow stone and dirt streets was where you went, and you knew everyone because you saw them every Sunday, and most weekdays if your family was devout. Starting the day with Mass, attention to God the first thing you dealt with. Not food, not work, not quarreling. The family got up in the dim light of early morning, washed hands and faces, dressed and went to the church. Nothing had been eaten after midnight, even if anyone was awake in the dark, so the church service was both a start to the day with God in mind, and a benchmark for thanking God for the food that assuaged the growling stomachs following Mass.
"Mae baked bread on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, so she got up early-early and had the house filled with the smell of the loaves -- she had a rocking chair in the kitchen and she'd doze in between the rising of the bread and the baking, and I used to think she stood guard over it so that we wouldn't sneak in and eat some of it. There were days when we were so hungry that we were mad at God for making us wait; Pai always gave us a stern face and told us that were it not for God, we'd have no bread at all."
On mornings so cold that people knelt as close as they could to one another for the warmth, on rainy days that made everyone smell of wet wool and wood smoke, on humid summer mornings when people knew that the time at Mass in the thick-walled church would be the coolest time of the day, the people gathered in silence in the pews and knelt, the men with bowed heads, holding their caps in their hands or stuffed into back pockets, the women in black veils, hiding their hair and their features, clasping rosaries in their praying hands. Each day had begun with worship.
"You know what worship means?" Gerry asked Roj, a little belligerently.
"Loving God?" Roj guessed, not really knowing, having always thought it just meant showing up at a church.
"Worshipping is giving up yourself to God, like tossing out all that is you and just embracing all that is what God is. Sounds crazy, doesn't it? When me and my brothers and sisters were little, we didn't understand. But when we got older, we knew how to do it, and we had God in our hearts. It was part of who we were."
Whoa, Roj thought with a start. I've never done that. She looked again at Gerry's memory of being at church each morning. "Hey, who was that?" she asked drawing Gerry's mental eye to a man in the front pew. "He looks exactly like the guy who used to stand beside the priest when I was a little kid."
"Impossible, Roj-child. That memory of our Masses would have been before your parents were even born." Gerry squinted her ghost-eyes. "I don't know his name, but it seems that now that I look back, he was there at every Mass, every wedding, every funeral ... can't remember what his name would have been, but we didn't have a big village ... a lot of people we knew came to America, though, maybe the guy you saw was a relative."
When the families left Mass, and returned home for breakfast, before the food touched their hands they thanked God once again for their lives and for the food. God provided, God fed. Fathers went off to whatever work they had, children went to the school to learn about numbers and reading and writing, mothers prepared the house to stand in place neatly for another day.
At six in the morning, at noon, and again at six, the bells of the church rang, reminding people to turn again to prayer, remembering the great event of God coming to his people. Men would stop their work, girls in the field would straighten and turn towards the church, make the Sign of the Cross and spend a minute in prayer.
"Isn't that like Islam?" Roj interrupted.
"How is it that you know more about Islam than about the faith you were baptized into?" Gerry snapped, refraining from voicing the name "Stupid Girl" again.
"Everybody talks about what Muslims do, but no one talks about what Catholics do, except about priests abusing altar boys!" Roj shouted back. "Even my parents didn't talk about being Catholic after we moved to Thornton!"
She remembered her parents sitting quietly at the breakfast table while the snow made little pinging sounds on the glass of the window. It was a Sunday morning, and there had been pancakes. A stillness stiffened her parents into statues with moving lips, a crusty cement-like hull over them, keeping them from moving. "It's the first Sunday of Advent today," her mother had said, with no further comment.
Her father had pushed his plate away from the edge of the table and looked at the windows on the west side of the house, where the snow was already making a half-mask across the panes. A tar-like substance began to flow over their cementitious casing, smelling of fear, of defeat. It was shame, shame of inaction, shame of lack of courage, of loss of loyalty. It was separation -- they were forgotten exiles from what they had known. "Do you want to go back to Bismarck?" His voice came out harsh in his throat, the vibrations shouting to Roj's perception, Are you telling me that I made a mistake in coming here?
Her mother had shaken her head, just a little, but looked away at the windows with him. Yet Roj could read in the lines beside her eyes that she did think it had been a mistake, that they shouldn't have moved ... but she loved her husband too much to tell him that he had been wrong.
"Gerry, my family didn't have God at the center of their lives. Everything had to do with Dad's job."
"And it didn't make them happy, now did it?" Gerry demanded with unabated anger.
"No, it didn't. They didn't have what you had, the going to Mass every day, the prayer ... "
"Hardly anybody prays any more. Everybody has time for the filthy evening television, but saying a rosary before bedtime? Hah! Who wants to think about God when you can watch dirty stories instead?"
"You said rosaries before bed? Isn't that about Mary, and not about God? Don't look at me that way, Gerry, I'm just trying to figure this out!"
"We did say the rosary, all of us, before we settled in for the night. After supper was done. Mae put the dishes in the dishwater, and we prayed. It was war time, and we were scared. No one knew what would happen the next day."
In the summer, the family rosary had been a finish of duties for the day, after which the children could run outside and play in the street until darkness made the shadows indivisible from the open spaces. In winter, the rosary was said by the last of the firelight, before the time of talk around the blackening chunks of char as the fire was banked back for the night. The rosary was an immersion into Mary's experience of God, her humanity reaching out for the bridge between God and man. Gerry's mother shared with her children how Mary's vision of Jesus must have been, her son, the Son of God, Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious.
And at the end of the day, there was a time for talk, and the talk was about their lives, but their understanding was shaped and informed by the daily life with God. The stories of the past, be they of grandfathers or of ghosts, and the hopes for the future, be they be of freedom or defeat, all had at their kernel, their growth, their completion, the power and substance and will of God.
"God Most High," Roj whispered, lost in Gerry's recollection of her childhood, with its earthiness of grey stone and ochre dust, the reminders of Spirit and Creator. "I wish I could have lived like that."