I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish. —Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
The Gospel According to Mrs. May Belle Mortimer, the Banker’s Widow
Some people just have way too much time on their hands, Sister Alma Rose is always saying.
Sister Alma Rose is so full of love that it spills out of her like a tumble of wild roses on a venerable trellis. I don’t claim to be able to see people’s auras — though I wish I could, and angels, too — but Sister Alma Rose simply shines. She even glows in the dark — not like a ghost, or a firefly, or something radioactive… more like a wisp of cloud as it slides past the moon.
Not that she’s a pushover. I’ve seen her good and mad a couple of times, such as when she and Cousin Dulcie were making plans to steal Janet, who is now Sister Alma Rose’s yellow labrador, and, further, to put the fear of God into the old drunk who used to beat her (Janet, I mean, not Sister Alma Rose). But then, after Janet was safe, she (Sister Alma Rose, I mean, not Janet) prayed for that pathetic old man.
My third-grade teacher was so mean I called her Demon Lady. Now I can’t even remember her real name. Let’s say it’s Mrs. Pflug (it was one of those names that always make me think of sinus drainage). She hated children, and she especially hated me, and I wondered why someone who was practically allergic to kids became a schoolteacher. She always called me “Frannie” because, she said, “Fanny” was “a hideous and nasty name.” And when we had square-dancing on Wednesdays, if there were more girls than boys (which there almost always were), she’d make me sit out, every time, without fail.
Well, the Demon Lady was Troubled, and, as troubled people in Hilltop usually do, she made her way up the hill to talk to Sister Alma Rose. And the next time I plopped down on one of Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wicker chairs on her grass-green porch and started complaining about the Demon Lady, Sister Alma Rose put up a hand to stop me.
“I know I can trust y’all, Fanny, to keep this to yourself,” she said. “That poor woman had two daughters, and she was driving them somewhere and ran a red light, and a truck smashed into her car and killed one of those little girls and the other one was brain-damaged and paralyzed and lives in the nursing home in La Mesa. Y’all remind her of the daughter who died, Fanny. She told me that.”
I just sat there, with one tear dribbling down my face, feeling sad and guilty. Sister Alma Rose took my hand and squeezed it so tight I thought I’d faint. Sister Alma Rose doesn’t know her own strength.
“There’s a lesson here, Miss Fanny,” she said, mercifully letting go of my hand, which had gone numb. “Don’t never take nothing personal. Shine love and light on the person who wrongs you. Everyone has a story.”
Meddling in the name of the Lord
I tried to remember that advice when Miss Price and Miss Haggarty almost got fired from teaching, though, technically, it was Miss Price and Miss Haggarty who had cause for grievance, not me. As everyone knows, Miss Price and Miss Haggarty have been together for thirty years, and they are Beloved in Hilltop, which has a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude toward these dear and generous women, though anybody who doesn’t have beet paste for brains knows that they’re not just a couple of old-maid schoolteachers who happen to live together for convenience, but Hilltop folks don’t think much, any more, about their intimate personal lives. They are very much a part of the mainstream in Hilltop, where almost everybody is good-hearted and chooses to see Miss Price and Miss Haggarty as a couple of grown-up Girl Scouts rather than Deviants Living in Sin…
…except for Mrs. May Belle Mortimer, the banker’s widow, Demon Lady Number Two, who is just plain mean-spirited, even Sister Alma Rose says so. She didn’t have time to do much mischief when Mr. Bert Mortimer was alive and they had children at home, identical twins, Maureen and Darla, who were nice girls in spite of their mother’s unrelenting attempts to turn them into May-Belle-Mortimer clones. Probably in self-defense, Maureen and Darla married men who lived in New Zealand — I am perfectly serious — and then Mr. Bert Mortimer died, and May Belle grieved for about forty-five minutes and then turned her attention to Cleansing Hilltop of Sin.
Unfortunately, Mrs. May Belle Mortimer was on the school board and had a particular animosity toward Miss Price and Miss Haggarty. The lavish parties she used to give when Mr. Mortimer was alive were the only parties in Hilltop to which Miss Price and Miss Haggarty were never invited. If Maureen or Darla was assigned to one of their classes, May Belle would try to get them transferred to different classes, until Maureen and Darla put their collective feet down and refused to budge.
About ten miles south of Hilltop there is a lovely golf course and park on a small lake — big enough for sailboats, but not so big that you couldn’t walk all the way around it in a couple of hours. As cruel fate would have it, May Belle was driving to her A-frame cabin, which she always referred to, with haughty ostentation, as “Mortimer Cottage,” one Saturday morning in April — the first warm, glittery, delicious-smelling spring day of the year — when she spotted Miss Price and Miss Haggarty walking along the lake path, holding hands.
I can only imagine how ecstatic May Belle must have been as she pulled into the Bathhouse parking lot (tucking her petal-pink Town Car behind a clump of spirea), grabbed her fancy-schmancy camera with the telephoto lens, and surreptitiously, as if she were Sherlock-Frigging-Holmes, who never used a camera as far as I know, but anyway, May Belle took a slew of photographs of two kindhearted women, without a care in the world, walking hand-in-hand on a gorgeous spring morning; and naturally she presented these photographs at the next school-board meeting, announcing that the photos proved that Miss Price and Miss Haggarty were Perverts Consigned to Hell “and should be dismissed from their teaching positions before they can infect our daughters with their insidious lechery.”
Nobody said a word, though a couple of school-board members laughed out loud, according to what Mr. Archie Appleby, president of the school board, told Sister Alma Rose. May Belle continued to loom triumphantly in the silence, until she looked around and saw that everyone had sort of inched away from her, lest they become infected by May Belle’s insidious spitefulness.
“I move that we fire these practitioners of base depravity — immediately,” May Belle said in defiant rage. No one seconded the motion.
“Well,” she said, perching a little unsteadily on the nearest chair, “I guess I’ll have to take this matter to the state department of education.”
“Why don’t you just do that, May Belle,” said Mr. Appleby with quiet menace. “But first — May Belle, you got your camera with you?”
May Belle said that her camera was in the car and Mr. Appleby asked her to please go get it, so she did, and when she came back in, all the other school-board members, the teachers and principals who were in attendance, and the newspaper reporter who always came to the school-board meetings, were standing in a circle holding hands — men with men, men with women, women with women.
“If you’re going to the state department of education,” said Mr. Appleby, “you might as well not have to make two trips.” Mrs. May Belle Mortimer just stood there like a statue, Mr. Appleby told Sister Alma Rose, for what seemed like half an hour. He said, chuckling, that he had been afraid he would have to kiss Kevin O’Hara, the reporter, on the lips to break through May Belle’s paralysis, but eventually she just turned on her heel and walked out of the room.
I wish I could say that the incident cured May Belle’s homophobia and that she and Miss Price and Miss Haggarty became fast friends, but that isn’t what happened. Had May Belle shown any kindness or remorse, she would have been forgiven and welcomed back into the fold. As it was, she closed up her house and “Mortimer Cottage” and went to New Zealand “indefinitely.”
Sister Alma Rose believes that there are some people, or more likely, she says, they are androids or extraterrestrials (like the slimy giant cockroach from Men in Black), who are evil through and through, without souls. “Mrs. May Belle Mortimer is not one of those beings,” Sister Alma Rose told me, “but I think she’s going to need a few more lifetimes to scrape the crust off her heart. There’s a lot of bad karma that’ll need redemption.”
And Sister Alma Rose and I prayed for Mrs. May Belle Mortimer. I was a little worried that our warm, loving thoughts wouldn’t make it all the way to New Zealand, especially mine, which were tepid rather than warm, and if they weren’t precisely loving, at least I no longer wished that May Belle would be stricken with an agonizing and fatal disease involving flesh-eating bacteria.
“Our prayers and compassion will be carried on angels’ wings, wherever they need to be received,” said Sister Alma Rose… and the glow of the setting sun seemed to cling to Sister Alma Rose for a long, long time after dusk became dark and the crickets began their evening litany.
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