Demon Lady Number Two

Little Lea, C. S. Lewis's childhood home

Little Lea, C. S. Lewis's childhood home

If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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.

wild_roses_istock

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.

Janet

Janet

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.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

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…

Miss Price

Miss Price

…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.

Miss Haggarty

Miss Haggarty

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.

Gotcha

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.

Spirea in full bloom (photo by Moja, GFDL)

Spirea in full bloom (photo by Moja, GFDL)

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.

Heart beams

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.

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Milford Sound, New Zealand

 

The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

Sticky Kisses

Besotted

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

I never had to think much about homosexuality until George and Tony moved to Hilltop. Tony is a nurse and George is a woodworker. He makes the most beautiful things out of wood that you ever saw, and he can fix anything. Miss Price took George her granny’s rocker to be “repaired” — it was literally in shards, probably twenty pieces, and George reassembled it, and now to look at it you would never know it had been broken, that’s how well he put it back together.

Miss Price

Miss Price

The little town of Hilltop is not exactly a magnet for homosexuals, although “everybody knows” that Miss Price and Miss Haggarty, who are teachers at Hilltop Elementary School and who have been together for more than thirty years, are lesbians. But they were born and raised in Hilltop, and just about everybody under 50 was taught by Miss Price and Miss Haggarty, and Miss Price makes the best cinnamon rolls in the entire world, and Miss Haggarty tithes at the Lutheran church and crochets afghans, and so, because they are loved, it is easy to think of them as a pair of elderly spinsters who happen to live together rather than as a “couple,” and nobody minds, including, I imagine, Miss Price and Miss Haggarty.

But it was different with George and Tony. George, too, was born and raised in Hilltop, but he left years and years ago and went to live in St. Louis. When George’s mother and father (Mr. and Mrs. Douglas, who used to own the Hilltop Steak House and then sold it to the Connors, who were vegetarians, so that was a bit of a mystery, and then they, the Douglases, retired, and then Mrs. Douglas died from a blood infection or something); anyway, when the Douglases came back from St. Louis, Mr. Douglas railed at anybody who would listen — about George, and how he was a “sissy” and how he and Tony had “matching wedding rings,” which made Mr. Douglas “want to barf,” and how George, was, in Mr. Douglas’s exact words, “no son of mine.” Mrs. Douglas just wept.

elderly_woman2_istock

Miss Haggarty

George had had a much-older brother, Jimmy, who was killed in the war in Vietnam, and one April afternoon, Mrs. Douglas (before she died), trudged up the hill to confer with Sister Alma Rose, and they sat talking on the grass-green porch and drinking Mr. Truman Lafollette’s heavenly lemonade, and Mrs. Douglas told Sister Alma Rose that she had already lost one son and she wasn’t going to lose another, and she wanted to go visit George but she was afraid she’d burn forever in Hell, because of what the Bible says, about homosexuality and about being disobedient to your husband, though if George was going to be burning in Hell too, at least she, Mrs. Douglas, would be with George, and what did Sister Alma Rose think?

Judge not, less’n y’all be judged

Everybody in Hilltop knows that Sister Alma Rose knows the Bible backward and forward, and the first thing she said to Mrs. Douglas was, “The Gospel of Matthew admonishes, ‘Judge not, less’n y’all be judged.’” Then she said that nowhere does the Bible condemn loving, monogamous relationships but rather “licentiousness” and “fornication,” and that even if homosexuality itself were a sin, for which she, Sister Alma Rose, could find “no substantiation” in the Bible (and here she talked about the homosexual relationship between King David, before he was king, and Jonathan, son of Saul), “did the Lord, or did he not, make of himself the ultimate sacrifice for our sins?”

Sister Alma Rose, though she did not say so to Mrs. Douglas, believes in reincarnation. She has told me that it is “not unbiblical” to think that all roads lead to Heaven and all the people on all those roads arrive there after many lifetimes, and, she adds enigmatically, “I ought to know.”

In any case, Mrs. Douglas, defying Mr. Douglas, visited George and Tony in St. Louis at least twice a year, and she became quite fond of Tony and called him her “other son.” And then, well, she died, and Mr. Douglas said, bitterly, that it was “a judgment upon her.”

Tony and George

Tony and George

George and Tony came to Hilltop for the funeral. At the reception afterward, which was in the ballroom, for Pete’s sake, of the Douglases’ huge dark-green Victorian house, about half the guests (along with Mr. Douglas) ignored them completely, the other half were warm and friendly, and somebody spray-painted obscenities (in neon yellow) on their beautiful cherry-red Ford F-250 extended-cab pickup truck with its sleek red-and-chrome slide-on camper. When George and Tony left to go back to St. Louis the next day, the spray-painting was gone and the truck looked as shiny and new as it had when they arrived, and nobody, except possibly Sister Alma Rose, who knows everything, is sure how that happened.

About a year after Mrs. Douglas died, Mr. Douglas was found to have Parkinson’s disease, and he blamed Mrs. Douglas for that, saying it was “a judgment she brought upon” their house. For a while he did okay on his own, but then he got to the point where he couldn’t put an eating utensil into his mouth without all the food falling off first, and Dr. Deirdre Barstow told him that if he didn’t go to live in the Hilltop Nursing Home he would die of starvation or else fall down the stairs and kill himself that way, and Mr. Douglas said he’d rather starve to death than live in “that place,” meaning the Hilltop Nursing Home, which, he said, was full of “crazy old people and the stench of their incontinence.” He said, “I’ll be damned if I won’t die in the same house I was born in,” to which Dr. Deirdre Barstow replied, “Well, Doug [which is what most adults call Mr. Douglas], you very well might, but the only way I’ll allow you to stay here is if George and Tony move in and take care of you, because the house is falling apart and so are you.” Dr. Deirdre Barstow can be a little scary.

Petra

Petra

Well, Mr. Douglas was between a rock and a hard place. He told Dr. Deirdre Barstow that he’d just go out to the wreck of a building that used to be a carriage house, and he’d get his shotgun and blow his brains out. He was half-starved and was so unsteady on his feet that the attempt itself would have been suicide, Dr. Deirdre Barstow told Sister Alma Rose, but she, Dr. Barstow, was sure that he, Mr. Douglas, would try it anyway, so she put Mr. Douglas in the hospital for a few days, and she called George on the phone and told him what was what.

Three days later, Sister Alma Rose and I, on our way home from Ninghong’s little store, watched as the red pickup truck and camper pulled into the Douglases’ driveway and three people got out: George, Tony, and Tony’s very pregnant twin sister, Petra, who had been raped (Sister Alma Rose told me later) by one of her father’s drinking buddies. Tony and Petra’s dad and mom had insisted that Petra have an abortion, but Petra refused, saying, “A baby’s a baby,” and so her parents, who had six other children, had thrown her out of the house and disowned her, as they had disowned Tony years before.

Little Doug

Tony and Petra looked a great deal alike. They were exotically beautiful, with thick, curly black hair and smooth olive skin, high cheekbones, full lips, and strong, stubborn chins. I had time to notice this as Sister Alma Rose was tugging me across the street to “give them a proper welcome, because they won’t get one in that house,” gesturing with her head toward the dark-green Victorian.

Out in the driveway, Sister Alma Rose hugged George, and then Tony, and then Petra, and then they all hugged me. George thought he might have to break in to the house, but Dr. Deirdre Barstow drove up in her little Volkswagen Beetle just then with Mr. Douglas, and Sister Alma Rose and I went on our way. Petra’s coming was “providential,” Sister Alma Rose told me, though I couldn’t see how Providence could have had any part in a pregnancy that resulted from a rape.

Little Doug

Little Doug

A week later, when Sister Alma Rose and I were playing canasta on the big porch after supper at Hilltop Farm, we saw George and Dr. Deirdre Barstow walking up the long driveway past the virgin oak grassland, which is Sister Alma Rose’s pride and joy. Mr. Truman Lafollette appeared out of thin air, I do not know how that large man comes and goes so stealthily, with two glasses full of ice cubes, and he poured lemonade from the pitcher into the glasses and placed them on the wicker table by the two empty wicker chairs, and then he disappeared like a chimera, and George took a huge, greedy gulp before he set it down and smiled.

“Are y’all settled in?” asked Sister Alma Rose. “How is y’all’s papa?”

“Besotted,” George said with a grin, “over Petra. He calls her ‘Rocky’ and lets her win at chess.”

“Ah,” said Sister Alma Rose.

Dr. Deirdre Barstow, who had also sat down and who was sipping her lemonade with ladylike dignity, smiled broadly. “You wouldn’t believe the change in Doug,” she said. “I don’t mind admitting that Tony knows much more about advances in Parkinson’s treatment than I do. Petra’s a terrific cook and not much of a nurse, and Tony’s a superlative nurse and can barely boil water, so they do sort of a tag-team nursing job on Doug, while George is putting the carriage house back together and fixing up the main house.”

George chuckled. “At first, I think Dad just squinted and tried to pretend that Petra and Tony were the same person,” he said, “but now he calls irritably for Tony when he wants help getting down the stairs so he can sit on the porch. I mostly stay out of the way, and he doesn’t say much to me, but when he does, he calls me ‘Sonny,’ like in the old days.”

Anyway, between the medicine Dr. Deirdre Barstow had prescribed, based on Tony’s recommendation and her own research, and Petra’s “terrific” cooking, Mr. Douglas’s condition improved so much that, when Petra had her baby boy, Mr. Douglas visited her in the hospital, supported on one side by his son and on the other by Tony.

Sticky kisses

“Little Doug” is two years old now, and he calls Mr. Douglas “Grandpa.” The dark-green Victorian house, with new cream-colored shutters and with its refurbished carriage house, is a showplace. Mr. Douglas no longer needs Tony’s ministrations twenty-four hours a day, so Tony works in Dr. Deirdre Barstow’s office, and none of her patients seems to mind, even the burly macho buffalo-plaid-flannel-shirt-and-feed-store-cap types who used to fall down laughing at Mr. Douglas’s “homo” jokes. 

Mr. Douglas, it must be said, still doesn’t understand why George doesn’t marry Petra “and make an honest woman of her.” But he plays chess with Tony, although he won’t let Tony win as he does Petra. And whenever Little Doug goes somewhere with Petra, even for an hour or two, Mr. Douglas frets until they get home. Then he calls for Little Doug. “Get over here right now,” he growls, “and give your grandpa some sweetness.” And Little Doug, who always gets a lollipop on his outings with Petra, climbs into Mr. Douglas’s lap and covers his face with sticky kisses. And Mr. Douglas doesn’t even wipe them off.

* * *

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