Friday, September 6, 2013

Just Another Obsession - Part I

By Bettyann Moore

When Porpoise saw the white, half-moon on his dad’s upper lip that morning, he knew it would be a long day. Brian McAllister was chugging antacid again. He’d put his family through holy hell the last time, during the weeks leading up to April 15. Tax time was long past, but Porpoise knew he needed to lay low until this new crisis – whatever it was – passed.

It wasn’t easy. Father and son worked side-by-side on the family’s crop farm. Porpoise’s only reprieve came during school hours and the long bus ride to school and back through flat Wisconsin farm land. Today, though, today was Sunday and spring to boot; it would take an act of God to keep Brian out of the fields today.

Go change your clothes,” Brian said, pouring himself a cup of coffee.

But ...” Porpoise looked down at what he was wearing. Coveralls, check. Stained, but clean t-shirt, check. Seed cap, check. Barn boots by the door, check.

No ‘buts’, we’re going to church.”

It was then Porpoise noticed that his dad was wearing a crisply-ironed white shirt and black creased trousers. You could cut yourself on that crease. His mother, cooking something at the stove, was wearing her good blue dress and – holy mother of God – high heels. She turned then and he saw that she was wearing one of his dad’s barbequing aprons. “COME AND GET IT!” was emblazoned across the chest. Porpoise winced. She gave him one of her looks.

It either said: “Humor your dad, this, too, shall pass”, or “These high heels are a bitch!”
Porpoise was betting on the former.

What she said was, “Honey, breakfast will be ready in a minute or two. I hung up your suit in our bathroom to steam out some of the wrinkles. Run up and get dressed. Mass is at nine.” She gave a meaningful glance at the cat clock on the wall. It was 8:15.

Brian McAllister glanced up at his son from the Sunday paper. Porpoise turned on his stockinged heel and headed back up the stairs.

What the hell? He wondered. The family hadn’t been to church since his cousin Stu’s first communion three years before. Porpoise had good memories of the day and how Stuey had turned white as a sheet when the priest had put the wafer in his mouth, then immediately threw up all over the old man’s cassock. The priest had backed away, knocking over one of the altar boys, who dropped the smoke-filled censer, which rolled under Mrs. Avery’s feet, causing her to scream and leap out of her pew. Porpoise was only slightly aware of the commotion as the censer kept spewing smoke while it rolled under the pews and people made diving grabs for it. His attention was on the line of kids, all dressed in white, who had taken their cue from Stuey and were throwing up their celebratory breakfasts all over each other. It was glorious.

As he struggled into his slightly too small suit, Porpoise knew something was up … the antacid, skipping farm work on a spring morning, church … must be one hell of a crisis, he reasoned.

He had no idea.

Porpoise would always think of it as the Summer From Hell, despite the fact that church was at its center. Up before sunrise, he and his father toiled in the fields and barn, stopping only briefly for a quick meal at noon. They worked until dusk on most days. But it was ever thus on the McAllister farm, so Porpoise took it in stride. It was the constant church-going and praying that took its toll.

It was bad enough that on Wednesday nights and each Sunday, Brian McAllister dragged his boy off to church. Wednesday nights were the worst, with Porpoise only having a few minutes to rid himself of the day’s grime before he had to clamber into the go-to-town car (a well-maintained ʼ84 Chevy Impala) and head to St. Stanislaus with his dad. His mother was exempt from these forays, but Brian insisted that the boy attend.

But not for long.

After a few weeks of taking the familiar route to St. Stan’s, Porpoise was surprised when his dad drove past the church and continued down the road a few more miles. Brian seemed nervous and upset, so Porpoise bit his tongue, waiting to see what came next. But when his dad pulled the car into the parking lot of a nearly-abandoned strip mall, he couldn’t help himself.

We going shopping?” he asked.

Brian cut him a look, then opened the door. “No, son,” he said, “we’re going to a new church … the Catholics are just too liberal.”

Porpoise rolled his eyes, but not before Brian was out of the car. He sighed and joined his dad, who stood surveying the empty store fronts: Lorna’s Clip ‘n’ Snip, Big Bob’s Business, the House of Cardamon and others had come and gone. Just a check cashing store, a locksmith and the Church of the Divine Comforter remained.

Porpoise chuckled as they made their way across the parking lot toward the “church.”

What’s next?” he said aloud, “the Temple of the Exquisite Blanket? The Holey Bed skirt? Get it? Holey with an ‘e’?”

Enough!” Brian shouted, stopping abruptly. He put his face close to Porpoise’s. “We’re going inside and you will not, I repeat, not make a fool of yourself – or me – in a house of the Lord.” He turned away and strode to the door, leaving Porpoise to follow, slowly.

Geez, he thought, is this the same guy who once put a whoopee cushion on Father O’Brien’s chair when he was an altar boy? And the cussing … Porpoise was six before he realized that the family tractor’s name wasn’t Jesus H. Christ.

He shrugged and followed his dad into the building where a dozen or so people, all old men, sat on mis-matched folding metal chairs facing a black stand – just like the one Mrs. Cassidy used in music class, Porpoise thought – where a man wearing a faded yellow bowling shirt stretched tightly over his belly surveyed the room. When his eyes fell on the McAllister men standing near the door, they lit up and he came to greet them.

Brother McAllister!” he boomed, making the others turn their heads in their direction. “Welcome, welcome to the Church of the Divine Comforter!”

Porpoise hoped the smirk he couldn’t suppress would be mistaken for a smile.

And this must be young Leslie!” the man said, snaking his arm across Porpoise’s shoulders and squeezing him against his massive chest. “Welcome, young man! Your father’s told me so much about you!” he said, giving him another squeeze. He lowered his voice, but just barely. “Give your troubles to God,” he said, “and let the milk of His love wash your soul.”

It was all Porpoise could do not to yank the man’s hands off of him and run from the room. He gave his father a “help me” look, but Brian McAllister was looking down at the floor. What did Dad tell this guy anyway? He wondered.

It was three (three!) of the most brutal hours Porpoise had ever spent. The man, the Right Reverend Truegood (“Yes, even my name has a calling!”), talked incessantly. Hell and damnation! Fire and brimstone! The evil serpent called woman! Porpoise sat rigid and wide-eyed during the whole thing. There was no nodding off on the Right Reverend’s watch.

The man was dripping sweat when he said his farewells to the parishioners at the door. He mopped his face with a none-too-clean handkerchief as Brian and Porpoise shuffled past.

Amazing sermon,” Brian said, shaking the man’s damp hand.

Thank you, thank you, Brother McAllister,” Truegood said, holding on to Brian’s hand. “The spirit truly moved inside me today, bless the Lord.”

Uh, thanks, Reverend,” Porpoise mumbled as he tried to hurry past.

The Reverend was having none of it. He pulled the reluctant teenager to his dripping chest, once, twice, three times, Porpoise’s head banging painfully against his collar bone.

“Ah, Leslie,” the reverend cried, “I do believe your very presence inspired me today. I trust it will be the same tomorrow and every day thereafter. Bless you!”

The McAllister’s finally made it through the door; Porpoise was surprised that the sun was still in the sky and birds flew overhead. He half expected to see that the whole world had gone up in flames while they were inside. He looked over at his father, who seemed in a hurry to get home.

Tomorrow, Dad? Did he say tomorrow?”

The church members convene every day, Leslie,” his dad said, looking across the top of the car at his son. “And you and I will be there every day, too.”

Porpoise groaned inwardly as he climbed into the car. He knew not to protest. The fact that his dad had called him “Leslie” told him that much.

So, every evening after chores, father and son drove to the dilapidated mall and listened to the Right Reverend tell them that, any day now, they would be going to eternal damnation. Porpoise developed a pronounced slouch. When he crawled into bed at night, dead tired, he dreamed of cities in flame, hands grabbing, pulling people down to into the abyss. No more lovely, moist dreams of Mary Sue Simpson.

Then came the letter to the editor. Brian, in a fit of righteous indignation, wrote a scathing letter to the local paper, the Dailyville Weekly. He took the town – indeed, the whole country – to task for letting “young men parade around looking like sissies” and “turning young women into boys by taking them out of home economics where they belong and letting them take auto mechanics and shop!”

Porpoise’s own head sported a buzz cut, but he sort of liked having girls – girls like Mary Sue Simpson – in shop class. The thing was, Porpoise knew he could pull out the old family album any time and see dozens of pictures of his dad with long, blond locks. In his parents’ wedding pictures, Thea’s hair was shorter than Brian’s!

Mom, seriously,” Porpoise finally whispered to his mother one evening when his dad went out to the barn to retrieve his bible, “what’s up with Dad? All the praying and manly-man stuff ...”

Thea McAllister sighed, but didn’t meet her son’s eyes.

I think,” she said carefully, “that your father is working out a few things in his head.”

But what things? Is the farm in trouble? Is he sick?”

No, nothing like that!” Thea was alarmed that her son would think such things. Her mind raced. Porpoise wasn’t stupid and, at the age of 16, shouldn’t be treated like a child, but it was Brian’s story to tell, not hers. “Honey,” she said, putting her hand on his shoulder, “we just have to trust that your dad will work it out. Give it time. I know it’s hard.”

Porpoise sighed and trudged off to bed. He actually looked forward to working on the farm early in the morning, though the sight of his dad on the tractor, bible open on his lap, dismayed him. At least there, he could enjoy nature’s beauty and bounty, even if Armageddon swallowed it up the next day. It was almost September, almost time for school to start. He looked forward to that, too. Before that, though, he had his uncle Woody’s annual visit to look forward to. A Broadway producer, he always brought big city fun and energy to the McAllister farm. Porpoise wondered, though, how it would go this year.

That night, Porpoise’s recurring dream where a miniature version of the Right Reverend Truegood stood on one of his shoulders and the Catholic version of Jesus stood on the other, arguing, was interrupted by shouting from his parents’ bedroom.

No, he will not stay here!” his father’s voice thundered.

Porpoise couldn’t hear his mother’s reply.

I don’t care if he is my brother, he is not welcome in this house ever again!” Porpoise’s heart sank. They must be talking about Uncle Woody, he surmised. Again, he missed his mother’s reply.

Fine, fine, if they’ll have him, he can stay with Mom and Dad, but I don’t want him near my son!”

This time, Thea’s response came loud and clear.

He’s my son, too, Brian, and don’t you ever forget that!”

Porpoise’s heart twisted. “And let’s talk a little bit about that, shall we?” his mother went on.

After that, his parents’ voices stayed low, just when Porpoise wished he could hear them.

For the rest of his life, Porpoise would wonder whether his mother meant for him to find what he found in the basement, or whether it was purely by accident. Brian McAllister had a secret, the boy would learn, and a big one.

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