I remember when I was a young
boy my mother had a favorite pew in the tiny St. Mathew’s church just down the
road from our home. Opposite the pulpit, about halfway back, she’d park my
younger brother and I every Sunday and every holy day of obligation, with
little deviation. Occasionally, a family would file in, a few rows in front of
us, with their adult daughter in tow, ill-equipped for the responsibilities of
those her age. She was guided into the pew by her mother and care taker,
careful to keep her from tripping over the kneeler. She sat and stood, slightly
slumped over with her right arm curled in front of her. Her long, thin hair
gathered in a ponytail on top of her head and flopped over pathetically with
each movement. Her mother would take care to wipe up any mucus that drained
from the girl’s face with her embroidered handkerchief and turn back to the
My dear mother, with her perfect church attendance
record, could not stand the sight of this and one day, quickly and quietly
moved my brother and I out of our unofficial family pew and up two rows in
front of the wretched family. I gave her a questioning look upon sitting which
she then whispered behind her white satin glove that she refused to sit through
another mass watching someone clean up snot and drool from an adult. I was only
thirteen then but old enough to appreciate the irony.
We sat, stood, knelt, and then sat some more for each
mass, my own mind wandering around through the pews and beyond the church,
desperately awaiting the grand close of the altar doors, signaling my freedom. My
little brother, George, was still permitted coloring books and crayons to stave
off the boredom. No such luck for me. Dad never went to church—ever. After his
return from France from the Second World War, shell-shocked, a chest full of
shrapnel, and an amputated leg, he didn’t have much to thank god for. I envied
him there in the pews.
Later on in my teenage years, I would defer to his lack
of piety to defend my own growing atheism and refusal to attend any more
church. Quite often, this would descend into a screaming match on both sides
with me shouting my refusals from comfort of my bed. It never worked though, I
still had to go. Her only comfort seemed to be that my dad must believe in a god in order to hate him.
My own descent in to godlessness, as my mother
contemptuously referred to it, did not begin with any sort of intellectual epiphany
as I might now like to think. I didn’t have Russell or Nietzsche hiding under
the bed, I read those later. No, initially, it all came down to a very low
threshold for boredom and a complete lack of respect for authority; traits that
would eventually get me into trouble later on.
But even now, I’m sixty-eight now, and as much as I hated
the place, the clearest memories I have from that far back are in that stuffy,
miserable church two blocks down from the Vogel household. I often wonder, like
others, how much I’ve really retained and what scenes in my head have been
involuntarily invented. Can anyone be really sure their memories haven’t been gently
altered over time to soothe the conscience? A lot can go wrong in a lifetime;
if we could remember everything
there’d be more people offing themselves. I look back through the old albums
occasionally and I find the same, lanky flat-capped teenager staring back. The
label on the back insists that this is indeed Charles Vogel in 1959 but I don’t
recognize him. However, I can recall very easily the boredom, the day-dreaming,
the people, and the choking incense that clouded the church. I remember it all
with such clarity perhaps since my whole adult life seemed to have begun there.
What made me what I am now, whether I like it or not, came from those cheerless
would take the third or fourth, “Get up, now!” before I’d even bother
pretending to wake up. I’d go through my morning routine of dressing, eating,
brushing my teeth all with an air of self-pity over the injustice of being
deprived of a sleeping-in. The three of us walked to church as we did for any
trip or errand. We couldn’t afford a car and we hadn’t had one until my uncle
gave us his old ’53 wagon when I was seventeen, saving us from having to rely
on the bus. Trips outside of town were few anyway, only made to shuttle my
father to the city hospital and back.
Though it was only two blocks from our home to St.
Mathew’s, that route would be taken in any kind of weather. Mother wouldn’t
stop at the market to pick up eggs or fruit if there was only a steady rain but
it didn’t matter come Sundays. There could be three feet of snow, hail, ice, the
fucking Russians could be swarming around over-head but never mind, we’d make
it there for 9:30 mass.
We’d file into our usual seats after the obligatory genuflection.
I managed to pull this off with a stiff nod of the head and half-hearted wave
of my right arm into a lopsided cross. I was a rebel. We’d get there forty
minutes before it even started with the only other people there, the altar boys
and the half-dozen or so widows who made up the rosary group. These women sat
scattered throughout the church and chanted that prayer as if it were a
competitive sport. If one of them missed their cue or fumbled their assigned
mystery, it would invoke the ire of the rest which would be duly punished by a
slow, turn in the pew and a steady glare at the offending parishioner. The
flustered old widow would then clamber to find her place before their leader invoked
the ultimate shaming. This was usually employed when one of them actually dozed
off, but the tiny, frailest of the bunch sat right up front and would
half-shout the missing mystery which would then incite an even louder Hail Mary
from the group afterwards. Most who had suffered through this humiliation would
quietly resign from the competition and mutter the rosary to herself from then
The only way to pass the time was to observe those filing
in around. For this, I wished we had sat farther back. Little did they know, I
was silently observing, recruiting, and casting them all in my own stories and
daydreams. Who were these people anyway and why were they here? The grown-ups had no one nagging them out of bed, they
came on their own. Some of the couples didn’t even have children and some were ancient.
I resented them because they had a choice and I didn’t.
My favorite participants would arrive just before the
start of mass, planting the whole clan of their family in one whole pew. These
were the Brazdas, even more catholic and conservative than my own mother with
their brood of eight children. Katherine was the oldest and the star actress of
most of the plays that I acted and directed in my mind. She always had her
blonde hair neatly curled beneath her hat. Her neck was long and thin with the
gold clasp of her necklace just visible above her starched collar. She sat up
straight in her pew; aloof from everyone. She knew how pretty she was.
Often enough, the roles I cast us in would morph into
something out of control. Showing Katherine off on my arm in front of others
and rescuing her from a bore at a party quickly turned pornographic. Discreetly,
I’d try to cover up the swelling bulge in my pants with the liturgy book and
try to think of something else. A glance at the rosary ladies usually did the
trick but occasionally the pressure was too much, the story too lurid, and I’d
sit there miserable trying to ignore the pain and realizing we hadn’t even made
it to the fucking Nicene Creed yet. I’d start whining to my mother that I had to go to the bathroom. I really had to go. She’d shake her head
curtly and pretend she couldn’t hear me. It would take me at least five more
minutes before I had her thoroughly annoyed, me ready to burst, before she’d
I’d carefully slide out of the pew with the liturgy book
strategically covering the bulge and absolutely failing to look natural. I
stared down at the wooden floorboards on my way to the back of the church,
meeting no one’s eye, and feeling the back of my neck steadily burn. Safely out
of sight, I made my way, painfully, down the steps to the basement bathroom.
Nothing really needed to be done at that point and I would consider myself
lucky if I could walk away from it all with spotless trousers and a non-defiled
liturgy book (that did happen once). I’d make my way back up the steps with
shaking knees, relieved yet carrying an annoying tinge of guilt. I’d glance
over at my Katherine, no longer inspiring, and resume my idle dreaming.
She never did notice me.
The one who did eventually take notice of me, but only by
accident, sat five pews in front of us. She was rarely involved in my
theatrical productions since I found her rather plain. She would sit, stand,
and kneel between her parents, the only child. Her wiry orange hair was only
slightly tamed by a ribbon tied at the back of her neck. The few times I saw
her face, usually after communion, showed a pale white face peering out through
a swarm of freckles. This was Judy, my future wife.
I found her later on when I was nineteen, at the party of
someone I kind of knew. She stood around with her fat friend, slowly sipping
her drink and looking about her through the thick smoke, seemingly bored. It
took me a while to recognize her since I hadn’t been to church in quite a
while. She was pretty, her awkwardness faded away with her freckles with only a
few dotting her high cheekbones. She smiled when her eyes rested on me, one of
relief. Having no one else to talk to we gravitated towards each other among
the already-acquainted and newly paired. I forget what we talked about but we
got drunk rather quickly. The sickly sweet punch we both sipped had a kick that
neither of us noticed. As the night went on, she leaned up against me for
support, her arm around my waist with a finger holding onto my belt loop to keep
from falling over. I felt her warm breath as she giggled into my neck and I
slowly guided her free hand down to my swelling prick which she duly grabbed
and giggled some more. At some point we stumbled our way out of the house and
into the old station wagon where she lost her virginity and we both lost a
whole lot more.
A few weeks later, I received the call. Through the heavy
sobbing I was able to piece together the fact that Judy was pregnant. I asked
her several times if she was sure.
Yes, she was quite sure.
We found ourselves back in church two months later with
our first son, Thomas, steadily growing in her womb. It was a shotgun wedding,
of course, the knee-jerk reaction to unplanned pregnancies at the time;
completely unavoidable. I remember standing there in front of the altar, in my
borrowed suit, sweating from the heat, beside my teenage wife with our small
families in attendance. The old beast who presided over the ceremony, the same
old priest, didn’t even bother hiding his contempt for us and practically spat
out the marriage vows as if delivering a curse. At one point, Judy looked even
more pale than usual, the heat combined with the heavy incense was making her
nauseous and she swayed where she stood. The old virgin must’ve picked up on
this and twice went back to refill the burner with more noxious fuel.
Rather than let this dampen her faith, this shaming only
stayed with her throughout her life rekindling her guilt long after the
ceremony. She took up the family tradition of taking our two boys to church
every Sunday and holy day just like my mother and, like my own father, I stayed
home. From Thomas’s complaining, I learned that she even managed to join the
rosary club and chanted on with the old widows before mass.
I got off easy I suppose. College was not an option but I
had a decent sales job at the used dealership, one that I would later own. I was
also the sole income for a small family which kept my ass out of Vietnam. We
played the domestic parts well, our roles carefully defined. Our marriage
existed, as was expected, and Judy and I loved each other as we felt that we
should. I was the husband, she the wife, both content but not in love. She
seemed to have resigned herself to her life, her role, supported by her
irrational guilt. The wall was up between us early on and her unwavering,
unquestioning faith kept us from being a couple. Years later, I fell in love
but not with her.
I blamed Catholicism. I blamed the asshole priest who
married us, our parents, all religious ideologies, tradition and authority. I
blamed them all for my indiscretions. We married in order to placate everyone
from our relatives to the tyrannical imaginary man in the sky who just so
happens to take an interest into where I insert my prick, you know, when he’s
not busy elsewhere giving babies cancer and permitting genocide. I was beyond
annoyed by the church, I actively hated it. I hated, its arrogant monopoly on
morality, its demand for blind acceptance, the demand that I should
simultaneously love and fear this creator-god in order to get in to some sort
of Disneyworld after I die was crude and appalling. I loathed its insidious
influence in my godless life and for what it did to Judy. I tried to “save” her
in my own way. I tried discussing and exposing the backwards, hypocritical
nonsense she held dear but it only seemed to strengthen her convictions. She
would sit through these rants smiling as she shook her head. She never bothered
arguing with me. I often wondered if she felt like her savior in the desert,
and I the tempting devil, smiling in the belief that someone up there was taking notes of our
conversations and recording her unshaken resolve. Despite her devotion, she
never felt forgiven, and carried her guilt and her faith, to the grave.
I had affairs, of course. Early on in our marriage and
after the birth of our second son, Fred, I was careful and kept them casual and
few, but I got careless later on. I fell in love with someone who was also
married and managed to keep a relationship going for two years until her
husband found out. She confessed under the burden of her own guilt. She was
made to promise to cut it off with me in order to keep her marriage and her
children. Any further attempts to contact on my part would result in a lengthy
letter sent to Judy.
I got caught as well.
Another party, a Christmas one, in the early eighties. I
had a few women I was meeting then which also included the receptionist in the
parts department. She was young, twenty-two, and I disastrously hooked up with
her right there at the party, with Judy in attendance. She managed to corner me
in the host’s kitchen, pressing her body against mine and telling me she’d be
waiting for me in the upstairs bathroom. I was careless, over-confident in my
discretion, and followed after her after what seemed to me, an acceptable
amount of time. After we finished our brief and rather disappointing interlude,
she cleaned herself up and left the bathroom first. I was still zipping up my
pants when Judy walked in. Neither of us spoke for a while, completely frozen,
eyes locked in fear, and without the slightest idea of how to process the
situation. Our life was reorganized in this lengthy silence and our identities
altered and transfigured. She was determined not to cry, resisting the urge to
blink which would release the tears gathering on her lashes. In little more
than a whisper, she told me she was going home then left, closing the door
A divorce was out of the question, the very word not a
part of her vocabulary. I apologized profusely back at home and tried to get
her to talk to me, yell at me, anything! I felt awful; I knew that I hurt her
but her quick withdrawal and resignation infuriated me. I blew up on her.
“I’m sick of you acting the fucking martyr! You take
everything that happens to you as a punishment from god. You can’t let yourself
enjoy anything; you won’t even let yourself hate me for what I’ve done because
you, in your warped-fucking-worldview, think you deserve it. It’s not noble. It’s
My tirade had little effect on her. Not a single word
incited any sort passion. I would’ve felt better if she screamed at me or threw
my clothes out on the front lawn. Instead she sat there on our bed in the dark
and refused to look at me. I could barely see her face. I couldn’t tell if she
was crying or had cried at all. I was close to tears myself from exasperation.
That night she moved her things out of our bedroom and
into the small guest room, a room barely big enough to fit a twin bed. I spent
what was left of that night drinking the last of the brandy and beer and passed
out, face-down on the kitchen table. In the morning, I awoke with my face glued
to the table in a puddle of drool redolent of the sickly mixture I consumed
only hours before. Judy was already up, cooking breakfast, the smell of frying
eggs made my stomach churn.
She was pretending not to notice me there, sloppy and
pathetic surrounded by half-crushed Budweiser cans and an empty bottle. When
her back was turned, I wiped the slime off my face with the back of my hand and
asked her what her plans were.
“Plans,” she said dryly. She continued to bustle about
the kitchen as if serving breakfast was her most pressing concern, the state of
our marriage, a minor intrusion. “What’s the point? You’ll do it again and I’m
pretty sure you’re been doing it all along. What does it matter what my plans
are?” I chose not to argue and figured I’d find out soon enough. I left her
there in the kitchen with her breakfast and went to work. It turns out her plans
were to do nothing and we carried on just like before. We shared our home but
lived our lives privately and separately.
Immersed in our own troubles, Thomas’s marriage was a
pleasant diversion. There was a brief coming together between Judy and me, if
only for collaboration. The wedding was in the summer of ‘94, an elaborate
affair that was thankfully not our financial burden and one of the few times I
favored tradition. They had what we hadn’t, a duty-free engagement. They
married because they loved each other. Thomas had just finished medical school
and his fiancée, Stacy, just started teaching at an elementary school. Judy
adored her and seemed perfectly, genuinely happy throughout all the planning
and on that very expensive day. It was as if she finally allowed herself to enjoy
something, looked past her own misery, and permitted herself to live. She
talked more, even with me, and made friends with our new in-laws, making
holiday plans and baby showers. I encouraged her and found her new-found happiness
attractive. I was in turn permitted a kind of friendship with her, more
rewarding and satisfying than anything we had before. We talked about
everything. The self-pity no longer seeped from her, her smile came easily and
naturally, no longer forced and her shoulders lost the stoop of submission and
I hope it was enough for her. If I were the sort of
person to pray or believe in heaven, I would ask this deity that she find her
rightful place among the angels. Or more selfishly, beg him or her to give me
some sort of sign to reassure me of her happiness in those few years.
I visited her grave for the last time this morning. I can
no longer drive or walk very far so my kid brother, George, drove me over to
St. Mary’s Memorial Park. It’s been eighteen years since the aneurism that
burst in her sleep and I’ve been visiting her regularly since. Once a month,
I’d let a morning pass and talk with her. I’d tell her about my life since she
passed and all the joys and pains of some girlfriend that seemed important at
the time. I told her about her boys, her new grandchildren. She would listen
and I would come up with some sort of response that she might say or only she
could say. I admit, shamefully, that I hadn’t much to go on using our own past,
our own history together, so I built a new relationship for us, one that I now
wished we had. I was far too late; I know it. These things happen all the time
though, right? I’m being mocked by a tiresome cliché. The fact remains is that
she’s gone and it’ll soon be my turn.
George, obscenely young for only sixty, offered to wheel
his old brother around for one last date with Judy. She already knew about my
cancer last year, but I downplayed the danger. I told her she was very lucky
not to have to see me now since the chemo robbed me of hair and weight for some
time. I told her that Thomas and Stacy had another baby, a girl this time, she
would have loved her. Fred also married last year to his long-time partner. I
carefully assured her that Fred is very happy and in love; I suspect she’d
disapprove of his husband.
Just before the early joggers showed up and when George turned
the bend on his last lap around the park, I apologized for deceiving her. I
explained that the cancer is much worse than what I had been letting on. I told
her that I loved her very much but I wouldn’t be seeing her again. I have
little more than a week left.
George was waiting by the car just behind me waiting for
me to finish. The goodbye that I had to give stuck in my throat as if she were
the one dying and I was holding her hand hoping for just a little more time,
ten minutes, with my love. I didn’t cry at her funeral but I cried this
morning. I cried for her; I loved her much too late.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this all down now. It’s
tiresome, exhausting work. I have to give my hand a break after only a few
sentences. I doze off when the drugs kick in and the hospice nurse constantly interrupts
with her invasive chores. The boys are flying in soon for the death vigil,
grandchildren in tow so I must finish.
I don’t believe in the existence of a soul. When I’m no
longer able to breathe, it will shut down my oxygen-deprived brain and I will
cease to exist. There are no last rights; it would be pathetic to even pretend
to be catholic now. Nevertheless, bless me for I have sinned, this is my last confession.