23 | Sisters of Mercy

Sisters of Mercy

        Oh the Sisters of Mercy
        They are not departed or gone.
        They were waiting for me
        When I thought that I just can’t go on.

                                                              — Leonard Cohen

He was roaming around YouPorn, and one of those windows popped up in the sidebar. Gracie lives just five blocks away and wants to have sex with you! Click here! His cursor hovered there and he chewed his lip, tempted, but navigated to “Step Sisters” instead and did his business. Then he did his homework.

He was a total virgin and feared he would stay one forever because he didn’t have any legs. Well, he had them but they didn’t work. His body was scrawny and twisted, his head large. He had been born this way. This is how God made him. And God loved him and gave him life, and the purpose of that life was to glorify God and serve Him. All this he knew; he remembered it daily. His mom would help him out of bed each morning and then drop to her knees, and they would pray together, before he even had a chance to go to the bathroom. He would push the urge to pee out of his mind and listen to his mother’s words: “Thank you, God, for this morning. Thank you for giving Ray the gift of life. Give us strength, Oh Lord, to live this day in praise of you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Let’s get you to the bathroom.”

Once she wheeled him in, she shut the door and left him alone. He was able to take care of himself. He was scrawny but strong; his little arms were like wire cables, and he pulled himself in and out of the chair and peed and washed his face and brushed his teeth, just like a normal person. His clothes were set out for him, and he dressed himself, except for the shoes and socks, which he could do if he had to, but it made him dizzy and his mom wanted to do it. She would kneel before him and massage each foot as she slipped his socks on and then his shoes. Sometimes, she would lean her forehead against his knees and hug his legs. This daily ritual made Ray feel loved, and a flush of gratitude would spread through his heart when she hugged him; he’d stroke her hair but say nothing.

He wheeled himself down to the kitchen for breakfast. His mother was at the table drinking coffee and reading the paper. His cereal and juice were waiting for him. Eventually, the bus would come, and Tanya would meet them at the front door and wheel him out to the lift and take him to school.

Every day was like that—routine, anchored to the calendar of Sundays, feast days, and holy days. Every Wednesday afternoon, he attended his CCD class at St. Elizabeth’s because he went to public school and needed to learn about his faith. Tanya agreed to take him there on Wednesday instead of bringing him home. Mrs. Hollman, the CCD teacher, always met him, and it was not a problem. That evening he and his mother would discuss his CCD lesson over dinner. She told Ray, again and again, that his faith would strengthen him, and God would always love him, and as a child Ray never doubted that.

Life became easier as he entered high school and grew older and stronger, but he didn’t grow much bigger. He stayed little and looked like a child in his chair, but he was not a child. He shaved once a week. He was smart and curious, and his mother fought for him constantly at school, to make sure they attended to his needs and challenged him. In middle school, he developed an interest in coding, and she enrolled him in a high school in a neighboring district that had a robotics program and computer science classes. This required that she take him to school each day and pick him up. She rearranged her work schedule to do so; after bringing him home from school, she would return to the office and work late into the evening, so Ray usually had several hours alone at home, which he managed quite easily. He microwaved his dinner, did his homework, and surfed the internet.

He tried to avoid the porn sites, but sometimes he was sucked into those black holes. When Ray saw what those women would do, and then masturbated, he always felt profoundly guilty, and it was the first sin he confessed every Saturday morning. That’s how their Saturdays began: in the confessional.

That was the only real sin he had to confess, other than pride and impatience and what have you, and he didn’t think his mother had anything at all to confess. As he grew older, he began to question why they had to go to confession every single week. He liked staying up late Friday night on his computer and wanted to sleep in once in a while. He started feeling annoyed with this routine, and one morning he confessed his annoyance.

 The priest said, “This sacrament is one of reconciliation with God. It’s not about clearing your account. It’s about entering once more into God’s presence. We drift away from God, all of us, constantly, and through this sacrament we are restored to Him. Your mother is right to come each week. Bringing you is a blessing she gives you.”

But the older he grew, the less enfolded in God’s love he felt. It was his mother who made his life possible and kept him thinking of the future, his mother who laid out his clothes and made his breakfast and carted him around. In fact, Ray sometimes felt anger with God for making him crippled and his life so difficult.

By the time he was in high school, he began waking up with an erection, which his mother couldn’t help but notice when she helped him out of bed; this intensely embarrassed both of them, but of course they never discussed it. She bought him a new expensive bed with railings that gave him more independence. The morning prayer took place at the breakfast table. The shoes-and-socks ritual continued without interruption. She was vital to his life, a constant presence, and he prayed fervently for her, thanking God for this blessing and asking Him to make him worthy of her.

In high school, he made friends, including a Nigerian boy who loved computers and was on the basketball team. Chibundu, or “Chibby,” was kind and protective and ate lunch with him nearly every day. Sometimes, Chibby’s basketball buddies would join them for lunch, and Ray would eat quietly as the teammates had their rough and funny conversation. They did not ignore Ray and tried to include him in their talk (Right, Ray?), but they were restless, physical, energetic boys, and Ray could sense that he made them uncomfortable, that they really didn’t know what to say to him during these bull sessions, and he certainly had little to contribute. They talked about basketball and music and girls, and all Ray could do was listen and laugh.

Usually their talk was warm and funny, normal teenage stuff, except for all the swearing; these were not bad boys. But sometimes, when they talked about girls, they could get pretty filthy. Not Chibby; it was always Jamal and Todd who had the latest dope—which girls gave blow jobs, hand jobs, when, where. The other boys hooted and laughed—Ray too.

Ray could feel Jamal stare at him sometimes, not rudely, but his eyes would burrow in as if Ray were a great mystery. Then he would shake himself free and say, “Right, Ray? You like Curry? You think Curry is better than Westbrook?”He asked Ray—someone who had never even held a basketball—his opinion. Ray had an opinion; he was a Warriors fan too. Curry was better. They also talked about music. He liked Kanye; he especially liked Kendrick, who prayed to God and brought those prayers into his songs. But Ray rarely slipped his opinion into the tumbling, splashing flow of their loud talk. Usually it was Jamal who forced him in, who parted the waters and made him take a stand there, in front of everyone.

Ray wished he wouldn’t do that, but Jamal meant well. Jamal was trying to like him, and understand him, and Ray was grateful for that. But Jamal was a rough and wild boy, the team enforcer.

One day the conversation turned pretty raunchy. Once again Todd had the latest scoop, had heard that Maria Sanchez gave Tony Fernandez a blow job in a bathroom stall after school on Tuesday—heard it straight from Tony.

“Woo boy,” Jamal laughed. “That is one pretty girl. I would love to have her head in my lap.” Suddenly, he looked right at Ray. “What about you, Ray? You like that? Your dick work?”

Ray was completely stunned. He had never been included in a conversation like this before. The silence deafened him. This was make-or-break. “Yeah,” he sputtered. “Yeah, it works. There’s nothing wrong with me. Sure, I’d like that.”

“Man, shut the fuck up.”Chibby came immediately to his aid, speaking right to Jamal and laughing. “What the fuck you talking about? Everyone likes that.”

The talk moved on, to what a player Tony was, and then without a hitch, to Friday’s game and what they had to do to win, the brief exchange with Ray apparently forgotten. But Ray was shaking. He felt like his most personal secret had been exposed.

A week later, Jamal walked by the table where Ray and Chibby were eating and dropped a folded note into Ray’s lap.

“Fifty dollars,” he said. “Call her. Tell her I gave you her name.”

“What?”Ray didn’t understand. He unfolded the note; it said “Anna” and a telephone number. “What?”

“Or don’t. Whatever you want.”And Jamal turned and walked off.

“What is this, Chibby?”But Ray knew what it was.

“It’s nothing, man. Jamal’s just trying to be nice to you. Just throw it away.”

Ray’s heart was beating very fast, and he grew completely silent, and Chibby left to play some basketball.

“Hello. Is this Anna?”

It took him a week to call, during which he obsessed over her name and number and could think of little else. This would be a very sinful thing to do. On Saturday he told the priest he was being tempted, seriously tempted; sin was at hand. “What can I do, Father?”

“You pray. We all live surrounded by sin. It is constantly at hand. Sin is a distraction from the glory and presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. Pray to be aware of that presence, and in prayer you will become aware of that presence, and you will find strength there.

“Christ loves you. Remember that. We cannot escape temptation. Deliver us from evil is what we pray. And God will deliver us if we keep Him in our hearts and feel His love. You must pray, Ray.”

“I will, Father.”

He did pray. Lord Jesus, give me strength to be good. Help me do the right thing. He prayed, but he also considered how simple it would be. If she came at 4:30, he would have at least two or three hours before his mother came home from work. He prayed, but he also knew he had plenty of money from Social Security and the web design work he did for the parish and various charities. He had a hundred dollars at least in his sock drawer; he used cash to pay for pizza deliveries and lunch at school. His mother would never know that $50 suddenly went missing. He prayed, but he knew none of the neighbors would say anything; they didn’t pay any attention to Ray or his mother, and he could always say Anna was a classmate who came over to work on a school project.

As the week wore on, the prayers became more questioning, more explanatory. Why did you give me this body, Lord? Why did you make me little and ugly and twisted, so that no woman will ever want to be with me and be my wife? Why did you make women so beautiful? Why did you make sex so pleasurable? It doesn’t seem fair, Lord. I don’t understand why it would be so sinful to have a woman come and give me pleasure. I code and give pleasure to others; she has sex and gives pleasure to others. I’m not hurting anybody; she’s not hurting anybody. Why is this sinful? In this way, he talked himself into making the call.

“This is Anna. Who is this?”

“My name is Ray. Jamal gave me your number.”

“Oh. Are you the guy in the chair?”

“Yes. I’m in a wheelchair.”

“Did Jamal tell you how much and everything?”

“Yes, he did.”

“OK. When do you want me to come over?”

It was that easy. But when he told her where he lived, she said, “Shit. That’s clear across town. I’ll need a little extra for gas and my time.”

She was coming in two days, on Thursday.

The next day, Ray was at CCD, where he helped teach the first-to-third graders. His mom counseled women and couples who were planning to marry. Although his mother was single, she had been married for ten years before Ray’s father died in a car accident. Her marriage was the happiest time of her life, and she often spoke to Ray about what a good man his father was and how much he loved his son. Ray had no memories at all of his father, who died when he was two years old.

His mom dropped him off outside St. Elizabeth’s, and he wheeled himself into the school. Mrs. Hollman was his mom’s best friend, and when Ray was confirmed and graduated from CCD, she suggested that Ray help her teach the little ones. Ray actually enjoyed this; he loved those little kids, and Mrs. Hollman emailed him the lesson plan on Saturday, so there wasn’t much downside to it. He helped the children with their worksheets and crafts and sometimes led the discussion, with Mrs. Hollman sitting at his side and nodding.

Tyler, Joni, and Michaela were already in the classroom chattering away, and their faces lit up when Ray wheeled himself in; Michaela ran to him to give him a hug. She was carrying a plastic bag filled with loose change.

“Look, Ray, look what I brought for the rice bowl! My teacher let me make a collection in class!”

“That’s wonderful, Michaela! Was it hard to do?”

“No. I just said, give me some money. I told them about Trinh and Maria Ana, and they gave me some money.”

They were in the third week of Lent and were following the stories of Trinh, Yvone, and Maria Ana, three little girls from around the world, and drawing spiritual lessons from those stories. Each class began with a short video that illustrated one of the pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent was special for the children; there was this sense that they were getting ready for the Big Game. Each week the kids were eager to describe the treats and pleasures they were giving up, and they brought in their nickels and dimes for the rice bowl and their old toys for children in need.

Today they watched a video called “Mealtime” and learned how their rice bowl money was helping to feed children in Honduras, Vietnam, and Kenya. They all squealed in disgust and delight when little Trinh crouched down and plunged her hands into the bucket of snails she and her family had gathered in the night and planned to eat for dinner.

“They eat snails?!” Damiano shouted. “What is wrong with them?”Damiano had strong opinions about everything.

“Hush, everyone,”Mrs. Hollman said.“Watch the film.” Trinh told the children that she loves snails; it was a special treat. “They are crunchy and chewy,” she said, smiling. But Damiano was unconvinced.

Afterward, Ray led the discussion.

“What did you all learn from the film this week?” he asked. “Did you know how hard it is for some kids to get food?” Mostly they did; it was hard to surprise kids these days. “So now you know where your rice bowl money goes. Does that make you feel good?”It did. The discussion was going nowhere; Mrs. Hollman was no help. He went on to the next question in the lesson plan. “Have you guys ever been hungry? Think about it for a minute. Have any of you ever been really hungry in your life? What does it feel like, to be hungry?” That got things going a little, and it turned out that just yesterday, Tyler was starving! But some of the children, especially Michaela, were more reflective.

“I’ve never been really hungry,” she said. “I think when we fast, at Lent, we’re trying to understand what Maria Ana and Yvone are feeling. But we’re only a little hungry.”

“Yes, Michaela, that’s very true.” Mrs. Hollman took over now, as the conversation headed into deeper waters. “It’s very hard to understand people who are really hungry. Or people who are really sad, or really lonely. But that’s what Jesus calls us to do. That’s why at Lent we practice making sacrifices, and we try to think of others and give to others. Because we are so lucky here in America. We have so much. It’s hard for us to follow Christ’s teachings. We have to make ourselves try.”

Ray sat quietly and listened. He thought of his own hunger. Christ must somehow expect him to endure it and draw strength from it. How could Christ want him to be hungry? He watched the children grow more and more animated as Betty Hollman led them along. He had been one of them, just that pure and eager. Yes, they all agreed; we must get hungrier so that we understand.

When Ray got home from school on Thursday, he changed into his robe and went to the bathroom several times, he was so nervous, and washed himself carefully. He waited in the living room until Anna’s car pulled up in the driveway, and he met her at the front door. Because she was Jamal’s friend, he assumed she would be Black, but the name “Anna” sounded Latina; when she showed up, she turned out to be Filipina. Her face was round and pleasant and free of makeup. He couldn’t tell how old she was. She wore jeans and a simple blouse and flip-flops, like someone you’d see shopping at Walmart.

He asked her to wheel him back to his bedroom, and while she did, she made small talk. (“Nice house. Where are your parents?”) As soon as she had settled him into his room, she came right out with it—no more small talk.

“So what are we doing here? Suck or fuck?”

“Umm. I was thinking, for today, just suck?”

She walked over to him and pulled his robe apart and looked down at his penis nestled in its pubic hair. “That little guy works?”

He looked up at her. “It works.” But right now, he wasn’t sure of that; he looked at his penis, an odd little thing, ugly, pathetic. He couldn’t feel it; he couldn’t feel his body at all. What was happening was so strange and sudden, like a dream. But Anna was real, an actual woman, in his bedroom, about to touch him. He was suffused with shame and worry but still felt determined to do this. He felt no desire at all. His penis seemed to be shrinking, in fact. Anna stared down at him, and her face was not soft or tender. Impatient, if anything.

“Can we just do it in the chair?” she asked. “Or do you want to get on the bed? What do you want?”

He was frozen in wonder at what was happening to him. He could barely speak. “Just the chair, I think.”

“It’s seventy-five dollars. Do you have that?”

Ray produced a small wad of cash from the pocket of his robe and counted out the money, which Anna took and put in the small shoulder bag she carried. She tossed the bag on the bed.

“I’m not ready,” Ray said. “Who are you? Tell me who you are.”

“I’m Anna. That’s all you need to know. Who are you? How long you been in that chair?”

“Since I was born. All my life. You do this a lot? Is this all you do?”

“No, it’s not all I do.” She was annoyed at the question, and Ray was ashamed of himself. “Never mind what I do. I do this, that’s all you need to know.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just not ready. If we can just talk a little, I can get ready.”

“I’ll get you ready.” She gazed down at his penis. “Let’s see if we can get this little guy to move. Let’s see if he really does work. Last thing I want is for your dad to suddenly show up and find me here.” And with that, she dropped to her knees and placed both her hands on his thighs.

She was staring at his penis and finally had a little smile on her face.

His mother smiled too when she knelt before him to help him with his shoes and socks, but his mother’s smile was tender and loving, and Anna’s smile was not. Anna’s smile did not take him in and enfold him. Then she stopped smiling, intent on the task ahead, just like his mother, and Ray flashed on that scene in Luke, where the strange woman comes to Simon’s house and washes Christ’s feet with her tears, and dries them with her hair. That woman was sinful; she was a prostitute, and she knelt in atonement, and Christ did indeed forgive her. 

Ray’s mother was a saint; she had nothing to forgive, but now Ray could hear her murmur, I did not make you whole. Forgive me, Ray. I made you twisted and weak and unfit for battle in this world. Forgive me, blessed boy. His mother, the pillar of his life, the most perfect human he knew, knelt before him every morning and prayed for forgiveness.

Anna leaned forward, kissing his penis softly.

He reached down and cupped her head in his hands and lifted her face.

“Anna. Anna. Please stop.”

She gazed up at him, questioning.

“I can’t do this. Not today. I’m sorry.”He pulled his robe together and covered himself. “I’ll still pay you, of course. Can you just sit with me for a minute? Can you just stay with me, for just a little while? That’s all you have to do.”

She considered him carefully, then shrugged and laid her head down on the pillow of his lap. He stroked her hair, and they were together for a little while. He felt forgiveness, its infinite sweetness. 

Soon she stood and kissed him on his forehead and left.

A few weeks later, when Lent was over, he called her again.

Brad Shurmantine lives in Napa, Ca. He spends time writing, reading, tending three gardens (sand, water, vegetable), keeping bees, taking care of chickens and cats, and working on that husband thing. He backpacks in the Sierras and travels when he can, and has a serious passion for George Eliot.