n Kentucky, Suzanne’s orphanage fantasy came true. Rows of missing eyes, torn hair, and dirty dresses. One poor soul whose hunger felt like the gnawing of little teeth, little sharp teeth barely visible behind the ridges of pink plastic, the placid, miserable smile. Rütchen’s was an o, a tiny hollow made to fit around the nipple precisely, so that she could be either always hungry or always feeding. When Suzanne pulled out the bottle with its illusion of emptying milk she would try to see inside for tongue, throat.
In the apartment, Aunt Val said “Lipstick without lip pencil is like a picture without a frame.” She said, “You can’t eat before communion. You can’t eat eggs and then communion. If you’re hungry, pray.” She swung the pot of incense around, walked from room to room swinging. Suzanne tried not to breathe, not to think about how long she had to wait. In church she felt nauseous. Aunt Val was ahead of her and did not take the host by hand but thrust her face forward, parted the red sea of lips and stuck out her tongue to receive her first food of the day.
Aunt Val approved of Kentucky in June, although Suzanne knew it was a sacrifice. The night before Suzanne was to leave, Aunt Val gave her two rosaries—one plastic, one wooden, the wooden one still a bit brassy in places. Aunt Val said it turned completely gold during a trip, six years ago, to Lourdes, but that sin and humidity had worn at it, changed it back. When it turned completely, she would make another trip to Lourdes, she said, to Saint Bernadette, and take Suzanne with her. Suzanne thought Aunt Val would like to come to Kentucky, too. For the missionary work, and to not be alone for sixteen days. Loneliness was a dare, a temptation, and despite her aunt’s robust timbre—her voice carrying over the congregation, for example, as it spoke of the communion of saints and life everlasting—Suzanne could hear little pings of panic, like BBs against something large and steel. Aunt Val was in good health, but it was unmistakable to Suzanne, the whirr of her death-fear.
The other counselor who was supposed to accompany Suzanne got sick, so it was just Suzanne and Sister JoEllen and fourteen kids, ages seven to twelve. Sister JoEllen drove the big van to pick them up every morning at nine, and at one, drove them home again. Each day was the same, each day was Sunday.
Suzanne didn’t know what had happened to Rütchen. She vaguely remembered her dad throwing her, whose stuffing by this time bunched along the creases where limbs met trunk, on top of the refrigerator. She didn’t know how to get up there. When her father died and Aunt Val came for her, Suzanne felt heroic. At night, on the shoreline where sleep lapped at waking, in the darkness of her room girded by the black behind her eyes, Suzanne would run her hand along the adjacent wall. The wall was not the wall of the daytime. There was no pale blue wallpaper, for instance, just tiny grids under her fingers, and there were no entities of bed and wall and arm, just a continuous line, one muscle. The rubbing showed her a system of cobwebbed corridors and creaky stairways and—gasp—an attic, with all of its castaways and cast-offs. Many looked like Rütchen; some were bears; there was usually a small penguin, its felt beak mangled. All of them were shivering and awaiting vindication. Suzanne would have to work fast, since she could be discovered at any moment and sent away. In the morning, the pads of her fingers would be tender.
They were grubby, seven and nine, miner’s daughters. Suzanne saw them every afternoon when she went outside to collect the jump ropes and soccer ball and plastic bat, remnants of mid-morning play. At first, she called out to them. She thought she might talk to their parents, get them to come to Bible school. But they made her uncomfortable, so she stopped waving, stopped turning her head to see them in the gravelly yard where they always stood, one next to the other beneath a torn awning. Sister JoEllen said they did not go to church, they’d never been baptized. Aunt Val said that poor kids made very good believers.
After Suzanne gathered the toys from the yard, and after she helped Sister JoEllen clear away the construction paper and shortbread crumbs, they sat together in the front room. Sister JoEllen wrote letters to other nuns, Sisters of Mercy like herself, mostly, who taught or were too sick to teach and so lived in Mother Houses. Back home, Suzanne went monthly to McAuley Convent, between her school’s main building and the huge chapel, to visit with the ailing nuns. Suzanne was what was called a Kate’s Girl, Kate for Catherine McAuley, founder of the order. The nuns liked Suzanne, requested her when they could. Suzanne called the Bingo numbers and letters the best, they said. She liked to post herself near the senile ones. “B-4…B-4.” “Before what?” Sister Eucharia would wheeze. When Suzanne leaned over to offer a napkin or help clear her card, she would say, rheumtwinkling, “Hope you brought something stronger than ginger ale, honey.” And Suzanne would so much wish she had.
Now she looked through the binder with its laminated pages, smudged by years of being handled summer after summer. She chose for the next day the parable of the yeast. When she’d learned it in third grade, the whole class had gone to the cafeteria kitchen where Sister Anne divided them into groups and taught them to make bread, one loaf per group. They wouldn’t be able to do that here, Suzanne knew. Which was, to her, a shame, because she never forgot that day, the taste of the bread, sour and a little raw, but dense.
Suzanne’s room was connected to Sister JoEllen’s by a small bathroom that had a sink and toilet but no shower. They showered at the variety store three blocks away; Suzanne had only done so twice so far. Sister JoEllen rose at 5:30 and put into a small knapsack a towel, toiletries, and a change of clothes, which tended to be monochromatic and tucked: khaki pants, narrow at the ankles, and a tan shirt, along with brown belt and shoes. The only ornamentation was the small Celtic cross at her throat which would occasionally, during crafts or kickball, catch the light. Many Mercy nuns Suzanne knew were athletically built with the same scrubbed skin and no-fuss haircut. Aunt Val despised Vatican II for most of its reforms. “How do you know if you are speaking to a nun or a regular person? Sneakers! When you wear sneakers, you act like sneakers.”
Later in the afternoon there was other community service to attend to. Suzanne painted an old man’s porch, for instance, and attempted to mow the lawn of a widow, except that too many snakes had made it nearly impossible, and then the mower broke down, which presented the new task of getting it fixed. Sister JoEllen told Suzanne to take it to the hardware store next to the variety store. Suzanne was walking it there, noisily, when one of the girls next door—the older one—saw her and half-ran over. Her sister was not in the yard.
“How come you got that thing?”
Suzanne could barely hear her. She stopped. “Sorry?”
“That’s Mr. Jackson’s. How come you got it?”
“I’m taking it to get fixed.”
They stood a moment, the heat dizzying. The girl’s sandals were too big for her feet; they looked like snowshoes.
“’Kay.” She turned and started walking in the opposite direction. “You live at the center now?”
“Just for another week. You and your sister, you should come--”
“Me too, I’m here for another week.”
Sister JoEllen went to her room around 8:30. Suzanne stayed up, reading or playing with poster paint. She had meant to make a new sign for the front room, something big and bright: a cross to cover the whole poster, and then in each of its four quadrants, a symbol: dove/olive branch, fish, tree (of Jesse), book. She had ruined three poster boards already—nothing looked like it should; the dove threatened, the branch in its mouth like tusks—and so she would fold each one in half, the paint still shiny in places, and again and again until she could no longer bend the tough paper, and then put it in one of the trash bins outside. Suzanne was ashamed to waste supplies when they were so limited, but she was more ashamed that she was so unable to render such simple objects. She gave up and started going to bed earlier.
Suzanne got up and went to her. Nuns were light sleepers. The girl wrapped her arms around Suzanne’s middle and held on fiercely. Suzanne lifted her—she was light, like a heavy thing that had been emptied—and put her in the cot. The girl barely dented the pillow. Her face was wet with tearsweat, and Suzanne took from the nightstand the small plastic bottle shaped like the Virgin Mary that Aunt Val had placed between some t-shirts in her bag. She dampened a corner of the sheet with holy water and wiped the girl’s face. She smoothed her hair. The girl looked at her unblinkingly, mouth slightly open. They remained this way for some time, until the girl’s eyes drooped and the room began to purple, then orange.
In the window by her cot was a fan. Suzanne washed her face and arms and feet in the sink and then put on her nightgown without really drying off. She lay on top of the bedding, lulled and cooled by the fan, and sucked a bloody hangnail. After some time she moved to get underneath the blanket and became aware that the loud hush of the fan had changed key. It was no longer in the window but on the floor, and near it stood the younger girl. She was wearing a man’s undershirt and it skimmed the top of her knees, which were dark, knots in pine.
“They took my sister.” Her voice seemed to come from the fan.