“Wanna pray the rosary, Sophia?” Cecilia asked from her accustomed position in the southeast corner of room 214 at Sacred Heart Manor. This invitation had already become such a daily routine for the last three months that Sophia neither answered aloud through her toothless gums nor even squeezed open her morphine muffled eyes.
Why look one direction or the other when you already know where you are and, moreover, most everybody around you has already given up any hope for ever getting out alive? It was like those people jumping and diving from the World Trade Center moments before their towers collapsed into a cloud of roaring rubble. Sacred Heart Manor experienced a “power failure” moments after the first tower began its rumbling descent into dust. Accordingly, none of the residents actually saw the demise of the Towers, nor the high divers who had decided to choreograph their own exit cues rather than have somebody else do it for them.
Four individuals are caught in the air at the same time. Two are exiting this life hand in hand. Another is soaring downward feet first as though hoping against all hope that, like the proverbial cat with its nine lives, there may be something safe and sound to land on. And the other one -- more than likely somebody whose unrestrained will and willing first got him a position over the symbolic 100th floor -- this individual's body is performing a perfect swan dive with his arms extended to their maximum, with his head thrown back, with a perfect curve in his back and with his legs pressed together. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful. And that was how he exited this life: coming down as fast as he had gone up, perhaps singing his and Frank Sinatra’s theme song, “My Way.”
“Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee and Blessed art Thou among Women,” Cecilia began reciting. And her voice was just loud enough to be heard over the sound of distant voices at either end of the hall and of that of a vacuum cleaner rising in reward and wailing at waste even further away.
If Sophia sometimes thought she had been a resident of The Manor for close to a hundred years, Cecilia has been there at least twice that long and had achieved the status of an “insider.” If there was any advantage in doing something one way or another for the sake of either personal comfort or for that of efficiency, her advice was always the best one to go by.
“I thought I could get back into bed by myself,” Sophia tried explaining the first time she had wheeled herself to the recreation area where the wall-sized windows opened on an expanse of trees whose leaves were in their full autumnal glory. And that time, moreover, was close to the beginning, when she still had enough breath in her lungs to do more than wheeze in a whisper, as was her present condition. “But there were too many depressing people there in their wheelchairs...and they were all so zonked on their drugs...heads hanging to the left or to the right...chins glued with saliva to the blankets circling them like mummies up to their chins...and I was the only person looking out on the leaves. The only one in the whole damn place with my eyes open and my mind still going.”
“And you fell,” Cecilia reminded her.
“Nothing seems to work on my right side from the waist down,” Sophia snapped in explanation.
“We’re not even good enough for all the basket cases in Special Olympics,” Cecilia commented off-handedly. “Those kind of people get to shine a moment or two; making up for a lifetime of being a cripple by ‘running’ a hundred-yard dash with four specially-designed wheels under them; by playing soccer on a field half its normal size. You get the idea. If we haven’t won our medals somewhere else, there’s no way in hell -- and may God Forgive the Unfaithful -- there’s no way in hell it’s ever going to happen here.”
“I just wanted to get back into my bed,” Sophia explained a second time. “I sat there in the Rec Room waiting for somebody to come by and take me back but…”
“But nobody paid any attention to you, right?”
“It was like I was already dead,” Sophia continued. “Whenever anybody on the staff went by, I waved, calling them to me but...”
“But they didn’t pay any attention, did they?”
The second time this happened, Sophia falling while trying to get herself back into bed without help, The Manor called her husband Paul and tried getting him involved. “She’s never done anything I really want,” he answered. “What makes you think I can change anything now?”
“Maybe she needs more medication,” the answer came. And her husband of close to seventy years accepted the recommendation.
It was at this point that Cecilia first made her mark on Sophia, who had originally thought of her as simply a castaway. She didn’t even have a surname. She must have, of course, but she never used it. No mail ever arrived for her, and it was rumored that her “family” literally dumped her off. The only thing they were interested in was when they could stop sending the monthly check.
Every Saturday night at The Manor, a video would be shown on a large-screen TV in the Community Room on the first floor, and the films, appropriately chosen, would invariably be from further back in the history of the film industry than toward its present or future. And it was there -- in the make-shift theater -- that Cecilia had first introduced herself (as was the custom each week since you could always expect new arrivals to fill the beds of the recently departed) as “Cecilia. That’s the name I chose for myself at Confirmation.”
Everybody else, in contrast, had a given name and a surname.
Sophia listened to that story told by her new roommate with all of her tenure in The Manor and, taking the cue, eliminated her Fitzpatrick, nee Lewinski, connection her own first evening in the Community Room. “I hate my name, Sophia, but I’m stuck with it. Just don’t make it shorter and call me ‘Soph.’ I hate that even more.”
“If you go somewhere in the wheelchair and want them to put you back in your bed again, most of the time, it takes forever,” Cecilia began slowly and then, with the glee of a child putting something over on her parents -- “So you park your wheelchair sideways in the middle of the hallway, set the brake, and then assume the position.”
“Drugged, dead, or just a royal pain in the ass with a potential mess to wipe up after. It doesn’t matter what they think, because they feel they aren’t paid enough for doing what they’re doing. Forever is how long it seems to them to get through their shift, so what you gotta do to make them speed up and do what you want is get in their way and make their time seem even longer.”
“Want a little more advice?” Cecilia asked after a couple of moments of silence, during which her eyes were open but she seemed to be focusing more on what was inside her head than around her in the room.
“About knowing when it’s your time to be checking out of our morphine manor here?”
“The doctor will come by and tell me I can go home,” Sophia answered flatly, as though saying the obvious. But Cecilia was either too far back in her unlit corner where you couldn’t read her facial expressions or...or she didn’t have any at all. “Maybe in a couple of more weeks, don’t you think?”
“You really believe that, Sophia?” spilled from Cecilia’s lips with spittle sprinkling all the words, like somebody who had gulped hard on a cup of coffee that hadn’t cooled enough to be swallowed. “You really believe you’re going to get out of here? That any of us are going to ever get out of here on our own two feet?”
“They told me…”
“Fairy farts!” Cecilia snapped. “You know anybody...anybody at all who’s ever done the Lazarus thing around here? Gotten up from his grave and walked away? You know anybody...anybody at all here whose last elevator ride here wasn’t on the locked Code Blue one next to the one we ride up and down every day?” She paused a moment, catching her breath, and when she picked up again, it was as though she was caught somewhere in between.
“Let me apologize,” Cecilia offered after a couple of silent minutes during which, like in the Confessional, she experienced a draining away of the bile in her body...a bleaching of her soiled soul...a levitation of her spirit. “I know I’m sounding like a preacher in the pulpit, but I’ve been here forever, and I know what’s what. And the old teacher in me...”
Sophia was going to say something to make her roommate feel better about herself, but as she rolled further on her side facing the window and Cecilia in the corner, her cataracts dropped like a stage curtain and everything in front of her went fuzzy. And on cue with one sensory shutdown, her hearing, in sympathy perhaps, hardened. In all of that short-circuiting, then, she wasn’t sure she actually heard or imagined any or all of the following: “And one more bit of advice, Sophia: If you think you’re seeing the doctor one minute and the priest the next, that’s when you’ll know. Father Felix doesn’t make house calls until the very end.”
It was back then, back toward the start when the two of them first started praying the rosary together, that Sophia asked: “Where’s the beginning?”
“Of the rosary,” Sophia clarified, because back then she still had about half of her six senses intact. “It starts with the Apostle’s Creed.”
“It doesn’t have to,” Cecilia almost shouted, handing over her rosary. It was perfectly circular, with five sections of ten small beads with an equal number of larger separators. Missing was the standard “introduction” with a crucifix, an Our Father and three Hail Mary’s. “My godparents gave me this rosary for my First Communion,” Cecilia went on. “It’s made of olive seeds from Lebanon and it once had another section. But this is my rosary and I personalized it.
Cecilia’s always padded voice that made her words seem angelic, like cushion-controlled prayers from heaven no matter what she was talking about, now pressed together tightly as though being squeezed together uncomfortably.
“Starting with a crucifix,” Sophia offered.
“They said it had a sliver of the True Cross in it,” Cecilia continued uncomfortably. “But that’s impossible, don’t you think?”
Sophia didn’t answer at first, because she really didn’t know what to say. Somewhere in the back of her mind where she had been accumulating and organizing sights, sounds, and images for over ninety years, there was a hint of a record of rosaries with a sliver of the True Cross in the crucifix, but the best she could do in conjuring up the dust-laden memory was to evoke a black and white representation of it as though looking at a photographic negative instead of at a print.
“All the talk about the True Cross is like a lot of other things we’re told when we’re young and impressionable,” Cecilia’s words that had just moments before run together like the screeching of brakes were now beginning to flow again. “But they just aren’t true,” she almost spat as though getting caught in a shift from reverse to first gear with her foot to the floor on the accelerator. “The True Cross...The Shroud of Turin,” flew from her lips like memorized parts of a ritual. And then: “The miraculous discovery of the Apostle St. James’ bones in the north of Spain in the tenth century...all the stories about the glorious Crusaders...the burning of witches...the Apostles Creed...The Our Father...don’t you see a pattern in all of this, Sophia?”
“A pattern?” Sophia had graduated from St. John’s High back in the late 1920s, when having that much education for either a male or a female was something to be very proud about, and she knew, or thought she knew something about what Cecilia was talking about. But what kind of pattern could anybody find with witch-burnings, with “I believe in God the Father Almighty...”, with “Our Father Who Art in Heaven...”? With...? Whose bones did she say they found? She knew immediately that her roommate had not only gone to high school but also to college where, she had been told, everything you’ve ever learned starts dovetailing and coming together. If at first she had felt herself to be better than Cecilia because she was at least ten years older -- fifteen, maybe -- she now realized that such was decidedly not the case. “Can we talk some more about it?” she asked almost in a whisper.
Cecilia pushed her chair back closer to the slightly darker corner of the room, and her head dropped as though at the beginning of a “Bless me Father for I have sinned” session inside the privacy of a confessional box.
“I’m not a teacher anymore,” Cecilia mumbled, and again she seemed to be having difficulty in finding the right gear to move forward in. “And besides...everybody says...the truth of the matter...the truth of the matter is that all education is self-education. Facts and figures...names and numbers...see any sense in all of that? In any of that?” she self-corrected.
“It’s just the two of us,” spilled from Sophia’s lips automatically, but they proved to be wizard’s words, magical moments emanating from a warren of witches, for they opened the invisible and unreal but previously-present barrier between those two very different individuals that only fate in all of its futility had brought together in the final moments of their individual lives.
“We’re different,” Cecilia rushed to say. “But we’re really the same with different times and similar circumstances. We were used when the using was good and then...and then the only people who would have us are the Sisters here at The Manor.”
Sophia had never had such a deep conversation with anybody in her whole life, and didn’t know whether it was her turn to say something or to keep silent.
“This is a man’s world,” Cecilia continued, in a reverie, and it was as though she had either fallen asleep in her chosen corner or had momentarily misplaced her keys or her driving license again and couldn’t go on. But then, like flashing the headlights too high and being able to see much further ahead and on both sides of the highway at the same time, she repeated herself. “All education, Sophia, is self-education, and you already know that. I see it every day when your husband Paul comes by to visit. And that’s how I know you know exactly what I’m talking about.” She paused a moment for this perfunctory information to set in. “Every day he comes in the room, looks to make sure I’m watching, leans over to kiss you, and asks: ‘How you doin’, Soph?’ And you, SoPHIA, always do the same thing, too. You push him away and almost scream: ‘Don’t you dare kiss me.’”
“He kissed me just twice my whole life and I hate it. I hate it. I hate it.”
Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
"The first time was down on Boathouse Row. It was September and the rowing season was over for another year, and everybody was looking to have a good time. But that was back in ’35 and Prohibition was still in force and alcohol was something you didn’t see very much of. As a matter of fact, the only time I ever saw it at all was when my father or one of my uncles would sneak a bottle of Canadian into the house, and then they’d go down the cellar, pretending they were working on a car engine down there that was always half-together and half-apart. But down at Penn Barge on the Row, they made their own booze. Bathtub Gin was what they called it. And the big thing with all of them was knowing when all the juniper berries and all the ‘starters’ were at their peak. All of this would take close to a month -- five weeks, maybe -- so...”
“Things to smooth out the distilled alcohol. Things to give it a unique taste. The ‘secret ingredient’, that year, was Joe Schauer’s sweat shirt. He was the hot item in the Schuylkill Navy because he had won gold in the pair oar in the ’32 Olympics. Penn Barge’s very own Golden Boy.”
“They also used their hunch-backed coxswain as chief tester and judge. Every day when they’d come back from rowing six miles in their eights, they’d make this Jennings guy with the extra joint take a taste from the vat kept in his equipment locker, and most of the time he’d say no: ‘It’s not quite ready, yet.’”
“You sure?” they’d ask, reaching out, rubbing and rubbing his hump. “We can tell by your barometer, you know. And it seems to be getting bigger and bigger. You aren’t holding back on us, are you? Not getting free tastings on the side, are you?”
“All of it, everything, was ready that night: the Bathtub Gin; Paul’s lusting lips...my menstrual cycle...” Sophia paused a moment in her narration and you could literally hear the change, like a switch being turned off and a motor’s rotors running to its rest. “And he pressed me against the wall in the Trophy Room, the two of us standing up, and him whispering this and that warmly across my lips, pressing softly against my breasts...harder, much harder below my waist...and...and...”
“The pressure in my pelvis died, the hands on my breasts fell to my belly, and the lips that just moments before were clawing to my own, our tongues clashing and thrashing, closed a moment, and Paul stepped away, looking at me. Looking at me like somebody who had just cursed his mother or had beaten him across the finish line. I had no idea what to say or even think because until right then and there I had no idea we’d been in any kind of competition at all. But we were without me knowing it. Kissed in September, nuptialed in November, and mothered in May.”
Sophia paused a moment wondering, at least momentarily, if she herself had missed something essential in that moment that, in the telling, might be obvious to somebody else. But nothing.
“And Mark? You had two boys, didn’t you?”
“And then soon after the first child, there was Mark. I’d left Paul a couple of weeks after getting out of the hospital with Matthew. Went back to living at my mother’s. The two of them hated each other, my mother and my husband. She called him Lover Boy and he called her a Polack. Sometimes right to each other’s face. But he kept coming by, bringing candy...and sometimes flowers. ‘Just to see his baby,’ he’d always say. But pretty soon it was September again, rutting season for the rowers, I guess, and it happened again.”
“He...he kissed me a second time and...so for the sake of the family, we went back to sharing the same house together. And at the end of nine months, he had what he always wanted: another trophy to look at himself in.”
A moment of silence wheezed by...
“Now that confession is over, maybe we should pray the rosary together. Our Holy Mother, the Virgin Mary, has made fifteen promises for those who pray her rosary in the right way...for those who pray each decade with a specific request in mind. The appropriate one, in this case, obviously, is to pray for reconciliation of the family. So...so do you have a rosary, Soph?”
Sophia’s eyes bolted open and her elbows pushed hard against her bed for a semblance of support. At first she couldn’t see anything but a black void across which rheumy finger-like wisps of white were dancing. And then the windowframe came into focus. The trees outside were now completely bare and skeletal. Cecilia’s chair in the corner was empty and the blankets on her bed were stretched perfectly straight like a fresh canvas awaiting the first touch of a new artist.
“And you?” spilled from her lips. “You are...?”
“Father Felix, Soph. I came by to hear your confession, to give you Last Rites...to pray with you if you’re up to it.”
“Father Felix you say, do you? Well, I know better, I do. Father Felix doesn’t make house calls. Don’t you know that?” The pretend-priest countenance soured like that of a trick-or-treater on Halloween who thought he had chosen the perfect costume, yet the occupant of the very first house he knocked on recognized him immediately. “So whoever you are,” Sophia smirked and almost spat. “Whoever you are, you can just get your sorry soul out of here, understand?”
“There he goes,” Cecilia’s familiar voice sounded from the doorway, and with the light behind her she seemed to be all aglow...angelic. “I never thought I’d ever hear you talk that way, Sophia. It just isn’t you, but I understand. The Manor here was never what I ever expected it to be, but now with Halloween, false faces and costumes being the custom all three hundred and sixty-five days of the year, for sure, it’s really going down hill. We gotta get out of here, Sophia. And we have to do it right now before things get even worse.”
“I’m so glad to see you, Cecilia,” Sophia gushed, with tears flowing down her cheeks. “They tried making me think you’d...”
“That I’d died, Sophia. I know. I know. That’s one of their tricks. If you don’t do everything they tell you, and if you don’t do it right away when they tell you...that’s when they start trying to scare you by bringing out their Halloween costumes...by redecorating the whole place...by dressing people up to look like somebody else…”
“We gotta go right now, Sophia,” Cecilia warned suddenly. “And I know how. I stole a key to the Code Blue elevator that’ll get us out of here once and for all. And they don’t know it, but I’ve already called a taxi and it’ll be waiting for us at the back door when we get down as far as we can go."
“But Cecilia!” Sophia interjected, her lament hardly audible over the tears in her voice. “My feet...my legs...nothing on me works from the waist down. How am I gonna get to the blessed elevator?”
Cecilia seemed taken aback a moment as Sacred Heart Manor experienced a possibly true power surge, but she was now glowing like Glory. “Hold on,” she suggested, extending to Sophia her well-rubbed, well-used and completely decapitated rosary. “We’ve prayed it our own special way over the months, the years, the centuries, even, and now its Promises are going to come true.”
“All of them made at Fatima,” Cecilia answered, and you could hear childish glee in her voice.
“But come on and get up, Sophia. Everything has its right time, and right now is the most important one.”
“But I can’t even stand up, Cecilia. Everything below my waist...”
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I know that story. Heard it about a thousand times by now. But there’s a way. Just hold onto my rosary and start praying. And don’t you once, not even for a split second, let go. Come on! Come on! Let’s go.”
Hail Mary Full of Grace, the two of them began in unison as Sophia’s legs swung off the bed and her bare feet tentatively touched the floor.
“That’s it! That’s it!” Cecilia encouraged. “Now, without letting go of the rosary, stand up.”
“I can’t,” Sophia started protesting, but just as the two of them said The Lord is with Thee, she was already up. Standing! Standing on her own two feet for the first time since...since seemingly a thousand years ago.
And blessed art thou among women, they were chanting as the two of them, arms around each other’s waists, moved into the empty hallway and turned in the direction of the elevators.
“Here’s the key to the Code Blue elevator, Sophia. And see?” Cecilia almost burst with excitement as the door slid open and the two of them rushed inside. And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. “It works like a charm.”
In a moment they were on the first floor, and the door at the back of the elevator opened just as the almost silent motor under their feet stopped its murmuring.
“There’s the cab,” Cecilia pointed with one hand while holding Sophia tightly around the waist with the other. “It’s one of those fancy ones you get into from the back, don’t you see?”
Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners...
Sophia and Cecilia stepped forward to the cab, and Sophia bent a bit from the waist to look inside. “I don’t see any...”
“There aren’t any seats, just that padded bed we’re looking at, because once you let go of this rosary, my special rosary, you won’t be able to walk, sit up or even move from side to side. Nothing like being prepared, don’t you think?”
“Feet first,” Cecilia suggested, helping Sophia onto the padding. And it was a perfect fit. Sophia stretched her toes, enjoying the luxury of being able to feel something -- to feel anything at all -- below the waist for the first time since seemingly forever. A seraphic smile spread automatically across her wrinkled face.
“I can’t help anymore, Sophia. So now’s the time to let go. And when that happens you’ll be on your own. Understand?”
“I’m a big girl now,” Sophia smiled through the wrinkles that, like the perpetually polished trophies at Penn Barge, had made her shine and shine for over ninety-some years.
“I love you,” the two of them said simultaneously. “I love you,” they repeated as the bond of the rosary broke between them.
“Where to, Lady?” came from the darkened front of the cab. “Where you wanna go?”
Sophia laid there paralyzed again with just her mind being able to move, but none of that seemed to matter anymore. For every beginning there’s an end. For every up there’s a down. And for every disappointment there’s a new appointment, she thought, and when she shut her eyes she knew...she absolutely knew for sure that her private circle had been fully rounded.
Now and at the hour of our death, she whispered silently, but the words, miraculously, were echoing all around her.
“Where to, Lady?” the cabbie repeated.
“Home. Please take me Home.”
“Gotcha, Lady! I go there all the time.”
©2003 by David Quinn