by Sue Carter Flinn
By her calculations, Lily committed one of the biggest sins ever on record. A sin, she estimated, that was only one baby step away from nailing Jesus to the cross. Lily killed a priest.
Lily had never met Father Patrick, but she knew everything about him. That he liked Lily's grandmother's meat lasagna and would often take thirds uninvited, that he sulked after losing at cribbage, and that as soon as heavenly possible after Sunday mass, he secretly removed his collar and scratched his eczema spots with the sharp edge of a small metal crucifix.
She knew this to be a fact because her grandmother told her so. Nana Margaret told her something new about Father Paddy, as she called him, every Friday night when she came to pick up Lily for the weekend. It was only supposed to be one time, so that her parents could spend her dad's 30th birthday “with the grown-ups” as Lily's mom explained, but it seemed that lately, there was a grown-up excuse every weekend.
The first time was a surprise party. Lily was sworn to secrecy, but the good kind. She knew the difference; she learned—hands folded neatly—why lying was wrong in Saturday morning catechism classes. She learned that Catholics suffered through catechism during Saturday morning cartoons, but Protestants and Anglicans went to Sunday school, which she imagined involved better snacks and more singing. At catechism they took turns reading from a small textbook with two rosy-cheeked children picking daisies on the cover. With the scrawl of a permanent marker, someone had drawn a moustache and a goatee on the little girl, a sin of a much smaller sort.
More than anything, Lily loved the stories of saints. Secretly she adored Saint Francis; fantasized brushing his companion fox's crimson tail, and feeding the birds every morning after a breakfast of hot chocolate and homemade waffles. She imagined that he lived in a house like the seven dwarves, tiny and neat, a charming reprieve from the murky darkness of an overgrown forest.
During the party, Lily's mom moved the Toyota and the push-lawn-mower out of the garage to make room for a dance floor and a gift table, which, Lily pointed out, was really two TV trays covered in a paper tablecloth left over from her ninth birthday party. It had a clown with a vacant grin and stubby legs standing on top of a cake, translucent grease stains pockmarking his rotund body. Lily helped blow up tiny bags of balloons, breaking the Scotch tape with her teeth when her mom wasn't looking, affixing them to cases of beer and tool racks in off-kilter sunburst patterns. Sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor, her mom picked out Burton Cummings and Elton John records, removing the Abba that her father always threatened to drive over.
“Why can't I stay?” Lily moaned. Her mother leaned back and chucked her under the chin.
“I told you it's for grown-ups, honey. We'll have a family night at Mother's Pizza when you come home. I promise. ”
Lily speculated that her eviction had something to do with the time that Bill, the neighbour from two doors down who let Lily stroke the head of a bear he dragged back from a hunting trip, once bet her ten dollars that she couldn't eat an entire package of lime flavoured bar mix. Never one to turn down a bet, or ten dollars, Lily threw up spaghetti and garlic bread behind Bill's new black leather and chrome bar.
A frantic honking sound interrupted Lily's self pity. “C'mon along darlin', let's get rolling,” Margaret, Lily's grandmother, called in her singsong voice. Margaret had only been driving for two years, a necessity after the police had charged Lily's grandfather with drinking and driving after his car smashed headfirst into a electric pole outside of Mac's Milk, knocking out power in the neighbourhood for several hours. It was also about this time that Lily's mom stopped talking to her parents, and Nana Margaret started honking the horn when she picked up Lily.
Margaret had developed an emotional bond with the car that surpassed that of her long, suffering marriage. Lily's grandfather, who previously grumbled about “those damn broad drivers,” accepted the affair when he realized drinking was more pleasurable with someone to take him home at the end of the night. Margaret didn't mind; she loved the novelty and power, dressing her hair up in flowery scarves, and honking that horn, just to listen to the sound that she alone controlled.
She drove a second hand brown Pinto with toasted leather seats that smelled like ancient cigarette fumes and their old beagle, Brownie. The dog vanished one day while Lily's grandfather was out for a walk in the conservation area that ran alongside their house. He still mourned the dog's loss, although the neighbours, and Lily, collectively let out a sigh of relief that the feral scavenger who destroyed flowers, Barbie dolls, and tormented children, was finally gone for good.
Lily climbed into the Pinto, put on her seatbelt, and tried breathing out of her mouth to avoid the muggy smell of Brownie. She curled her knees up to her chin, and ran her hands over her shins, brushing the pale blond hairs that covered them in a translucent sheen. Margaret looked over her right shoulder and narrowly missed the garbage can as she pulled out of the driveway. She grabbed a handful of silver hair with one hand, and turned the wheel with the palm of her other.
“Oh Lily, I have awful news. ”
Lily immediately thought Brownie had returned. “Uh, what is it Nana?”
“Paddy's sick dear. I'm not sure he's going to make it. Tonight when you say your prayers, you must pray for Father Patrick. Be sure to say a special one to Saint Jude…”
“Impossible causes?” Lily knew it was bad if she called in Jude, Nana's secret-love saint. Jude found her keys when they were lost under pilled tissues in the bottom of her purse. Jude helped with expensive car repairs. Saint Jude even located Margaret's Pinto on the H-level of a Toronto Eaton Centre parking garage after Margaret had convinced mall security guards that it had been stolen.
“And don't forget all those poor African children who have nothing to eat. Never, ever forget how lucky you are. ” Margaret had recently started corresponding with two African children through a Catholic charity, and would read Lily their monthly letters, hanging their drawings and homemade cards with pineapple shaped magnets from Florida on the fridge alongside hers.
Lily fought with the jealousy; she even prayed to Mary for it to stop, rubbing her hands over and over against the nubby chenille bedspread in an attempt to burn it out. Envy was a terrible sin, according to the moustached textbook kids.
That night, after two games of Clue and a chapter of Nancy Drew's “The Hidden Staircase,” Lily fell asleep tracing the pattern of the purple violets on the wallpaper, listening to her grandfather hand-roll and chop cigarettes on his laptop machine in the living room. The violets on the wallpaper reminded her of the veil she wore for her First Communion; its trim of tiny satin rosebuds tickled her forehead and made her think of Saint Veronica. According to catechism, Veronica gave Jesus her handkerchief to wipe his face, leaving its holiest of impressions on the cloth. Sometimes when she was bored, Lily would pull the veil out of the tissue paper from its suit-box under her parents' bed, and pretend that her cat, Sam, was Jesus. Although no one had ever told her that pretending a cat was the holy saviour was a sin, she suspected as much, and kept it as her own deliciously private offense.
“Don't forget to pray for Father Patrick,” her grandmother called in. Lily, too tired, too heavy to kneel again, feeling the weight of her grandfather's beery chili and chocolate cake, made a deal with herself to wake up early and make up for the night prayer. In the morning, she would pray twice for Paddy.
The next afternoon, as Margaret dropped Lily in front of the house, she called out the car window, “Tell your mom that you need to go to church this week to pray for Paddy. ” Lily threw her knapsack over one shoulder and ran in the house. “I'll tell her, I promise!” she yelled, realizing that she forgot her morning prayer. That's three prayers on an IOU, she scolded herself.
The week was filled with routines fashionable with the first generation of parents who read books on positive parenting. Monday was soccer and hotdogs. Tuesday was Girl Guides. Wednesday a movie at Heather's house. On Thursday, Lily's grandmother called just before she left for her piano lesson. “Father Paddy's taken a turn for the worse. Have you told your mom about going to church to pray?”
Lily could feel Saint Francis shake his head in disgus—she imagined him picking up his animals and walking away into the forest, closing the door to his tiny abode. She took a deep breath, and let it happen. “Yes, we're going tonight. ” Her throat closed up with destiny's seal. Lucifer. Satan, Hitler. Men in white vans who did unspeakable things to children. That's where she was headed.
But then it was pizza Friday at school and a sleepover at Kim's—whose parents were atheists—where they practiced jazz dance routines, made crush lists, and let Kim's hamster out of its cage to run around in their sleeping bags. When she arrived home on Saturday morning, pillow slung over her arm, Lily's mom came into the hallway, holding a pound of frozen meat wrapped in cellophane. “Your grandmother left a message. She said something about church and Paddy. She'll be here at five. ”
“Right,” Lily stuttered slightly. “Well, you know Nana. Always on about that priest Paddy. ”
Her mom laughed and rolled her eyes. “Oh I know. If she wasn't so damn pious…” She stopped mind-sentence, patting Lily on the head. Lily thought about telling her mom how big of a sin it was to swear, but instead, ran up to her room, heart pounding with the promise of more prayers later.
she pulled it out of the cupboard.
Margaret began talking before Lily even closed the car door. “Paddy didn't make it, honey. The funeral's on Monday. ” Margaret kept her eyes on the steering wheel and didn't turn away.
Lily felt her face getting warm. The smell of Brownie seemed stronger than usual. She looked down and started running her hands over her legs.
“But he went to a good place, he's in peace knowing that you prayed so hard for him. I told him last night. And you even went to church—I'll admit I wasn't sure that you would go. ” Margaret stroked Lily's cheek and kissed her forehead. “I'm so proud of you. ”
Lily swallowed and nodded her head down to one side in what she thought looked like genuine saintly sorrow. She rolled down the car window. It was going to be one long hot journey ahead.