of the Saints
By Ursula Hegi
Published by Simon & Schuster
October 2001; 0-684-84310-2; 170 pages
Lenny's mother, the starch queen, is baking for her brother's funeral: cinnamon cookies and blackberry pies, garlic bread and her own recipe of poppyseed strudel. Lenny loves watching his mother's freckled fists pummel the dough. Next to her, he feels anemic in his seminary clothes.
Across the kitchen, her two sisters are also baking to see their one brother, Leonard, off according to parish tradition -- the bake-off of the starch sisters.
Early on, Lenny learned to dodge his Uncle Leonard, who was far too fussy and pious for him, who took it upon himself to fill the father role in Lenny's life, who gave him his name at birth, holy cards from his hotel gift shop on Easter Sundays, and a pocket watch when Lenny entered the Jesuit seminary four years ago.
"In a family of women," Uncle Leonard liked to say, "it's important for a boy to look up to a man."
But by the time Lenny was eleven, he was already half a head taller than his uncle and felt far more comfortable with the women in the family. The starch queen -- after an impulsive marriage in her late thirties -- had divorced Lenny's father, Otis, two months before Lenny was born, eager to return to her sisters, who'd never married, and continue the pattern of their childhood. The Taluccio sisters always were close: when they were girls, they insisted on sharing the turret room on the third floor of their old Victorian by the Willamette River in Portland. Now each sister has a cluster of rooms she calls her own, but they convene in the tiled kitchen and on the wide porch that envelops three sides of the house.
Slender, strong women with firm arms, the Taluccio sisters laugh too loudly and slap men's backs when they greet them. They seldom speak of Otis, who moved away from Portland after the divorce and has never contacted the starch queen or his child. When Lenny was a boy, they sometimes saw the yearning for his father in his eyes, and they answered whatever questions he had about Otis -- how Otis hated the rain; how Otis liked raspberries mixed in with sliced bananas; how Otis had a cat named Muffy when he was a boy; how Otis liked to drive with the windows open -- and they helped Lenny imagine Otis in some dry, warm climate, working in a marina, or a car dealership. Amongst themselves, though, the starch sisters are sure Otis just continued to drift from one unemployment line to another, braking for spells of work just long enough to qualify him, once again, for unemployment checks.
Now that they're retired from their jobs at the post office and fabric shop and hardware store, the starch sisters like to play cards late into the night -- just the three of them -- sitting around the kitchen table with a bowl of pretzels and a bottle of Chianti. They pray with the same passion that they bring to their food and their card games, and they take pride in still belonging to the parish where they were christened, a parish so poor that the altar society has only one change of clothing for the Infant of Prague statue.
With their sister-in-law, Jocelyn, the starch sisters are patient, although she horrifies them with her helplessness. Forty years earlier, on her honeymoon, Lenny's Aunt Jocelyn gave up on getting her driver's license because she backed Uncle Leonard's car into a tree while he was teaching her how to parallel-park. It has been like that with everything -- Aunt Jocelyn folds whenever she gets agitated. To keep herself from getting agitated, she must take pills that Uncle Leonard used to mark off on an index card taped to the refrigerator. He used to do everything for her -- drive her to mass every morning, schedule doctors' appointments, bring her to the grocery store, buy clothes for her, choose books from the library so she'd be content while he ran the hotel and gift shop.
Back when the starch queen was pregnant with Lenny, Aunt Jocelyn talked about wanting a baby too, but Uncle Leonard reminded her, "Not in your condition." To appease her, he planted a rose garden on the semicircle of lawn in front of his hotel, prize-winning varieties of hybrid tea roses that he ordered from a catalogue -- selecting them not for their colors but because their names attracted him: Command Performance, Sterling Silver, King's Ransom, Golden Gate, Apollo, Century Two, Royal Highness, Texas Centennial.
But Aunt Jocelyn never even watered the roses. He was the one who would fertilize them in March and September; spray against rust and mildew, aphids and spider mites; cut off their weak branches in the fall and prune the strong canes by a third; cover them with pine needles for the winter.
His uncle's death has given Lenny an acceptable excuse to leave the seminary for a while to help Aunt Jocelyn get the hotel ready for sale. Lenny has some doubts about being in the seminary; for some time now he has felt that, if only he could get a few months away from there, he might figure things out. What he thought he wanted was much clearer to him before he entered the order, and in the four years since, he's been trying to get back to it -- that undefinable sense of one source.
Faith has become complicated: it has moved from his heart into his head, where it abides, fed by scriptures and prayers. But his heart keeps forgetting, and he no longer feels the certainty of faith that belonged to him as a boy.
Lenny has confided this to only two people -- carefully to his adviser, Father Richard Bailey, and far more openly to his best friend, Fred Fate. Fred is two days older than Lenny and entered the seminary -- so he'll tell you -- "because then everyone will have to call me Father Fate." But you can see Fred's faith in his walk, hear it in his laughter. In comparison, Lenny's faith is puny. He feels constricted by his black clothes, yearns for canary yellow and a shade of orange so intense it's vulgar, for lush green and the kind of blue you can climb into.
The morning of Leonard's funeral, Fred checks out a monkmobile -- his name for any one of the long, well-maintained cars in the Jesuit garage -- and meets Lenny at the starch queen's house for breakfast. Aunt Jocelyn already sits at the table, hands folded on her chiffon skirt. Her cousin, Bill, has brought her. Lenny is not used to seeing his aunt in black. Most of her clothes are white, and with her pallid complexion -- "indoor skin," the starch sisters call it -- she usually looks like the overexposed photo of a lady missionary. But the black fabric makes her skin look even more faded. As Lenny reaches for his aunt's hands and kisses her on both cheeks, he wishes he could sketch her: she has the kind of face that comes at you in eyes, all eyes.
Ever since Lenny became a Jesuit, Cheryl has looked at him with reverence and called him "Father," though Lenny has explained to her that he's a brother, and that brothers -- though they take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience just like Fathers -- do not administer the sacraments or give absolution.
Cheryl's arrival makes Lenny notice his mother's dark tailored suit with the lace collar. "New?" he inquires, though he doesn't really want to know.
The starch queen fondles her lapel, winks at Cheryl. "Only the best for Leonard's funeral."
At the grave site, Lenny holds Aunt Jocelyn's elbow. She is younger than the starch queen, yet she can barely walk alone and stumbles frequently. Her cousin tells Lenny that Aunt Jocelyn can't prepare meals for herself, that she refuses to move out of the hotel although her side of the family has found a safe place for her to live.
"It's run by the nuns. Your aunt could go to mass every day. You know how important mass is to her."
"We don't have to rush her."
"She's not fit to live alone. She doesn't even use the phone."
"I'll look after her while I work on the hotel."
"And how long will that be?"
After the funeral, when the starch queen tries to pile seconds on Fred's plate, he diverts her by asking, "Did you know that Lenny hardly eats at the seminary? Don't you think he's getting awfully thin?"
The serving spoon with manicotti still in motion, the starch queen changes its course from Fred to Lenny, who mouths a silent fuck-you-very-much across the table to his friend.
"...working too hard," Fred goes on. "Always running around. Looking peaked. Don't you think so?"
Cheryl from the refund department gets that bless-me-Father look in her eyes, and the manicotti on Lenny's plate is joined by a chunk of oily garlic bread.
But Lenny gets even when Fred is ready to leave. "Father Fate is crazy about your cooking," he tells the starch sisters. "You should hear him. He's always raving about you."
Promptly, the starch sisters gather by the counter to wrap leftover lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, and poppyseed strudel for Father Fate, stacking everything in a shopping bag for him to take back with him.
"I can't possibly eat all this," Fred groans.
But Lenny urges the starch sisters on. "Father Fate is always so modest."
"You'll get hungry tonight," the starch queen promises Fred.
"You can share it with the other Fathers," Cheryl says.
During the year of Uncle Leonard's chemotherapy, the hotel has grown shabby despite the efforts of Mr. Wolbergsen, the handyman, who moved to his sister's in Walla Walla when Uncle Leonard closed the hotel three months before his death.
After Aunt Jocelyn goes to sleep, Lenny wanders through the rooms -- all identical, with pale-gray walls, faded curtains, and a single painting above the dresser, usually of either Mary or Jesus with a liver-colored heart weeping through a gap in the tunic. Lenny settles himself in the room closest to his aunt's apartment in case she needs help during the night, but when he wakes up, it's already eight and she's in the kitchen, dressed for mass, stirring a concoction of lard and sunflower seeds on the gas stove.
He feels queasy. "I'll eat later," he says.
When he drives her to church in Uncle Leonard's old station wagon, she sits stiffly next to him, handbag clutched to her chest, eyes vacant. During mass, she keeps frowning and rubbing one finger up and down the ridges as if to erase them. On the way home, Lenny stops with her at the hardware store and buys ten gallons of pale-gray interior latex while she lingers above the paint charts, pointing to bright pinks and reds. She won't leave until he buys a quart of fuchsia.
At the hotel, she scoops the cooled lard and seeds into a pie tin and sets it out on the windowsill.
"Oh, it's for the birds," Lenny says.
She shields her eyes. Peers at him.
After he fries eggs and butters her toast, he begins with the renovation, starting in the last room down the hall. Soon, his eyes ache from the relentless gray, and his arms feel heavy when he raises the brush. He wishes he could accept everything about the Jesuits. Or nothing. While Fred chooses what he believes, Lenny feels uneasy in the middle. Yet, whenever he pictures himself leaving the order, he gets sweaty and afraid that his faith is not strong enough to stand on its own, that he needs the frame of the church as much as his uncle needed the props of religious statues and holy cards.
There is something about hard work and bone-aching tiredness that appeals to him, because, gradually, it blots his doubts. Specks of gray settle in his nostrils, his eyebrows, in the fine hairs on his arms. He swears he's breathing paint.
Late afternoon, when he showers, he uses up four tiny cakes of hotel soap. Ready to cook dinner for his aunt and himself, he hobbles into the kitchen and finds Aunt Jocelyn sitting at the table, a can of tuna in front of her. He gets the opener, mixes the fish with mayonnaise, onion curls, and celery seeds. In the cupboard he finds a jar of pimentos and dices them, sprinkling them across the tuna salad.
"That's how the starch queen likes to make it," he tells Aunt Jocelyn. "I miss cooking. In the seminary, everything is served to us."
After dinner, Aunt Jocelyn rests in a long canvas chair on the flagstone terrace. She closes her eyes while Lenny waters the rose garden. The leaves look even greener when they are wet. He would love to see that color against the somber walls he painted today -- not just green, but other colors, so lush you wouldn't want to wash them from your skin after painting an entire room with them.
"You look...drained," Lenny says.
Fred laughs. "The nuns have been asking about you." He sits down on the floor and watches Lenny paint another wall. "Let's see...." He counts on his fingers. "There's Sister Mary of the Most Blessed Heart Exposed, Sister Margaret of the Holy Shroud Exposed, Sister Catherine of the Immaculate Blood -- "
"Exposed," Lenny says, knowing how Fred likes to mangle the nuns' names and include "exposed," even when he takes phone messages at the seminary. "Now -- who really asked after me?" Lenny wants to know.
"Just Father Bailey and that old feisty sister who always demands two cups of orange juice after relinquishing her blood."
"Of the Most Sacred Thorns -- "
His third day of painting, Lenny mixes a few drops of Aunt Jocelyn's fuchsia paint with the gray, but they're not enough to soak up the starkness. When his aunt comes to watch him, she dips one finger into the fuchsia can and holds it close to the window. They look at each other; she tries to smile, but her lips tremble. Reaching for Lenny's brush, she dips it into the fuchsia and draws a brilliant smudge on the wall by the window.
Lenny reaches out to steady her, but she's not nearly as wobbly as usual, and he doesn't know what to do except join her. When they finish early that evening, her white culottes and matching blouse are splattered with fuchsia. The entire room is fuchsia, including the trim. Without stopping to clean up, they drive to the hardware store, buy cans of blue, yellow, red. In the morning they go to mass, but Aunt Jocelyn is eager to get home and mix the color for their next project -- a rich sun-orange that seems to cover the walls much faster than gray.
They sit down to eat lunch, streaks of brightness in her hair and on her blouse. When Lenny cleans the counter, he finds two pill bottles on top of the kitchen trash. Both are more than half full. He takes them out.
"I feel better without them," she says.
"Have you talked to your doctor about this?"
"I found the warning slips from the pharmacy in Leonard's desk...a list of everything that can go wrong." She gets up, tears the index card her husband used to mark her pills, and holds out her hand for the bottles. "Don't tell anyone."
"At least let me keep them till you've checked with your doctor."
"It's my doctor who put me on them."
"How long since you've stopped?"
"The day we buried Leonard."
"The first time I heard her on the phone," he says, "I was amazed."
"You're good for her," the starch queen says. "Everyone in the family knows that Jocelyn hasn't used the phone since she dialed a wrong number twelve years ago."
"More like thirteen years," one of the starch sisters says.
Lenny feels content working with Aunt Jocelyn on transforming the rooms. That's what he had thought being a Jesuit would be like -- using his skills to help others, living a simple life. That's what drew him to enter the order. His faith used to thrive in an atmosphere of simplicity -- doing things for one another as his mother and her sisters did within their community and parish all those years he was growing up -- but in the seminary that simplicity has become lost to a life filled with comforts, to days filled with philosophy and theology classes. He knows he could stay in the order forever and have all his needs taken care of -- from money for books, to monkmobiles at his disposal, to the rich meals that are anything but simple.
One night he dreams Aunt Jocelyn is standing by the refrigerator, staring at a blank index card. She raises both arms, howls as she pounds her fists against the refrigerator door. He catches her fists, pulls her toward him. Her fine hair falls away from her face, and he can see into her soul. "The hospital is on the roof," he tries to say, but he can't separate his lips. With one hand he holds his aunt's wrists to keep her from hurting herself; with the other he strokes her face.
When he wakes up, he decides to call her doctor, but as soon as he sees his aunt in the kitchen, his concerns vanish. She has this secret little smile, and when she tells him to come with her, he follows her toward the gift shop. She's wearing the shirt and culottes she has designated as painting clothes -- streaked with every color she's used so far. With each project she has become more vibrant, more muscular.
"What is it?" he asks her.
She doesn't tell him until they're inside the shop, surrounded by his uncle's religious kitsch. Then the words tumble from her. "I have this idea, a wonderful idea, Lenny....We'll decorate each room after a different saint."
"It'll be difficult to sell the hotel."
She shakes her head and says what Lenny has already begun to suspect. "I'm keeping the hotel."
"It's too much work for you alone."
She watches him, silently. Then she smiles as if she'd just figured something out and touches one finger to his heart. "It has to be authentic...."
Lenny sees himself as an altar boy, feeling holy while kneeling in front of the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue, whose toes were smudged from all the kisses people had pressed on them, and whose heart was covered with fake rubies that sparkled when you lit one of the votive candles.
"The decor," she says, "we'll make the decor authentic -- so that it doesn't offend believers. They need to feel...confirmed when they stay at the hotel."
"Maybe that's the challenge." He nods. "To make it so authentic that the kitsch amuses some and makes others think they've arrived in their own heaven."
The tiny bar next to the lobby they christen Mary Magdalene, and from there it seems only logical that the breakfast room is called Last Supper. "Service for thirteen," Lenny declares, though there are only eleven chairs around the long table. When Fred haunts secondhand stores in downtown Portland, he returns with two wooden chairs.
The honeymoon suite is named after Maria Goretti, who died very young while defending her honor. There is a room for St. Simon Stock, the hermit who lived in a tree trunk. Next to the bed, Aunt Jocelyn has set up a lava lamp on top of the tree stump that Fred brought in a monkmobile.
They call the men's room in the lobby St. Peter. When they try to find an equally appropriate name for the women's room, they don't come up with anything suitable and finally settle on two unisex bathrooms -- both St. Peter. The only room that is painted entirely in white is the laundry room, named Immaculate Conception.
Some of their other ideas are too outrageous to follow through, but they laugh discussing them. "Would you hang this up in a church?" is their test question for quality control. "That's irreverent," expresses their approval. And Aunt Jocelyn will invariably say, "You better believe it."
In St. Agnes's room the curtains have a design of baby lambs to symbolize the virginal purity of the sad plaster saint, whose eyes are turned up so far that you see only the whites, and whose hands are folded in front of her chest so that her fingertips point up in the same direction as her nose.
Lenny's favorite room is St. Sebastian's. He paints arrows around the windows, and Aunt Jocelyn hangs a basket of arrows across the wall from the bed. In the bathroom they install arrows as hooks for robes and replace the plastic toilet seat with an old wooden one. It has a crack that will pinch you if you don't sit sideways.
Fred helps with the painting of St. Stephen's room, named after the very first martyr. "You see, what it is," Fred explains, drawing the brush across the wall, "is that those martyrs were basically lazy. They wanted the quick way to glory...."
"None of that waiting around for decades of drudgery like the rest of us mortals," Lenny says.
"But think of the ones who didn't make it," Aunt Jocelyn says.
"You'll make it," Lenny blurts.
They both stare at him.
He blushes. She'll make it, he thinks, if I stay here with her; maybe then she'll get well. He is awed by her courage -- or is it foolishness, blind foolishness? -- to burst from a life that has sheltered her for so long.
Fred arches his eyebrows.
"I wasn't talking about martyrdom," Lenny says.
"Those hundreds of poor souls..." His aunt sighs. "Those who waited for their chance at martyrdom -- "
"And found no takers." Fred laughs. "No Huns or Romans who'd relieve them of their heads or tear off their limbs."
"What are you doing?"
"I'm not taking care of Leonard's roses."
"I can water them. I don't mind." He steps between her and the next bush.
"Lenny..." She shields her eyes, though the sun hasn't come out yet. Her bare arms are scratched from her wrists to her elbows. "I don't want to look at Leonard's roses." She proceeds to yank bushes from the earth. "I've called a landscaping service to fix it up."
Lenny tries to predict the starch sisters' reaction once they find out about all this.
The starch queen: "If that's what Jocelyn wants."
One starch sister: "Doesn't she look better all around?"
The other starch sister: "Some lasagna will be good for her."
Lenny seizes a bush as close to the roots as possible to keep from getting scratched, and as he pulls, hard, he feels he's dislodging something deep within himself. By the edge of the lawn, he helps Aunt Jocelyn pile the bushes into a mound, tall enough for a funeral pyre. Three men in Easter-green overalls arrive in a lettered truck to lay squares of Easter-green sod into the spaces where the roses used to grow.
"This is what it looked like when I moved in here," Aunt Jocelyn tells Lenny after the men have left. She steps out of her sandals. Lying down, she extends her arms above her head and rolls down the slope -- a whirling canvas.
Lenny runs after her, afraid she'll tumble into the street, but she stops by herself where the lawn meets the sidewalk. The sun is on her face. Bits of grass stick to her clothes.
"You ought to try it, Lenny." She squints up at him. Smiles.
"Maybe some other time."
"Once you're old enough?"
"Right," he says and has to laugh.
"Feel this." She curls her long toes into the thick grass. "Just feel this, Lenny."
He unties his shoes, sits down, fingers splayed, palms sinking into the lawn. For an instant there, it feels as though the ground were tilting beneath him -- a seesaw kind of tilting -- and as he instinctively braces it with his body, Lenny knows this is the kind of tilting that may happen to you again, and all you have is your faith that each time your body will find some new balance.
Copyright © 2001
by Ursula Hegi
The bestselling and acclaimed author of Stones from the River and The Vision of Emma Blau renews her reputation as an extraordinary writer of short stories in this first collection in more than a decade.
With her passion for storytelling and her elegant prose, Ursula Hegi balances us on that magical border where laughter and sorrow become one. She knows the language of pleasure, the language of grace, the language of grief.
A writer of great insight and imagination, Hegi manifests her bold range of vision as she enters the perspectives of lovers and loners, eccentrics and artists, children and parents: a young man waits in a hospital room with his father, who has received the heart of a twenty-seven-year-old woman; a musician tries to protect her daughter from loving a blind man; a seminary student yearns for the certainty of faith that belonged to him as a boy; a woman transcends her embarrassment for her first love, who has tripled in size; a feud between two brothers contaminates and redeems their hometown.
Ursula Hegi's bicultural background enriches these eleven vibrant and luminous stories that are set in Germany, Italy, Mexico, and the United States. From within this geographic diversity emerge common themes as Hegi's characters take risks in searching out the unique place where faith thrives for each of them -- a run-down hotel, the currents of Cabo San Lucas, an animal shelter, the embrace of an ex-convict. For Hegi's characters, foreign territory can be a continent away or in the same neighborhood -- even the same bed. They come startlingly alive in these poignant tales because her lyricism gives them a moving intensity. Time and again she delights the reader with a perfect image, the elegance of the language, and her art as a storyteller. The range of Hotel of the Saints is vast, and the stories that comprise it illuminate the truths of the heart.
Ursula Hegi grew up in a small German town. She left Germany when she was 18 years old, moved to United States and became a citizen five years later. When she was 28, with two sons under 5 years, she enrolled at the University of New Hampshire for a B.A., and then an M.A. Ursula has received approximately 30 grants and awards, including an NEA Fellowship and five awards from the PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards. She now lives in New York State.