From Summer 2006 [Issue No. 9]
Our Lady of DeLady (Part 1 of 3) ▪► Guy Lancaster
It was the final decision of the good townsfolk of DeLady some years after the event that the person most responsible for the scandal of the Sneezing Madonna was one Seymour Danger, the self-styled “sultan of suave” who owned and operated the See More, See Less chain of women’s specialty clothing stores based in Little Rock. Mr. Danger, after all, had once employed actual people to stand in the place of mannequins, hearing that it was the up-and-coming fashion of certain California retailers, and thus had a job open that even Hattie Farmer could do and did do after running away from her aunt and uncle’s house for the big city following an almost parental discussion one evening in which it was said that Hattie might do well to quit whoring about and bringing down the reputation of her churchgoing relatives, who had after all taken her in after her father shot himself for no reason at all. To be fair to the Farmer family, their niece did have what is in polite circles known as a “reputation,” though even those in less polite circles could not have guessed that her reputation stretched statewide and that many a truck driver on his way through Fort Smith or Jonesboro or Texarkana was exhorted to visit the “lady of DeLady,” as she was known. So her family was probably relieved when, in a fit of impertinence, she fled to Little Rock, where she was given employment by the insidious Mr. Danger, who taught her to stand as still as a tree for eight hours at a time while middle-aged ladies ran the fabric of her clothes between their fingers and little boys dragged along shopping because they could not be trusted at home tried to peer up her dress for a glimpse of they knew not what sort of parts. Yes, it was the evil Seymour Danger who encouraged Hattie in such deceptive arts. Never mind the more prominent role Father Astor played in bringing that tramp into the holiest places of the church and deceiving his congregation and bringing shame upon the entire town when the state newspapers got wind of the story. And never mind Hattie herself. No, the town had picked its target, and in Little Rock, Seymour Danger went about his days selling everything from designer panties to dress suits, never knowing that a community of some four hundred people just three hours away regarded him as the lowest form of life on the planet.
Mr. Danger might have picked out Father Astor for blame had he known about the matter, and his opinion would have been shared by most everyone in the state, particularly the bishop, who could not understand why, after the scandal unfolded, the parishioners of Our Lady of Succor there in DeLady had pleaded with him not to transfer Father Astor to a different parish, in spite of everything. Though they secretly relished the thought of having a rather humble priest in their service—and what could be more humiliating than those newspaper headlines reading, “FATHER ASTOR A FRAUD! CATHOLIC PRIEST IN LEAGUE WITH LOCAL TRAMP TO FOOL COMMUNITY, MARKET SNOT!”—they secretly feared that the bishop would reassign to their parish Father Gregor, that churlish Benedictine, who, like many a musician of moderate talent, thought himself a genius and made much of his belief that every church should have a proper liturgy, often having his congregation rehearse the Mass, sometimes for an hour, using, of course, his own musical arrangements of the Hallelujah, the Glory Be, the Our Father. These were a people happy enough to have their donated electric organ with Betsy, the retired piano teacher, at its keys. Father Gregor was an artist. He both bored and terrorized them.
But then, Father Astor was also an artist. Yes, indeed, throughout the state of Arkansas there was no more reputable a sculptor than he among the Catholic population, who would read stories of him in the weekly Guardian of Faith newspaper put out by the diocese and pine for this man few of them knew but whose artistry and generosity and kindly face they all wished to have as a fixture in their own church. There he was in one issue, posed by a crucifix he had sculpted himself from the local stone of the Ozarks for his church there; flash forward a year and he was in Pine Bluff, his wood carving of Our Lady of Guadalupe gracing the lobby of their new Hispanic Center. Everywhere the bishop sent him, he made a point of working over a new icon for his parish and thus became one of the most sought-after priests in the state, a clerical cowboy who rode in and took stock of the toils faced by the locals—be it that out-of-date Madonna and Child or that curiosity in the corner that some argue is St. Cecilia and others declare is St. George—and did away with them, leaving behind a new sense of law and order as he rode off into the sunset to find some other community held hostage by similar aesthetic misfits.
So when the parishioners of Our Lady of Succor learned that they were to have their turn at Father Astor, they called one another and all ran down to the church, and anyone driving by would have thought that those Catholics were having a Thursday night service for some reason and not that they were milling about inside, trying to agree on the one icon they would have their new priest replace with one of his own creations. “I say we get rid of this ugly Joseph thing,” said Linda Fitzwilder sneering as she looked up at the statue of St. Joseph holding the baby Jesus.
“My grandmother donated that to the church!” cried Jodine Knight. “A long time ago! And you can’t get rid of it—it’s part of the church!”
“The ugliest part,” replied Linda. “And that baby Jesus won’t stay glued in Joseph’s arms. The way he keeps falling out every so often, it’s like he’s got an abusive dad.”
“I say we have him do the Stations of the Cross,” said Ian Furlong. “Never have liked these plaster jobs we got.”
“Stations of the Cross is more of a set, Ian,” said Dean Wiggins, who headed the parish council. “That would be an awful big undertaking since we don’t know how long we got him.”
“Besides,” added Christiana Hargis, who was the oldest person here, “the way they do the Stations in the more modern churches now, it’s so froufrou, like Jesus is bumbling along feeling sad about things, not like he’s being all crucified up.”
“That’s just the way things are now,” said Dean. “It’s about emphasizing the compassion of Jesus.”
Christiana turned upon the man, quick as a cat. “Compassion! Back in my day, we had Mass in Latin and we had a lot of big, bloody Jesuses to go with it, and the world was all right! You start getting rid of that, and you look what happens with all these girls getting pregnant before they’re married and whatnot. All acting the whore. You gotta have a big bloody Jesus to scare that out of them!”
“Now I don’t think that—”
“Big bloody Jesus!” she screamed again, and Dean retreated.
As these arguments went on, Libby Cook was floating about the church, saying nothing, in a world all her own. This was the church she had known all her life. She had been baptized in that font, had her first confession behind that same door, had been confirmed standing right where she would later be married, right where her husband’s coffin would rest some forty years later. The church was not simply the site of Sunday worship but rather was the place where she stepped out of time and could see the world as God saw it, knowing the past with her newborn head held over that pool of water, and knowing the future with her own coffin one day resting before that altar. Why would anyone want so badly to change this church which had encompassed their very lives? Why would anyone dare to change the changeless? She could not understand it, but here they were, running about like a pack of children whose mother had offered to buy them one toy or game, just one, as long as they could all agree on it. And she had half a mind to let them all know just how sordid she found the whole affair, to be treating their future priest as they would some hired hand to fix the roof or paint the kitchen, not as the representative of God and Church that he was.
So it was that in her floating about she found herself standing before the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A few candles flickered at her feet. Libby had always enjoyed this particular icon, this Mary that was neither a perfectly stern woman of cosmic majesty nor some giddy, pink-faced teenager incapable of thinking a bad thought (and so could not truly have been a mother). No, whoever designed this Mary knew what sort of people mothers were, how perfectly imperfect they were, how human. It was not satisfying to many, but in her moments of doubt or distress she had often looked to this Virgin and seen the woman who bore God Himself in her womb, this simple woman so like her own mother, and, knowing this, knowing that God connected with the human on that level of blood and tears and sweat and love and the cries shared by both babe and woman as they embarked upon a new life of two and not one—knowing this, she had felt peace.
She lit a candle and said a prayer as it winked and sparkled in its glass blue holder.
And when Libby turned around, she was surprised to see everyone else staring at her, quiet and wide-eyed.
“Well,” said Dean, “I think Libby here’s got the right idea. We’ll have him do us up a new Virgin Mary. You like the sound of that?”
And in the show of hands and the rush to agree, one voice was not heard.
Thus it was decided, and poor Father Gregor! During those last few weeks, he must have sensed the impatience, the readiness of his congregation to be rid of him; for how else to explain the end of the murmuring, the willingness to cooperate with his rehearsals and get things right enough, soon enough that they might proceed through the Mass that much more quickly, another obligation marked off the calendar, and how many more to go before he was gone? (Thank God it was not, say, the Easter season, with its regimen of holy days to multiply the time they would have to spend with him.) Surely Father Gregor was genius enough not to believe that, after years and years and years, those musical and liturgical seeds he had been scattering like mad had finally landed, not on stones and not among the thorns, but finally, finally, on some decent soil. Surely his smile during that last “This Mass is ended—let us go now to love and serve the Lord” was ironic, not satisfied. Surely the fact that everyone—literally everyone—turned out for his going-away party held some meaning, for no priest is ever so loved that he does not trample upon a few toes during his stay and earn some enmity from either the old or the young, the Knights of Columbus or the Rosary Guild, the parish council or the choir; but one could have checked off every name of the church rolls at that party, and it was a doozy, too! Surely he knew this outpouring of love was in dedication to his future, not his past. Surely he did.
But that remains uncertain. He was off to Mountain View, where he was certain to find greater appreciation of his arrangements of Christmas tunes for the hammered dulcimer than he did here in DeLady. He was off to Mountain View, and Father Astor was on his way here.
Now what the good folk of DeLady could in no way have known was just how ready Father Astor was to be here, isolated, off in this delta town that was more of a truck stop than it was a community, plunked down amid the rice and bean fields that stretched for miles and miles, all the way to the horizon—someplace where he could hopefully vanish for a few years, perhaps forever; a terra incognita into which he could sail without his reputation following. On the drive down from the hills into the flatland that is the other half of Arkansas, on his way to take up residence in DeLady, he remembered his high school days and how he used to fantasize about being an exchange student one year and staying in some foreign country—any foreign country—where he could shed this sense of self and become one of them, either more barbarous or more civilized, it didn’t matter which. To be utterly different for a while—that was his fantasy. Of course, his parents never could afford to send him to Spain or Indonesia, and the few times he did venture abroad were in connection with his priestly duties, such as the summer he went with some of the seniors of the church on a pilgrimage to Rome—and all those old grannies there with him, well, he certainly couldn’t lose himself with their expectations keeping him on the straight and narrow. It wasn’t sin that he desired—just freedom. Though once he might have sought freedom from the expectations of gentility that always hovered around the priesthood, now he sought only freedom from the expectations that this terrible talent of his always brought with him.
Yes, this terrible talent. He had always liked shaping things as a child, making little army guys out of clay or building papier-mâché creatures, but he had never confused his hobby with a vocation. In seminary, he had taken to relieving the tensions of class and celibacy by whittling, and of course his fellow seminarians, knowing he was from Arkansas, would walk by him, smacking their gums and saying, “Say, what you whittlin’ there, Billy Bob?” He would sit on some bench outside the dormitory and put up with that for a while, until those bits of wood gradually transformed themselves into Jesuses and Peters and centurions in his hands; then, suddenly, some sort of awe replaced the other students’ derision. When the headmaster of the dorm asked him so kindly if he would be willing to do for them a handmade Christmas crèche, he was proud.
Little did he know that that one “yes” would, over the years, make it impossible for him ever to say “no”—that, before he was allowed to be a church’s pastor, he first had to prove himself in the artistic arena. And that is why he was looking forward to serving the parish at DeLady: because it was in the middle of nowhere, because the congregation was probably mostly farmers and store clerks, because, he hoped, these were people as aesthetically backward as they come. His dream was finally coming true—there in DeLady, he could be an exchange student, learning the culture and the ways of hicks.
Alas and alack and other remorseful sentiments—it did not work out this way. The town was just as he imagined, though: two gas stations, one liquor store, a few small houses clustered in between a tractor parts store and Betty’s Diner, and a windowless building with white paint flaking off and a handmade sign nailed above the door—NEW HOLINESS BIBLE CHURCH. There was, no doubt, more to the town than was apparent on this strip of highway, as he was looking forward to discovering, and very likely many people living out among these fields considered themselves a part of the community just because it was closer by a few miles than some other town. Our Lady of Succor Catholic Church was on the other side of town, right next to the city limits sign so that it seemed to be clinging to the community like moss to a tree. He almost laughed with joy when he saw that the church parking lot was just a swath of gravel and that the rectory and church office were combined in a little, boxy house right next door. Yes, this was the place for him.
Father Astor pulled into the parking lot and got out of the car, inhaling deeply that delta air so damp and thick it belied the swamp the place used to be, a crude and earthy scent flavored with just enough pesticide to taste. It was the raw smell of summer—absolutely uncivilized. He filled his lungs with it.
The air conditioner running in the office did nothing to alleviate the humidity, so when Father Astor walked inside, his face and arms immediately felt clammy. Though the door had been unlocked, nobody was there to greet him, which surprised him—not that he felt a welcoming committee a necessity but that, being a priest for years enough, he had become accustomed to the excitement with which a parish made its new pastor feel at home. “Hello?” he called out—in vain. Had he known the trouble Father Gregory had caused the people of Our Lady of Succor, he would not have felt that twang of jealousy, that momentary suspicion that he was being sent to replace an imminently popular man with whom these people were loath to part. Of course, it was only natural that a congregation might resent a distant bishop moving around his clergy like chess pieces every few years, but surely no group of good, Christian folk would be so cold as to avoid their new priest altogether—he had never heard the like.
To kill time, and to satisfy a certain curiosity, he walked over to the church and found one of the side doors unlocked. If ever there was a church that seemed to depend on sacramental hand-me-downs to clothe its interior in some form of Catholicity, then this was the one—the admixture of plaster and wood and stone icons seemed as if they had been discarded by churches from all across the state only to be picked up by this one, and he was sure that at least three canonical guidelines for church art were being violated simultaneously. Even the Stations of the Cross seemed to have been picked out from across the years, with each one made in accordance with a different fashion: at the Fourth Station—quite modern, that—mother Mary is practically pulling the hair from her scalp in a long, drawn-out scream that can’t be too comforting to a Jesus on his march toward death, but by the Twelfth Station, she has apparently run home to change into an almost monastic outfit so she can watch her son hang there on the cross in all the stolidity demanded of all Mothers of God before the Second Vatican Council. The narrative produced by these Stations was absolutely ridiculous.
In short, he loved it.
Ah, how naïve Father Astor was during those first few minutes at Our Lady of Succor, for he never once suspected that those people who lived and worshipped in such a way might not be satisfied with it, that they just might be a tad embarrassed when children came to visit from the cities to which they fled and laughed at the poor impression this church made. That illusion thankfully, and regretfully, burst when he walked over to the Blessed Virgin at the front of the church and found taped to her a note addressed to him.
After he read it, he could have cried. The one line that bounced around in his head for the hours afterwards, when he sat alone in the church, was: “Linda said you’d probably want to go ahead and get started on the new BVM you’re going to make for us, but just in case you’re in the mood for a good catfish fry, I’ve put a little map to Danny’s place in Amagon below. Take care, Dean Wiggins, Commander-in-Chief of the Parish Council.”
Now, it would only be natural for those outside this situation to hold some prejudicial notions against the parishioners of Our Lady of Succor, who went nearly one and all to a catfish fry down the highway without leaving someone behind to greet the man who would be their pastor, confessor and confidant for the foreseeable future. But as natural as that inclination might be, the old saying that “to understand everything is to forgive everything” holds true, even here. As noted above, Father Astor was something of a diocesan celebrity, renowned everywhere for the magic he worked with his hands. He was an artist, an occupation the parishioners there did not quite understand. They had raised their children to be imminently practical, had stressed to their sons and daughters that careers as businessmen, accountants, lawyers, and doctors were ways they could escape these towns that had no jobs to offer save waiting tables—if lucky—or pumping gas. The farms were owned by people who could not pass down the land to their descendants, only debt. Everyone here knew which way the wind was blowing and, above all, wanted their children to have the security denied themselves.
That said, they had not only the opportunity that existed outside the city limits, but also something called culture, which was somehow tied to opportunity, one making possible the other. Thus, their children, who were sent off to Jonesboro or Fayetteville or Little Rock for their college years, came back, not only with heads full of the knowledge that would one day land them good jobs, but also with a taste for higher living, especially when it came to worship. Their churches in the city had this, their churches had that: organs and incense and art. They had Bible studies and church retreats and were visited by the bishop on a regular basis. Their churches were beautiful and inspiring. And the parishioners there at Our Lady of Succor were as a rule proud of their children at the same time they were sad that their children’s estimation of them was going down, not up. So even though they didn’t say it aloud, when they knew Father Astor was coming to their parish, the people there knew that he was the one person who might redeem them in the eyes of their children—after all, Father Astor was such a celebrity.
But he was also an artist, a type of person not too readily understood by the people of DeLady. Their only associations with that species of human being had come from television and from Ian’s son, who had decided to major in theater: every summer after his declaration, he would come home and spend his time idling away at Betty’s Diner, often walking in and announcing, “Please, continue talking amongst yourselves—I need to hear the speech of the people, the language of the people, to write my great play.” Of course, there was no way his father could persuade him to lend a hand on the farm, for all the inspiration and solitude and wine that boy needed: “Dad, I’m not some grease monkey—I’m an artist!”
So no one can blame the parishioners of Our Lady of Succor too terribly much if they abandoned Father Astor on his first day in town, for what else were they supposed to do? As the entire state knew, the man was an artist, and artists needed to scope out their source of inspiration, to walk around humming to themselves and shaking their heads and announcing, “Aha!” at the perfect moment. Anticipating his needs, the congregation also anticipated their own desire not to have too poor a first impression of the man who would likely be there the next few years, and so they decided to vamoose en masse while he got his pretension and his inspiration out of the way, that they might meet him on more human terms. After all, they wanted only a little respectability and suspected that he wanted only solitude while he summoned up the inspiration to tackle the job he had surely come here to do. That everyone had guessed wrong in the matter was no one’s fault, save perhaps that of Ian’s son.
Once the congregation got to meet Father Astor that Sunday when he celebrated Mass, they were surprised to find him rather down-to-earth, an amiable enough fellow whose like they had not known for some time. During the first week or so, while he was introduced to new people and celebrated the daily morning Masses for the old ladies who came in with the rattle of rosaries and prescription bottles, no one dared ask that burning question about what replacement he was planning for their BVM, and Father Astor never raised the issue himself. But on that second Sunday he was there, Christiana Hargis came up to him after Mass and inquired in her mangy-cat voice, “So Father, I hope you’re gonna put up for us a real Virgin Mary—as how it’s supposed to be—instead of something like that twittering schoolgirl we got there.”
Father Astor just smiled and nodded, which did little to satisfy her.
During those first few days, when he was making himself at home, Father Astor wrestled with his sense that God had been so cruel to him, what with raising his hopes by assigning him that typical in-the-middle-of-nowhere parish that is for most priests only their opening gambit into the world of work—not unlike a fast-food job for high school kids—but which seemed so utterly perfect for him in all its artlessness. And now here he was, expected to perform the same dog-and-pony show from which he had been trying to escape. But as Father Astor prayed and bemoaned his fate and went into the church late at night to stand before the Virgin Mary and light a candle, his heart softened. It was such a little thing his congregation wanted, after all, and completely within his power to provide. How many homilies had he preached about the necessity to let God bridle the heart and guide the believer on whatever destiny He had in mind? A lot—and it was coming up again soon, for the great thing about being transferred from parish to parish every few years is the ability to recycle homilies for different congregations. But here he was in DeLady, called to service yet praying for guidance and recalling the legends of St. Thomas, old Doubting Thomas whom Jesus himself sold into slavery because the stubborn man wouldn’t travel east to spread the Gospel of his own free will. And so Father Astor lay down one night, hearing Christiana’s words in his ears yet again, and resolved to do rightly.
This resolution, however, manifested itself in the most surprising way when he went up to Hattie Farmer in the D-Shack there in Waldenburg a few months later and told her, just as she was biting into her hamburger and wiping a tear from her eyes, “I’ll pay cash up front—I’m absolutely desperate, and I need you more than anything.”
It was a propitious end of the day for Hattie Farmer, even though it would have confirmed for her aunt and uncle every creeping suspicion of the sinful, vile, wretched, wicked world that lay outside their doors. They were good Baptists, after all, and had heard many times from their preacher the litany of evils in which the Catholic Church was mired—namely, the degraded lust that celibacy drove their priests into, which got so bad that these collared men would go about hunting any sort of prey upon whom they could force their animal-like and papist desires. Had they been sitting there in the D-Shack eating a nice family meal with their niece, and witnessed this gaunt-looking man with a hunger in his eyes and a collar on his neck come up to Hattie and say what he said, they would likely have gotten up from the table and, holding their silverware high, descended upon him with all their wrath and forks, all in the name of Jesus. Of course, as soon as he was gone, they would have turned their rage upon Hattie, for she did attract these kind of men, didn’t she?
Yes, she did. Little Rock and her job with Seymour Danger had not quite worked out. Being who she was—adored by young men since before those breasts had perked up on her chest—she had expected some sort of recognition for her beauty and her innate poise, something beyond the steady paycheck. Hattie daydreamed about catching Mr. Danger’s eye and slowly going from employee to lover to co-owner of his fabulous business, for Mr. Danger was so unlike the men she had “dated” growing up in DeLady: he was sensitive, and he had real style, a talent for meticulous self-grooming and a real knack at fashion and design, as well as an audacious spirit that prompted him to dress occasionally in the most outrageous pink and orange suits, not to mention that he always complimented Hattie’s dress. Had Hattie spent her adolescent years in front of the television instead of bouncing around truck beds and back seats with the flesh-and-mud sons of local farmers, she might have recognized an obvious gay stereotype a little sooner than she did—the six months she spent nursing her fantasy speaks less of her intelligence than it does her devotion, for here was a true man, a gentleman of the most noble sort who obviously longed for a relationship more ethereal than the quick bump along the back roads. Alas, after six months of steady devotion and none-too-subtle hints of desire, her vision of a happy future was broken by his heart-wrenching words, “What’s wrong with you, you stupid hick girl? I like men, okay? Men! I dream of young college men with long, blonde hair and big, beautiful penises. Can you take a hint?”
With tears streaming down her face, Hattie Farmer left Little Rock, and life had gone downhill ever since. By the time Father Astor caught up with her, she had that very morning been kicked out of Doug Riner’s place, which was the closest thing to a home she’d had since returning from the city two weeks before. Doug was not too bad a guy for an ex-boyfriend, and more than happy to be needed by her after she’d ditched him about a year back. However, the renewal of her acquaintance with Doug Riner only stoked her longing for a gentleman. His expectations as to certain foreknown privileges conflicted with her dreams of valor and propriety, so that one fine day he laid upon her that most ungentle of propositions: “Either put out or get out!”
By the time Father Astor ran into her, she had already called too many of her old friends and been turned down by each and every one and had only wandered into the D-Shack because she knew Sarah at the counter and could get a free soda off her. Though the hamburger in her hands cost her the last few dollars she had in the world, there was no going back to her aunt and uncle, so when Father Astor said to her, “I’ll pay cash up front—I’m absolutely desperate, and I need you more than anything,” the mention of money overrode any impression all those stories heard at her aunt and uncle’s church might have made on her mind.
“What was that?” she said, that sniffle of despair quickly drying away.
“I heard you talking,” began Father Astor as he pulled up the chair across from her, “to the lady at the counter. About how you need a job.” His nerves were shot, and he had to work hard to keep his voice steady as he went on. “You, uh, you said something about modeling—you used to model?”
Hattie now put down her hamburger and wiped her eyes with the back of a hand. Who was this man? Looking at the collar, she guessed that this was what men of the cloth looked like when all that goodness had finally taken its toll, leaving them starved for the authenticity of sin. Was this really the path she wanted to go down, no matter how desperate? And if he confirmed her every expectation, how would this offer be that different from Doug’s?
She asked, “What do you have in mind?”
“If you don’t mind a little drive, I’ll tell you,” he said.
During the half-hour drive to DeLady, the stars came out and began singing their way across the sky. A breeze blew across the land, and it was finally not so hot and sticky anymore, but somewhat refreshing. Hattie noticed none of this. What Father Astor had in mind was, to say the least, not what she had expected.
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