Critical Thought: Nuns

It seems in these latest fifteen minutes of literature, the memoir and creative non-fiction genre has readers more concerned with the validity and integrity of truth rather than an exploration of its more-interesting gray areas. Memoirs are selling like hotcakes, forcing a debate as to how much stretching of the truth is creative liberty and how much is out-and-out fibbing. The debate, rather than exploring the sense and various incarnations of literary truth, seems to want to quibble over the details as a final way to test and invalidate any of the story’s merits. Truth is pitted in polarities of right and wrong, rather than a gradient of sort-of-rightness or close-enough-to-the-truthness: a verity color wheel for literature.

The story of mine on the other side of the page is in part a true story, in the sense that all stories are true to the extent they borrow biographical details to fill out the fictional canard. I really did know a guy named Eddy—we called him Lazy-Eyed Eddy because he could never quite look you in the eyes when he was talking to you—who was shot twice in the back of the head down a side alley. What really happened is both his girlfriends were called in to identify his body, and neither knew about the other until they met in the lobby and immediately proceeded to fight, with fists and beaks and makeshift voodoo curses. In dresses and jewelry and make-up. When the fight broke up, the two girlfriends left without Eddy’s body being identified. That’s when the detectives called me to come in, and I did. The back half of his head was really gone and was really black, making the face appear that much more peaceful and serene, on that unfinished head, like seeing in the midst of stone a perfect face, wholly complete with eyes nose mouth and visage. Our humanity is contained within our expressions, and Eddy’s was calm then, and unrepentant.

There really was a glass case with a statue of the Virgin Mary on Second Street in Seattle, two or three blocks away from the Nightlife, or at least there was when I lived there twelve years ago. There was a button to push, but I didn’t have the courage to push it then. The details were borrowed from that experience to flesh out the lie and flush out the truth: a man I had really known was killed and I was looking for mercy in the form of an easy way out. However, in fiction and in real life (sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart), mercy is never swift and most certainly is never easy.

Aaron Hellem lives with his wife in Leverett, Massachusetts where he serves as managing editor of the Massachusetts Review. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the New Ohio Review, the Wisconsin Review, the Massachusetts Review, and the Gettysburg Review.

City Nuns Saving

The statue of Mary behind paned glass. I haven’t ever tested it to see if it’s bullet-proof. It’s thick, and I know this because I’ve rapped on it before and felt it unyielding under my knuckles. Mary stands with her face composed, her eyes forlorn, and her hands extended palms-up in a manner of forgiveness. In front of her there’s a sign and a button. If you read the sign, then you know to push the button first and that buzzes the nuns. The nuns are always awake. If you knock, no one will hear you and no one will help you. The doors are locked; the nuns have to buzz you in. It’s a city church downtown. No unconditional trust of strangers down here. There’s a security camera inside Mary’s face, looking at you with her eyes, and on the inside the nuns look you over and decide then if you really need help or if you intend of robbing them. Those City Nuns are great judges of character. They can tell your degree and kind of desperation by the way you hold your hands. They can tell by watching you if they can let you in or if the doors should remain locked. There’s a voice box to plead your case, but it’s not two-way: you can’t hear the nuns deliberate.

I’ve walked by before, but I’ve never pushed the button. There wasn’t anything before I couldn’t handle myself. I stand at the glass case. A spotlight shines down on Mary inside the case. A spotlight shines down on me from above. I stare into Mary’s face. Her eyes don’t have pupils. They may be rolling up to heaven in supplication. A holy trance. I’d seen it once in an Alabama church where a man shouted during the preaching and the piano and he jumped down on the floor, shaking like he was being electrocuted. His eyes rolled up like that while his immense body jiggled with the Holy Spirit injection. He shook clear across the floor and into the piano. Nobody stopped him. The piano player kept playing. The preacher kept praying. I snuck out the back door. I saw where the music shook the loose boards on the outside. What did Mary ever ask for? What did she want for herself? I want to push the button this time. I fix myself for the nuns to see that I’m not dangerous. A little desperate. But not dangerous.

A guy I knew was shot in the back of the head in a back alley behind Gino’s. Just the one shot that emptied his soul. He wasn’t the kind of guy anybody would miss, but I knew him and knew who he worked for. One of his girlfriends identified his body, and I saw her later that day down at the Old Timer’s. She drank slow something clear out of a little glass. She stared at herself in the mirror. I told her I was sorry about Eddie. I prayed I wouldn’t have to hug her or she wouldn’t start crying. I kept a stool between us. I watched her cross dangling between her fat breasts. She didn’t say anything. I’m sorry about Eddie, I said again.

No you’re not, she said.

I thought maybe she could see somehow I was praying she wouldn’t cry instead of praying for Eddie.

Nobody’s sorry about Eddie, she said. She said it loud enough for Vinny to hear it behind the bar. Vinny was the nephew of the guy who had Eddie killed. It was all over money, which now seems like the worst possible reason for someone to die. Vinny heard her, but he kept his mouth shut. Out of respect for the bereaved, I guess. I shouldn’t have said anything either, but I couldn’t take the quiet and neither could I take it back. At least have a drink with me, she said.

I sat down, and Vinny served me up without my having to ask for it. We raised our glasses, but didn’t offer any words. Then she started crying, and I had to get out of there.

I did worse things than owe people too much money. I hurt people I loved. I went up to the Nightlife to drink out the day in irony. I kept seeing Eddie’s limping grin in the broken pieces of mirror above the bar. When it was dark and safe outside, I walked the streets and stopped here in front of Mary. She doesn’t judge me. She thinks I’ve still got a chance to do something good. The City Nuns will know. It’s probably time to get out of town, and the City Nuns will know for sure. I push the button and the buzzer sounds. Mary’s eyes look skyward. I try it, too. Let my eyes roll up into my head and reach out my arms. I need saving, I say into the voice box. The door buzzes and opens up. I go inside knowing if I can’t be saved then the City Nuns will have mercy on me and put a bullet through my brain.

by Aaron Hellem