His memories would always be dominated by churches. The night before his mother left, Mike Sullivan sat next to her in the front pew of St. Stephen's. At least twice a week, when they needed a place to hide, they would come here, and after praying, if she had some extra money, they'd head over to the Strand, Belham's downtown movie theater where three bucks got you back-to-back James Bond movies. Most of the time they'd head over to the public library where his mother would check out her weekly fix of paperback romance books, all of them with titles like The Taming of Chastity Wellington and Miss Sofia's Secret.
It was the snow that had driven them back inside the church that night. They had been on their way home from the library when the light snow suddenly turned bad, the wind howling so hard that Mike wondered if the car would tip over. Traffic was backed up everywhere, so they pulled into St. Stephen's to wait out the storm. Belham was still shoveling out from last month's whopper, the Blizzard of '78; now, not even a month later, a weatherman on the radio was predicting another storm for northeastern Massachusetts. Mike was eight.
The church was packed with people waiting for the roads to be cleared. His mother picked up one of the three travel magazines she had checked out from the library and started to read, her face serious but relaxed, the way she looked when she prayed. She was a petite woman, so small that Mike would tightly clasp his hands around hers, afraid that if he didn't somehow keep her anchored to the ground, she'd blow away. She flipped a page in her magazine, her free hand caressing the beautiful silk blue scarf she wore around her neck, the scarf imprinted with ancient pillars and statues and angels and looking completely out of place against her bulky winter jacket.
"It's rude to stare, Michael," she said in a soft voice. Even when she was mad, which was hardly ever, her voice stayed that way.
"I don't have anything to read," he whispered. "How come the library doesn't carry comics?"
"You should have picked out a book on woodworking." She turned around in her pew so she could face him, the magazine still opened up on her lap. "That birdhouse you made me for Christmas, I saw you working on it in your father's workshop. Saw the care you took when you stained it."
"I did a good job."
"No, you did a terrific job," she said, and smiled. That smile made men stop and take notice of her. That smile reassured him that everything was going to turn out all right.
"Where did you get that?"
"This thing? I've had this for a long time."
His mother's lies were as easy to spot as her bruises. She was careful never to wear the scarf around Lou, putting it on only after she left the house, taking it off and stuffing it in her jacket pocket before she got home, and Mike also knew she hid the scarf, along with the photo albums, in a box marked sewing in the basement. One early Saturday morning, after Lou had left for work, Mike had caught her in the basement, removing the scarf from the box -- the same hiding spot for her photo albums.
She caught the question in his eyes and said, "The scarf was a gift from my father. He gave it to me our last Christmas in Paris. I just don't want anything to happen to it."
"Paris. Oo la la."
Smiling, she placed the magazine on his lap and pointed to a color picture that showed the inside of an old church. The walls seemed a mile high, made of cracked white marble, the domed ceiling painted with a stunning portrait of Jesus Christ exposing his heart to the world.
"This is the Sacré-Coeur church," she said proudly. "C'est l'endroit le plus beau du monde."
When he heard his mother speak in her native French, heard the way the words rolled off her tongue, it made her seem more like the exotic young woman he had discovered in the black-and-white pictures pasted in the photo album. Sometimes, when he was alone in the house, he would sit in the cellar and study the pictures of his grandparents, his mother's friends, her home -- everything she left behind in Paris to come here. The way these people dressed reminded him of royalty. At night, Mike would lie in bed and dream of an army of Parisians who would come to his house and rescue him and his mother.
"The pictures really don't do it justice," she said, and then leaned in closer. "The first time I stepped inside that church, I knew God was a real presence that could be felt and could fill you with love. But you have to believe, Michael. That's the key. Even when life is bad to you, you have to remember to keep your heart open to God's love."
"This picture has gargoyles."
"That's Notre-Dame. Amazing, isn't it?"
"Gargoyles on a church. That has to be the coolest church in the world."
"Michael, do you ever wonder what goes on outside of Belham?"
"Not really," he said, his eyes fastened to another picture of a gargoyle, this one with its fangs bared, ready to leap down from the sky and strike down mortal sinners who dared to enter.
"Are you curious?"
Mike shrugged, flipped a page. "Everything I know is here. The Hill and the Patriots and all my friends."
"You could make new friends."
"Not like Wild Bill."
"William's an original, I'll give you that."
"Dad said the problem with Paris is that it's full of French people."
"Your father's not a brave man."
Mike whipped his head up from the magazine. "But he fought in the Vietnam War," he said, not quite sure why he was defending his father. Mike didn't know what the Vietnam War was -- well, not exactly. He knew war involved guns and knifes and bombs and lots of blood and lots and lots of dead people. Mike had seen several old black-and-white war movies on TV.
"Holding a gun or hurting someone doesn't make you brave, Michael. Real bravery -- true bravery -- involves the spirit. Like having faith your life will turn out better when it looks like it won't. Having faith -- that's real bravery, Michael. Always have faith, no matter how bad it looks. Don't let your father or anyone else take that away from you, okay?"
His mother reached into her jacket, came back with a black velvet box and placed it on top of the magazine.
"What's this?" he asked.
"A gift. Go ahead. Open it."
He did. Inside was a gold chain affixed to a circular gold medal the size of a quarter. Etched on the medal was a bald man cradling a baby. The man, Mike knew, was a saint. The halo was always a dead giveaway.
"That's St. Anthony," his mother said. "He's the patron saint of lost things." She took the chain from the box, put it around his neck and then clasped it, Mike feeling a shudder when he placed the cold medal under his sweater, against the warmth of his skin. "As long as you wear it," she said, "St. Anthony will keep you safe. I even had Father Jack bless it for you."
"Cool. Thank you."
The next day she was gone. Her car, an old Plymouth Valiant with rust pockets mended with duct tape, was parked in the driveway when he came home. Mike expected to see her in the kitchen, reading one of her paperback romances by the table near the window. The house was quiet, too quiet, he thought, and a sense of panic he couldn't quite identify brushed against the walls of his heart. He went upstairs to her bedroom, and when he turned on the light and saw the neatly made bed, he bolted back down into the kitchen, opened the door for the basement and descended the stairs, Mike remembering how lately his mother sat down here in one of the plastic patio chairs and lost herself in her photo albums. When he hit the bottom step, he saw the box marked sewing in the middle of the floor. He removed the box top, saw that the photo albums and the blue silk scarf she kept hidden in there were gone, and right then he knew, with a mean certainty, that his mother had packed up and left without him.
Copyright © 2004 by Chris Mooney