What Happened to Henry
Lauren Cooper sat quietly in her assigned row watching a spider at work along the molding overhead, her legs swinging apart, together, apart, together. It was a late fall afternoon in Eleusis, New York, 1960. A dozen other potential first communicants sighed behind her, some preparing spitwads, others anxiously attentive.
Sister Leonarda's luminous eyes swam above little clusters of symmetrical moles. She limped, allegedly a victim of childhood polio. Everyone said she’d been disappointed in love.
"Now," she said melodically, “We will review the mystery of transubstantiation. Lauren Cooper?"
Lauren was a First Communion failure, repeating the curriculum for the third time at the advanced age of nine. Father Murphy had made it clear that no matter what she did this time, she was going to receive the sacrament along with the seven year olds. Lauren's first attempt had been foiled by multiple streptococcus infections. Twelve months later, bad judgment and temptation defeated her: a peanut had leapt into her mouth the morning she was supposed to take the sacrament. She had skipped down the stairs at dawn to find a glistening salted heap of them left over from a bridge party, and she promptly forgot the rules about fasting before receiving the host. Her brother Henry rounded a corner and saw the whole thing, making lying impractical.
Henry was mortified and protective in equal parts, ultimately deciding that he had to turn her in. Again she was banished from the lines of first communicants and had to watch them march down the aisle in cupcake-like dresses while she remained in a pew with her family, scuffing her Hush Puppies and moping.
So Lauren Cooper sat before Sister Leonarda now, struggling to focus on this question which she had been asked, probably, twenty times before.
"Miss Cooper. Transubstantiation."
"Well. It means that when the bread is blessed, it stops being bread and is changed magically into Jesus's flesh, but when we bite it we don't hurt Him."
"Not 'magically' Lauren Cooper. The intervention of our Lord Jesus Christ is not magic."
Lauren nodded, though this was precisely the kind of distinction that baffled her. It looked pretty darn magic to her, and Sister Leonarda's correction did nothing to shore up her thinning faith in adult guidance.
She had taken some of these problems to Henry, and he had reminded her that Jesus was capable, even eager, to forgive confusion about things that nuns said. There was no reason for her to worry. Yet she did. She stuck her hand up in the air now and said, "Sister, if God can forgive anything, why should we worry about being bad?”
Sister Leonarda sniffed. “Those who believe that they can evade judgment are generally struck down by trucks or disease before they can receive the sacrament of Extreme Unction or confess their sins to a priest.”
“Trucks? But that's not fair!”
“There is no excuse for waiting until a truck comes at you. God appears to us every day in dozens of forms, offering chance after chance to those of us who wander the streets with our spiritual fingers stuck in our ears!” Here the sister rapped a desk for emphasis. Just then Domenic Rumietti shot a spitwad into the neckline of the girl in front of him, who squealed. "You, Domenic!" Sister Leonarda cuffed the offending seven-year old on his head. "Tormenting your classmates! Satan is just testing you little babies to see who's fertile ground. And you," she said, more in sorrow than in remonstrance, "are a very fertile little piece of ground."
Sister Leonarda blew her nose. She was just getting over a cold. "Of course,” she sighed, “we all have some moist corner of our minds where sin can get its roots set down. Some of you," her eyes swept over them, "come to me with the fuzzy idea that humanity keeps getting better all the time, and as history goes on we just keep rolling on together towards general improvement. Well, that is inaccurate. We all start from scratch. Less than scratch. We're all born into the same old war, each and every one of us, and History starts all over again with every child that's born. That's why we don't get anywhere here on earth."
This made a certain amount of sense to Lauren. Maybe she had some aptitude for religion after all.
"Sister." Lauren’s hand crept upwards again. The nun didn't seem to hear. "Sister," she repeated. This time Sister Leonarda turned towards Lauren, making a gesture like flicking a fuzz ball from a skirt.
"Sister, how do you get to be a saint?"
"Why do you want to know, Lauren Cooper?"
"I just wondered, Sister."
"I know why you want to know: you want to know because you think you can be a saint. You will never be a saint, Lauren Cooper, because saints are selfless and don't waste their time worrying about whether they'll get turned into saints."
"What about martyrdom?"
"What about it?"
"I mean, if a person dies for religious beliefs. As a way to get to heaven."
"These people didn't check with their Religious Instruction teachers about potential sainthood before they martyred themselves."
"Yes, Sister. How about being a sister, Sister?"
"As a way to get to heaven? I presume that it usually works." Her fingers moved to her gold ring, tapping. "It's very simple, really. You just give yourself up. You surrender." The Sister leaned down beside her desk to reach a cardboard tube and from it she pulled out a picture, brown and cracked at the edges, which she unrolled very slowly. It showed a woman, tied to a stake, naked to the hips. For several of the children in the room this was a first exposure to a frank image of adult feminine breasts, and the attention level adjusted accordingly. Blood streamed from places on the woman’s forehead and her left breast. Her face was turned towards the sky, leaving a white expanse of throat exposed. Her legs and lips fell open, gently parted. The lines of her thighs were so clear beneath the thin fabric of her robes that they looked naked, too. Her eyes were shining. Lauren’s heart beat.
"Saint Margaret of Cortoner," Sister Leonarda breathed, looking down at the picture in her hands. "A sacred martyr. This," she held it higher, "is ecstasy. This is the reward of true faith.”
“Yes, Miss Cooper.”
“What did she do that made her a martyr?”
“She retained her faith at a time when the faithful were oppressed.”
“I know. But I mean, what did she do that made her a martyr?”
Sister Leonarda sighed. “You may borrow The Lives of the Saints from me until our next class; any details you need will be found in its pages." Then the Sister leaned against the blackboard and drew one finger thoughtfully down her nose. "Remember your communion gown rental money for next week." The alarm clock at the head of the room rang, signaling the end of class. Lauren took the book. The students scattered, leaving Sister Leonarda gazing upon the martyr with a kind of concentration that made Lauren anxious, though she did not know why.
Outside, she sat on the curb until her father pulled up in the family Chevrolet. They drove back to the little cape cod house where they all lived: Lauren, her brothers Henry and Winston, and their parents, Annie and Warren.
"Do we really not get anywhere?"
"What are you talking about?"
"I mean, do we all have the same problems, and just repeat them over and over, parents and then children and then the children's children?"
Her father huffed. "Don't be ridiculous. Look at radio communication. Radar technology. Medical breakthroughs. We make progress every minute. This is the best time in all history that you live in. Think of running water! Blistering hot water any time you just turn a tap! Presto! Central heating! The polio vaccine! Your grandmother didn't have this life, believe you me, and your children will have things we can't even imagine."
She watched her father’s profile for a couple of miles, his happy profile. Warren Cooper designed missile launching and tracking systems. He was most fully alive when he talked about machines that threw and caught the different kinds of radio waves, and all his family knew that his work offered him a happiness he could not find bending over a homework paper or hurrying a child who was slow to pull on a coat.
Now Lauren sat beside him in silence as they drove along, thinking of the sacrifice on the cross and the hilly curve of the saint’s thighs under her blood-spattered robe. These things seemed dark to her in ways that her parents never spoke of. Lauren doubted that her father ever felt the way she felt when Sister Leonarda showed them the ecstatic saint.
# # # # #.
Once home, her father retreated to the basement where he was supposed to be organizing pamphlets for the Knights of Columbus but within a minute the clickclickclick sounds made it clear that he was playing with his Morse code receiver again. Lauren could hear the slam of the dryer door from another place in the basement: her mother, doing laundry.
She trudged upstairs to Henry’s tiny bedroom. Her older brother sat among miniature box buildings they used in a game they called Apartment Complex. The cardboard apartments were occupied by imaginary residents--some of whom had tiny plastic representational forms, while others existed only in Lauren’s mind. She was in charge of people; Henry was in charge of buildings and grounds. He loved to build. His most time-consuming projects were the meticulously constructed plastic fighter planes that now hung over their heads, suspended from the ceiling by fishing line in mock dogfights. Henry had shown her how to simulate the illusion of movement in a night confrontation by aiming flashlights at the planes in the dark and flicking them on and off. But Lauren hated the fake dogfights and left the room when Henry suggested them.
“What’s Winston doing?” Lauren asked her older brother.
“He’s in the garage playing with the cars. Trying to find the dip stick. He asked Dad where it was and Dad said he’d give him a quarter if he could find it by himself.”
“Winston!” she heard their mom yell. “Winston, you come right here right now!”
Lauren glanced inquiringly at her older brother. "What now?" she asked.
Henry didn’t look up from the door hinge he was attaching. “He took off all the doorknobs and electrical outlet covers in the house.”
“I watched him do it. Mom was busy making something in the kitchen. He did all the rooms except the kitchen.”
“Didn’t you tell her? Didn’t you try to stop him?”
“He had a sharp object in his hand,” Henry replied. Both he and Lauren carried small scars from other failed interactions with Winston, who literally went deaf and dumb and maybe partly blind under the influence of rage. Their younger brother was sturdily built and surprisingly quick--small but dangerous.
They could hear their mother speaking sternly, calling their father up from the cellar to get involved, then Winston crying. Winston revered his father, and Warren’s disapproval made the youngest Cooper child unbearable for days. He would come stamping up the stairs soon, they knew, banished to his room. Sure enough, two minutes later Winston rumbled by, weeping. His door slammed, and within five minutes they could hear a regular rasping noise.
“Go see what he's doing now,” Lauren urged Henry.
“I’m busy,” Henry replied.
So Lauren made her way down the hall. She peeked through the keyhole and made out an elbow rolling back and forth, back and forth. The saw! How had he gotten his hands on the saw? She flung open the door. “I’m telling!” she said. Winston hesitated, then met her glare with one of his own and continued slicing a line down the center of his new bed’s maple headboard.
“Good,” he said grimly. “Tell.”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I don’t know,” he said, no longer glaring. He sounded sincerely confused, driven by some force he didn’t understand but that had something to do with tools.
“I’m telling,” Lauren repeated lamely. It was fairly clear to her now that she would not tell.
Winston twisted so she could only see his back and shoulders, not his face, and he kept sawing. The headboard would collapse noisily soon and there would be no need to tell. Lauren closed the door quietly behind her and went back to Henry’s bedroom.
She wondered if some of the uneasy anxiety she felt was leakage from first communion class and not Winston’s current activities. “Henry,” she said, “Sister Leonarda showed us a picture of a saint today.”
“So?” Henry bent to attach a tiny door to a new building.
“Nothing. It made me feel kind of funny.”
“Saints are nothing to worry about; you think too much. What did you dream last night?” Henry set his balsa wood and diagrams to one side. This was their routine--at some point in every day they asked each other this question.
“Circuses. Flying trapezes. I was on the trapeze.” This was a lie. In reality she had dreamed that she had become lost and frightened, surrounded by unfamiliar trees and fences and cornfields, and that just when she couldn’t bear being lost and all alone any more she had seen Henry walking across her dream cornfield to take her home. Such joyful relief! Henry had a phenomenal sense of direction and whenever she was in his care she feltsecure.
Once, in her real life, not her dream life, she had misplaced herself in a Smithsonian Institute building and after thirty minutes of fruitless searching, their parents had set Henry on her trail. Henry had come to her as directly as if she wore a homing device: he found her standing in front of the glassed exhibit of Civil War army rations and led her back to their parents. Henry had behaved as if there were no skill in doing this but she regarded it as a kind of miracle. The Civil War ration of graying sugar cubes in particular stayed in Lauren’s mind. They had been real, like Henry finding her; not a dream.
In her dream of the night before, a farmer sitting on a tractor saw them and flew into a rage. You! he screamed. Thief! You get out of my corn! In this dream, which Lauren had had many times, this man swelled up with an unreasoning rage, produced a gun and pointed it directly at Henry. In the dream Henry faced the furious man serenely, and then was shot. She had held her brother’s dream body in her arms and thought, ‘He’s dying,’ and then ‘I don’t know the way.’ Her chest had felt as if it were being pulled to pieces, a sensation she imagined was what people meant when they used the expression ‘broken heart.’
The first two times she had dreamed this Lauren had woken with her blood banging up in her throat, as desperately frightened as she had ever been in her life. She had lain in her bed and tried to return to sleep but the image of Henry’s body in her own arms, his blood, had been so powerfulthat she had had to go into his room and touch his moving chest in order to regain enough calm to sleep. He hadn’t woken. Three times now she had lied about having this dream.
“What did you dream?” she demanded.
“I dreamed that I saw the explosion of the atomic bomb.” Henry held the tiny plastic electric plate he’d made between his thumb and forefinger and filed some fuzz off its left side. “I dreamed that I was three thousand meters away from the epicenter and that I felt a big hot wave of air so strong it knocked me down. There were sirens and then the all-clear and I looked at the clock. I saw what I thought was a tornado spout rise up and then the top popped open, all boiling smoke coming out. Then fires started spreading out from the bottom and running in all directions."
“That is not a dream,” Lauren said irritably. “You read that in that book you check out of the library all the time--that Disaster, Disaster, Disaster one. Right?”
Henry didn’t acknowledge her. He said, “I went running toward the fire. I had to find somebody. As I got closer I passed people on fire.”
“Henry, cut it out,” she demanded. Her voice had gotten frightened--skinny and bright.
“Winston!?” they heard. Their father’s voice. “Winston, where’s my hack saw?” Then thumpingsteps on the stairs, the opened door, the whooochk of an open palm on a corduroyed rear end. “And you will stay here until I tell you you can move,” their father announced. Then the steps descended again. They padded together down the hallway to Winston’s room and stood shoulder to shoulder in its doorway, looking at him.
“Why did you do that?” Lauren demanded of her little brother.
Winston stood in the center of the room, tears running down his somewhat crumpled but still dignified expression, arms folded over his little chest. He didn’t answer her.
“You’re a weirdo, Winston,” she went on.
“Shush,” Henry said to her. He stepped into the room and sat on Winston’s bed. When Winston sat down beside him Henry put his arm around his little brother's shoulders. Winston’s arms remained stiffly crossed but he tipped a bit in Henry’s direction.
# # # #
“Why are you so nice to him?” Lauren asked Henry when they had gone back to his room and resumed work on the complex.
“What do you think about putting more roads and kinds of trucks and cars in the design? Winston might want to play if we had cars.”
“I’ll bet Winston would be good at playing apartment if we worked on the roads. Put in a few tiered garages.”
“I hate cars.”
“Cars are interesting. They cause so much concrete, though.”
“I want a swimming pool,” she said, sitting beside his growing pile of neat boxes. “I want to make them swim.” Then, seeing his new balsa wood door frames, she said, “Wow.” Henry designed interiors to code. The wall sockets were never more than the proportional equivalent of twelve feet apart. He’d asked his father about it and Warren called a local electrician to confirm the measurements.
Lauren had a different attachment to the apartment complex game. The whole while she chatted on about swimming pools and residents, she was thinking, “I am God. I am God.” In this little world, she could be. She propped up a tiny plastic person in the middle of a road and when Henry turned his back to pick up something, she ran a little truck over the person. Splatt, she thought, and an answering little thrill ran up and down her body. Then she slowly tipped the little person upright. Live, she said to it in her head, and it returned to life. She felt a little vibrating glow in her abdomen. Happiness.
“Nothing grows in swimming pools,” Henry said, the better part of his attention still directed at a tiny window he was installing. “What about a pond? I could make some modeling-clay trees. A rock garden.”
“Okay. I'll float boats. I'll make the people walk on water. They'll do miracles.”
“I don't think they should do miracles," Henry said.
“You know, you don’t have to be nice to Winston. He isn’t nice.”
“What does that have to do with it?” Henry’s tone was not argumentative. He was actually asking.
Lauren felt a bright little rush of gratitude towards Henry, and the old certainty that Henry’s presence in this room with her, and in the world, made her safer. It occurred to her that her major complaint against Winston was that his corrosive and unpredictable temperament had just the opposite effect on her: it made her fearful and then evil. She did the worst things, said the meanest things, under Winston’s influence. With Henry she was good.
He said, “You know, the model apartment complex needs more services attached to it. I should build a church. Maybe a temple for the Buddhist neighbors. A park.” He tapped thoughtfully. “Can I borrow your crucifix for the steeple?”
“I guess. But you know, Father Murphy blessed it. Does that make a difference? What Buddhist neighbors?”
Henry shrugged gently, a gesture that simultaneously acknowledged her questions and indicated that he wasn't going to answer them. He returned to the four inch high door he was hanging on a small corrugated cardboard building.
“Do you think Sister Leonarda's right about what happens when you die?”
“That’s a long way off. Hold this still for me while I attach shutters.”
"But Sally died and she was little. You don't have to be old to die."
“Dinner!” their mother called from below them.
"Sally's in heaven," Henry told her. "I baptized her, Lauren. Remember?"
"You said, 'I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit' and yousprinkled her head," Lauren added.
"Right. That's all you have to do. The Catechism says so." Henry stood abruptly and began packing loose Apartment Game parts. Then they made their way down the stairs to dinner.
“A hack saw is for metal,” their father said over the children’s heads, his tone disapproving. “Not wood.” Winston had been banned from the table; presumably he had already heard the lecture on appropriate hack saw uses.
Their mother broke in. “The point is the destruction, Warren!” She had just bought that bed last month and she had had to scrimp on groceries for four months to do it.
“That’s true. The waste is terrible. Of course.”
It seemed to Lauren that her mother was tired. She tried to appear interested in the meal, pushingthe gelatinous slush of summer squash around on her plate. Cooking, clearly, offered their mother no happiness.
“Eat your hamburger, Lauren,” her mother said absently, petting the peony she had set at the center of the table. Annie was as good with plants as she was bad with food. Lauren pushed the hamburger to one side, knowing her mother was distracted and would forget about it. She was, and did.
# # # #
That night Lauren sat as quietly as she could on the stairs, holding her knees as she listened to her mother’s half of a telephone conversation with Aunt Honey.
Annie said, “What would possess a child to saw a bed apart? I can't help but think that these things didn't happen before we lost the baby and now they're just the way we are. I hate it. Warren says put it behind us. He never talks about her. The kids don't talk about it but it has to be in their heads. It's in my head" She paused. "I love him but it's a mystery sometimes to me what's in that man's mind. This bed thing? He seems to think that what went wrong here is that Winston picked the wrong tool for the job." And though Lauren could not hear the response, it must have had something to do with gender, because her mother replied, “No, no. It’s not just the men thing.” Honey said something back, and her mother said, “Well. Maybe men.”
Lauren retreated up the stairs, hugging the wall closely to prevent creaking, just like Henry’s Boy Scout manual advised. She lay down in her bed and propped open Lives of the Saints. A smaller reproduction of the same painting Sister Leonarda had shown them faced a biography on the opposite page. There were the same beautifully molded thighs, blood streaming down and crisscrossing, a web of blood. There was the same face, thrown heavenwards in an expression that was not anything, even to Lauren’s youthful eye, that could be called pious. It was a look of a woman in the throes of something intensely mortal--not sacred. Or perhaps, Lauren considered, perhaps those two worlds were not contradictory. This thought disoriented her, so she abandoned it.