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Dinty W.

Varieties of Religious Experience

Sophia shook her head, touched the small gold cross dangling from her neck. "Pray to the Virgin," she whispered. "She's the only one who really listens."

It was breakfast, Saturday morning. Sophia was suggesting I pray about a little black dog, a miniature rat-faced canine with sharp yellow teeth. My wife was convinced the dog was a curse, put upon me by some unknown enemy. I suspected it was much more than that, a sign from God perhaps, or proof that I was losing my mind, or possibly some combination of the two.

We argued about the dog while Sophia dumped skim milk into my All-Bran. "Jimmy," she urged. "Everyone has bad dreams. You should see someone."

"I am," I answered. "I'm seeing you."

"You need to talk."

"I'm talking."

"Jimmy." She thrust the cereal toward me, spilling half the bowl onto the table. "You need to talk to someone else. Talk to Mary."

-----

Sophia prayed exclusively to the Virgin, as did all her aunts and cousins. She prayed as if Mary herself were God, and the other three, the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, were just a husband, son, and bachelor uncle waiting for dinner. Sophia's version of Heaven, it seemed, resembles her family, a typical South Philadelphia family, all of them squeezed around a small table, arguing over how long to bake the meatballs.

"You cooked 'em dry," God the Father might complain. "You shoulda taken 'em out when I told you."

"Aw, Dad," Jesus would whine back. "Leave Ma alone. She's workin' so hard."

The Holy Ghost just waves his fork like a baton. "Someone pass the wine." He spears a dry meatball, shoves the whole thing into his mouth, glares at his nephew. "Jesus, Jesus, would ya pass the wine, soze that I can wash down my food."

Mary, though, is far too busy running relays into the kitchen, bringing out olives, hard rolls, trays of cheese and sliced prosciutto, to even acknowledge the conversation. Her life is a procession of chores: answering prayers, making dinner, performing the occasional miracle, ironing all those white robes, keeping the house as immaculate as her soul.

The heavenly family I picture, on the other hand, is more like my family. God the Father is reading the paper at the kitchen table, complaining that Jack Kennedy isn't really Irish because he was never really poor. He reaches a big red paw around the outside of a folded page to spear a forkful of ham, belches. He is half-pickled on whiskey, straight, no holy water, and has made it painfully clear that we should never converse at the table.

Mom, the Virgin, is standing at the far end of the kitchen, biting the skin off her fingertips, waiting to see if the Holy Father likes his food.

I am Jesus, vaguely aware that the old man has some grand plan for me, some vague ancient business about dying for someone else's sins, but not fully understanding. I'm too afraid to ask, though, and in any case I'm entirely convinced that whatever it is God the Father has in mind, I deserve it.

-----

When our argument ended, my wife pinned her dark hair into a bun, retrieved an old ceramic bowl from the cupboard, then reached into the pantry for the olive oil. She filled the bowl with water, made a two-fingered sign of the cross, eased three drops of oil from the bottle's mouth, and whispered my name:

"Jimmy Flatley, Jimmy Flatley, Jimmy Flatley."

Then she squinted, studying the droplets to see which way they scattered.

"Malocchia," Sophia said.

"Malocchia?" I asked.

"Malocchia," she answered. "The evil eye."

Beautiful Sophia rubbed the back of her hand across her tensed forehead, emptied the bowl, set it above the sink. "Be careful," she warned, lifting her thick, dark eyebrows, frowning. "It's very heavy."

I nodded.

She reached for her black sweater, slipped out of the house.

-----

When my father died, I was at his bedside.

I had always thought his drinking would kill him, but instead he was in the cancer ward of Pennsylvania Hospital with the rear end of a pint bottle sticking out from under his pillow. His face was red, as if a team of nurses had been scraping it all night with a putty knife, and he was trying his best not to die too soon, at least not until he finished the pint. I was sitting on a mustard-colored chair telling him how much I would miss him. It wasn't true, and I doubt the poor old guy was fooled for even one moment, but I was the only relative he had left and what else was there for me to say?

My father's lungs were swimming with cancer, and everyone involved knew exactly where he was headed. Just the week before, Dr. Rothstein had returned my father's carton of Lucky Strikes. "You might as well enjoy these," he explained. "They can't do any more harm." Nervous priests began lurking in the hallway.

It was a Thursday night, the air outside the hospital window was yellow with a sulphurous fog. Big Jim was trying to clear his throat, trying to tell me something, probably trying to point out that I had always been a bit of a disappointment to him, when a young nurse with an enormous Polish name stitched halfway across her pink jacket poked her head in the door.

"How you doin' this evening, Mr. Flatley?"

My father raised his hand weakly, but no sound came from his dry, gray lips.

"Fine," the nurse chirped. "You just ring that bell now, if you need anything."

She turned and rolled good-naturedly away, I glanced down to study my new penny loafers, and my father rasped, "Here boy."

I thought for a moment that he meant me, that he was going to whisper in my ear that he did love me, and that, in fact, I was a great kid, but then I saw that he was staring at the foot of the bed. His eyes had swollen to twice their normal size, like two white blood cells expanding to the point of explosion.

For three months, my father had been in a constant state of wincing, as if waiting for some great pain to return, as if a thick needle was just inches from his back. Now, the muscles across his old face slackened, and the turbulent redness under his skin went soft and pink.

"Here boy," my father repeated.

I looked to the end of the bed, where he looked, and, looking there, felt something in the room, something that hadn't been there a moment before. Something alive.

But I didn't see it. I didn't see a thing.

"Good boy," my father called.

I stared, looking for it, but saw nothing.

Then I looked back at my father, and he was dead.

-----

Sophia didn't know this, but the week before our argument, I had seen a psychiatrist. His name was Larry. He was gaunt, soft-spoken, looked like he hadn't slept for five years, and he suggested the dog was completely in my imagination.

"But I see him," I said.

"I don't doubt it."

"I hear him barking."

"We hear lots of things."

"The fur." I stopped, not sure what came next. It sounded ridiculous, even to me.

Larry sucked on the arm of his wire glasses. "The fur?"

"I'm allergic."

Larry smiled, showing a startlingly straight set of teeth, then leaned back in his leather chair. "Jimmy," he said. "Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy."

"What?"

"You're unhappy." His voice deepened into a range he probably reserved for diagnosis. "Sometimes our unhappiness can manifest itself in odd ways. Are you depressed about something?"

I was paying Larry one-hundred and thirty dollars for just over fifty minutes, and this was the best he could do? At the time, I didn't think to ask him if he believed in God, but if I were pulling down that kind of money, I know I would.

-----

Sophia, when she left, was no doubt going to see her mother's mother. Grandmomma Seraphina lived near Passyunk and 10th, right above the Gold Star Wash-O-Rama, a sliver of a building where anyone could buy drugs, drink beer, or even do laundry. She was a widow, always in widow's black, a massive woman with a remarkably straight spine and enormous clouds of white hair. Sophia went to tell the old woman that the evil eye was heavy on me, and I guessed then that they would kneel side by side on the hard wooden floor to try and pray me through it. Afterwards, they would eat sandwiches of boiled ham and mustard.

I spent the morning reading, the afternoon watching the Phillies lose a squeaker. I swept the kitchen floor. I sorted my socks. It was just a lazy weekend day, until the dog came back.

I felt the blood blitz into my skull like a tap had been opened. The skin on my forehead began to itch. I felt lightheaded, almost giddy. The dog appeared across the room, growling. He was a handful of dark wet fur with yellow teeth, and bright red eyes like the brakelights on a hearse.

Bark, bark. Hey, Jimmy-boy!

Bark, bark. I'm watching you.

He squatted on the sofa, little claws dug in, his pink tongue dripping and steaming. His breath reeked, stale, sour, the smell of a flooded basement with wet wool rugs. His eyes flickered.

"Who are you?" I asked.

Nobody, Jimmy.

"Are you my father?"

Hardly.

"Are you God or something?"

The dog just laughed. He was useless.

"Why do you keep coming here?"

Bark, bark. Bark, bark, bark.

"Why don't you just leave me alone?"

Bark, bark. Bark, bark, bark.

Our conversation went nowhere, which was the custom. By the time Sophia returned from her grandmother's, I had crawled off into the bedroom, tucked myself under the old blue comforter. The blinds were drawn, the lights were off, and I must have been a sight.

"We have to talk about it," Sophia said when she saw the bump on the bed.

"Not now," I answered.

"Then when?"

"Later."

"You always say that."

"I always mean that."

Sophia walked over, sat down. "You expect me to say you're a bad boy, don't you?" she whispered. "You want me to say you're a very bad boy?"

"I am," I cried. "I really am bad."

"I'm not your mother," Sophia reminded me. "I'm your wife."

-----

I knew that. My mother had blonde hair. Her name was Peg, and she looked like Rosemary Clooney.

Peg Flatley was depressed, pretty much all the time. She told me once that she had been depressed since the day she turned three.

"Every day?" I asked.

"Every day."

"Weekends?"

"Even on my wedding day, Jimmy. Even then. I knew your father would eventually leave me. I just knew it."

We were sitting in her tiny living room at the time, a few months before her heart attack. Since then, I have pulled out the wedding pictures, and sure enough, it shows. She was smiling so hard it looked like her teeth had been epoxied together. Like she was trying to pry them apart.

"What's it like," I asked my mother that day, "being depressed all the time?"

"It's okay," she answered. "At least you know what's coming."

-----

Sophia stood from the bed, suggested one more time, "Pray, Jimmy," and then she left again. I heard the bedroom door slam, the closet door in the front hall, the front door, and, finally, the wooden lobby door downstairs. Four slams, and she was gone.

I remained huddled in the bed, thinking about God.

The nuns at Blessed Sacrament had always portrayed him as a sort of vengeful, mindreading Santa. He knows if you've been naughty, he knows if you've been nice, he knows if you've been bad or good, and he knows if you've been thinking about just what might be hidden under the soft cotton padding of Patty Gerbracht's training bra. He knows, he keeps track, and in the end, he'll get you.

That vision of the deity wasn't much solace in fifth grade, and it wasn't much solace as an adult, but the only other God I knew anything about was the Buddha, and he was not even a God, really, or so my meditation teacher had told me.

Actually, she wasn't much of a meditation teacher. She left three of us students up in her attic once, sitting on pillows, with instructions to focus on a red candle and breathe through alternating nostrils, but after ten minutes I tiptoed downstairs to find the bathroom, found her watching Inside Edition and smoking a joint.

What I had managed to learn about the Buddha, though, was that he was not really vengeful at all. He didn't care what I did, really. He may or may not have even known that I existed. Buddhists don't believe in God the way Christians do, they believe in energy, the energy of the Buddha, which is in all of us, and in everything, and there is even some fuss about whether we should swat mosquitoes, since they are the Buddha too. I met a Buddhist nun once who was really bothered about carrots. She said she could hear little screams when someone bit into one.

-----

Consider this:

A kid in my dorm, freshmen year, took too much LSD and stayed awake for three straight nights, thinking deep thoughts, college kid thoughts. This is what he discovered -- that DOG spelledbackwards was GOD.

The poor kid came to this conclusion and shouted it out to us from inside his locked dorm room. He smashed his roommate's collection of empty wine bottles, played Jefferson Airplane over and over on his turntable. "Just ask Alice . . ."

The dorm counselor came up eventually and knocked on the door. "John," she said gently. "John, would you like someone to talk to?"

She was nice enough, but the guy's name was Joe, and he had totally flipped by this point. Eventually he left with the police, and three weeks later, when we were finally able to visit him in the hospital, he told us that he hoped to get well and become a forest ranger. His mother nodded in the background. "You know," she said. "Joe has always loved trees."

I lost track of him after that, have no idea if he ever recovered, but I hope he is fine somewhere, around lots and lots of hardwood. Maybe he's a Buddhist. Maybe he chains himself to old growth timbers to stop the loggers. Maybe he hears the trees scream, just like the Buddhist nun heard the carrots, just like I see the dog.

In any case, I think it was around then that I first began to suspect there was no God at all, Catholic, Buddhist, Seventh Day Adventist, or otherwise. I mean, how could God let a good kid like Joe Votsch lose his mind and come up with nothing better than the old Dog/God thing?

Let me put it another way:

If there really is some meaning to our lives, don't you think someone would have discovered it by now?

-----

But back to Saturday:

After Sophia left the second time, the dog returned.

"Are you the Buddha?" I asked, peaking out from under my covers.

Bark, bark.

"Are you mocking me?"

Bark.

"Are you like the devil or something?"

Dog, God. Dog, God. Dog, God.

"Why is it that you never make any damn sense?"

Bow, wow.

This pointlessness went on for fifteen minutes. I left the bedroom, but the dog followed me into the kitchen. I shouted for him to go play in traffic, but he ignored me. I stood there, I don't know how long, arguing with the stupid little canine, getting no sensible answers, trying to trick him into coming close enough so I could grab and throttle him, when I realized I was being watched.

Two black dogs, instantly more real than the other black dog, stood a kitchen floor away, tight against the wall, eyes locked on my throat, mouths wide open. One dog was larger than the other, and as I stared in horror, I recognized who she was.

"Christ!" I said. "Grandmomma Seraphina."

"Yes, Jimmy. Sophia tells me you are not at all well."

She gestured, and I looked at the smaller dog. It was my wife. My wife was frowning.

I noticed then that old, white-haired Grandmomma Seraphina was clutching the largest black-beaded rosary imaginable. Her left hand jerked slightly and I saw too that she was holding a greasy, brown bag.

"Jimmy," she said. "You should sit."

I did. At the kitchen table.

She stepped away from the wall, pocketed her rosary, and opened the bag. Carefully, she extracted a bone-colored candle, a bundle of something green and herb-like, a glass jar filled with clear liquid, and, after fishing around a moment, a plastic baggy filled with what looked to be dried fruit. Grandmomma Seraphina brushed my cheek with two cold fingers, then walked over and whispered to her granddaughter. I couldn't make out the voices, but I think whatever passed was passed in Italian. I imagine it was nothing particularly flattering.

"You're a good boy," Grandmomma Seraphina said, returning her focus to me. "A good boy but troubled."

While I watched, and while Sophia's lips mouthed words I couldn't understand, Grandmomma Seraphina lit the candle and placed it near me on the table. She took the jar of clear liquid, removed the lid, poured it into a white enamel saucepan, and put it over a low flame on the stove. Very slowly, very carefully. She took hold of the green stuff, kissed it, and crumbled the leaves into the pan.

In a minute, it was hot.

"Drink this." She poured it into a red mug. I took a sip. It tasted like mud and water. "Drink it," she commanded.

I drank.

Grandmomma Seraphina walked across the room and closed the kitchen drapes. She grabbed a pair of tongs Sophia kept for dishing up pasta, reached into her plastic bag, and wrapped the tongs around a small piece of the dry, wrinkled stuff inside. She held the substance over the candle flame. I don't know what it was. I don't even want to speculate. The smoke was thick and instant.

"Breathe."

What the hell? I sucked in the sooty air.

"Breathe deeply." Her voice was coming from somewhere south of Delaware.

My head was reeling, filling with smoke, with color, and then with images of the black dog barking madly in my face. We were standing snout to snout. Yap, yap, yap. Then it was not the dog's face I was looking at, but my own, covered with oily fur. Dr. Rothstein appeared just behind me, wearing a skull cap, a yarmulke. "You're father is not sick with cancer," he said. "He's just sick of you."

I was about to ask my father's doctor what it was that Jews believed about God, because I honestly didn't know, but I saw my father then, in his hospital gown, chasing on all fours across a green field. He saw me too, turned quickly, and ran in my direction. Barking. I raced across the lawn, something snapping at the back of my ankles. I felt myself falling and hitting the floor.

My mother appeared, telling me something that I remember her telling me when I was ten. "Never let them lick your hand," she said. "Their mouths are full of germs."

I saw Sophia, on her knees, next to her Grandmomma, praying and fingering her cross. The old lady was jerking her arms up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth. She was towering above me, swaying like a tree in a thunderstorm. Sophia was in tears.

Then Grandmomma Seraphina, the entire one-hundred and eighty-five pounds of her, began to quake as if some large man had his hands on her shoulders, yanking with all his might. She cried out. It was the only time I had ever heard her scream. Her voice filled the room.

"Cave canem," she hollered. Beware the dog.

Then, slowly, a bit at a time, the smoke cleared.

I was in the kitchen, curled up on the floor.

The old lady and Sophia were looking at me.

I felt better. Much better. Much much much better.

I remember nothing more.

-----

So there is no God, right?

That's one theory. Just Grandmomma Seraphina, some rare herbs, your basic old country superstition, the ubiquitous power of suggestion, and the dog is gone. It was all in my mind, and the crazy widow chased it out. Grandmomma Seraphina ought to get herself a tent and travel through the South. She could make a bundle.

Or maybe the lesson is that there most certainly is a God? I mean, what does this old lady know that I don't know? She believes, she's spent much of her life cleaning altar linens, and her magic worked. So she wins, right?

But I can't get past the fact that she worships a God who allows for so much evil, who makes humans weak and then turns entire cities to salt to punish them for their weakness, who stands by and keeps track as we demolish our lives, then adds insult to injury by sending us a fat bill (ten years in purgatory, payable on demand.) This Jesus stuff never sat right with me either. What did he do to deserve such a fate? All in all, the Bible has too many sons being sacrificed at the altars of their father. Like that Abraham guy, so willing to chop his boy to pieces. Who thought this stuff up? Not the sons, I'll bet you. Not me.

Yet, the alternative is a Buddhist God who doesn't even care, doesn't even know we're out here flailing and wailing and generally making a mess. He'd rather not be bothered.

I mean, they both sound sort of unfriendly.

-----

Hours after the dog left, I awoke.

The apartment was dark, black. I was in bed, coming out of a fevered sweat, and someone had placed a cold washcloth on my forehead. It was Saturday evening, and I was apparently alive. The air smelled faintly of something burnt and sweet.

"Who?" I said. "Where?"

"Just rest," Sophia answered.

"Why?"

"Shhhh. It's over now."

"What?"

I felt sedated, dull, insensible. Sophia leaned closer, her eyes shining like polished marble. She did not seem angry. A miracle, I thought, considering.

"What did she do?" I asked. "Grandmomma Seraphina. What was all that hoogy-joogy?"

"Don't," Sophia whispered.

"Am I dead or what?"

She laughed.

"Is he really gone?"

"Who?" she asked.

"The dog."

"Jimmy," Sophia said softly. "There is no dog. Never was."

-----

Here is the heavenly family I would prefer:

God is Mister Rogers. When Fred looks out from his Heavenly Neighborhood, he is honestly glad to see us. He is wearing a sky blue cardigan and soft sneakers, and he sings to us about how special we are. Though he can't really repair our ravaged lives, he sure does make us feel better.

And he is married to this really nice lady. Mrs. Santa Claus, maybe. Mister Rogers and Mrs. Claus don't have any kids, never could, and that is the sad part, but they think of us, all of us, as the children they never had.

And they remember our birthdays.

They send cards.

And maybe our lives aren't that much better, but they care.

They feel as bad as we do.

-----

After Sophia said there was no dog, never was, I began to drift again. My head was the inside of a thick gray cloud. In the distance, I heard barking. No matter what she said, I heard it. But it was weak. Faraway.

Bark.

And then I saw the dog, cowering in the corner of the room. His head was hanging, his eyes were green.

Yip, he said. Yip, yip.

He looked up at me, sad, repentant.

Yip, yip.

He was cute, in his own doggy way. I hadn't noticed that before. He was so small. I was tempted to pet the little mutt, but Sophia, loyal to the end, was watching, and her left hand was reaching up, petting me.

"You look kind of doggy yourself," she joked.

"Bark." I rolled over, she stroked my back. "Bark, bark, bark."

"Man's best friend."

"Exactly," I told my wife. "Wouldn't it be nice if God were more like that?"

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