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Stories

The Miracle of Dust

Marjorie had a perfectly functional, model family in the suburbs, until the Blessed Face of Holy Mother Mary appeared on her television. New fiction by Dennis Mahoney.

Marjorie wasn’t typically a great believer in miraculous occurrences, yet the dust on Ronald’s television screen bore an irrefutable resemblance to the Blessed Face of Holy Mother Mary. Ronald had been eating eggs and coffee in the living room as usual, watching Katie Couric, when he stood and cinched his tie to just the right constriction, kissed her on the cheek, and hurried to the car.

‘I love you,’ Ronald said, although the door had shut behind him. Marjorie, whose ears ached and itched whenever Katie Couric spoke, flicked the TV off and in the sudden calm discerned a Holy Vision on the darkened screen. The peaceful lips and sloping nose, the veil that trailed along her neck and flowed below her shoulders, and the deep, sorrowed eyes, floating up to God, were traced as if by some inspired artist in the powder that had hidden in the glow of television light. She clapped a hand across her mouth and wobbled, losing sight of everything as tears bubbled in her eyes.

Hyacinth and Sean rumbled down the stairs to grab the bus to school and Marjorie, afraid that something terrible would happen if they saw the Face of Mary on the screen, turned the television on and saw the vision disappear beneath a Hefty ad. Hyacinth had dyed her hair blue. Marjorie was speechless from the vision of the Holy Mother Mary and pursued her daughter to the door, pointing at her daughter’s head as if it were aflame.

‘Can I sleep at Angela’s tonight?’ said Hyacinth.

‘No,’ said Marjorie, without the slightest comprehension of the thing that she was barring.

Sean was short. He stood beside his mother, tugging at her hem so she would kiss him on the head and give him lunch, but Marjorie was too preoccupied with Hyacinth, who turned and slammed the door behind her, hard enough to shake a flowerpot halfway off a windowsill. Hyacinth enjoyed the clean, rejuvenating air she breathed whenever she was leaving home. She walked away with open strides and didn’t turn around, because she knew that Marjorie was watching from the window.

Sean dropped his mother’s hem and he shut his eyes so tight his face began to redden from the pressure. He rocked from heel to heel and spread his arms to either side for balance. He didn’t hear his mother say his name. Marjorie was troubled by his fits of concentration and his fear of sleeping in the dark, both of which had worsened in the past few days. Was it really any wonder, Marjorie considered, with a father who was too distracted for an ordinary catch at night while Sean was trying out for Little League, a sister who appeared with shirts that read, for instance, BUNNY LOVE or GIRL FOR RENT, and finally a mother who—what? She didn’t know. Between her urge to get him on the bus and hug him to herself forever, Marjorie was quietly aware that she had failed to help him with his penmanship the night before. Thinking of his miniscule, impenetrable cursive, she was moved to tears and squeezed her eyes and clenched her fists. Sean looked up at last and wondered if mother was imaging herself as someone magical, invisible, or capable of flying.

‘Mom?’ he said.

‘Your sister’s just a little angry.’

‘Why?’

‘She’s 17,’ she said. ‘And 17-year-olds are crazy.’ Sean laughed and blew snot across his upper lip, which Marjorie adored and wiped away with tissues that she kept inside her apron.

Then she handed him his lunch and kissed him on the cheek—a special rosy kiss that he would feel for half the morning—and they looked at one another like a team. ‘Go,’ she said. ‘You’ll miss your bus.’ They said, ‘I love you,’ both at once and Sean went out to caught the bus, turning back to wave because he knew his Mom was watching from the window.

Marjorie, alone, was in the presence of a Very Holy Miracle of Heaven.

‘Oh,’ she said.

She took a breath, fixed her hair as if preparing for a visitor, and hurried to the living room. The Face was still invisible beneath the lighted screen, and Marjorie considered that it might have been imagined, and finally decided that she hadn’t really seen the Holy Mother Mary. So she steeled herself for disappointment and prepared for good old-fashioned earthly oven-cleaning, since the Holy Mother Mary didn’t just appear, especially to women like herself, and least of all on television screens. She clicked the television off.

Mary’s Face was more distinct and shocking than her memory: the static of her hair, the grief that etched the corners of her mouth, the haze of dust upon her skin, the halo at her crown, radiating up and off the screen and floating in the motes that Marjorie was breathing as she leaned toward the television screen, closer than she’d ever been to God. The dust was light enough to blow away, but clung against the screen and held its shape. The patterns in the dust were random, almost accidental, but together formed a definite design. She saw it better when she partly shut her eyes.

She crossed herself and kissed her thumb and crossed herself again, kneeling till her knees began to ache and she was forced to sit. Ashamed at her unwillingness to suffer minor pain before a Holy Apparition, Marjorie convinced herself to kneel again. She wondered how much longer she would need to honor and adore the ghostly vision, counting seconds in her head. Her guilt at counting soon distracted her from praying, and her lack of prayer before the Queen of Heaven was atrocious. Finally her legs began to quake and she was forced to sit again. But at least she had suffered for a while, and she shut her eyes and thanked the Blessed Virgin for her infinite and ever-loving patience. Then her mind began to wander to the kitchen, and the laundry, and the mildew on the shower curtain, and she begged forgiveness in her heart and knew that Mary understood the hum-drum, necessary work that she was called to do, and with a purpose and an energy she hadn’t felt in years, she crossed herself a final time and went to fold some towels from the dryer.

Laundry was a never-ending problem in the house. It piled everywhere: in corners, bins, and duffel bags, on tables, chairs, and lamps, under beds and desks and even other laundry. Months ago, a stocking somehow landed in the toaster and ignited. Clothes were shed, abandoned where they fell, and then were carried, kicked, or dropped in transit to the laundry room. The laundry room was so disorganized that loads of clean and dirty often mixed, resulting in the accidental pairing of a smelly sock with one that Marjorie had washed repeatedly, or shirts that fell apart while others lasted years. Marjorie was vigilant in separating piles, but her family often raided them, strewing heaps without a thought and then complaining when they found a dirty item in the dresser.

Standing at the dryer, she was struck by how the towels all resembled clouds, immaculate and fluffy in her hands. She folded sheets and linens, thinking ‘swaddling’ and ‘ivory,’ and ‘purity,’ imagining the counterpanes were shrouds, remembering the way that Hyacinth had looked when she was small enough to lift, wrapped inside a short cotton blanket. All the towels had a powder-fresh aroma that reminded her of spring. Marjorie remembered running barefoot through the grass when she was young, staring at the bright, clear stars, imagining the family she would have when she was older. She had never once envisioned Ronald’s girdle in the wash.

Nor had she envisioned, till today, Holy Mother Mary in the dust around her house, although it did occur to her that Jesus had essentially been God and dust together. As a girl, Marjorie had loved the ritual of Sunday Mass, endurance of the sermon when the words evaporated and she pressed her hands against her eyes until the colors flew, and how, on staring at the priest for lengths of time, he seemed to emanate an aura, which was probably an optical illusion but elated her regardless. But then attending Mass became a duty, dull as taking out the trash, and Marjorie began to wonder how the beauty of the Mass had faded so depressingly. She hoped that Mary never faded from the television screen.

She passed the living room and worried that she ought to call the local parish, since a Vision of the Holy Mother Mary wasn’t private and she had an obligation to announce it. Hiding it from everyone—her family, friends, and neighbors—made her craven, but her fear of ridicule, her certainty that everyone would laugh, a wife at home who had started seeing things that couldn’t be, prompted her to wait. She thought about the woman in her parish who insisted she had dreamt about her husband’s death, the day before his brakes had failed and he had driven off the Waterbury bridge. Even Ronald had suggested a mechanic could have seen it coming. No—she’d better wait and think it out.

Hyacinth had stained the sink a faint royal blue and Marjorie was forced to scrub with heavy-duty scouring powder, working till her wrists and arms were ringing and she stopped to think about the Holy Apparition. Then she thought about Hyacinth—at least she could have cleaned the sink! But Marjorie forgave her in her heart and scrubbed some more and tried to think of punishments that would convey an iron-fisted message while remaining merciful and fair, but only when she finished with the sink and wiped her head, smiling and admiring what a brilliant job she’d done, did Marjorie decide she should have left the scrubbing for her daughter.

She thought about the Vision and decided that she wouldn’t eat, rest, or rid herself of worry for the whole duration of the day. She splashed cold water on her face, made the beds, did another load of laundry, cleaned the oven, mopped the kitchen floor, and made a batch of gingerbread cookies in the shapes of little animals, an offering to Sean, who seemed to need her more than ever lately. Then she opened up a window and enjoyed a breath of air.

The breeze snaked toward the living room. It blew a stack of napkins off the table and she slammed the window shut, certain she had jeopardized the delicate stability of Holy Mother Mary in the dust, and even when she found the Face intact and knelt to ask forgiveness, she was terrified that she had put her daily cares ahead of something sacred and miraculous. She knelt until the cookie animals, forgotten in the oven, tripped the smoke alarm. She ran into the kitchen, cracked the plastic cover with a broom, and freed the battery. It hit her on the forehead.

‘God damn it,’ she said.

And if a thundercloud had suddenly emerged above the house and hit the roof with eighty-million bolts of lightning, she would not have been surprised, but everything was still and she was so astounded by her blasphemy that she began to laugh, a primal and despairing laugh, until she slumped against the floor. She gathered up the pieces of the broken smoke alarm and lost the will to work.

She rubbed her head and rested on the couch. ‘What if I’m the problem? What if it’s my fault? Maybe I’m just looking at it wrong.’ And Mary seemed to listen. But instead of seeing Mary, Marjorie began to see a different face within the dust, black and bottomless, and she was frightened by its strange familiarity. She wiped her eyes, saw the Face of Mary once again, and realized she’d been staring at her own reflection in the cold, dark glass.

Sean was home from school, standing at the door and watching her.

‘Mom?’ he said.

Marjorie was startled. ‘Honey pie,’ she said. ‘How long have you been standing there?’

‘What’s that smell?’ he said, assuming that the smoke was why his Mom was sitting on the couch, crying at the television. Marjorie, remembering the Eyes of Mary were upon her unsuspecting son, found the old remote embedded in the cushions, turned the television on to hide the apparition, and asked her son to play in the yard. She knew that there was no one in the neighborhood to play with him, but what was she supposed to do? A Holy Apparition could be crippling to his overripe imagination.

While Marjorie was occupied with Sean, Hyacinth had entered through the back, snuck into her room, and hurried down the stairs with what appeared to be a bag of clothes and what was unmistakably a pack of cigarettes, showing through the black-mesh pocket of her backpack.

‘No you don’t,’ said Marjorie, objecting to a hundred different things. She lifted out the cigarettes and drowned them in the sink until they floated in the box. Hyacinth began to sigh repeatedly, until a sigh became a moan and ended in a muted, ‘Fuck,’ or ‘Fuck you,’ or ‘Fuck something,’ and Marjorie responded, ‘Wipe, your, mouth,’ and slapped her daughter in the face.

She saw the hot, pink astonishment across her daughter’s cheek, and she was ready to apologize—she’d never slapped her daughter once—but Hyacinth began to swear in many tongues, fiery and incoherent, shouting words and phrases Marjorie could scarcely comprehend.

Marjorie was so distressed and helpless that she hugged her daughter tight and wouldn’t let her go, no matter how she struggled and continued swearing in her face, no matter how impossible it was to hold her still or how the very act of hugging her would only serve to drive her off. She held her daughter hard, as if the universe depended on it. Then she fainted.

When Marjorie regained herself, Hyacinth was on her knees above her. ‘Mom…Mom…Mom,’ she said, shaking Marjorie and crying, and when Marjorie responded, Hyacinth began to laugh as Marjorie had laughed when she had panicked after swearing at the battery. Hyacinth examining Marjorie for lumps and bruises, sat her in a chair, and filled a plastic sandwich bag with ice, the way her mother would have done. Marjorie applied it to her elbow.

Then they sat together at the table, savoring the cool, white aftermath of the emergency.

‘So who is Angela?’

‘A girl I know in school,’ her daughter said.

‘You want to spend the night? And nothing’s going on?’

‘Nothing special, no.’

‘All right,’ said Marjorie. ‘I’ll let you go.’

‘You will?’

‘I didn’t mean to hit you, Hyacinth.’

‘I didn’t mean to swear.’

She kissed her mother on the cheek. Even though she had intended to escape before her mother knew what happened, she was happy that she wouldn’t have to face a punishment for sneaking out. She said goodbye, got up, and shut the door as gently as she could, with a click, and Marjorie was glad to be alone.

She thanked the Blessed Mother for the peaceful resolution to the argument, and then made lasagna in a pan. Looking out the window, she discovered Sean was standing on the firewood with both his arms extended like a bird, eerily serene.

She called for him to take the garbage out and gave him twice his usual allowance, just to get his mind on something practical. He ran to meet his father in the driveway. Ronald picked him up, and when they both came in together, Sean was laughing.

Ronald said to Marjorie, ‘Lasagna! I could kiss you.’ And he did. ‘You can’t imagine what a crazy day I had.’

Marjorie explained that Hyacinth was staying with a friend.

‘It’s good to let her have her way,’ she said, ‘every now and then.’

Ronald didn’t argue, but when Sean suggested he should have his way and get a model plane he’d seen at Toy Emporium, Ronald looked at Marjorie and said, ‘The gates are open. Let the flood begin.’

But Marjorie reminded Sean he’d already been given extra money for allowance, and before her husband asked her why she said that, ‘Sean’s been doing extra chores.’ She winked at Sean, who knew that she was lying.

She mentioned that the cookie trays were ruined and they’d need another set. Ronald frowned, but then he said, ‘If everybody’s getting presents, what the heck,’ as if a set of cookie sheets were something that she wanted as a present. ‘While we’re at it, I could really use another tie,’ and all of them were quiet at the thought of buying cookie sheets and ties and model planes.

Ronald stood and said, ‘I’m gonna hit the tube.’

Marjorie clanked her forked as if disgusted with the meal.

‘No!’ she shouted, so emphatically and angrily that Sean ejected milk from both his nostrils, wondering what on Earth he’d done to prompt his mother’s wrath, and even Ronald looked at Sean as if the boy had suddenly produced a loaded gun. But Marjorie was looking right at Ronald.

Sean, a milky bubble coming from his nose, looked toward his father, mortally afraid of what was happening because he’d never heard his father shouted at before. His parents were a generally harmonious and even-tempered team, especially when he was in the room. He’d heard them fight before, but always quietly, as if the fight was something difficult but necessary they were working on together. This was something else.

Ronald got a hive, a butterfly of red below his temple. He was mortified that Sean was eyeing him suspiciously, defensive in the quick, tough way of men whose acts are rarely contradicted.

Marjorie, as if she hadn’t shouted, knowing that the only thing she had to offer was a week-old jar of yogurt and a pint of loganberries, said, ‘We haven’t had dessert.’ She smiled at her son and husband, scooped the yogurt into bowls, topped the bowls with loganberries, set them on the table with a pair of silver spoons, and handed Sean a paper towel for his face. Sean and Ronald sat and ate, glancing up at Marjorie and puzzling over what had just occurred. Marjorie began to wash the dishes, soaping them and leaving them to dry without a rinse, desperate for a way to broach the subject of the Visitation in a way that wouldn’t make her husband frown, ascertaining how much longer they’d be eating by the sound the spoons were making in the bowls. When she noticed that the dishes in the rack were fully soaped and she would have to wash them all again, she starting crying at the realization she had eaten two entire helpings of lasagna—with meat—after promising to fast.

Hopeless, she concealed her tears—though Sean and Ronald noticed anyway—and cleared the empty bowls, allowing them to go and watch TV. Sean and Ronald left the room in silence, Sean assuming something thoroughly adult was going on, Ronald figuring his wife was suffering from PMS, and snuggled up together on the couch, laughing at a sitcom and oblivious to anything miraculous that might be happening before their eyes. Marjorie continued with the dishes, swept the floor, rearranged the cabinets, swept the floor again, organized the fridge, made a grocery list, did another load of laundry, and wiped the dust from every counter she could find. Sean and Ronald couldn’t help but notice her activities, but they were wary of addressing her directly.

Ronald focused on a show about a family that consisted of a baby boy, a nanny, and a set of parents who’d divorced, remarried, and were living all together with their spouses in the house so that the boy would have a stable home. He laughed at how preposterous it was, and laughed because their family situation was familiar in a way he didn’t fully understand, and everything the little baby did—babbling, drooling, soiling its diaper in a restaurant—was funny in a way that made him instantly regret his laughter. Ronald noticed Sean was laughing with him, even if the joke was too adult to understand. He laughed when something wasn’t funny—just to see what Sean would do—and sure enough, his son began to laugh and neither of them understood the joke. He thought of asking Sean to have a catch, but it was late and he was tired, so he swore inside himself that they would have a catch tomorrow.

At nine o’clock, he said, ‘It’s time for bed, buddy-boy,’ but Sean implored him for another hour, with a look of fear that made his father wonder if there wasn’t something genuinely scary up the stairs. Ronald didn’t have the heart to send him off. But when the hour passed and Sean refused to go, he said, ‘Come on now, Sean. We had a deal.’

So Sean went up to brush his teeth, dragging both his feet across the floor as if he couldn’t bear to lift them up, and Ronald sat distracted, guilty once again despite his doing nothing wrong. He slumped and watched TV until the colors bled, and nothing made him laugh.

Marjorie came in and sat beside him on the couch. ‘We need to talk,’ she said.

Ronald, instantly assuming she was there to ream him out for watching television, or for letting Sean stay up an extra hour, cut her off by saying, ‘If you want to pick a fight, I hope that you can wait for Sean to leave the room. He doesn’t need to see it.’

Marjorie was flattened. She had prayed and searched her heart and finally decided that she needed him to know about the vision. Her family needed help. She felt the eyes of Mary, watching them together on the couch.

Ronald shut the television off and headed for the stairs. Marjorie went after him. Instead of going up, they stopped together. Sean was on the upper step. His eyes were shut. His body, thin and naked, shivered even though the house was warm. His arms extended like a hawk, stretching out to either side. He wobbled on his toes as if preparing for a jump, seeming not to breathe, unaware that Marjorie and Ronald were below him. Sean began to tilt toward the stairs. He hovered—partly standing, partly falling—in the balance.

Marjorie and Ronald took the stairs together, holding out their arms in case he fell. Ronald hugged him tight and Marjorie massaged his hands, asking what was wrong and looking up at Ronald, who was terrified the way that she was terrified. Sean began to calm and soften in their hands. All he said was, ‘Octopus,’ afraid to even look at them, embarrassed by his fear. Ronald grabbed a pair of Sean’s pajamas from a hamper up the hall and said, ‘Listen, buddy-boy. You can sleep with us tonight’—the very plan that Marjorie had wanted to suggest.

Ronald led him off and Marjorie went down to warm some milk. She stood before the stove, looking through the window at a line of orange storms that shuddered in the west, wondering if Hyacinth was safe. The milk began to simmer, so she poured it in a mug and went to say goodnight to Holy Mother Mary. But the Face had disappeared.

At first she thought her eyes were tired, or the light was too diminished, but the more she looked, the more she saw the shapes and lines were not miraculous at all. They were nothing but the ordinary finger marks that always lined the screen. Marjorie was secretly relieved. The strain of having Mary in the living room was too exhausting to endure. Tomorrow she could eat instead of fast. She wouldn’t have to call the parish, and she didn’t have to worry how her husband would react. He’d probably find it funny. She could help her son confront the octopus that scared him in his room—another strange illusion she’d be happy to dispel.

The allure of her delusion lingered up the stairs, but when she saw her son and husband cuddled on the bed, she handed Sean his milk and stroked his hair and instantly forgot about the dust.

‘We’ll talk about the octopus tomorrow, when it’s light,’ she said. And Sean agreed because he didn’t want to talk about it ever. Then she took the empty mug and snuggled into bed. They fell asleep together, first her husband, then her son, and finally Marjorie herself, who dreamed that Hyacinth was also sleeping, somewhere safe and perfectly believable.