I learned as a boy that light tends to distract from the dark and it’s why I stand here diametrically opposed between the doors of St. Vincent's church and a police station. I was never any good at making decisions that required me to weigh good and evil. Mother taught me that if I wanted absolution I could always confess. The wrought iron filigree handle warm to the touch on my soft hands felt like a tiny burn of what I may need to repent.
I attended confession once a week. Mother believed that if we confess our sins we would always have absolution. Between confession and St. Gerard around my mother’s neck, I had all the protection I could ever need.
“Mother, why don’t you ever go to confession?”
“Now Hank, you worry about your own sins and I’ll worry about mine. Come help me pick out a dress.”
Saint Gerard was the only man aside from me to keep his place in our home. I’d asked my mother once who this saint was that held his place above her heart.
“St. Gerard was a saint that protected mothers, children, and the falsely accused. The story goes that a woman tried to return a handkerchief he left behind. St. Gerard insisted she keep it as it might prove useful to her one day. It’s said that the same woman had a near-death experience at birth. She held tight to the handkerchief from the saint. The child survived and now I wear him to keep us safe. Hank, he’s the only man who will.”
The story of the saint was the only motherly anecdote Helen Delite bestowed upon me. The glimmer of St. Gerard every morning at breakfast was the only sign that she might love me as her child.
I loved anatomy twice as much as I loved my mother because of her long sleek neck. I’d spend hours studying anatomy and physiology books to fall asleep at night. I memorized the names of each of the bones, and I categorized the sinewy tendons and ligaments until I was cross-eyed from the multi-syllabled, hard-to-pronounce words. The sternum was my main obsession, made up of three parts down the middle of the body: the manubrium, the body, and the xiphoid process. The manubrium being concave helped create a jugular notch upon which mother’s necklace sat.
I made my way to California in hopes of fulfilling my mother’s legacy of becoming a model. With what little money I received from her life insurance policy I made a few stops along the way. I got by the rest of the time on my good looks and the saint under my collar.
I met Shelly in Grand Rapids at a park where she chased her young son around shrieking with joy. The dark brown feathered hair caught my eye first. The rounded apple-colored cheeks reminded me of a younger version of Helen. She was stunning.
The old, “Excuse me miss, did you drop this?” pick-up line worked well. I held out a silky handkerchief covered with hand-painted white and pink peonies. This gesture brought a blush to Shelly’s cheeks, I knew she never owned anything as nice as this.
“No, that’s not mine.”
My boundaries didn’t exist when it came to beautiful women like Shelly. I pushed the handkerchief into the front pocket of her corduroy bell-bottoms. I took her on three dates before I took her breath away on the fourth.
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I have such hatred toward my mother.”
The hatred burned every day with each passing glimpse of the patron saint upon her manubrium.
Mother had the kind of looks that could kill. The Patron Saint Gerard dangled from a gold chain necklace around her neck. The medallion burrowed its way into the joint between her two clavicle bones.
Anatomy and the saint were the perfect pair. The dips of my mother's breastbone allowed the saint to gaze down the midline of her body.
Carly in Bismarck recognized St. Gerard around my neck. When she pulled her own patron saint from beneath her blouse nestled in her jugular notch I made my move. I spilled some tea on her while she served my table, and we laughed as I wiped her denim skirt with my handkerchief.
The nape of her neck didn’t quite meet my dating requirements at first. I gave her the handkerchief with bluebirds and tulips on it anyway. Carly was a single mother to Joey. I met Joey on the third date. I watched as Carly kissed her son goodnight.
“Aren’t you going to wait for the sitter?” I leaned into the doorframe, biting my lower lip baiting her to say the right thing.
“Naw, Joey is fine on his own. Aren’t you Joey?”
I broke Carly’s heart on the third date and took the patron Saint with me on the fourth.
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I cannot discern between good and evil. I stole something that wasn’t mine to take.”
A breastbone is a place for a man to lie his head I’ve discovered, and not for that of a child.
I was a young man that spent most of my time alone with my mother in front of the old black and white television set. It didn't take much to meet my entertainment needs. I survived on wowing her with anatomy facts, admiring her in date night outfits, and not much else. Mother told me there wasn’t much else to need as I’d be a man one day. A man that needed to learn one thing and it was only right that I learned how to keep the company of a sophisticated woman.
Watching my sophisticated mother change for her dates always led me to see the smallest part of her sternum, the xiphoid process. It’s smallness didn’t take away from the top of her perfectly flat abdomen.
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I disobeyed my mother twice this week, I did not smile when she asked me to.”
I could not smile when she changed clothes for her 5th date of the week, allowing me to see her xiphoid process. I wasn't one for taunting.
“Mother, did you know that bones are stronger than steel? Your ring box. The one that holds the black pearl circled with diamonds? It could brace up to 18,000 pounds of weight if it were one of your bones. Isn’t that fascinating?”
“Sure Hank. The weight of being an unmarried single mother with no men or agents knocking at my door... That could crush every bone in my body. Tell me, what’s your fancy science book say about the weight of that?”
I’m certain I was not meant to hear those words. But my mother didn’t differentiate what was, and was not appropriate while around me.
The sternum is meant to protect the heart. My mother’s chest plate had been subjected to pulverization by the man that left her as a bag of non-caring dust. She was more apt to get in one’s eyes causing pain and tears all because her looks got her a baby out of wedlock and not a ring. Maternal instincts didn’t resonate with Helen Delite as much as being beautiful to an attractive man did.
Our neighbor Mrs. Johnson waved down my mother one morning in our driveway.
“Helen, good morning! The other ladies and I would love to have you over for a game of Bridge next week. What do you say?”
Helen being Helen, reached over and corrected the collar of Mrs. Johnson’s dress.
“There, that’s better. I couldn’t focus on your words with this beautifully disheveled house dress you’re wearing.”
Poor Mrs. Johnson, she blushed with embarrassment in the presence of my mother’s regality. She made an abrupt excuse to get back to her home as there was a roast chicken in the oven
Being the envy of every housewife seeing her face in print did bring her a significant smugness but not much else. Her words were often spoken through a non-existent filter. She’d speak with a bright, convincing smile. Her voice with such harsh honesty. There was no need for me to interpret her words as anything other than cruelness behind a facade. Helen Delite taught me how to say what I meant with smoothness and insincerity.
The modeling world knew my mother as Helen Delite. I knew her as Helen Byrne. A lapsed Catholic that wore her saints and kept a bible on her nightstand next to her Pall Malls. Her haughty and elegant bone structure was once discovered in the local mall by a talent scout at the age of 16. She handled the modeling prints from her days in high-end magazines like rare comic books. The pictures remained in plastic sleeves, preserving her images from time, dust, and fingerprints.
Most kids in my neighborhood had sofas covered in plastic. Mother could care less about the condition of the sofa. No, she cared more about preserving her legacy. We were two strands of the same DNA, scrupulous in appearance and exact in emotions. She modeled high-end jewelry in almost every single magazine spread. She often wore the kind of diamonds reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s collection. Diamonds were the kind of gems that the sixties housewife fawned over. A simple gold band to signify marital status back then was far more common than a precious stone.
As Helen Delites' son, the task of being a sounding board for the outfits she chose for her many dates fell on me. I learned to smile even when I didn’t want to, and I never wanted to. In front of her, I forced a twinkle in my eye when she bent over to kiss me on the forehead goodnight. My ironed cotton pajamas masked my disruptive insides. They screamed to each new date, “Make this woman a wife please!” Not because I wanted or needed a father. I felt certain that a boy would be better off an orphan than with a mother out with men every night of the week. I’d stand in the doorframe of our home, biting my lower lip in a childlike way waving them goodbye down the driveway. The dark shuttered the light from my eyes moments after my mother was gone. Only to return upon catching sight of St. Gerard himself the following morning.
Joanne from Boise was a lapsed Catholic with a taste for handsome men and Pall Malls. I met Joanne at a casting call where we both auditioned for some commercial work. Her dark chestnut hair swept over her right shoulder. The vacant shoulder gave sight to the visible outline of her sternocleidomastoid muscle. Joanne was open and bare. I could see where the sternal head and the clavicular head twisted like two ropes wrapped tight. I examined the way the muscles and bones moved when she spoke. I was drowsy in the presence of the multi-syllabled anatomy. Joanne laughed and locked her arm through mine. She was delicate so as not to wrinkle the ironed creases in my linen blazer as we left the studio.
Joanne confessed to me that she was a mother to a boy. There wasn’t time for me to catch the boy’s name. Sloppily I missed the chance to give her the handkerchief with the diamond print on it. There wasn’t time for my pictures to make it to print or to end up in a plastic sleeve protected and safe. St. Gerard would have to protect me now.
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I have used another human for my own personal gain. I have taken a life.”
With the right amount of pressure and caught unaware a sternum will fracture and leave damage to a heart, proving catastrophic.