Of a tall gray substance she was fashioned, but certainly not of flesh and blood. Not Miss Parrington. Hipless, bustless, she moved up and down the corridors that smelled of new varnish and old age, reading her Bible, moving without joints or muscles or any of the things of this world, her center of locomotion her gray lips as they told the sacred verses half-aloud with the clear-cut swish and chitter of bats in the early evening: “I am not of this world,” would say Miss Parrington between verses should some old lady in this Home For Refined Ladies urge her to a game of pinochle, or invite her to listen to her radio, or share her evening paper. From some mystical steeple Miss Parrington would say, “Like His, my world will be the next.” Then she would pass on, her lips moving with the sharp flutter of wings.
She had given her story the first day she arrived at the Home and thereafter remained silent. “I was one of the first women of Iowa to serve my country. I’d always been a good church worker and thought I could be good in politics on the same Christian principles. I was wrong. Now I let the state, the whole country, wallow in its corruption.”
And so Miss Parrington went on with her Bible verses, her loneness, until Al Smith ran for President. Then the ladies noticed a change in her. She seemed less gray, her lips took on a bluish-pink cast, and the ladies imagined they detected a line of hip under her impeccable dresses of gray wool. They noticed that she read the Bible more rapidly now, so that the sound of her lips was less like the chitter of bats and more like the chatter of birds. She would watch for the evening paper to come. She was a subscriber now and read it behind her locked door.
The day Al was to make his first campaign speech over the “raddio” she sent downtown for a little table model. At first she used only headphones and kept her door locked, but one night several ladies gathered without and heard her say, “He’ll smite ’em, Al will. He’s the work of God. It isn’t too late to save this country from the ways of wickedness. He’ll do it, Al will.” Then she threw open her door, attached the loudspeaker, and invited the ladies to listen.
They were all there the night the election returns came in. “Nothing to it,” cried Miss Parrington at first. “He’s as good as in, because God’s in this. It’s all the work of God.”
Then when everything began to go against Al, and the ladies all shook their heads and sighed, Miss Parrington just sat motionless, her eyes glued to the little crystal set, refusing to acknowledge Al’s defeat, even after he himself had acknowledged it. But the blue-pink had ebbed from her lips, all the grayness was back.
When all the ladies filed out of her room, she finally stood up and said, “Maybe it’s better so. God is saving Al for His Kingdom. He’s sparing him from corruption just as He spared me. It’s all the work of God.”
The evening papers piled up at Miss Parrington’s door unread, the radio went back to the store, and without hips or a bust she moved up and down the corridors, her lips with the sound of evening bats as they told the verses from her Bible. Slowly again.
Mrs. Paradiso had never read any part of the Bible. She did not concentrate on dogma but devotion. Her religion was not a retreat for her mind but a release for her emotions. The ladies saw her in terms of lighted candles, jingling rosaries, prayer books stuffed with holy cards and novena leaflets. These she kissed many times and loved like pets with her tender brown face. When it stormed outside her dark eyes grew solemn. She made the sign of the cross repeatedly, sprinkling with holy water and distributing blessed palms and medals of the Immaculate Conception and the Sacred Heart.
But sometimes the ladies saw her as the sly little woman who on nights of the full moon took out a dirty old deck of cards and told their fortunes “to maka da fun.” After she was finished she’d say, “Tal noa one I do dis.” She would laugh and kiss them and say, “Da cards maka da fun, da prayer maka da good.” Prayer would help her Giuseppe find her, she told them.
They knew her story, she’d told it often enough. “Twenta year deesa Spring Giuseppe come to ’Merica. He say, ‘Rosa, I sen’ for you when I maka da mon’.’ I wait, but Giuseppe no sen’. I wait no more, I come, but he is move, canna fin’, ’Merica is so beeg. Deesa far an’ my monna go, so I stay here. I pray to Virgin an’ say, ‘Blessed Maria, let Giuseppe fin’ me.’ ”
The ladies smile and shake their heads. Poor Mrs. Paradiso, she’d never see that man of hers again. Pray, indeed, a miracle it would take after twenty years. But Rosa Paradiso wept and laughed and kissed her rosary, waiting for her Giuseppe. Her old deck of cards got dirtier and dirtier, and always she said, “Tal noa one I do dis. Da cards noa good. Da prayer maka da good.”
Then the miracle happened — with the slight assistance of several government agencies. In a letter for Rosa Paradiso one fine Spring morning. How her Giuseppe found her is another story that didn’t matter to someone who had prayed as hard as his wife. The significant thing is what she said. First she danced and wept and kissed all the ladies, then threw up her arms and cried, “Da cards, dey see alla dis. Dey say a darka man come here. Da cards know, dey maka da good.”
Murph was a jolly big Irish woman with lots of rich dark hair too vigorous to gray, and small blue eyes that sparkled youngly and slammed shut like tiny trap doors when she laughed. She had a knack with the sick. She saved no end of doctor bills for the ladies and took not a cent for her services. “Oi’m a practical nurse,” she’d say. “Oi kin tell how much faver yez got jes’ feelin’ your haid, but they ain’t usin’ moy kind anymore, jes’ them trained bitches.”
Murph was strong and happy, but never so happy as when someone was sick and she was “doin’ ” for her. When all the ladies at the Home were well (which was rare), and even old lady Sotter paused between heart spells, Murph was gossipy, quarrelsome, like a man out of work, but when someone got sick she joked with everyone and told sexy stories, her small eyes slamming tight with laughter as she bristled about in her starched white apron. Never had she been sick herself. She didn’t exactly boast of it, but never hesitated to say so when asked about her health, and refused to knock on wood at the behest of Mrs. Paradiso. That was why it came as such a shock to the ladies when one day she announced she had cancer, with only a few months to live. She had only gone to the doctor as a kind of joke. With no one at the Home sick at the moment she’d thought maybe she could find something wrong with herself. “Just a little somethin’,” she emphasized in a mystified voice.
However, the next day Murph was her old self again, she was working on a new case: her own. “Oi’ll show ’im,” she said. “Oi’ll show that ol’ quack!” But the ladies were less optimistic. Among themselves they said that Murph had tempted the Lord. She had tempted Him by going to the doctor without actually feeling sick and the Lord would not be tempted by a Mrs. Murphy any more than by Lucifer on the mountaintop.
Murph worked hard on her case. She tried cures that went way back to her great-great grandmother in Ireland, cures she thought she had long ago forgotten. “A few months indade,” she said. “One month by alriddy and ain’t Oi good as ivver?”
Was she? The ladies exchanged glances that said she certainly didn’t look it. To Murph they said she looked fine. Then one night on her way to the dining room for supper she collapsed. They tried to put her to bed but she wouldn’t hear of it. “Oi aint’ the kind to done fer.” They thought that strange indeed for someone who did so much for others. She went to bed all right but of her own accord. “Only t’plaze yuh,” she told them. “Not that Oi’m a-needin’ it.”
Then old lady Sotter had another of her heart spells and nothing could keep Murph from going to her. All her energy seemed to return as she put on her starched white apron and hurried up to the next floor. It was the worst spell old Mrs. Sotter ever had and the doctor said she wouldn’t survive it. Murph said, “Fiddlesticks,” her eyes bright and determined, and all night she never left the woman’s side. Toward morning when the old girl rallied, Murph glowed with satisfaction — you could almost count the glows, like halos all around her. Then suddenly her eyelids slammed shut, but with pain, not with laughter. Again she collapsed, and this time they couldn’t revive her. A stroke, the doctor said. If she recovered she’d be at least partially paralyzed, and there was still the cancer to run its course.
Without ever regaining consciousness she died that next day, before those long dying-of-cancer weeks and months of pain and paralysis could assail her. “A blessing,” said the doctor, and the ladies agreed. Now Murphy wouldn’t have to be “done fer.” The Lord was merciful, they decided; He would not be tempted, but in the end He was merciful.
At least that was how they explained it to themselves what they couldn’t have otherwise understood: why someone so strong and jolly and useful as Murph should die, while old lady Sotter, who had been dying for years, no good to herself or anyone else, should go on living without even wanting to, hating every moment of it, praying to die.