The Atheist of Dekalb Street
In our town, the Irish go to Irish church, the Italians go to Italian
church, the Polish go to Polish church, and no one knows any
Protestants, and the only time we see each other is when one of the
churches throws a weekend carnival with rides and funnel cake and shuts
down the street for days.
So we were confused already by the atheist lady who lived on Dekalb
Street, and even more so when she started to bear stigmata on her hands
and feet. They started gently, like bruises, but they entrenched, and
when she could no longer get around easily because of them, my dad told
me I should go to her house and offer to help, because it was the right
thing to do, even though she was atheist and unbaptized.
"What happens to her when she dies?" I asked my dad.
"I don't know," he answered.
I rode my bike up Dekalb Street and knocked on her door. "Hey, lady, do
you need any help?"
I saw her through the screen door, sitting at her kitchen table with
her feet in a basin of water. She was wearing a blue dress with flowers
and black-rimmed glasses. I'd never really seen her before.
"What can you do?" she asked.
"I can do wheelies on my bike and catch frogs and make good sound
effects with my mouth."
"What kind of sound effects?"
I showed her my best water-drop sound, which I make by tapping my
finger to my cheek while making a sort of fish face. "I can do a better
water drop than that," she said, and she puckered up her face and
flicked her own cheek, and her water-drop sound was pretty good.
"Is it true you have the stigmata?" I asked her.
She held out her hands and turned them over so I could see the bloody
spots on both sides.
"Is it because you're a sinner?"
She pulled her hands away. "Who told you I was a sinner?"
"Good, because I'm not."
I looked at her but I couldn't tell if she was mad. "So why did you get
"Maybe I'm a saint." She pulled her feet out of the basin of bloody
water. "I don't need any help from you today. Come back tomorrow."
The next day, I went back to the woman's house on Dekalb Street. This
time, I brought a vial of Holy Water that my mom kept in her night
"Why do you think that'll help me?" she asked when I offered it to her.
"Do you want to try it?"
She shrugged and held out her hands and I sprinkled the Holy Water over
them. It seeped into the holes in her hands and dripped straight
"Any better?" I asked.
She shook her head.
"This is the Irish kind of Holy Water. Maybe you need the Polish kind
or the Italian kind."
"Maybe," she said.
"Do atheists have Holy Water?"
She limped over to her liquor cabinet and pulled out an amber bottle.
"Everyone has Holy Water," she said, and poured herself a drink.
Over the next days, the stigmata got worse, so the woman couldn't even
walk, and I decided to spend more time at her house, taking out trash
and mowing her lawn. She had a bookshelf full of stories she let me
read while she rested on the sofa.
Other people started coming, too: people from the Irish newspaper and
the Italian newspaper and the Polish newspaper. People with casseroles
of Irish food and Italian food and Polish food. Priests came to her
door, but she chased them away angrily, and a doctor came, but she
chased him away too.
"Don't you want to get better?" I asked her.
"He's just a priest from another religion," she said.
While she slept, I wiped her hands and feet with clean rags till they
were filled with blood, and she'd wake seeming to feel better. "You're
a good boy," she said, but she was an atheist, so I didn't know whether
she knew what she was talking about.
"How come you don't have a husband?" I asked her once.
"How come you don't have any manners?" she answered.
By now, scabs had broken out on her forehead, and she spent all her
days sleeping, in a fever state. "Are you scared you're going to die?"
"Why should I be scared?"
But I could tell from her eyes that she was scared.
I went to the bathroom and filled her basin with water, all the way to
the top, and carried it back to where she was lying, careful not to
spill it. "You need to sit up now," I told her. "This is important."
She used her weak arms to pull herself to sitting, and then I poured
the basin of water over her head, all of it, so it soaked her nightgown
transparent, so it made her hair into thick brown icicles and ran a
river between her breasts and puddled a reservoir between her legs, and
brought out the smell of her, the smell of a woman who had spent too
many weeks lying on a couch in strange fear and unexplained blood, and
I told her, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the
Holy Ghost, amen," and it's okay, it was water from the sink, the
atheist kind, but it's okay, I understand now, that's what Holy Water
is, the believing part.