Winfred Smith’s sanctuary could have been in any of the rooms within his house, all of them furnished old but each immaculate in its paint of gold or beige and its worn furniture in browns and greens, lots of oak trim and brown carpeting, red and mauve imitation Turkish rugs in the smaller rooms. But it was not the plainness or the cleanliness and age of these household rooms and accoutrements that would have qualified them as a sanctuary, nor was it the absence of anything visually or electronically stimulating — plasma TV computer surroundsound components — much less alive like ferns or peaceplants or potted tulips, or even imitation living things like plastic sunflowers or ivy. No, it was what hung on the walls of each room including the full and half baths and the basement furnace room that would betoken sanctuary, it was the carvings and framed prints, the machinestamped and the handpainted graven images, the icons two and threedimensional of sacrifice and pain and horror, the monstrous.
Like the cells of a brothel or like peepshow booths, each room revealed its dedication to one common theme, a theme manifested and fulfilled room by room but also wafting throughout the house, main floor and basement and tiny second level: not the carnal gratification in the brothel cells but the agonized crucifixion of the SonofGod, Jesus Christ. Alone, bronze ceramic or plastic body on plain sometimes gilded crosses, in carved groupings with Gestas Dysmas and Longinus, Mary Magdalene and Mary Christ’s mother and some other Mary, in paintings and prints some depicting the three victims only and others crowded with mourners soldiers and the rabble, the Sacrificial Lamb holds center stage, often dead, sometimes in the placid stillness of complete shock, indifferent to the twisted and broken bodies that would outlive him by hours or even days on the trees to his left and right, waiting for the lance and sweet death, in each room the image supreme, the waylayer of every eye.
But at this stage of his life only Winfred’s eyes lay upon them. He entertained no one anymore, allowed no one in not even for repairs, he had learned plumbing plastermending electrical work years ago and he had no need of new cabinetry or larger closets or wallremoval. Four years had passed since his last guests, his sister Alex and her husband Daniel, had had the opportunity to gaze upon the lurid and disquieting artwork and to offer their views on both it and him.
My god Win, what’s going on with you Alex asked. Daniel, tall and straight and wearing a fine wool suit, brown with subtle blue pinstripes, given to him by Winfred, simply stared at the halflifesize paintedwood ensemble occupying much of the tenbytwelve room off the kitchen and occasionally, as he walked among the pieces, turned to oversee the disputants.
What do you mean what’s going on with me he responded. Nothing’s going on with me.
Win. she crossed herself. You’re bordering on lunacy.
What do you mean I’m bordering on lunacy.
Win. She whirled, her arm spread as though sweeping the air. Look at this.
Win. I mean, don’t you think you’re overdoing it? I mean, look at all this. These figures. Yuck. Jesus. The pictures on the wall. Every room. Every room. The kitchen the bedrooms all of them.
The john Daniel said.
Win, I haven’t seen you in three years and I come here and this is what I’m confronted with? Win. She approached him gently, grasped his arms just above the elbows. Win, are you all right? Do you think you might need some, some, some professional help? His flat gray eyes fastened on a wart beside her straight eyebrow.
Not at all Alex, I’m fine, he lowered his head, peered above his glasses at her, I go to work every day, six days a week, I open the store and close it, I’m fine Alex. I’m their best salesman, I sell more tuxedoes than anyone in town, more suits than anyone else in the store. I’m fine.
She released his arms walked to a wall studied the unframed poster pinned to it. Fifteenth century. Blood dripping from Christ’s right hand into Dysmas’s grimacing mouth. The thieves’s broken arms and legs, the blood and bones. Ugly little creature dragging the lost thief’s soul away, happy rosy angel embracing Dysmas’s cherubic pink reborn spirit. She shuddered, turned to Winfred. This isn’t healthy Win.
What do you mean.
Win, this is sick. Sick. She approached him, stopped, drew back. He widened his eyes, tightened his lips drew the corners down, tilted his head to the side, shrugged.
These are all holy pictures Alex. Churchpictures. Altarpieces. The sculptures and ensembles, they’re all holy. Some of them I had blessed by priests. Wait a minute. He rushed from the room, returned before Alex could gesture meaningfully to her husband, he held a thick wooden cross with beveled edges and a heavy wellworn bronze figure of a Christ quite dead, the face frozen in the sum of all pain. This belonged to a bishop Win said. Thousands of people kissed those feet on GoodFriday. Is that sick? What’re you talking about.
Alex’s eyes flitted from Win’s face to the image in his hand back and forth, Win she said, took a deep breath, you don’t even believe in God, what are you talking about. Daniel,blandfaced and dimplechinned, turned and gazed at her. You’re a nonbeliever Win, a nonbeliever and a blasphemer, and you’re sick to have all these things around here.
They all mean something to me Alex. They’re important to me. He looked hard at his sister, gave her one sharp nod, paused and turned toward the room’s lone window, he crossed the room to it with a clenched jaw that suggested this would be her last visit, he looked out one hand in his pocket gripping the bronze and wood of the crucifix at the midSeptember sunlight, the depening shadows. An abundance of apples a dull red tugged on thin branches, soon he’d pick them and carve out the worms and their grubby paths with his small pocketknife and eat whatever clean pulp he could find, his feet bare in the cool lush grass that now was rippling in the afternoon breeze. In that shaggy grass he saw a neighbor’s cat, black with white bib and boots and a white ear that looked painted, it was stationary, poised, and he saw a slight movement two feet ahead, a young chipmunk barely able to hop through the deepgreen morass. The cat seemed nonchalant, it would take three or four steps and halt, look around as if at distant flies, then hurry its pace and stare down the struggling little rodent as though newly discovering it, then swipe at it two or three times. This little drama pointless and inane gradually moved itself stageleft out of Winfred’s view and he gazed at the path left in the grass, the cat’s path, the chipmunk too small to have left much of an indentation.
He turned. He raised his hand and peered at the image of the dead Christ, bronze nails through bony feet one on top of the other, hands gnarled, stringy arms, gaunt face wearing the rvaged mantel of pain.
Win. You’ve got to leave all that shit behind. Don’t you think it’s time to do that Win? It was Daniel speaking and Winfred Smith looked momentarily caught short. His eyes shifted from Daniel to the crucifix he still grasped and he stroked with his thumb Christ’s smooth bony legs.
Somebody’s got to pay. He said this matteroffactly.
What you say?
I said somebody’s got to pay. There was silence for a moment, Alex and Daniel looked at one another, Alex closed her eyes bowed her head and sighed deeply.
Kathleen’s paying Daniel said, she’s been paying for what, twentyfouur, twentyfive years now Win.
It’s not enough. It’s not enough. Winfred’s face changed, solidified, hardened, the lines across his broad high forehead disappeared, his eyes behind his glasses seemed to vitrify. She’ll be getting out of it soon. A year or two then she’ll be out of it.
Alex took a step toward him reached out. A quartercentury in a stateprison isn’t enough? Win, for God’s sake.
Fuck a quartercentury. Michael’s dead forever.
Daniel took a deep breath turned and exhaled only after a few paces, he approached one of the ensemblepieces, a blackhaired blackbearded man with a large hooknose and a rock in a hand drawn up behind his ear and he studied it, his words to his brotherinlaw sufficient sufficient in number and directness to satisfy his obligation to speak. Behind him Alex crossed the room to Winfred, pointed to the figure in his grip. Look at this Win she said, look at your idol here. Didn’t you learn that he paid for our sins? Didn’t that little fact that you learned way back in elementary school mean anything to you? You’ve got the collection here, the reminders all around you. The great sacrifice. Redemption for your sins. My sins. Kathleen’s sins. Kathleen’s sins Win. Remember? He knew twothousand years ago that she would murder her only child and he died for her in advance Win, and she’s been repenting ever since, for a quartercentury now. Twentyfive years.
Not enough. He still peered at her over his glasses, she drew back, swept hair from her forehead. What do you mean Win.
Not enough. His back still toward them Daniel’s sigh filled the room. Head tilted back, eyes closed, mouth pursed. Not enough he repeated. It was all play for him. A production. A grand production. That’s all it was.
Eyes widening and mouth dropping open Alex stepped back. But Win, Win, no greater love . . . God sacrificed his only son . . .
Then his father’s got to pay too God damnit. God damn it. His father’s got to pay too. Killing his son. Winfred inhaled audibly, tensed himself, his neck seemed to inflate. Put him behind bars with Kathleen. Who killed her only son too. With a hammer. With the clawend of a fucking hammer. The clawend. That’s what she finished him with. Winfred said this as though Alex hadn’t known. She grimaced. So put the father in the cell with her and let him beat her over her fucking head with the clawend of a hammer. Redemption ha. Love ha. Fucking forgiveness ha fucking ha.
But Win. Daniel came to her, held her bent elbow.
He didn’t pay at all Alex Winfred said. At least Kathleen’s in prison. where’s he? Sitting around somewhere smirking that he got away with murder. Smiling down on his murdering daughter that he forgave twothousand years ago. And she’s getting out in another year or two. She’s getting out. Fucking cancer.
Daniel tugged at Alex’s elbow, guided her out of the room, out of Winfred’s life. The last time he had anybody in his sanctuary.