Monday, April 18, 2011

Howard and Graciella by David Alpaugh

Originally, the soul was as dirty
as Uncle Joe’s undershirt
after he changed the oil

on our ’43 Chevy. But unlike
that ruined garment the soul
could be washed clean

if you knew the right words
and had a little water. If not,
God wasn’t picky—spittle

or a tear would do. What
knocked us out was that
anyone could save souls!

You, me, Felicia
Pfister—anyone past
“The Age of Reason” (seven)

who came to Saint Mary’s
to get the truth by heart
from The Baltimore Catechism.

“I baptize thee in the name
of the Father and of the Son
and of the Holy Ghost.”

For lack of these “of ”s
and a drop of water many
souls were lost every day!

Still, fearing baptismal
zeal might lead her lambs
astray, Sister Theresa

told us the story of Graciella—
a Catholic girl who babysat for
the Bernsteins, a Jewish family.

While changing a dirty diaper
Graciella was reminded of the
plight of the unbaptized soul.

Were baby Howard to die
in the state of original sin
he’d burn in hell—forever!

“What would you do, if you
were her?” Sister asked
with a mischievous smile.

We begged Sister to tell the
rest of the story and our fingers
trembled as poor Graciella

held a pitcher of over
Baby Howard’s head:
to baptize or not to baptize....

The Bernsteins were awful nice;
but were they to discover
that their first-born son

was baptized Roman Catholic
Graciella thought it unlikely
they’d ask her back soon.

But what was more important?
Petty self-interest?
Or saving an immortal soul?

So Graciella poured H2O on
Howard’s head and washed
away Adam and Eve’s sin.

But there’s more. Since Graciella
was afraid to tell the Bernsteins
that baby Howard was a goy

he grew up behaving like a Jew!
He made his Bar Mitzvah;
kept the dietary laws;

never suspecting that an alien
God was holding him to a higher
standard; judging him not

by the Torah but by rules laid
down by Archbishop Walsh
in The Baltimore Catechism.

That’s how Howard Bernstein
came to live his tragic double life.
For, though mortals thought him

a model Jew, from God’s
point of view, he was
the lousiest Catholic ever

to crawl upon the earth!
He missed Mass every Sunday;
always ate meat on Friday;

never made his Easter Duty;
walked the streets unprotected
by a Saint Christopher medal;

And never knew how easy
it was to wash sin away—
with Wizard-of-Oz magic

from a man behind a screen:

So, though free of original sin,
Howard Bernstein was so
guilty of sins of omission

both “mortal” and “venial”
that when he died he went
to hell faster than he would

have had Graciella not saved
his soul. It was our first taste
of Catch-22, out-Hellering

Joseph: teaching us that 1)
if you must enter this Vale
of Tears, better not come

as a Jew; and 2) cleaning
souls is much trickier
than cleaning bottoms

and best left to priests
like Archbishop Walsh
and nuns like Sister Theresa

who had all the answers
to all the questions in
The Baltimore Catechism.

The gates of hell
would not prevail
against them.

Author bio:

David Alpaugh’s poetry has appeared in literary journals that include Bogg, Evergreen Review, Exquisite Corpse, Mudlark, Poetry, Rattle, and Zyzzyva. His essay "The New Math of Poetry," published in 2010 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, has spurred wide discussion on the internet (as have his earlier essays "The Professionalization of Poetry" and "What's Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests?"). His first collection, Counterpoint, won the Nicholas Roerich Prize from Story Line Press. His second, Heavy Lifting, appeared in 2007 from Alehouse Press. He has poetry forthcoming in Bogg, Eskimo Pie, Lit Snack, and Thema.

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