Feast of Pentecost
he early-morning knock on her bedroom door startled Sister Mary Helen out of a deep sleep. “What is it?” she called, fighting down the dread that immediately began gripping her stomach.
“Telephone,” Sister Anne whispered hoarsely. “It's Sister Eileen.”
“What's wrong?” Mary Helen quickly slipped on her robe and slippers. In her experience, anything good rarely came in an early-morning or a late-night telephone call. She hoped this call from her old friend was an exception to the rule.
“Nothing's wrong. I think she just wants to talk,” Anne said reassuringly.
“At this hour?” Mary Helen grumbled. Putting on her bifocals, she checked her bedside clock. Good night, nurse! It was six o'clock in the morning! What could be so important?
“Hello,” Mary Helen said.
“Hello, yourself, old dear,” Sister Eileen called cheerfully.
At the sound of her good friend's voice, any grumpiness Mary Helen felt melted away. As it turned out, all that was wrong with Eileen was a little loneliness and a big desire to chat.
Mary Helen thought. Eileen had been in Ireland for over a year caring for her sister Molly, who was slowly dying of cancer. It was a very difficult task that she was doing remarkably well.
During that same time, Sister Mary Helen had been with Sister Anne, one of the young nuns, ministering to homeless women at the Refuge, a daytime drop-in shelter in downtown San Francisco. After more than fifty plus years in education, it was all new to her. Much to everyone's surprise, including her own, she loved the work, proving that some old dogs can learn new tricks.
Although Eileen and she spoke and wrote frequently, there was still a lot to catch up on. The time slipped away. “If we talk much longer, it'll be cheaper to fly over,” Mary Helen said finally.
Reluctantly Eileen agreed. “Regardless of cost, I feel a hundred percent better,” she said before she hung up. Mary Helen did, too.
Running a little late, Mary Helen hurried across the campus of Mount St. Francis College, where she lived, toward the chapel. The thick fog made her face tingle and her nose drip. The sides of the college hill were so banked in that, if she didn't know better, she'd think the city below had disappeared.
Sister Mary Helen slipped into her pew just as Father Adams, wearing bright red vestments, entered the sanctuary to begin the liturgy for Pentecost. Mary Helen loved Pentecost Sunday. She never tired of hearing the Scriptural account of the first Pentecost with the disciples of Jesus cowering in the upper room, afraid that they, too, would suffer His fate.
Suddenly, a driving wind had filled the room and tongues of
fire rested above each of them as the Holy Spirit infused them with courage and wisdom, commanding them to go forth and teach all nations.
It must have been something to see,
Mary Helen thought, imagining the group bursting from the room, all speaking at once. Amazingly, when they spoke, everyone, regardless of the language, was able to understand.
That's hard to do even when everyone speaks the same language,
Mary Helen thought as Father Adams continued on with the Mass.
When it was over, Mary Helen joined the other nuns for breakfast in the Sisters' dining room. Sister Therese, who liked her name pronounced “trays,” had the floor. “Since the Holy Spirit came in tongues of fire,” she announced with a silly grin, “I suggest we have a barbecue for supper.”
Sister Mary Helen noticed Sister Patricia's gazing out the dining room window. She knew exactly what the college president must have been thinking. The whole hill was shrouded in a thick June fog. The foggiest month in San Francisco and Therese wants to have a barbecue! She could imagine what the kitchen crew would have to say when they were told. Fortunately, most of them spoke only Spanish.
For a moment Mary Helen thought of all those tourists who must be downtown shivering in short sleeves. No amount of vacation write-ups about the city's strange microclimates ever seemed to convince them that San Francisco in the summer is cold. She thought, too, of the women who dropped into the Refuge during the week for warmth and comfort. She wondered how “the refugees,” as they were affectionately called, were faring today. No doubt they were wearing everything they owned.
“You think it's quite the weather for a barbecue?” Sister Ursula asked tactfully. Apparently the question fell on Therese's deaf ear.
“Since red is the order of the day,” Therese announced, “we can have red meat done on red coals, red wine, and tomatoes!”
She looked so pleased that no one, not even old Donata, who usually could be counted on to call a spade a spade, had the heart to dampen her spirit.
The day passed quietly. Mary Helen even had time for a short nap and a long read of her latest Marcia Muller mystery. “A murder mystery is the normal recreation of the noble mind,” some sage had once said. Mary Helen believed it, although she still covered her paperback whodunits with an ornate prayer book cover. No sense scandalizing the ignoble.
At supper time, Sister Mary Helen stood shivering with the other Sisters near the large black barbecue grill. She tried her best to look pleasant, but between the fog and the smoke, it was difficult.
“This is nuts!” old Donata complained loudly as Therese, undeterred by smoking coals, flipped over the tritips. “I'm taking mine inside,” Donata grumbled. “The rest of you can freeze to death if you don't have any better sense.”
Mary Helen noticed several faces brighten at Donata's suggestion. She was so preoccupied with her frozen fingers that she didn't hear Sister Anne sidle up to her.
“Are you all set for tomorrow?” Anne asked through chattering teeth.
“Child's play after this.” Mary Helen closed her eyes against a billow of black smoke. “Why do you ask?”
“I just remembered that I have a dentist appointment in the morning at ten,” Anne said. “I'm wondering if you'll be all right alone at the Refuge. Ruth Davis is the volunteer. It's just a check-up. I won't be long.”
“All right alone?” Mary Helen felt a sharp jab of annoyance. “First of all, I'll hardly be alone. Secondly, why wouldn't I be all right?” she asked, feeling sure that Anne was harking back to last year when Mary Helen had discovered the battered body of a young prostitute at the side door of the Refuge. It had been unnerving, surely, but how often does a thing like that happen?
She marveled at how much more at home she was with the refugees now than she had been then. She was even beginning to understand their special languageâ“street talk,” as they called it. Crazily she imagined a little flame hovering above her head ready to impart courage and wisdom and the gift of a street-talking tongue.
“Of course I'll be all right. What could possibly go wrong?” she asked crisply, and then wished she hadn't. She didn't like the wary look that flickered for a moment in Anne's big hazel eyes.
Feast of St. Francis Caracciolo, Confessor
ister Mary Helen woke to the sound of foghorns outside the Golden Gate. Their melancholy wail warned all who could hear that it was going to be another damp, dreary summer day.
Slowly she opened her eyes to check the time. In five minutes her alarm clock would begin its jarring ring. Happy to be saved from that annoying noise, she pressed the off button. Then she wrestled down the temptation to turn over and go back to sleep.
She heard the convent's central heating system snap on. Ten minutes more, she thought, and her bedroom would be just warm enough to make getting up bearable.
When she woke again, forty-five minutes later, she scarcely had time to dress and hurry across the campus to the college chapel. Father Adams, notorious for his quick Masses, was already at the homily. She arrived to hear him making reference to the saint of the day, Francis Caracciolo, who, with a group
of fellow clerics, had begun an order dedicated to practicing the corporal works of mercy.
He began to list them in the same rote manner that Mary Helen had taught them to generations of schoolchildren. “To feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, and bury the dead.”
Listening, Mary Helen was strangely moved. Now that she was actually “feeding the hungry” and “sheltering the homeless,” these phrases took on a deeper meaning. More than that, they took on human faces.
When Sister Anne and Sister Mary Helen drove up to the Refuge, a group of women were already waiting at the front door. Wordlessly they huddled together for warmth. Most were covered with layers of clothing. One woman was wrapped in a faded green, ragged blanket. As Mary Helen approached the group, she instinctively held her breath. The odor of dirt and sweat, mingled with damp wool, was overpowering.
“Good morning, ladies,” Anne said, quickly unlocking the door. “And how are you all this morning?” she asked cheerfully.
A woman standing beside a shopping cart full of black garbage bags answered for the group. “I be blessed,” she said simply.
Mary Helen felt as if someone had squeezed her heart.
Once inside, the two nuns snapped into action making fresh coffee, serving doughnuts, and, above all, turning on the heat. Before long the women seemed to literally thaw and the Refuge took on its usual comfortable feel.
Ruth Davis, the morning volunteer, arrived a little early. Mary Helen was glad to see her. Ruth, a retired nurse, was a no-nonsense kind of woman. Tall and big boned, she was willing to take on any task. Instinctively the women knew to go to Ruth to have a wound cleaned and bandaged or to complain about an ailment. More times than not, she suggested a cup of hot tea and a little rest. Amazingly, that usually did the trick.
As the morning wore on, the “regulars” drifted in, one by one. Venus was the first to arrive. She looked as if she hadn't slept all weekend. Maybe she hadn't, since the welfare checks were distributed last Friday, June 1. Her restless eyes darted around the room.
“I be hungry,” Venus declared.
“Help yourself to a doughnut,” Mary Helen held out a tray.
“It be freezing out there!” she said accusingly.
“There's hot coffee,” Mary Helen added, feeling that she was somehow being held responsible for the weather.
“Why you hungry? What you do with your check?” Peanuts had slipped in quietly. The tiny woman's dark eyes searched the doughnut tray until she found an old-fashioned buttermilk.
“I had to take care of my business,” Venus snapped, but Peanuts had lost interest.
“How you be, girlfriend?” Miss Bobbie greeted Mary Helen with a happy grin.
Mary Helen, who had never been called “girlfriend” in her life until she came to the Refuge, marveled at how good it made her feel. Walking across the gathering room, she noticed that Crazy Alice was unusually quiet. Most days she carried on an animated conversation with imaginary companions at her table.
“Is everything all right?” Mary Helen asked.
Crazy Alice looked puzzled.
“You're so quiet,” she added to clear up her question.
The woman smiled sweetly and explained as if she were talking to a backward child. “Today, honey,” she said, “is Monday. On Mondays I listen.”
“I'm about ready to go,” Sister Anne said softly.
Mary Helen checked her watch and was surprised that it was nearly ten o'clock. Although, now that she thought about it, her legs did feel as if they could use a time-out.
“You're sure you'll be all right?” Anne asked. She sounded a little too concerned for Mary Helen's liking.
“Of course,” Mary Helen tried to keep the annoyance out of her voice. After all, Anne was just trying to be sensitive to her feelings. At least, she knew that's what Anne would say.
“Great!” Anne called and hurried out the door.
After making sure that the snack table was amply supplied, Mary Helen and Ruth fixed their own coffees. Mary Helen found a table. Ruth brought over two glazed doughnuts. Resolved to eat only a small piece of one, Mary Helen cut the doughnut in quarters, then licked her fingers.
Why does everything that is bad for you taste so good?
she wondered, cutting another small piece of the doughnut.
She had just popped it into her mouth, when she heard a tinny bang at the entrance.
“Sounds like a shopping cart hitting the front door,” Ruth said. And Ruth was right.
The door opened and a woman Mary Helen had never seen before came into the gathering room. She was pulling a rusty wire grocery cartâthe kind women used to use when they walked to and from the grocery store. It must be an antique.
The cart bulged with plastic bags full of who knows what. A dirty quilt was folded on the top to keep everything secure. The woman pulling the cart was tall and probably very thin. The layers of clothes she wore made it hard to tell. Her top garment was a tattered brown woolen cape with a hood. She had wrapped her entire head with white sheeting until it resembled the coif of a medieval nun's habit.
Her face was the only thing visible. The beauty of it struck Mary Helen. Although the woman's features were finely cut and her cheekbones high, the thing that really drew Mary Helen's attention was her radiant pink skin. Clear and smooth as any baby's in an Ivory Soap commercial, the dampness outside had given it a glow that made her look almost angelic.
Purposefully the woman strode across the room to where Mary
Helen sat. “I need a shower,” she said in a pleasant voice. “May I take one?”
Mary Helen looked up into piercing blue eyes, deep with intelligence. Guilelessly they studied her. “My name is Sarah,” the woman said. “What's yours?”
When Sarah was safely in the shower and clearly out of earshot, Ruth leaned toward Mary Helen and asked the question that was on both their minds. “What do you think her problem is?
Mary Helen shrugged. “Beats me,” she said.
“She has such a pretty face and is so well spoken,” Ruth said, clearly thinking aloud, “and her eyes are sharp.”
Mary Helen toyed with the edge of her napkin. “It's hard to tell, but something has to be amiss. Why else would anyone walk around in that getup? At first glance, she reminds me of an old-fashioned holy card of Saint Teresa of Avila.”
Ruth looked blank. Obviously she had never seen the picture of the saint in her brown habit and white wimple. Mary Helen was wondering just how to explain it to her, when Geraldine came through the front door. Happily, she changed the subject. “Now there's the gal that will know about Sarah if anyone does,” Mary Helen said, smiling at the older woman. “Geraldine knows everything there is to know.”
As soon as she was inside, Geraldine removed the scarf from her newly fixed hair. Her soft brown skin shone from the damp fog. She was a pleasant woman and, at fifty, still good-looking. Her graying hair gave her a distinguished air. In her youth, Geraldine had been a prostitute. Fortunately, one of her steady clients had left her a small but adequate retirement fund. She had jumped at the chance to do just thatâretire! Her good fortune made her a kind of celebrity among the women. That, and the fact that she was the auntie of Junior Johnson, who, Mary Helen was told, was “the man.” Whatever that meant.
The thing about Geraldine that genuinely amazed Mary Helen
was her ability to know the news of the neighborhood. She was an inexhaustible font of knowledge about what was going on.
“Hi, Sister,” Geraldine greeted Mary Helen warmly. “I can't stay long,” she said, sitting down with her cup of coffee.
Geraldine began every visit with that proclamation. Mary Helen suspected that it was an insurance policy of sorts. If the conversation at the table was too hot or too boring, she could leave without hurting feelings.
No sense wasting time, Mary Helen thought, coming right to the point. “Do you know a young woman named Sarah?” she asked. “She wears a long brown cape and wraps her head with white material.”
Geraldine nodded. “I seen her around the neighborhood. Comes from Oakland, I thinks. Been hereâmaybe two weeks.”
“What is her problem?” Ruth asked. She was as tenacious as a bloodhound on a scent.
In an effort not to be overheard, Geraldine bent forward and shook her head. “I don't know what be her problem. What I does know is she gives me a awful funny feeling.”
Mary Helen frowned. “A funny feeling? What kind of a funny feeling?” she asked.
“Just a funny feeling, like ants crawling up my arms.” Geraldine said. “Makes me think something be wrong.” She took a sip of her coffee. “One thing I knows for sure is that girl ain't been on the streets long.”
“What makes you say that?” Mary Helen pressed.
Geraldine stopped for another drink from her cup. “Good,” she said, smacking her lips.
“About Sarah?” Mary Helen urged.
Geraldine blinked as though she wasn't quite sure what they were talking about.
, Mary Helen thought. “Why don't you think she's been on the streets long?”
“Well, for one thing, her teeth,” Geraldine said finally.
“Teeth?” What in heaven's name do the woman's teeth have to do with anything? Mary Helen wondered.
Geraldine raised her head quickly. “You notice anything special about them teeth?”
Mary Helen tried to picture them. “As far as I can remember, they were just perfectly ordinary straight teeth,” she said.
“You be right, Sister,” Geraldine's eyes caught hers. “But them teeth be too good, too ordinary. Nobody been on the streets for very long has them kind of good teeth.” She pointed to her own upper plate.
Mary Helen had to admit that what Geraldine was saying was shockingly true. Now that she thought about it, most women who dropped by the Refuge had missing teeth, cracked teeth, and stained teeth. A dentist was not readily available to homeless women. Even if a woman did go to the clinic for care, it was generally to have a painful tooth extracted.
“You know what I'm saying?” Geraldine asked.
Mary Helen did.
“What do you think is her problem?” Ruth seemed determined to get an answer.
Geraldine's eyes darted toward the shower room, checking that Sarah was still in it. “I don't know,” she admitted. “Maybe somebody after her and she be trying to get hid.”
“Like the Mafia?” Ruth said, her dark eyes enormous. “Or maybe she knows something she shouldn't and she's in danger.”
“Or maybe you've been watching too much television,” Mary Helen said and all three women laughed.
Sarah came out of the shower still wrapped up like Saint Teresa. Her pink face glowed from the steam in the room and, if anything, she looked more angelic. When she smiled, Mary Helen couldn't help studying her mouth full of white teeth. Geraldine was right. Someone had spent a fortune on an orthodontist. Maybe Sarah had taken some bad drugs during college, which left her psychotic. Poor parents, Mary Helen thought,
wondering if they were out there somewhere searching for this lost child.
“Girlfriend, we need some more sugar, please,” Miss Bobbie called.
“And napkins, too,” Venus said.
Suddenly Mary Helen was so busy that she had no time to think about Sarah and her problem. She and Ruth were still running when Sister Anne came back from the dentist.
“Look, Ma. No cavities,” was all that Anne had time to say before she jumped back into the routine.
All morning long, women came in and out of the Refuge. Many showered or washed their filthy clothes. Several napped or read. The telephone rang continually. The refreshment table needed to be replenished innumerable times. Ruth cleaned and bandaged some cuts and scrapes. Anne made pot after pot of fresh coffee. Mary Helen took time to chitchat with a donor who stopped by with things she thought the center could use. The afternoon volunteer called in sick. Much to Mary Helen's relief, Ruth offered to stay on.