A Half-Chewed Pew in a Friend's Apartment
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Mother Margaret Mary
My friend collects church pews in his apartment in New York City. They are artifacts bought, donated, stolen from the churches demolished to make way for new high rises, shopping malls. When you sit to eat dinner at his lopsided table, you eat with ghosts.
I asked him once why he collected the mismatched, bulky pews.
“The people who sat where you sit now always told me that God hated me, because I love men,” he said. “I don’t think that’s true. I think - I hope - that God just ignores me. This is my way of forcing God to pay attention.”
“God seems like a real bitch,” I laughed.
“I suppose so,” he said, and we left it at that.
There was a church across the street from my childhood bungalow. It was a regular looking church. It had the vomit green carpet that seems to be in every American church. It had its congregants names in black block letters on paper bunches of grapes in the foyer. It had tastefully placed stained glass windows, because God hates an ugly house.
We attended every Sunday, from 10:00 am to 11:00 am. It was a race to get ready in the morning, with me pulling on my traditional ripped jeans and my mom sending me back to my closet.
“You can’t enter God’s house in ripped jeans,” my mom always said.
“He sees me in ripped jeans every other day of the week, why is it different today?”
“It just is,” she said, and I had to change.
My sister never argued like I did. She pulled on a dress, slipped on her Mary Janes, and waited quietly at the door until I finally got ready. My sister was the better child.
The church pews always reminded me of a graveyard.
“How can you stand to have these in your house?” I asked as I lounged on a slightly deteriorating oak bench. I could imagine a toddler gnawing on the wood as its parents sung hymns and thought about their mistresses.
“What do you mean?”
“They reek of ghosts.”
He smiled sadly and pointed to an engraved fork, a chandelier, an abstract watercolour.
“I lived in New York in the eighties, kid. Ghosts are my only friends now.”
The priest’s homily was weird that day. All about the Christian virtues of marriage, which I found rich coming from a man who vowed to never marry.
“Marriage is between one man and one woman,” he said. “Anything else is an abomination. A dreadful sin.”
His top lip quivered when he said “abomination.” Sweat dripped down the sides of his hairline from the effort of attempting to banish the homosexual black sheep from his flock. He was a sweaty, stout little man. I never liked him.
I picked up the book of hymns and focused on the notes rather than the words the hateful man-penguin was spewing. My sister seemed nervous, sliding her Mary Janes on and off her white socked feet.
“I have a confession,” she whispered. Shoe off.
“I think the priest is available after mass.” I whispered back. Shoe on.
“I have a confession for you.” Shoe off.
My family was not incredibly religious. My grandfather was - when my mom was dating my dad, my grandfather made her go for a run with him. He ran, increasing his speed until he was sprinting, my mom struggling behind him. Then he stopped, still as a crypt.
“Do you want to marry my son?” His voice was grave.
“If he’ll take me.”
“You have to become a Catholic. I won’t see my grandchildren otherwise.”
And she did.
My mom is the kind of woman who cares deeply about what other people think about her, but desperately tries to convince us that she doesn’t. She makes a perfect Catholic in that way, like she was born to do it. Carrying guilt with her reusable Whole Foods shopping bags, nestled next to the crucifix my dad bought her that she shoved into her tote the minute he looked away.
She is apologetically herself - we have the same sickness.
Shoe back on.
“I have a crush on my best friend.” Her gaze was trapped by her hands.
“But she’s a girl.” Shoe off.
My sister looked at me.
My mom glared at me; we left mass early that day, in a rush. When my mom ushered me past the threshold of the church-carpet, I stole a paper grape from the paper vine.
The grape was gone by the time I got to the car. I don’t know where it went.
I used to share a wall with my sister’s room. I could hear her snoring through the air vent, loud, rousing things that seemed too grand for her tiny body. That night, the air vent dripped with ocean tears. I couldn’t make out the words exactly, but they were loud, shouted. There were periods of silence where I pressed my ear so hard into the air vent it turned wine-red. I tried to look, shove my eyeball in the grate - like a camel trying to go through the eye of the needle, a rich man trying to absolve himself.
Her door opened. Her door closed.
I snuck into her room when I was sure she was asleep, footsteps guilty as a sinner. There were ribbons tangled on top of her blankets - communion red, baptism white, Laerate pink. I slipped a white one into my pyjama pants, and used it as a bookmark for my Children’s Bible. I touched Noah’s furry lions, his murdered townspeople’s hair, and thought of the all-American church across the street.
I don’t think we ever went back.
It was a pity, in a way, that we never returned. I found myself missing the creature comforts of the church, though I knew I’d miss my sister more. I missed the chalices that seemed to have more gemstones each mass (I tried to mark the increase once, running my grubby, short fingers all along the gold when it was my turn, trying to count them all up. The altar boy got mad at me - I was banned from the communion wine lines). The tabernacle that was kept under lock and key, but that I saw once illuminated once, bright like a pillar of holy fire. The candles that barely burnt before being replaced by newer, whiter, younger things. The congregants that donned their best rings, perfumes, minks, heels, using the hour to show them off to the people who mattered (the jury of aunts who smoked in bathrooms at Thanksgiving and uncles who nicked their cigarettes for the strip club the next night).
I missed the gaudiness, the performances of piety that surely would have won an Oscar or two. The homilies that never made complete sense, but that always included some reference to the priest’s new Airpods (“generously gifted by a member of my flock,” of course).
Even the root of worship is overindulgence, I suppose.
My dad is a straight-laced, good old Irish Catholic boy from the prairies. He played football on his high school team. His brother is a millionaire (has a Tesla, two kids, and nothing on his walls). He has no fewer than five aunts who moved to Ontario and became nuns, all in separate nunneries. For Christmas each year, they all send him rosaries. Wood, metal, plastic, beads - one even sent seashells, like she was trying to one-up her Sisters. He kept them all in the drawer of his bedside table, a tangled nest of prayers.
The night after that night, my dad had to work late. My mom sent me to get something from their room. I was nosy; I loved the feeling of the knots, the thread, the idolic sacrality of church-sanctioned worship across my small fingers. I threw the strength of youth against a drawer older than I, and the drawer was empty, save a single seashell.
The bungalow across from the church was put up for sale when I was seventeen. We boxed all our stuff, slept on a mattress on the floor the last night, and never went back. Washed our hands of it.
My sister moved in with her now-wife. They have an apartment in the city, a cute little thing with barely enough room to breathe in that costs me more than my tuition a month. My parents moved to the mountains, so that their dog would be happier. A Bernese Mountain dog deserves the mountains, my dad said once. I’ve heard that they’re beautiful - the mountains, and the dog.
The five of us get together for brunch once a month, in my friend’s apartment in New York City. We sit on pews and tell stories about the ghosts we share silverware with.
We were a stained glass portrait of a family that cared, and we were installed in front of angry christ-folk with hammers. We were held together with bandaids and packing tape. It was a home built on unconsecrated ground, and we were the damned ghosts bound in that bloody dirt, feasting on Eucharists before they were blessed, sitting on pews built of sinners and fallen saints.
We were alone; we were forgotten; we were a familial melancholia that wept and prayed together over eggs and rotten benches.
“A Half-Chewed Pew in a Friend’s Apartment” is that one-of-a-kind, irresistably magnetic blend of acerbic humor and poignant revelation. It is irreverent in all the right ways, probing at how established institutions can become weapons of corruption, intolerance, and pretense. Through immersive vignettes in which conflict and contradiction brew just beneath the surface, each character struggles to reconcile duty to religion, to family, to themselves…and their ghostly legacy.
Eliza Mahon (she/they) is a queer author and student from Edmonton, Canada. You can find some of their other work in Issue 4 of Second Chance Lit or @eqom22 on Twitter. If you're curious about the writer herself, you can reach them on Instagram @e.lie.zah
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