THE LITTLE CATHOLIC BOOK OF FEMALE SAINTS was a 99-cent catalog of Disney-Princessified dead girls. At age nine, it became my handbook for living. For six months in 1978, I prayed to God, communed with small animals, and cultivated a serene expression bordering on catatonia.
It began with A for Saint Agnes, drawn with yellow sausage curls and full red lips. The text read: When Agnes was twelve, she would not marry a rich Roman, for she loved only God. So she was tied to a spiked wheel, and when the wheel broke, she was beheaded. Each page was a Tasha Tudor tableau, filled with rosebud cheeks and dresses lopping into soft folds. The illustrator favored blue: milk-blue tunics, sapphire skies, cerulean eyes, upcast. It was easy to overlook the thin red slit across Saint Agnes’ throat, the tiny demon chained to Saint Catherine’s wrist, and the eyeballs Saint Lucy presented on a golden plate.
After a time, acting good wasn’t enough. I questioned my CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) teacher, who revealed the path to sainthood involved two steps: demonstrating heroic virtue and executing a miracle. I focused on step one and waited for my chance to perform the feat that would bring me closer to securing a glowing saucer above my head. I saw my opportunity when a toddler chased after a kickball at the same moment a matte-black muscle car barreled down our street. I hurled myself upon her and we rolled to safety. The end came soon after, when my mother, Tareyton 100 hanging off her lip and glass of Port in hand, ordered me to stop acting weird or she’d send me to live with Cousin Judy, a threat that implied institutionalization.
The book was lost and recovered and eventually sold at a yard sale in a milk crate of paperbacks that included Flowers in the Attic and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. The bundle went for $3.00, which I pocketed to buy bottlerockets. I began sleeping in on Sundays. Grackles leveled my hummingbird feeder, and my hamster died of constipation. God grew quiet and went away. What remains is the source material for every protagonist I have written and will ever write, and their desire to be very, very good.