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From Acts of Love

Before People Under God’s Command arrived in St Paul – before, even, the nascent organisation announced that its members would extend their tour to the Twin Cities – the Star Tribune ran stories, reprinted from the Washington Post, about their revolutionary play. ‘“Divine Instruction Protects Us from Reds”’; ‘Leland Swann Says “Listen and Obey”’.

Hilary Daley stood over the breakfast table, her aproned waist a couple of inches from her daughter’s face. She laid the morning paper on the cloth and nudged it towards Rita.

These kids don’t mope around. They’ve got zing.’

Rita carried on spooning Wheaties and milk into her mouth, but her heart beat faster. She had only recently learned to ignore her mother.

Mrs Daley was the model of a selfless housewife. If the toast burnt, she ate and professed to like it. She did not shower or dress before Rita and Frank Daley left in the morning, Rita to Lambert’s Secretarial Academy and her father to Premiere Television & Phonograph Sales, but bagged their lunches and washed dishes in her old housecoat and slippers, a black hairnet covering her loose perm. She dressed smartly for the evenings, but when she carried a new dish to the dinner table and placed it before them, she regularly mumbled, ‘I’m sure this hasn’t turned out the way it should.’

There was nothing you could say that would make up for that. No chance of a simple, ‘This is good, Mom.’ It was easier to stay silent.

Any confessions of past annoyance were buffered by sweet resolution and reflection. ‘I felt a little put out. But I remembered the poor woman’s trials, and it seemed to me it’s not my place to correct her.’

As if reporting a small neighborhood fire – of interest, but nothing to do with her personally.

Even if Rita clenched her fists and shouted; even when she crashed down the hallway and kicked her bedroom door shut, then returned, crying, half a minute later, to justify her rage (‘You keep nagging at me, you don’t let me go, I can hardly breathe’); even when provoked, her mother only turned away, stony, as if to suggest that Rita had hurt her beyond endurance; or worse, laughed with no real mirth into the face of her daughter’s fury. ‘You’re a card. You think you have so much to say.’

Now, she propped the newspaper with a sharp thrust against Rita’s glass of orange juice. Rita couldn’t help but see the three-column photograph of young people, caught mid-song with mouths wide open, upper lips curled back from their teeth. They lunged forward, pointing into the audience, every face lively and eager.

She snatched the paper aside and drank her juice. Being tardy for shorthand meant spending the remainder of the class leaning awkwardly against the blackboard, gripping her notepad and scribbling while Mr Lambert dictated to all the poised, seated girls, interrupting himself now and then to ask with oily concern, ‘Miss Daley, did you get that? Are you up to speed now?’

In her peripheral vision, she could see her mother standing at the door that connected the kitchen to the breakfast nook, wiping dry a bowl, watching.

Had Hilary Daley’s self-righteousness been undiluted, maybe Rita could have hated her. But Mrs Daley despaired at her own failings. Returning from church committee meetings, she’d slouch over the kitchen bench and say with real misery, ‘Those smart women. I sit there like a clod while they have all the ideas.’ Every day, she sought to improve herself by recognising her mistakes, sprinkling apologies through their lives with genuine dismay. ‘I’m sorry I was short with you this morning. It irked me, hearing you complain.’

Rita was used to having her faults pointed out when her mother said sorry.

Their arguments were one-sided: Rita flailing, jabbering; her mother tight-lipped, jaw working up and down so that dimples intended for a happier woman winked in the pouches of flesh guarding her mouth. When Rita’s mid-quarrel eloquence matched the intensity of her anger, her mother would slump, looking up at her with entreaty. ‘I know I’m a frustrating woman.’ (Yes!) ‘Lord knows I try my best.’ And she’d shake her head, tears in her eyes, arms outstretched. ‘Forgive me.’ Rita, choking on a confused rush of shame and unspent, unanswered anger, could not move to grasp the proffered hands. She could not believe in her mother’s remorse; at the same time she completely believed her, pitied her, was revolted, wanted to kill her, hated herself, wanted to rush forward and be enveloped in her arms. Her failure to respond only stoked the fires for the next conflagration.

Frank Daley limped in from the marital bedroom, running a comb through his hair. ‘How are we this morning? My estimable wife? My indefatigable daughter?’

His sideways glances suggested that among mankind, only he understood the wretchedness of the human condition.

‘Frank – I’m sorry to harp on, but – please don’t moult over the breakfast table.’

‘Oh, I apologise. I withdraw. Back to my haven of conjugal bliss.’

He disappeared, but a moment later, stuck his head through the doorway and asked, with jaunty malice, ‘Is the curse upon you? You don’t seem your usual barely-cheerful paragon of virtue.’

Mr Daley believed himself an intellectual maverick who’d been unlucky; a man who could not trust the world to be anything it said it was, but who, singularly careless of convention, called things by their true names. Early on, Rita had made up her mind that she loved her mother best; had found the answer to that troubling question of which parent she’d rather, if forced to choose, have dead. Once, ten years old and experimentally sassy, she’d argued with her mother, trying to persuade her to stand up to him.

Hilary Daley replied, ‘If you look hard enough at the troubles in your life, you can always find some way you're to blame. God notices everything.’

Rita never forgot that, because it explained her mother.

Mrs Daley used her religion as a carapace, her central precept being that like all humanity, she was an abomination. But in an unintentional heresy, she set up a second, vengeful god in the form of Life itself, which aimed to destroy ignorant women with its traps, punishments, tricks and disappointments. Compared to this inexorable enemy, capital-‘G’-God (forgiving all, in the End, if one showed sufficient remorse) was a pushover. To get through Life without falling prey to its vagaries, and then to be lifted beyond the pit after death, was all she hoped for. She took care of the second item with church attendance and by constantly averring her own unworthiness, but the sole protection she had against dreadful Life was to be respectably married.

Now she said, ‘You better be going. Come kiss me. Work hard today.’

A good secretarial diploma: Rita’s unacademic ticket to a typing pool in an upstanding company, from which swarms of handsome, go-getting young men would select their future wives. Frank Daley had been half such a man, a canny travelling salesman for Myer Insurance, in whose poky offices Hilary, bitterly seasoned by romantic disappointments, typed up letters rejecting payout claims. They married on November 31st, 1943. After Pearl Harbour, Frank was quickly drafted into the Navy, and just as quickly took a hit of shrapnel in his right thigh. Until Rita was four, the uneasy family lived in one of St Paul’s veterans’ villages, and she remembered running around the cavernous Quonset hut, negotiating the oil burner’s dark hulk and tripping on the frayed corners of rugs scattered over the chilly plywood floor. Now Frank was deputy manager of a TV store down on Payne Avenue and they lived in a compact, single-storey rambler in one of St Paul’s treeless new suburbs.

Charm and efficiency, Hilary often said, looking critically at Rita’s limp bangs and pointed chin, they’ll get you a long way.

Rita would go as far as it took, if it meant she would not be alone in the world. That evening, she went to the sideboard and sneaked another look at the newspaper article beneath the photo.

          A New York audience of 800 rose in a standing ovation last night to a challenge
          from America’s youth: let’s straighten out our lives, or risk Communist takeover. Their
          message is clear. Listen to God and do what He says. Make amends for your past.
                Leland Swann, the group’s 25-year-old leader, said, ‘We can no more co-exist
          with Communism than we can with a ravaging cancer. God is the cure. Unless
          we surrender ourselves to His discipline, our children will be Red, and America
          will be given over to immorality, mass butchery, and Godlessness. The choice
          is ours: the Almighty, or Stalin’s death-camps.’

Leland Swann was pictured separately, shaking hands with a city leader. He had removed his jacket and rolled his shirt sleeves up to his elbows. Dark hair curled back from his forehead. Rita touched her fingertip to his cheek. He looked the antithesis of her father: vigorous and well-built against Mr Daley’s permanently sardonic expression and spindly, dried-out frame. She read further.

          Leland Swann, under whose leadership the group has burst onto the national scene,
           insists that only obedience to God will save America. The sole sufficient answer to
          ‘Communism is another superior ideology. We won’t keep our freedom
          unless we begin to earn it.’

One month later, when The Divine Instruction came to St Paul, her mother readily agreed to accompany her.

‘It was on my mind to take you,’ she said, steering their Chevy through sleet and snow to the Strand Theater. ‘I hope it’ll wake you up. The world’s not arranged to suit you, and the sooner you know that, the better. I’m a poor mother, but I love you – that’s why I tell you these things. You know I love you, right?’

Rita said yes, but her mind lurched away from the question, leery of its swampy, indefinite terminus.

The parking lot was almost full. A photographer and a man with a notebook huddled under the awning by the theatre’s double doors.

‘Ma’am, what do you anticipate – ’

‘Nothing to do with you, thank you.’

A steamy, wet-wool smell infused the auditorium, rising from overcoats hung over the backs of seats. Rita used the press of the crowd to avoid her mother’s indications, and manoeuvred them towards two empty seats near the front, facing centre-stage. Colour programmes lay in precise diagonals across the crimson velvet cushions.

‘I see they’ve come into money,’ said Mrs Daley, setting her purse on her lap.

Rita flicked through her programme. Here was the Washington Post story reprinted; here a close-up of chorus members, who twinkled at the camera as if singing Happy Birthday to their most beloved friend. One whole page was taken up with a head-and-shoulders shot of Leland Swann, and opposite he leapt over a hurdle, ski'd, and slammed a tennis ball over a net.

          Leland Swann: the man for the hour. He’s young, but wise beyond his years.
          Already, statesmen and business leaders seek his advice. He attributes his tremendous
          drive and foresight to God: ‘We aim to be like the early Christian Church: radical,
          swift, brooking no compromise. God can’t compromise – that’s why
          He’s God.’

His certainty thrilled her.

At seven o’clock, without any announcement, two lines of young men and women filed onto the stage from left and right. The audience hushed. The chorus members arranged themselves into a wide semi-circle, smiled at the audience – now quiet – and on the next beat their voices resounded through the theatre.

          God’s people are certain people!
          Sure of their way in life.
          Seek his path, the one he’s chosen
          And farewell trouble and strife!

Many of the singers looked her age, or barely older. The women wore full green or blue skirts with wide, contrasting waistbands, their hair in wavy bobs or French twists. Each bore the confidence of a homecoming queen. The men, co-ordinated in blue and white, seemed to be uniformly fitted out with John Wayne jaws. Straight away, she wanted to be up there with them; to be so shiny and assured.

The song finished. While the audience rustled and coughed, one of the young women walked to the front of the stage. She had brown-black curls and stood like a trained actress.

Rita knew her face before she could work out the connection, and then, just as her mother nudged her elbow – ‘Isn’t she that floozy?’ – she thought, with a start, Margot.

Sometime during a humid July night the previous year, Margot had climbed onto her boyfriend’s motorbike and freewheeled noisily away, leaving ‘House of whores!’ daubed in red paint along the street-facing wall of her parents’ home, which sat a few hundred yards from the Daley’s. Although Rita liked to think of the romance in this story, she knew from her readings of the pulp novels passed around Lambert’s Secretarial College that Margot’s rebel boyfriend could not be a long-term proposition. Therefore Margot, by Rita’s calculations, now had no-one but herself to count on. Since then, Rita had often thought that were she in that situation she would have liked not to care, just as she imagined Margot didn’t care.

Now, however, Margot was groomed and serene, backed up by good-looking people who smiled affectionately at her. Surely, if she could find a home with them, anyone could.

‘I hated my mom,’ Margot announced. ‘I ran away from home and got myself into some pretty bad trouble. Started on drugs. My great-aunt Alice has been with People Under God’s Command since the beginning. When they were in New York, God led her to the department store where I was a clerk. The first time I Listened, God told me, ‘Your bitterness will eat you up. Apologise to your mother.’ I thought she should apologise to me.’

Here she half-smiled, and the audience chuckled in sympathy.

‘But my aunt told me God can’t work through you if you don’t obey Him. I said sorry to my mother for my hatred of her. Afterwards I felt as though I’d been washed by a summer rain. Now I’m free, free for God to use me to make a new world.’

She returned to her place in the semi-circle.

A boy came forward and began to talk about how he’d cheated on almost every test he’d ever taken. After meeting People Under God’s Command he’d written to all his old teachers, and his principal invited him to speak at their school assembly. It was swell, he said, being part of a team dedicated to remaking the world.

Another young man described the torment of his impure thoughts: how they had kept him from his studies, and stopped him from sleeping. He was cured, now, by working with People Under God’s Command. He stepped back into line and the chorus sang that true freedom only came from obedience to God.

A man dressed in a suit left the front row and mounted the steps to the stage. He moved deliberately, seeming to welcome the audience’s gaze. Rita’s cheeks prickled. It was Leland Swann. He turned to face them, pausing before he spoke. The hall was silent.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. Every one of these people,’ he swept his arm back to indicate the semi-circle of singers – ‘has a story equally as powerful as those you’ve just heard. If you want to know how they did it, if you’re looking to transform your life, may this prove to be a remarkable evening for you. I am Leland Swann, the leader of People Under God’s Command. We’re happy to present to you our first Twin Cities performance of The Divine Instruction. This is no ordinary play. We hope to entertain you, and we also offer you a new way to live.’

He gave a restrained smile. There was a sudden exhalation around the hall, as if he had permitted them to breathe.

‘I hope this play will change your life as God has changed mine. I hope that together we will save America and ensure her future greatness. Ladies and gentlemen –’ he paused – ‘The Divine Instruction.’

Hilary Daley said, with her usual mixture of aggression and self-hatred, ‘I guess he’s hoping a likeness to the President can get him places. Might well do, for all I know.’

The chorus members applauded and fanned out, backing towards the wings. Three women in overalls carried onstage a sofa and a rickety fireplace. The right side of the fireplace swung off as they set it down, and one of the women grabbed it and slammed it back. Another received a potted maidenhair fern from someone in the wings, and took some time arranging it on the mantelpiece.

Rita watched Leland Swann. She thought she could smell cedarwood and oceans. He stood to one side of the stage now, every line of him declaring that he was in full possession of his own authority.

The play told the story of Joyce, a spoilt and disrespectful young woman. She had recently shoplifted a scarf and some perfume, and was terrified of being discovered. A subplot revealed her mother’s preoccupation with another man, and her consequential neglect of her daughter. Joyce’s father often claimed that she baffled him. However, the audience discovered that he had more in common with her than he liked to think: the IRS was investigating him for fraud. All in all, Joyce was a few steps away from a late delinquency. She blamed adults for the rotten state of the world.

The dialogue was alternately leaden (‘There is nothing you could undertake to do that would make me obey you’) and folksy. But Rita tingled from the moment that Joyce, frowning and pouting, slouched from the wings. Like her, she wanted her life to count for something. She too covered up her unhappiness with glowering moods. And from what Joyce said, her supercilious, bad-tempered brother – away at school in Boston – made her feel just as small as Rita did when her father used her as a strop for his wit. When Fred came home with apologies for the whole family (‘Mom, Pop, I’ve lied to you about how I’m doing in school, and Sis, I’ve never looked after you the way I should,’) Rita was no less curious than her dramatic counterpart.

Fred said, waving his arms before the plywood fireplace, ‘Truth is, we all want the world to change, don’t we?’

Joyce’s Mom and Pop fidgeted exaggeratedly, but Rita nodded.

‘C’mon, Pop, I’ve heard you complain about politicians and tut over the newspapers. And Mom, you’ve always hated how Mrs Finnigan talks about you behind your back.’ He turned to Joyce. ‘Sis, I know you feel misunderstood. It’s hard for us young folks to take on this tired old world. But cynicism isn’t the answer.’

He paused. Rita clenched handfuls of her skirt.

‘How can we expect the world to change without changing ourselves? How can we know how to change ourselves or the world unless we ask God? I met an unusual man at school. He told me God can help me live a life bigger and better than anything I could imagine. He can do that for all of you too! But we have to Listen to Him, and clear out sin from our lives.’

He held up three fingers. ‘God’s commands can be understood as Three Pillars: Perfect Truthfulness, Perfect Selflessness, and Perfect Chastity. When we live according to those pillars, we discover His plan for our lives, and for the world.’

His father blustered from his armchair. ‘Look son, I’m no better and no worse than most men. Besides, I’m not convinced God – if there is a God – takes all that much of an interest in my life.’

Fred grinned. ‘I tell you what, Pop, why don’t we give it a try. If you truly ask Him about the Three Pillars, and you don’t hear Him speaking to you – mind you, His voice might sound an awful lot like your conscience – but if you genuinely get no results, I won’t mention it again.’

He pulled pens and notebooks from behind the maidenhair fern and handed them to his family. They froze, seemingly mesmerised by the stationery. Fred looked into the wings and coughed. The lights came up over the audience.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to join us in this experiment, if you feel inspired to get right with God and with your fellow man, you’ll find pens and notebooks beneath your chairs.’

Rita scrabbled, nudging her mother, who had stiffened with each successive minute. Now she sniffed critically at Fred. ‘Self-indulgence, if an untaught woman may say so. God’s already said what’s what.’

At seven years old Rita had pulled a dining-room chair over to the mantelpiece, climbed onto it, and lifted into her palms a porcelain nest containing five porcelain eggs, an heirloom passed down from her mother’s grandmother. The untended eggs, hand-painted in a mushroom beige speckled with blue, were glued to the twiggy nest, their smooth domes deliciously bumpy under her fingertip.

She broke it, of course. Her foot slipped on the chair’s satiny edge, and she flung one hand over to the fireplace to steady herself. The nest – travelling along with her hand – smashed on the faux-marble.

An awful grinding seemed to precede her mother’s arrival from the kitchen. Hot-cold with panic, Rita couldn’t stammer her useless defence (it was so pretty, I only wanted to hold it awhile). She stumbled, trying to keep up with her mother’s yanking arm. When her father returned home he dragged her out of her room, swung her upside down on his knee and spanked her twelve times.

Before bed that night she composed a list entitled, at her mother’s suggestion, Things That Are Wrong With Me. She had been told them often enough, and could write without any prompting:

          I don’t love mommy and daddy like I should.
          I’m grouchy and to demanding.
          I want to much attention. I am selfish.
          I steal apples and cookies from mommy’s larder.
          Sometimes I’m careless and brake things.

Not every item on the list was a transcription of her mother’s complaints. Some, Rita made up by herself, but she believed each one like she believed in her fingernails. She wrote that list of perverse solipsisms while her mother read it over her shoulder. When she had finished her mother said, ‘You know you make it difficult for me to love you.’

Then she slipped the list into her pocket.

Later, after Rita had cried and cried in her room, her mother said she forgave her, and hugged her. But what was the point of being forgiven when you knew you would do something just as bad the next day, and that every time you messed up you would be frozen with despair, knowing your new failure was more proof you weren’t fit to be loved?

No point, was the answer, but still, and even now, Rita pressed herself into her mother’s twice-daily hugs: once before she left the house in the morning, and once before bed. For those few moments – as long as she hadn’t disqualified herself by talking back – she lived in an alternate world, protected by the arms of a loving mom.

It’s possible that Things That Are Wrong With Me wasn’t written after Rita broke the porcelain eggs. She might just as easily have been inspired to write it on an incident-free day, saturated as she was with her mother’s criticisms. After all, Hilary Daley was Rita’s only ally. Agreeing with her mother, even in the matter of her own unworthiness, helped to ensure (so Rita’s seven-year-old logic ran) that she would not be abandoned to the darkness.

Whatever its provenance, the list was folded away into her mother’s papers, and into the back of Rita’s heart along with every other piece of evidence that proved she wasn’t good enough, wasn’t well-behaved or clever or right enough. She hadn’t thought of it in years, wasn’t thinking of it while she sat waiting for Fred to speak. But the old terror sensed that Leland Swann’s straightforward, decisive God might allow her to be at peace with herself and the world: if she did as He asked, she would be truly right. Right all the time, and therefore lovable all the time, not only for a few unreliable moments per day.

She opened her free notebook to the first page and waited for Fred’s instructions, perspiring around her hairline.

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