Texas City, 1947 is the name of the searing, classic noir short story by James Lee Burke. It is also the nexus of one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. Nearly 600 people died and thousands more were maimed when two ships carrying ammonium nitrate collided off the Texas coast, flattening homes and producing huge clouds of smoke which asphyxiated the townspeople who came to see what had happened. This catastrophe blows a hole through the fictional family at the heart of the story. The incident also serves as a symbol for the way the family, because of inter-personal conflicts, implodes before our eyes. The mother and father are like giant ships dangerously laden with explosive material. One bad move and it all blows up, leaving the survivors to scratch out a deformed existence, among the ruins.
Along the Gulf, big families and low-wage jobs keep people in a stagnant, perpetual state of poverty even in this so-called boom town. The mother works all day in a beer garden, and when she comes home there are no chicken nuggets to pop in the microwave. Feeding the kids means catching a bird in the yard and chopping its head off. The story opens with the mother, still in her bar maid uniform, holding a bloody, feathery mess, surrounded by the writhing, flopping carcasses of half-dead chickens all around her. It’s hot, she’s tired and people at work have been talking- about her husband, and the crazy lady he’s been running around with. When the father finally comes home, later than he should have, with his shirt hanging out of his back pocket, it sets off a chemical chain reaction, that engulfs them all.
Macho pride is, as always, a key ingredient in the recipe for destruction. His wife confronts him about his adultery, the kids within earshot, and his warped moral code holds that he must strike her to affirm his dominance and defend his honor, though it is he who has dishonored himself and the family. According to this chauvinistic world view, better he destroy the mother than humble himself and admit his fault. Better he destroy his children, by harming the mother, than suffer the indignity of being yelled at for his stupid and selfish crimes. Later that night, the mother drives her car off a bridge and dies.
This is the classic fairy tale template. With the mother dead, and the father away at work, an “evil-stepmother” comes to take her place. She is a prostitute, or she was one at any rate, and she shuffles around the house in curlers and a sweat stained blouse, carrying an overflowing ashtray of lipstick-smudged butts. She makes the children work as slaves, punishing and humiliating them for minor transgressions. The little boy, from whose perspective the story is told, begs his father to make her leave. But she is the only one to take care of the kids while he is at work on the oil rig and he tells his son the kids must look to her as their mother now. In a memorable image, he describes his heartsickness as the feeling of swarming mosquitoes, feeding on his heart, slowly draining it of blood.
Longing for a protector, the boy begins to project his fantasies of the perfect mother onto his fifth-grade teacher, a nun. She is nicer than the other sisters at school. She respects them as individuals, not as subjects in a petty kingdom. She picks up on the neglect and abuse the boy and his siblings are suffering and calls the step-mother, who tells the nun to sod off. Finally, a social worker makes a visit to the house. The social worker falls under the step-mother’s seductive spell, and he fails to detect, or act on, the abusive situation in front of him.
When the boy becomes too ill to attend school, Sister walks miles from her convent to his home, and back again, to bring him his books and lessons. This is one of many acts of heroism she performs. The father has placed a lucky charm, meant to ward off the evil spirits, according to Creole tradition, around the boy’s neck. When the nun finds this amulet, she is furious. She can’t abide this dangerous superstition. The boy needs a doctor, not a lucky charm, for God’s sake. I thought it was so interesting and refreshing to see the nun defending the role of science over superstition in this story. She is a grounded, reality-based figure with zero tolerance for nonsense. This passage was a wonderful reminder to me of the Catholic mission to care for the sick.
The boy, ever more in love with this surrogate mother, “built like a fire hydrant” with “silver thread” on her lip, notices a chink in her normally imperturbable edifice. It comes to light that her brother, an alcoholic, has killed a child from behind the wheel of his car. Sister misses days, then weeks of school. A newspaper article circulates around town, with the shocking news that Sister had helped her fugitive brother hide. The boy is understandably terrified of losing her, and when she returns, he asks her, desperately, if they are going to put her away. Much about her moral character is revealed when she says, with grave disgust, that the police aren’t interested in her, and that her brother will be spared, “Not because he is a sick man, but because the child he killed was Negro.”
When the Texas City port explosion occurs, and the father fails to come home, it is assumed he is one of the many workers killed, burned beyond recognition. The children are left alone, with the increasingly violent and unstable step-mother, and the children consider the possibility of killing her. In an echo of the explosion, they set fire to the room where she is passed out drunk.
The heroic nun, inhabiting a moral space outside the bounds of law, rushes in, again, to protect the children, doing what she feels she must do, and what she alone can do. She covers the kids’ criminal tracks, sweeping up the spent matches and putting the presiding sheriff in his place, wielding her moral saber, at great risk to herself, to protect the children from the arm of the law that would destroy them.
Such interesting timing that I picked up this story about this heroic nun, at the exact moment my blood is boiling over the recent religious/political battle over contraception in the Catholic Church. Every thing in my body and mind just revolts at the sight of powerful religious leaders passing laws, both doctrinal and legislative, that aim to control women’s sexuality and reproduction. It bothers me so deeply, that I’ve renounced, in my heart, the church which has been, in the past, a safe harbor for my wandering spirit. Seeing the religious leadership affirm such a controlling, paternalistic and anti-scientific position has resulted in my complete estrangement from this institution. The idea that a cloistered, closeted, celibate bishop, or even worse, a political candidate, would somehow be in a position to proclaim the purpose of sex to me and other women of childbearing age should be laughably absurd on the face of it, were it not for the very real power these men wield over the lives of millions, or should I say, billions.
But this story reminds me, in my disillusionment, to look for the agents of mercy, working behind the scenes of the official, corrupt, gold-encrusted edifice of the church; the selfless many who work, under the radar, with the world as it is, on the front lines, and not in some la-la land divorced from reality atop a ludicrous throne. I’d like to think that even in a Catholic run hospital, there are those who would defy official doctrine, to provide the poor, whom they are bound to serve, with the means to take control of their own reproduction, in situations in which very little else may be under their control. I’ll try to hold on to the vision of this sister warrior, as a counterpoint to the recent, grotesque display of male dominance in our religious and political power houses. Amen.