Vasco Whirly had been an English professor out at the college, but he didn’t get tenure. So he got on the safety crew out at the Murdock Mine, and it wasn’t so bad—his self-esteem was shot, and he didn’t fit in, but he did make a lot of new friends. Actually he didn’t. But he kept a lot of the old friends, Lowell Wagner in Psychology, Ann Rook in English, Gloria Steinem the local librarian, some others. All this took place in the dying prairie college town of Tuscola. This is more than you wanted to know.
Vasco never saw his friends much, and they never saw him, so it was hard to figure how they were friends. And his daughters, Michelle and Melanie Junior, were always off somewhere, and this left Vasco hanging around his old homestead doing things like staring down in the cistern or climbing around in the rafters of the garage. Sometimes he’d go all around the house opening drawers, and sometimes he’d take a shovel and dig in the narrow passage between his garage and the Rittenauers’ garage next door. The house was old, built in 1882— he’d poked around for hours in the dim of the musty basement, finally even using a metal detector he’d rented. In fact, he did the whole yard with the metal detector, working day after day, half the community driving by on Niles Avenue and seeing him do it. He metal-detected Melanie Senior’s tulip bed out by the garage, under the grape arbor, along both edges of the drive, in the parkway, under the bushes that surrounded the front porch. He came to the conclusion he was looking for something, the way he was always rummaging around.
Though this was his childhood home, though he’d inherited the place at his mother’s death, he could never seem to think of it as his own. And he was always broke—broke, broke, broke. His ex-wife, she said it was a midlife thing, all this stirring around and being broke. She couldn’t understand why you’d ever work at the Murdock Mine unless it made you rich. One night on the phone she told him in no uncertain terms that he was pitiful and that he should get a life.
“Well, I just think that’s totally rude,” Melanie Junior, his daughter, offered supportively when he told her about it the next morning at breakfast. “What’s she—like, the Queen of Sheba?” She was talking too loud. She had dyed black hair, cut short, with bleached blonde roots, wore all black, and was sitting there eating Raisin Total, headphones on, Jesus Lizard ramming into her brain.
Vasco called Lowell Wagner, got some free advice. It wasn’t a bad thing to do. Lowell might have been a psychologist, but also they were friends, they went way back to the days when Lowell first arrived in this crazy town and they were young teachers just starting. And Lowell offered: Relax, it’s a stressful time. Don’t get too absorbed in your work—keep the balance. Stay with literary scholarship, your true love—keep reading. And finally, keep in shape—a man your age, you got to keep in shape. To back it up, Lowell challenged him to racquetball.
Late March, and they went to the courts at the college. Vasco’s lungs, he imagined, were turning to black crystal, which will impair your racquetball game if you’re not careful. Plus, he was down and gloomy, couldn’t concentrate. Lost the first game 21-8. In the second, narrowly dodged a skunk, 21-3. Contrary to the intent, the encounter was only serving to illustrate his deterioration.
Halfway through the third game, he began to get angry and play a little wild, hitting the wall in his follow-through, diving, slamming around in disgust when he lost a point. His face felt hot. Then all of a sudden, a colossal pain shot right to left across the center of his chest and down he went. He couldn’t breathe, he was gasping, losing consciousness, clutching his chest and neck. Even in this horrible moment, Vasco later remembered thinking, “Okay. Maybe this is just as well.”
Luckily, there was an emergency medical technician class going on in the gym. Word got out that a guy’d had a heart attack in the racquetball courts, and up they came, twelve of them, two minutes flat. They had their red metal cases, and they were all over Vasco, and even though by then he didn’t really think he was going to die, he looked up at the one who was about to give him mouth-to-mouth and he muttered, “Get the hell away from me—can’t you see I want this?”
Lowell rode with Vasco to the hospital in the ambulance. Michelle and Melanie Junior finally arrived. After four hours of tests, a doctor told Vasco that it had been a warning sign. They released him, and he rode home crammed in the non-backseat of Melanie’s Honda CRX, depressed, with bandages and cotton balls from various invasions hooked all over him. He ate pizza and resumed his rummaging around the house. Didn’t read. Didn’t exercise. Didn’t have balance. Waited for the next chest pains. It was the beginning of the end, anybody could see that.
Then on the thirteenth of April, while standing in the driveway, leaning on his metal detector, staring through the spray of the lawn sprinkler, contemplating the split linden tree in the sideyard and, in the bright green shade of its new leaves, the early sprouts of his mother’s peonies, Vasco spied, just above the peonies and slightly to the left, the Virgin Mary. It was a crystal clear and very real apparition, the Madonna herself.
His daughters were off somewhere or Vasco surely would have called them to check it out. Fine. They had to go to the Dairy Queen, endlessly drive by all their friends’ houses. They had to go eat hamburgers, get gallstones at an early age, play like youth would go on forever. They had to cruise the park, laugh and run around, leave their dad out, that’s too bad. He was home having a visitation from the Virgin Mary.
Vasco and his ex-wife hadn’t done too hot a job of raising the girls, religiously speaking. And, after Melanie Senior moved to Mattoon to live the wild life (this would have been about eighteen months before—actually, she left due to his manifest failures as well as her interest in enhancing her personal freedom), he’d woefully neglected the religious thing with the girls. He hadn’t squired them off to mass at Forty Martyrs Catholic Church on his alternate Sundays or on holy days. No communion, no confession, no confirmation. No throats blessed, no ashes on the forehead—they hadn’t been conditioned to the assumptions of the church, to its language, and to the people of the Bible. A visitation from the Virgin Mary wouldn’t have meant as much to them as it did to him. So it was right and just, in a manner of thinking, that Melanie and Michelle were out somewhere chasing boys and the Mother of the Lord was visiting their father in the sideyard above his deceased mother’s peonies.
The moment he saw her, Vasco knew this was what he’d been looking for for the past few months. Not buried treasure, not his lost youth and hairline. Not his health or old friends who were gone. Not his rapidly deteriorating character, eroded by episodes of situational judgment. Not family, not a woman to love.
No, what Vasco had been looking for was a change-your- life miracle of some kind. There was, when he looked back later, something foregone about this strange occurrence, something he had been carrying around inside that he had known way ahead of the fact in some unarticulated, unrealized way. It was part of his dreamscape, an affirmation from on high. There she was, backlit by the brilliance of the prairie sun, wearing a sky blue flowing gown of some kind with white something or other beneath, exactly as he remembered the statue on the altar in Forty Martyrs. She had a glorious smile that seemed to engulf him and everything within thirty feet of him. It engulfed his mother’s spirea, under the dining room window. It engulfed the split linden, making it seem less forlorn. It graced the whole yard, causing it to glow in new greens and blues. He was having a miracle, Vasco Whirly was—a miracle for sure.
She spoke to him personally. Said that he was kind of going off, like with the deal on the racquetball courts, the metal detector stuff, et cetera, and that she could help him concentrate again, help him get his career back on track and be a better person—if only he would get down on his knees once in a while and pray the rosary, and stop buying lottery tickets. She said she knew he didn’t have much money and that that was a source of pain, but that there was poverty in worrying so much about it, and he was always worried about it, and she said she just couldn’t understand why an intelligent, literate man like himself would drop five to fifteen dollars a week worth of futility and delusion on lottery tickets. She asked him if he had any idea about the odds. She went on to assure him that she could see into the future and that, well into the next century, nobody by the name of Vasco Macon Whirly would be winning the Illinois lottery or any other lottery in the solar system.
Also she told him he had character problems. She said she’d help him work on it. She said he was self-involved. She understood one has to be a little bit, but she said in his case it was too much. Communicate, she said. Don’t get inside yourself so far. And reach out to your friends, she told him. They are lonely, too. In fact, she said, whatever your feelings are, safe to say they are the feelings of at least fifty percent of the population—the males anyway. Give. Think of others. Faith, hope, love, the whole bit. She was on his side, she said, and he was no more hopeless than Republicans, the NRA, or the prison system. Finally, she said she would come to visit him, in this very spot, on the thirteenth of the month. Which month? She was gone before he could ask.
All through April Vasco said nothing about this to anyone. And as the event receded in time, replaced by deadening routines, he began to lose the sense of the immediacy and reality of it. Finally, one afternoon sitting in his chair in the den, he couldn’t get himself to imagine it had really happened. A man of long-deferred gratification, of vivid wishes and dreams, he had probably merely conjured the Blessed Mother in dream. She hadn’t really visited. It was a little odd that he had ever thought she had. Okay. He got up from his chair, strolled the three blocks down to Huck’s, the convenience store on Route 36, and bought a six-pack of Stroh’s, a package of Slim Jims, and four Lotto tickets. He skipped work.
One day in early May, Michelle, his sweet sane tenth grader, told him, “You’re getting weirder all the time, Daddy.” She held up the half-eaten package of Slim Jims she’d found next to the couch. She looked him dead in the face with her mother’s heartbreaking eyes. “Really,” she said.
Vasco realized he didn’t have words for what was going on inside himself. He couldn’t get free advice from Lowell again. He couldn’t call Father Kelleher, the priest over at Forty Martyrs. The girls wouldn’t understand. Melanie Senior, ha, forget it. He decided he would keep his mouth shut and suck it up. He would move forward in time, like he always had. He would be a stoic. In silence, he would fall on this matter and smother it with his life. For a while he was serious and stuck with it. Then he drove down to Huck’s for some more beer.
But still. First thing in the morning on May 13th, a Saturday, Vasco was in the yard, on that side of the house where the split linden and peonies were. He tried to convince himself he was out there just doing what needed to be done. He set up the lawn sprinkler so it would dampen down the grass, he edged along the driveway, he analyzed the side of the house to see if it needed paint. All the time, of course, he was keeping an eye out. She didn’t make him wait. Mid-morning, around ten, the Virgin Mary came into view in the halo of spray from the sprinkler—in the sun and dappling of morning shadow in the sideyard, there she was.
She was approximately fifteen feet off the ground, about five feet five inches tall. Her hands were out as though she were bestowing a blessing on the multitudes. Vasco stood motionless. When he tried to say something, no words would come. She, too, was silent. For half- an-hour the vision held. Thoughts of peace came to his mind. His own personal peace, peace in general. A thought came to him that world peace was important. It occurred to him that we were lucky there hadn’t been a nuclear horror, since everybody had a bomb. He had lived whole months or even years thinking only of his British Literature syllabus, coal, affording pizza, and coping with the varying personalities in his homely little family. The Blessed Virgin embraced a bigger jurisdiction. She stared at him, a calming but not solemn smile on her face. He marked this spot in his mind so he wouldn’t slip backwards again. This was not only real, but for this moment it was the only real thing. He was there, she was there, that was it. Okay.
PHILIP F. DEAVER was born in Chicago, IL, and grew up in the Midwest. He is the author of the Flannery O’Connor Award-winning story collection Silent Retreats, and the poetry collection How Men Pray. His poems have been featured several times on The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. His stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, The New England Review, and elsewhere; and have been anthologized in O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Catholic Short Stories, and the baseball anthologies Anatomy of Baseball and Bottom of the Ninth. He is a Professor of English at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL.
Adapted from Forty Martyrs, by Philip F. Deaver, Copyright © 2016 by Philip F. Deaver. With the permission of the publisher, Burrow Press.