The ten-year-old rested her stubby toes on the cool concrete of her grandmother’s basement floor. She sat down on the sofa and poked her fingers through an orange yarn afghan while her grandmother turned the dial on the television. “Ahh! There it is, Delia! I told you we’d find it! Oh thank you Jesus!” Her grandmother crossed herself and looked up at the drop ceiling. Delia looked up, too, but only saw patchy bronze watermarks from a leaky kitchen faucet in the tile above her grandmother’s head. Delia looked up from her fingers perforating the blanket and gazed at the screen with skeptical curiosity. Her grandmother, Angela Venzetti, was beaming. Televangelism had reached out to its viewership and seized Angela’s spiritual imagination when Angela called the prayer line six months prior and won fifty dollars on the daily numbers that same day. Now she turned to the prayer line once more for her oldest daughter’s salvation. Working the odds in her head, Angela knew she wouldn’t be blessed twice in a year, so she asked her granddaughter Delia to make the call. Angela knew it was all a part of God’s plan that Delia had been staying with her that particular weekend. Little Delia had asked Angela what an atheist was that morning over breakfast. When Angela discovered that her oldest daughter, Mena, was a self-professed atheist with the potential to destroy her granddaughter’s soul, Angela turned instant missionary. With a selfless singleness of purpose, she pursued the complicated but gratifying work of both protecting her Delia from further corruption and saving Mena’s soul from eternal damnation. “My GOD, Delia! If you don’t take Jesus as your savior, you’ll go right into the fiery pits of hell! Forever! Atheists don’t believe in God. God will turn His back on her forever if we don’t help her right now!” Angela scurried away to her room and retrieved a small, white, hourglass-shaped trinket. Dust caked its surface and inside it was a small vial with a white cap. She explained, “Here, Delia. I want you to have this. It’s holy oil from Jerusalem. You know about Jerusalem, right?” Delia nodded, wide-eyed. “This holy oil has been blessed by the pope, himself, Delia. I bought it mail order all the way from Rome, Italy, and haven’t had to use it until now. You take this to your mother some time when she’s taking a nap and anoint her on the—“ Delia looked puzzled. “What’s a ‘noint,’ Grandma?” “Oh, anoint, well, uh, it’s when you put something on someone in a holy way. Anyway, take the vial out and put a little on your finger and make the sign of the cross on her forehead while she’s sleeping. She’ll never let you do it when she’s awake. The devil is pulling on her. We’re fighting with the devil. We have to do what we can.” Angela paused and thought for a moment. Delia continued to munch her chocolate Pop Tart—crust before middle—and sipped her Tang orange-flavored drink. “You know what else will work, Delia? Finish up eating there and let’s go downstairs. We’re gonna call the prayer line. They’ll know what to do.” Now they sat in the cool basement, grandmother and granddaughter, swept up with notions about Mena’s salvation. They were unfaltering crusaders, and Angela’s excitement was infectious. Delia was a whirlybird behind a strong breeze, awkwardly spinning but pursuing the tailwind that was her grandmother. “Delia, you’re a child, and your prayer will be stronger. The Bible says, ‘And a child shall lead them.’ That’s you. God can’t ignore children. They’re His favorite. Now I’ll go upstairs and dial the phone while you tell me the numbers. They’ll put your call on TV and then everyone will pray for Mena!” Angela had bought the longest coil of telephone line that the department store had to offer. Her only phone in the house hung from a wall in the kitchen, and the extra cord allowed her to move freely while talking to her sisters or her friends. Sometimes Angela would wrap herself up like a mummy in the cord and then unwrap herself over and over during a phone call. Other times she would get animated over some gossip and twirl that coil like a jump rope or snap it like a lasso. Delia loved watching Angela and the motions of that phone line. She imagined herself a gypsy reading her grandmother’s palms through the lines of the cord. She could tell whether her grandmother was lying, elated, or angry just by the way the line sagged or skipped. Angela brought the receiver downstairs on that long, coiled line and Delia held it to her ear while listening to the other prayer requests on the television. Presently, a man was telling the host about his mother’s bout with cancer. The host, a young man in his thirties, intermittently flashed a smile out into the television audience or adopted a more pensive look in response to the caller’s story. He wore a crisp, pin-striped suit with gold crucifix cufflinks and a large gold watch. His teeth were holy white, and the sheen of his perfectly coiffed golden hair glowed like a halo under the studio lights. He was assisted by a lovely, blonde and busty supermodel, who alternately nodded and looked sympathetic as the caller told his story. She smiled approvingly at the host whenever he spoke and chimed in with a perfunctory “amen” whenever the host said “God” or “Jesus.” Delia could not take her eyes off of the woman’s red nails. Delia looked down at her own stubby hands and wondered if they’d ever grow long and slender like the woman’s on the television. Her grandmother ruptured her thoughts from the kitchen at the top of the stairs. “Okay, Dee, give me the numbers.” Delia called them up to Angela as they appeared on the screen, and she awaited the host on the line with nervous anticipation. Her mother’s salvation was a serious endeavor, and she wanted to get the message right. A man answered after the second ring, “Hello! Jesus Saves Prayer Line! What is your request?” Delia closed her eyes, inhaled through her nose like she’d been taught, and relaxed her shoulders before conversing with the man, who was already impatiently barking, “Hello? Hello?” on the other line. “Hello. Umm… my mom doesn’t believe in God and I was hoping to send out a prayer for you—I mean for her—can you do that? I don’t want her to go to hell.” She looked up at the television show where she thought the golden host with the cufflinks would answer her prayer, but a used car commercial flashed across the screen. She quickly realized that this was not the man she wanted to talk to, but she stayed on the line. “Oh, honey, that’s terrible. Now how much do you want to pledge?” “Pledge?” “Yeah, how much money do you want to send in? You can do ten, twenty or whatever suits your income. I have to tell you, though, for fifty you can get your prayer listed in the Jesus Saves monthly and get a free year’s subscription to the magazine. I think that’s our best bargain.” Delia stammered. “I… I’m sorry; I think I got the wrong number. I thought this was the prayer line.” “Well it is, but if you want your prayer read on television, you need to make a pledge.” “Why would I do that? Can’t I just tell you the prayer?” “You can, sugar, but if it goes on television, the entire viewing audience will pray for you and you’ll get more bang for your buck, see? Is there a grown-up in the house who could help you?” Delia called up to her grandmother, “Grandma! They want a pledge!” Angela pushed her finger down on the phone upstairs. Delia heard the click on the line. Quietness suffocated the room for a few moments before her grandmother broke it with “Bring me the phone, Delia.” Angela placed the receiver back in its cradle. “Aww to hell with them! We’ll figure something else out. A pledge for prayers! From a little girl calling about her mother’s salvation! What the hell is wrong with them? They didn’t ask for a pledge when I asked for money to make my electric bill six months ago!” The revelation of her last statement hit Angela with the same force as a thurible of frankincense that was once carelessly swung too wide in the church aisle by a novice priest. As when that ball of incense struck her in the face at that midnight mass so many years ago, Angela seethed in silence. Delia shut the television off and trudged upstairs to the kitchen. She grabbed the talisman of holy oil. Holding it in her hand, she rubbed her thumb over the smooth curves of its bottle for a few moments before slipping it delicately into her overnight bag. Her mother’s salvation would have to wait. That was enough praying for one day.
-- Lisa Silverman lives in Pittsburgh where she teaches at an urban high school and lives with her husband and three sons. Her current goal is to find a Woolfian “room of her own” in a house—and life— filled with chaos, friends, family, and love. She writes about the working class experience and blogs at feralwhitetrash.wordpress.com.