[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
January 28 - February 4, 2000

[Tales From Tritown]

The awakening

Junkman Whitey Leblanc is back

by Sally Cragin

Illustration by Lennie Peterson

One cold, blustery Saturday evening, a cordless phone chirps, goes silent for a few minutes, and then chirps again. Delia Ellis Bell the Partial Yankee (there was a questionable great-great grandmother) swears: "Jeezum crow," and hastily wipes her hands on her apron. She is baking a set of Bell Family Oatsies, not for the church bake sale, not for a nearby shut-in, not even for Hollis the Mountain Man, her closest friend and co-conspirator, but for herself.

"Hallooo," she bellows. There is a prolonged silence, and Delia instantly knows it's Whitey Leblanc, of Leblanc Brothers Salvage (which he runs with his brother Phil N.). Whitey, formerly Jean-Pierre, formerly Whitey, is basically back to his old surly and vulgar self, despite having suffered a concussion that temporarily transformed him into a suave Frenchman. The injury was no surprise: Whitey is a puck hog in Tritown's Knights of Leith (a/k/a the Kneeless League, a gang of middle-age chuckleheads that still plays tournament ice hockey without helmets). As the concussion abated, Whitey re-emerged, but he's still chain-smoking Gitanes.

During the past year, Hollis had told Delia she's a fool to date him: "Whitey's an obnoxious loser who's harassed you for years," he had said. "You're all charmed with him because he has a concussion, not in spite of it." But Delia had adored Jean-Pierre, and as the real Whitey returned ("so I sez to him," a more frequent conversational gambit than "and what do you think, mon chou?"), Delia guiltily realized that she is having trouble loving the man without his symptomata.

"Hello?" she repeats.

"Delia, this is Whitey."

She sighs. This is the first she's heard from him since before Thanksgiving, which had meant no romantic or otherwise Christmas gifties, nor a kiss under the mistletoe at New Year's. And, in all likelihood, no Valentine.

"Yes, Whitey," she says wearily.

He clears his throat, and then spits out, "Uh, this isn't like a date or anything, but I kind of hurt my wrist -- are you going to church tomorrow?"

Delia is not planning to go to church. But as she regains her composure, she realizes the sanctuary at All Faiths will be a lot more peaceful now that the Harvest-Bazaar-to-Christmas- Day blitz is safely passed. "What do you mean you hurt your wrist?"

"Aw geez," he begins. "I'm going into the corner and there's Phil all grinning -- and, like, daring me, so I tried to come into him sideways."

"You butt-ended him," she interjects.

"Well, yeah. But my stick gets caught in his pads somehow and my glove gets stuck with it and I go over him and -- this is the really stupid part -- I put out my hand straight-arm to block my fall."

Delia almost laughs. But she can't. "So you saw God this time and he told you to go to church but not to St. James?"

"Gosh no, Delia. It's just, well, I haven't made a confession since a couple months before Ray's wedding, and I think I oughta go to church. But, well . . ."

"Is it communion?" guesses Delia. "Because no, we don't confess in that way, we confess out loud."

There is a stunned silence from Whitey.

"No, Whitey," she continues. "We read it out of the book."

Delia leans on her kitchen stool. The Oatsies are cooling rapidly, but her appetite is far greater for the project at hand. If Whitey is having a spiritual awakening, maybe it will be merciful to help him find his way . . .

"I know what you're thinking, Delia," Whitey continues. "So don't make a big deal out of it, it's only church, okay? Can you pick me up? I can't drive,' he mutters.

"With pleasure," says Delia, quite sincerely.

All Faiths is formerly the Presby-Congo-Metho-Baps until the Unitarians and a small and ambitious Episcopal crowd joined. Now the hymns are all-inclusive every fourth Sunday, the communiion bread is homemade rye, and the communion wine is grape juice -- except for Easter week, when it's two percent alcohol. The service lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, depending on which sect is in the ascendency. (The occasional liturgial scandal in nearby parishes invariably swells the AF ranks.) Presiding pastor Washburn Henry ("Call me Wash!") is referred to as -- depending on your denomination of origin -- Reverend, Minister, or even Father, but you can call him anything, "except late for dinner," he unfortunately jokes.

Sunday morning, Delia wears her navy jumper instead of her fancy church dress (the long underwear sits better anyway). Whitey is in a coat and tie, she's pleased to see, and his wispy hair is plastered down. The injured wrist is in a sling, and he holds his arm gingerly. He lets Delia open the car door for him, but he does make an effort to reach across to open hers. Maybe shreds of Jean-Pierre remain.

At church, Delia nods and smiles to her friends (Hollis's aunt Winnie, insurance agent Horace Bosely, and the Senior Warden and his wife, Miss Benson, forty-year doyenne of the vestry) and finds a pew near the middle. The musty, hymnal odor is under control this morning, although she spies fresh stains on the white plasterwork. The roof or a new organ are the latest issues threatening to divide the congregation like the Montagues and Capulets.

This week, Father Henry decides to do an impassioned (for him) and ill-advised riff on the theme of "dropping everything to follow Jesus." While first reminding the congregation this Sunday does fall between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, and since he'd been agreeably brief in the previous two services, now is time to go to church. The sermon draws on the calling of brothers Andrew and Peter (also known as Simon), James, and John. The King James Bible verse: "Follow me and I will make ye fishers of men," used to make a lovely pun on their former careers as fishermen, but that's been wholly sacrificed to political correctness in the New Revised Standard version: "make you fish for people." Most folks want to know how to get along with this Jesus while they go about their everyday business, but they will never consider quitting their jobs for him, thinks Delia. Furthermore, since it is midwinter in Tritown, an agreeable solitude had descended on the villagers. Who would give that up? But Father Wash is on a roll, and the sermon notches the 20-minute, then 25-, then 30-minute mark. Delia feels restless, but Whitey is rapt.

Mrs. Bosely leans over to Delia and whispers, "You know, Horace always says the definition of an optimist is a man who puts his shoes on when the minister says `finally.'" Delia stifles her giggle, but Whitey helplessly snorts just as the sermon comes to a close. The remainder of the service passes with mercifully speed, and Whitey shyly accepts his rye and grape juice without incident.

With a glance, Delia and Whitey agree to pass on coffee-hour and stop instead at Happy's Coffee & Qwik Stop (30 kinds of doughnuts, 20 kinds of lottery tickets, one kind of coffee). Whitey seems in a daze -- part pain killer -- but, perhaps, thinks Delia, may be experiencing just a tiny hint of spiritual arousal. They have coffee and crullers while Whitey waits for Phil (healthy and unscathed by Whitey's fraternal cheap shot) to pick him up so Delia doesn't have to drive out to the Salvage Yard. When Phil N. jerks a finger to the door, Whitey reaches his good hand across the table to shake Delia's.

"So it was okay for you not being at St. Jimmy's?" she asks. Her feelings for him have slowly altered, and he definitely isn't looking cute. The stubble that was so appealling on Jean-Pierre is slovenly on Whitey.

"Yuh, it was good," he says, and bids farewell. But Delia realizes that's it, Whitey's been to church. Period. So why did he need to go with her?

$erena Tarbox the Waitress comes by to refill Delia's cup. "So, it's all over between you?" she comments.

Delia flushes slightly and temporizes, "How could you tell?" But Delia has her own answer: had there been anything more going on with Jean-Pierre -- Whitey -- she'd never have brought him to the Qwik-Stop on a Sunday morning.

Sally Cragin is a practicing Episcopagan.

The Tales From Tritown archive

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