‘Mother Coakley’s Reform’ by Breandan Gill
A hilarious story told in an extremely funny way. Its appeal is similar to the “Nuns Having Fun” calendars, which highlight the childlike joy, and sometimes playful mischief, of women who have given themselves to God. This short story is one of several that are paired with the Bayley Bulletin Winter Quarter Short Story Contest.
Even in old age, Mother Coakley was as round and smooth-skinned as a ripe chestnut. In her billowing black habit, she had always the air of being about to be caught up in a gust of mountain wind and carried aloft to the sunny, well-scrubbed corner awaiting her in heaven. Despite the mother superior’s hints of disapproval, hints which by anyone else would have been taken as commands, Mother Coakley enjoyed playing tennis with the younger convent girls.
The tennis court was on the crest of a hill behind the ramshackle wooden buildings which made up the convent chapel and school, and what seemed in the North Carolina town below an agreeable summer breeze approached, on that dusty oblong of root-ribbed and rocky court, the force and temperature of a winter’s gale.
Luckily, Mother Coakley paid no attention to temperatures, hot or cold. Gathering the full skirts of her habit into her left hand, she scampered about the court like an energetic chipmunk, letting her veil float out behind her in ghostly disarray and only just showing the tops of her high black shoes. She had learned to play tennis as a novice at the mother house in France, no one knew how many years ago, and she played it unexpectedly well.
Like most people who learned the game in the nineteenth century, she felt no real interest in volleying. She was willing to lose point after point in order to attempt a smashing forehand drive or to drop an occasional cut shot over the net, and when she had succeeded in doing so, the ball being unreturnable, Mother Coakley would drop her racquet and clap her hands in unaffected delight.
She had no use, in fact, for any of the effete mannerisms of latter-day tennis. If she failed to return an opponent’s serve, she never called, “Good shot,” but, screwing up her face into an expression of self-contempt, would announce sharply, “I should have had it! I should have had it!”
As she played, her cheeks grew more and more deeply suffused with blood. Though she looked as if she might be about to suffer a stroke, she never heeded suggestions that it would be sensible to rest for a few minutes between sets. “I always get to look like this,” she would say, panting heartily. The French neatness of speech taught her at the mother house in Dijon would then slur away to a soft Irish brogue. “Sure, I got to look like this when I was six.”
Also, as she continued to play, her rosary, carelessly stuffed inside her heavy black belt, would work itself loose and flail about her waist until finally, with tears of excitement streaming down her cheeks and wisps of clipped gray hair showing at the sides of her wimple, she would be forced to stop playing. “If I didn’t stop now, I’d strangle myself on my own beads,” she would say. “But for them, I’d be playing till dark.”
She usually contrived, however, to retire from the game while she was still winning. This mild vanity was one of the two or three enormous sins with which she wrestled all but visibly from year to year. It was noted by the other nuns in the convent that Mother Coakley spent more than twice as much time in the confessional during the height of the tennis season as she did during the rest of the year. They never commented on this directly, but sometimes they would tease her, out of love and curiosity, as she left the chapel.
“Goodness, you took a long time saying your penance,” they would whisper, climbing the steep, worn stairs to their cells. “Father Nailer must have been in a dreadful temper by the time you reached him.” Mother Coakley, who, after Mother Bonnet, was the oldest nun in age and point of service in the convent, would flush and answer, in a pretext of anger, “Attendez! What kind of talk is that? Vous savez les règles!”
Mother Bonnet preferred to remain at the convent except when, as mother superior, she had official business to transact, and it was Mother Coakley’s duty and joy to shepherd the girls of the school on their occasional visits to town. She was well acquainted in all the shops around the square. She helped the girls to choose gloves and girdles and chaste perfumes, which she always referred to as “toilet water.” The mother superior frowned on the use of perfumes and girdles, but Mother Coakley answered her objections by saying mildly, “God love them, we’ll be lucky if that’s all the harm they do with their money.”
During every such visit to town it was customary to drop in at Mr. Feinman’s little combination cigar and sports shop on the square and pick up tennis or ping-pong balls, and to cap the afternoon by drinking chocolate frosteds at Fater’s corner drugstore. Mother Coakley never ate or drank anything while in town, but she liked to purchase from Mrs. Fater, as unobtrusively as possible, a ten- cent Hershey bar, which she would slip into one of her capacious interior pockets. “Energy food,” she would say, making her eyes round and bright. “When you get to be my age . . .”
Mother Coakley’s age was one of the few secrets which she had been able to carry over from her girlhood outside the convent, but she must have been past seventy when the mother superior attempted to take a stand on the subject of her playing tennis. Mother Bonnet, who was as lean and slow-moving as Mother Coakley was plump and bouncing, had never approved of the latter’s athletic activities, and as the years went by it seemed to her less and less appropriate for one of Mother Coakley’s age and position to be making of herself, as the mother superior said, “a gross spectacle truly.”
She had been looking for an excuse to put an end to the display, and the incident in Mr. Feinman’s shop was more than enough, she felt, to justify speaking soberly to her.
One winter day, while Mother Bonnet was engaged in her annual skirmish with the tax collector in his office beside the courthouse, Mother Coakley and five or six of the girls spent a strenuous two hours shopping and walking about the town.
The girls bought writing paper, cotton stockings, and some sensible, over-size sweaters, and enjoyed the usual chocolate frosteds at Fater’s while Mother Coakley bought, and concealed on her person, the usual ten-cent Hershey bar. Having a few minutes to spare before rejoining Mother Bonnet, they decided to stop off at Mr. Feinman’s. Though it was February, the midday sun was always bright and the tennis court was in no worse condition’ than it would be in June; Mother Coakley and the girls played nearly every afternoon, glorying in their indifference to the calendar. One of the girls had been planning for some time to buy a new racquet, but Mother Coakley and Mr. Feinman had yet to come to terms.
Today, welcoming them, Mr. Feinman swore that he had just what the doctor ordered. He brought out from the dusty shelves at the back of the store, where he kept piled in indiscriminate confusion, cases of cigars and baseball mitts, a racquet called the Bluebird Special. “Sweetest little racquet I ever had in the place,” Mr. Feinman said, blowing off the dust and hefting the racquet with professional care. Mr. Feinman had never played any game more taxing than pinochle, but he knew how to sell merchandise. He stroked the gut with his fingers. “Like music,” he said. “With this racquet is easy wictory. Is steady wictory.”
Mother Coakley enjoyed shopping. She particularly enjoyed haggling with her old friend Mr. Feinman. The girls formed an interested half-circle about her as she took up the challenge, and a few of the inevitable courthouse loungers gathered at the open door of the shop. Mother Coakley swept this familiar audience with a glance, then, turning to Mr. Feinman, she asked simply, “How much?”
Mr. Feinman held up his hands as if to ward off the wounding mention of money. “For such a racquet? For workmanship like this?”
“How much?” Mother Coakley repeated.
Mr. Feinman consented, with a shrug, to discuss the sordid question. “Ten dollars.”
Mother Coakley tapped her broad black belt, making the wooden rosary beads rattle as if in reproach. “Nonsense,” she said. When she bargained, she seemed purely French; even her voice took on the accents of Dijon in place of those of Dublin. “It isn’t worth five.”
Mr. Feinman appealed to the girls behind Mother Coakley and, by extension, to the crowd outside the door. “Five dollars! A work of art for five dollars!” He raised his eyes to the stamped tin ceiling over his head. “May God strike me dead if I didn’t pay six dollars for it wholesale. I can—”
“Leave God out of this,” Mother Coakley interrupted promptly. “What kind of pagan chatter is that?” She took the racquet from Mr. Feinman’s hands and began to execute a few tentative strokes, cutting at and lobbing an imaginary ball.
What happened next no one was able afterwards to decide. Some people thought that Mr. Feinman had caught sight of the mother superior nearing the entrance to his store and had leaned forward to welcome her. Others thought that he had detected a price tag dangling from the end of the racquet and, being uncertain of what it said, had bent down to retrieve it. In any event, he lowered his head in time to receive, on his left temple, the full force of one of Mother Coakley’s savage forehand drives. He dropped in his tracks like a sack of meal, without so much as a moan.
The girl who had intended to buy the racquet began to cry hysterically, “He did it! God did it! God did it!” Mother Coakley knelt beside the motionless figure of Mr. Feinman, her round cheeks looking oddly drawn and pale. “He’s not dead,” she said sharply, “he can’t be. He’s breathing. You can see he’s breathing.”
She drew the Hershey bar from her pocket and, breaking off a piece, attempted to force it between Mr. Feinman’s lips. At that moment he opened his eyes. In another moment he was on his knees. Slowly, painfully, he pulled himself up. “Is nothing,” he said faintly. “Is just a tap.”
Mother Coakley had barely begun her apology when another, deeper voice reached her over the heads of the crowd. “Tais-toi,” said the mother superior. “I am in charge here.” She worked her way through the crowd, her habit rustling with authority. She stared first at Mr. Feinman, half crumpled against the counter, and then at Mother Coakley, still armed with the Bluebird Special. “The racquet,” she said to Mr. Feinman. “One of the girls is buying this racquet?” Mr. Feinman nodded. “How much?”
With the air of a man who knows that it is useless to fight against the power of God, Mr. Feinman said brokenly, “Seven-fifty. For a work of art, I will take seven-fifty.”
The mother superior, fresh from her annual triumph over the tax collector, said, “Very well.” She set seven dollars and fifty cents on the counter. Then, turning to the girls, she made a gesture with her hands like that of a farmer’s wife scattering hens. “Now, then. Dépêchons.”
The little group was halfway across the square before the mother superior spoke to Mother Coakley. “You and your wretched tennis!” she said bluntly.
Mother Coakley nodded. “I have been thinking it over. I have come to feel that perhaps you are right.” She pursed her lips. “Perhaps I am getting old.”
“I have wanted you to make your own decision,” said the mother superior. She was always glad to be able to temper sternness with magnanimity. Besides, she and Mother Coakley were old friends, and it would be cruel to make her humble herself too far. “It is not that I am angry about this merely. Accidents can happen to anybody.”
“No, it was my fault,” Mother Coakley said, her voice softening to the brogue. She slipped a piece of the Hershey bar into her mouth. “I shall have to give up my forehand drive. You were right in thinking that I should have done so long ago.”
Then, despite her best efforts at self-control, her feet began to skip along the asphalt sidewalk. “From now on,” she said penitently, “I shall play as badly as I can.”
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