Since the beginning of the school year, regular as daily prayer, Gerard “Pitou” Blette, imagined kissing Celeste Angelle. She sat in the front. Her father was a lawyer and they lived in one of the big new houses at the end of School Street. Sometimes he’d be aroused and he’d look left and right at his classmates sitting next to him to see if they noticed. But how could they, since he was dutifully seated at his desk like everyone else.
By spring, Sister Mary Stephen of the Stoning told his seventh-grade class that all thoughts about sex are a sin. She further advised them against attending the Friday night dances at the American Legion Hall now that they were of age, because, she said “when you enter that dance hall door, your guardian angel abandons you and the devil takes over.”
This warning about sex, the only one on the subject made by his teacher all year and the only one spoken thus far during his education entrusted into the capable hands of the Soeurs de Bon Pasteur (Sisters of the Good Shepherd) at St. Rapier’s School, pushed Pitou over the edge. Was he being taken over by the devil? Were his thoughts of kissing Celeste the dreaded ‘thoughts about sex’? That was the day he decided to turn himself into a statue.
Statues were a big part of his life, a big part of the adult world in which he lived and in which he had very little say. His earliest memory of a beautiful statue was the Blessed Virgin on her pedestal in church towering over a little stadium of candles flickering in glass cups the color of blood.
When Pitou and three of his cousins made their First Communion, their parents assembled them in their finery like wedding cake dolls and marched them to the grotto behind their pepe’s house to pose for pictures in front of pepe’s statue of the Blessed Virgin. Most people had Mary enshrined in a bathtub planted on the lawn. His pepe had built his Mary shrine to imitate Lourdes, one of the places where she appeared to young children. It was deep in the back yard on the edge of the woods. She was housed in an arch of mortar and stone. His pepe even diverted a little stream to go trickling past like the miraculous water of Lourdes.
Pitou’s wasn’t sure how or if he could turn himself into a statue. He’d been raised in a church that reveled in saints and miracles, so he believed pretty much anything was possible, if it was done for the glory of God. Did he want to become a statue to glorify God? Not really. He needed a time out from all this sex stuff. It would be like a magic trick.
That night, he stood by his bed in his pajamas and rattled off continuous Hail Mary’s in a hurry to get each one over with, the words stumbling, mumbling out as if he were speaking in tongues. He became dizzy and feverish.
He didn’t realize he’d actually done it, didn’t know an entire night had passed, until his mother’s terrified scream the next morning. Pitou felt bad right away about scaring the daylights out of her. He thought of Mary, being greatly troubled when the angel Gabriel told her she would be the Mother of God. He didn’t think Mary screamed like crazy the way his mother did when she discovered his little miracle.
Pitou immediately considered turning himself back into a boy, but then he’d have to confess why he did it. He wasn’t ready for that. When his mother stopped screaming, she fell to her knees, bent over and hugged herself and sobbed. He braced himself when he heard his father come bounding up the stairs. His father was a carpenter, like St. Joseph. Unlike St. Joseph, he liked his cans of beer in multiples and his mother had to continually shush his blue language.
“What the hell is it?” he yelled shoving open the door against his prostrate, sobbing wife.
Pitou’s mother got on her hands and knees and scuttled out of the way, allowing him to open the door wide.
“Jesus Christ Almighty!” he yelled as Pitou’s mother pointed a trembling hand to the place by the bed where Pitou had positioned himself the night before.
“Pitou? Pitou?” his astonished father asked, resting his coffee cup on Pitou’s dresser.
“Pitou! Pitou!” his father yelled as if saying his son’s name loud and angry enough would put everything in order.
He braced one hand on his kneeling wife’s shoulder and took a step closer toward Pitou. As his father’s outstretched hand got closer, Pitou wanted badly to blink or somehow signal his parents he was still alive. His father patted the top of Pitou’s head twice. Then he pulled back, dropped to his knees and put his arms around his wife without taking his eyes off his son.
By then Pitou realized he still had most of his senses. He could smell his father’s coffee, see and hear both his parents. He’d felt his father’s hand on his head. But he remained a plaster, inanimate statue. It was if he were there, but hiding, like the nuns tried to explain the presence of God.
“What should we do?” his father asked. Pitou had never seen his father so tamed.
“I’ll call Father Bellechance,” she answered, looking up at Pitou. She pushed herself up from her knees without taking her eyes off Pitou. She was calmed. She wiped her tears with her apron, took a couple of steps back, turned and left.
Pitou’s father stayed on his knees, then looked down at himself as if he were embarrassed to find himself kneeling in front of his son. He jumped up and bolted after his wife and slammed the door shut.
Pitou spent the next hour or so (he’d lost his human sense of time completely) regretting what a huge mistake he’d made. All he’d thought of beforehand was how wonderful statues were and how everybody loved them. He hadn’t wanted to scare his parents. He’d not even considered how he would turn myself back into a twelve-year-old boy. He supposed it would require wanting to be a boy again as much as he’d wanted to be a statue.
As this weighed on Pitou, he heard the hollow uneven sounds of many pairs of feet coming up the stairs. The door opened and Fr. Norman Bellechance’s considerable bulk occupied the doorway. The pastor’s B.O. wafted in and Pitou wanted badly to raise a hand and pinch his nose.
The priest stood open-mouthed, panting to catch his breath from the climb, a bit of drool escaping the corner of his pale lips. His normally gray, tired slits of eyes widened with shock.
Fr. Bellechance, without blinking, reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. Transfixed, he dabbed the spit from his chin, held his breath, and approached the statue of Pitou. He removed his black fedora with one hand and reached out toward Pitou with the handkerchief in the other. Pitou wanted to turn away from being touched by that handkerchief. The old priest made a fist around the handkerchief and slowly knocked twice on Pitou’s plaster head.
He backed off and pulled a little plastic bottle of holy water from his breast pocket, squirted some into the palm of his hand and tossed it at Pitou, not making the sign of the cross or anything, just tossing as if he were feeding ducks on a pond.
Finally Fr. Bellechance stood erect, his face nearly as white as the plaster that Pitou had become. He pronounced with the authority of an expert, ‘Yes, I’m afraid he is a statue.’
The housekeeper at the rectory overheard Fr. Bellechance on the phone talking to the bishop about Pitou Blette. She listened intently as the old priest’s impatience with the bishop rose to a shocking level.
“I’m telling you I have verified it with my own hand!” the pastor said, then, calmly, backing off, “No, your excellency, he appears to have done it by himself.” He concluded the call: “Yes, your excellency, I look forward to your visit.”
The housekeeper did not hesitate to spread the juicy gossip by calling her cousin Estelle who called her cousins and aunts and sisters and, like a flash flood, word that little Pitou Blette had turned himself into a statue buzzed in the ears of every Catholic in town and plenty of non-Catholics too.
Soon the neighbors, relatives, friends, and total strangers formed a line outside the Blette home, a humble two-story apartment in a block of six mill housing apartments called a “sexplex”. The police came to direct traffic. Cars with out-of-state plates were parked as far as three blocks away.
The first visitor was his Aunt Simone who placed a small wicker basket at Pitou’s feet with a cardboard sign “DONATIONS”. She also set up a burgundy velvet rope and two gold stands she’d borrowed from the funeral parlor in order to keep pilgrims from getting close enough to touch her nephew. Many people came and went, Pitou’s parents allowing groups of no more than five to crowd into the little upstairs bedroom on a non-descript house in Melanville that was being transformed into a shrine. People lined up for blocks, debated if it was it a miracle. Some brought young children, eager to expose them to the Church’s tradition of miracles. They were careful to keep them from going beyond the velvet rope. Visitors would kneel briefly and close their eyes, but couldn’t keep them closed long, so eager to stare at this boy-statue as if waiting for something more to happen, some further astonishment and determined not to miss a thing. They left money, flowers, rosaries, pictures of their favorite saints. It was like the impromptu shrines that spring up on the highway at the site of a fatal car accident.
A week went by. There was no attempt to move Pitou. Each evening, his mother and father would be the last ones to visit his room. They’d sit quietly on two of the several metal folding chairs someone had brought from the parish hall. He noticed they held hands when they sat there. He’d never seen them do that. After a while Pitou’s father would empty the donation basket into a sack and each of his parents would place a warm hand on his plaster head before they left and they’d tell him they loved him. They were the only one’s allowed to touch him.
The bishop pulled up in his big black car, emerged from the back seat and strode impatiently toward the door of the Blette home while as his two attendant monsignors scurried to keep up with him. As he mounted the steps, he yanked a purple stole from the pocket of his black suit coat and draped it around his neck.
Pitou’s parents had cleared their home of all visitors except Fr. Bellechance in preparation for the bishop’s visit. The old pastor answered the door.
“Welcome to the Blette home your excellency, this is Romeo Blette and his wife Darlene. The boy is upstairs.”
The bishop shoved Pitou’s door open and all his hurry came to an abrupt halt when he finally faced the statue. Pitou thought he recognized this new priest from the picture of the bishop that hangs in the school hallway at St. Rapier’s.
One of the priests who entered with the bishop unhooked one end of the velvet rope and let it drop to the floor. He quickly looked around the room and then pulled a night table in front of Pitou and placed a gold vial on it, then stood straight up with his hands clasped at his belt buckle. The bishop opened the gold vial and poured what looked like cooking oil onto a couple of his fingers. The bishop began a prayer in Latin and made the sign of the cross on Pitou’s head, eyes, nose, ears, and chest. One of the monsignors moved the night table and re-attached the velvet rope.
The bishop turned to Pitou’s parents: “This is your son, you are sure of that?”
“Yes, your excellency,” they answered in unison looking at each other at such a dumb question.
“You realize I will have to inform Rome,” said the bishop as if that were bad news. “There will be an investigation.” he continued. He turned back toward Pitou. “It will take some time,” he finished, sounding annoyed.
Pitou’s parents nodded and the bishop and his cohort left the room.
“Why did he give Pitou the last rights?” asked Pitou’s father as he and his wife sat alone with Pitou. “He’s not dead!”
Pitou’s mother turned to her husband. “I’m not sure what he is,” as she began to sob.
After dark, after Pitou’s parents had shooed away the last pilgrims who’d come after the bishop’s visit and they’d said goodnight to Pitou, he was enjoying his evening privacy and the door of his room opened again. In stepped Celeste Angelle. He thought he was dreaming.
Her left hand on the doorknob, she stepped into Pitou’s bedroom, and like every other first-time visitor, stared, her mouth slightly open. She moved toward him, and folded her hands in prayer. She unhooked one end of the velvet rope and dropped it on the floor without taking her eyes off his. Pitou wondered if she could feel him staring into her eyes the way she was staring into his. She stepped beyond the rope, close enough so Pitou could feel her breath and smell her perfume.
“Everyone said you turned into a statue. When did you come back?” she asked.