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Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Mask, Chapter 12

12.

Thursday, October 10th, 2019
10 AM

Conroy Ortega finally got right with God and Jesus four years ago, as he lay recovering from a two car accident in Utica General Hospital. A bouncer who'd been working for The Golden Kitty about seven years, five days prior, Conroy had been driving to work in the middle of a rainstorm when the accident happened.

Just twenty-four hours before that, he'd been stink-ass drunk as he'd driven home from The Kitty (a lithe and deviously playful stripper named Candy along for the ride) with the slow, exaggerated care of an experienced alcoholic drunk driver. That night, he'd made it home to his apartment in Booneville without incident. Candy and he spent the rest of the night "entertaining" each other in varied and wildly diverse ways.

On the night of the accident, twenty-four hours later, Conroy had been - through a stroke of good luck, or, as he came to think of it later, God's Will - sober as a Puritan minister in a Nathanial Hawthorne short story. He'd just been late, was all, having overslept from he and Candy's torrid exertions the night before, and that morning. 

Also, as he sped through the storm, driving too fast on rain-slicked roads, he'd been arguing with Candy on his cellphone about their "relationship." Ironically enough, he wanted something formal and official, he wanted to be her "guy." Candy was more of a "flavor of the month" kind of girl. That month the flavor had been anything vaguely Hispanic; and she was already jonesing for something new.

He'd never seen the little Escort drift from the off ramp of the Route 28 North overpass, right into his path. Because he didn't like to think about that night, Conroy couldn't remember what had happened in the Escort. Someone was having seizure or something. That much he remembered. In any case, one minute he was calling Candy a "bitch-ass hoe who'd played him," the next minute looking up and jamming the brakes as the Escort filled his vision. 

He'd T-boned the little car. Despite his seat-belt, the impact jerked him forward, and slammed his forehead against the wheel. Everything went black. When he woke up, he was in Utica General, and according to a stern but compassionate Dr. Fitzgerald, he'd suffered a Grade 3 concussion.

Miraculously enough, the driver of the Escort - someone named Rachel, he thought - survived the accident with a mild concussion and a sprained wrist. Her son - an autistic boy - hadn't been so fortunate. He'd somehow been ejected from the vehicle, and died on impact.  

Conroy spent three weeks recovering from his concussion. He suffered persistent headaches and eye aches, periodic memory loss, mild speech lapses, and slippery emotional control. He would break down into soul-wrenching sobs or rage uncontrollably, at any given moment.

Toward the end of his three weeks at Utica General, his headaches subsided (he still got migraines occasionally, and if he didn't take a tablet of Imitrex immediately, it usually knocked him down for several hours), his emotions smoothed out, and he was delivered with the fortunate news that it wasn't believed he'd sustained any lasting or severe brain injury. He was eventually discharged, with certain concussion protocols he had to follow (no television, no reading, plenty of rest and sleep) for a few more weeks.

He was also discharged a changed man with a rejuvenated belief in God and the saving power of his son, Jesus. Raised in a moderately Catholic home, Conroy was familiar with the trappings of faith. But over time he'd drifted. A subtle thing, one thing leading to another, until he felt sure that faith was a sham, and if God did exist, he didn't give a damn about humans.

Over the course of his hospital stay, Father Ward - a childhood friend of Dr. Fitzgerald, who liked to volunteer in the chapel at Utica General - met with him almost daily. He didn't even talk with Conroy about God or Jesus or the Bible for almost about a week. He simply got to know Conroy. It was Conroy who finally opened door, by asking Father Ward how he could believe in a God who allowed terrible things to happen.

Four years later, Conroy Ortega no longer  drank or smoked, and he read his Bible every day. He attended Sunday evening mass at All Saints in Clifton Heights, the only night The Golden Kitty wasn't open. Every Thursday morning, he attended the local A. A. chapter in Booneville. 

But even though he no longer allowed himself to mingle intimately with the girls at The Kitty, he continued to work there. Over his time there, he'd gotten to know all of them - intimate liaisons or not -  as the real people they were. To other Christians, strippers and  those who associated with them were the  lowest of  the low, the dirtiest of  all the sinners. Conroy, however, saw in every single one of them sparks of what made  up the best of humanity. As far he understood the Bible, God's grace was for everyone.

Protective of them even before his new-found faith, Conroy decided to take - very  literally - the advice Father Ward had given him in the hospital after the accident. Bloom where you are planted. For better or worse, he'd been planted at The Golden Kitty.

And in those girls, he'd seen both the best and worst humanity could offer. Far as he was concerned, faith wasn't supposed to paint everything in black and white. It was supposed to help people better navigate the gray.  

So he stayed at The Kitty. Declared the girls hands-off to him and the other bouncers (woe to the bouncers who didn't listen). Petitioned the owner  (an out of town sleazeball by the name of Peter Lancing) for better changing facilities for the girls, and a higher cut from their tips. And he wouldn't tolerate grabby customers on his watch.

Quite simply, the girls and the other bouncers at The Kitty had become like family. And, contrary to popular media, he didn't believe religion and faith should make everyone in the family the same, or make them pursue their lives the same. It should pull them closer together, because once you decided God wants to love, how can you not then in turn want to love others?

Conroy knew most Christians didn't share his views. Most Christians - even  those he encountered at mass, or at A. A. - seemed more concerned with controlling others' lives, telling  and lecturing others how to live, and putting their efforts behind elected officials who would then try and legislate how others should live.

Conroy wanted no part in that circus. He wanted to keep studying his Bible and growing in his relationship with God, and the only point he saw in doing that was for him to grow in his love of others. To the best of his ability, he would serve others and wash their feet, just as Jesus did to his disciples.

His only radical move upon his return to faith were his cross tattoos. Almost immediately upon his release from the hospital, he'd gotten two cross tattoos, one on each shoulder. Every week after that, he got another. On each wrist, forearm, and anywhere else he could fit one. At the time he couldn't have said why he needed them, or why he heeded the compulsion to get them. He'd felt driven to have the instrument of Christ's torture and the symbol of His triumph over Death tattooed on him in as many places as possible, and heeded that drive, without question.

Never once did he think that instead of serving as protection, his tattoos might serve as bulls-eyes, instead. 

Chapter 13

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