All religions are a little bit wacky, and that’s certainly true for a new church on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side.
For one thing, there’s the name: Redemption Dry Cleaners. For another, the congregants are called customers. For a third, there is a series of stained-glass windows that are a sort of Stations of the Cross but featuring a goose.
Then, there is the Christmas Day service at which Marek Jablonski, a 19-year-old Polish immigrant, walks down the aisle, carrying an envelope containing $200 as well as a box with a large plastic goose and an array of fitted outfits.
Marek looks up at the final window which depicts in stained glass a goose being stolen by a man in a black ski mask. From his pocket, he pulls a black ski mask and puts it over his head, saying:
“It is me.”
“Ohhhh!” the crowd gasps, like the audience of an Oprah Winfrey show.
“I was robber.”
Virginia Martyniak who presides over this new church tells Marek to kneel and begins to pray:
“Heavenly spirit, use your most powerful cleaning solutions to wipe the sins from this man’s soul.”
Right away, Marek feels as if his body has been plugged into a powerful current. He’s sure that sparks are flying from his head. Then he feels as if the inside of his body is getting worked on by tiny vacuum cleaners, scrub brushes, and flour polishes.
When he opens his eyes, Virginia is smiling down at him.
“You are forgiven,” Virginia says. “Go and sin no more.”
“Still have love”
It is a funny, touching moment that, in many ways, sums up Melanie Villines’ second novel Windy City Sinners, newly published by Sugar Skull Press.
This is a book about the wackiness of humanity. Its characters include Sammy Mangano, the psychic Mob enforcer who loves cats; the babushka-wearing Grazyna Jablonski, who steals silk flowers from cemeteries to plant in her backyard; Jerry Valentino the cop who finds himself molding 31 plastic St. Josephs to distribute as lawn ornaments; and Father Spinelli who’s bitter that his priestly duties keep interrupting his efforts to compose music.
Also inhabiting this novel are such otherworldly figures as the real St. Joseph who complains he doesn’t get enough respect; the red-haired Antonio Vivaldi who is so caught up in creating musical masterpieces that, more than 250 years after his death, he’s channeling new compositions through Northwest Side Chicagoans such as Father Spinelli; and Aldo and Anne-Marie Lorenzo, an Italian couple in their 70s who die because of the theft of a plastic Virgin Mary statue but continue to hang around their house where, one night, they watch their nephew stuffing something in their drop ceiling.
“What Sammy up to?” Anne-Marie Lorenzo’s ghost asks her dead husband.
“He hidin something, look like,” Aldo says.
“Probably not so legal, what he doin,” Anne-Marie says.
“He musta got a good reason,” Aldo tells her. Then the two ghosts settle into their twin recliners, and remember all the time they’d spent together in the chairs, talking, eating, watching television. Really, they think, life goes by so fast. And, after all, what is it all for?
There must have been more than eating and talking and watching television. Then they remembered that they had loved each other. They had spent many hours holding hands across the small space that separated their two chairs.
Even though Anne-Marie and Aldo no longer have their bodies, they still have the love. Even now, they sit next to one another and hold hands, watching Sammy as he hides the cocaine in their basement ceiling.
A sin novel
Love, of course, is humanity at its wackiness. But life’s not all fun and games.
To sin is human. And, for all its playful humor, this is a book about sin. About theft and drugs and lying and violence and greed and spite and hate and on and on and on.
It’s not a murder mystery or a crime novel. It’s a sin novel.
Windy City Sinners, of course, is no Crime and Punishment. Yet, unlike most modern-day novels, Villines is interested in — wants to — grapple with the idea of sin and with the other great questions of human existence.
“What is sin?” one character asks — on the second page of the novel.
At other points, other questions arise: Such as “Do you ever think about your own death?” And: “Is the desire, the hope of something better, the real source of happiness?” And, as the Lorenzos asked, “What is it all for?”
These are questions that Villines wrestled with, from another perspective, in her 1999 novel Tales of the Sacred Heart — also set in a Chicago neighborhood, Humboldt Park — in which a radio host asks: “What, essentially, is a saint?” That book featured angels, visions, miracles and even a Judgement Day.
Windy City Sinners has similar supernatural elements. Virginia Martyniak begins her career as a religious leader when she discovers that, by looking at a piece of clothing, she can tell what sins were committed while it was on. And not only that, but she can also wash those sins away — like a spiritual laundry.
That’s how, after the robbery by Marek, the laundry that Virginia and her husband Herb have been running gets renamed as Redemption Dry Cleaners, and how it eventually morphs into a church. And how Marek ends up in the stained glass window.
It’s how a whole cottage industry of transgression-erasure develops:
Virginia knows that other businesses are in competition with hers — she’s seen scads of ads in the local newspaper for hair salons, housecleaning services, carpet cleaners, house painters, and others that boast of removing sins for a price.
In fact, one of Villines’ chapters is titled “The Sin Business.”
“Us sorry sinners”
Throughout Windy City Sinners, Virginia and the other characters ponder various theological conundrums and come up with answers they hope will suit them.
For instance, Grazyna Jablonski doesn’t feel guilty about her scavenging of gravesites in the nearby cemetery:
Grazyna doesn’t see this as robbery. Silk flowers are expensive, after all. And what good are they to the dead? The flowers look much better in her yard. The departed souls have told her as much. She confers with them, asking for their consent before she takes the flowers. Grazyna considers herself fortunate — life is so much simpler when you receive permission for an act that most people would deem a sin.
Emmett, a gay black mail carrier who is also a painter, is defensive when someone comments on one of his works:
Even though Emmett hates the picture, he feels protective about it. After all, he’d created it. Maybe this is how God feels about us sorry sinners, Emmett thinks.
At one point, Emmett sits through five Masses at the local Catholic church:
He prays that Sammy Mangano will come to church so he can have a little conversation with him. Emmett is praying not to God — but to himself. He knows it would be wrong to ask God to assist with the cocaine sale. He knows God wouldn’t go for something like that.
Windy City Sinners is a freewheeling, wry and whimsical novel about the deepest human feelings and questions.
It has no answers.
It is no catechism, but it’s a lot more fun.
Patrick T. Reardon