“The soul is in every part of your body that is alive.” That’s Sister Benigna’s voice over Amy Winehouse’s:

My days have grown so lonely
For you I cry, for you dear only.

Amy is doing a duet with Tony Bennett, “Sweet T,” Sister with the Baltimore Catechism, the gold standard of Catholic education. Both are addressing body and soul. Amy received a gold-plated trophy but didn’t expect it. Sister expected the kingdom of light, but who knows what she got? Not that Amy has anything to do with any of this, except as—what? a breakbeat loop call it, that, in the lengthening rays of late afternoon, suddenly trips the neural tapestry that’s entwined strangely, fantastically, with Sport and Ginny and “Body and Soul.”

Sister Benigna’s face, in the camera obscura of memories, looks like one of those pompous portraits by Van Dyck or Rubens of the Archduchess Isabella dressed in a nun’s habit…or—what’s her name? Y’know, the rhadamanthine founder of ETWN, the Catholic news network? Mother Angelica! Only Sister Benigna, to her credit, never wore a pretentious monstrance pendant, as she of the Eternal Word used to. Other than that, though—same black veil and wimple, same form-fitting coif framing a bespectacled fleshy face, same forehead hidden behind a stiff crown band to complete the blinkered, boxed-in look of the hermetically sealed mind. Much like, now that I think of it, the plutocratic Trump’s sneeringly malapert press secretary Sarah “Huckster” Sanders would look, were she ever to repent her mendacities and check into a nunnery. Granted, I’m relying on the “rusted spring of memory,” and wishful thinking. But I digress…albeit into secular revelation.

What is it that is actually alive? That’s the question that quietly occupied me way, way back then, and, strangely, fantastically, does now amid all the aural interweavings, though, naturally, less scrupulously than then when—a finger? a fingernail? Is a hair, a single hair of my 11-year-old towhead? What is it that is actually alive? That’s the question that, after all these years, I remember worrying me. And further, inching deeper into the dangerously destructive thicket of abstract thought, can it be the case that I am mutilating, even killing my immortal soul when I let barber Tucci—teck tsch, teck tsch—fooster about with my towy crew cut? Alas, the Baltimore Catechism offers no guidance, only, to the airy question, “Is your soul real?” the flinty averral: “Your soul is just as real as your body.” Even then, if but vaguely, as the uncanny wings of anamnesis or conscience bear me back to the initialed-scarred desk of that musty classroom, I think I sensed, albeit indistinctly amid all the toe-tapping and hand-wringing, the catechetical algorithm that was designed to screen and manage the fear and trembling that it was designed to create.

“More real,” Sister Benigna once more stresses, in a voice cold, sharp and final, “your body will die, and your soul will not, and—” logic pursing her resolute lips almost enough to kiss her overhanging Roman nose—“what is immortal is surely more real than what is not.” Then, riding a Thomistic buzz, “How do you know you have a soul?” followed up with an arch mouth curl and,“You can do spiritual things.” Pause, watery grey eyes fade in a queer cataract mist, then, “Such as—?” Pause again, this time for a deep breath that rushes out with, “You can think and laugh and make things up…You can even work out batting averages!” Cue the polite titters from the boys, the predictable groans from the girls, before the coup de grâce: “Now what squirrel can do such things?” delivered with the out of breath, toothy, vampiric smile of—of, well, think of Rudy Giuliani, bulging eyes and replete and relaxed steepled gesture of the know-nothing know-it-all. Then, oh, I almost forgot, the halo on top: “Q.E.D,” a pet initialism, along with “ergo,” that, albeit alien, I find appealing for rhyming with Virgo, my astrological sign, which I consult daily like a practicing pagan. But, of course, that I keep masturbatorily secret, along with Sport’s affection for gambling and, too, his gospel, which my uncle never wearies of preaching, the inevitable incense of blue cigar smoke clouding about his head of glossy black hair with deep side part: “Kid,” his mouth and eyes drawing about the corona before he removes it and adds, his free hand fingering the shell knot of the indispensable, natty silk tie, “the idea is not to die without sins, but with the right ones.” Then, swinging the stogie like a censer and adopting the stentorian voice of a clericus calling out the number of a metrical Psalm: “And always avoid the cardinal sin: a one-sided book that can cost you big time!” followed up with a hard-edged mockery of a laugh that settles in a derisive rictus beneath his big, ridged nose and heavy-lidded eyes.

“And where did your soul come from?” That’s Sister again, adumbrating a newborn with her small puffy hands before adding, softly, tenderly, “From God, who joined it to your tiny body in your mother’s blessed fruitful womb so that you’d resemble the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Then, quick as thought, she whirls round to the chalkboard, the trail of her veil leaving me to wonder of this womb, this fruitful womb, about which she utters not a word, ever, of the blessed fruitful womb, any more than Sport sputters a thing about “right sins.” But, ah! with miracles, both are on speaking terms.

For her part, Sister Benigna never displeases of disclosing—as did Mother Angelica, come to think of it, who, y’know, loved to recount how a statue of the Child Jesus in Bogotá once came alive and told her, “Build Me a temple and I will help those who help you.” Thus, the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, dedicated to the Divine Child Jesus, plopped down in a field in Hanceville, Alabama. From the moment she set foot on that holy ground of soybeans, Mother liked to say, “I felt the presence of God very strongly.” Much like, I guess, the Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella walking through a cornfield heard a voice whispering, “If you build it, he will come,” then saw a vision of a baseball diamond, which he proceeded to build in his hallowed cornfields. And, sure enough, out came the 1919 White Sox, the accused, in what they say was the greatest sin against the sport on the grandest stage, that being, intentionally losing that year’s World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, which, make no mistake, Sport vehemently denied fixing, though, suggestively, the outcome of the 1918’s Sox defeat of the Cubs—about which, years later at his wake, I heard breathed and whispered and murmured darkly—he affectionately called “my little miracle.” But once again, I’ve strayed…I was saying, of Sister Benigna’s evergreen miracle, it didn’t occur in fields of corn or soybeans or ones shaped like diamonds, but at a holy spring—at Lourdes, where, she said, she heard a voice tell her to remove the corset and leg brace she’d worn for years in a vain attempt to ease the pain of acute sciatica. She complied. The town’s medical committee confirmed that her recovery could not be explained scientifically. Ergo…

But, to be clear, Sister Benigna’s interests listed less to miracles than to sin, as did, by her measure, Sport’s. Though, of its nature and kinds, Sister Benigna knew much, Sport little, so much in fact that Sister formulated a two-column list of sins. In one, the mortal, in the other, the non-mortal, both of which, astonishingly, still lurk mole-like in the synapses and subsets of my neuronal memory allocation. There she again takes pains, Sister does, to pinpoint the difference between sins. “To wit”—the third of her trinity of favored phrases—“To wit,” she again says, and, like a cat’s, my ears light up, “the mortal always involve a grave matter done with full knowledge and consent.” Then, ominously, “A person dying in mortal sin goes directly to Hell.” She points downward, she does, with a swollen, stubby forefinger. The lesser, she promises of the so-called venial sins, warrant a painful but temporary destination, a place for purification called purgatory that she places, she does, midway between the hardwood floor and the asbestos ceiling.

Her list grows like topsy with the year’s progress. By Resurrection Sunday, it’s become a mnemonic of sins not permissible, like a really big lie, a black one; and permissible ones, like a very small lie, a white one. Likewise with blind drunkenness, gambling, faith in astrology and immodest dress, on one hand; and, on the other, incomplete inebriation, bingo, horoscopes, and more-or-less immodest dress. Or, following the nuances of the bishop of Hippo, whoever he is, Sister says natural sins—rape, incest, adultery—are less serious than unnatural ones, such as outercourse.

Outercourse, outercourse, what is outercourse? And rape and incest and adultery? The Baltimore Catechism never says. Sister never lets on.

Topping Sister’s list of sins: giving greater love to anything other than God. Always grievously evil, that, a flagrant affront to the First Commandment—idolatry, pure and simple. A non-stop, one way ticket to Hell.

I wonder again, again in that close-smelling room full of fidgets and jitters, if pledging body and soul to another human is idolatry. I don’t ask. Is Ginnie Powell blaspheming when she sings, ages before Amy, “I’d gladly surrender myself to you, body and soul?” Is Sport, God forbid! who sings right along with her, as if he were a vocalist in the Boyd Raeburn Band? I don’t ask. Why? Both cry me to sleep—no, no, not Ginnie and Amy. That Sport—that he may be in the clutch of doom and—and that I don’t ever ask why. Both, even now, after all this time, haunt my disordered dreams and shake me awake.

The train of dormant associations roles on in the reddish wash of dusk, leaving me behind like a stranded passenger at a bleak, far-away station, full of puzzled wonder. What did I take from the mind-numbing recitations of the Baltimore Catechism? from my assiduous assistance in countless oblations? from the crusty approbations of all the black blowy cassocks and voiles? Not happiness, certainly, let alone “the fruits of the spirit.” The prophet’s wind, yes that, and earthquake and fire, but not the still small voice behind them, none of the poet’s “world in a grain of sand” or “heaven in a wild flower”…The trick, yes, that I took, perhaps that mainly. The convergence, call it, of the theological and secular—of, on her side, Sister’s demarcation between mortal and venial, and, on his, Sport’s hedging your bets so you don’t get caught with a one-sided book. That way, either way, you avoid a hellish end. Q.E.D., ergo, to wit: not to die without sins, but with the right ones.

Amy didn’t live long enough to pick up her gold. Her father did for her. He said on that occasion, “We shouldn’t be here. Our darling daughter should be here. These are cards that we’re dealt.”

To which I utter, in a voice hoarse with wonder, “Amen, brother,” and then take an Amen break—Amy’s, of course, “You Know I’m No Good.”