Billy Pruitt had lived all of his twenty-eight years in the same coal mining town in southern West Virginia. He married his high school sweetheart and made a good living as a mechanic working on heavy-duty mining equipment. But one day the world changed for him when his wife began speaking in tongues and eventually left him to marry a snake handling preacher in the next county. Heartbroken and lost, Billy sought new surroundings and landed a job with a large coal company in Wilkes-Barre, PA. The transition from the soft coal of West Virginia to the hard coal of Northeastern Pennsylvania was relatively easy. Adjusting to differences on the surface proved to be more challenging.
The people of Wilkes-Barre were a mix of Irish, Italian, Polish, and other Eastern European nationalities all holding strongly to their heritage and customs and all very unfamiliar to Billy. His friend and co-worker at the coal company, Marty O’Malley, tried to help orient Billy to his new surroundings. Marty, a ruddy-faced Irishman whose waist measured almost twice his in-seem, thought the best way to acculturate the recently transplanted young man was to introduce him to the local cuisine. Marty taught Billy the difference between cannoli and cannelloni, told him that in that part of Pennsylvania “pigs in a blanket” referred to stuffed cabbage, and that green peppers were called mangos. On Wednesday nights, Marty took him to Fumanti’s tavern for tripe, which Billy enjoyed until he discovered that it was cow’s stomach. Although Billy appreciated Marty’s efforts, most of the culture lesson ended up giving him indigestion and, more importantly, it wasn’t food that was troubling Billy. As with so much of the world, religion was at the center of Billy’s angst. Knowing Marty to be a Catholic, Billy raised the issue with his friend one Wednesday night over beers at Fumanti’s.
“Marty, you know I’ve been dating Sharon Grady for a couple months now.”
“Yeah.” said Marty, “She’s real cute. You guys gettin’ serious?”
“We might be, but there’s a problem. She’s Catholic and I’m not. I was raised Baptist but I ain’t much o’ anything anymore. ‘Course that don’t matter ‘cause you people got a problem with your women marrying anybody who’s not Catholic, especially if they’ve been divorced.”
“Oh yeah!” said a sympathetic Marty. “A Catholic girl marryin’ a divorced Protestant, that makes the Pope shit in his hat. She’d be excommunicated and her family would probably disown her. …You know you could convert and try to get your first marriage annulled.”
“Yeah, I don’t know if I wanna do all that. For now Sharon thinks I oughta at least learn somethin’ about her religion, so she wants me to go to Mass with her on Sunday. I’ve never even been inside a Catholic church and I’m a little nervous about it. I heard y’all do a lot of standin’ and kneelin’ and talkin’ in Latin. I don’t wannna do somethin’ dumb and embarrass her.”
“Oh, hell,” Marty snorted. “Half the men who go to church wouldn’t know what to do if they didn’t watch everyone else. Just stand when everyone stands, kneel when they kneel’ like that. And we say mass in English now, so when the congregation talks, just move your lips and mumble a little. We ain’t like you holy rollers always yellin’ and screamin’ and praisin’ Jesus at the top o’ your lungs, we’re pretty low key. Let’s see… what else should ya know? … Oh yeah, when everyone goes up to take communion just stay in your seat, only Catholics are allowed to take communion.”
“Won’t that let everybody know I’m not Catholic?”
“Naw, they’ll just think that you committed some mortal sin and didn’t get to confession.”
“So it’s better they think I’m a sinner than a Baptist?”
“Sure, sins can be forgiven, but being a protestant… that kind of sticks with ya. Oh, one more thing, before you get into your seat, you need to genuflect”
“What’s that mean?”
“You go down on one knee, always your right knee like this.” Marty clambered down from his bar stool to demonstrate, startling the bartender who thought that his rotund customer was having a stroke. “Sharon’ll be real impressed if you know enough to genuflect.”
“OK, Marty. I’ll give it a shot.”
The following Monday during coffee break, Marty found Billy and asked, “Well, how’d it go Sunday?”
“Not so good”, replied a glum Billy. “Sharon was pretty nervous about showing up at church with a strange man, so she was lookin’ around to see if people were starin’ at us. I saw a couple of open seats and did that one-knee thing you told me about. Well she didn’t see me go down and she went flying ass-over-tin cups right over my back, looked like one o’ those Chinese acrobats on Ed Sullivan.”
“Ow! Did she get hurt?”
“Nah, just her dignity. But that’s not the worst of it. I really embarrassed her when I took off my top coat.”
“Oh no, I forgot to tell you that Catholics around here never take off their overcoats in church. That’s a Protestant thing.”
“Thanks for telling me that now. I couldn’t o’ felt more outa place if I was wearin’ a Masonic Lodge bowling shirt. You Catholics have some odd ways about ya.”
“Well like my mother used to say, if you don’t like Catholics you can go to hell because there aren’t any there.”
“Funny, that’s where my mother always said you people were headed.”
As the weeks went by, meatless Fridays, sexual abstinence, and having to wear his overcoat in church wore Billy down. His relationship with Sharon ended and he began to look toward other women. After a few weeks he once again turned to Marty for advice.
“I’ve been talking to Shelly in the front office. She seems like a nice woman. I think she’s Amish because she has a picture of her family on her desk and one old man has a big black hat a long beard like the guy on the “Dutch Country” pretzel box.”
“Her name is Shelly Goldberg,” said Marty, “So I think she’s Jewish.”
“Geez, I didn’t know there were Amish Jews.”
“They’re not Amish Billy…Oh never mind.”
“If there is one thing we got less of in West Virginia than Catholics it’s Jews. But she seems to be interested in at least being friends. Her sister just had a baby and she invited me to a family shindig on Sunday. I guess it’s like a Jewish baptism or somethin’, she called it a bris. If nothing else it’ll be a new experience for me.”
“Oh, I think that’s exactly what it’ll be,” chuckled Marty.
The following Monday, Billy didn’t even wait for the coffee break. He burst into Marty’s office looking like he had just returned from a space alien abduction.
“Do you know what those people do at a bris? cried Billy. “They trim up a baby’s pecker right there in the living room. Then they eat bagels with some kind of fish on them.”‘
“Yeah, bagels and lox, they’re pretty tasty, huh?”
“Are you kiddin’? After the pecker trimin’ I couldn’t eat anything. Y’all are crazy up here. I don’t know if I can live in this place anymore.”
Billy’s decision to relocate was helped along by economic factors. As the coal industry in Pennsylvania declined, the company was forced to cut back on staff and Billy was laid off. Seeing this as an opportunity for adventure, he took a job with a copper mining company in Montana. He sent a letter to Marty telling him that the food in Montana wasn’t as good as in Pennsylvania but the people seemed more normal. He also told Marty this:
“I’m dating a nice woman. She told me that she is LDS. I think that means she’s got a learning disability, but she seems plenty smart to me. I’ll let you know how that turns out. Best regards, Billy”
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