Nonnie sat cross-legged in front of the living room wall, wearing no clothes. On the drywall before her were two brown spots looking back. Moisture seeped from the corners of these eyes. A brown smudge was the nose, a smear in the shape of a heart clearly stood for the mouth. Longer lines ran vertically beside the face, a woman's hair. Anyone could see this was the Madonna. She was weeping.

Nonnie felt that if she bared as much of herself as she could, if she were as open as she could possibly be, she might glean something from the Virgin, some deeper understanding and therefore willingness might be accorded to her. Maybe she'd catch a break. Maybe Mary would perceive that while Nonnie wasn't perfect, she really did need some help right now.

Her son Antonio banged into the house. Nonnie placed her glass on her other side so he wouldn’t detect it. The visitation had nothing to do with the drops of vodka she'd swallowed. She could see the Virgin Mary because she was open enough to see it, because she had no boundaries. They'd complained about that in the hospital, but the present revelation on her very own wall was proof that it was a good thing.

Sixteen years old, Antonio was scrawny but tough, his scraggly hair to his shoulders. Outside the open door, grizzled thunder pounded Nonnie's being like a sonic boom, lightning sizzled across the sky and her skin. It was as if the nighttime creeping through the doorway were  exposing her to all the blackness and evil that threatened to come in if she didn't align herself with Virgin Mary. Yes, Nonnie felt good, but she was also learning to be good, and this vision of the Virgin was brand new. It was her opportunity. Antonio threw the door shut, then turned and gawked at Nonnie for five seconds before swiveling back away from her. "For god's sake, Ma. You can't do this. God, put your clothes on. Right now."

"But Antonio . . .'' She reached her hand out so he would come to her, but he didn't see.

“You must come look at what's on the wall, honey. The Madonna has graced us with a visitation because she knows how much I need her.''

Antonio removed his large parka and threw it over his mother. Golden red curls fell out from under his hood, and he tried to yank the jeans sitting low on his hips back up to his waist.

"I'm going to leave if you don't put your clothes on.''
"No, sweetheart. Don't leave.''
"Then you better go get dressed. You can't keep doing this shit or they're not going to let

 me live with you anymore.''

He swept into the kitchenette, still not looking. He sighed and searched the cabinets and the refrigerator for food that wasn't there.

Nonnie couldn't move away from the blessed image. "But, Antonio, she's begging me. Her face is telling me.''

''It's not a face, Ma. The walls are leaking like they did last winter. Get a grip. And put your clothes on.''

Nonnie stood, the parka falling from her, and reached her hand to caress Mary's face, to try to comfort the Virgin. Nonnie wouldn't give in to temptation anymore. She'd be there for her son. She'd stop hearing voices and seeing things if Mother Mary would just give her this one last chance.

''Antonio, will you just look for a minute? Please? She's right here.''

''Only if you'll go in your bedroom and close the door.''

She did as she was told, but left the door wide enough to peek. Her son put his hands in his back pockets as he moved closer to the wall, his arms now posed like wings behind him, making the tattoos on the backs more visible. A serpent was ready to strike on one arm. A thorned rose rode the back of the other. Maybe these had something to do with his pleasure in heavy metal, but honestly she didn't know. She hadn't paid enough attention.

"There's nothing here but a leaking wall,'' he said.

"She's got tears!" Nonnie pulled open her door.

"Mom! I'm warning you.''

"All right. Okay.'' She clicked her door shut, reached for maroon sweat pants, a navy shirt. What difference did it make?

"They're right here, honey,'' she said out in the living room again, placing her index fingers on the corners of the Madonna's eyes. "She's crying.''

"You're seeing things, Ma.  Come over here and sit down.''

She sank into the decade's old couch, the one she and Antonio's father bought when times were better, before the thought of Antonio had even been conceived.

"The county worker's coming tomorrow,'' Antonio said. "To do an inspection. If we don't fix the place up, I don't know what'll happen to me.''

Nonnie stood quickly. "I'm a good mother.''
"I know you are, Ma. But we gotta clean. I'll go start in the bathroom.''

She walked over to him, held onto his curls, then brought her hands to her face to breathe

 in his sweetness. "Me, too. I'll go start.''

She stood in front of the Madonna once she heard Antonio remove cleansers from under the sink. I promise, she thought towards Mary. I'll do it this time. You have my word. My boy needs me. I've been good and I'm going to keep it up. She peered directly into Mary's eyes and saw them glitter, more wetness.

Okay, you're right, Nonnie thought. She abruptly turned and trekked into her bedroom where she retrieved a large bottle from inside the trunk at the end of the bed. She grabbed a sock and a plastic bag, lowered the bottle inside both. Returning quickly to the kitchen before Antonio came to see what she was doing, she dumped the vodka then turned on the garbage disposal. After placing the bottle at the bottom of the kitchen bag, she called towards him, "I'm taking the garbage out.''

"Sounds good."

She tiptoed so the bottle wouldn't clink, stopped briefly in front of the wall. Mouthing the words, I swear, she stroked the side of the Virgin Mary's face once more, long enough to see two last tears roll down the panes of her face.


Bonnie ZoBell has received an NEA, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, the Capricorn Novel Award, and a story from SmokeLong Quarterly was included in Wigleaf's Top 50. One of her stories was recently nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize by The Los Angeles Review and another published by Storyglossia was named as a notable story of 2010 by storySouth's Million Writers Award. She received an MFA from Columbia, is Associate Editor of The Northville Review, and teaches at San Diego Mesa College. More of her work can be found at

This story came out of The Flash Factory, a wonderful online workshop at Zoetrope Virtual Studios that gives a prompt a week. I had to pick one item my character could be doing out of a list—I chose that she was wearing no clothes. And I had to name my characters after people who often are involved in the workshop. Wearing no clothes sounded the most interesting to me because it immediately opened up a world in which people weren’t staying within acceptable boundaries, and then I had to figure out why she wasn’t wearing any at a time she should be. I decided she must be a little off, and then she became very off. And somewhere along the line I decided that probably the least appropriate person for her to be wearing no clothes around would be her teenage son. But if she was that far gone, and your situation was anything like Antonio’s in the story, you would have to feel for her, wouldn’t you? Most of the time kids love their parents and would do anything to stay with them, often even when home really isn’t right. I’m sure I tapped into my college experience of working for a teenage psychiatric treatment center.



Copyright 2009