Sancti by Keith Stewart
Judge's Choice, 2018 Creative Nonfiction Contest
The only ghost that lives in this house is the Holy Ghost. The words were written in free hand on rough-cut wooden boards painted classic autumnal colors of green, brown, orange, and red. When I saw the sign propped up on proud display in a booth full of items ranging from a stuffed goose-topped, quilted toilet paper holder to a box full of illegally downloaded current movies, I laughed out loud. I knew then and there I had to buy it.
In 1609, a young scientist from Pisa, Italy heard about a new device. Galileo Galilei soon made his own telescope that could magnify sight eight times. With this new telescope, he turned his studies to the stars. His eagerness to broaden his perspective would eventually cost him everything.
The Mary Breckinridge Fall Festival in my hometown of Hyden, Kentucky, brings people to town you don’t normally see on a day-to-day basis. These people usually are on one extreme side of the social spectrum or the other, meaning either they are so fundamentally religious they almost live off the grid or they have fallen into the seemingly inescapable hole of drug and alcohol abuse and live a zoned-out life, rarely leaving their hollow except monthly to go pick up their government check, groceries, and prescriptions. The people who were selling from this booth seemed to be an odd hybrid of the two. The lady was wearing a long denim skirt and had her hair neatly tucked into a high bun, precariously balanced on top of her head. Her husband, however, had on a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt, blue jeans, and smelled like a pack of smoked cigarettes. “I made them boards myself,” he said, noticing my lingering stare at the yard sign. “My wife there, she goes to church, and come up with the saying, so I told her I would cut the boards out and paint them if she wanted me to.”
“I just love it. It’s great,” I responded, feeling guilty for wanting it for the sole purpose of making fun of it. “I may come back later for it.”
“Well, you’d better hurry. It’ll probably sell pretty fast. You should take a look at these DVDs, too, if you like Transformer movies.” I walked away after secretly snapping a picture of the sign with my phone.
Galileo’s telescope allowed him to see things in our skies never seen—moons of Jupiter, craters and mountains in our own moon, rotations of planets from day to day. After much research and contemplation, Galileo began writing his conclusions that corresponded with Nicolaus Copernicus, a scientist who lived a hundred years before him.
Working in a small town in Appalachia is hard enough on any person who previously has lived in other places, but it is especially difficult if you are a liberal, married gay man who has somehow ended up back home running two family businesses: a pharmacy and a Subway restaurant. I grew up with both parents owning and operating small businesses in Hyden, so I knew not to get involved with anything controversial. No open support of politicians, stay neutral on issues that divided our community. Both sides were customers. Never alienate people. Make everyone feel welcome. Of course, this was much easier pre-internet. And pre-coming out of the closet. And pre-enlightenment of many social, environmental, and legal issues. Now, in the days of social media, it is much harder to stay neutral, for even neutrality is looked upon as a suspicious action. But for the sake of my family, Andy and I did our best. We kept our heads down, and our personal business out of the limelight.
We succeeded well-enough and were accepted by enough of the locals not to fear for our safety or losing our family’s businesses. Elections came and went. Gay marriage came and went. The “war on coal” came and things got tougher. Just a suspicion that you might be an Obama supporter could cost you several customers. It was eerily close to what I suspect witch hunts of old may have been like.
Copernicus theorized Earth was not the center of the universe, that it did not stand still while the sun and other celestial spheres rotated around it. This was in direct opposition to what the Catholic Church and the upstart followers of Martin Luther believed and taught. Both brushed off Copernicus as amateur and having no basis in his theory. To maintain harmony, the good Catholic Copernicus agreed to shelve these theories and pursue other interests when asked to do so by the Church.
I have very dear friends and customers who are of faiths that believe in the Holy Ghost’s power to enter the body at every church service. I’ve known these people all my life, and our families have known each other for generations. The closest I had ever come to making fun to any of these people was calling the lady’s hairstyles “PHDs,” or Pentecostal Hair-Dos, but that was a joke even the Pentecostals themselves made. So why, suddenly and after so many years, did I have the urge, the need, to buy this stupid yard sign?
“I don’t think it is even that funny,” Andy told me after I showed him the picture. “It isn’t a good idea to buy that. What if someone sees you?”
“Seriously, you don’t think it is a hoot?” I asked incredulously. “I wouldn’t put it in the actual yard, of course. I mean, I would just like to have it for fun. We could use at a party or something some time.”
“Do what you want, but it isn’t a good idea. I hope lightening doesn’t strike our house with it in there,” he said.
I went back and purchased the sign after the sun had gone down and I was less likely to be recognized. I was giddy with anticipation of the fun I would have with it. I sent the picture to a few of my friends, but no one really responded the way I expected. “Lukewarm” was the best reaction I received back. Usually, I am pretty tuned in to what is and isn’t funny. I have a gift of knowing where the elusive line telling you that something goes too far is located, and a knack of going close to that line but never over it. However, this Holy Ghost sign totally blinded me. I was determined to have fun with it whether people wanted me to or not.
In a time marked with heretics and blasphemers being executed by the Catholic Church, Galileo was simply asked to not teach his theory to anyone. He agreed, but five years later, Galileo returned to Rome to ask the Pope if he could write a book detailing the two competing theories of the Earth’s place in the universe.
In 1611, Galileo asked for an audience with Pope Paul V to show him the wonderous discoveries by his telescope. He tried to produce some scriptural evidence that the Earth rotated around the sun, but he was not successful. In a time marked with heretics and blasphemers being executed by the Catholic Church, Galileo was simply asked to not teach his theory to anyone. He agreed, but five years later, Galileo returned to Rome to ask the Pope if he could write a book detailing the two competing theories of the Earth’s place in the universe. He was granted permission to do so only if he did not favor the Copernician/Galileo theory and wrote a conclusion that expressly favored the Church’s view on the matter. Galileo agreed, and returned to his home to begin work on the book.
Two entire years went by, and the sign sat in our storage shed before the perfect opportunity arose to use it. Kim Davis, the Kentucky county court clerk who had refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, had become infamous just in time for Halloween. Andy and I scoured the internet for pictures of Mrs. Davis and her husband before deciding on the perfect look for our yearly costumes—I would wear a long skirt, a wig brushed into a “PHD,” reading glasses, and a scowl on my face. He would wear bibbed overalls and a straw hat. We would attack our fellow partygoers at our friend’s party with self-righteous and homophobic rhetoric.
The night of the party, we were dressed and ready to go when I remembered the sign in the storage shed. I insisted Andy get it, and carry it around with him as part of the costume. He reluctantly got the sign, and we took a few pre-party pictures. For a visual, think American Gothic by Grant Wood except substitute a sign reading “The Only Ghost That Lives in This House is the Holy Ghost,” for the pitchfork.
Galileo’s book was published in 1632, and was wildly popular throughout Europe. The more popular the book became, the more concerned the Church became about it. Many believed that one of the two main characters, portrayed as the simpler-minded of the two, was intended to be the Pope himself. Jesuits began calling the book heretical, saying that it blatantly contradicted the teachings and beliefs of Christianity. By the end of the year, the Church had banned the sale of the book.
I posted the picture to Facebook with the caption, “Mrs. Kim Davis & her husband Joe are ready for a righteous evening.” We then left for the party. Throughout the evening, I noticed a lot of phone notifications that someone had commented or liked the picture. Finally, around midnight I received a phone call from my mother as we were driving home from the party. “You need to delete that picture from Facebook. The church people have started sharing and are planning to boycott Subway,” she instructed.
Disbelief and panic washed over me the instant I heard her words. I disconnected from her and pulled up Facebook on my phone. My privacy setting was set to global, allowing any and all users to see my posts, something I had never really cared about one way or the other. While my friends loved the costume, and had laughed and commented, others in my small town had seen it and had not liked it at all. In fact, the fundamentalist, religious community was offended and mad as hell.
The picture was shared by 57 non-friends all voicing their outrage that the gay owner of a business in Hyden was not only flaunting his gay marriage, but also making fun of their religion by dressing up as a Pentecostal woman. By far, though, the thing that irritated the villagers most was the sign. “How dare he blaspheme the Holy Ghost?!” was cyber-shouted throughout the Leslie County mountains. The hashtag #nosubwayforme became the boycott slogan.
The Roman Inquisition called Galileo to Rome in 1633 to stand trial for heresy. After his case was heard, the Church handed down this sentence: “We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world.”
Immediately, I went into damage control, posted an apology, and asked for forgiveness on various threads talking about my depravity. I took the picture down, and hoped for the best. Andy, who knew how panicked I was, avoided saying, “I told you so,” but I could see in his eyes how badly he wanted to say it to me.
I deserved it. I knew where the line of small town tolerance was, and I willingly jumped over it. The boycott lasted a few months. Our restaurant sales were the lowest they had been in over ten years. My panic turned to regret, then morphed into a resolute defiance. Eventually, someone else slighted the boycotters, and they turned their self-righteous wrath to that business and left me alone.
The day of his conviction, Galileo was forced to recant his belief that Earth revolved around the sun. He did this to stave off his execution. He spent the remainder of his life under house arrest.
Andy and I never talked again about the sign. We just moved it back to the storage shed where it remains today, waiting on me to come save it.
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