In This World You Have to Sell Something
Sister Helene swings her baseball bat across Richard’s dresser and shards of decorative junk fly everywhere in the vast bedroom. Richard, the homeowner, Sister Helene, Nick the camera guy, and I are all wearing face shields for this very reason. There is violent ecstasy on Sister Helene’s smooth, plain face. You can’t see much under the habit, but given the velocity of the swing, she’s got some serious muscle.
I give Nick a few seconds to zoom in on the chaotic rubble and Richard’s astonished face before I start speaking. They’re always astonished. Which is strange because they always know what’s coming. The show, Bad Habit, is always the same. We go to some rich person’s house, break all their crap, and lecture them about how material possessions corrupt the human soul.
“May this act set you free. Free from your lust of commodities. Walk as Jesus did, poor amongst the people, rich in love. Remember as Marx taught us, that each item is the time of humans—hours of a poor woman’s life.”
Nick’s face tightens a bit—just his thin lips and stubbled jaw—as he keeps the cellphone trained on me. I’m sure it’s the Marxism comment. But I can really only talk about Jesus for so long. I may be dressed as Sister Mary, but I’m not really a nun.
Sister Helene drags her loosely held baseball bat over the massive, gold-knobbed dresser, creating a thin clean line, before lifting it on her shoulder and carrying it out of the room. Richard is right behind her, taking quick steps on short legs, and I follow, trying for a calm, pious walk, while Nick lingers in the bedroom to take in the carnage.
This will be a long episode. Richard has eleven bedrooms, three living rooms, a sunroom, and a foyer full of decorative crap that looks better broken than in its original state. He has a home theater too, but that room is off-limits. Part of the contract for the show is that they get to pick which rooms we destroy. It’s a pity.
There are also a number of columns in the house, but supposedly they’re load-bearing so Sister Helene can’t break those either.
In every room, Sister Helene shatters items—decorative wall art of dogs, fancy plates with designs for every holiday, little mechanical toys, and the usual eco-friendly factory trinkets. All the while I admonish Richard and he looks down at the ground, tan cheeks red, a picture of shame that our watchers absolutely love to troll.
Only in the kitchen does Helene finally pause. The room has granite counters and a large wooden island with a couple of stools. But there are few items on the surfaces. I assumed that he would have a staff in his mansion; the sterile cleanliness of this room confirms that he has a cook. There would be other rooms he wouldn’t let us see—like the bunk-rooms shared by Richard’s live-in staff.
The only appliance out on the counters is a coffee machine.
“Are the pods recyclable?” Sister Helene asks him.
Richard quickly nods, his dyed black hair falling out of place. “Yes, of course.”
He clearly has no idea. I doubt he’s ever made his own coffee.
“Then I’ll leave it,” she says, tapping the bat against her black loafers.
We all go to the trashed living room to film the outro. Glass crunches under my boots as Nick lines us up against a wall where there’s some good natural light. Then I lecture Richard about how we have saved him from himself, that he has a new chance to live and to be a better person. I even mention that donating some money every once in a while might be nice, but I only say it once because our watchers don’t love that.
Then Sister Helene and I shuffle off to the side and Nick films Richard talking about how thankful he is. He says that his eyes have been opened to the wickedness of his ways. When Nick edits the show, he’ll list factoids about Richard and his belongings—how many rooms there were, how much the damage might cost, what the most expensive item they broke was—that kind of thing. Viewers get a lot of schadenfreude out of the numbers.
We say our goodbyes (assuring Richard we’ll pray for him) and then head quickly to the van. We’ve got fifteen minutes left on our permit before the Neighborhood Watch alerts the police that we’re out of bounds, and we’re about a mile from the entrance gate.
I’ve only been the co-host of Bad Habit for a month. It’s why I don’t get to break things yet (apparently a coveted position).
The last co-host had been on the show with Sister Helene since its inception a year ago. But two months ago, the other nun decided she was sick of the contracts and went into an off-limits room and broke everything in there too.
I watched the episode. It was brutal. You can see this older nun walking with angry strides to a game room full of televisions, game consoles, and computers and the owner of the house is chasing after her, shouting ‘No, no, no,” over and over again. The nun destroys everything, from the big screens to the keyboards and game controllers. She even whacked the stuffing out of a retro beanbag chair.
“May this act set you free. Free from your lust of commodities.”
When the nun finally ran out of energy, she dropped the bat and said nothing. The room was quiet except for the homeowner’s sobs coming from behind where Nick was filming. After about a minute, Sister Helene walked up to the other nun and patted her on the shoulder.
“Do you remember the kids who froze to death last winter?” the older nun muttered.
“I do, I do,” Sister Helene said softly.
The homeowner spoke up again and this time she swiveled into frame as Nick whipped the camera around. “I’m calling the cops.”
At that, the footage ended. But I know what happened next. The older nun was arrested, and Sister Helene and Nick were told that under no circumstances would they be welcome in that neighborhood again. Neighborhood Watch would list them as banned.
Sister Helene drives as Nick edits the video on his phone. She gives equal focus to that task as she does everything else. Single-mindedness seems embedded in her faith. I don’t mind the quiet. The quicker Nick uploads it, the faster we get paid. The Reality Bites site pays us based on the number of views and the number of comments. The more viewers start arguing on the feed, the better bonuses we get. I chew on my nails thinking about it and look out the window.
Once outside the neighborhood, our drive slows as we go through the security check at the big box store complex. The sun is setting and the bright light glows yellow against the exhaust from the cars in the five-lane exit highway. After a few minutes, our van is finally scanned, and they give us the go-ahead to keep moving.
The drive back to the church is about two hours from this suburb. Between us and an okay night’s sleep is most of the city. Like always, Sister Helene doesn’t glance left or right when we drive past the eco-friendly factories and their attached complexes of multi-family trailers. She hasn’t told me why she can’t peel her eyes from the road then and I don’t ask.
I prefer the middle seats and am happy to look out the window. The factories remind me of my childhood, of my mom. When I was born, she was still running around the entrepreneurial circuit. Not that I can remember that. She made just enough from it all that we had our own studio trailer at the Lake Plastics Recovery Factory.
Back then, my mom got a business degree. She made a few friends there and a few connections, so she spent a while trying to make it in business. A few projects came close—eco-friendly press-on nails, carbon-reducing bracelets. None of it panned out. Even the consultant co-op was a bust. Lasted just long enough to make a few extra bucks and get pregnant by one of the TV show execs. She never told the exec and she never resented me; said it was just the next step of her life. That’s just how I feel about being at the convent.
By the time we’re back at the church, it’s dense black out, Nick’s finished editing the video, and my stomach is making its emptiness well-known.
The church is in an old brick building southwest of downtown. It was once a factory, and then it was luxury apartments, and then it was ruined during the riots, and finally, it was a church and convent. But its numbers have been dwindling in the last few years.
Besides filming Bad Habit, Nick is the administrator and coordinates all the public programming. The other three nuns run a tutoring program for the local public school kids. They’re more optimistic than I am. They think with the right education some of these kids will get jobs in manufacturing oversight or marketing.
It’s in the church I’m most nervous. I’m not sure I really believe in God at all, but if I was ever going to be smote for my lies, it would be here. Thankfully I don’t need to go there tonight. Sister Helene goes straight to our room to pray, and Nick and I go to the kitchen to eat.
A couple meals are wrapped up in the fridge for us. The home-cooked taste is still weird to me after a month. But I eat it gratefully at the end of the long wooden table next to Nick. He doesn’t talk much so usually I have to make the effort when the silence starts to get to me. “Any updates yet?”
“A thousand views so far,” he says after a bite of bread. His expression is blank, but he keeps his blue eyes on me.
“Sister Helene never asks.” His voice is soft and there’s no inflection.
I stuff some potato in my mouth to keep from sighing. Of course she doesn’t. I guess nuns can live off God’s love alone. “Just thinking about the people it could help.”
He tips his head but I’m sure my reply doesn’t satisfy. I go off to my bunk-room before I say something more self-incriminating.
How I came to be at this convent is a strange story. I mean, not any weirder than the rest of my life, but I’m not like the others here. I didn’t start out as a novice. I didn’t go through years of training. Actually, I was an erotic opera star before the most recent pandemic shut our company down for good. Before that, I was just another factory kid.
In the morning, I went to the convent to see about the spot on Bad Habit.
Back at the Lake Plastics Recovery Factory, Mom kept reminders of the past. That was one of the things having our own room in the trailer camp allowed for: mementos. Our room was overcrowded with the books she kept from business school, pieces of jewelry from admirers of the shows, and second place prizes. It all looked out of place against the stained orange carpeting, the shabby blankets filled with holes, and the chipped wooden chairs.
She wanted me to be more than an eco-friendly factory worker, but I was no genius in public school. No teachers took special notice of me and I certainly didn’t have a favorite subject. So when I turned thirteen she kept me home from school one day because she said we needed to have a special talk.
“Is this going to be gross?” I asked.
“No,” she said, standing by our mini-fridge, most of her weight on one leg so that her left hip jut out. Even just rolling out of bed she had a TV-friendly quality about her—thick, shiny black hair and expressive brown eyes fringed with thick lashes. My face was hers in miniature. I liked that; I thought looking at her was like looking at the future.
“Is this going to be sappy? Because sappy is pretty much the same thing as gross,” I said. I hadn’t left my bed yet that morning. Since I was skipping school, sleeping in seemed ideal, but mom was having none of it.
She pulled a coffee out of the fridge and popped the top. “Just be quiet and listen for a minute, Maddy.”
I rolled my eyes but sat up against the wall.
“In this world you have to sell something to get by. In the factories, it’s your time and your life. In entertainment, it’s your body. And in the rich quarter, it’s your soul. And there’s only one choice that’s wrong. Guess which that is?” she asked, an empty hand on her hip.
I thought about the school assemblies with all the PSA videos about drugs, pregnancy, prostitutes, and disease. “Entertainment?”
“Christ, kid. What on earth have I ever done to give you the idea that entertainment is bad?” Her black ponytail fell over her shoulder as she smacked her forehead with her palm.
“I dunno,” I said, bored of the conversation. All of this seemed millions of years away. I wasn’t even in high school yet.
“Your soul, Maddy, your damn soul.”
“So, I shouldn’t be rich?”
“Well, you can be rich. You just can’t exploit people. And you really can’t get rich without exploiting people. So no, you can’t be rich.”
I looked around our studio trailer. Through the thin walls, I could hear the elderly community members chatting outside as they headed to the cafeteria to eat. It was pretty obvious to me that I wasn’t ever going to end up rich. “Ok, mom.”
“I guess you could sell your time, but I wouldn’t do that either. This job here is just selling your days. You’re literally selling thousands of hours of your life.” She put her coffee on the top of the fridge before ever taking a sip.
I tried to remember the three choices she’d given me. “So, I should sell my body?”
“Sort of. I mean, not really. You don’t have to be a full-on prostitute or anything.”
“I mean, you can be if you want to, I won’t judge.”
“Shit, see, this is why I always say I’m not mom material. You’re a pretty girl, Maddy. Pick a skill now and in a few years, you could end up on stage, having a sponsored vlog, or maybe you could even be on those reality TV shows.”
I mulled it over while I ate breakfast and thought that her way sounded a hell of a lot better than the community colleges I’d have to go to after high school. I picked singing because I’d always had a big mouth and a loud voice. Plus I was never really a team player or into physical activity. So mom sold her business school books to pay for singing lessons and by the time I was twenty, I was passable. Nude work paid more, and customers cared less about the voice, so I was hired by the erotic opera company. Mom was so proud. She came to every single one of my performances before she died—they raised the price of her diabetes medication so high that my pay couldn’t save her, and neither could hocking her jewelry, so she didn’t bother. She left it all to me.
The toughest thing about living in the convent is the all-for-God attitude—it seems to imply almost no privacy. When I first got here, I thought that faking faith would be difficult. I figured there would be secret-handshake-style-shit and follow-the-leader prayer time that would out an imposter miles away. But turns out the convent’s been deteriorating for years. They don’t even have a priest and have to run all the masses virtually.
Mother Superior leads prayer times and sets convent duties, but with only six of us, it’s not like we’re spending our time reading Latin or making herbal remedies the way I’d seen done on TV mysteries.
Mostly we grow crops in the gardens, tutor kids, and run the household. Thankfully they caught on quick that I wasn’t great with kids. Got that from my mom, I guess. Only one skeptical ten-year-old had to deal with me before they had me work in the garden. I did try to warn them. When I arrived, I told Mother Superior that I’d mostly done housework.
“And where was that? We haven’t received any correspondence about an incoming sister,” Mother Superior asked. I told her that I was from a convent in California. One that got burned out from fires. It was the quickest thing I could think of. I hadn’t meant to end up on the convent’s front steps that way at all. The day before I’d been sitting in the warmth of the library checking for jobs online. The entertainment industry still hadn’t recovered since the mask mandates. And when I found nothing online, I was trying to decide if I should sell my mom’s earrings or my boots, when I heard Nick talking to someone about Bad Habit. Of course, I didn’t know he was Nick back then. He was talking to the librarian about the Sister who’d been arrested. How they were going to need a replacement. And he posted an ad for the job on the physical cork job board. His was the only gig that wasn’t a poorly disguised code to solicit sex. Who else would use actual job boards?
I almost ran up to him right then. One of the few things I had left in my backpack, one of the few worldly possessions I had left anywhere, was a wimple from the last erotic opera I was in before they shut the company down during a particularly nasty aerosolized pandemic. It had to be a sign.
The habit I had for the production wasn’t made out of the best material. It had Velcro seams so that I could rip it off to reveal a mesh bodysuit underneath. The wimple and habit were really just the character-defining accessories that went with the less traditional mesh bodysuit. But hopefully, no one would look too closely at the outfit.
In the morning, I went to the convent to see about the spot on Bad Habit. Mother Superior met me at the door and I told her that I had heard what happened on the show. That I thought I could help.
Mother Superior grabbed my arm and pulled me inside the dark, empty hallway. “Well, let’s see what you’ve got then.”
She pulled me down the hallway with green carpeting to a large room full of children and the other three nuns sitting at round tables together. “Sister Helene, this girl says she wants to be on Bad Habit.”
Sister Helene stood up from a table with five children. She was plain, with a narrow nose, brown eyes, and sharply arched brows. But there was a presence about her I’d been taught to identify. She was watchable. The two of us could be a hit, I was sure of it.
I was the only person who showed up to audition. I didn’t know how many other convents there were around Chicago, but this one didn’t seem to be very popular. The reasons for this became pretty clear in the following days: crumbling walls in the bedrooms, frigid water, almost no budget, and gunshots louder than the El’s arrival messages every night. I started to get the feeling that the diocese didn’t exactly intend for this convent to last.
Sister Helene, Nick, and I sit in the communal area watching audition clips together. Old senators’ children, land developers, corporate CEOs, all audition to be on the show. They have power and money, but not fame. Most of them would pay a lot to star in a viral video. Reality Bites takes their money and fifty percent of the sponsorships. But a show could still make Nick, Sister Helene, and I quite a bit of cash if the episode got popular. So screening the rich folks who would pay thousands of dollars to have their shit broken by a nun and an ex-erotic opera singer is surprisingly important.
Sister Helene and Nick hold pens over their tablets, looking like they’re ready for some test to begin. Meanwhile, I’m chomping down on popcorn because I know what these auditions really are. They’re quality entertainment that we should be selling on one of the lower-end sites where eco-friendly factory workers just want to bash on rich people. But when I suggested this at the first session, Sister Helene said, “We don’t do that sort of thing here.”
I wanted to say “what, survive?” but I’d only been there a week, so I didn’t want to out myself. Instead, I tilted my head down and apologized.
Nick glances at my popcorn but doesn’t say a word and then the TV screen on the wall glows to life anyway. A middle-aged man with short gray hair stands in what is clearly a home office. There’s a large wooden desk behind him and a window view of a park and the lake—wouldn’t even know there were base-pay neighborhoods just behind him if we didn’t have his address. He’s got a condo in a high rise. “I believe in personal accountability and personal responsibility. Everything I own promotes a productive lifestyle. You won’t find any excess here.” The room he stands in is larger than the community room here for the thirty students we tutor.
“You’d be able to prove him wrong,” Nick says, pausing the clip.
Sister Helene nods and taps on her tablet. “That’s true and it’s always an audience favorite. They love when someone smug is proven wrong.” Calling someone “smug” is about the most vicious thing that Sister Helene will say to someone on the show. She’s told me that it’s because she believes everyone is capable of change and that insults only serve to make people defensive and less interested in changing their lives.
“C’mon ya’ll, this guy is boring. We can do better than this plain carton of milk.” I take the controller from Nick who’s sitting in the middle and skip to the next video. A woman in her early twenties bounces onto the screen—literally—on some kind of exercise ball. She’s in an exercise studio cluttered with so much equipment that it’s barely useable and her dyed hair is fire-orange. “I’m Stacy and I love Bad Habit! Mom and Dad are threatening to cut me off if I don’t cut down on the junk. Come over and I’ll give your audiences a show.” On the last line, she bends over so that the camera can see down her exercise shirt.
“Well, that won’t do,” Sister Helene says as the screen goes black.
“What are you talking about? She’s perfect,” I say. I can practically see the added zeroes on the future paychecks.
“Nudity isn’t allowed,” Nick says.
I turn in my seat to face him straight on, but he’s already back to tapping away on his tablet. He looks bored as he sits there, blue eyes focused on other things, sandy hair falling over his forehead. I think he’s been at the convent too long. “That isn’t nudity, it’s nipples.”
“We’re a Catholic organization, we can’t have it,” Sister Helene cuts in.
“Heaven forbid people figure out how Jesus was fed as a baby.”
“Sister Mary!” Sister Helene exclaims, but I notice Nick’s lips kick up a notch.
I have a sudden urge to throw off my wimple. But then I’d be back on the streets of Chicago, and this was a long harsh winter. “We can put a clause in the contract. No nudity.”
“That could work,” Nick says, looking at the blank television. I wonder if he’s contemplating seeing Stacy in person or the money. If he were like most other men I knew, the answer would be obvious. But I never could figure out what he was thinking.
“I suppose so,” Sister Helene says, sitting back in her seat.
“I’m sorry if I seemed overexcited. I just can’t help but think about the difference it would make having her on an episode—think of how many more children we could help. If only we’d had something like this to help us rebuild after the fires.”
I can hear Nick’s teeth click. Maybe the last line was laying it on a bit too thick.
I’ve looked over the contracts in great detail. Both the ones we send to the show guests and ours from Reality Bites. No guest can sue for damage of any sort. Reality Bites is allowed to use their image and video clips for promotional purposes. And of course, there’s a fee.
Reality Bites doesn’t charge most shows’ guests. Especially since most of them are dirt-poor. But the producers know that our guests have money to burn. They claim it’s a fee that goes to maintenance of the vehicle (the convent’s van), the videography equipment (Nick’s phone), and administrative costs (uploading the show, picking guests, etc). The profits don’t usually go to us unless the three of us get into a tough spot, then it acts as a sort of insurance. Turns out viewers get pretty pissed when hosts of the show get into trouble or die if Reality Bites could have done something about it. (Except for on Killer Sluts, but that’s not filmed in the US.)
Once a relative came home, saw us breaking shit and called Neighborhood Watch.
Without being given a chance to explain, we were arrested. Fortunately, the money earned from the fee bailed us out.
Another time our van broke down on the highway in the middle of a snowstorm. Those fees covered the cost of the contractor who had to come out and get us. It took them a while though. I think the producers were trying to decide how many hours we could last in the car before the cold would kill us. If we could last until morning, maybe some other random person would have the decency to save us. Unless Sister Helene was willing to pitch off the habit and snuggle up, we probably wouldn’t have survived, and I don’t even think the threat of death would’ve made her do it.
Plus, they do make more money if we’re alive than dead.
The contract Nick, Sister Helene, and I have covers about what you’d expect. No liability for injury or death; most of the money goes to them; the show’s rights are theirs, blah blah blah. And of course, this is obvious, but we have to break things. We have to destroy stuff in every single person’s home.
I didn’t realize it until I was a teenager, but Mom was hated by most of the other adults working in the factory. She never had a hard time buying us shoes or paying for showers, and I was one of the only kids there that got extracurricular classes. It wasn’t the mementos from her past that got her a lot of this, it was the fact that she could sell the worst-looking recycled crap for twice the money and twice as fast.
She made lopsided vases from repurposed plastics, shoddy pens that hurt your fingers from aluminum. Some of the workers there were practically artists. Everything they made was beautiful, useful, ergonomic. But they couldn’t sell like my mom did. Mostly because since she came from a business background, my mom realized something others didn’t—that we were selling stories, not our wares.
No one wanted any of the Lake Plastics Recovery Factory products. None of them. The rich could get fancier recycled stuff from the high-end boutiques. The owners sold the work of the artists they “sponsored” with art supplies, a bunk in their basement, and other privileges like prescribed or recreational drugs. And the few people who weren’t rich but had enough to buy crap like vases (i.e., the boutique owners) bought streamlined AI factory goods because they were cheaper and looked nicer than products of human labor.
So my mom sold us instead. In the beginning, she put up pictures of herself by the items she made. She wrote stories about how much each item meant to her and that they were full of her love. She wrote that they would bring luck to the buyer. Other times she posted videos explaining that all of these goods made her excited because they were natural and good for the earth. In other photos, she was naked except for the cellphone covers and utility tote bags she made.
Near holiday times, she’d take pictures of me, making sure that I looked happy, if a little dirty, and put me in overly large clothes so that I looked extra skinny. The sympathy ploy of a needy child around Christmas time made a lot of money.
Other factory workers would try to do the same. They would replicate her tactics and often my mom would even help them do it. But none of them looked like they believed the stories they wrote—they could never look convincingly grateful, or happy, or turned on. No one could lie like my mom.
Some nights when I can’t sleep, I watch the video of the last nun beating a children’s room to smithereens. I don’t know exactly why. Sometimes I feel a sense of visceral satisfaction watching everything shatter and I wonder if I should be ashamed. Other times I wonder if she’s surviving her time in prison. Do they let her cover her hair?
There is no TV in the bunk-rooms, so I have to watch it in the community room. Usually, I shut it off before anyone can see when I hear someone coming. But tonight, the evening before we’ll be going to Stacy’s house, Mother Superior sneaks up on me.
I jump when she sits down beside me on the couch. Really, it’s a futon. We have three of them in here for when people need a place to stay.
“She really went to town there, didn’t she?” Mother Superior rubs her eyes and yawns.
I try to think of what Sister Helene might say. “They’re only worldly goods.”
I can feel her cloudy eyes on me. “So’s this body, but I’m still quite attached to it.”
“Hmm,” I say. Since I got here, she worries me more than anyone else. I’m not the only odd resident—God only knows what Nick is doing in a convent surrounded by women. And we get teenagers who need a bed for a week or two. But Mother Superior looks at me the way my mom did, like she knows everything in my damned mind.
“Poor Sister, she never should’ve been there at all,” she says.
The woman sobbing on-screen gets louder and we both get sucked in for a minute. Then Mother Superior pats my hand. “I think it’s good you’re here.”
Her kindness is distracting. “Me too. I mean, I miss . . .” Shit.
“California,” Mother Superior prompts.
“Yes. But God’s will be done.”
She smiles sending wrinkles into her cheeks. “I think you can help.”
I think of my shift in the kitchen earlier today preparing over-boiled potatoes hadn’t left many of the sisters happy. “I try.”
She points to the TV. “I mean with this. Not everyone is suited for it.”
I shake my head as shards of game consuls go everywhere. Definitely not.
“Not even Sister Helene, really.”
“She does a really good job. Viewers love her.” I find myself sticking up for her even though she won’t let me use the bat.
“Of course, I’m just not sure it’s in her nature. I’m not really sure it’s in any nun’s nature.”
I pretend to be engrossed in the video as my heart swoops low into my stomach. Thankfully, before I’m expected to say anything, Mother Superior stands up. She walks around the back of the couch and puts a hand on my shoulder. “Look out for her.”
For example, once a relative came home, saw us breaking shit and called Neighborhood Watch.
I say goodnight and the video ends. It feels like a movie that’s stopped playing at the climax. I want to know what happened next. I want to know if she apologized to the mother or if she tried to attack her too. I want to know if the children saw the damage that was done before their mother could close the room off.
Really, I just want to ask this Sister why she did it.
I couldn’t get a job at one of those Recycle Factories after the erotic opera company had to shut down. Not even the one I’d grown up in. If you’ve got a criminal record, they won’t take you. They claim it’s a safety issue.
After my first performance at the company, some of the other performers took me out for a drink. It was right down the street from the hall, so it was a favorite of the staff and performers. The vibe was a bit on the dive side, but it meant that usually audience members weren’t going to pop up there. Unfortunately, that night they did.
A couple of men sitting at the bar were already drunk by the time we walked in. In the low-key crowd, they stuck out. At the sight of me and another of the stars, they started making vulgar hand gestures and wagging their tongues. It was gross but not particularly frightening; there were five of us and two of them, so we had no reason to worry.
For the most part, they kept to themselves. And I forgot about them sitting there. Which was unfortunate because when I got up to go to the bathroom, I had to walk past them. My defenses were down, but my reaction time wasn’t. One of them grabbed my ass and without a thought, I spun around and punched him in the nose. With a crack and a wail, blood was dripping down his fingers and lips.
Then the other guy pulled out his badge. Turned out they were off-duty cops. A dozen witnesses kept me out of jail, but my record didn’t go unmarked. I was given a deferred sentence so that I could keep my job.
So when the company had to shut down, employment was out of the question. The only entertainment left was underground—excellent pay, shit conditions. I still got base pay, just like everyone else, but that would’ve only gotten me a place in government housing neighborhoods. Sometimes that’s more dangerous than walking the streets of Chicago.
Visiting Stacy’s condo goes pretty well. She gets weepy and hangs off of Nick’s arm which I imagine will make for some great shaky-cam effect. Once Sister Helene is done breaking everything in sight (Stacy doesn’t even have a kitchen because she just has food delivered and the bathroom was off-limits), both of them are sagging against the dining room table. Sister Helene is puffing from exhaustion, sweat on her brows, but it doesn’t detract from her purity appeal. And Stacy has both palms on the table as her chest shakes from the sobs.
I’ve already finished condemning her to hell when Stacy looks up at me. “Can we all pray together? Before you go?”
“Of course, dear,” Sister Helene says, dropping the bat on the ground. She waves her hand to me and the three of us form a circle and hold hands.
I’ve spent just over five weeks at the convent. I really do have the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Marys down—the problem is that there are a few words in a Hail Mary that sometimes trip me up.
Sister Helene looks at me and nods, as if giving me the go-ahead. I look up at Nick who’s still holding up his cellphone and is pressing his lips together as if he’s trying not to laugh. But I won’t out myself today. “Stacy, why don’t you lead us?”
“Alright,” she says, hiccuping.
Sister Helene bows her head and closes her eyes and I quickly follow suit.
“Hail Mary full of grace (grains), the lord is with thee, blessed are thee among women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb (loom) Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
By the end of the prayer, Stacy is no longer actively sobbing and I’m internally saying my own prayer to God that my slipups went unnoticed. But no one says a word about it as we say our goodbyes to Stacy.
It’s only when we’re in the apartment hallway that Nick leans down next to me and whispers “loom.” I almost punch him in the nose like I did the police officer.
The van broke down after my second episode. It was mid-January, and to call it freezing would’ve been an understatement. The van was old, so we were layered up to fight the cold, but none of us had the kind of gear that resists negative temperatures. The only saving grace (yikes), was that we’d made it out of all the Neighborhood Watch zones. We might’ve died, but we wouldn’t be arrested.
Nick contacted Reality Bites emergency services on his phone immediately, but Sister Helene sat frozen in the driver’s seat. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen her without clear purpose; the only time she’d ever seemed rattled.
The car had died in one of the government housing districts. A fence separated the highway from the brick apartment complexes marked with tags and the occasional boarded-up window. As the sun set, debris and broken-down cars in the yards faded from shiny tan to gray yellow. I knew that the cold would probably protect us for the night, but desperate scavengers would do desperate things come morning—assuming we survived.
“Sister Helene,” I said, reaching around to snap my fingers in front of her face.
She didn’t respond.
“Sister Helene,” I said louder. Nick was still messing with the phone.
“What?” she finally said.
“I need to know everything that’s in this van.”
She stared at me, her brown eyes not comprehending. “Why?”
“Just tell me.”
“Um, there’s a couple jugs of water. I don’t think there’s food unless one of the sisters left something behind.”
“Where’s the water?” I unbuckled my seatbelt as she pointed to the ground in the back row of seats. While I was rooting around in the back, Nick finally put his phone back in his pocket.
“They’re sending a contractor, but it could be hours.”
I nodded and put the water jugs on the seat beside me. Then I rolled down the very back window a crack. If the window iced shut, we’d suffocate faster than we’d freeze.
Nick was not as slow to catch on. “We’ll want to keep an eye on the bats.”
I grabbed them from the trunk area and brought them to the middle seats with me. “Any actual weapons?”
He had a pocketknife. It was smaller than mine, but it was still something. We lowered the front seatbacks and I squeezed between the two of them. I felt like I was a screen that was protecting Sister Helene from the indecency of being close to Nick.
We took turns watching out the window. The cold was bitter, but I couldn’t stop myself from dozing when I finished first watch. After a bit, I woke with my face tucked into Nick’s ribcage. The slow, steady rise of his heart was calming in the frigid, dark car.
He was staring down at me when I finally looked up. Sister Helene was still asleep.
“You’re supposed to be on watch,” I said, my voice shaking.
I didn’t respond. The night made his blue eyes look almost black. It made him appear ill-suited to a life in a monastery.
“Mother Superior would’ve let you join us no matter what.”
If it hadn’t been well below freezing, I would’ve moved away. As it was, I look behind me, as if checking on Sister Helene. “I do miss my convent in California.”
Nick’s voice turned harsh. “It sucks when you lie like that. You’re so honest almost all the time—so much more honest than anyone else.”
I was so startled that I whipped back toward him, my face centimeters from his. “Then sometimes I just won’t say anything.”
I have a sudden urge to throw off my wimple.
I was silent for a minute and I let my head lull back against his chest. I told myself that it was what I had to do to stay alive. “What are you doing at a convent anyway?” I whispered.
He shifted in his seat and I could feel him looking down at the top of my wimple. “My mother was a nun.”
I felt my nose scrunch up. “How does that work?”
“She was pregnant with me and freezing when she found the convent. They let her in, and she decided to stay.”
None of the nuns here were very old except for Mother Superior. “Is your mom . . . ?”
“I’m sorry. Mine too.” I was quieter even than before, not sure I wanted to be heard. Grief always seemed sentimental, a luxury even.
He was silent after that. I considered asking him why he decided to stay but while thinking about the convent that’s falling apart and the dwindling number of nuns and the kids who sometimes stop showing up because they’re dead or join gangs or have to start working, I suppose it’s pretty obvious.
The nun’s life is easier to get used to than I thought it would be. I miss sex and drinking, and privacy, but I’ve become more efficient at cleaning. The other nuns and I get on fine. We’re not all close but Mother Superior watches other television shows with me late at night when neither of us can sleep. She loves Street Tags. I think it gets a bit old, watching teenagers run around with spray paint, but her reactions are always a kick.
Plus, since Sister Helene and I share a room, we can’t avoid one another. Even when we don’t like one another, we’re still stuck with one another—it’s a bond whether we want it or not. In the morning, she likes to chat. She talks about her childhood in Michigan, the food shortages she saw there. The rest of the time she’s so focused on the task at hand that I was surprised when she started talking about her past. I’m not much of a morning person, but exhaustion tends to make me honest. So I’d talk about my life before the opera company. And her scandalized reactions to the things I’d say slowly gave way to amusement.
I do think about Nick sometimes though. And I wonder if he thinks about me. Somehow, we always end up sitting next to each other at dinner. Mother Superior puts us on the same chore schedule which makes me think she’s goading us. But I can’t decide if I want to do anything that would prove what I’m pretty sure they already know.
There’s something nice about just playing this part here at the convent.
One Saturday in early spring, Sister Helene, Nick, and I go out to make an episode at an estate on a golf resort. Nick drives and I find myself gawking as we pull up to the gates of the resort. It’s just above freezing out, but there are gentle slopes of perfectly manicured grass in every direction. We’re let through the gate and drive down a lane of condos. Beyond them, I can see people driving around in enclosed BMW golf carts. Even further than the golf carts is a palatial hall with chandeliers that hang between columns. I have to squint to see them, but I can just make out the twinkling.
I look over my shoulder at Sister Helene who sits serenely with her hands folded in her lap. The bat is lying on the seats next to her. “You can be ‘the destroyer’ this time,” she says, using my nickname for her when she wields the weapon.
“Really?” I ask.
Nick glances out the rearview mirror but says nothing. He drives us down small winding roads and the condos give way to large houses.
“Yes, I think it’s time,” she says.
I bob in my seat, thrilled. Not only does this mean that I don’t have to rant about Jesus, but I get to finally break shit.
We pull up to a large estate at the end of the street. The house is the largest I’ve ever seen in person. It’s about a block from the road to the front door. We decide to pull all the way in, hoping the owner won’t mind our shoddy van in his driveway.
The house itself is just a shade away from being pink. The first floor has wall-to-wall windows that are interrupted by the large wooden doors. From outside, I can see two spiral staircases but I’m sure there’s more. Balconies line the upper floor with swirls of iron reminiscent of New Orleans. It’s a monstrosity.
“Ready?” Nick asks once we’re all out of the car.
I swing the bat onto my shoulder and Sister Helene nods. Nick rings the door and an older man answers. He has a gleaming, white politician’s smile, and hair as bright as his teeth. His tan skin is wrinkled but the leathering from sun exposure makes it appear tough. This is no doddering old man. “Please come in,” he says.
We stand in the foyer between two spiral staircases while Nick gives him a quick rundown of how this will work. It’s all in the contract this man who goes by “The Governor” has read. But it’s a good way of setting the client at ease, even though this man clearly doesn’t need it.
“Shall we get to it then?” He rubs his hands together while we put on our face shields, and Nick turns on his cellphone camera. He walks us to the first room, a library full of stuffed leather chairs, cliché globe bars, and other decorative instruments.
“You may think the books will save you,” Sister Helene begins, “but clearly you have not learned from the wisdom within them. And where is the bible which would do the most for your soul?”
He looks around the room as if expecting a bible to appear. Sister Helene continues to admonish him, and the smile doesn’t leave his face.
I walk to the globe and lick my lips. Now with the bat in my hand, fingers flexed and muscles tensed, I’m suddenly nervous. Who am I to pick and choose which things he should lose? I am not a moral judge, a nun, I am an erotic entertainer, raised in a trailer camp, educated on a factory floor.
I look up at Nick and realize that the three others are staring at me. They have all gone silent. Nick’s lips quirk up in a small smile and I take a deep breath and think, why not me?
Lifting the bat high over my head, I pause to extend the anticipation before I drop it down on the globe like a hammer in a strongman contest. The globe’s plastic splits unevenly, and I crush the bat into the glasses below. Shards sprinkle in every direction as the bat reverberates in my shoulders. The noise is impossibly loud. Blood pulses in my fingertips. I hit it once more, gleeful, even though it’s already smashed beyond repair.
I walk around the room, reigning in my excitement, and moving from one random trinket to the next, destroying everything but some of the chairs and the books.
Then we’re onto the next room.
We go through a living room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. So far I’ve broken things in every room. But unlike all our other clients, The Governor’s smile is still cemented in place.
When we leave the bathroom, Sister Helene seems to slow a little bit. She drags her hand along the patterned wallpaper. I follow behind as The Governor leads down another hall that turns to the right.
“You were an actual Governor,” Sister Helene says.
“I was,” he says.
I’m surprised by the small talk, but if this entire visit is uploaded, the episode will be much too long. So Nick will have to edit it either way.
“Of Michigan, right?” Sister Helene asks.
I share a look with Nick, surprised that she knows this.
The Governor pauses beside a large closed door. “Some time ago, I was. I’m surprised you remember.”
Sister Helene nodded. “I lived there for a while.”
“Ah, I see,” he says, opening the door. The Governor’s eyes narrow just a smidge.
We step inside and look around. It’s an entire room full of display cases. There are ceramic animals and crystal figurines and clay sculptures. Nothing in the room seems like something this man would choose to keep. I find myself wondering if this is revenge against his wife for some perceived wrong. An affair perhaps.
I expect Sister Helene to begin condemning The Governor again, but she doesn’t. “You did other government work there too.”
He nods. “Anyway, here’s where I keep my family’s more valuable keepsakes.”
Nick and I turn to Sister Helene, waiting for her speech. She closes her eyes for a second and then takes a deep breath. Finally, she begins to condemn him—for his selfishness, his pride, his desire for things instead of God’s love. When she finishes, I tip a case forward with the end of my bat creating a domino effect with five cases of ceramic cats and dogs. It creates a satisfying plume of colorful specks.
I set my eyes on a case of crystal, but Sister Helene is already there. She’s too close to the case for me to break it and her gaze is glued to it. I step up beside her and realize that she’s mumbling something. “For hundred and fifty thousand.”
“What?” I ask.
She turns away from me and walks up to The Governor. “The stuff in there is worth over five hundred thousand gallons of water, you fucker.”
Nick and I both stand and stare as something silver flicks out of her robe. I realize what it is, but as I lunge for her the blade is already deep in the man’s stomach. His white shirt sags red under the weight of his blood. And she manages to stab him again before Nick and I can tug her away.
The Governor falls to the floor. His smile is finally gone, replaced with a look of astonishment. Nick runs over to try and stop the bleeding, but it’s over in seconds. The Governor is dead.
“Fuck,” Nick says, backing away from the body.
I hold Sister Helene tight in my arms. She’s shivering, her usually strong body seems suddenly weak. My arms are damp and I realize that her tears are falling onto them. “Oh God, oh God. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just couldn’t anymore.”
“Shh, it’s okay. We’re going to figure this out—” I start.
“I just . . . they know. They know what they’re doing. Wasting their money on shit while children die. And he just smiles. Smiles and smiles and . . .” she keeps muttering, but I can’t hear her anymore.
Nick slowly stands up. “We have to do something. We have to call—”
“Don’t say it,” I say sharply. “We’re not sending her to prison.”
Sister Helene twists around to look at me, her strength beginning to return. “You’re not?”
Nick taps me on the shoulder and motions me aside. I help Sister Helene stand fully and then go to Nick. “The app knows we’re here. Everything’s recorded. There’s no way out of this.”
“We’ll hide her. We’ll make a plan,” I say and rub my head with the back of my hand. My arm is sticky with blood and my head is sticky with sweat. And it hurts to just stand still.
“How? How can we possibly do that?”
I am not a nun, I am an erotic entertainer, raised in a trailer camp, educated on a factory floor.
“We just will! We just have to make a plan.” I pace back and forth in the room trying to think. Nick puts a hand on my shoulder and I shrug it off. My mind is blank except for the image of the red seeping over the man’s shirt.
“Sister Mary,” Nick says. My gaze snaps up to his. He almost never uses my adopted name.
I take a deep breath and turn back to Sister Helene to see if she’s still standing, to see if she’s okay. Surprisingly, she is. She’s standing against the wall, her shoulders high, and she’s holding Nick’s phone up to her ear. Sister Helene is covered in blood, her wimple is twisted, but her face is calm, her eyes sharp. “Hello? Yes, I’m calling to report that I’ve killed someone.”
Nick grabs the back of my habit as I take a step toward her. I’m not sure what I would do if I could get to her anyway. Taking away the phone won’t stop anything now. I curl into Nick’s chest and begin to cry.
The days following are blurry. Nick and I make statements to the police but aren’t charged with anything. Sister Helene confesses and explains that Nick and I tried to stop her. She does not cry again—not as the police arrest her, not even when I visit her at the jail. But I do. I cry with Mother Superior late at night while we watch episodes of Treasure in the Trash, I cry in Nick’s arms after asking him to come to bed with me. And I cry in the kitchen where Sister Helene taught me how to cook vegetables and in the garden where she taught me how to till soil.
But somehow the convent is still a convent, and the nuns keep tutoring the children, and I keep repairing the fences around the garden. And Nick and I make love quietly so that I can keep wearing my habit and wimple. I know that one day I’ll have to stop pretending, but that day is not today.
After Sister Helene is sentenced, I visit her in prison. They do let her wear the wimple. And I wear my habit like always. I’m brought into a room where chairs and benches are nailed on the floor. Sister Helene smiles when she sees me.
“Nick visited a couple of days ago,” she says.
“I’m glad.” But I don’t know what else to say.
After a minute of silence, Sister Helene looks down at my outfit. “Don’t you ever get sick of people not knowing you?”
I shrug. The habit has grown comfortable. It is where I live now. “But you do know me.”
“Sure,” I say. Because I’m the daughter of a saleswoman whose wares were lies, I grew up to dress in as many skins as she did, and really, what of me isn’t just a result of all of it? “I’m just another woman who’s trying to survive at the convent.”
She smiles again and we talk about other things. When I leave, I’m surprised to find that it almost felt like a real conversation.
I don’t think Nick is eager to start filming Bad Habit again. I know I’m not. But after a couple months without filming, the convent is almost out of money. And I’m not the only one who would have no place to go if they finally have to close this place down.
Mother Superior doesn’t push either, but I know that it’s time to start the show back up again. So I have Nick post an advertisement for a co-host. And I go online to see if there are other nuns who would be interested in transferring to the windy city. Surprisingly, a couple of people are willing to interview for the position.
But as I interview other possible co-hosts, I wonder if this will end the same way for every other nun who’s on this show. Farming to survive and tutoring local children every day only to be confronted with the callous excess of others every week; the unending faith in God, but never finding a solution to the greed and starvation. Confronting humans with their sin, but knowing that their supplication is momentary and their regret will not last. So I don’t hire any of them.
Instead, Nick and I do the show by ourselves, occasionally putting Nick on screen for a bit of extra entertainment. I don’t think he’ll lose his composure. I don’t think he’ll attack a client or break any laws. He’s been at this longer now than either of the others.
And I know I won’t. Because I’m not really a nun. I’m an entertainer.