My first box-art was a vision of hell, a homework assignment in second grade. My classmates brought in dioramas with cut-out flames and aluminum-foil backdrops painted red, but my hell consisted of a papier-mache mask with broken green glass in the eye holes and dozens of faces clipped from magazines, impaled on wire surrounding the mask and spewing from its mouth. It was a luminous jumble of the portentous, too serious by halves for a 7-yearold, probably inspired by my father's rendition of the Last Judgment, which he'd painted at the age of 19 on his father's car tarp. It hung in our garage, my mother's Buick pinning some dervish.
“That's a bit frightening, dear,” said Sister Ana Maria, before she brightened. She was no enemy of the morbid. “But I'm sure hell is even more terrible.” My hell won its A.
Sister Ana Maria, a native of Barcelona, was a Carmelite Sister of Charity, which might have remained a cloistered order had not the Spanish Civil War caused it to relocate in northern California, where the nuns' penance was to teach school, and where they continued filtering long after the republican victory. She was among the first genuine storytellers I knew, in that she was fearless with her imagination if it was in the service of a higher truth that would captivate her audience. I never once thought of her constructs as conventional lies. All the nuns at Our Lady of Grace in Castro Valley brimmed with red-edged tales about violence and the power of prayer, eggs broken and magically made whole after three Hail Marys, uncles machine-gunned against walls, girls who spent their bus money on candy and were murdered as they walked home alone at night.