2000 Fiction Award WinnerNever Take the Easy Way Out
2000 by Ali Hurley
Photo by Richard Loler.
I held a soft wood, number 3 pencil with no eraser, and with the metal eraser mount chewed closed - the crappiest because it was so light it was barely visible. Especially against that cheaper-than-cheap "somewhat glossed" school paper we had to write on. Before me, a maze which was printed on a ditto machine. You remember those - they printed in a pale, messy blue. Text was almost always rendered unreadable by the spinning drum of the office ditto maker.
So I am looking at this maze. I am little red riding hood (apparently) and I have to get to granny's house in the middle of the forest, being sure to avoid the blue smudge, which was probably meant to resemble a wolf. Before I could even start, Sister Mary Somethingorother grabbed my forearm with her right hand and dragged me into the hall. It seemed that Sean Pampreen, the greasy-haired kid whose oldest sister worked full time at McDonalds, and whose dad was like a million years old, and whose entire family always sat like little brown nosers in the very first pew at church, told on me for peeing on the playground.
There are a number of problems with this accusation, not the least of which was that there is no playground. We play in the car park by the church on our lunch break, and I am not one of the kids who is good at or ever invited to play soccer, so I sit on the grass with Anne and we talk about running away while smearing our skin with dandelions, making our faces completely yellow for the afternoon, waiting for the nunns to notice.
Sean is just angry that he got into trouble for throwing rocks at kids the other day, which was true. And they all enjoyed seeing me stand in front of the class apologising for my behaviour, or being assigned an essay on "how to be ladylike". I am nearly 11, and already they are attempting to constrain me by the implications of my gender. At girl scouts we are tasked with sewing hot pads for cancer patients. Why cancer patients need hot pads more than anyone else is beyond me, but that is what we do while the boy scouts learn how to survive in the wilderness or build pinewood derby cars.
I don't mind the apologies, or the essay writing. "O sacrament most holy, o sacrament divine..." we are on our way to church now, after the apology and the maze. On our way Anne and I try to sell dog biscuits (Liver-Snapz) to the 6th graders, as cookies. They are stupid and buy them. Quarters in our pockets for sour cream 'n onion chips tomorrow, or a chocolate or strawberry eclaire ice cream (or an ice cream sandwich, but they are usually old and slimy), or if we are feeling sensible, an extra piece of square pizza, which everyone swears is flavoured with pine needles.
It is my turn to walk the nunn back to the convent. The convent is across the parking lot, and every day at lunch the morning nunn goes home and the afternoon nunn comes in. The morning nunn is very old (134 or something), and contends that "absolutely" is a synonym for "no", which confuses the living shit out of the 5th graders who know better, but we say nothing, eyes shifting. She needs help walking across the parking lot. In addition to being old, she is excessively fat. And for some reason, dyes her hair JET black. Not that we see much of it under the habit, but a little wave puff is visible. By the time we get her to the convent, the entire lunch break is over. But upon walking her through the door, she shuffles into the bathroom immediately to the left of the entrance, and brings out a precarious dish of sweets, which is almost always comprised of 3 red gummy fishes, a few grey hairs, and some anise seed jelly beans. I always take the fish and eat it, trying hard not to remember it had been sitting on top of the toilet.
The afternoon nunn is only 132, and is therefore capable of walking herself into the school building, which is nice. I would not say she has any obvious deficiencies, except that she thinks all girls are stupid, and that she combs her hair back into her habit with a Costco card (I think it was called Sam's Club back then. My mother tells me "sam" is slang for "savings".). She is not fat, but she has this strange protruding belly. We all know she is carrying around a dead fetus created between her and the old drunk priest which was condemned to hell and not capable of being born. Her protruding uterus, we know, is the mark of her sin. The poor child is still laden with Original Sin, which means he or she is bad, because a priest was not able to state otherwise.
The priest, father Waller, always seemed to me a very slick man with lots of cash. He drives a Lincoln Continental - quite posh for a priest. 'Why does Fr. Waller get a posh car and the nunns are not even allowed train tickets home to visit their families?', I asked my mother, who told me that priests are allowed to because they don't take a vow of poverty. I later learned from Deacon Tom that Father Waller had a habit of drinking Alter wine, and sitting in the lounge with a loaded rifle. Tom opened Father Waller's closet when he was on a mission in Florida (a mission in FLORIDA?) one week, and empty bottles upon empty bottles of alter wine came tumbling down. He smoked too, and that has to be a sin, especially for a priest.
Today after lunch we were supposed to go to confession. I never thought of myself as an angel but I always had trouble thinking of sins. I told the priest I "disobeyed" last time, but I couldn't think of anything this time. So I decided to say that I stole a pencil from a classmate. I wanted to then tell the priest that I lied just so I would have a sin to confess, but I decided against it. I was really scared I had some sins I couldn't think of and that the weight of the blackness on my soul would send me plummeting toward satan. I had already begun packing my bags for Hell as I coloured in Mary's face on my scapular with melted wax crayon. I would sit at my desk with my little lamp on which my mother purchased with food stamps, and melt my crayons on the hot light bulb, and then draw or colour with the soft, molton wax. For a few moments the light would don the colour of the crayon melted to it, but soon it would drip to the desktop. I frequently got in trouble for this so I wiped it clean with a white (well, it used to be) sock that I kept below my mattress, along with a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of somethingorother. I couldn't remember any of the saints' purposes except saint Anthony, who my mother always reminded me to pray to when I was looking for something. I guess he was the finder of lost loves or something - no, wait, that was that guy from Fantasy Island.
I wasn't allowed to stay up past 9, which is when Fantasy Island started. It was Lavyrne & Shirley at 7, Three's Company at 7:30, and Love Boat at 8. Then bed. I would often lay there on the floor, my head sticking out the doorway down the hall and straight into the living room where I had a perfect view of the TV. My brothers were down the hall closer to the living room. They would lay there, Mike in his Incredible Hulk pajamas and Matt in his Batman pjs, until they inevitably started kicking each other, at which time we would all be sent back to our beds, the little eye and hook lock at the top of our doors preventing us from peering at the tele, going potty, or otherwise disrupting the evening.
As I lay there alone in my black room, muffled sounds of the little Hispanic midget from F.I. going on about the plane, I thought about Buck Rogers. He really was so cute, and he really should hook up with Helen Grey, his female counterpart whose authority was not her own, but granted by her father's presence. Buck Rogers was on Saturday nights. Sometimes I would fall asleep feeling as though I was tucked neatly under his arm, sleeping in bliss on the starship.
We were always at the church - at least three times a week. It was Lent, which meant that in addition to Tuesday morning mass and assorted afternoon confession, we were also scheduled to come in on Wednesday. I had to stand next to Cindy Cooper, the weirdo Methodist who picked her nose and was not allowed communion. She was also a massive tattle-tale so you couldn't pencil in facial features on the classic blank (literally featureless) faces of the kids illustrating each station of the cross in our little handbooks without fear of the nunn's flying eraser...
My favourite station was the one where the kids were told "never take the easy way out". I would often remember this after crawling into the shrubs to extract the tennis ball that plummeted into the thick. I could easily back out the way I came, but what would Jesus do? He would take the longest most painful route out of the shrub, getting all cut up and bloody as depicted on the cross. That's what I did. I wanted to be a household saint. Once I even woke up in the middle of the night to clean out the cupboards because I was so inspired by Saint Theresa, the Little Flower. Being yelled at for doing this confused me.
The only people who had to go to church more than we did were the alter boys. They were forever getting out of school to go serve mass. Even when we didn't have mass they would go serve for funerals. They were always excited about funerals because they got the biggest tips. Only boys, no girls allowed. Why? I asked sister but as usual, she said only the priest could answer such a question. Sometimes during lunch Anne and I would sneak into the vestibule of the church. Before we would go in we would have a story, like "Sister wanted a bulletin" or whatever. The bathroom there was mint green and smelled like that sawdust stuff you pour over when someone pukes at school. Church was weird, and a bit eerie when no one was around.
We walked somberly into the church, whispering excuses to each other in case anyone caught us. The only light was a dim flicker from the eternal flame at the alter. Sister explained that this light was to represent God's eternal presence. So we revered it as we would revere Him. We could joke, colour in the faces in our leaflets, skip church on occasion and just go to the Activities Center for doughnuts, but we couldn't blow out God.
Sometimes when we would sneak into church, a big golden flower thing with a little glass door was on the alter. This was the monstrance used for Adoration. There was a wafer inside it. You were meant to adore the wafer, which through consecration, was Jesus' body. It never tasted like skin though, it only tasted like wafer. Anne and I were puzzled about this so we decided to experiment to determine whether it was in fact skin. During communion, she pretended to put the host in her mouth, but kept it in her hands. As she walked down the aisle, she looked at me fleetingly, to say she had succeeded. But before she could sit down, one of the ushers pulled her aside and told her to eat the host. He had been monitoring the situation and was trying to protect the wafer. At 11 you don't question the reasoning behind something like this, you just get scared and get back in line. Needless to say, the Body of Christ remained a mystery.
It was May and the sun ached with heat. It was the season to run away. We sat on the curb of the parking lot and dreampt up a list of things to bring with us for our journey. For some reason butter seemed quite important. Ketchup, salt and pepper were easily stolen from McDonald's. We would stay in the fort in the field near my parents' house.
Mike Sajewski had just put his eye out with a pencil earlier in the day, so we were all relatively well-behaved for fear of Sister Joyce. After lining our pockets with tootsie-pops stolen from the supply room, we tucked ourselves into a small crick below Mary at the grotto, planned our escape, and pined endlessly for one of those digital watches on which you can play pac-man. Just last year we sat in this very spoon of a dip, praying as instructed for the health and well being of President Reagan who had just been shot. We raced from our classroom with such an urgency, as though it was our collective spirit energy which, through prayer, would form a strong net preventing Ronald's soul from reaching the light of God, deflecting him back to his bloody body on the street below. Our hearts pounded, our hands clasped tight we tried harder than ever to focus on prayer instead of trying to avoid whispering a touch too loud to our neighbors.
Jack scolded us for sitting on the grass. He is the organist at the church; a big lumlox of a man, hair in curly-cues falling just above his shoulders. He talked as though his cheeks were too puffed out, like Deputy Dog. It took everything to stop our belly-grumbles of laughter to become a volcano spewing disrespect and sacrelig in St. Genevieve during Tuesday mass when he played and sang for lack of a choir.
Anne and I meandered toward the parking lot, past the jump-ropers, beyond the sticker swappers, straight through a soccer game splattered with curses. The lunch ladies were involved in Speigle, so we darted for the church. Eerie sounds came from the organ; Jack was practicing. The drone of the minor keys was comforting as we mazed through the pews to the sacristy; a place where only boys have gone. We knew there must be some treasure trove of sweets, cookies and cakes back there; car magazines, an electric race track, and a ColecoVision. It was our mission to investigate.
The organ stopped and Jack was not shuffling his music. Nor was he straightening the choir uniforms or arranging the hymnals. Time was running short. As we approached the alter, illuminated only by the eternal flame of God in the form of a candle hanging precariously from two chains dropped from a buttress, we scanned the church for Jack one last time. Often he would have found us by now, the attacking tickle monster taking us to the floor! It was a fun game, more fun than soccer, but it was our secret.
We removed our sandals and socks, hoping our feet would float above the tap of the floor, bound to a cloud ever floating toward God and the boys' things. We dashed around the alter table, along the stretch of carpet that etched a path to the secret room with doors taller than the second floor windows; the walls donning this bizarre elongated horror movie geometry.
Meek like a footlocker sat the glass cabinet in which the alter gold was kept. Beside it, along with Marlboro Lights, were the things of ritual; water, wine, bread, text, cloth, scroll which we slowly unpeeled. We barely noticed the breath of darkness slowly filling the room, our eyes fixed on the ornate chalice aglow.
We did not notice, until our spirits curled and twisted up like smoke into the sky, that as darkness came, God left the building.
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