Lisa lived two blocks from St. John’s. I had become a regular fixture at her house and spent most afternoons and every weekend with her, much to my family’s relief. I could never tell if they were happy I had a new friend or grateful I was never home, likely a bit of both. To remain under the radar, Lisa and I kept busy with a myriad of mid-level schemes. Bothering her brother Frank, although magical, ran its course early in any week and we’d be forced outside for our own safety.
Many afternoons we’d return to our abandoned schoolyard, creepy visits, that lacked only a dirge to round out the profound sadness that existed there without the shrill of hateful sinners mucking up the place. It was like visiting a crime scene. We would find abandoned notes, full of gossip and 5th grade intrigue. Lost, wet homework, barely recognizable. Red rubber balls, the kinds that sting bare legs on a cold day. Dickie Berry’s defiled, uneaten, and, well-hidden pickle pimento loaf sandwiches.
On one occasion, we found twenty-five dollars. Lisa suggested we return it to the church to see if anyone would claim it. I felt the church owed me something. They had repossessed my faith, after all. That had to be worth twenty-five dollars. She agreed. We went to Friendly’s instead. Poetic justice, if you ask me.
Sometimes we would run into one of the parish priests. I was always filled with an equal sense of panic and excitement with these chance encounters. As much as I dreaded our enforced encounters, accidental meeting’s, were a whole different thing. Maybe I could inspire an independent opinion, as I had with Father Schmotzer. He was always genuinely happy to see me, even when compulsory, without fail, regardless the circumstance.
“Aireen! What have we done today!”
His thick Czech accent was as warm as his greeting.
Father Schmotzer would bring fellow Jesuit priests from all over the world to visit our parish. Once he brought a young priest from Africa. We met him by happenstance. He was the blackest man I had ever laid eyes on. He had perfect white teeth and giant eyes. Lisa would smack me as a reminder me not to stare. He told us he ate peanut butter soup in his native country but had yet to eat a peanut butter and jelly. Lisa and I promptly went to her house and made him one. A peanut butter and fluff one, too. I took points from the church any way I could get them. Fluff would have worked on me.
I told the grandmother about him.
"Be careful,” she warned, “he may kill a chicken.”
That’s what she said.
Monsignor Spevack was the priest in charge and hated kids; and of the afflicted minions I proved a particular nuisance. He said the Irish were shanty. A fact I could not dispute. I didn’t know the exact definition of shanty but thought he was probably right. My experience with the Irish had been a mixed bag of nuts, at best. Whenever he would answer the door to the rectory he would not speak to me. He would simply point to the old pew in the screened-in porch, where I’d sit until he would point to the door. No harm, no foul, really.
Fr. Polosko was the third parish priest. A chubby, pock-faced man and favorite among my contemporaries; I liked him the least. During a Sunday morning sermon, Father Polosko conveyed his disdain for careless women who abandon their husbands and have so little regard for the church’s position on divorce. As we left mass, we passed him. As he phonily wished his sheep “bless-ed day”, he grabbed my mother’s arm. He said he hoped she had paid special attention to his sermon and that she should be ashamed of her failure as a wife and mother. My mother never attended mass again. I wish I could say the same.
One Saturday afternoon, Lisa and I cut through the school yard and saw Fr. Polosko and Andrea Oliver, a girl a year ahead of us, unloading apples from the back of his new red Cadillac. I was instantly struck with envy. Apple picking? Why did Andrea get special treatment? What was wrong with this guy? How had my charm been lost on him for the likes of Andrea Oliver? Andrea wasn’t the only one either. A bunch of alter boys had visited his cabin in Vermont and went for pizza and to ballgames. Some of them were as big a sinner as me, a verifiable truth.
“Girls,” Father nodded as we walked by.
“Hi Father,” Lisa responded.
We stopped short. Father waddled towards us.
“Do you think you are too good to speak to me?”
I almost looked over my shoulder. Father Polosko had never spoken to me directly. I was shocked. I had been fortunate enough to remain off his radar thus far. He was hardly ever at the rectory when I was sent for punishment. He would request that some of my classmates attend his face-to-face confessions. I never attended face-to-face confession. Although the flimsy screen in the confessional provided no real anonymity, I didn’t need to suffer any further humiliation by looking the guy right in the eye. When confession day came along I always sought out Father Schmotzer. He never made me feel ashamed. His absolution meant something to me.
“No,” I responded.
“No, I don’t think I’m better than anyone else.”
“Are you always such a smart ass?”
The sting of hearing a priest swear stunned me stupid. This was not the first time I had been called a smart ass. In truth, it may not have been the first time that day. My father reminded me regularly that no one liked a smart ass, although I’ve found that most people do, in fact, enjoy a smart ass, at least in the circles I traveled. I felt my face get hot.
“What’s the matter? Are going to cry? I see, you can dish it out but you can’t take it.”
Father Polosko grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to his angered face.
“You will show me respect or you will rot in hell! Your choice.”
I looked Father Polosko in the eye.
“I’ll go where ever you won’t be.”
I ripped my arm from his grip.
“Don’t ever touch me again.”
Father Polosko turned purple with fury as the door to the rectory flew open. Father Schmotzer stepped onto the porch like the arrival of Superman, sans the “S”.
“Is everything alright, Tom?” he asked.
“This does not concern you, John. I will handle her,” he snapped.
“Handle her,” he laughed. “Not this one! She is a free spirit.”
Father Schmotzer came down the stairs and took me by the hand.
“Oh, Aireen! You have such a way!”
Father Schmotzer walked me to the end of the street with Lisa following behind. He turned and took my face in his hands.
“Are you alright, my friend?”
“Yes, Father. I’m sorry.” I could feel my throat tighten and my eyes fill.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” he said as he wiped my face on his shirt.
“Just stay away from him.”
“He said I was going to hell.”
“He should be as concerned with his own soul.”
I was sure I was going to be kicked out of St. John’s. Confident, that making the rock star priest lose his shit would be enough to break the camel. These were the only times I would actually pray. “Please, God. Make them send me back. And make me thinner. Just this once.” It became a habit that would stick with me for many years; praying, only under the most dire conditions. It never worked. The call never came.
Lisa was waiting for me when I stepped off the bus.
“Nothing. He must have been busy. You know. That one day work week and all.”
Lisa rolled her eyes.
As we approached our classroom, I could see the gaggle of black awaiting our arrival. Their contempt for me was palpable but unchanged.
“Good morning, Sisters. Big weekend? You ladies look exhausted!”
One would think I would have had enough sense to leave them alone but I couldn’t help myself. I can only equate it to what it must feel like to suffer from Tourrette’s Syndrome.
“You are wanted at the rectory.”
“Of course I am. I’m a big hit over there, Sister.”
I had to smile at the ridiculousness of the statement. She failed to appreciate the irony. I wasn’t surprised.
After morning prayers I walked over to the rectory. My heart was pounding so hard it made me nauseous. Monsignor Spevack opened the door and gestured to my usual place of punishment.
“I’m not here for punishment, Father.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I’m not sure. Sister said I was wanted at the rectory.”
“God knows I don’t want to see you.”
Just as I was about to be let off the hook, I heard the familiar shuffling of malevolence.
“What are you doing, you idiot? Why are you wasting the Monsignor’s time?”
“I was wondering the same thing, Sister,” he snarked.
“You are supposed to be apologizing to Father Polosko.”
“For what?” the monsignor asked me.
“I can’t say I know for sure,” I said.
“I’m confident you’ve done something worthy of atonement.”
“I’m sure you’re right, Father. You know how the Irish are.”
“Humph...that I do. He’s in the vestibule.”
With that Monsignor Spevack slammed the door.
I skulked over to the church. St. John’s church was a scary place when full of parishioners, when empty, it felt haunted, heavy, the air thick with incense; dark and dismal. For a house of God, it wasn’t very well kept. They could have worked a little harder to warm the place up. Maybe people would want to go to church if it weren’t so depressing but I doubted it.
I made my way to the front of the church, my heart visible beneath my starched white shirt, audible. I had never been near the alter before, confident a sinner like me would burst into flames, unwilling to tempt fate. As I got closer to the vestibule, I could hear voices, the curt tone of Father Polosko and another familiar voice. The second voice belonged to a boy. It sounded as if they were running around the room banging into things.
I tentatively knocked. The room behind the door fell silent.
Polosko, straightening himself as he cracked open the door.
“What?” he said without looking up.
I stared at him, slack jaw, unable to respond.
He finally looked up.
“What!” he screamed. “What do you want?”
“Sister told me I had to come apologize.”
The door opened up as my classmate, Richard Liptonpton, escaped out the door.
I was frozen. Polosko said nothing. We stared at each other for what seemed an eternity.
Finally, he closed the door.
I was unsure what had just happened but something had. That was evident. I never spoke to Richard about that day. His pained expression in my company was enough to warrant my silence on the matter. I kept his secret, whatever it was, although I wish I hadn’t.
It was only a matter of time before I would have to see Polosko again. I held my breath every time I rang the bell at the rectory. It was a numbers game. One I was bound to lose eventually. I suppose I could have worked harder at behaving, no sense dissecting that in retrospect.
The day arrived, sooner rather than later.
Father Polosko answered the door. His face went white. Father stared at me from behind the closed storm door. Something had happened. I could sense his distress. Similar to how a shark must smell blood. I was giddy with this shift in power. I had no idea how I had acquired it but I knew it had something to do with Richard Lipton.
“What’s the matter, Father? Too good to speak to one of your parishioners?”
I would have felt sorry for him if I didn’t hate him so much.
We stared at each other in silence for several minutes.
“I don’t want to be sent here again and I don’t want you buddying up to my brother.”
I was never sent to the Rectory again.
Edward said he overheard Polosko telling Sister James that if she couldn’t handle the discipline of school children maybe she should re-think her career choices. That was the first time I realized nuns actually chose to be nuns. Suckers.