The ability to keep me in class for an entire day proved impossible for the Sisters of Perpetual Humiliation. Since I had intentionally, and with some finality, burned my bridge at the rectory, the nuns needed to be clever if they were going to punish me.
Their first attempt was to lock me in the library. The only flaw in their master plan was that the library only stayed locked from the outside. I could come and go as I pleased and as long as I left a piece of tape over the lock no one was the wiser. One day, I walked to McDonald’s and had lunch. It was a whole other world during the day. I had no idea.
By the end of the second week I would boldly roam the school, ducking our janitor, Mr. Senko. It wasn’t difficult, he was a million years old and had a lift in his shoe, plus he was always humming Amazing Grace. It wasn’t such a sweet sound but a dead giveaway, that and the dragging foot. He must have been saved from something. He should have been praying about that foot if you ask me.
Lisa was the one who realized I had to be escaping.
“There is no way you are sitting in there all day. You would have called the Pope by now. Fess up.”
She knew me too well. I told her of all the adventures I had had so far. How I had been in the basement and that it housed shelves of all kinds of broken Jesus paraphernalia; headless statues with missing limbs and worn faces, each creepier than the next, none worthy of repair. It must be sacrilegious to toss them out. I tried to put a Mary back together once. I felt sorry for her. She always had the saddest expression on her face. I felt like helping repair her would buy me a few points. It was an unsuccessful attempt and I’m still waiting to see if there is any return on my intention.
I told Lisa how I had been spying on the penguins while they ate lunch. It was always strange to observe them in a pack like that. They rarely spoke to each other. They seemed joyless and lonely, exactly as I had suspected. Maybe they would make a few friends, even among the other penguins, if they weren’t so mean.
She shook her head and warned that it was only a matter of time. We both knew that I would push my luck. It seemed to be a reoccurring theme. I was on a good run and if it ain’t broke…but, like all good things, this too would come to an end.
I had just finished my rounds, checking out the basement, making faces at my classmates through the window, spying on the nuns. I was making my way back to the library when I saw the door was wide open. I could see Sister and her pet, Mary Alice Stasko, searching the room for me.
“I knew she was up to no good! She is an awful child!”
“I don’t think she really says her rosary after confession either, Sister.”
How did she know?
There was no way of avoiding trouble, so I didn’t.
“You looking for me?”
Sister was apoplectic and nearly purple. I burst out laughing. Although I did enjoy pushing her to the brink of madness, the laugh was involuntary though I doubt Sister would have believed that. She grabbed me by my arm and dragged me in the direction of the rectory. I turned to see Mary Alice, smug, satisfied. I gave her the finger. Why not? How much worse could it get? And, fuck her.
We arrived at the rectory just as Father Smotzer was walking back from old lady mass.
“Ah, Sister! You must have read my mind! I was just thinking of my friend and then, poof, she magically appeared!”
“Not so magical, Father. I’d be here everyday still if I didn’t get banned from the rectory.”
“Banned? Hardly. Well, Sister, unhand the child. I’ll see to it that she has a stern talking to.”
Father winked at me, right in front of Sister. She sucked her teeth.
“You should not encourage her to be so disobedient, Father. You’ll ruin her.”
“Ruin her? For what? A life in the convent? I think it’s evident she is no competition for your place at the table, Sister. Now, don’t you have a classroom to attend to?”
I looked to the window of our classroom. My classmates were plastered to the glass, not wanting to miss any of the action. I made eye contact with Lisa. She had her usual look of disgust. I was used to it. I waved. She didn’t wave back but I could tell she wanted to laugh.
Sister waddled off. I hated her. I tried not to. I didn’t want to end up in hell because of it. She wasn’t worth it.
It was a warm day for March. Father and I walked around the neighborhood. We went to the market on the corner. Father spoke to them in Polish and they gave us each a piece of freshly made keibalsi. We sat on the curb. As we ate, I told him of my two weeks in the library. He roared with laughter. I wasn’t sure what was so funny. I thought maybe it sounded funnier in his head with his accent. It cracked me up all the time. He did say that all the praying in the world wasn’t going to fix Mr. Senko’s foot and that not all nuns were mean but he understood why I might think so. Father said he was glad I recognized the tune of Amazing Grace that it meant I was paying attention in church some of the time.
I should have told him that I paid attention to him; that I hung on every word of his sermons. I should have told him he was the only hope I had had for months, maybe years. I should have told him he saved me.
Should is an awful word.
By Monday, Sister was ready with plan B. My new punishment consisted of being sent to sit on the concrete wall that housed a statue of Mary holding baby Jesus. It wasn’t so bad and it was outside. I would spend several hours planted in the middle of the schoolyard. Mother Mary and baby Jesus were sculpted with white marble and on warm days I would lean my cheek against the feet of the aforementioned virgin. Sometimes I would fall asleep on the retaining wall with the cool comfort of the Madonna’s toes pressed to my face.
Then April’s rain arrived. One afternoon, as I sat with Mary and Jesus, Lisa’s mom ran by. Her umbrella pulled tight to her head.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Punished. I’m not allowed in the rectory anymore or the library.”
“Why can’t you go to the rectory?”
“Eh, conflict of interest. Being out here is better.”
“What could you possibly be getting punished for?”
“You’d be surprised. All different stuff, sometimes I laugh too loud or ask too many questions. Some days I look fatter than others. Sometimes I’m shanty. I still don’t even know what that means. Today my desk was messy. Sister dumped it and sent me out here. I’m only missing religion. Sister says she can’t stand to look at my blasphemous face during religion anyway. Whatever. I feel the same way about her all the time.”
Lisa’s mother looked at me, confused. I could see her eyes fill with tears. Guilt washed over me.
“It’s okay. Honest.”
“Have you told your parents?”
“Nope, separation of church and state. There’s a lot going on at my house.”
She knew that better than most. I slept at her house most nights and only went home when absolutely necessary. Even then, I always brought Lisa with me.
“This is very wrong, Erin.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
I smiled but I could tell she was staying mad. She stormed into the church.
Within seconds Father Smotzer opened the church door.
“Shouldn’t you be atoning for your sins in here, my child?”
“Is it raining in there?”
“Ah! The choosy beggar!”
I ran inside. Father Smotzer hugged me.
“Erin, we need to fix this. I can’t have my best friend standing out there like a vagabond! What would the neighbors think?”
“Thank you, Father. I’m sorry for all the trouble.”
“You are no trouble my friend, no trouble.”
I sat in the farthest back pew and quietly cried as I listened to his Slovak mass in the background, with the old ladies chanting in the first pew.
After mass, Father Smotzer walked me back to school and called Sister out into the hall. The class was silent as we listened to Father Smotzer ream Sister out in Slovak. No one had ever heard Father Smotzer raise his voice or ever speak with the smallest hint of anger. We were shocked.
Alex was the only boy in my class who spoke Slovak. He was one of my best friends and equally prone to mischief but with immigrant parents he received preferential treatment. I didn’t begrudge him. It was difficult enough for him to have immigrant parents.
“Holy shit, he’s pissed! He says he will no longer condone her abuse of a helpless child. Helpless!” He snorted.
“He said you’re gifted and she is too stupid to see it. Yeah, a gifted ball-buster!”
All very true, I was hardly helpless and had made it my life’s work to undermine the penguins; it kept my skills sharp for the grandmother, or vice versa, it hardly mattered. Six of one, as they say.