We ran sprints on Saint Mary’s practice field until exhaustion took my teammates and me into the woods behind the Saint Mary’s convent. In the early evening dusk, we sat campfire style around a cooler of Pabst. Sergio bought the beer. He was seventeen, but, at 290 pounds, his front tooth chipped, and a scimitar-like scar on his left cheek, he looked like an adult. Bob Geary, owner of Bayside Package, didn’t much care about IDs. Sergio, our team’s right tackle, who had with arms like slabs of meat, was the one who opened the hole on the right side of the line for me to break loose.
Drinking into the night, we talked about the teams that we would play in the forthcoming the season. From where we sat, huddled around the cooler as if it were a portable tabernacle with each can of Pabst a host to be swallowed, we could see the room lights of the convent flicker on and off. We made jokes about the nuns looked like under their habits, and I felt connected to those pale lights flicking on and off in the distance.
Sister Mary Immaculata was the “new nun.” I met her in a late August afternoon after I finished my work at the school. Sister Vincent had hired me for the summer. I was one of the boys whom she selected to cut the lawns, tend to the gardens, wash and wax the school’s floors, and whatever odd jobs that she assigned. The new nun told me that she was fresh out of the novitiate. I thought that she looked like Audrey Hepburn in A Nun’s Story. She actually looked younger than Hepburn’s Sister Luke, and she captured my attention. I was storing the John Deere lawn mower in the utility shed, and she was strolling along the Rosary Garden walk, her beads in hand, her lips moving in silent prayer. When she introduced herself, I told her my name, and she asked me what grade I was in. He told her that I was a senior, and she said that she would be my teacher because she was teaching the five sections of senior English. She said she loved teaching. She said she had published an essay on G.K. Chesterson and loved poetry because “the words speak to my soul.” I stared at her and nodded my head in agreement. She talked for several minutes about the assigned summer reading for seniors: Great Expectations. I told her that I had read the book and that I liked the story.
I thought about her intermittently for the remaining week
and a half before the start of school. I told my friends that the
new nun looked like Audrey Hepburn. She did look like the
girls that we had gone to school with at Saint Patrick’s grammar
school, girls that we had known too long for it to matter. Teddy
Oschedusko, our team’s center, said that “a pretty Sister is a
waste of talent.” Thinking of her was a childish reverie that I entered into gradually. I was a boy full of hope and a longing for what the future held for me. When I watched airplanes high above me in the sky, I envisioned flying them as a pilot in the Navy because my father had been on a battleship in the war. Picturing her in my mind made me feel as if I were on the cusp of intrigue, of a battle to be won, of a young man becoming important. My father wanted me to be important, and he used the word so often in his discussions with me that I came see the idea of being important as a sacred call to a mantle of duty that he had placed upon me.
In the first class of the year, I could tell that she was a little nervous, and I wanted her to feel comfortable. The girls in the class giggled, and Sister Mary Immaculata laughed with them. She began to connect with the girls, an initial bonding that seemed to ease her presence. The boys did not raise their hands to answer her questions.
“Joan’s comment about Pip and Estella’s relationship is very interesting. But let us move forward.” She cradled her copy of the book into her habit, smiled, and looked at me. “Let us digress from the text for a minute and talk about the ideas that Mr. Dickens is presenting. How, John, do you define love?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I love my parents and my sister, but you want the other kind of love. I’ve never had that so I can’t give you a definition. I don’t think that Pip could either.”
“O’Brien, our left tackle, guffawed in an attempt to upstage her. Some of my friends snickered.
“Mr. O’Brien—we are not going to have that behavior in my classroom.” She nodded politely to O’Brien and pointed her book at him in a chastising manner. “John,” she said, smiling and turning her attention to me, “your response renders your maturity.”
I sat stalwart in his desk chair, a rigid pose that exuded all the confidence that I owned. I looked her and smiled as if to say “just give me the ball and let me run to the end zone.”
She deliberately paused and surveyed the room. “Sometimes, class, we laugh to relieve tension, and love is a topic that can create anxiety within us.”
This is the way it was—the “great Pope Pius XII,” Hitler’s political ally, a man in league with the Nazis. I thought that Doonan was obsessed with the sins of the flesh, but, when the rumors about Sister Mary Immaculata and me became the truth, I would find that my foil was my unexpected ally. When the talk of our small city was that nun and that boy ran through the city faster than Sister Mary Immaculata and I could outrun the words, Father Doonan became a compassionate man. In an odd sort of way, the bombastic, full-of-himself priest became the significant teacher of my life.
Before Doonan taught me the enduring lesson of mercy, I saw him as a man who wanted to alienate us and place himself in opposition to us. Sister Mary Immaculata wanted to befriend us. She wanted to discuss “social issues” in our English classes, and she encouraged us to think deeply about the books that we read. None of the other Sisters ever discussed books outside of the curriculum or entertained the idea of critical thinking. Understanding the plot reigned supreme. If you knew the plot well, you had fulfilled the duty of your assignment. But Sister Mary Immaculata told us that reading could “transform our lives.” When we became readers, she advocated, learning would become an “intrinsic” experience. “Grades,” she said, “are part of an educational system that we all have to live by. They are meaningless in the higher order of things.”
Sometimes, if one of us was injured and headed to the whirlpool instead of the practice field, Coach Lazzaro let us come late if we had to “catch up on our studies.” Coach believed in rest, in making sure we did not have “dead legs” in November. As long as we were winning, he was very patient with one of us missing a Monday or Tuesday practice to get extra help from our teachers. He often told us that football is the “here and now.” He repeatedly told us that “academics are, boys, your future.”
Coach Lazzaro was a swell guy. He was a humble man, and he never pretended to be anything other than what he was. He was from New York City and managed to get a football scholarship to Iowa. As a Hawkeye, he had one shining moment: a ninety-three kickoff return for a touchdown against Iowa State when he was a sophomore, a spectacular run in Ames that owned the attention of the state of Iowa for one glorious week. I know that glory can be a puerile fascination with the past. I remember the dew on the grass, the lime chalking the lush green, the roar in the stadium—a memory that allows you to preserve time it in a capsule that you can open up to stave off the mundane of the present. Everyone may have his or her fifteen minutes of fame, but glory, is shorter than fifteen minutes. As it is happening, you have a thought and a feeling: the thought is that glory is leaving you the moment you touch it, and the feeling is the hunger to have the moment again, even though that moment is an unconscious twitch that is telling you that this moment of glory will never happen again because you can only conquer Rome once. If you are wrong and the conquest or pinnacle is achieved again and again, glory becomes fame—and fame is not glory. Coach’s ninety-three yard run was his moment. His story, which, as legend has it, was a story he told to his team every new season, made him feel young again. The young can feel glory, but they cannot understand it. Time teaches the bitter sweet lesson of glory: it staves off the sorrows of life. Coach told us that his name was Anthony Lazzaro. He said,” Lazzaro means, in I-talian, ‘God Has Helped’. And Lazzaro comes from Lazarus. Now how’s that, boys? We have grace on our side. When we pray to the Queen of Victory, our Blessed Mother is listening.” Diminutive in stature, a slight man who had put on a few belly pounds in his middle age, he once had speed. He knew it and he treasured it. Coach Lazzaro was not one of those three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust coaches who believed in grinding it out and playing for field position. Lazzaro designed our Split-T offense to break me into the open for the long gainers. I liked him, he liked me, and he was betting the house on me. I knew that I could take a day of rest and a chance to “catch up on my English course.” And I wanted to see her.
When I walked into her classroom, she was sitting at her desk and talking to Caroline Hickey who sat next to her. Caroline turned around and scowled at me, an interloper who should have been doing pushups and wind sprints.
I sat in third seat in the first row, just far enough away to listen and not intrude. I listened to her tell Caroline that Emily Dickinson was one of her favorite authors, “second only to Mr. Chesterson.” As they continued talking, I studied Sister Mary Immaculata, occasionally looking down at my notebook. I decided that I would write a poem about her. I scribbled some notes on the poem in my loose-leaf note book. After five minutes, Caroline stood up, said goodbye to Sister, and walked out of the room, smiling at me in one of her polite I don’t-really-mean-it smiles.
It was my turn. I wanted to be alone with Sister. I wanted to get her to take me to the Rosary Garden. I was planning to ask her if we could go there to talk, but it was she who suggested that we take our first walk together.
We sat on a large semi-circular concrete bench below the towering statue of the Blessed Mother. She asked me questions about Great Expectations, and I answered them. I changed the subject.
“You judge a man by his best deed,” I said.
She smiled at me. “Why?” she asked.
I said that, if you don’t believe that good wins the game, then you will have a sorry life.
She laughed politely and rephrased my thoughts. And, so, there we were bathing in the late afternoon sun, the leaves just beginning to change color, a warm breeze tempering a sun that was still holding on to summer. It was all rather glorious, and I felt as if I were being transformed into a different person. In June, I bought a book of poems titled The Romantic Poets. I read many of the poems, and, as I was talking to Sister, I recalled a footnote to one of Wordsworth’s poems. Wordsworth said that the great poem is written in October. I thought that this September afternoon was close enough to October’s weather to revel in the moment: I would write a great poem and give it to Sister. I would be Brando. I would be Cary Grant. I would be Peter Finch in A Nun’s Story.
My father was a stevedore, a WWII vet who didn’t like his job. When he came back from the Pacific, he hung a Nisshoki flag in our home’s basement. V-J Day was a signature day in his life. Religious and disciplined, he was a dutiful father and husband. He believed in kindness and good will toward everyone no matter the person’s politics or failings. He was a Stevenson democrat and championed the politics of the laborer. Tolerance and Christian love were his main attributes despite his disdain for the “Krauts” and the “Japs.” After the war, he used the G.I. Bill to enroll in city college classes to become an accountant. But, soon after he began his studies, he met my mother, married her in that after-war speed that so many sailors and soldiers found a spouse, and became a father who had to support a family. He had been working part-time at the docks and quit school to load cargo vessels and earn a weekly paycheck. Jeannie, my sister, was born four years after me, and she was the sweetest kid sister that a brother could have.
We were a family of the 1950s. America would soon explode in cultural change, but the early sixties still held the values of the fifties. My father’s ancestry was Northern Ireland. He attended Sunday service at Saint Michael’s, an Episcopal church on the other side of our city. My mother was Lithuanian and a devout Roman Catholic. My mother, my sister, and I attended mass every Sunday at Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic church on a street contiguous to the street where we lived. My father favored Catholic school education because he was able to afford it and because he believed in its discipline. He said that the public school had “juvenile delinquents.” On most Saturday nights they went to dinner with Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and indulged their weakness: they drank rye until they were drunk. They slept in the different rooms, and sex was a taboo topic never discussed in our home. My father’s parents, our Grandpa Will and Grandma Jane, lived on the other side of our state. They came to our house for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. My mother’s mother died in Lithuania when my mother was nine years old. She never knew her father and never wanted to talk about him. My father and mother rendered a grace blessing before our supper meal, but religion was, for the most part, a private affair in our home. My sister and I did not discuss their singular weakness, the drinking, because it was the way it was, it seemed, with most of the adults whom we knew. Most of our friends’ fathers had served in WWII, and they too were heavy drinkers. Most of the mothers were young brides, and the end of the war became celebration ushered in by booze. When adults dropped glasses or staggered into a wall, their children pretended that it was normal. Jeannie and I never talked about the drinking other than to say, on rare occasion, “they’re drunk—it’s Saturday night.” My father was stopped by the police a few times for driving drunk, but Sergio’s father was the Chief of Police and the cops knew my father. The police followed him home to make sure that he drove home safely.
We won our first two games of that senior year season, but, in the fourth quarter of the second game, I met the two dreaded words for a running back: hamstring injury. The hamstring in my left leg was ripped and I was done and gone for the season. I would ride the bench for the remainder of the season despite repeated, failed attempts at a comeback—and, when you ride the paint, you are forgotten fast. Coach Lazzaro told our team that we had “lost our Mantle, but we still got Skowron, Berra, Maris, Kubek, and the rest of the champions—we win another title without our Mick.” I felt close him when he compared me to Mantle, but I soon became just another injured player.
At first I was woe-is-me withdrawn, but I had to accept my body’s failure. I thought that I eventually would heal. In the interim I could concentrate on seeing her. I relished the extra time that I had to study and to be available to see her whenever she could meet with me. I was wise enough to know my feelings for her were a puppy love infatuation but also dumb enough not to realize that I was falling in love with a woman. That she was a nun, a moat that I could not cross, allowed me to fantasize about her. A boy cannot kiss a nun and touch her skin. Such a thought was unimaginable—at least it was in the beginning.
I wrote the poem for her. I wanted her to see me as a person with a brain and not a boy who had the lights on him because he could feint like Bobby Mitchell and run through tacklers like Jim Brown. I wrote like crazy, a dazed soul that had to find a way to get the words right. She admired writers, especially poets who were, she said, “truth tellers.” The other nuns liked to tell stories about the Saints—Sister Mary Immaculata read passages to us from poems that she “adored.”
When I was sixteen, I had faith
in pain. After practice or a game,
I limped into the training room
where the coach cut the tape on my ankles
and ripped it from my skin. My calves
were as smooth as a girl’s.
He sent me to the whirlpool
where I bathed until everyone left.
I showered, dressed, and walked to my car,
slowly, feeling sore spots, breathing
the cold of the autumn night.
When I broke my thumb in a game I lost,
I drove home from the hospital on a night
without a date, the sky starless, the thought
of becoming a priest slipping away
like a ball brushing the tips of your fingers.
The best was the day I broke my nose
against Mission High, a 6-0 loss
in November sleet, the muddy field freezing up
before the game’s end. I hurt all over.
I sat in the ER for two hours, waiting
to be taken. No one was there.
Eventually a doctor appeared, patched me up,
and told me to go home. I drove
past Bayview Package and the shipyard
to a house where my parents slept in their rooms
and the coffee burned in the dark.
I didn’t turn the lights on.
I didn’t call the girl I’d been dreaming of for weeks.
My head ached. I didn’t take the pills
and I wouldn’t take a drink.
I went out to the back porch
and sat in the cold for an hour and a half,
the greatest night of my life.
I became obsessed with the poem, each new draft of it telling me something that I could not hear: It is fleeting
Two weeks after I finished the poem, I left it, unsigned, on her classroom desk late one afternoon when she was not in the room. She and I had been seeing each other routinely for our talks, “literary discussions” that, she said, she very much enjoyed. I knew that some students were talking about her and me. I had always been an excellent student. I was not someone who needed extra help. And I also knew that she was under fire for the new book that she was teaching to her English classes: Native Son. She had bought the books with her own money. The books were “on loan” to us, and we had to return them when we were finished studying the novel.
And then it happened. We were walking slowly on the Rosary Walk. I was limping on my crutches, a late October, Wordsworth-like afternoon, she telling me that several of the Sisters were talking about her seeing “too much of the Thompson boy” and teaching “that book.” Laughing about the Sisters’ gossip as if it were a silliness. Telling me that this was her work, inspiring students who loved language and literature and ideas—and I, baffled, thinking only that I was with her, that she liked me, that she was my new friend. I told her that I had heard rumors. I said that I had written something for her. I tore out a hand written page from my loose-leaf notebook and gave it to her:
A rumor is like the weather of a day that will not define itself. Rain clouds drag themselves across the sky, their black rags tailing the brute-nosed, big-bellied clouds that come in a promise of sudden storm. And then the sun bleeds its way through the clouds, the scattering birds quieting and disappearing. Light rain falls, and the sky clears. Windows open. The sun dismisses the storm that seemed so imminent. But, in the distance, the voice of the storm may be catching its breath. You listen. You wait. You don’t know what’s going to happen.
She read it, smiled at me, folded the paper and tucked it into her habit. And then she touched me. She took my hand into her hands. I felt as if my body was about to crack apart. I put my right hand on top of her hand. I thought that she would pull away, but she didn’t. It was as if I were in a movie. I was the one who looked around us to see if there were any other Sisters who could see us. We were alone. She did not let go of my hand. She said, “I knew that you wrote the poem I found on my desk. It is a beautiful poem, John, such lovely diction—such talent for someone your age. I will treasure it, and I have to tell you that the poem has inspired me to write more because I think you are a better writer than I am!” She laughed loudly. “Boys your age do not write a rumor metaphor like this one,” she said.
When she did let go of my hand and dropped her arms to the side of her body, she stepped back from me. I looked around again. The birds were our only audience. She said. “I knew you wrote the poem—I knew it.” We continued walking until we came to the bench beneath the statue of The Blessed Virgin. We sat down. She talked about the poem and asked me questions about the ending line. She asked me questions about my family, what college I wanted to attend, and how I was faring in my courses. I gave her perfunctory answers. I wanted to ask her questions about her family, where she came from, and how she decided to become a nun, but, just as I was about to ask her what her real name was, Sister Mary Theresa and Sister Vincent appeared in the distance. They were sauntering toward us in the “penguin waddle.” Sister said, “We need to end now, John. Storm clouds are approaching us.” She laughed and I laughed with her. She squeezed my hand. I stood up and into my crutches. I lumbered away in a hobble that was becoming easier for me to manage. As I entered the parking lot, I turned around saw Vincent and Theresa talking to her, Vincent’s right hand moving up and down, her index finger pointed at my nun.
Limelight: a stage lighting instrumentation that produces illumination by means of an oxyhydrogen flame directed on a cylinder of lime with a lens that concentrates light in a beam. It’s a spotlight. For me, limelight meant the stadium lights glistening on the chalked lime that outlined the boundaries and measured fame in yards and touchdowns. I now know that adult limelight is a very different light. It shines on the past, dimmed by regret or dulled by remorse. I wanted her to shine the light on me because I was becoming not being. At a young age, I had no idea of the light’s intensity beginning to wane. Dr. Johnson, our family’s G.P. who had assisted my mother in my birth and Jeannie’s birth told that me I had to “forget about this year and think about playing in college” I saw my new nun as a new stage, and I wanted to be her star student. My imagination was sparkling with fantasies as to how our relationship might play out, but sex really had not entered my thoughts. She was a nun. The idea of corporeal love was a taboo, an out of bounds sideline that prohibited even the thought of those fleshy pleasures that my friends and I enjoyed as we looked at the pin-up girls in the glossy magazines that we passed around in the woods after practice, drinking our beer, relishing our jokes about Miss June in Playboy or about who was the sexiest girl in our school. We talked in the filthy words of teenage boys who wanted to talk the way that men talked, a rite of passage language that was normal—stupid joke-talk about masturbation and petting girl friends’ breasts, sins that were absolved in the confessional box in the cross of a priest’s hand like rain washing the dirt off of a sidewalk.
Father Doonan was a man who wanted to be more than he was. His office was filled with photographs: pictures of him with students, priests, nuns, local politicians, and, of course, a picture of The Bleeding Heart of Jesus Christ, Our Redeemer. He asked me to come to his office because he had “something very important to discuss” with me. He sat at his desk and adjusted his clerical collar. He liked to use his size to intimidate students, his deep voice and ponderous frame hovering above those facing his inquisition. I had grown beyond being intimidated by his techniques, and I think he recognized that fact. I hardened my jaw and stared at him. I, too, could project a presence.
“Good morning, Father,” I said.
He scowled. He picked up a pen and some papers, and then he ignored me for a few seconds. When he looked up at me in this man-to-man sort of way, he said, “You’re a good boy, John. You’ve kept your nose clean. You’ve made St. Mary’s proud, and I know how difficult it must be for you not to be playing the sport that you love. And I notice that you always receive communion in the Friday mass.”
“Thank you, Father,” I said. I let my jaw go loose.
“I am hearing stories about you and Sister Mary Immaculata. So I”—
“Sister Mary Immaculata?”
“Don’t interrupt me, son. Yes—Sister Mary Immaculata. I know that Sister Mary Immaculata is a dedicated teacher, and, more important, I know that she is a very holy person whose vows mean everything to her. We are fortunate to have such a dedicated teacher at Saint Mary’s. Nonetheless, Sister Vincent asked me to talk to you because some of the Sisters are saying that she is too close to you. Now I must tell you that I have talked with Sister Mary Immaculata at length about this issue. She told me that she spends extra time with you because you are an intelligent young whom, according to Sister, has a fine talent for writing. That’s all well and good, young man, but you must know that you will no longer be seeing Sister outside the confines of her classroom. If you want to discuss books with her and poems with her, those discussions will be in her classroom—period. Sister agrees that her classroom is the appropriate place for such discussion. No more Rosary Garden discussions, Mr. Thompson—do you understand?
“Yes, Father, I said.
“Good—that’s good,” he replied. “So we understand each other. I told Sister Mary Immaculata that I would meet with you and explain this rule to you. She’s a young, eager teacher who loves her work. As I said, we are lucking to have her at Saint Mary’s. And I understand that you may very well be finding it difficult not to be on the practice field in the afternoons these days. If your leg doesn’t get any better, you might think about getting a part-time job if you need to fill your time. What colleges will you apply to?”
I told him that the college stuff was on hold. I said that I had be in constant contact with four college coaches but that they and I were still waiting on the healing of my leg.
“Yes, I understand how that goes,” he said. Please, if you need any help, come and see me and I will do for you what I can. There’s more to life than football, especially for a bright young man like you. Realized that you have been humbled, and humility is a virtue. It’s God’s way of presenting the frailty of the temporal in comparison to the eternity of heaven.”
He stood up and I stood up. He shook my hand and said, “We’re done—we’re clear, son.”
I nodded, turned around began to exit his office, when he said, “You don’t come to confession with me anymore. That’s your choice of course, but may I ask why?”
He had no business asking me where I went to confession. Despite his professional demeanor in our talk, I was certain that he did not like me. He was pushing me because he enjoyed pushing me. His question was a counterpoint to our polite chit-chat. He couldn’t let it go at that—he wanted to break me down.
I turned around and faced him again. “No, I don’t. I go to Father Pawel at Saint Casimir’s.”
He smiled at me. “Ah, yes, the Polish church. I know Father Pawel— he doesn’t speak English, does he? A convenient absolution,” he snapped out, his smile now a look of disgust.
I did an about-face and left him with the feeling that I had one-upped him. I had no idea of who he really was.
She made me feel important, and the thought of her each day made me happy. I did not care that the gossip was flooding us. She became increasingly defiant. She told me that had become a “pariah.” We saw each other every chance that we had. My friends made playful jokes about my “new girlfriend.” They asked me why I wasn’t dating anyone and wasn’t going to the school dances. But they didn’t push too hard--they had my back because they thought that my injury had changed me. And they knew that, if they had season ending injuries, they, too, would change. Mackey became the team’s de facto captain, and I did not even go to the last two games of the year because it became too hard to watch the games from the sidelines. The team finished with six wins and three losses, a good year but certainly not the championship season that our city had expected. My friends knew that I was studying like a madman because I needed strong grades for college. The college coaches who initially expressed interest in me disappeared.
When Sister Mary Immaculata and I met at Sacred Heart, the French church in the east side of the city, I touched her first. She was the one who created our secret rendezvous. We were in her classroom, defying the prohibition not to see each other outside of class, a torrential rain battering the window panes. That was day that she told me how “dreadful” her life was at Saint Mary’s. Blackballed by several of the other Sisters, a coterie of gossipmongers now led by Sister Mary Etheldreda, she said that she would continue to see me despite the many “protestations and warnings.” The other students, especially the girls, now rarely met with her in the afternoons. I knew that some parents had entered the gossip, but no one had talked with my parents. I figured that it was just a matter of time before I was called on the carpet by my mother and father.
Her meetings with me blocked out the rest of the school. She closed the door against all that she had been told. “Let them take my habit,” she told me in a rebellious laughter that I embraced with her. That she might be fantasizing about me seemed incomprehensible to me. I thought that she just needed an ally because her life at Saint Mary’s was not what she expected it would be. She was taking pride in her “best student,” who, she repeatedly told me, would become “a writer.” The plan for us to meet outside school shocked me, but I pretended that yes, of course, meeting alone is what is next for us— what lovers do. And this casual acceptance of her proposal now seems to be too easy of a figure of thought in my mind. Did I suggest that we meet outside of school? Memory makes up what it wants to make up, memory often a container of more fiction than fact. And hindsight is often shaded by fiction. The truth is that I made it happen as much as she made it happen because I help her concoct her lie to escape the convent for “our date.”
She told Sister Vincent that she needed to go to the Sacred Heart church because she felt that she could no longer confess with Father Doonan. She wanted to attend Saturday evening confession before the five o’clock mass. Sister Vincent denied this request. Sister Mary Immaculata became adamant and pressed the issue. She told cranky Vincent that she needed to see Father Martineau about “family business.” Her mother was “ill.” She needed Father Martineau’s counsel and prayer. Reluctantly, Sister Vincent approved, but she emphatically told Sister Mary Immaculata to return to school immediately after the conclusion of mass and to return the keys to the convent’s station wagon to her no later than six-fifteen. Vincent gave in because, when push came to shove, the Sisters stuck together, holy women whose subjugation to the priests was a long standing tug of war that was on the threshold of change. They stuck together because they were women, and these women would soon leave the sisterhood in flocks that flew into the lay world where their vows would continue in a new shape and form. “Therein lies the rub” was the choice to either obey their ancient order of place or kill off that slavish order in search of the promises of a feminist movement that would allow these women to do the good with freedom and dignity. Vincent had to honor her request because she had no real reason to distrust her.
She parked in the far corner of the church parking lot next to my car. I slid into the passenger’s seat of the station wagon, my body trembling on the bench seat. I pulled my gloves from my hands and we both laughed nervously. I asked her if she was cold, told her that she could run the engine to keep the station wagon warm—my words laced with a silly laughter. Then I said, “I can’t believe that you did this.”
She laughed and turned on the motor to warm the car. “We did this,” she said. And then she laughed again, this time more self-assured. “What’s a Sister to do,” she asked, “on a boring Saturday night?”
I took off my watch cap and said, “I really like your class. Everybody does. I never had a teacher like you, you know. You’ve make me think about things.” I leaned close to her. “I really like you.”
She giggled again. “You’re grinning like the Cheshire Cat and who am I supposed to be—Alice? “You are a dear one. I do care about my teaching. Thank you for saying what you said.”
And then, just like that, she leaned toward me and kissed me on the cheek. It was almost six decades ago, and it still feels as if it just happened. It happened—you can’t make up a story like this one. The new nun and I were kissing, crossing a line into all that was unholy. But I didn’t feel unholy. I just kept kissing her in an unimaginable thrill that was a reality that really was not reality—more at being a scene in a movie. Her hands rubbed my chest, and then she placed her right hand on my left thigh. I couldn’t conceive of touching her. I began to kiss her slowly, my tongue on her tongue, kissing her in the way that I imagined a sophisticated man kissed a woman—passionately but soft and tender in the way that I thought a woman should be kissed. And we kept kissing and touching each other’s face and hands for about half an hour, the car’s heater causing sweat to bead on our faces. Finally, she said, “I have to leave. Time enough for me to have gone to confession. It’s time for me to go, John.”
I wanted to tell her that I loved her but knew how stupid those words would sound. I didn’t want to ruin what had just happened—the new “greatest night of my life.” I said goodbye to her, opened the door, and got out of the station wagon and into the cold night air. As I began to shut the station wagon door, she said, “I really do have to leave, John—you’re such a dear.”
I watched her drive out of the church parking lot and stood for a couple of minutes breathing in the cold air. Her word “dear” ran through my body and kept telling me that she was in love with me or at least beginning to fall in love with me. I had no idea that “I really do have to leave, John” meant that she was going to leave the Sisterhood.
Two days after Christmas Mackey called me and asked me if I wanted to make some extra money. His father needed some extra help for a few hours and would pay five dollars an hour. Mr. Mackey was a funeral director. Mackey told me that his father did not like to be called an embalmer, a mortician, or an undertaker. Mackey told me not to make any moron jokes about anything to do with death. “You’ve got to treat the home as a sacred place,” he said. “My father’s dead fucking serious about all this stuff being sacred.” It was easy money for me, just helping Mackey move caskets and chairs and washing and waxing the hearse, flower car, and limousines.
Standing in the back room of Mackey’s Funeral Home with Mackey and waiting to get our work assignments, I was thinking about her and wondering when we would see each other again. After our Thanksgiving recess until Christmas vacation, Sister never mentioned our station wagon interlude. She called on me in class more than usual, but, when I wanted to meet with her after school, she said that we could not meet because “we have to be careful.” Mackey and I washed and waxed the two five passenger limousines, the seven passenger limousine, the hearse, the flower car, and the “pick up” van. We vacuumed the three upstairs wake rooms and stacked the card table chairs in the attic. We steam cleaned stained areas on the carpets and vacuumed them again. We moved some of the caskets from the casket and vault showroom into the funeral home’s attic and moved new caskets into the show room. As we picked up the cigarette butts and litter in the parking lot, on the lawns, and in the shrubbery, Mackey blurted out, “Hey, old captain, what’s going on with you and Immaculata?” I said that she was just helping me with my writing and that he shouldn’t pay any attention to the talk. “Yeah, I know—goddamn girl gossip. You know, Jo wants you to call her. She’s not with anyone and you know how they are—she’s already looking for a prom date.” I changed the subject to our college football plans. When the grounds were clean, we assembled in the funeral home’s “back room.”
Mackey had told me stories of the infamous “back room.” It was an enormous room. A dozen Cromwellian chairs lined the walls. The chairs’ leather cracked and the armrests freshly polished, the chairs stood like sentinels on the gleaming hardwood floor. Beside each hair was a three-foot silver standing ash tray. Cigars and cigarettes filled the auburn-colored ash trays. An ice box stood in front of the men’s room in the right corner of the room. Beside the ice box was a baker’s table which presented four silver trays of glasses, an ice bucket with silver tongs, and several bottles of whiskey. Two priests were moving about in the room as we entered. Mr. Mackey was writing on a large blackboard. He greeted us and introduced the priests.
“Boys, I would like you to say hello to Monsignor Crowley and Father Cormier. The priests said hello. They held glasses of whiskey in their hands. Mackey and I sat down and the priests did too. Looking at the two priests, I felt as if we were getting ready for Mass. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Monsignor Crowley. Everyone in the city knew him. He was said to be worth a million dollars, money that he had inherited and money that he had earned from his book God’s Presence in our Daily Lives and the many religious pamphlets that he had written. But today he did not look like a legendary priest. He was sauced. Slumped down in his chair, he looked as if he were about to slip from the chair to the floor. And I had never seen him without his collar—he wore a white, button-down dress shirt, a navy cardigan and grey slacks. Father Cormier, who was introduced as the “new curate at Saint Patrick’s Church,” was dressed in his cassock and collar. “Rob,” Mr. Mackey said to his son, “You boys sit down. The Monsignor wants to talk to you.
We sat down. “So, lads,” Crowley said, “What’s all this I hear about that Sister at the school?”
Mr. Mackey said, “Monsignor, let me refresh your drink.”
“The nun.” Monsignor Crowley straightened his body in the chair. “I want to know what is being said about her. Sister Immaculata. That’s who it is—yes?”
“Sister Mary Immaculata,” I said.
The monsignor nodded. “Yes. Thank you, lad. Tell me what you know.”
“We don’t know anything really,” Mackey said. “Just a lot of rumors.”
Father Cormier pulled a pack of Chesterfields from his cassock and lit a cigarette. All the shades in the room were drawn. The overhead lights were off. The low lighting from two lamps that were in the corners of the room created a lounge-like atmosphere. “Thompson,” the monsignor said, looking directly at me, “I know your father and your mother—good people—you look like your father. Please tell me what you know because, as I am sure you know, your name is mentioned with her name.”
I nodded to him. “Sister Mary Immaculata is a very holy person,” I said, bowing my head to feign humility to the revered priest. “She is an excellent teacher and I have learned more in her class than I have in my other courses. I know that the other Sisters aren’t too fond of some of her lessons--”
“The Wright book,” he snapped out, cutting me off in mid-sentence. “What about you? Father Doonan has his, how shall I say, suspicions.”
I looked him at him eye to eye. I wasn’t going to let the big-time priest push me to where I did not want to go. I felt confident that I could dodge whatever he came at me with.
“My opinion is that some of the girls might be jealous that she spends so much time with me, but she is just teaching me—that’s all. That’s it—nothing more. You know, Father, I mean Monsignor, people have gossiped about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and Theilhard de Chardin—the Church sure did have a lot to say about him. Sister Mary Immaculata and me? It’s idle talk—just that and nothing more.”
“Humph,” the monsignor grumbled. He stared at me for what seemed like a long time, and then he nodded his head up and down. He looked away from me and said to Mr. Mackey, “Sir, if you please, I will have one more.” He looked at me again. “You’re a smart lad, maybe too smart.” He laughed and the tension in the room was broken with chuckle from Mackey’s father.
I was nervous, but I wouldn’t let him see it. I had read books. I knew the history of Roman Catholicism, and wanted to keep my secret. Crowley stared at me, an engaged stare, almost as if he were in the middle of a good book and couldn’t wait for the next page to be turned. He started tapping his right shoe on the floor.
“Well, I guess we’re done. Time for us to leave,” I said.
“I’m not finished,” Crowley said in an imperious tone.
“Your refresh touch, monsignor,” Mr. Mackey said as he gave the priest his whiskey. Crowley sipped his drink. “You go on, Father Cormier. You’ve got to get ready to hear confession. This tavern always provides a driver for me.”
Father Cormier stood up, said his goodbyes, and left. Crowley paused, took another sip of his whiskey and said to me, “Father Doonan tells a different story, but to hell with it—no more inquisition. Keep your nose clean, Johnny lad, and make sure to tell your mother that I said hello to her.”
Mackey walked me out of the back room and on to the back porch. We said goodbye and, as I began walking down the steps toward the parking lot, I felt a hand grab my shoulder. I turned around and the monsignor’s face was inches from my face. His whiskey breath filled my nostrils.
“Look, lad, I know things. I know that you know more, and I figure that you’re going to tell me today what you know, but I don’t want you bullshitting me. If I have to, I will go through your parents to get the truth. Stay away from that nun--get it?”
I felt a surge of anger. “Father, I told you what I know. Get it?” I stared at him as if I were talking to a friend because he was talking in the language of a thug. I was no longer giving deference to the sloshed priest who was not wearing his collar. “Go ahead and talk with my parents. What, you think you can push me around, Father? You’re the priest. You want information, you talk to Sister Vincent or Father Doonan.”
I pulled away from Crowley’s grip and shuffled down the porch stairs and into the parking lot. The Monsignor stared at me. I wanted to give him the middle finger, but I just laughed and mumbled “bullshit.”
“What did you say, lad?”
I didn’t turn around to answer him. I walked to the far end of the parking where I had parked my car. That was the day that defiance took charge of my mind, a defiance that allowed me to abandon common sense and would, ultimately, lead Sister and me toward a night that would change our lives.
My mother thought that Monsignor Crowley was an important man. She placed clerics in a hierarchy, and she believed that the Pope was as the right hand of God. The Holy See defined Catholicism for the world, and my mother could not question anything that came forward from the Holy See—it was the gospel truth. Monsignor Crowley, she told me, had been a seminary classmate of Cardinal Cushing, and the monsignor was also a very close friend of Cardinal Spellman. She said that Father Crowley could have been a bishop, an archbishop by now, and maybe even a cardinal if he wanted to be one. He had turned down the opportunity to become a bishop because he didn’t want “to move to another diocese.” Father Crowley, she said, wrote important religious tracts and pamphlets that the Pope admired. What she didn’t say was that Crowley was a legendary drinker, a man known for his binge drinking and drunk driving episodes. Mackey had told me one story of how the monsignor had to use his political pull to bail him out of trouble. Crowley had called up a few of his cronies for a whiskey night at the Saint Edward’s rectory in a neighboring town. Returning home in the wee hours of the morning, Crowley drove his car through a white picket fence and right into the front porch of a house. The police came. Crowley was passed out behind the wheel, but he wasn’t injured. In the hush-up style that was accorded to important people, the police drove Crowley to his rectory. Two days later, Father McPheeters, one of Crowley’s curates at the time, received a telephone call from an unidentified man who said, “The Chief likes to read the Herald. He reads it every morning at Bernie’s Coffee and Doughnuts on Main Street. Leave the Herald in the telephone booth at the rear of Bernie’s. The Chief likes to read the sports page. Put three one hundred dollar bills in the sports section and the monsignor’s trouble will disappear.” Father McPheeters told Crowley who delivered the cash to Father McPheeters on the spot and told him to call Mr. Mackey. Mackey’s sent one of his men on the delivery errand. Poof—the incident, like other drunken episodes, vanished. Mr. Mackey had told his son the story, proud of his ability to wheel and deal on the monsignor’s behalf. He made his son promise never to “tell another soul.” Mackey promised, but he told me, and he promised me not to “tell another soul.”
After the funeral home encounter, I asked my mother about Crowley because he was now my new opposition, in league with Doonan and a threat to Sister and me. A devout believer, my mother was not about to say anything that would criticize a priest. My father liked to point out hypocrisy whenever he saw it. By nature, he was critical of people who made more money than he did. But he, too, would go only so far in his criticism of Crowley and the legendary stories of Crowley’s drinking because my father also had his drinking incidents—a sinner ought not to cast stones on a fellow sinner.
Crowley haunted my mind. He was a person who dropped things and expected others to pick up the pieces. I felt certain that he and Doonan could not know about Sister and me in the station wagon because I felt sure that no one had seen us. But even the slightest doubt can grow into an irrational fear that changes how one sees the quotidian events that he or she encounters. I kept thinking we are going to be caught. I knew that what Sister and I were doing was wrong, but it did not feel wrong. I was not on the straight and narrow path, but I was also not on the crooked road—I was in the complicated world of angles. Men like Churchill and Roosevelt and Eisenhower had lived in the sophisticated world of angles, and they had won the war. History was full of men who had accomplished good but who were not angels and saints, men who did what they had to do even though their decisions and actions were often the ends justifying the means—and this was my thinking because I had to find a way to live with the sin that I would not give up.
She and I continued to see each other in her classroom after school through January and February. Despite the counseling and admonishment that she had received from Doonan, Vincent, and the other Sisters, she held her position: she was teaching a talented student who wanted to be a writer. The truth is that I did not have that desire—I just wanted a reason to be near her. If she had succumbed to their protestations, it would have ended. I believed that her defiance was her passion for me, but her perseverance to do what she wanted to do came from a longing for something else, a longing that took me years to understand. I thought that I was her preoccupation of those days between our first encounter outside of school and the night it all came to its sad ending. That it seemed as if everyone was talking about us didn’t matter to me. The truth is, of course, I really had nothing to lose and the love of a nun to gain. I knew the storm cloud was building to the point of deluge, and I relished in the excitement of what would come next. So, when Crowley came to my home to talk with my parents, I was not surprised.
He came on a Sunday afternoon. I was in my room trying to finish an essay on the Civil War. It was due the next day, and I had left it until the last minute. I opened my bedroom door and heard Crowley talking with my mother and father. He said that Father Doonan had asked him to come to them about a “sensitive matter.” Jeannie was napping in her room. My father walked toward our second floor staircase and saw me in the hallway. He waved toward me to come down.
I walked into the living room where he was standing with my mother and father. I shook his hand and but said nothing. He smiled and looked at me as if I were his long lost friend. “God afternoon, lad. Coach Lazzaro tells me he’s working hard on your behalf and, as you and your mom and dad know, your grades are top notch, especially the ninety-seven percent in English. A+ grades are very rare. That’s actually why I am here, mom and dad. We have a situation that we need to discuss.”
I slipped into my Brando demeanor and sat down in the wing-back opposite the sofa where Crowley seated himself. My parents sat to my right on the love-seat. I glanced at them, both of them expressionless, my mother’s eyes darting back and forth between Crowley and me. Crowley did his best to create a cordial discussion tone. He looked at me and smiled cordially, and I did my best to slip into my Brando demeanor—the reserve of a man whom you do not want to affront.
“Well, let me get to the point. I will be brief because I am here at the request of Father Doonan, here to deliver a simple message that supports your son and protects you, John. As you probably know, mom and dad, Sister Mary Immaculata, John’s English teacher, is a first year Sister and teacher at the school. What I think that you don’t know, mom and dad, is that students, parents, and the Sisters are abuzz with talk about John and Sister Mary Immaculata because they are seeing too much of each other.” The hum of that gossip seemed to start ringing in my mother’s ears. Her jaw dropped, her mouth wide open in a dazed gaze, and then she frenetically began to twitch. Your son has done nothing wrong. “Beatrice, dear,” Crowley said to my mother, “you need not fret. The responsibility rests solely with the school authorities, and Sister Vincent is going to put an end to it. Your son has done nothing wrong—nothing. Sister Mary Immaculata has been told that, under no circumstances, is she to be with John alone. No more extra help sessions for him. Father Doonan is going to meet with John tomorrow, and I am here today to let you let you and Bill know what’s going on. Look, I have told Father Doonan that he has dropped the ball on this one. You folks should have been kept in the loop. Sister Vincent has been remiss in allowing that new nun to have her way in all sorts of things that she is doing. She is teaching outside the curriculum and…well, she should have been firmly counseled. John, I want you and your mom and dad to know that you have absolutely no responsibility in this issue. And Father Doonan will make all this clear to you, as I said, when he talks with you tomorrow.”
My mother looked at me, a facial expression that was akin to hysterical bewilderment. My father said, “We’ll talk with John, Father. And thanking you for pointing out that my seventeen-year-old son cannot be responsible, but, and I have to ask, responsible for what?”
“Nothing, nothing,” Crowley exhaled. “Look, your son is not at fault for wanting what seems to many of us undue attention paid to John by this young nun who should have been given, in my opinion at least, more discipline by Sister Vincent. She is, ultimately, responsible.”
“Responsible for what?” my father asked again.
Crowley fluttered his fingers in front of his face. “Look, I cannot point my finger at anything specific. The best way for me to put it is that Sister Mary Immaculata’s behavior appears to be unseemly behavior—she is not purporting herself in the manner befitting a Sister of Saint Joesph.
And I, in a sigh of relief, thinking: they don’t know, she didn’t tell them, no one saw us, we got away with it—and, young and arrogant, thinking that we could continue, we won’t get caught, we will be very careful, we won’t be caught, the new rules are just a road block to circumvent because she loves me and will never betray her love for me.
When Crowley left the house in a barrage of thank-yous from my parents, my father told me to go to my room. He wanted to talk with my mother who was beside herself and firing questions at me. I went to my room, worked on my essay for a half an hour or so, and then he came into my room. He told me not to worry, that Crowley was a “poser,” and that the school needed to rein in the young nun and “clear up its act.” He knew that I had done nothing wrong and that, if had any “feelings for her,” I needed to give them up—and give them up right now. I lied, said nothing improper had occurred between us and that some of the Sisters were “old hens who had created a stir in the hen house.” He laughed and then got all serious on me. “Son, we probably should have had a talk a long time ago. I don’t care much for this stuff, and I am going to be blunt. Just remember that a stiff penis has no conscience.” Ill at ease, he babbled on about girls and love and that my mother and he had been wondering why there was no girlfriend in the picture. He said he knew how hard it had been for me this year, sidelined and abandoned by those “hot-to-trot coaches” who had promised me “the sun and the moon.” I told him that I was going to call Jo Tinsley for a date, that I had been “super concentrating” on my studies because I wanted to get into a good college and one that I could play at next year. He gave me a hug and said, It’s all good, son.”
And it was sort of all good because he always seemed to understand everything—a rock solid man who never seemed to blink at the difficult and adverse moments that life presented. When he left my room, my feelings reversed into a hole of regret and remorse. I felt closer to him than I ever had, and I promised myself that I could not disappoint him. But I also felt that I could not give her up. I had no idea that my father would be dead in three weeks.
Sister Vincent walked into the middle of my second period French class and spoke to Sister Mary Joachim. Then Vincent asked me to come with her. Walking toward her office, I asked her why she wanted to talk with me. I hadn’t seen Sister Mary Immaculata alone since Crowley had come to my house and since Doonan had told me bluntly that I was not allowed to see her after school, but we had passed each other notes in a clandestine manner that was right out of a Sherlock Holmes story. When I entered Vincent’s office, she asked me to sit down. Doonan was seated to her left, and I felt, simultaneously, intimidated and defiant.
“There has been an accident,” she said and looked toward Doonan to carry the ball.
“Your father, John, at work, this morning.”
He paused and slowly shook his head from side to side. I saw that his eyes were welling up.
“What? What…happened?” I asked.
“Oh, Sister and I are so, so sorry to tell you… he is… he has passed away, John.”
I bolted out of my chair, opened the office door, ran down the stairs that led to the main entrance to the school. I didn’t say a word. Behind me I could hear him and her shouting at me to stop, but their words were only sounds. I ran to my car and drove toward Pier 19 where my father worked most days. I ran two red lights.
What happened next is more at being a blur than a memory. Men were trying to stop me, but I ran past them, my gimpy leg in a new pain as I cut left and right and pushed one man to the concrete. A policeman failed grab me as I came onto the dock, and then I was standing over his body, two other cops grabbing me in a bear hug, lifting my legs from the dock as flailed at them and shouted at them to let me go. When they settled me, one of them said “You don’t want to see this kid.” I shouted at them that I was going to see my father and that they were not going to stop me. And then, as if in a dream and still in the grip of the cops, I was standing six feet from my father. He was buried under steel girders. A crew of men were chaining the girders to a Pacheco Crane. I watched as the girders were slowing lifted and moved into a new pile at the far left edge of the dock’s apron. Mr. Oschedusko, Teddy’s father, who also worked on the docks, became my companion as I settled in the grief that silenced me. My leg ached. My head pulsated and what I most remember is that my ears were thumping in a dull cadence.
After an hour or so, as the pile of girders was slowing being diminished, Teddy’s father’s said, “You need to speak, Johnny. Have you heard anything that I’ve said to you?”
“Mr. Oshendusko, I…I…how, how did this… what happened?
“Call me Buddy—everyone does, Johnny, it’s okay. You need to know what happened so you can tell you mother, Johnny, so you can tell your mother. You hear this now, right? You are calm now, right? You’re a tough kid, right? So this Pacheco has a mother lode of steel girders it is moving toward the ship that your father is loading with our crew. Your father walks under the crane—how and why the fuck I don’t know—and the fucking crane snaps and the girders bury him. Jesus, it was like a fucking bomb. We scattered off the dock in every which way. We thought the dock would collapse.” He started to cry. “It happened just as we were starting the day. I am so sorry for you and your family… Jesus, it was….”
He held me and I held him. The broken crane was dangling above us. And then, finally, what seemed to be forever, the last of the steel girders were removed, and I saw him—it—there was no body. He was nothing but a red stain on the dock, the bits and pieces of what was once my father. I could see specks of the flannel shirt he wore, a red plaid dot here and there. And what looked like the silver bits of his belt buckle. And yellow flecks from his plastic helmet. He was a bug that had been flattened by a shoe heel. Even his bones were pancaked. Nobody. Nothing. I cried and swore and I wanted to hit everyone standing around me. “My old man’s a crushed ant,” I screamed. “Jesus fucking Christ—there’s no body to bury.”
“Get yourself together, Johnny. You were the captain, right? You get yourself squared away and go home and tell your mother. This is just…just fucking terrible.”
I stood with my mother, Jeannie and my grandparents in the receiving line at the wake. My mother had a folding chair behind her because she could not stand for very long. She stood for as long as she could and then sat down, grief collapsing her body, a grief that I would not fully understand until many years later. I watched my school friends and teammates huddled in front of the kneeler, two at a time kneeling in front of the closed casket to say their silent prayers. My teammates looked like young footmen ready to attend to their lords and ladies. The Sisters came late and joined the long line of people who were waiting to offer condolences. The line had stopped moving when the senior members of the team reassembled in front of the casket in a makeshift huddle to pray, the senior boys together for a last play, once again in front of their crowd, this time dressed in dark suits instead of their cardinal red shirts with the gold numerals. It was a dramatic moment, but I was watching the end of the greeting line where the Sisters stood silently in an austere countenance that represented their mission in life. This was moment was at the center of their vocation—death and prayer, grievance and God’s love. Collectively, they were the symbol that the soul had now left the body and risen to paradise once lost but now regained. Unlike the other mourners standing in line, they, like the several priests in attendance, represented not only sympathy but also the joy of the risen. Standing in their habits, the priests in their cassocks, they were the soldiers in Christ’s army, the temporal symbols of life’s meaning: Heaven. But this thought held me for only an extended moment of reflection. Her eyes were downcast. She was not looking at me. She was the black sheep in a group of women dressed in black, on the precipice of being exiled from the Sisterhood, sent to my own private Elba. Vincent, Doonan, and Crowley had locked her out of my life. I looked her, thinking I am deviant and wanton in my thoughts of pleasure, knowing that my desire was greater than my father’s pieces of body—a desire that was wrong but, nonetheless, present, she being evil Eve in throes of our temptation. Deliver us from evil. Deliver me—deliver me now to her arms. Crazy, deviant thoughts, but the truth of that moment: an aberration, my dreams, my waking thoughts each morning, an impulse that could not be granted, a thumping feeling inside of me, a longing for her to look at me, to come to me, to make the improbable possible.
After everyone went through the line and expressed condolences and sympathies, we gathered for the rosary which was led by Father Cormier. When the rosary was concluded, some folks left immediately but most of the mourners adjourned to the sitting rooms adjacent to the wake room. The Sisters talked with my mother, my sister, our family’s friends, and me. I wanted to see my nun, but I stayed with my mother and Jeannie because my mother, looking comatose, did not want to move from the mammoth wing-chair that she had moved to after the rosary. I sat bewildered and feeling guilty. I finally gave into my desire and excused myself to go to the men’s room, hoping that I could find my nun and talk with her. When I came out of the lavatory, she was standing in front me. She smiled and raised her eyebrows in a questioning look and then nodded her head to her left—a look that said follow me. I didn’t say a word. She turned around and walked toward the hallway that led to the door at the far right corner of the hallway. I waited for a moment. I looked around the room. A woman whom I did not know passed by me and entered the ladies’ room. I walked down the hallway, looking behind me to see if anyone was watching me. I opened the door that was the exit to the back porch.
Two stevedores were standing together, smoking and talking. When they recognized me, they held my arms and told me what a “great man” my father was. I could see her standing at the far end of the porch. She was staring at the parking lot. The men let go of me. Mr. Henderson said, “Your father is going to get some money. This is the company’s fault. They talk safety but that’s all it is—talk. The goddamn inspectors do what the company tells them to do. We ain’t longshoremen—we got a union and we’re gonna make sure your family gets what it should get. All the suits in the offices care about is profit. That crane was old, should have been replaced a couple years ago. They pay fucking—excuse me son—lip service to safety.”
Mr. Henderson continued his tirade, Mr. Frary seconding him with examples of safety violations. I should have been moved by their outrage, but my selfishness owned me. I kept looking at her and waiting for the opportunity to join her. It never came. She walked toward us, inhaling the night air as if to say I am a nun stepping outside to gather a breath of fresh air. The men nodded to her as she passed by us. Mr. Frary said, “Good evening, Sister.” She smiled at them and glanced unobtrusively at me. She went inside, and I felt my breath leave me in a slow exhale. My father’s compatriots asked me questions about my mother: what did she need, what could “the gang could do for our family?” I did my best to answer them and thank them. Then the men dropped their cigarettes to the porch deck and stepped on them. They walked passed me in deferential nods, and returned to the inside of the funeral home. I looked at the parking lot. I breathed deeply and my body shuddered. I knew that the old bats were keeping a close watch on her, that she had to return to the flock, that she didn’t have time enough to see me alone. But the thought that she wanted to see me alone buried the image of what was inside the casket. It pushed against all that I knew that I had to do for my mother and Jeannie. I looked up at the moon, a pale orange host in the sky. The stars were faint in the cloudy sky—and that’s what my mind was: no longer black and white, a shadowy, darkling grey of confusion. My father was dead and gone, my mother was a mess of sorrow, my sister a bewildered kid in sadness, and I could not, would not let go of my nun.
The inevitable did happen, even though the roadblocks were in place. We passed notes between us. She was certain that her “days were numbered.” I told her that I had to see her. She wrote back: “You cannot make such a decision in your days of grief.” I persisted, and those long days of back and forth communication ended in her giving in to my pleas to meet again outside of school. It was my plan: She would request the station wagon because she wanted Father Martineau for confession. She would also stay for mass—enough time for her to meet me. Sister Vincent would grant her request for the same spiritual reasons that she had previously granted the request, and, more important, I was no longer a concern. Enough time had passed under watchful eyes for Vincent to know that I was out of the picture. We would meet at the funeral home because I knew a place where we could park out of sight. She said no initially, but my will won out.
I was there first. I unlocked the chain link fence that led to a second parking lot that was behind the livery garage. It was a small parking lot. I wedged my car between the shed and the chain link fence—just enough room for her to park next to my car. I waited for her for what seemed like a long time. I began to think that something had gone wrong. And then I saw the station wagon headlights. I walked into the parking lot and signaled to her and directed her to where she should park the station wagon. I entered the station wagon from the driver’s side because the passenger’s side was almost flush with the fence. I laughed as she squeezed my way into the passenger’s side of the bench seat. The thrill of that first time came back to me in that feeling of anticipation that I felt whenever I was with her. “We haven’t got much time,” she said. And there we were, conspirators in a night that was warm for the middle of March, more like a late April evening. Not feeling cold and feeling a gush of warmth in her body as I held her. Kissing her, pulling up her habit, taking her wrists and pushing her hands onto my legs, moving my hands to her breasts. And gasping in a hurried breathing, moaning, “Oh, Jesus, Sister—you’re so lovely, you feel so good. Touch me.” She not touching me, waiting for me, and then my left hand inside her habit, under her bra, touching her, and the hand coming out from underneath her habit, both of my hands unbuckling my belt, struggling at first with the clasp on the inside of my trousers and then pulling the zipper down—the two of us now, as Sister Vincent would later say, in flagrante delicto—and she kissing my face and neck, touching my arousal, feeling warm all over, and kissing and touching and then Doonan rapping his knuckles on the front window. I thrust myself together, zipping up and fumbling to buckle my belt. Doonan opening the door and getting out to stand face to face with him, Doonan retreating to the front of the car without saying a word to me, pointing at her and quietly saying “out, out,” and Sister sliding on the bench seat to the driver’s door, exiting and adjusting her habit. His voice seemed sad. “Return to the convent, Sister, and please do not say anything to anyone tonight. He shook his head in a look of bewilderment and put both of his hands in front of his face as if were crying. Then waved his hands to the side of his face. “This is sad, so sad for both of you.” I started praying in my mind, a Mad-Hatter crazy prayer for forgiveness. “Sister,” he said, “I will help you through this. Whatever shame you may feel is temporary. We’re all in God’s hands. I give you my solemn promise that I will help you through this.” She looked at him blank-faced—no weeping, her body stalwart. I was shuddering.
He told me to move my car so that she could get her car out. She didn’t say a word. She got into the station wagon and drove slowly out of the parking lot. She did not look me. Father Doonan came to me and put both of his hands on my shoulders. “It is going to be all right, John. You come to me for confession, not Father Pawel. Go home and say nothing to your parents—at least not tonight. You must not tell them or anyone until you talk with me. I will see you in school Monday, and we will arrange a time for confession. We are all sinners united in our sins. Give me your word that you will not tell anyone about this.” I promised him that I would not tell my parents, that I would not tell anyone. “Get yourself together. Go home and drive slowly because you are rattled.” He smiled benignly, turned around, and walked to his car.
I stood in the parking lot for as long as my legs would hold me upright. Then I sat in my car, trying to calm myself and thinking that I did not know who Father Doonan really was. I was wrong about him, but I was certain that Vincent had sent him to spy on her. I was wrong about Vincent too—she was smarter than I thought. I did drive home and walked into my house as if nothing had happened.
I never saw her again. Sister Vincent announced on P.A. that “Sister Mary Immaculata has had a family emergency and has left us for the year. I ask all students to keep her and her family in your prayers.” After the announcement, Father Doonan arranged for me to miss my history class. I met him in his office. He locked the door, and we talked. He said, “Some events in our lives are best left unsaid. I suppose you expect a grand lecture and a calling out from me today, but you are not the responsible party. Sister has problems… mental issues that I am sure she will straighten out in time. I feel compassion for her as I do for you. And I feel compassion because I have sinned many times in my life.” He proceeded to tell me how his mother died when he was nine years old, tuberculosis, how his father and his two brothers and he struggled through the Depression, how his faith was challenged at several points in his life and how his faith allowed him to carry on and succeed. He concluded by saying, “You should not blame yourself. Yes, you have committed a sin, a mortal sin, but, when I absolve you, you must walk away from this office done with all of it.”
He pulled down his office window shade and directed me to the far end of the office. I knelt down beside him, confessed, and received this penance: “You are to make a promise to yourself that you will always be a gentleman and live honorably. If you break this promise to yourself, as you very well may do in your lifetime, remember your promise and renew it. And you do not have to tell anyone about what happened. Sins are private. You have to answer only to God, and you have just done so. Keep the faith, Mr. Thompson.”
I stood up and he shook my hand. I told him that I would not tell anyone, and he smiled at me. As I was leaving his office, he said, “How do you think the Giants will do this year?”
“I like Gifford to have a great year. He’s got a couple more seasons left in him.”
He laughed. “Frank is one of the great ones, isn’t he? The way he has comeback from the Bednarik clothesline tackle is rather miraculous. There’s a lesson there for you, John.”
I knew what he meant. As I left his office and walked the corridor toward my history classroom, I realized that I should have confessed a sin that had given me an enduring lesson: I had misjudged Father Doonan because I saw a part and not the whole. If you hear a person’s life story, it is hard to dislike that person.
My mother never had a comeback. The loss of her husband defined the rest of her life. She volunteered at Saint Patrick’s Church and the Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Church for a few years, but gave up that work when senility took hold of twelve years after the accident. I was a young professor, newly married, and she moved into the small Rutgers housing apartment with my wife and me. Her presence took its toll on the first few years of our marriage because she needed constant attention. She wouldn’t bathe regularly. She took up the habit of smoking a corncob pipe whose smell infuriated my wife. She often would disappear on long walks to nowhere. Once I found her walking in the street in her nightgown babbling “There is no meaning, there is no meaning….” My wife and I were her caretakers for four years. Then she moved in with Jeannie and her family because Jeannie had the money to hire a woman who would help out with the care of a woman who had lost a part of her mind.
Jeannie is wonder to me. She graduated from New York University summa cum laude, and married Bill Flynn, her classmate at NYU, and one of the finest men whom I have ever known. Son of a cardiologist from Waterville, Bill came from money. He and Janie married after they graduated, bought a townhouse in New York, and began their careers as investment bankers in the city. When Janie got pregnant with their first child, she quit work and never returned to work. Bill’s career blossomed and their idyllic life took its shape. They have raised three beautiful daughters, loving, caring women who have continued their parents’ life success and happiness. Jeannie and Bill took care of my mother until she died. They gave our mother a measure of joy, especially in her last few years.
On the morning that my mother died, Jeannie, Bill, my wife, and I were standing on the steps outside of the hospital. We talked about Grandma Navickus and those times in her senile life when she enjoyed her grandchildren, those moments of lucidity that presented a glimpse of who she was before her illness redefined her. As the talk transitioned to my sons and their children, a woman who was walking up the hospital steps stared at me. She stopped on the step below me and said, “Excuse me, I apologize for interrupting you all, but I think I know you. Is your last name Thompson?” I said yes, and she asked me if she could speak to me for a moment when it was convenient. She said that she had “oodles of time” and would be happy to wait. My wife said that she would meet me at our car, and Jeannie and Bill said their goodbyes. I hugged Jeannie.
“I’m Sister Drusilla,” the woman said. You don’t recognize me, do you? Of course not—you wouldn’t. But I knew you right away. I have sort kept track of you—a history professor at Rutgers. I’ve read some of what you have written. I was in my second year at Saint Mary’s when you were there. You probably never saw much of me. I taught the ninth graders on the second floor and had little to do with the older students. But Katie Coyne was friend of sorts—”
“Katelyn Coyne—that was her name. Oh…she never told you her name. I thought that she must have…. Well, no matter—she was a very fine person, and I guess that is what I want to tell you. She was conflicted, as so many of us were. Did she tell you that her parents did not support her vocation?”
“No,” I said. I was uneasy, my body beginning to quiver.
“That was part of the problem, her parents I mean, but not the real problem for her. She needed to leave. It was a mistake, her vocation, as it was for so many of us. For me, it came down to the fact that I felt like I had to sign my name in blood just to get permission to drive less than a mile away to buy school supplies at that five and dime store down the street from Saint Mary’s. The world was changing. I left in sixty-eight. The older Sisters did not understand us, and I could not endure the hierarchy any longer. It was not a question of faith for me, and I think that it wasn’t for Katie either.”
“What happened to her?”
“We stayed in touch for a couple of years. She went to a treatment center for three weeks when she left the school. A year later she got a teaching position at a high school in Indianapolis. We wrote back and forth for one year, and then we lost touch because she never answered my last two letters. I thought that she wanted a clean break with all that Saint Mary’s life must have represented to her. I think that she was centered, happy in her new teaching life. Well, I just wanted to say hello. I just wanted to… say that I felt so much for her and for you too. We all should have done more for both of you.”
I didn’t know what to say. After an awkward long pause, she said that she was running late for her doctor’s appointment. I thanked her for what she had to say and we said goodbye. Walking to my car, I was filled with thoughts that I had abandoned for a long time. I wondered where she was, if she was married and had children, if she were still alive. A ghost of the past had come forward, upsetting me on day of another loss. I did my best to make the ghost disappear before I came to the car and my wife.
Tonight I am sitting on my porch beneath a harvest moon. The night is still and cool and quiet. My wife is sleeping. We spent the day pruning our trees, tending to our gardens, mulching the beds, and raking leaves. We cooked a shrimp linguine dinner together, drank fume blanc, and talked about my retirement at the end of the teaching year. I am slowly drinking the last of the wine and looking at the thousand thousand stars that flank the moon. They remind me of votive candles in a church at night. I remember a woman whom I saw years ago lighting the candles at Saint Patrick’s Church on a cold, snowy night. She was kneeling at the altar rail and lighting candle after candle, saying silent prayers for the dead or for the peace of whatever was troubling her. The quiet of that night in that church is the quiet of this night. I treasure such quiet, but I do not fully know why it seems so beautiful to me. The easy answers never seem to satisfy me.
In my sophomore year at Saint Mary’s, we read a short story about a young nun who is teaching at a Catholic school. The nun is visited by an Army pilot returning home from World War II. The handsome officer in his uniform is the nun’s high school sweetheart. As they sit in the convent foyer, talking about the war and the nun’s entrance into the Sisterhood, the nun realizes the truth of her old feelings. For a moment, she imagines leaving her religious life and fantasizes about marrying the man. She imagines her children, a boy and a girl, playing together on a large, billiard-green lawn, and she is taken by a worldly happiness that she has suppressed but not forgotten. In the story’s climax, the nun finally sees what she should have seen long before her reverie: the pilot’s wedding ring. This realization spawns the nun’s realization that her true love is for Jesus, and this climax is where the reader’s heart, especially the young reader’s heart, is supposed to break. She comes back to the present. She returns to her everlasting faith in a heartbeat.
This afternoon I stepped out from under our pear trees and into the dazzling sunshine that haloed yard. I thought about Wordsworth, the great poem, and the glorious afternoon light, a light that inspires the painter and photographer. A goldfinch came to rest on a bush to my right. I thought about Sister Mary Immaculata, and I think about her again tonight wherever she is, I and wonder what moon and sky and stars are beholding her.