[Editor’s note: In the book of the same title from which this piece is excerpted, endnotes enhance the fake historical perspective. In this portion for the Secular Web the endnotes are seen as parenthetical paragraphs.]
Chapter 2 — Fate’s Envelope Sealed With Death’s Spittle
Peter first pondered the possibility of pursuing popehood at a very young age. Pope was not his initial preference. Sister Evelene, a bit player with enormous impact in this epic, dragged him by the ear in that direction.
Everything about Sister Evelene’s classroom was authoritarian. She realized decades earlier that given half a chance first-graders would walk all over you. Her frequently spat motto frequently included spray. Hence the moniker: Old Foamy.
“Shut up and sit still. Maybe you’ll learn something.”
Sister Evelene saw to it each and every morning that the five rows of ten desks each lined up meticulously along the worn, well-waxed tile floor. If not, she ordered the students to push them to within a cat’s hair of alignment.
There were rules. No looking out the window at the gray-blue Lathrop Village overcast. No squirming, no fidgeting. With few exceptions, such as when reading or writing, students sat ramrod straight and looked directly at her. No slouching. Only Lutherans slouched. The children’s perception of Lutherans was universally consistent if not necessarily accurate.
(The fact that it was a Christian religion did not keep Lutheranism from being essentially evil. Lutherans hated the pope. The father of that particular heresy, Martin Luther, began his religious life as a Catholic priest. It may well be true that many devout Catholics evolved into some of the grandest anti-Catholics. Luther rebelled against the Church’s practice of selling indulgences [redemption coupons] to finance the sixteenth century remodeling of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Since Luther and his Lutherans all ended up rotting in Hell, it was probably a better idea to sit up straight than to tempt fate.)
Grade school children were not allowed to dress like whores and gigolos, hence the dress code was strictly enforced. Boys wore navy blue pressed slacks. The school issued royal blue long-sleeved dress shirts emblazoned with the Saint-Michael-The-Archangel-Catholic School emblem: A fist clenching a flaming sword also dripped blood.
(Most likely the devil’s blood. Though it may have been the blood of children who misbehaved. The designer of the logo had taken liberties. While St. Mikey is usually pictured slaying a dragon [Lucifer], the sword rarely flames. More often he holds a scale [used to weigh souls!] in his other hand. As a former archangel, Lucifer used to be God’s best friend up in Heaven. Then one day he got the idea in his head that he would like to be in charge. God sent Mikey to slew Luci and throw him into Hell. That is the only recorded attempt to overthrow God in Heaven. It is unknown if safeguards have been taken to thwart future heavenly mutinies.)
Black Oxfords shined. Sister Evelene ordered those who came to school wearing scuffed shoes to stand in their socks facing the corner while holding the offensive shoes. Loafers were for lazy people. That is what Sister Evelene said.
The girls wore navy blue jumpers with the same logo. They also wore royal blue long-sleeved blouses distinguished with an ironic “Peter Pan” collar. Children wore the same uniforms regardless of weather. When it was cold, the nuns allowed a standard, genderless, navy blue sweater.
No bangs allowed. Hair never dared to tickle a forehead. Instead girls used rubber bands only—no fancy barrettes—to pull their tresses back in pigtails. Ponytails were not allowed because they were considered seductive.
Boys were forbidden to put their hands in their pockets.
(It would only lead to testicle fondling and eventually masturbation. Now, of course, boys are encouraged to do so because it makes them thoughtful.)
All were seated in alphabetical order, boys on one side of the classroom, girls on the other. No talking, whispering or touching allowed. Note-passing was a fantastic rumor of what the ignorant barbarians in the public schools did.
You want to chew gum? Well Sister Evelene had a cure for that! She maintained a large glass jar containing wads she had confiscated over the years. Since these were first-graders with no previous experience, they had no idea gum chewing in school was a sin.
She ordered offenders to take it out of their mouths and set it aside. Then, since they wanted to chew gum so badly, she “allowed” them to take a piece out of the jar and put it in their mouths and chew it for the rest of the day! Since waste was also a sin, the fresh piece was dropped into the jar to be saved for the next nonconformist.
The children accepted this tyranny with complacent nervousness. Which was just as well since they had no choice. Do what the nun wants and escape with your skin was the easy to learn first lesson.
On this particular morning, Sister Evelene pulled a fast one. As usual, her students unloaded noisily from the buses, hushing the moment they went inside the school. They hung coats on labeled hooks and put lunch boxes squarely in assigned spots.
Sister Evelene smiled at them. A few brave kids chanced a sidelong glance of wide-eyed disbelief. Unsettling. Sister Evelene never smiled.
She usually looked more like a vulture: gaunt, with sunken, ashen cheeks and swollen, weary eyes with their challenging, watery stare. When standing, she stooped arthritically. In their six months under her wing, a critical smirk was the closest she ever came to a smile. This smiling vulture was creepy.
The smile was a marketing ploy. Sister Evelene had something to sell. She was about to convince at least a couple of these little seven-year-olds to become priests and nuns. She had to convince them today—now—before the sins of the flesh distracted them. So she had to be nice. Being nice meant smiling. Her lips started to stick to her drying teeth with the effort.
“Hurry up. Sit down.” She licked her lips. The smile returned. Good thing she only did this once a year.
“Who knows what a ‘vocation’ is?” she enunciated in her thin baritone. Sister Evelene may have been a dinged-up antique, but her voice worked fine. The class responded with silence. Except for Mark Minor, the class clown. Mark’s chubby paw waved obnoxiously.
“Disneyland!” He piped. Why wait to be recognized? The class put massive effort into swallowing their giggles. Mark smiled, proud to have done what he had to do: inject a little life into the proceedings. Mark led his peers in wit development, but was conveniently dopey regarding classroom protocol.
Sister Evelene waited until the commotion died down, then… a little longer for effect. She stared at him.
“All right, Fatso.” She nodded her head almost imperceptibly to the left. Nothing more needed to be said. Mark sulked over to the corner in the front of the room and turned his back on the class. The two had done this dance previously. Sister Evelene looked oddly pleased as she refocused on the class.
“Vocation. Not vacation. Nobody knows?” Lots of little negative headshakes.
“Everybody has to do something for a living. Men can be president or a policeman or work in an office. Women can get married but they must have babies. That can be what they do for a living and that is good in the eyes of God. They might even go to heaven when they die.
“But some people are special. God looks down on some people and gives them a wonderful gift. A vocation. A vocation is when God chooses you to serve him as a priest or a nun.”
A hand appeared. This time it was Diane Gillette. Though cooperative in her own winky way, Diane was miles from being like one of the lemmings surrounding her. Diane did not so much raise her hand as just sort of put it out there. She demurred from the standard twelve o’clock position. Diane’s raise was closer to, say, nine-thirty, with the hand waggling limply from the wrist. The gesture looked as if she expected to have her hand kissed.
“Is that Miss Smarty-Pants with a question?”
“Why is being a nun better?”
“Good question. The answer is because of my vows to God of poverty, chastity and obedience. Taking those vows is the only way to reach a perfect love of God. And I know because of my vows that when I die and go to Heaven, that I will be closer to God.” Sister Evelene stood and surveyed the class.
“Wouldn’t you like that? A special place in Heaven after you die?”
Game, most of the class nodded yes.
The exceptions were Peter, Diane, and Mark. Diane had several career paths routed, none of which included nun or mom. Mark also had a pretty cool idea, but his thoughts were more involved with his imagined involvement in a Jimmy Durante television special than with an upper bunk in Heaven.
Mark was in the midst of asking “Schnozola” how many boxes of Kleenex he went through when he had a cold. Regretfully, he abandoned the peals of laughter in his fantasy.
“What are you going to do for a living? Turn and face the class, you tub of lard.”
“What are you going to do for a living?”
“A job you mean?”
Sister Evelene responded with her trademark smirk. That did not tell Mark anything. Not that he needed much encouragement.
“Oh. If you mean a job? I want to be a disc jockey like on WXYZ. You know? ‘Wixey-100’? Or maybe a comedian like Jimmy Durante. Hot cha, cha cha cha!” Her stare withered Mark’s jiggling and enthusiastic impression of the bulbous nosed comic.
She wagged an arthritic finger in his general direction. “Face the corner chubby.” Sister Evelene stood and shuffled slowly down the aisle towards Peter’s seat. What was going on inside this curly-haired noggin?
Peter was not paying attention. He was busy playing a little game he invented the first day he sat in a school desk. The lid was on a slight incline from the student. Towards the top a little ridge was cut out. That was where students put their pencils when they were not writing. Peter would flick the pencil from the bottom of the desktop so that it would roll up and lodge itself in the little groove. Initially he only used his index finger. As his talent quickly accelerated, he began using his other fingers and thumb. Soon he added his left hand to the pencil-pushing repertoire. Nearby neighbors found it neat that no matter which digit Peter used, from any part of the desk, the pencil would have just enough steam to roll up to the ridge, then pause-as if it had come up short-before dropping in. He never missed.
“Well, Toe-head? Are you going to tell the class why you think you are too good to become a priest? You have a better idea what to do for a living?”
It was a frightening challenge for any seven-year-old to be that close and forced to look directly at the face of Sister Evelene let alone express himself. This was especially difficult because he had been daydreaming and had not really caught the question.
In self-defense, Peter’s focus inched slightly to the right of the nun’s face. There, over her left shoulder, his eyes found the two pictures that hung above the chalkboard on the front wall of the classroom. The same two pictures that hung in the front of every classroom in every Catholic school in the world. Peter knew who they were. There was a picture of Pope John XXIII and a picture of Jesus Christ.
The current Pontiff seemed to grimace impatiently in his papal refinery. John looked as if he would be a lot more comfortable burping and farting garlic in a sleeveless T-shirt and a pair of fading boxers, maybe contemplating a bocce ball instead of the Holy Trinity.
Peter would try to open that particular escape hatch momentarily. Instead, Peter found solace in the other picture: the doe-eyed, sad and somehow hurt expression of the longhaired Savior. He offered his answer.
“I want to be a Jesus.” It was not the challenge Sister Evelene took it to be. It was just the simple attempt of a young child to give the right answer.
“You wa…” In her younger days, Sister Evelene would have knocked the offender down on the floor with one quickly placed whack. But she was in her eighties now, and time had slowed her previously lightning fast judgment/punishment reflex. Instead, a boiling metal sensation gripped her stomach. Her bladder weakened and leaked a drop or three. She snorted dryly several times and finally came to her senses. She grabbed his ear and twisted.
She twisted as hard as she could then released, grabbed and twisted again. The blasphemous little cretin did not respond. Concerned that Peter might be adjusting to the pain quicker than even the sturdiest mutt, Sister Evelene let go and grabbed the other ear with her other hand and twisted until she felt her fingernails start to dig into skin. Peter stood up.
She dragged him by the ear to the front of the room and after throwing him against the blackboard, released him. She had not lost quite all of her spunk.
“Stand there and face the board!” She was so enraged she could barely look at him. She slumped into her chair wearied and wheezing. The class stared in awe at her power. They also enjoyed relief with a dash of smug to see someone else the victim.
“How dare you.” She hissed into her desktop. Sister Evelene pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed at a nonexistent bit of saliva that had not formed at the corner of her mouth. She did that occasionally.
“How dare you desecrate Our Lord.” Normally, the next move would have been to force Peter to make an Act of Contrition for his sin.
(The formality of confessing to God a wrong done. The person must regret having done the act, known it was wrong and promised to never do it again. Most people reading the above passage would pass it off as just another dumb kid remark. How could little Petey know? Well, according to Church law, a person reaches the age of reason at the age of seven [A little older for retarded children] and becomes morally responsible enough to differentiate between right and wrong.)
The problem was that he had not been taught what that was or how to do it and would not learn until the second grade. Sister Evelene was at a loss for a punishment. Leaning over the top of her desk and staring at it did not help her rapidly deteriorating thought process.
She set aside her hankie and her hand began to levitate thoughtfully in patterns across her desk, as if led by an invisible Ouiji device. She did that occasionally too.
“Sister? What did I do?” Peter was still facing the board, still not crying.
“Shut up.” That resuscitated her some. However, the sincerity in his voice reminded her that he was a child and maybe he did not know. If she didn’t teach him, who would?
“Come here. Stand right here by my desk. Stop staring at me. Look at the face of Our Lord. Look at Him. See how you have hurt him? Now. Tell me what you are going to do for a living?”
At first, Peter only knew what he was not going to say. He hesitated only slightly.
“Could I be the Pope?”
Sister Evelene exhaled exasperation as she pulled open the drawer of her desk. Not a good sign. Not much of a chance she was reaching for a pencil or fresh stick of chalk. The metal ruler gleamed and clanked slightly on the way out.
“Yes. You can be the Pope. Put out your hands. Palms up. Straight out.” Having seen enough, some of the kids closed their eyes. Some peeked through squinting eyelids or between fingers. Diane watched. Mark set aside his fantasy of being asked to sit in for an ailing Shelly Berman on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“Yes. You. Can. Be. Pope.”
Still Peter did not cry. That antagonized Sister Evelene. The awareness of his wrongdoing had obviously not sunk in.
“Turn your hands over. Palms down.” Whack.
“You can be Pope?” Whack.
Peter shuffled his feet in a slight dance of pain and confusion. A tear appeared. A seed was planted.
“Are you sorry?”
That question at least afforded Peter an out. “Yes Sister. I’m sorry.” More tears formed and then fell. A pathetic sniffle followed.
“It is going to be a very long time before God forgives you for this sin. You had better pray very hard for forgiveness. You had better hope that you don’t die before He forgives you. Only a very holy person can be the pope. You have committed a very grave sin. If you want to be holy, you must pray to God to forgive you every day. Until God tells you. Until you hear his voice forgiving you. Don’t just stand there. Go back to your desk you big crybaby.”
Peter looked at his reddened hands, still held in front of him as he walked back to his desk and sat down softly. Two seats further down the row, the blasé hand hung out.
“Take out your penmanship books.”
“Sister.” It was not an inquiry. “Sister.” Again! She did not even give Sister a chance to tell her to shut up. The class turned cautiously, astonished, anticipating another bloodletting.
Diane rose and sauntered haughtily towards the nun’s desk. She was a seven-year-old Isadora Duncan gliding languidly, chin held high, fingers caressing her neighbors’ desktops. As she passed, invisible scarves trailed. The little upstart leaned slovenly against the nun’s desk and offered her hands.
“I want to be pope too.”
(This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Several credible scholars have unearthed significant, though dubious, evidence of one female pope. Pope Joan managed to be elected sometime around 1300 with nary a cardinal aware that she was not only female but a pregnant female coming to term. Parading to her soon to be aborted coronation, she gave birth to a bouncing baby. The crowd along the route quickly realized it had been tricked. They bounced Joan out of her papal carriage and beat her to death. Christian charity, understanding and compassion had yet to be invented. While the authenticity of the story of Joan has its detractors, it is fact that during that time the practice of checking a pope elect’s gender came into being. Prior to coronation the pope-elect sat on an elevated throne similar in design to those found in outhouses. [It had a hole in the seat.] One of the junior cardinals would crawl underneath and confirm that the new pontiff’s family jewels were the appropriate ones.)
Sister Evelene had never heard of any girl popes. Right then she was hearing something like a freight train roaring in her ears. She felt several ice picks in her chest. Her vision of the class grew darker and darker, but, eerily, her eyes were pointed at Peter.
“…be …pope…” She was dead before her face hit the desktop.
After the Medical Examiner’s hearse left that day, Peter skipped the bus ride home and went to the church, which was connected to the school. Solemnly, he approached the railing that stood guard around the altar. Empty with echoed silence, the hall of worship held the odor of burned incense and sweating Catholic hides.
Beyond the altar, across the sanctuary, against the far wall of the church hung a life-sized replica of Jesus Christ permanently nailed to a real wooden cross in all His gory glory.
(The sanctuary is the sacred consecrated area of the church. It is usually elevated or otherwise architecturally set off from the rest of the church. It is also the area where the priest hangs and the people are not.)
He gushed plastic blood from His ceramic hands, feet, chest and noggin. His eyes turned in anguish to the sky. His inflexible mouth wondered silently why His Father had left Him to die and what was the point? Beneath this crucifix was the real event: the tabernacle with the monstrance on top.
(The tabernacle is a cupboard for storing extra Jesuses. [More later.] Some cupboard! Many are gold, or decorated with it. The tabernacle at Saint Michael’s was suspended with gold plated chains from the arms of the crucifix. Gold plated chains also ran from the four corners of the base of the box to the floor. That kept it from swinging in the wind while protecting it from priests dizzy from too much wine and burned incense. The monstrance was not as scary as it sounds. If the word gives you the heebie-jeebies, then call it an ostensorium. By any other name it was quite beautiful. The body was made of white gold. Precious gems dotted its form. Streamers of solid gold radiated from the round glass-encased center. A single communion wafer rested there in a lunette. Rumor [or faith] has it that some time in the middle of the thirteenth century Saint Clare repulsed a group of heathens by showing them a monstrance. She would have held on to it with a cloth since only priests [men] were allowed to touch it barehanded. Way off the subject, but interesting to note, on her deathbed Clare could “see” midnight mass being celebrated in spite of the fact that there were several walls in the way. For that reason Pope Pius XII made her the patron saint of television!)
If God was anywhere in the building, this was the place. So Catholics, Peter included, believed. He knelt on the marble step at the base of the railing that bordered the sanctuary and prayed. His eyes fixed on the monstrance.
Peter had not learned the formal, memorized prayers yet. That made no difference. Neither did the cold, hard marble against his young knees. This was something he had been told to do. By a dying nun no less.