It started when I was six and considered old enough to prepare for religious training. The Catholic grade school I attended had a mandatory church service every day of Lent. Forty days of sitting in a pew with head bent, before school had started for the day. Forty days of hell.
I was dropped off each morning at church with my older brother and sister, who ignored my hyper-ventilating and ditched me as quickly as they could to find friends. I struggled with the massive door to this monstrosity of a building. I searched the aisles for familiar faces, but all I saw were bowed heads. Everything got fuzzy, so I sat down in an empty pew. Once the priest got to gravelling on about something I didn’t understand, the incense started to penetrate my pores and the dank interior with the stained-glass pictorials of saints, lambs and babies combined had me wobbling over to my teacher, Sister Randall, before everything went black and I passed out in the aisle. It got to the point where my mom idled outside, puffed on her cigarettes and read a magazine until they carried me out and threw me in the back of the station wagon each day of Lent. I begged my mom not to take me. It was getting embarrassing, but she believed I would overcome this sinister side of my soul if I kept at it.
My premiere freak-out in this locale was my first confession. It had been a month before Lent. Mom had coached me for weeks before the big event. My class was ordered to memorize the lines, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” That was the opening score to lead us into all the sins we had committed. There was a booklet that listed various sins and their level of intensity. I was intrigued by all the choices.
The day of our first confession, we were led into this very same church for some drawn-out rumbling babble from a priest. Then they lined us up single-file in front of what looked like an armoire my mom had at home, except this was dark wood and had red and green lights turning on and off above the doors.
I was so nervous I could feel the pee lining up in my bladder, ready to explode. I asked a girl behind me, Jill, whose mother was divorced, what sins she had committed. “Gonna tell him I stole a candy bar, swore at my mom and hit my sister.” I nodded my head and watched kids stumble in and out of the armoire that stood up against the far side of the church. There were two other armoires that I saw at the front and back of the church. This one was in the middle. All the kids who came out of the box looked paler and smaller than when they went in. The ones still waiting were mumbling to themselves.
A spaced-out atmosphere overcame me whenever I stepped inside a church. I would zero in on the huge stained glass windows, stare at them until they were a blur of color like a kaleidescope. It was mesmerizing to watch the images overlay each other merging into a rainbow.
Some jackass pushed me from behind. I pulled myself out of my reverie. I was up. I walked to the door with a green light above it for go and turned the knob. I stepped into a tiny, congested closet of a room that stank of boy-smell and dirty socks. I sat on a bench. There was a screen to my left. I peered into it. I didn’t see anything, but heard muffled voices. My body started rocking with fear. Sweat covered my palms.
At some point the screen slid open with a rumble. I looked at the outline of a man. I peered in at him. He looked ancient and his breathing was loud and labored and I thought, “God isn’t going to live much longer the way he’s rasping.” He coughed a few times. I rubbed my soaked hands together and hoped he would say something.
I saw his face get closer to the screen. “Well,” he said.
“Well,” I answered.
“What?” he asked.
“What?” I asked.
“Are you being smart with me, young lady?”
“No,” I stammered. “I forgot…” and started to blubber.
“Oh, hell,” God said, “Just stop your damn crying and repeat after me.
“Bless me Father…”
“Bless me Father…”
He got us through the first part and then waited. My mind was blank. I knew there was something else to say.
God started coughing. He was almost retching at some point. In between hacking, he started screeching at me with his face up close to the screen. “I’m sick to death of the stupidity of you half-wits. Don’t those goddamn nuns teach you anything?”
I was trembling by now hiding in the corner. It was all over. God hated me and I was certainly going to get kicked out of school.
I jumped up and threw open the door. I sobbed like the beast I was as I pushed my way through all the horrified kids down the long aisle, past my teacher and charged through the heavy door out to freedom.
I stood outside with my hands on my knees, hiccupping through tears. Pretty soon that huge door was clouded with the running, little bodies of my fellow first graders crying and racing every which way out in to the street with Sister Randall chasing after them trying to herd them back up.
I heard that I was the last one to set foot inside the armoire that day.
Mom would roll her eyes at me after that, suck on her cigarette and say, “There’s got to be at least one demon in every family.”
published 26 November 2011