Mrs. Invereighty’s hair rises straight up from her forehead like a tiara; “A woman’s hair is her crown of glory,” she says, and I believe her. Unlike the nuns who hide behind rimless glasses and yell with mouths that have never tasted lipstick—Mrs. Invereighty understands the meaning of life. “Never shave your knees,” she says, as she lifts her A-line skirt to show black hairs trapped under fine mesh stockings; “All women have a duty to shave their legs but stop at the knees. Otherwise, you’ll develop a propensity for hair growth. I wish someone had given me that advice.”
Today Mrs. Invereighty is lecturing on everlasting happiness. She scratches a configuration on the blackboard. Hell is wild red lines waiting below. Above, the blue circles are heaven. The earth is green swirls, the devil a yellow snake. Purgatory is pink like fluffy candy.
Mrs. Invereighty explains that purgatory is limbo, where we could wait for years or months before heaven. Normal sinners can avoid this and go straight from life on earth to everlasting happiness if they have a plenary indulgence, which is a get-out-of-purgatory-free ticket. Go to church on the first Friday of every month, she says, and you’ll earn a plenary indulgence. The Roman Catholic Church decreed this long ago. Even young children with limited opportunity to sin can trade a few hours of devotion for everlasting peace and happiness.
Sacred Heart is the only church to offer the Friday plenary indulgence mass. We would need to leave school early. No questions asked. Bus fare provided. Once a month, we would miss Friday afternoon allocution lessons, where we sing “Michael Finnegan,” again and again; and then gym class, where we waddle like ducks and dance hoedowns, shouting Aleman left.
AFTER SCHOOL, I CAN’T WAIT to share Mrs. Invereighty’s lesson with my mother, who believes happiness resides with the Roman Catholic Church. She has turned our fireplace into an altar with a statue of Mary, a white clay Jesus nailed to a black eighteen-inch crucifix and other knickknacks purchased in France during pilgrimages to Lourdes.
We are converts—outsiders peering in through stained glass windows at a world where baptismal and communion dresses pass from generation to generation, babies get their ears pierced, and the confessional routinely showers sinners clean.
In the kitchen, a clothesline runs from the laundry shoot across the backyard garden. Every day, my mother pulls the cranky wheel and pins up clean linens and garments that drip into the dirt below. In the afternoon, she strips the wash from the line before it’s dry so, under the heat of the iron, moisture trapped in the threads steams up like disappearing ghosts.
Today, the ironing board is in the dining room, and her pointy appliance is travelling over monographed handkerchiefs, pressing down on bumpy red initials stitched into corners. She flattens and folds each square, once then twice. With each fold, she counts out my sins. The worst is my vanity, she says. And it’s true. My beauty often surprises me, especially when my hair is parted on the side, and the curls sweep across my forehead. I steal glances of myself in the kettle and toaster.
In the living room, my mother has hung a print of Mary. Light through the front window turns the glass frame into a mirror, so I can check my reflection superimposed over the virgin, who—wearing a crown and soft blue cape—stands barefoot on a snake with her palms turned out, as though she is welcoming everyone.
And therefore, we agree that I will take my plenary indulgence and cleanse my soul. One day I will float directly from this concrete space into paradise where my mother already seems to have a place.
THE BUS RUMBLES DOWN 17TH AVENUE past the shoe store with the red cowboy boots, the fish market with a big octopus in the window, the bookstore that sells typewriters and the 5 & DIME. Sacred Heart is an old brick church. Jesus and his crucifix hang by chains over the altar. A white-haired priest with ashen skin mumbles and gestures as he stoops over the pulpit. Window after window shows pictures of the apostles, the colors so bright they belong on Christmas cards. I imagine it’s splendid in here on Sundays with row after row of men in black suits and polished shoes beside women with hats, minks, kid leather gloves and fur-trimmed ankle boots. Now there are only old women in long brown coats and kerchiefs. They kneel when it’s okay to sit. They pray privately under their breath, as though the official mass were not enough, because they are already so close to the afterlife.
I have managed to drag Rosemary along. She doesn’t share my earnest desire for saintly perfection, but understands winter is coming and it’s not fun taking transit alone in the dark. When Rosemary and I are finally free from the muted world of Sacred Heart, I feel lighter and happier having shortened my time in purgatory.
Outside I see the street and nearby shops with a new clarity. The 5 & DIME is a glass corner building. We passed it on the way here but had not truly seen it. Now its magnificence shines over the avenue. Without discussing whether we should or shouldn’t, Rosemary and I pull open the doors.
The 5 & DIME is on two floors. The back section is elevated and accessible by a few stairs. Hyper bright lights make the signs and trinkets extra red, green, yellow. The lower section is deep baskets crammed with balls, cowboy hats, football helmets, sparkly slip-on plastic high heels and Daniel Boon caps. Up the steps in the smaller bins, all goods are five and ten cents. There is real nail polish, rhinestone hairbands, lipstick in sassy red, apricot and crimson. My hands reach into the magic buckets. The splendor draws me in.
Eventually the sun slides at a new angle, and the late-afternoon tones suggest it is time.
Outside, the bus doors fold open. As we walk up the metal steps and let our dimes fall into the shoot, I realize that—despite the low, dull afternoon light—the driver is wearing sunglasses. His tinted lenses surely can’t distinguish brown from silver. Although the trip costs ten cents, how would he know if we tossed in copper pennies? We could save the dimes and leave the service early to do some shopping.
On the next first Friday, our plan works so perfectly we agree that, from then on, Rosemary and I will skip church altogether and focus on the 5 & DIME. Every month, Sister Constance will drop the allotment into our out-stretched palms. Prudently, we will pay the fare with copper pennies and keep our collection of dimes for our purchases.
MRS. INVEREIGHTY RENEWS HER HAIR COLOR ONCE A MONTH. First, we see a thin, quarter-inch of grey next to her scalp, then half an inch, three quarters, until one morning she arrives refreshed. Silk blouses painted with irises clothe her significant breasts. From top to bottom, she goes from big to small. Tiny feet in brown lace-up heels keep it all from toppling.
Today she is announcing the Festival of Mary, which will take place on Wednesday, May 31st. “On the day of the celebration, the gymnasium will become a shrine to Mary,” she says; “The caretakers will transport her statue from the entranceway to the gymnasium. Carefully, they’ll hoist it up and place it on the stage. On that morning, each of you is to bring flowers from your garden, the most beautiful bouquets, so we can surround our goddess, Mary, with their glory; “Each of you is to bathe the night before and wear washed and pressed clothes. Clean your ears and under your fingernails. There will be enough chairs in the gymnasium to seat all your mothers and grandparents and any children who are not yet in school.”
In the weeks that follow, we form choirs, one for every song—Hail Holy Queen, Ave Maria. Mrs. Lovasota directs the singing. She yells, screams and smashes her baton with every sour note, until our tones become high and pure. Meanwhile, on every first Friday, Rosemary and I take the bus down 17th Avenue to the 5 & DIME. My collection of lipsticks, barrettes and headbands grows.
Then on Friday, May 5th, the unthinkable happens.
Rosemary and I board the bus a few stops from 14th Street where Sacred Heart stands. As we drop in our pennies, we see Sister Constance, school principal, in the front seat in her stern glasses and the stiff white cap that cuts into her forehead. Sister Constance has taken up the Friday Sacred Heart mass, and of course has seen that the two girls who pocket their free fare every month have not set foot inside the old church. Instinctively, I smile and say hello and hope Rosemary has the wherewithal to do the same.
At home I lie in my bed, which is a wooden box with removable slats under the mattress. I imagine the boards are gone and I am falling, like I do sometimes in dreams. An endless descent. I am a cheat, liar and thief. A refrain from a skipping song repeats, “Policeman caught me, put me in jail.” The school will notify my parents. I already hear the phone ringing. Like the saints who flog themselves for their sins, I slap my face. One cheek, then the other. I pull my hair until strands rip from my scalp. This torture is a precursor of what will come when I am cast out of purgatory into the fires.
ON MONDAY MORNING, I wait for the call to the principal’s office. Finally, it comes. A knock on the door. I am to go now. The office is at the front of the school. I have never been inside, only walked by. The door’s beveled glass conceals the interior, but sounds can still escape, and I have overheard the strap slapping bad hands, children wailing, teachers yelling. I turn the brass doorknob. The secretary is typing. Sister Constance is waiting. I am to sit down; “Now,” Sister Constance says with her thin lips, “You have been doing your plenary indulgence, I know.” I wait for my fate.
“It is very few children who have the foresight to save their souls this way,” she says, “and it is for that reason I would like you to take a very special honor and be the child to lead us through the Festival of Mary. There will be some extra work for you, some memorization and some prayers to lead for all the little congregation here, but I know you love Jesus and his mother.”
Her eyelashes flutter behind her lenses. Her skin has tiny faint hairs. Her clasped hands sit on the solid oak desk. There are no rings or bracelets, just the business of worship and running a school.
I swallow. “You should know that the Monsignor will be attending, and I would be delighted if he were to be present at the most splendid afternoon of worship,” she says; “I know I can count on you to have your lines memorized and to represent our school with polish.” The office window is open. Sudden happy screams tell me recess has begun. I imagine my mother’s mop gathering dust from under beds and behind chairs, as music plays from the country radio. She believes dust is everlasting life falling as particles and settling in fleeting forms.
Yes, I will lead the school through Festival of Mary, I say, because suddenly I understand everything. Sister Constance knows—but doesn’t care. She is simply looking for someone who can memorize and yell loud enough for everyone to hear. A perfect Festival of Mary is more important than my afterlife and contrition. What matters here are appearances—the guiltless reassuring smile I give her, the pink polish on my nails, the way my rhinestone hairband splashes light and the rainbow-colored sparkles play on the ceiling and walls.
The night before the Festival of Mary, I will bathe and curl my hair, wrapping newly washed strands around rollers and then securing each with a plastic stick that digs into my scalp all night. It doesn’t matter. There will be other opportunities to sleep.
On the morning of May 31, I will take the sharpest scissors and cut three large bouquets—lilacs from the blooming hedges and a collection of pink peonies, plus some pure white lilies of the valley. All the way to school, their perfume will shroud me as I clutch the bunches.
In the gymnasium, I will take the steps up to the stage where risers hold vases for the newly cut flowers that will become a magnificent grotto for our goddess. At lunch, I will run home and change into my silk brocade dress with the wide skirt and satin ribbon.
When the festival begins, I will stand center stage and recite prayers and introductions, while my flowing hair and crinoline skirt block the stone Mary. I will look out at the rows of foldable chairs that contain my mother in her light blue linen suit, Mrs. Invereighty with her newly refreshed auburn hair, the sisters trapped inside their black and white costumes and the Monsignor in his old, shiny suit and white neck collar. Behind me, the glory from all our gardens will frame me perfectly—vain sinner, liar, cheat.