“You are at the age of reason,” Sister said, “ready to understand the mystery of transubstantiation.” She cued them with her ruler.
“Tran-sub-stan-ti-a-tion,” the children repeated. Angie spoke it softly, enjoying the roominess of the word, its multiple, mysterious syllables that would teach her how to be good.
They were in second grade, preparing for their First Communion. They were seven years old.
It was catechism hour, and Sister Patrick Marie swept up and down the aisles of the classroom, impossibly quiet in her heavy black shoes and voluminous black drapes. She called out questions, and Angie mouthed the words inside the murmurings of the other children.
Who made me?
God made me.
Then Father Mulligan, who had the habit of dropping in without warning, stood at the door and the children scrambled to attention beside their desks and greeted him. But they were not in unison. Their voices were low, their syllables staggered, and everything sounded like scuffling feet. Sister Patrick gave a closed-mouth smile to Father with one side of her face and scowled at the children with the other side. They had failed her in front of Father. Sister signaled for them to atone by reciting more of their catechism, which they delivered in the perfect singsong of their playground chants.
Where is God?
God is everywhere.
Father asked them to pray for John F. Kennedy, who was running for President of the United States. They all obeyed fervently, lifting their brown faces heavenward, since everyone knew that if Nixon became president, he would make them go to school on Saturdays, and that was un-American.
Before Father left, he told them to make room on their chair for their guardian angel, who was always at their side. They all scooted to the edge of their narrow wooden seats as they resumed their lesson. Angie’s thigh and shoulder soon ached from scrunching herself up. She didn’t dare move, though. With Sister Patrick patrolling the aisles and Father Mulligan making surprise visits, her guardian angel taking up part of her desk space, and God everywhere, Angie was surrounded and under watch.
It was the same at home, which was not really their home. They were staying with her grandparents. It was the home their mother, Delia, grew up in along with her sister, Nelda. The two of them had shared a bedroom and fought and told each other secrets. Now the three Rubio sisters shared a room with Nelda, who said and did surprising things. Sometimes, after taking off her bra and before slipping on her nightgown, she would hold one of her breasts in her hand and say, “Want some teta?” And she would laugh a wicked, cackling laugh.
Her son was Little Eddie, even though there seemed to be no Big Eddie from whom to distinguish him. Little Eddie slept in the dining room on a cot now that the Rubios had moved in. Angie’s grandparents snored in their twin beds in the bedroom just off the living room. Angie’s parents slept in the living room on the fold-out couch, which creaked when they tossed and turned. Baby Anthony slept between them. They had left his crib behind in Hawaii.
They had left other things behind in Hawaii. Some toys, most of their comic books, their skates, their plastic pool, a box of clothing, and their hula hoops. And Angie felt like she had left something of herself behind. They had crossed the ocean this time not in the three-day seasick journey by ship, but by plane. The close-up view of clouds and the long drop to earth made Angie think of how much space there would be between their life in Hawaii and their life back here in California.
They were bigger now—Eva was nine, Angie seven, and Letty five—and there was the extra fact of Anthony. It was so crowded in her grandparents’ house. They absorbed each other’s sweat during the day and heard each other breathe at night. The bathroom offered no escape, nor did the porch or backyard. There was always someone else there or waiting their turn. Nelda and their mother sat on the front porch until it was dark and the moths flattened themselves around the porch light. Anthony would sit and babble in his playpen in the living room, soothed by their grandfather’s growls as he argued with the TV and their grandmother crocheted. They watched the Spanish language station, which Delia and Nelda understood, but Angie’s father, Henry, didn’t. He would walk around the block over and over until Delia called out to him to come inside.
Angie and her sisters and Little Eddie did their homework on the dining room table, then played cards—Crazy Eights or Old Maid—and then ran their own bath. The sisters were required to take a bath together to save water. Then Eva ran one for Little Eddie, who was four and still sucked his thumb and ate his snots. The Rubio sisters stayed in the bathroom with him, sometimes lathering and scrubbing him as if he were the family dog.
One evening, instead of taking a walk around the block, Henry got in the car and came back with a small portable TV, which he hooked up in the dining room. Now after dinner each evening, he would watch the news and then Perry Mason or Gunsmoke while the TV in the living room jabbered in Spanish and Delia and Nelda shared movie magazines on the porch. The children crowded at the small kitchen table to do their homework, a move they accepted without protest, as it placed them within arm’s reach of their grandfather’s stash of Vanilla Wafers. Sometimes Angie peeked into the dining room from her perch at the kitchen table to watch her father watching TV. One night she went to sit with him while the news was on.
“Daddy,” she asked, her cheek harboring part of a Vanilla Wafer. “Do you know what transubstantiation is?”
“Ask your mother.”
“I know what it is.”
“Then why are you asking me?”
Angie decided to ask her father a question that he could answer.
“Daddy, what’s the cold war?”
“It’s when people aren’t fighting each other, even though they really want to.”
Gunsmoke had come on and her father raised the volume to drown out the
Spanish-dubbed I Spy on her grandparents’ TV in the adjoining room.
Sister Patrick stood at the front of the classroom, grimmer than usual and with the disconcerting appearance of a tear in one eye, its glisten magnified by her glasses.
“Our beloved Sister Paul Anna has taken ill.”
Some of the girls started crying. Angie felt a pang inside her ribcage, as if a rock had lodged there, and felt her face go hot at the thoughts she had had recently about Sister Paul Anna. Since she had seen Nelda’s breasts, Angie had wondered about her mother’s, even her grandmother’s. At school, she had wondered about the nuns. Did they have them? But really, it was Sister Paul she had been curious about. Sister Paul with her young, movie-star face that Angie’s mother said was the image of Elizabeth Taylor.
“We must all pray for her,” Sister Patrick said.
As preparation for their First Communion, they practiced daily the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Act of Contrition. They kneeled beside their desks and recited these now. Then Sister Patrick ordered them to close their eyes and say a silent prayer from their hearts.
Angie closed her eyes and imagined Sister Paul in her bed beneath the blanket pulled to her chin, her head and body encased in the big black robes of her habit, her face pale and sweaty. Angie concentrated so hard on the image, she could summon no words of prayer. Sister Patrick ended the silence with a loud amen, and Angie held herself rigid, certain that Sister could read her thoughts or know her lack of prayer.
When they were back in their seats, Sister told them to take out a sheet of paper. “You will each write Sister Paul Anna a heartfelt get-well letter.”
Sister Patrick lay her hand over her heart to demonstrate the expected source of their words. Angie was aware of the children around her putting their own hands to their hearts because they knew that was what Sister expected of them and they were afraid to do otherwise. Angie placed her hand at the top of her ribcage, her fingers hanging off the left side of her collarbone. She felt her heart beat into the corner of her palm.
Angie listened to other people’s conversations a lot, and because she lived in a house with so many people and two TVs, she had a lot of conversations to listen to and, therefore, lots of words and sentences hovering in the spaces of her brain. She was a careful writer, both in forming her letters and her thoughts, even if not all of them were exactly her own.
Dear Sister Paul Anna,
During this time of cold war in the world, you have always been a breath of fresh air. You are the favorite of girls and boys and for those who think young. My faith that you will get well soon keeps me going strong.
Angie reread her words. She didn’t think nuns watched TV so was pretty sure that Sister Paul wouldn’t recognize the slogans from the Pepsi, Slinky, and Sugar Crisp commercials. It was a pretty good letter, she thought, but not special. Sister Patrick was telling them to finish up their letters soon, so Angie wrote quickly.
When you come back, you will have a big surprise.
Angie didn’t know what made her write such a thing. As Sister Patrick collected their letters, Angie wondered what exactly she had meant by that. What surprise could she, Angie, possibly invent? She watched Sister stack the letters on the corner of her desk and told herself that her letter was just one of many. It was nothing special. She forced a sigh of relief.
The next day when she came in from recess, there was a familiar sheet of paper on her desk. It was her own letter to Sister Paul Anna. For some reason she panicked at the sight of her words that were exposed for all to see. She looked up to see Sister Patrick, who was making a gesture at her, turning her open palm to face down, and finally Angie understood she was meant to flip over the letter. On the back was a letter from Sister Paul.
Thank you for such a lovely letter. It cheered me up greatly. I look forward to the day when I can return to the classroom.
Sister Paul Anna
No one else had received a letter from Sister Paul. But then probably no one else had promised her a big surprise.
She knew Sister Patrick had read her letter and she knew Sister Patrick had read the response from Sister Paul. It was a terrible thing to know.
It was Delia who had insisted they go to the Catholic school, though Henry argued they couldn’t afford it. “I’m on a seaman’s salary.”
“What’s the alternative?” Delia demanded. “The public school all rowdy with bullies and low-income kids?”
“You think there are no bullies in Catholic school?”
“Bullies are everywhere,” Angie said, amending a line from her catechism.
Delia would not budge. The money they might have spent on renting a house went instead to paying Catholic school tuition for three kids. Anyway, Delia reasoned, Catholic school made more sense now that Angie was to make her First Communion.
But when Angie came home with homework to memorize the Ten Commandments, the Seven Sacraments, the names of the Apostles, plus learn all her prayers, there was no one to help her. Henry liked to watch the news and Perry Mason, and Delia was always busy rocking Anthony to ease the fussiness to which he had lately become prone. Although happy to be back in California, Delia was nevertheless worried that the transoceanic trip and their new living arrangements had unsettled Anthony.
Angie followed her mother into the bedroom, where she lay Anthony on the bed to change his diaper. Angie thought her mother might have some ideas about what kind of a big surprise a nun might want. She handed her mother a wet cloth, the baby powder, and a fresh diaper. Her mother cooed to Anthony as she wiped and changed him, and Angie did the same. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you, little Anthony?” they said hopefully.
There were just the plastic pants to slip on, but Nelda was calling Delia to come listen to Doris Day on the radio. “Cantamos con la Doris.”
“I’ll be right back,” her mother told her. “Watch Anthony. Make sure he doesn’t fall off the bed.”
Angie watched her little brother squirm, his arms and legs like fat thrashing worms.
“You’re a good boy, aren’t you, little Anthony?” Angie said again, though this time it didn’t come out as a coo, as sweet encouragement. It sounded mocking, and Anthony started to cry, as if he understood her taunt.
“I’ll be right there, mijo,” her mother called, interrupting for a moment her sing- along to “Que Será, Será.”
Angie decided to deliver Anthony to her mother to save her the trouble of coming back to the bedroom. “Okay, mijo,” she told him as he observed her with wide eyes and a spit bubble at his mouth.
She lifted Anthony off the bed, her arms wrapped around his bottom. She expected his torso to follow the momentum of his butt against her body, but Anthony lurched backward and Angie did a dance with him as she tried to get her balance underneath his arching body. He was trying to launch himself out of her grasp and she knew the only hope she had was to make sure the bed was beneath him when he forced himself out of her arms and became airborne. But she was too late. The thud of his head on the floor stunned him into silence for a long moment during which Angie wondered if she might’ve killed her brother. But then he opened his mouth in a tragic scream. Angie gathered him quickly and practically threw him on the bed, which seemed to mollify him, as his screams petered out to hiccups just as her mother rushed to the bedside. She picked Anthony up and patted his head, his back, his diapered butt, and sent soothing whispers into his neck. She looked at Angie. “Did you let him fall?”
She hesitated. The answer was technically no. She had not let him fall.
“Don’t you lie to me,” her mother warned. “Did you let him fall?”
“No,” Angie said.
Her mother appeared to fume. “I sincerely hope not,” she said, whisking Anthony out of the room.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” They were the words Angie had been practicing in catechism class, words she would say to the priest the first time she stepped inside the confessional. They were to be followed by a recitation of her sins. So far, Angie’s list was short, which worried her. She was sure that much was expected of them in terms of sin. Should she lie about her sins? No, that would be a sin. But then at least she would have something to confess. She was undecided about whether dropping Anthony was a sin.
“You’re not afraid of the dark, are you? Aunt Nelda said as Angie kneeled at the bedside practicing her lines. “Because it’s dark in the confessional, you know.”
In fact, Angie was afraid of the dark, though she seldom had to worry about being alone in it at her grandparents’ house. There were so many of them living there under one roof. Anyway, there were lights constantly turned on as one or another of them made their way to the bathroom for a pee or the kitchen for a glass of water in the middle of the night.
Letty was in Nelda’s bed and Eva was next to Angie. Nelda, as usual, was in her underwear as she sat at her dresser, wiping make-up from her face with cotton balls dipped in baby oil from the same bottle used for Anthony’s butt. When she was finished, she shrugged the straps of her bra off her shoulders and reached around the back to undo the clasp, and said what she always said. “Want some teta?”
They had always shaken their heads, not really knowing what they were being offered. Tonight, though, Letty asked, “What’s teta?”
Nelda laughed. “I’m just teasing.”
Then she explained she used to feed Little Eddie with milk from her breasts.
“Our mother uses bottles,” Angie said.
“Not with me,” Eva said. “I was breastfed.”
“You were not,” Angie said, though she had no way of knowing; she just felt it shouldn’t
be true. But Nelda confirmed it.
“What about me?”
Nelda wagged her finger at her as if she had committed a wrong. “It’s just too much to ask of a woman to do it with more than one child. It makes a saggy bust,” she said, cupping her breasts in her hands, lifting them up and then letting them go. “They wouldn’t look this good if I’d had another baby to feed.”
Angie didn’t like having Nelda wag her finger at her. She didn’t like Nelda reminding her that the confessional was dark. She didn’t like when Nelda would tease and ask them to do the hula just because they’d lived in Hawaii.
Before Hawaii, Angie had not thought to question the absence of a father for Little Eddie, a husband for Aunt Nelda. But now, after Hawaii, now that she was seven, these things occurred to her and she formed her own conclusions. That you didn’t have to be married to have children. That somehow just being a grown-up caused you to have a child. Of course, this conclusion was soundly refuted by Eva. It doesn’t just happen automatically, she snorted. There has to be a kiss. And there’s a seed in the kiss. And the woman swallows it and it grows into a baby in her belly.
Who kissed Aunt Nelda, Angie wanted to know. She said it out loud: “Who kissed you and gave you a baby, Aunt Nelda?
Nelda looked stunned, and her lashes batted wildly. It made them all go silent.
“I’m telling Mama,” Letty said, and she slid from the bed and backed out of the room the way policemen do on TV.
Within seconds, their mother stalked into the room with Letty trailing behind. “What’s going on here?”
“Angie wanted to know who kissed Aunt Nelda and gave her a baby,” Eva said.
Their mother pursed her lips and folded her arms. “Nelda had a husband, but he died. Now no more discussion.” She looked sternly at Angie, as if she might have been responsible for killing him. But Angie knew her mother was lying.
They needed cheering up. Henry was tired of being a sailor and tired of living in someone else’s house. Delia said to him that at least he wasn’t the mother day-in and day-out to all these kids—at least he got to leave the house to go to work. Nelda was still looking tragic after Angie asked who kissed her. And Angie was still worried about the big surprise she had promised Sister Paul Anna. The grown-ups decided a drive to Marine Land to see the dolphins dance and the seals play polo would make them smile. But they would have to get an early start and miss church.
“But I’m not supposed to miss church when I’m studying for my First Communion,” Angie reminded them.
“Do you want to go to Marine Land or not?” her mother asked.
“On Mondays Sister Patrick makes us stand up and say why we didn’t go to church.”
“Ay, chica, just don’t stand up,” Nelda said.
Angie didn’t want to stand up. But she knew she wouldn’t have a choice. At least she could add not going to church to her list of sins to confess, along with asking Nelda who’d kissed her.
All of them squeezed together in the car, the one that had come back with them from Hawaii. The three grown-ups nudged up against each other in the front with baby Anthony on Delia’s lap, and the sisters jostled for space in the back with Little Eddie, from whose neck Nelda had tied a barf bag. There was no room for a guardian angel anywhere. No one complained about the lack of space, because it was better to be crammed in a car with a destination that wasn’t home than it was to be home, which wasn’t really their home.
They were scarcely out of their own neighborhood when a fiercely loud but mostly minor collision sent them home after all. Angie’s father had pulled to a stop behind another car at the traffic light. When the light turned green, and the car ahead failed to move, Angie’s father honked the horn. “We don’t have all day,” he muttered. The car ahead of them had stalled but its engine was doing its best to grind back to life as Angie and her family fumed impatiently in their cramped seats. The engine finally revived with a roar, but before the family could celebrate, their heads were flung against the dashboard, seatbacks, or each other. Angie ended up on the floor, knees at her chin. Little Eddie was splayed over her, his barf bag trapped beneath him. As Nelda screamed for her son, Angie held her hands up to catch the puke from Little Eddie’s mouth. Angie closed her eyes and waited for rescue, listening to her mother’s low wailing of something vague and garbled, which she slowly recognized as prayer.
The car ahead of them had, after revving its newly recharged engine, thundered into reverse and taken out the front grill of the Rubio car. Once they were all extricated from the dented vehicle, and Angie’s hands hosed off at the corner gas station, they sat on the curb as a police officer asked questions, wrote in his notepad, and talked into his two-way radio, after which they were allowed, bruised and scraped, to climb back into their beaten car with its cracked windshield, buckled hood, and empty headlight sockets, and limp home.
On Monday morning, Sister Patrick stood at the front of the room and asked which of them had failed to attend church on Sunday. Those who stood had to explain what had been more important than God. Angie stood bravely to face the humiliation. She stood partly out of her sense that Sister Patrick, Father Mulligan, her guardian angel, and God already knew of her absence from church. But partly because she felt a little heroic, and she was disappointed that the bruise on her forehead that had seemed so robustly purple the previous day was already fading.
“We were in a car accident,” Angie said, and she couldn’t help raising her hand to her forehead where the bump was − or used to be.
Sister Patrick frowned. Though it might have been concern, suspicion was also a possibility.
“My mother had stitches,” Angie said.
“Well,” Sister said, “thank God you are all safe.” It was a command.
Angie bowed her head, wanting to thank God instead for saving her from the wrath of Sister Patrick.
During silent reading time, when thirty sets of lips were moving soundlessly—including Angie’s, even as her mind wandered to the problem of inventing a big surprise for Sister Paul Anna—Sister Patrick called Angie to her desk.
Angie, shaky with guilt about her inattention to her reading, made her way slowly to Sister Patrick sitting large as a monument at the front of the room.
“Yes, Sister Patrick?” she whispered, aware that many of the lips in the room had ceased moving.
“Angie,” Sister Patrick said in a low, deep voice, “what is this big surprise you have in store for Sister Paul?”
Angie could not swallow, could not force words from her throat. She shrugged, not quite meeting Sister Patrick’s small gray eyes behind the rimless glasses.
“Do you mean to say that what you wrote is not quite true?”
Angie coughed to test her vocal chords. “I wanted it to be true. I meant for it to be true.”
“You know that’s not the same thing.”
There was a long pause, during which Angie considered running from the room. Some of the other students had stopped pretending to read and were watching the scene before them.
“What made you write such a thing?” Sister Patrick asked.
Angie heard Sister’s voice trying to be kind, but saw that her eyes were not. Angie’s impulse to flee left her. She stood rooted and faced Sister’s unfriendly gaze. “I wanted to make her happy. Because I love her. We love her.”
Angie knew it was wrong to speak for the class and she expected Sister to say so. But all she said was, “That will do. Please sit down now.”
Sister Patrick stood up. “And now for phonics.”
After their phonics lesson—at which the children did poorly, since no one understood what phonics meant – Sister Patrick instructed them all to put their heads face down on their desks, her chalky jowls quivering with displeasure. They did this whenever they played Heads Up 7-Up on rainy days, but today it wasn’t raining.
“Heads down, no peeking,” Sister Patrick said.
Angie watched little orange blobs float behind her closed eyelids. She could hear the restlessness of the children around her—the chafing of thighs, the skimming of saddle shoes against linoleum, the friction of sweater sleeves against grainy desktops. Angie was about to lift her eyes for a tiny peek when she felt a hand covering her head, guiding it back to its down position, holding it there. Finally, letting go. And the severe whisper of black moving past.
“Heads down, no peeking,” Sister repeated. Her voice came from the front of the room again, and it hovered over their bowed heads as she gave her next instruction. “If you hate me, raise your hand.”
There was a moment when the restlessness ceased, like the moment after a door slams and smothers everything to a hush when no one breathes. Then the fidgeting began again – the chafing thighs, shuffling shoes, rasping woolly sweaters – but Angie held herself still, her legs, her arms, especially her arms. It was hot with her face pressed upon her desk. It was hard to breathe. Her head pounded with voices. It’s a sin to hate. It’s a sin to lie. Raise your hand if you hate me. It was a single voice and then it was a chorus and though her eyes were closed and her head down and she could see nothing except tiny orange blots, couldn’t they all see her? Sister Patrick, Father Mulligan, her guardian angel, God. Angie needed air. She lifted her face, took a deep breath, and raised both hands high in surrender.
Donna Miscolta is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Her short story manuscript has been a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, and Brighthorse prizes in short fiction. “First Confession” is part of her novel-in-progress The Education of Angie Rubio.
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