I walk quickly, without pause, for fear someone will read my mind and discover my intent—to skip mass and enter the inner sanctum where only the invited can go. The church was once a movie theatre. It’s grand. Its expanse covers most of a city block. The three double sets of doors in front are brass. Above them is a larger-than-life statue of a young boy riddled with arrows. My throat and shoulders tighten. I look away.
Before entering the church I’m stopped by the roar of the train overhead. I don’t want the loud mechanical sound to follow me as I walk in and draw attention. Inside I admire the marble floor, shiny and slippery. I stare at the distorted image of myself reflected in the perfectly polished brass holy water sconce as I dip my fingers in, knowing that I don’t believe in its blessing. The brilliant brass chapel gate is locked like the pearly gates of heaven. The dark red velvet curtains of the confessional are ornate. The gold tabernacle like a treasure is set with gems.
The body of the church holds some mystery for me. It is a different place when it’s empty. It’s peaceful with a mystical air. I imagine myself as a queen, the church my palace. I’d like to feel that I belong with the others but I never have.
I open the next set of doors and stand for a moment looking down the aisle that slants towards the altar. It’s five after nine. Mass has begun. The church is full of people now and the eyes of some turn toward me. I inhale the soothing scent of Frankenstein, as I like to call it, and myrrh. I cross the back of the church then enter the narrow hallway that leads to a big room that holds the envelope system. I exhale with relief as I knock on the thick wooden door. Father Karl, tall, thin, his face chiselled, his expression stern, smells of cigar. He stands aside, says nothing as I enter. I’m expected and take my seat in a tall wooden chair with the seven or eight kids already seated around the long rectangular table.
Our church issues small boxes of numbered envelopes to the parents and each school-aged child in the family. The boxes arrive at school during class and the nuns give them out at the end of the day with a strong dose of guilt that’s meant to impress upon us the righteousness of giving to The Church.
“Now remember boys and girls, remind your parents! Miss Kelly, Mr. Conrad, Miss Godat!”
My body knots up when Sister Elizabeth Michael says my name. It is our responsibility, even as little children, to fill the envelopes with money, mark the amount on the outside and place them in the basket passed around at Sunday mass. There is only one problem, my family doesn’t have extra money for The Church, and my father is clear.
“The fucking church doesn’t need my goddam money. The Church is rich enough.”
My parents were married in The Church but my father has no love for religion and never goes to mass. It seems to me that this time he’s correct in his thinking. The nuns and priests don’t have holes in their shoes. I do. They don’t have rotting teeth. I do. They have no shame in not having. I do.
All the kids at school are talking about greasy cheeseburgers and thick milk shakes from the new burger-and-shake that opened in our neighbourhood. The enticing aroma lingers heavily and plays on my need to comfort myself with food. I hear from the other kids that we can order whatever we desire as a reward for our services and couldn’t be happier. When the priest comes to my class and asks for volunteers, I’m quick to respond.
The job is to empty the money from the envelopes. Each Sunday from September to June, I sit at the long table, feet dangling, faithful to the task. I can’t say when it occurred to me that I could steal some of the money. Stealing was not new to me.
“I’ll hold that for you,” my father would say when I received a gift of money for my birthday or Christmas.
“No, it’s mine.” I’d fight back knowing his intent.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get your stinking money back! Do you think I need your damn money?”
I guess he did need it because I never got it back. So when it is my time to steal, my anger and need outweigh my fear and guilt. I begin my weekly removal of two to three hundred dollars. We girls wear stretchy panty girdles that come down to our knees. They hold up our stockings. Now mine will hold much more.
The room is long and narrow. There is just enough space for someone to pass behind the chairs. At one end of the room there is an alcove that holds a change counting machine. The jingling sound never stops and I hum soft tunes to the rhythms I find in its constant clink. The shelves are stacked with moneybags, money bands and paper tubes that will become rolls of pennies, dimes, nickels and quarters.
The oversized crucifix demands attention, looming high on the wall at the head of the table. Christ’s body is limp, powerless, blood dripping from the thorns that pierce his head. His nailed palms hold his weight, his eyes follow me and, if I let them, see through to my core.
The room feels close and stale. There are no windows and heat pours out of the vent on the ceiling. The priests stand close to each other and talk in hushed tones. The baskets arrive and are dumped out along the centre of the table. We are given instruction: take the money out, fold the bills and place them in piles face up, ones, fives, tens, twenties. Stack the empty envelopes so the names of the giver can be seen. Father Henry pauses to chat with the boys as he circles the table to pick up stacks of money. He asks them about the boys’ brigade and how they are doing at this or that sport. The priests rarely talk to the girls. They ask no questions. They show no interest in me at all. I’m grateful.
I single out the envelopes with large amounts marked on the front. There’s no sense in taking anything less. I place these envelopes still containing the money next to the others so that they appear empty. When everyone looks busy, I use my body to conceal the movement of my hand as I slip the first stack of envelopes in between the warm skin of my thigh and the tight elastic of my panty girdle. I do this not without a frozen feeling of shame that I push aside, but not away. With stealth, I repeat the process five more times. Three packs fit snugly at the front of each of my little legs. An hour passes and our shift ends.
Father Peter carefully lists our food choices and sends two boys the four blocks to fill the order. The instant the boys return the smell of money is gone, replaced by the smell of gratification. With each bite of burger, each French fry and every sip of milk shake I sigh with relief. The stress of the day floats away.
Thirty minutes later I leave for the diner across the street. As I walk in, I scan the place, noticing a few regulars sitting at the counter. I order an English muffin and hot chocolate then head to the ladies room. I lock the door and take out the money. I rip the envelopes into very tiny pieces and flush them down the toilet. I can’t flush too often or I might attract attention.
I think of how I should act as I exit the bathroom. Will anyone see that I have a big wad of money, tens, twenties and fifties in the waistband of my panty girdle? Exiting the bathroom takes courage. Looking as relaxed as possible takes courage. I’m sure if I slip up someone will see what I have done.
I’m careful to hold out the five dollars I will use to pay the check. I sit at the counter and eat the muffin, cold. Sip the chocolate liquid that works its magic on my mood. I will visit the ladies room once more to empty my stomach and ready myself so that I might fill the void once more.
“How are you this morning?” the man behind the counter asks me.
“I’m fine,” I answer as I rub my cold sweaty hands down the sides of my body. His daughter and I are both eleven years old. I like her. I’m sad that her dad is selling the diner and their apartment upstairs. They’re moving away.
On my way out I bump into Maureen and her older brother Jimmy coming out of the candy store. He’s insisting angrily that the larger half of the Sugar Daddy bar is his. She’ll have to give in or he’ll punch her. That’s how he gets his way.
Maureen and I dump Jimmy and walk around our neighbourhood. It only takes ten or fifteen minutes to find a few more kids whose parents won’t notice if they’re gone all day. These kids, like myself, have food on the table. We have clothes, we attend school. What we don’t have is the positive attention of our parents and teachers.
When we find two or three of our wayward friends, it’s not yet noon. I hail a taxi and we take it to Central Park. We ride a hansom carriage more than once, visit the zoo, buy roasted chestnuts, and take multiple spins on the carousel. We have ham sandwiches at a diner and ice cream sundaes loaded with hot fudge, chocolate sprinkles and nuts or banana splits with three flavours of ice cream, chocolate syrup and rainbow sprinkles at our favourite ice cream parlour, Friendly’s. Ice cream, like cheese, holds a special type of comfort for me. Comfort like that of a mother’s, I imagine. Soothing, attainable, predictable, constant, reliable.
Outside the air feels colder. My fingers, pink, without gloves, stick together as we walk past the fountain in Washington Square Park. I pull on a piece of hair that is glued to my cheek.
“You have chocolate on your face,” Maureen says. I stop to look in the side view mirror of a parked car to wipe it off.
Another Sunday we go to China Town, exotic, strange, unfamiliar. Glass wind-chimes move energy through doorways. Dead animals hang in windows—faces with eyes like portals to another world. We order noodle soup from a man that speaks little English. Then we stroll in and out of shops we have no business in.
A couple of weeks later we visit Forest Park and the Dixy Doo Riding Stable. I feel a bond with the horses that have been confused by the multitude of people they are forced to bear. I get to know them and I have my favourites: Misty, Thunder, Dotty with her sweet eyes and gentle disposition. Ruby, who has spots on her rump and wants to take the lead. Buba, who will run into the street if you give him his head and won’t stop until he reaches the barn. Cyclone, who might have been a whirlwind once, but is now content to take it easy. We are a good fit, we understand one another. We ride for an hour, change horses and go again.
Afterwards, legs wobbling, arms tired, we walk five blocks to have pizza. I save just enough money for the ride home. I give big tips. Sometimes I even leave twenty or fifty dollar bills in the taxi or on the subway seat, unable to spend it all. When I return home Sunday evening there can be no evidence.
The guilt and shame I once pushed aside housed itself under my skin. I carried it half of my life. That and other “sins” prevented me from loving myself but every fibre of my being wanted forgiveness. It took years of hard work and disclosure before I felt a small kernel of acceptance growing inside me. I came to an understanding that there was nothing to forgive. I was never caught and if there was a Catholic God, He was on my side and gave me the opportunity to rise out of deprivation, and to be, if only for a short time, a secret Robin Hood.
© Aileen Godat
[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse]