St. Jean’s

If I dig my heels into the front mat real hard, maybe Annie won’t make me go. That’s what I tell myself every Sunday morning, cause it makes me feel a little bit better for trying even though I know it won’t ever do much good. But I do it anyway, cause it’s a pride thing—you know, like running away before bath-time every night despite knowing that Annie’ll get me eventually. It’s more fun that way.

Robbie explained it to me one day while we were chucking stones at the ducks in the pond over in central park when we were supposed to be watching my little sister Clara so she wouldn’t do something stupid like fall in the pond. He says that doing what the grownups say takes all the fun out of life, even if you know they really do love you. I told him I didn’t see how making sure to get soap behind my ears meant they loved me, but he said it does and he’s four and three quarters months older than me so I guess he knows.

Anyway. So I’m straining on Annie’s hand this Sunday morning just like all the other ones, whining that I don’t want to go to her beastly church, Catholic or anything else, and Annie’s ignoring me because that’s what she does when I whine (Mummy says that’s “good parenting”). “Annie!” I say, reaching back for the door frame as she effortlessly lifts me up the steps onto the cracking pavement, pressing my face against her Lavender-scented bosom in the process.

She drops me down into the early Sunday morning quiet of E 78th street, where I brush myself off, complaining loudly of smelling like ladies’ perfume and hoping nobody saw that, and soon I am on the way to church, trailing behind Annie and perfect Clara, hands shoved deep in my pockets, and dragging the toe of my left boot in the gutter as I do my best to scuff its shiny surface.

“How come Mum and Dad aren’t coming?” I ask sulkily, just like I do every Sunday morning.

“Yer mother and father lead busy lives, Michael, they deserve a bit of a rest of a Sunday mornin’. Stop dawdlin’.” She’s like those superman toys you pull the string on to make it go “Up, up, and away!” or “This looks like a job for. . . Superman!” over and over again every single time, except with a couple more things to say. I don’t think the Sunday Morning Argument has changed since she gave up wasting a “Jesus Christ, mother Mary, and all the Saints, young master Michael, I’ve told ye before!” on it.

We cross the street and I start dragging my other toe against the curb, just to even it out. It’s a sunny morning, which makes having to sit in church all the worse because I know all my friends will be out in Central Park or hanging around Mr. Harrison’s begging for the old Micky Mantle cards.

I hate going to church. It’s a waste of my time. But Annie insists that Clara and I accompany her to church every Sunday, and, even though our parents are about as religious as a bunch of chimpanzees, they think Annie’s idea is a good one. I guess it’s cause it gets us out of their hair. So every Sunday I’m dragged out our green front door (number 177) to follow my prim little sister and sturdy Irish nanny to God’s house to listen to a bald old man give the congregation lessons on how to fall asleep.

And now, not only am I out in my Sunday best early on a morning which would be better spent with my friends, but I’m being dragged to some foreign house of God in order to hear some new bald and pudgy man give lectures that for some reason it’s okay to ignore once you’ve reached the freedom and relatively clean air of the Upper East Side. It’s also apparently Catholic.

Catholic. I know Annie is Catholic and that she never liked taking us to the Anglican St. Paul’s over on the corner of Madison and 74th, but that’s about it. My parents insisted on St. Paul’s because they saw no reason to shell out subway fare just for Clara and I to visit a Catholic church and St. Paul’s is close enough to walk to. But now with the church on Lexington and 75th reopened, we’re going there and I can tell Annie is just happy as a clam about it, though I don’t know why people say that because what would a clam have to be happy about anyway?

There’s a bit of a spring in her step as we turn right onto 75th and she’s actually smiling, swinging Clara’s hand as she walks briskly past the electronics store where six TV’s are all playing reruns of the Ed Sullivan Show. I’d like to stop and watch, but Annie will have no dawdling, I know. She’s on her way to a Catholic church, and not even the girl scouts offering cookies on the corner of Lexington and 76th will slow her down.

Annie’s one of those old-fashioned Irish nannies New York can’t seem to get rid of. All my friends have them, but Annie’s the worst of the lot. She has one of those long, horsey faces—all nose and forehead and cheeks—and newsprint-colored hair that looks like it hasn’t been unpinned since Columbus set sail. Her eyes are framed by big thick glasses like Mr. Peabody’s and sometimes they make her look a bit like a fly. I told Mummy I thought that once and she asked me what I thought she looked like and I said I didn’t know. Annie wears sickly purple to church every Sunday (and, I guess, Wednesday night, when she goes to church over on her brother’s side of town in the evening to “pray for yer worrisome little soul, Michael (and yours too, dear, o’ course, though yer case ain’t so pressing as yer dear brother’s).”) and succeeds in looking a lot like the race horses you see on TV, except Annie would never dream of running around on all fours. She never, ever forgets to scrub behind my ears.

Still, I can’t reason why Catholic churches are different from Anglican ones, nor why Annie doesn’t like anything that isn’t Catholic. Just because she isn’t Anglican doesn’t mean she shouldn’t like Anglicans, at least I don’t think so, but I don’t even pretend to know anything about church. It’s not as if I pay attention; I spend my time squirming in the pews and begging Annie to let me take the wine at communion—which she never does.

Not that I really care about whether I attend a Catholic service or an Anglican one—I’m sure I won’t be able to tell the difference at all—and actually, I’m happy about cutting our walk short by a few blocks, but at least the old church was familiar. And it’ll be a bother to find new targets for my spitballs.

I just have to make sure I do that when Annie isn’t looking so she won’t tell Mum. It’s always such a fuss when Annie drags Mum into discussions over my behavior. Nothing ever comes of it—Mum only ever says “You’ll be a good boy for Annie, won’t you Michael? Mummy doesn’t have time to deal with your pranks and tantrums you know,” and gives me a lollipop or, on the rare occasions when she has the time, takes me around the corner to Baskin Robbins for a sugar-cone of Rocky Road for me and a mint chocolate chip cup for her. I don’t know why she always gets the same flavor wherever she is, but when I was younger and got a different flavor every time, I always felt a little bad because she only ever got the same mint chocolate chip. And she never has a lick of whatever flavor I had, even if I offer it to her and, eventually, I settled for Rocky Road.

Clara must never have noticed, or maybe never cared, because when she accompanies us, she still gets whatever she feels like and then climbs into Mum’s lap to show off her print dresses and adorable pigtails. I still think that the best thing those pigtails are for is pulling.

I eye Clara’s pigtails swinging temptingly before me now as she primly holds Annie’s calloused hand. Her doll, Clarisse, is half-falling out of her right coat pocket, the doll’s absurd eyes blinking with each of Clara’s steps. I wonder how long it would take Clara to notice if I stole Clarisse, already imagining the look of horror she’d get once she realized that she must have dropped the silly doll on the walk to church. She’d close her eyes tight and wail, though, which is only ever funny for the first two minutes. Then I just want her to shut up.

Annie turns and gives me a look as we reach the corner, causing me to abandon all plans of doll-napping and lean on the button guiltily. Clara and Annie are discussing the latest episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle, in which Bullwinkle unwittingly discovered the missing boxtops stolen by Boris and Natasha by falling down an elevator shaft. I thought the two nogoodniks were funny when they tried to kill Bullwinkle, but these things frighten baby Clara (she still cries in every episode of Tom and Jerry) and I hear her complain to Annie that sometimes it’s all “too scary” and she wishes she could just watch Disney’s Wonderful World of Color instead. I begin humming the Roger Ramjet theme song under my breath, hoping that when we get back from the new experience of Catholic church, I’ll be given free reign with the TV.

Might as well call it now. “Dibs on TV when we get back!” I practically shout.

“Hey! I wanted to watch Tom Terrific!” Clara immediately whines, looking up at Annie. Whoops, should’ve seen that coming.

Amazingly, though, crisis is averted when Annie reminds Clara that Dee is coming over after church and that they had planned to hold Barbie’s four month wedding anniversary party or something under the grand piano in the living room and that someone whose name sounded like Skipper had flown in specially for the event. I am pleased to announce that I will not be attending.

We’re in front of St. Jean’s by the time Clara has run out of people to invite to her party. Now she’s asking Annie if it’s alright for Sleepy-Time Barbie to wear her pj’s to a party and Annie is telling her that she thinks so, as long as she can stay awake for the toast. Clara wants to know why Barbie would eat toast at her anniversary and I tone them out.

St. Jean’s is bigger than St. Paul’s and more old-looking. I guess it’s the pointy things all over the roof that do it. The place looks rather prickly and I’m not sure I want to go in. We’ve stopped so Clara can stare up at the big colored window. People going into the church part around us and I can tell they’re giving me looks. Not pretty little Clara with her pigtails and Mary-Janes and her hand in Annie’s. And not Annie herself with her thick glasses and wooden cross around her neck. No, just at me, wondering what I’m doing there, a boy with the toes of his shoes all scuffed up and only half his hair combed flat. Wondering what my mother must have been thinking to let me out of the house with my shirt untucked like that. I know I’m the lesson for one boy a few years younger than me when his mother bends down next to him and points to me with a finger tipped with a shiny pink nail, while smoothing the kid’s Bobby Brady hair. I stare at the ground, hoping my cheeks aren’t reddening, and wanting Annie to hurry on inside.

But then something touches my head, rough fingers smooth my hair just the way that other boy’s mother was doing and Annie takes my hand. I look up at Annie. She’s not looking at me, but she’s smiling. We begin walking up the steps to the church door and when we go in and people start singing, Clara lets go of Annie’s hand. But I don’t.


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