by Liz Dolan
“If you creep down the stairs and tell us everything you see, Julie; we’ll give you a quarter, ”a quarter that we did not have nor had any prospects of getting in the near future. Julie tiptoed down the slate stairs, peered through a chink in the splintered oak door and promptly threw up; she dashed up the stairs, dodged the traffic as she crossed the street and vanished into the dingy hallway of 621.
Since Julie neglected to tell me and my buddies, the privileged inhabitants of 615, the apartment building whose store front housed Mulligan’s Funeral Home, what she saw before she threw up, we felt no obligation to pay her the quarter which we did not have.
After all, my buddies and I had deigned to share precious information with her and had regaled her with the sights and sounds we of 615 had beheld on a daily basis by peering through the cracks in the door of the embalming room which was in the basement beneath the funeral home. We had narrated tales of tubes sucking out the last drop of ruby blood from the deceased, tales of needles injecting fermaldehyde into the veins of the arms, legs, neck and even the brain. We had portrayed the six foot Mike Mulligan and his five foot brother Joe as the John Wayne and Barry Fitzgerald of the burial business. We had imitated Joe lathering the corpse with Ivory Soap and lavishing it with baby oil. We had described the struggle to dress the corpse, big Mike supporting the body as little Joe pulled the pants up the stiff legs. We embellished the loving attention paid to the face, the shutting of the eyes, often with glue, the rouging of the skin and the application of pink lipstick, even to the putrid lips of the men.
Although Julie had seemed to be mesmerized by our tale, she dared not only question our veracity but also our bravery. “I don’t believe a word you are saying; I don’t believe any of you has ever seen a corpse being embalmed.” As a matter of honor we had to challenge Julie to see for herself.
When I saw Julie in class the next morning, she looked more ashen than the corpse I knew she had not seen. In sharp contrast to Julie’s pallor were the crimson cheeks and strident voice of Sister Mary Edward, “Someone in this class is spreading calumny about me.”
Kiss up McKenna waved her hand like a Fourth of July flag, “ What is calumny, Sister?”
“Someone in this class told her parents and God knows how many other people that I required each of you to donate two dollars to the Bishop’s Relief Fund so we could raise the highest amount in the school.” Sister’s deep voice darkened, “Someone has besmirched my good name and I expect the culprit to step forward and publicly admit her boldface lie.” No one breathed except Anna Mulholland who dropped her fountain pen and in one swift catlike motion retrieved it with a grace I had never beheld before. “If no one comes forward within the next 24 hours, I expect anyone who has any information to aid in the apprehension of the prevaricator to speak to me privately. Anyone who withholds information shall be dealt with as severely as the calumniator herself. Do I make myself clear?”
If sister had made herself any clearer, the entire fifth grade class would have evaporated gladly for her words struck fear in all our hearts, “Examine your benighted
consciences and see if your loose tongues have denigrated the good name of a holy servant of God.”
I couldn’t remember what sister had told us to bring in; three dollars, two dollars, too much money for any of us since we all had siblings sprinkled throughout the school who also contributed their pennies to the Bishop’s Fund. Every Lent since first grade we had filled our cardboard mite boxes with the pennies we saved rather than wasted on candy, a sacrifice we happily made to feed the starving children in the jungles of darkest Africa. Every penny had added another star to our celestial crowns; but Sister’s harsh words had tainted our humble offerings.
Walking home after school I offered Julie a bite of my apple, but she glared at me as she tried to balance her green canvas book bag on her head. “Speaking of liars, where is my quarter? Maybe you’re the culprit Sister is hunting down.”
“Julie, how can you say such things to your very best friend?” blushing as I recalled the tales I had fabricated about the corpses I had never seen.
“Sister scares me,” said Julie; she makes me so nervous that I have trouble breathing and my palms sweat. And now she has made everyone in the class suspicious of each other.”
“I know, Julie, I’m scared, too.”
“You know she’ll accuse one of us if no one comes forward; it’s just a matter of time. Maybe I am the one who besearched Sister’s good name without even realizing it.”
“It might have been me,” I said. I’m always bragging to my bratty brother and sister how our class has to be the best in the school in everything. Maybe I told them Sister had insisted we bring in two dollars.”
“See what I mean, Kathleen; she’s making us crazy. She’s making a big dramatic deal about nuthin’ and she’s terrorizing us. I can’t take it.”
As we passed the triple oak doors of St. Luke’s, our parish church, we decided a visit and a few prayers might protect us from accusation. The cool darkness wafted over us as we dumped our school bags by the alabaster holy water fountains, we blessed ourselves and sprinkled holy water in each other’s faces. Kneeling on the cold marble steps before the altar railing, we folded our hands and prayed, “Please, dear Jesus, forgive us our sins especially if we were the ones who through the vileness of our loose tongues besearched the character of our teacher, who holds this terrible lie over our heads like the sword of Demosthes or Damocles, whoever. Amen.”
“Who’s the patron saint of calumpiators?” whispered Julia.
“Maybe Saint Jude, the hope of hopeless cases, or maybe Saint Dismas, the thief who died next to Christ on the cross, or maybe Saint Columba is the patron of calumpiators. Let’s pray to all three just to be on the safe side. Dear Saints Jude, Dismas, and Columba, forgive our ignorance, but please help sister to calm down and to stop making a big deal over nuthin’. Amen.”
Two days later after we silently hung our coats in the oak sliding door closets and stood for morning prayers, Sister adjusted her dome like black veil lined in white linen and hooked her thumbs into the black leather belt that cinched her waist like a gladiator’s.
“You may or may not have noticed that Julie is not with us this morning because she has been transferred to Sister Antoinine’s class and you all know the reason why!” Fortunately, Sister ignored Kiss up McKenna’s flapping hand whom I swore to myself I was going to beat the hell out of in the school yard. “Let us pray. Dear Lord, forgive the weakness of our flesh; forgive especially the weakness of our tongues and especially forgive Julie who has confessed her prevarications.”
We all whimpered “Amen.” I did not know if the tears that were stinging my eyes were tears of loneliness, relief or guilt.
At three o’clock I waited for the exiled calumniator. Emerging like a winged dove from the steel doors of Saint Luke’s, Julie was standing behind petite Sister Antoinine.
“I missed you today, Kathleen, but I didn’t miss Sister Mary Edward. Sister Antoinine played baseball math today!”
“I’m mad at you, Julie; why didn’t you deny Sister’s accusation? She had no proof. Besides, even if someone in the class said she told us to bring in two dollars, nobody meant to hurt Sister in any way.”
“Sister didn’t accuse me; I confessed.”
“Confessed? Are you crazy? Why?”
“Because I knew what the punishment would be; the queen bee would dismiss the faithless servant from her court.” Grinning like the Cheshire cat, Julie spun around and blew a kiss to Sister Antoinine whose tanned face was radiant framed in white. As she glided towards the school door, she frisbeed the kiss back to Julie and winked. Locking arms Julie and I crisscrossed our steps as our bulging book bags scraped our bare knees.
“Maybe we can squeeze in a prayer of thanks to Jesus, Jude, Dismas and Columba, whoever she is, on the way home,” said Julie as she sheared the wrapper off a Welch’s Fudge and handed me half.
“Somehow I am going to pay you that quarter I promised.”
“Nah, give it to the starving children in Africa.”
-refers from the word quarters in Jim Valvis’ story Someday You’ll Understand