We escaped the famine and landed in New York City expecting God knows what. Papa was determined while Mama held her counsel and my brother, Pete, absorbed everything from advertisements painted across buildings to crowds of unsure eyes and men in the shadows who awaited opportunities to exploit the weak and unsuspecting.
Papa was a big man so anyone would know to approach him with caution. Thus the sole figure who talked with us was a man in a wagon who bargained with Papa to guide us through the clamor and odors of the great city to our new home, a four-story walk-up tenement of two small rooms.
Pete and I slept in the kitchen while Mama and Papa took the only space that might pass as a bedroom. The flat appeared smaller than what we had in the old country, but we were spared the chill and dampness that filled our memories.
Papa made his living with his muscles, the matter above his shoulders being similar to my own. Following a dinner of beans or stew, Papa would sit in his chair and stare at a newspaper until he’d fall asleep and be nudged by Mama to come to bed. And It’d be years before I learned he could neither read nor write.
But he worked hard, drank hard, and spared no mercy to the two of us when we strayed from what he, Mama, or our given faith expected of us. What I endured from the nuns at school, I thought, should have been enough. But I was slower than my brother who wed himself to books and verses and soon won the hearts of the sisters. I, on the other hand, earned reddened knuckles and turned to my pal, Louie, who taught me street smarts. “Light-Fingered Louie” he was called. But I was never a quick study and soon got nabbed in a bodega where I’d attempted to lift some sweets.
After I endured a corporeal restructuring over Papa’s knee, Mama decided more time in a religious atmosphere was the answer to my formative needs. An altar boy clad in red, white, and innocence, I carried a brass cross down the aisle. Even I could not believe it. The other acolyte whose presence didn’t seem to reflect a need for punishment carried the processional torch and pretended I didn’t exist. But there were others assisting the father and more than a few shared the same heft of guilt that rested across my shoulders. I must admit after realizing so many in the congregation were watching us, or so I thought, I felt an air of importance, gifted even.
And just when I needed Papa the most, he had a massive heart attack and vanished from our midst entirely. I was left with a healthy respect for authority, discipline, and fear, nothing more. But Mama knew what I needed and filled a hole looming in my sense of self-worth. After evening Mass she’d peer down at me in my vestments and say, “Michael, you are very special.” And she’d follow this with a flowery pronouncement of my precious nature. As a witness to this undaunted pride that glowed in her face, I soon inhaled a new status for myself: blessed and holy in every respect.
And in return, I wanted to acknowledge her role early in what I suddenly realized would become my new destiny: ascendance to the papal throne in Rome. Adoring eyes from the pews remained fixed on me as I gripped the heavy brass crucifix and moved with grace behind Father Daniel down the aisle. Alert to my loyal following in the congregation, I soon felt assured of my bright new vision.
Richard, an older and wiser, helped me to foresee the next big move I’d make toward sainthood. “For your eyes only,” he said as he demonstrated the formal wave the Pope employed for large crowds. “Try this simple gesture during the processional,” he added. This sign, I decided, would confirm to all the path I’d take toward my resplendent holy orders to follow.
With soft strains from the choir loft, Father Daniel ventured forth down the aisle with two altar boys in his wake. With a firm grip on my staff, I moved in measured steps causing me to lag behind my colleague, Michael, who carried the weighty brass candlestick. About three-quarters of the way to the altar, I lifted my right hand from the staff and moved my flattened palm in gentle waves as Richard had instructed. This I achieved at the same moment I turned my smiling face to the right near the aisle where I knew Mama would be seated with my brother.
So caught up in this sacred moment I initially failed to realize that the top of the cross I carried had begun a rapid decent forward from its approved position. By the time I realized what was happening and attempted to right the pole with both hands, my holy crucifix had become a medieval lance in attack position. As fate would have it, I tripped on a piece of slate in the floor and fell forward, my weapon striking Father Daniel who stumbled headfirst into the altar.
An audible gasp filled the sanctuary as this young acolyte happened upon one of the masterful precepts of classical philosophy: if one is not present at an event, nothing concerning that individual could have occurred there. With the swiftness of Mercury, I raced from the sanctuary to the vestry where I hid behind a closet full of robes. A while later I heard the soft voice of the priest who’d entered my secret sanctum. If I said nothing to give myself away, I reasoned, he’d go away.
“Michael, I know you’re in here,” he said. Rats! All is lost. Purgatory, please welcome another fool.
After tears, hugs, and reconciliation, I was returned to Mama’s tender care. That night I vividly recalled Father Daniel’s parting words: “You are a special and beloved boy, Michael. Let’s just forget this unfortunate incident.” Had I heard his words clearly? The papacy still awaits, I thought.
But I needed a plan of action to confirm my local patronage before I moved on. And the idea I needed came to life the day I saw Lucy Greene enter the confessional. Lucy was in my class at school. She was no angel. I had the scratch marks to prove it.
My master strategy quickly fell into place. I’d slip behind the confessional, listen to the exchange, and then fill the Father in on the true nature of this wicked girl.
With reluctance, I’d be forced to confirm several sinful acts I was confident she’d conveniently fail to mention in her confession. It would be my holy duty to assist the Father in unraveling this girl’s sanctimonious testimony. I’d just place a glass against the back of the booth, put my ear to it, and listen to every word.
And I would have had I not sneezed and watched with horror as the glass broke into a thousand pieces at my feet.
I was soon blessed with new holy orders at Saint Peter’s Church. I was to polish brass. Brass this and brass that. So much of it to polish, more than a boy could ever imagine. But with every finished piece I could behold the reflections of my angelic face, the face of a future pope, I thought. My future assured.