BonTon Potato Chips. Crisp. Crunchy. Salty. Five cents a bag. No baloney sandwich should ever be without them. It’d be like Fred Flintstone going bowling without Barney Rubble. It’s all I can think of too, as we board the yellow school bus. It’s my first class trip. Ever.
When I reach the top step, I ask the driver if we’ll be back in time for lunch. Mr. Anthony blows a stream of smoke at the ceiling and tosses a lit cigarette out the window. “Yes.”
“Where are we going?”
“Nearby. But the bucket is under your seat, just in case.”
Finally! My prayers have been answered. No chance of getting sick and I found a nickel on the sidewalk this morning. Someone upstairs really is listening. It would be perfect, except Joey won’t be coming back with us for lunch today.
SNAP goes Sister Rose Carmel’s veil.
A blast of wind flaps her habit like bed sheets strung across my nana’s wash line to dry. If the nun were my size, she’d be lifted off her feet, tossed to the ground, and blown down the street. A real live black, pink, and white tumbleweed. Nothing like the ones in my favorite westerns.
The knee-length chain of rosary beads hanging from her black leather belt rustles, too.
Does she know one’s missing? Glory be! It’s one of the Hail Marys! Will God give her a demerit every time she skips one? How many does it take to keep you out of heaven? I’ll have to remember to tell her about the nickel He sent me. Bon Ton Potato Chips. I can almost taste them.
Sister’s arms fly to her head and hold down her veil before the wind rips it off. Too bad, ‘cause I really want to see what’s under there. Pony tail, braids, a crewcut? No one knows. I’ve asked.
How long do we have to stand around? My stomach’s growling.
Sister’s lips stretch into a straight line making her one dimple like the dot at the bottom of an exclamation point, except this one looks like it feinted dead across her face.
“Size places,” she shouts over the blaring horn of a dump truck rumbling down Sand Lane. “And single file.”
Once I get behind the other Donna, Sister leads our string of third graders up the steps of the small, grey church. Inside, she shivers then dips her fingers, middle and pointer, into the stone cup of water built into the wall and tap, tap, tap, tap—makes a sign of the cross with them. She waits for us to do the same.
Forehead—heart—left shoulder—right shoulder. One of the other Josephs touches his lips, too. Eeewww. After anyone but Johnny. That kid swipes his fingers under his nose too many times in a day.
We press our hands together, fingers like kites pointing at the sky, ready for her to walk us up the spic-and-span aisle.
The church smells of burnt toast. How much longer is this gonna take?
Baloney on white. My lunch. Plain. No mayo. No mustard. No butter. Daddy knows just the way I like it. Nothin’ but baloney. NOT b-o-lo-g-n-a. Three round, pink slices of lunch meat on a pillow of soft white bread. And a bag of BonTon Potato Chips. 5 cents, in the school cafeteria.
Smoke floats in the sunbeams shining through tall, colored-glass windows. One ray stabs right through the heart of the Blessed Mother in her flowing blue robe holding the baby Jesus in her arms. You’d think she’d have at least wrapped Him in a blanket. If I have to put on a dress, hat, and gloves when I go to church, He should be wearing more than a diaper. Especially since He’s hanging in that window for all to see.
The fuzzy light shines on a casket standing in the middle of the aisle. A weird word. Not on the vocabulary list. Not yet. Casket. White. Covered in roses, and sitting on top of a flat wagon. I know it’s a wagon because the lace cloth covering it should be a little longer to hide the wheels peeking out from underneath. If Joey could see it, he’d get up and fix it. He was a real neat-nik.
Shuffle. Shuffle. Gen-u-flect.
Red-white-and-grey plaid uniforms. Black coats. Purple robes. The procession, that’s what they call a long line of people shuffling along, is taking forever.
Put the nickel away, she says. Sister Rose Carmel does.
A fourth slice would be nice. It could cover the white spaces, reach all the way to the golden-brown crust. Maybe even flop over the edge, too. But nothing is perfect. Or so they say. Except for God. They say that, too. And His infinite wisdom. When it’s my turn to meet Him face to face, I’ll have to ask why He didn’t use those smarts to plant the idea of square baloney into some butcher’s head.
Arms open wide. Please stand.
Lots of crying.
Maybe Joey will bring it up to Him. The baloney thing.
In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sanсti.
Joey always bought the hot lunch. It was how he spent some of his allowance. But he won’t be buying a hamburger today. No hot dog tomorrow. Or fish sticks on Friday, either.
They must be free though, don’t you think? The chips? In heaven?
Classmate Joseph Tosto died of Leukemia when we were in third grade. I didn’t know him well, but in the over fifty years since, impressions from his funeral mass still surface from time to time. Imagine my surprise though, at how matter-of-fact my 8-year-old self perceived the day when I put pen to paper during a writing exercise.
This one’s dedicated to you, Joey,
2 young 2 B 4 gotten