Bless Me, Father
St. Rose of Lima Church and School in New York’s Washington Heights was our second home, complete with a covey of Dominican mommies and Diocesan daddies teaching and serving in loco parentis each weekday. The names of the nuns, characterized some years later by a favorite Jesuit as “Sister Mary Tabernacle Door,” have become lost in the rustle of black and white penguin-like habits punctuated by the constant rattle of the five feet of rosary beads that hung from their belts.
But all that was out of mind that warm summer vacation day when the four of us decided to explore the railroad tracks that ran along Riverside Park, an elongated strip of ball parks and picnic grounds on the west side of Manhattan bordering the Hudson River. This was familiar territory, both for the diversions of the park and for the tracks themselves that occasionally featured a string of empty freight cars parked for an unknown period of time. We enjoyed climbing on the cars, turning the big brake wheel on the end, running along the cat walk on top and bravely jumping from car to car.
On this particular day, however, we noted that the freight cars we encountered were not empty. They were closed up and sealed with a thin, zinc-like tag on the door handle. Hmmm. Wonder what’s in here?
Can we break that seal and look inside? Yes, by golly, we can. It took all four of us to push back the big door, but we made it and…whoa! This was a refrigerator car! And stacked inside, top to bottom, were large white cardboard boxes of frozen…what? Shrimp! Wow. Shrimp. Shrimp?
I doubt the others were any more familiar with shrimp than I was, and that was near zero. I can’t even recall a fish market on my mother’s regular shopping route. As we explored our discovery further, someone suggested that shrimp was very valuable. That we might be able to take some back with us and sell it, if our families weren’t interested in it. We pried open one or two of the boxes to learn first, that these boxes weighed a ton and we were unlikely to carry even one them back home. Second, we learned that the shrimp was frozen so solid we were hard pressed to break loose even a sampling. We managed to liberate about a dozen shrimps, raw and hard as rocks, tossed them around on the tracks, pushed the door closed and abandoned any further schemes of shrimp-fueled riches.
We arrived back in the neighborhood in time for Saturday confession and headed for the church. Quietly we dipped into the holy water in the lobby, made our signs of the cross and filed down the right aisle passed the giant Romanesque Revival columns built at the turn of the century to pause at the confessional in the church’s right side. As we settled into a pew, we noted the nameplate on the confessional door. Father Murray was hearing confessions that day. Yikes! Father Murray! Anxiety shot through our bodies as we realized our beloved Fr. Costello wouldn’t be there to dispense the Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers, and we were left to the harsh assessments of the dreaded Father Murray, St. Rose’s spiritual Simon Legree. The common joke on Murray was he came with the church, which was built in 1901. So ok, we bucked up, recalling that Fr. Murray was getting a little hard of hearing and if you mumbled, you might get by with a few dozen curses, five disobediences, and several impure thoughts.
We established a pecking order silently as good friends can, and voted Vinnie for first victim. Vinnie was an altar boy and was well known to Fr. Murray, even in the secrecy of the confessional. He was also a track star and could run. As he entered the box and began his ritual, the rest of us knelt nearby straining to make out the whisperings coming through the curtain. Suddenly, a clap of thunder shook the building, instantly echoing across the church’s cavernous space with the sound of Father Murray’s too familiar voice: YOU WHAAAT!!!???
Johnny and Skippy bumped into each other and I into both of them as the sound wave from the box blew us from the pew. We sprinted for the street on legs rapidly turning to rubber. The votive candles at the altar flickered away from the confessional for several seconds and died. The three pigeons that had been living at the top of the nave for as long as anyone could remember proved that they could actually fly. It was rumored later that the stately column nearest the confessional had moved 1/16” off its base.
We didn’t see Vinnie until the following week. He looked ok, coming out of Mandelbaum’s Candy Store with an orange Nehi. So what did you say to Murray, we asked. “Just the usual,” he said. “You know, bless me father for I have sinned. It’s been one week since my last confession.”
“Yeah, then what?”
“I said I cursed 20 times and my friends and I hijacked a freight car.”
For the next several weeks we went to confession at the Spanish church where it was rumored they didn’t speak much English.
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George Duncan is a veteran, award-winning marketing copywriter and consultant in Peterborough, New Hampshire. His book, Streetwise Direct Marketing, was published in January 2001. Democracy Held Hostage, a collection of Letters to the Editor from 2004 to 2008, was published in 2009. George has had numerous articles published in marketing and trade publications and on leading Web sites. In 2008 he retired from a 50-year marketing career and today is finding new joy in writing memoir, creative non-fiction, fiction and poetry.
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