The smell of a cigar in the hall announced
his arrival. We arose as he entered the room,
and remained standing until he enthroned himself
at Sister Mary Daniel’s desk. He opened with:
“How many of you boys want to be priests?
How many of you girls want to be nuns?”
Our hands shot up like geese taking off
for South America. One by one, we stood
at our desks as our names were called.
Father Thomas Patrick Coyne read
our report cards with the speed
of an auctioneer, if they were good:
“An A ’n’ an A ’n’ a B ’n’ an A.”
Or with the growl of a truck
stuck in a rut, if they were not:
“A D-e-e-e . . . and an F-f-f-f . . . and a D-e-e-e . . .”
During the pauses, the radiator hissed,
light reflected off Father’s bald head,
and his top teeth annexed his bottom lip
as he stared over the top of his glasses
at the offender. Fingernails and lowered eyes
sought refuge in the old “somebody loves
somebody” initials carved on the desks.
Next, the floor was opened to questions.
Father had a question box in the vestibule
at church, used a blackboard for sermons,
and was not above fusing a little show biz
with religion, like Bishop Fulton J. Sheen on TV.
We kept our questions safe and predictable:
How would there be room for all of us in heaven?
What was his favorite Irish song? And
how exactly does the Trinity work again?
But Darlene, the raven-haired
beauty of our sixth-grade class, stood and asked:
“Father, if the pope ever changed the rules
and said priests could marry, would you?”
She had been known to slip into the chapel
once or twice without covering her head,
but this was pushing it. Everyone knew
the last thing Father wanted was a woman.
They needed to be curbed and covered up.
Father once refused to perform a marriage
because the bride was exposing too much
throat, until the scarf of a guest
brought her up to code and saved the day.
According to Father, the fire of the weaker
vessel needed to be reduced to a thin flame,
contained in matrimony, and brought out only
for procreation, if men were not to be burned.
As for the young couples who went out to
the cemetery on Saturday night to swap spit,
they could save themselves a lot of trouble
by spitting into a fruit jar and each taking a sip.
While cleaning the church one Saturday, I overheard
a woman complaining that Father had repeatedly
ignored the questions she had dropped into
the question box: “What do you have against
women?” “Were you ever done in by a woman?”
Now Darlene’s question. Father’s eyes turned to ice.
He looked her up and down, taking in the budding
curves beneath her pink sweater,
her black-and-white saddle shoes nervously rocking
with the motion of butterfly wings:
she was in over her head and she knew it.
Then Father searched row by row,
his piercing blue eyes twin spotlights stopping
on each face for a second, looking for any
signs of a smirk. There were none.
When Father finally turned his gaze
back to Darlene, his voice rose.
The storm was about to commence.
“Well,” he said, “if that ever happens, I can
promise you this. . . .” A pause; his face relaxed.
“I’ll be at your house, first thing!”
We looked at each other. Father was
smiling slightly. Then he started to laugh.
We started to laugh. Soon the room was bound up
in sanctified laughter.