by Sharon M. Kennedy
I’m all gussied up in my First Communion clothes. My dress and veil and lacy white socks are beautiful, but I look the same as every Sunday morning—ugly. My curly hair looks ridiculous. My dress has short sleeves so everybody will see my hairy arms, and there’s a big scab on my right arm. I fell on the gravel four days ago when I was on my bicycle and ran over a dead toad. Mama said the scab was God’s punishment because I should have buried the toad, not tried to drive it further into the road. She wouldn’t listen when I told her the toad was already half-buried and I was just finishing the job.
Yesterday I made my first confession and told the priest almost all my sins—he cut me off before I could tell him everything—so I’ll have lots to say next time. I’ll tell him I hated Sister Mary John. She yelled at us if we didn’t know the answers to the questions in our catechism. It was hard work, but it’s over now and I can’t wait to taste the wafer the priest will stick on my tongue. I’m not supposed to call it a wafer. It’s the host, the body of Christ, but I feel more comfortable calling it a wafer because it makes me feel less like a cannibal and more like a regular kid. I have to be careful that I don’t chew it. Sister Mary John had a fit when I asked why our teeth can’t touch it. She screamed we must let the host melt on our tongue because God wouldn’t want us chewing on His son. I asked why God would worry about kids chewing on His son’s body when He wouldn’t rescue Jesus from the crucifixion. Wasn’t killing him worse than eating him, I asked. Sister Mary John gave me a mean look and turned away, but Sister Mary Margaret—the young nun—tried to explain it was bad manners to chew in church. I still didn’t understand, but I felt sorry for her because I figured she didn’t know either so I did what Papa’s always telling me to do—I clammed up.
I reach for my new white shoes and take them out of the box. I’ll take good care of them. They have a strap I buckle up tight so they’ll stay put. My feet are thin. The man at the shoe store said he’d never seen such long, skinny feet. He made me feel like a freak. I thought salesmen had more sense than to insult a kid when her Mama’s putting out money to buy new shoes but when there’s only one shoe store in town, I guess the salesman can be as rude as he wants.
The nuns told us we had to wear white everywhere today because now we’re little “brides of Christ” but that’s the last thing I want to be. I want to be the bride of Jerome Bitters but he’s not Catholic so it’ll never happen. I have to settle for sitting beside him in class and dreaming of him before I go to sleep. Sister Mary Margaret told us we’d probably die horrible deaths if we didn’t marry Catholics. I told her I thought God didn’t even like us or He wouldn’t have made all the Catholic boys so homely except maybe Larry Lawrence. She told me to mind my manners and not judge people by their looks, but I’m just a kid—what else am I supposed to judge them by?
Mama yells from the bottom of the stairs for me to hurry up. Papa’s in the car, honking the horn like he does every Sunday morning. He tells me I look like a princess. Before we get to the end of the lane, he unscrews his flask and takes a snort. Mama tells him to stop that—people in the pew in front of him will smell whiskey on his breath—but he doesn’t mind her. We finally get to the church. When I see the steeple reaching towards the sky, I get spiders in my stomach. I’m the tallest kid and I’ll bring up the rear. All week Mama’s been warning me not to trip and fall because coming in last is the most important spot, and everybody will be watching me. She doesn’t want me to embarrass her. I told her I wouldn’t, but now I’m not so sure. My shoes feel a little tight. It would be horrible if I stumbled and crashed to the floor. Mama turns to me. “You look pale,” she says. “How do you feel?”
“I guess I’m okay,” I say, but my stomach’s churning like a butter paddle.
“You’ll be fine,” Mama says. “Just remember not to walk too fast, and for the love of God, don’t chew the host. Make sure you close your eyes and stick out your tongue when Father gives you communion. Don’t open your eyes until you feel the host on your tongue. Walk back to your pew and keep your eyes on the floor. Don’t look around like a crow on a fence post.” By now my heart’s pounding. I know I’m going to trip walking down the aisle and ruin everything. We get out of the car. Sister Mary John has one hand on Larry’s ear and the other on Mitch’s. The boys are already in trouble, and we haven’t even set foot in the church.
“Guess what,” Mitch says when I stand next to him. “Guess what I’m gonna do when I get communion. Guess.” He’s hopping on one foot, then the other. His new black shoes are dusty and scuffed. “I don’t know.”
I’m going to chew Jesus,” he says. I jump back as if he slapped me. I think I should confess this right now, but the priest is in the sacristy and the nuns can’t give absolution. I think I’m going to be sick, but then I get an idea. That’s just what he wants me to do—puke all over myself.
“You, too?” I ask as calm and smooth as a January icicle.
“What’d you mean—you ain’t got the nerve to chew it.” Mitch looks like I punched him in the stomach. “Just watch me,” I say and sail past him. I feel better already. The nuns give us last-minute orders as we wait in the vestibule for the priest and his altar boys. As soon as the choir starts singing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” Father Godfrey begins the procession and we form a line. Sister Mary Margaret leads the way. Mitch, Larry, and Joe are wearing long black pants. Their white shirts have little black clip-on bow ties underneath their chins. Girls are in white dresses and long white veils. The nuns are in black and white, as usual. They don’t have dress-up clothes. Sister Mary John will walk behind me. That wasn’t the original plan, but I’m glad. If I fall, she’ll catch me. Mama and Papa are in the last row, but I have to keep my eyes straight ahead, so I don’t know if they can see me. As we start down the aisle, I ask God to forgive me for telling a lie. I wouldn’t chew the host if somebody put a gun to my head.
What a way to start my first communion.