Lasagna in the Highest
One of Seinfeld’s old bits was about being forced to go to the bank or to pick out wallpaper with his mother, his little body collapsing under the weight of boredom. “I couldn’t take childhood at a certain point,” Seinfeld jokes, in his special “Jerry Before Seinfeld.” “You get tired of it. I just couldn’t build one more balsa-wood glider.” The impetus is to grow up quickly, so that people will listen to you, at last, when you point out how ridiculous and unfair being a child is…
When I was twelve, I had a paper route that took me all over town and I was curious as Hell about who was going down there and about how you got up to heaven. When my Dad died four years before, Robinson the mortician helped me out with what we should put in his coffin. We decided on his compass from me and a photo of him with Emily when they were first married. Robinson befriended me; he and Sam, the bar owner, were my first adult male friends and now at forty, I still think of them almost every day
Robinson didn’t show up often at social things in our town. Not that he was disliked; he was welcome in Whitefish, but like all morticians he bore a stigma detrimental to social life. People didn’t know how to act around him because he handled dead people. Was there a whiff of embalming fluid when he passed? If it wasn’t there, people imagined it. “I like the man,” I heard Mrs. Inch say at the pharmacy, “but I don’t want him passing the peas at our Sunday night dinner.” If you wanted to see Robinson you went to his office in a storefront on Main street. We talked once a month about the Lutherans and the Catholics when I collected the paper money.
The Catholics in town hoped if someone died, it happened Thursday through Friday when Father Cassoti, our part-time priest was in town. They found it easier to deal with a priest for a ceremony than the mortician. Nothing personal—it was just the idea of a mortician. You could call Father, and he’d take care of everything. Most important for Catholics, he’d give the last rites and bend the rules if necessary, giving it to the non-practicing Catholics too. Even If he was called to a Protestant death, he’d offer them a blessing. When the strictest Catholics objected to Cassoti’s generosity, I heard he said,”I think the Good Lord would be happier to see compassion for the dying rather than a rule enforced.”
Our small Catholic population couldn’t support a church or parsonage. The Bishop, stretching his budget for money and men, assigned the young and energetic Cassoti, three small parishes and urged him to earn his own personal spending money. Mr. Kidd hired Father to work at his service station, Phil’s Service, Thursday and Friday afternoons changing oil and doing brake adjustments. The Bishop approved.
Phil and Marilyn Kidd set up a system at the station where Father could change oil and hear confessions at the same time. The penitent sat on a stool beside the grease pit, confessed and received absolution. The Kidds painted the stool navy blue, “the color of hope,” explained Mrs. Kidd, and reserved it for confessions only. As a courtesy to all, she turned the radio volume up when someone confessed loud enough for those waiting for new tires in the front office to overhear.
Mrs. Kidd seemed eager to convert the service station to a shrine and argued with Phil about rigging up the Stations of the Cross on the walls. He said it would be bad for business. “A little of that goes a long way,” he muttered while oiling wrenches. He’d hired Father out of charity to assist the parish but he also hoped to upgrade the Kidd’s image from grease monkeys to something better. Mrs. Kidd took herself into Edna’s beauty for an overhaul.
”Marilyn was in here all aflutter over having Father in the station. We did a bob cut and henna color on her and would you believe she had a manicure?” the beauty operator, Vina, told me. I didn’t stay in there long because the permanent wave stuff made me sneeze.
Besides, Emily warned me when I started the paper route about the things I’d hear at Edna’s and about keeping gossip to myself, so I never said anything about that to anyone. Or about how many times I heard the ladies in town call Father a dream boat. They’d tsk, tsk and say “...such a waste...” when he walked by. I asked Emily what they meant.
“It’s a compliment, Chad,” she said with a smile. “They think he would have been a good husband and father.” The guys at the Two Dot called him Father Farley, after Farley Granger, with his dark curls and blue eyes. The Italian family that made him a big lunch every Sunday called him a “good eater”— the highest compliment one Italian in White Fish could pay to another.
Mrs. Kidd acted as hostess of the grease-pit confessional. Phil told everyone she was a bureaucrat at heart. The penitents were lined up according to their time of arrival. Degree of sin and urgency played a part in how fast they’d be heard at her discretion. In an emergency, someone might have to skip to the front—for example—a person taking a first plane ride. Oh yes, people would remember the money part, to buy a flight insurance policy from Mr. Sibert, but it was always the last minute when they remembered to get their souls in order. “We’ve got to leave in an hour to get to Butte for the plane,” an anxious traveler might plead. Mrs. Kidd, sighing, would scoot them to next.
Mrs. Kidd let us all know in an uppity way that she’d gone to a marketing class at the State College in Butte where she learned people would rather experience a position in a line, than have a specific number. There was next, next to next, second to next—then the lasts started. Third from last, second from last and last. “Or dead last,” Mrs. Kidd chuckled. When I asked her questions about the class, she answered them and said, “Call me Marilyn, Chad. You don’t have to be so formal and you can ask me anything.”
Always enthusiastic, Marilyn greeted everyone with a big smile and information about their place in line. The green colors on her Hawaiian shirts matched the neon ring around the Sinclair gas clock on the wall. She was the only woman I knew who wore dungarees every day. And saddle shoes.
“Hi Frank.” she’d say. “You’re in luck. You’ll be fourth from last and third from next.” People would smile back at her, take a seat and look at the old Life magazine with Gina Lollobrigida on the cover or thumb through the selection of car tire catalogs, waiting to advance to next.
The Catholics in town adapted well to the grease-pit confessions. Everyone agreed the Kidd’s set-up was better than the dark wooden booths in the big Missoula church. Like upright coffins, those Missoula confessionals brought on claustrophobia attacks. The kneelers were warm and tiny—far too small for White Fish sinners.
“It gets hotter in there than a whorehouse on nickel night,” said Sam, owner of the Two Dot and a regular confessor. “How can you concentrate when you keep slipping off the kneeler?”
Young Catholics in town, who only knew the grease-pit way, were disappointed when they left town and went to regular church confession. Without the smell of gas and oil, they claimed, they couldn't get in the mood.
I delivered the paper one day and watched Marilyn finish typing out her invoices on the Smith Corona. I liked watching her fingers fluttering over the keys and the sound of typing—clickety, clackety, clack, ziiip, zing! We hardly noticed when the bell on the wall dinged and Jerry Perkins, the short-haul truck driver, rolled into the station. At the bell, Jimmy the gas jockey, put on his cunt cap, er life-boat hat, went outside and turned on the Texaco pump.
Emily had a fit that year when I mentioned the cunt caps Jimmy wore. “What did you say Chad??” she said. When I repeated myself she sat me down and explained what c-u-n-t meant. I knew the word was dirty, but I thought it was okay to say it about a hat.
“If it’s okay to say tit when you’re talking about a titmouse or cock when you’re talking about a ball-cock valve, why not cunt cap?”
“Stop that Chad,” she interrupted as I continued my list of examples—“titwillow, cockamamie…”
“Don’t say it again. DO NOT.” Emily said, pulling at her hair and hissing at me. I’d probably asked too many questions, again.
I got the message, as far as out-loud speaking went, but inside my own mind I still thought of the hat as a cunt cap. I had a good start on my For-Men-Only vocabulary from the Two Dot bar and I was all ears at Phil’s. Later in life, I realized the station was still more like a fraternity house than the shrine Marilyn was hoping for.
“Do you think Father can squeeze me in now?” Jerry asked. He was combining a gas-up and a confession. Marilyn removed her horned-rim glasses, gave them a wipe, put them back on and checked the time.
“Yup,Jerry—you can just make it. Go on in.”
He took a last long drag off his Lucky Strike and tossed the butt out the door. Shoulders slumped, he shuffled off to the blue stool and took a seat. I dropped the paper on the counter and headed to the bathroom. As I walked behind Father’s bay I could hear Jerry’s hoarse voice.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned,” he croaked. I peered through the door and saw Jerry leaning forward on the blue stool, hands clasped. He coughed something up into his hankie—a bubbling rumble of junk that must have come from deep in his lungs. With Jerry’s bulk on the stool, it looked like furniture from a doll’s house.
“Yeah, go ahead. I can hear you,” said Father from under a Pontiac coupe.
“Well...since my confession last week, there's the regular sins–commandments three, four and ten.” He shifted on the blue stool and asked, ”You know it’s me, right Father? Jerry out here?
Father heaved a loud sigh. Everybody knew it was difficult for him to keep his parishioners anonymous during the grease-pit confessions, but Jerry didn’t even try. I wondered if he wanted credit for his sins! The idea made me laugh, but only an inside chortle, so they wouldn’t know I was listening.
I learned later, after Jerry died in the crash, that Father set up a code with him because he confessed so often. There was an understanding between the two that Jerry was remorseful and despite the rote laundry list of his sins he would work on his spiritual health between confessions.
“I took a load of sweet potatoes over to Big Sky on Monday and stayed at the Kosy Inn Motel, the one off Hwy 54? said Jerry. “The one you stay at when you go to Butte? Anyway, darn it, I found my way over to Irene at the HofIR.”
“Again?” asked Father. “What do you mean ‘you found your way.’ You’ve been there dozens of times, Jerry.”
“Yeah, Father. Souls willing, spirits AWOL. Are you sure it’s still adultery when you pay?” asked Jerry. “Irene and I are just pals when you get down to it. She’s a buddy to all of us truckers, Father. She has a good heart.” He stretched his arms out in front, cracked his knuckles and looked toward the door where I stood. I held my breath. Getting caught eavesdropping on a confession must be a sin, I thought. Maybe the worst of all?
“Just because Irene has a heart, that doesn’t change your sin. And yes, I’m sure it’s still adultery,” said Father.
Jerry was silent for a minute. Then he said, “Irene says,‘Hi’ by the way.” I couldn’t believe what I heard! Irene sending a message to Father? The pneumatic screw gun went off in the next bay, just as Father replied. I never heard what he said. But when the noise stopped, Father forgave Jerry and told him to say fifty rosaries. Fifty rosaries seems like a lot. When I asked Marilyn how many rosaries was usual after confession, she laughed. I think she knew I’d listened because she said,”Father raises the penance for Jerry every week. I think he hopes Jerry won’t have time for sinning if he’s on his knees praying every night.”
Sundays, Father celebrated mass at 10:30 am in the Moose Hall. Catholics brought their pillows from home for kneeling. The big buffet table, used for checking-in at dances, became an altar when three white table cloths were placed on top and two fat candles on either end. George Evans was the altar boy and got to wear that white lace shirt over his dungarees and say the Latin responses to Father’s calls: “Dominus vobiscum,” said Father. George’s answer: “Et cum spiritu tuo.”
Father arrived early for mass and got the big cross out of the utility closet to hang behind the altar. He kept the chalice and communion wafers—his on-the-road sacraments–in a black Samsonite briefcase with a combination lock set to 12345 like all of our school lockers. Nobody in White Fish was combination-locked out of anywhere. People would wonder what you had to hide if you reset the numbers.
George helped get everything arranged on the altar and made sure Father’s dog collar didn’t have grease stains. He filled up the swinging chalice with incense powder and lit the wick. After Father dimmed the lights, with the incense in the air, you couldn’t imagine people had been square dancing there the night before.
We weren’t Catholics—Emily and I weren’t anything since we found out about the unbaptized babies in Limbo and since Ricky got polio and since Dad had died at only thirty-nine. But I liked the Latin and Emily didn’t care if I sat at the back some Sundays just to hear the sound of it.
“Kyrie Eleison, Miserere Nobis, Credo in unum Dominum,” the Catholic girls chanted up in the second row. The little Johnson kid next to me picked his nose for most of the service except when his mother reached over and pushed his hand into his lap. When we got to the English prayer part, I could hear him saying, “Lasagna in the highest,” instead of “Hosanna in the highest.” I could hardly wait to tell Ricky that one.
As often as he could, Father based his sermons on life around White Fish. In our town full of bars, hangovers and regrets abounded on Sabbath mornings. Father spoke about excess and asked St. Bibiana, patron saint of hangovers, for a mass forgiveness. He encouraged private prayer to Saint Monica, patron saint of alcoholics. His messages were hopeful and he never said Hell, even once, that anyone could remember.
One Sunday I heard him give a funny sermon about saying prayers correctly. “Sometimes I think you people all need hearing aids,” he began. “Mary is full of grace not grapes. I’m sure Mary liked eating as much as the rest of us, but come on, why would we pray to her like that? She was full of grace and don't forget it.”
Another time, Father Cassoti used his service station job as an example in the sermon. “You never know when something you learn will come in handy.” he said. “I worked as a mechanic in my uncle’s garage in college. Never thought I’d service a car again and yet, here I am,” he told his flock. Smiling, he quoted Proverbs 1:5 “Let the wise hear and increase in learning.” Hardly anyone fell asleep during Father’s sermons, not like over at the Lutherans where everyone nodded off.
If Father had an evening free in the winter, he played hockey with the kids. Watching him speed around the rink and slam the puck at the goal, no one would ever guess he was a priest. Once, when he missed a shot, he said “Bullshit,” loud enough that everyone heard. After the game, he told the guys “Bullshit is a Catholic-approved curse because the Lord’s name isn’t taken in vain.” Everyone laughed. He added,”Try to use better words than I do boys. Be gentlemen.”
He joined in the weekly poker game with the guys at the Two Dot but only for toothpick wagers, never for money. Sam, the bartender, kept a missal card for St. Josephine taped to the inside of the refrigerator door so Father would see it when Sam got him a beer. Father liked the jukebox, just like the rest of us. Whenever he dropped by, Sam pushed A12—Glow Worm, by the Mills Brothers and D23—Jambalaya, by Jo Stafford, both Father’s favorites.
Even though Dad hadn’t been a Catholic, he played cribbage and drank beer with Father. Dad called Father his friend. I remember one weekend when they went fishing at Webster’s landing. “Too much hiking,” they said, and I couldn’t go along.
One year, two days before Christmas, Father was cranky and impatient with the line of holiday confessors waiting with Mrs. Kidd. He climbed out from under a red Buick, wiped his hands on his overalls, kicked the blue stool and walked into the crowd.
“Listen,” he said. “Like you, I have a life and want to spend Christmas with my friends. If you’ve got small sins on your minds, the usuals, like you fought with your relatives, exceeded the speed limit, said the Lord's name in vain or missed mass, I’m giving you a blanket absolution, right now. Say a good Act of Contrition, go home and wrap presents. If any of you have big sins, and you know who you are, come back at nine.”
We liked what Robinson called Father’s practical Catholicism. It worked well in a town of people used to adapting and making do.
If Father Cassoti wasn’t in town, and somebody died, Robinson took care of the details. If Robinson was also out of town, picking up a coffin or at an AA meeting, Thorvaldsen, the Lutheran pastor, was the last resort. He smelled of lutefisk which nobody liked, particularly around dead people. Still, you couldn’t avoid him because all the funeral ceremonies happened at the Lutheran church—the only sanctified church space in town.
I wondered what the Jewish family would do if someone died or if somebody in Keiko’s family died—they were Buddhists. What would happen to a dead Buddhist in a small Montana town?
If Dad had been around, he’d know. END