From the beginning, the Brennans were the nicest of neighbors. They lived across the street from us in the early 1960s in a development called Maplewood Acres. The newly planted maple trees on everyone’s curb lawns had spindly trunks and tiny branches, so different from the massive elms just a few blocks away in what my parents referred to as “the old neighborhood.” Those trees, though, were dying, ravished by Dutch elm disease, while our petite maples held sweet promise as they grew along with the children who rode new bicycles up and down the blocks. The Brennans, the most recent arrivals in the development, were also the youngest, so they seemed a perfect fit for our sunny street, one with long lawns and ample space between the homes. Mr. Brennan always had a bemused expression on his long, narrow face, as if he were contemplating a private joke. He told the neighborhood kids that he worked at an office during the day but he had a night job as the Bogeyman. That was a laugh because he was too friendly to scare anyone. Mrs. Brennan had pert blue eyes and an easy laugh, her shoulder-length hair making her seem much younger than the other Maplewood mothers. She and her husband were openly affectionate, hugging and kissing on their front lawn. Once, he wrestled her to the ground and tickled her until she cried from laughing. “Help me, Lisa!” she called to me as I watched with a cluster of neighborhood children. We ran and jumped on Mr. Brennan’s back until he rolled over, stood up and pretended to be Frankenstein’s monster, coming toward us with tilting steps and outstretched arms. He was like a big kid, everyone’s older brother. The Brennans had three children, all younger than me, and seemed delighted with their offspring, celebrating birthdays and nursery school graduations over the years with big parties, the whole neighborhood invited.
My younger sister Sara and the Brennan’s daughter Debbie were the same age and close friends. Although a couple years older, I would occasionally play with them because it was so nice to be at Debbie’s house. We would play on her porch, Mrs. Brennan coming out with a plastic pitcher of Kool-Aid or lemonade and chatting with us. Those were my favorite times, when she asked me questions and listened to my answers more intently than my parents did. She knew my favorite color was blue and that I never missed an episode of The Flintstones. My mother once mildly reprimanded me for having allowed Mrs. Brennan to paint my fingernails pink and to braid my hair, tying the ends with some of Debbie’s bright hair ribbons. My hair usually hung tomboyishly around my face but I loved the feel of it being woven it into long ropes, Mrs. Brennan leaning in close to me as she gathered the loose hair. I breathed in her scent; she smelled like the lilacs that grew on the hill behind our street. One year in May when she walked with a group of us on the hill, we spotted the recently bloomed lavender flowers and ran to pick them. “No, don’t!” she called to us. “They’ll die soon if you pluck them.” So we didn’t.
My most vivid memories of the Brennans are from the year I made my First Communion in the second grade. Prior to receiving what we learned was called a sacrament, my fifty or so classmates and I were required to learn the Baltimore Catechism and go to confession for the first time. Sister Anne stood at the front of the classroom bellowing at us, “Who made you?” to which we responded, every one of us, “God made me.” She continued, “Where is God?” Her face was red and shiny with perspiration as she pushed her wire frame glasses higher on her short wide nose. A uniform chorus answered her, “God-is-ev-ry-where,” in punctuated syllables.This went on for weeks, my first encounter with call and response learning. Finally Sister Anne started calling on specific children to answer questions, but we had all been so drilled that hardly anyone made a mistake. We knew the Baltimore Catechism much better than we did the Dick and Jane books.
Catechism immersed me in the world of sin. I realized that I had told so many lies, been so mean to my brother and sister, and disobeyed my parents so often that I had no chance whatsoever of going to heaven. Pondering this, however, I didn’t think the rest of the world fared that well either. My siblings were equally misbehaved and my classmates were a pretty rowdy bunch. Even my own parents lost their tempers and sometimes scolded us excessively. Maybe the whole world will go to hell, I thought. Ah, but there was an exception. Surely God would reward Mr. and Mrs. Brennan for their kindness by granting them eternal salvation. I pictured Mrs. Brennan wearing a long white gown and playing a harp on a fluffy cloud that floated on a crystal blue ocean of air. Or she was flying through the stars at night, holding a gold candle to light her way, her wings softly folding and unfolding like the feathers of a swan.
Confession was the hurdle of a sacrament we had to jump before we got to communion. Our souls had to be scrubbed clean through confessing everything we had ever done wrong to a priest. The nuns tried to prepare us for the experience by describing the confessional, a tiny, dark room separated by a partition which protected the identity of the confessor. We would speak to the priest through a dark screen and he would assign us penance, usually a few prayers, and then we would recite the Act of Contrition. This was the longest prayer I had ever memorized and I was nervous that I’d forget the lines halfway through. Every night, with my mother’s coaching, I practiced saying the prayer aloud. The most difficult part was the passage, “And I detest all my sins because of thy just punishment, but most of all because they offend thee my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.” I knew I was in trouble because I was more concerned with the punishment part than the love part, and I feared the priest would be able to detect this even through the dark screen.
When the day came, however, my anxiety proved unfounded. Father Kramer seemed indifferent to my admissions of having pulled Sara’s hair and having lied to my teacher about chewing gum in class. I couldn’t remember everything I’d done wrong in my entire life, but I offered up the highlights. The confessions of a throng of seven-year olds had taken their toll on the priest; he forgot to assign me any penance. As I left the dark confessional, I blinked at the brilliant light in the church. I felt no different now that my soul was clean and Sister Anne didn’t seem to be in awe of my saintliness as she whispered hoarsely, “Go back to the pew!” Later I’d learn that Peter Bryce had told the priest he’d robbed a bank, and poor Mary Jane Beamen was so terrified in the little dark room, she’d started to cry.
Mr. Brennan was watering his back yard when I stopped over to tell him about the confession. I told him that I recited the Act of Contrition without making a single mistake. “Oh, but I can’t tell you my sins, Mr. Brennan. That’s a secret between me,” I touched the center of my chest, “the priest, and God.”
“That’s right, Lisa,” he approved, now squirting the rocks that lined their garden. “That’s between you and the man upstairs.”
“Upstairs? You mean God?”
“Well, I don’t mean Mr. Nagel,” he said smiling, “although, he thinks he’s God.”
Mr. Nagel lived two doors down from the Brennans. He used to yell at the kids in the neighborhood for making too much noise and he always kept his lights off on Halloween.
First Communion wasn’t all sin and guilt, however. The exciting part was the clothes, at least for the girls. We shopped with our mothers for fancy white dresses and veils. My mother allowed me to pick out a ridiculously frilly dress and a veil with a tiny crown rimmed with pretend white roses. She selected my shoes, white patent leather maryjanes, with admonishments regarding scuff marks. She drew the line, however, at what the sales clerk tried to tell her was First Communion underwear, satin panties with three lace ruffles sewn across the back. I was disappointed but at least no one would know I was wearing plain white cotton underwear. The school provided each girl with a white vinyl purse that contained a rosary with pearly, plastic beads, a small white prayer book with the words “We Pray” etched in gold writing that flaked immediately, and a small gold pin shaped like a chalice that was to be fastenened onto the front of our dresses on the big day. The boys were to wear the pins on the lapels of their white jackets.
The pin was my favorite part of the package; it was so small, so new, and the nuns cautioned us about losing it. We were to put it in a safe place and let our mothers pin it to our dresses when getting ready for First Communion. I put mine in my music box with the ballerina that spun around when you opened the lid. It was my first real piece of jewelry if you didn’t count the watch I’d gotten for my last birthday. Every day I took the pin out and held it in the palm of my hand. I carried it to the window to reflect the light, and I wiped it on the curtain to remove my fingerprints. I asked my mother if I could wear it on my sweaters after First Communion was over. She had looked a little bewildered but said, “Well, I guess so, if you really want to.”
I told Mr. and Mrs. Brennan all about my new clothes and how I was going to the beauty parlor for a hair permanent for the very first time. They were enthused and Mr. Brennan promised to bring his movie camera and film me in the procession of children as we walked from the school to the church. When I reported this to my own parents, they cautioned me not to get too excited; Mr. Brennan was a busy man and might not be able to spare the time. I knew he would, though. When the Brennans got new cement sidewalks in front of their house the previous autumn, Mr. Brennon called to all the kids in the neighborhood to come and press our hands into the wet cement. He wrote our first names beneath the prints, carefully making the letters with his forefinger. Because of him, the whole neighborhood was a family. On the bottom of that section of sidewalk, he wrote the date, September 28, 1964. Then he turned the hose on so we could all wash our fingers in the spray.
On the big day, Mr. Brennan didn’t let me down. Camera in hand, he and his son Brian walked alongside me all the way from the school to the church. I recall that I tripped once, scuffing the immaculate white shoes, but Mr. Brennan reached out with one hand to steady me. My classmates watched enviously; they would have to make do with Polaroid shots for their memories.
After I made my First Communion, my mother reminded me that I was now obligated to attend mass every Sunday or I’d be committing a sin. At once I felt very responsible and vowed to myself and to God to become a good person. There was plenty of time to make up for the sins of my previous life before I died. Each night, I knelt beside my bed and whispered the Act of Contrition before going to sleep. I pressed my hands together in prayer position, fingers pointed toward the ceiling. My contact with Mr. and Mrs. Brennan took on new meaning for me; we would in all likelihood be spending eternity together. In heaven I would wear my First Communion dress every day and accompany Mrs. Brennan as she flew through the clouds. I often knocked on their door and had brief conversations with Mr. or Mrs. Brennan about inconsequential things, a story I had read in school or a new television program. If either were surprised or irritated by my impromptu visits, they never let on.
On one such occasion, I knocked on their door, but no one answered. Debbie was at our house playing with my sister, so I knew at least one of her parents was home. I raised my hand to knock again, but stopped when I heard voices, soft, then loud, then soft again. Through the gap in the curtains, I could see Mr. and Mrs. Brennan standing at the top of the three stairs that led from the tiny foyer to their kitchen. Mrs. Brennan was crying and her hair looked disheveled, partly covering her face. She was leaning against the wall, hunching over, and then Mr. Brennan reached out to her. It looked as if he just swatted her shoulder, but she fell down the stairs onto the floor on just the other side of the door. It sounded as if she were crying backwards, like the sounds were going into her instead of out of her. Mr. Brennan stood staring down at his wife, his arms raised at his sides. His mouth was open and he looked amazed, like he was seeing an accident, one car crashing into another, but still I thought he might burst into laughter at any second and this would all turn out to be a joke. But he sat down down on the top step and put his head in his hands. His shoulders moved and he started to make a sound that was something like a dog’s soft growl. He lifted his head and hollered, “My God, Sheila, we have three children! How could you do this?”
Do what? I wondered as I ran across the street to my own house. And what had Mrs. Brennan said in response? I spent the rest of the day at home watching television. Occasionally I glanced out the living room window at the Brennan’s house but I never noticed anyone coming or going. Late in the afternoon, the phone rang and I heard my mother talking in a quiet, low voice. Afterwards, she asked Debbie if she’d like to join us for dinner and then stay overnight. Sara and Debbie were thrilled; it was their first sleepover, and my mother made a big deal out of making popcorn and letting them eat it in the family room in front of the television, a rare occurrence in our house.
I wanted no part of the fun. I went to my bedroom and took out my chalice pin from the jewelry box. It was night, so I couldn’t reflect the sun with it, but I held the pin under my reading light and turned it this way and that. Peering closely, I saw that there was a tiny scratch in the cup of the chalice. I rubbed and rubbed it against my sweater, but it stayed. Upset, I put the pin away and went to bed.
Two weeks later, Mrs. Brennan moved and took the children with her. Mr. Brennan stayed behind, although we rarely saw him. One day, Sara and I were drawing pictures with chalk on the sidewalk in front of his house. We heard a banging on the front window and looked up to see him motioning for us to go away. Puzzled, we started to gather up our chalk. Sara surprised me saying that Mr. Brennan was “turning into Mr. Nagler.” She was right, but her words, so unexpected, jolted me. I yanked hard on her ponytail and she immediately sobbed, “I’m telling!” and took off running across the street.
I knew that within moments my mother would open the front door, that I’d hear, “Lisa! Get over here right now.” As I waited for the inevitable, I stepped onto the piece of sidewalk with our handprints. I knelt down and realized the sensation was like that of kneeling beside my bed to say nightly prayers. My hands weren’t in prayer position, though. Instead, I placed them on the prints of my hands in the cold, hard sidewalk. How different from that day last October when I placed my fingers on the wet cement, Mr. Brennan telling me, “Press, Lisa. Press down hard.”
Kerry Langan is the author of three collections of short stories, the most recent being My Name Is Your Name, published by Wising Up Press. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of literary journals including Cimarron Review, West Branch, The Seattle Review, Other Voices, StoryQuarterly, American Literary Fiction, The Fictional Cafe, Thema, The Blue Mountain Review and others. Several of her stories have been anthologized in collections, including Solace in So Many Words, and XX Eccentric: Stories About the Eccentricities of Women. Her non-fiction has appeared in Working Mother and the anthology, Shifting Balance Sheets: Women’s Stories of Naturalized Citizenship & Cultural Attachment.