a cowboy saves the congregation
story by tom fillion
It didn't take long for the other children to notice that someone came to school out of uniform. They swarmed around the bearded islander in a Hawaiian shirt, zigzag shorts, and a blonde beard. He walked towards the area where classes lined up every morning. It was directly across from a large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary surrounded by plaster sheep. The Virgin Mary, swathed in a light blue shawl, had her arms outstretched and her palms facing out like she was feeding the sheep.
Nearby on the steps leading into the school, Father McGuin, a short, stout Irish gentleman, mostly bald with a little gray on top, took volunteers to be picked up by their ears. It was one of his specialties besides singing the High Mass in Latin with a thick Irish brogue. His dog, Chico, a large, brown boxer with ears pared close to his head, lay to the side glancing up occasionally at his master.
Clarence stepped forward. He had the same build as Father McGuin but with the red hair and freckles.
Clarence, it would take a miracle for me to lift the likes of you with all those freckles weighing you down, lad.
As Father McGuin prepared to lift Clarence, he was distracted by a flash of aqua blue in the courtyard.
What have we here, Father McGuin said.
That's Giuseppe. He's supposed to be Robinson Crusoe for Halloween, Clarence replied.
An entourage of students in their East German factory worker uniforms, white T-shirts and blouses, gray work pants and skirts, with Army backpacks hanging from their shoulders followed the beachcomber.
Father McGuin glanced toward the convent. Sister Attila and the other nuns hadn't filed out yet. He elevated Clarence a few inches, much to the delight of the small gathering of students. He was pressed for time for the upcoming funeral so he lumbered towards the church to don his vestments for eight-thirty mass. Chico followed along. Father McGuin held the glass door leading into the church for Chico, and they ascended the steps to the sacristy.
At eight-fifteen the bell sounded and the chaos that prevailed up to that point transformed into straight rows of uniformed children, the rows further refined into separate ones for boys and girls. In the midst this elegant order, Giuseppe Fieri, dressed as Robinson Crusoe for the best Halloween contest later that day, stood behind Clarence Abernathy who was still holding his ears.
I can't believe he picked me up that far, Clarence whispered as they prepared to say the pledge of allegiance.
After the pledge the whole school sang God Bless America. The principal, Attila the Nun, sang the loudest.
Then, instead of streaming into the building with the rest of the students, the fourth and fifth graders followed Mrs. Battle and Sister Jack Karl to the back of the church. It was their day to go to mass, and Giuseppe was in his Halloween outfit.
I'm dead meat, he thought, but thanks to Clarence's size he was able to hide himself for now.
They entered the vestibule through the side doors. On one side of the vestibule was a small chamber with a marble fount in the center used for baptisms. Directly across from that was the store that sold religious items to parishioners.
Just as he dipped his hands into the sponge with holy water and made the sign of the cross before entering the church, the double doors at the back of the vestibule creaked open. Men in black suits stood at each door. A black hearse with flowers and a casket inched its way closer to the open doors.
"Oh no, not another funeral," one of his classmates moaned.
I wonder who died? Clarence said louder than the other grumbling.
Everyone else got quiet when the men in dark suits and ties hoisted the casket onto gurney.
Too bad it's not the person who invented school, Giuseppe whispered to Clarence.
They lingered momentarily then went inside the church, genuflecting before sliding into the rock-hard, wooden pews with maroon kneelers. Clarence sat directly behind Giuseppe.
Fans on long poles oscillated along the sides of the church, moving the warm air between the Stations of the Cross. Flickering rows of votive candles lined both corners of the church at the altar rail. Above the altar a jumbo-sized cross with a slumped and crucified Jesus stared into the nave of the church.
A lady from the group of old people who attended mass every day at six-thirty and eight-thirty dropped a coin in the donation receptacle in front of the candles. The sound echoed through the chamber. She picked up a thin, wooden stick, held it over a burning candle until it ignited and transferred the new flame to another blackened wick.
"That sounded like a quarter," Giuseppe said to Clarence who kneeled against the pew.
Those old people go to all the same funerals that we go to, Clarence whispered.
The funeral squad, the professional mourners, always occupied the first two rows across from the family members. It was hard to distinguish them from the family because they all bore the same doleful look like they had just lost a beloved family member.
Father McGuin poked his head out from behind the maroon curtains that lined the altar. He surveyed the audience and checked the progress of the casket, if it had been wheeled to the front of the church so that he could begin the requiem mass. In the front rows were the funeral squad and the family. In the rear of the church, frozen for the moment in their seats, sat the fourth and fifth graders accompanied by Sister Jack Karl and Mrs. Battle. In the midst of all the students there was the Hawaiian shirt topped by a blonde beard that he had seen earlier in the courtyard.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Wearing that getup to a funeral, he muttered to Chico who curled up alongside the bishop's ornate chair next to the curtains.
Chico rolled his eyes toward Father McGuin who anxiously adjusted his tight fitting cassock.
Family members shuffled past the fourth and fifth graders to their seats cordoned off in the front. The intervening pews in the large church were empty.
Before long the casket of the unknown person groaned down the aisle. Six pallbearers balanced the large wooden casket in a slow parade to the front. Sobbing from family members filled the chamber.
At the rear door of the church, standing and presiding over the funeral details was Silas Gaetano, the owner and director of the funeral home. He was a board member of the church building fund. His son, Gary, was in the fourth grade and waved to his father.
All of a sudden the church shook with a sound like screeching tires. The organist warmed up the organ in the choir loft. Mrs. Golly, the organist and choir director, was a bespectacled, older woman with a Page boy haircut. She quickly tamed the organ's hiccups, and signaled for Father McGuin in his black vestments to begin the funeral mass, the last call for the dearly departed soul that none of the children knew.
Father McGuin walked onto the altar, and everyone stood. Two altar boys trailed him and behind them came Chico who had a spot on the altar, next to the tall chairs used by Father McGuin and the altar boys during a respite in the mass.
As was his custom when confined in church, Giuseppe resumed the last episode of the long running series, A Cowboy Saves the Congregation.
In that episode the church was surrounded by a band of Indians ready to scalp everyone inside. The Indians circled the church on their sweaty horses while the frightened parishioners barricaded the large side windows and doors by stacking the long wooden pews. That's where he left off with the cliffhanger.
He had read about The Alamo in his history book. Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and the Texans were swarmed by the Mexican Army. This situation was as desperate as that one, even more so because his coonskin hat was back home in his bedroom.
Giuseppe would have to shoot his way out of this one, and they needed guns to fight off the renegades. There were none in the church, only candles, statues, and crucifixes, but he knew where the guns were. He saw them at the Sears and Roebuck store the last time he went there to buy his school uniforms.
The guns were next to the escalator in the sporting goods department. Sleek Winchesters and Remingtons. They had pistols there too, handsomely displayed in glass cases. The barrels were silver, and the handles varied from mahogany to black. On the wall behind the pistols, gun racks hung like antlers. From each rung a long rifle or shotgun glistened.
The problem was that Sears and Roebuck was far away, and the Indians were shooting flaming arrows inside the church, trying to smoke them out and lift their scalps. The arrows hit near the funeral squad, and the same old lady who lit a candle and said a prayer did the same, hoping, praying that some brave cowboy would save the congregation.
It was his last chance to save them. He needed a diversion so he could escape to the sporting goods department at Sears. On the way there he would stop at Otto's pony rides next to an Amusement Park and get all the ponies that he could. He'd saddle up the fastest Shetland pony, a sorrel that he had ridden before. The rest of the herd, even though they were used to going in circles around the ring, he'd tie them together with rope like his favorite television cowboy, Cash McCain, would do. He'd use them as pack animals to transport the guns back and save everyone.
To fool the Indians so he could get away, he lit the wooden pews stacked against a window. Behind that he moved the large statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and several saints. While the pews burned to the ground he'd crawl out the doors the casket had just come through. The fire would attract the Indians to the break through the wall, but the large statues behind the smoldering pews - Mary with small angels fluttering about her head, Jesus with bloodstains on his hands, Joseph with a blank look on his face like he'd just gotten a traffic ticket - would scare the feathers off the Indians and spook their horses. That would give him time to make his way to Otto's Pony Rides and then to the sporting goods department to save the day.
Father McGuin interrupted A Cowboy Saves the Congregation. He cleared his throat at the pulpit after clicking on the microphone and a small penlight so that he could soothe the fears, anguish, and doubts with his sermon on the immortality of the soul. As Father McGuin droned on, Giuseppe felt a presence looming behind him. One of those Indian scouts from a raiding party sneaked into the church and was going to scalp him. The dark shadow covered the pew in front of him.
The next thing Giuseppe felt was a stab in his back right between two ribs. The hard steel of the knife didn't penetrate any further even though the pressure on his ribs almost took away his breath. The scent of mothballs and incense filled the air.
When he turned, a disembodied hand with the roadmap of blue veins pressed against his ribs instead of the steely knife it felt like. It wasn't a renegade Indian in a war bonnet and paint. It was Sister Jack Karl in her habit, all black with stiff, white trim surrounding her face.
Mister, you're out of uniform! she snapped.
Stand up and follow me, mister, she ordered, the right hand still pressing against his back.
Father McGuin sputtered with his sermon from the pulpit. Giuseppe slowly rose, adjusting his Robinson Crusoe beard as he did, and stepped into the aisle.
And take off that silly beard!
Before Sister Jack Karl was able to get her infamous Right Hook on him, of which there was no escape, he had to think fast. He didn't want to get sucked up into her black sleeve that contained crusty, white handkerchiefs, rosaries, and her junkyard of broken dreams.
The word Exit glowed above two front side doors. Considering the circumstances, his destination changed from Otto's Pony Rides and Sears to one of those doors. The one straight ahead wasn't a good choice. He had seen her run the fifty-yard dash at recess when they played smear the man with the ball so he decided to go for the exit on the other side.
Before she grabbed him with her Right Hook Giuseppe faked like he was going straight then made a hard right. He jumped on the seat and ran across the next pew to the middle aisle.
Father McGuin squinted from the pulpit.
There was the blur of Hawaiian blue streaking across the empty pew. In hot pursuit with her habit close-hauled like a pirate ship on a kill, Sister Jack Karl stormed down the aisle to cut him off before he reached the far exit.
Instead of continuing on the same course, Giuseppe sped down the middle aisle towards the casket.
Mr. Gaetano, the funeral director, was startled by the bright, blue-green form racing down the aisle. His usual charm and smooth demeanor dissolved. He joined in pursuit.
Father McGuin halted his sermon to watch the footrace to the exit door. The altar boys stood. The black sails of Sister Jack Karl's habit puffed up and gained on Giuseppe. Chico, stirred by all the sudden movement, strolled over to the pulpit to be with his master.
The funeral squad turned. The old lady who had lit a votive candle stepped in the aisle alongside the casket in order to intercept the approaching flash of blue-green Hawaii.
Mr. Gaetano bore down on Giuseppe from the rear. The old lady from the funeral squad wedged herself between the casket and the pews. It left only an opening on the other side of the casket along the floor.
The family members in the reserved section were aghast.
Sister Jack Karl turned right at the altar. With Mr. Gaetano on his heels, the casket on the gurney and the old lady next to it blocking his way, Giuseppe hit the opening underneath the casket on the right side just like he had seen fullbacks of the Green Bay Packers and the Cleveland Browns do numerous times on short yardage touchdowns. He slid across the polished floor to the altar rail.
Sister Jack Karl's shiny, black boots with heels crushed the bits of dust that remained on the floor.
When all his efforts seemed about to be lost he was saved. The casket of the unknown, dead person came back to life.
Just as Mr. Gaetano was about to collar him, the beach-clad, Robinson Crusoe ducked. He slid through the opening to the right of the casket. The unexpected move caught Mr. Gaetano with a forward momentum that took him sailing into one of his most expensive, handcrafted, wooden caskets.
The casket wobbled slightly and bumped the old lady from the funeral squad back into the pew. Mr. Gaetano and the casket on the gurney sprang forward like a horse out of a starting gate. The casket plowed forward towards the altar.
When Giuseppe looked up, the casket wasn't there. The gurney stopped at the altar rail, but the casket continued. It landed with a resounding thud and tipped over on its side. Chico came over and pressed his nose against the open casket and sniffed the body sprawled on the altar.
Giuseppe scampered for the exit door. The final scene of this episode of A Cowboy Saves The Congregation was temporarily delayed until the next funeral.