We march in double rows – Martin Flynn on my right, Kevin Kepler behind me, Leon Hilburn paired with him – from Our Lady of Perpetual Suffering Parochial School across the parking lot to church. Light jackets over our uniforms and the blustery wind bites.
Sister Mary Xavier ignores the chill, holds her hands up, announces, “Lent bestows a deeper contemplation of death and of the 40 days Jesus fasted and wrestled Satan.” We repeat it after her. We’re ready. Lent is serious business. But we appreciate the change in schedule. Ash Wednesday Mass will definitely run long because a lot of parishioners attend. Plus the added time for ash distribution. This should take at least 15 minutes and throw off the day for Sister X. She doesn’t like to change her plans. Also, in the somewhat disjointed way we return to school after we get ashes. That gives us some free time, not much, but enough time. X can’t keep her eyes on everyone.
During Mass, Father Badassari solemnly lights two cakes of incense. Its acrid smoke sifts through the church air. As it slowly ascends to the ceiling in pungent clouds, it clogs our noses, makes us faintly nauseous, so we try to blow some of it up to the heavens ourselves, even though I don’t think that makes too much difference, it’s more just the heating vents that push it into currents. I watch it eddy up, all our offerings headed in the right direction, towards heaven.
Incense smoke, a slow stink, creeps in my head one nose hair at a time. It has the decayed sweetness of dead flowers and the mothball smell of my grandparents’ attic. I hold my hands in prayer and then move my index fingers to either side of my nose, clamp each nostril down, try to avoid the stench, and listen to Father B’s sermon.
I squirm while he intones, “During Lent we disengage ourselves from the purely physical. Man does not live by bread alone. We consume more satisfying food, spiritual food, through prayer and faith. With such a diet, we express the full capacity of our God-given potential.” FatherB always uses “us/we.” He’s very comforting when he gives us gloomy admonitions. I hope he’ll be the one to give me last rites: Extreme Unction. I love the creepy sound of that term. If I earn a merciful death, a well-timed extreme unction could land me in a fairly pleasant section of purgatory, despite the many venial sins I’ve already accumulated, including the one we’re about to commit with the ashes.
While Father B goes on, I think about ashes. They came from the burning of palm leaves from Palm Sunday services last year. We’re supposed to return them after one year use, but in my house we still have them from years before. The fronds still carry some of that incense odor, a whiff of guilt, even though they’d shriveled and we only used them in swordfights and safari dioramas.
At ashes marking, Kevin lurches suddenly so that Father B’s thumb slides across his forehead, using more embers than intended. I smile. I can use the extra ash. On the way back to class, we duck into the boys’ room, and I redesign Kevin’s ashes. I pause to admire my artwork, but Sister X bangs open the door and barks “Out of the bathroom! Now!” She hustles us out into the hallway, so Kevin doesn’t get to look at his forehead in the mirror to see what I’ve drawn: two concentric circles with a dot in the middle. A perfect bullseye.