by Joanna Michaels
sweet tea with lemon
Butchy Napurano and I grew up in the same neighborhood, on the same city block, directly across the street from each other. He lived above the corner grocery store and I lived over my grandfather’s tavern. Although we both played with the other kids on the block, we were more likely to just hang out with each other. We were both catholic. Butchy attended St. James Catholic School while I went to Oliver Street Elementary School because my father said the Catholics make you pay for every piece of paper.
Butchy had always been religious. He served as an altar boy at St. James Church and planned to be a priest when he grew up. I had a crush on my Sunday catechism teacher, Sister John Mary, and wanted to be a nun like her when I grew up. So, it came as no surprise that instead of playing ‘School’ like most of the younger kids, we played ‘Mass’.
We spent a lot of our time together pretending to say Mass on Butchy’s back porch He had laid a white lace shawl over the makeshift altar and placed a bible and a cross on either end. A borrowed wine glass from Butchy’s mother served as the chalice.
Sometimes Butchy would allow me to stand on an overturned wooden box that we used as a pulpit so I could be the priest who gave the sermon, but most of the time, because I was a girl, I was cast in the nun's role. My part was to kneel on the splintery wooden porch with a towel draped over my head and pray. Occasionally, we would offer confession before mass if we could coax my little cousin, Lorraine, to come over and play the part of the sinner.
The day The Virgin Mary came to us began as any ordinary Saturday. Butchy and I were hanging out in his backyard tossing a ball. I stood on the cracked sidewalk, my sneakered toes tracing circles in the small patch of dirt along the chain-link fence. When I bent down to pick up a stone to throw through the fence, I spied a tiny crucifix lying in the weeds that stuck up through the cracks in the cement. I picked up the crucifix and rubbed it against my polo shirt to get the dirt off.
“Butchy, look at this,” I said, my voice hushed. “Three rosary beads are still attached. I wonder if it’s a sign.”
“I bet it means we’re supposed to say three Hail Marys,” he replied, his expression intense.
Butchy and I immediately fell to our knees on the coarse cement. We crossed ourselves, closed our eyes, and prayed to Mary. I felt the sun, which had been obscured behind swollen clouds, move across the yard and caress my face. I raised my head and lifted my eyes to the sky. The clouds had parted and golden rays of sunshine streamed into Butchy Napurano’s backyard. I turned to him, saw him raise his bowed head, make the sign of the cross.
“Do you think that’s Mary?” I asked, fervently.
“It’s got to be,” he whispered.
With hearts pounding, we knelt together and gazed into the sky for a long time, trying to see Mary. I prayed with all my might that what we imagined seeing was real, that the Mother of Jesus had come to me and Butchy—that in that moment we, like the children in Lourdes, were blessed by the Virgin Mary.
When the clouds converged as swiftly as they had parted, Butchy and I stood. We scraped pebbles off our knees and ran out of the yard to spread the news that The Virgin Mary had visited Jefferson Street.
I ran to Grandpa’s tavern because I wanted to tell everyone inside what happened. I stopped in my tracks as soon as I opened the door. I had been staring into the sky for so long, and the tavern was so dark, my eyes had to adjust. The aroma of beer and whiskey assailed my nostrils. There was only one customer at the end of the bar, a short, skinny, bookie everyone in the neighborhood called Mousey. When I stood next to his bar stool and told him about The Virgin Mary’s visit, he sneered.
“Oh, yeah?” he said. “And what did Mary have to say?”
“She didn’t say anything, but she gave me this.” I held out my hand, and with deep reverence showed Mousey the crucifix with its three rosary beads. He looked into my eyes and held my gaze so long that I thought he might say something, maybe even cross himself. But he just turned away and downed his shot.