Back in my day, there were no such things as “online publications,” and newspapers were the major source of information. Hence, the world of suburbia was filled with paperboys, of which I was one. Raised Catholic, I was also an altar boy, which made Sundays a bit hectic for me.
On one particular Sunday morning, six a.m. four days before Thanksgiving, the weather was bitter cold and the sky dark, pockets of visible stars slowly fading as the light of the full moon beckons the morning. My breath appears in front of me, short puffs of fog that cling to my cheeks, disappearing and reappearing as if by magic as I inhale and exhale. I enjoy the smoke signals I’m sending out, in cadence with the rounding push of my feet on the pedals of my trusty red Columbia bike. A single dim stream of light leads me down the street. Two blocks to go and I pack my papers up for delivery. A whiff of bacon envelops my senses, and triggers an involuntary growl in my stomach, reminding me of the hunger I don’t realize I have. However, as it was Sunday, I fast; if I eat before church, no Communion. No salvation. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
The old sculpted cinderblock garage has a weather-beaten barn door, peeling green paint, and a musty smell. It lingers over the fresh aroma of warm ink on paper. The truck was still unloading as I arrive exactly on time with three other boys. We drop our bikes and get to work; it’s the quickest way to get our load separated and bagged, instead of waiting for the Music Director to pass the bundles on to us. All of the paperboys call him that as he hums as he works, pausing only to bust our chops about being slow and worthless delivery kids. The Sunday journal was still warm to the touch despite the chill wind blocked by the walls of the garage. I break a paperboy record that day; three bags are packed and I am off before anyone else. There are of course no cheers or “nice jobs” to be had; only my pounding chest and panting breath as I head off. I am Paul Revere on my Clydesdale riding off to deliver the important news of the day.
My route brings me beyond the comfort zone of my neighborhood. The bike was loaded front and back with 50 papers, twenty per bag, and the last ten in a sack on my back. The route, mixed with houses and businesses, consists of many three-family buildings requiring me to run up and downstairs. My hunger was again stoked as the deliciousness of the early morning aromas vary from floor to floor. It was easy to match the eclectic ethnicities of the families to the scents of food being prepared: Chorizo, Spanish or Mexican, or Portuguese linguica, Italian sausage, or Greek Loukaniko (which was my favorite, particularly when seasoned with lemon zest and fennel). The Spartan blood coursing through my veins only escalates my hunger pangs as I continue to deliver the news. The black sheep resting on my shoulder whispers ”Hey fool…skip communion and knock on a door and beg for a sausage. It’s the fuel of my ancestors.” Nevertheless, I plod along; I have too much news to deliver and too little time to address my primal need for sustenance.
The business delivery was wrapped in plastic to protect it from the freezing rain falling steady. The pellets rebelliously bypass my hat, stinging my cold red cheeks as I pedal into the wind on the Avenue. The voices of authority become louder as I rush to finish. "Hurry Frank, your turn to ring the bell in the church today for the nine o'clock service."
The voices of my stomach become even louder, “FEED ME,” they say, like Audrey, the carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Now close to eight, I am dangerously behind schedule with fifteen papers left to deliver.
Riding like the wind, I make it home with no time to spare, the slush mix of snow and water mixed with salt sprays up from my front tire. My pants have a vertical line of wet down the front outside of my pants and my toes are frozen. “Crap, I will have to change my pants. My mother with a hand on the hip and a finger-wagging.” I can see the kitchen light in the back of my house, through the leafless trees of the empty lot behind the big billboard.
I finally make it home and I am immediately assaulted by the smell of my mother’s delicious Sunday sauce simmering on the stovetop. But she was nowhere to be found. I rush to my room, hastily change my clothes, donning a starched white shirt and black pants and a clip-on tie. When I return to the kitchen, it was empty but for the huge cauldron of bubbling deliciousness on the stovetop. Without hesitation, I rush to the cupboard, break off a piece of Italian bread, and dip it into the sauce. Then I repeat the action, this time snagging a sausage. I hear the floorboards creaking, signaling the approach of my mother, hastily run to the front door, grab my coat, and make my way to church.
As I prepare for my altar duties, my mind wanders. “How many of the aunts and uncle and cousins will be at the house for Sunday dinner,” I wonder. “Will there be enough meatballs and pasta and sausages and braciole?” I smile, knowing there will never really be enough. Then I make my way to the altar in tandem with the other server for the day, leading the celebrant, Father Sabias Rodrigues, to say mass.
I dutifully bow and kneel and ring bells, even as the voice in my head says, “Soon you will eat. Soon the meatballs will be yours. Just get through this hour.”
Father Sabi drones on in Latin, and finally, it was over.
As I pull off my robe and try to grab my coat, suddenly Father Sabi was upon me.
“Son,” he says, “there was a red spot on your collar. Did you cut yourself?”
I am tempted to say, “Why yes – I shaved this morning and bled like a stuck pig,” but Father Rodrigues was the priest who baptized me, and the one to whom I confess my sins on a weekly basis.
“No, Father,” I say quietly.
“Well then,” he says, “Where did you get that stain? Is it lipstick? Have you been kissing girls?”
At age 9, the mere thought of osculation revolts me, so I blurted out, “No…it’s Sunday gravy” and instantly regret my inability to bluff.
“So,” Father Sabi says, “you did not fast. And your mother made gravy. And there was going to be a big family dinner at your house today. Is that correct?”
Any resistance I knew would be futile; Father Sabi knows my mother’s cooking; it was legendary in our neighborhood, and she often prepares food for church events.
“Yes, father,” I say, with a shaking voice, “I know I have sinned. I will do my penance.”
Father Sabi’s eyes twinkle as he attempts to remain stern.
“Your punishment,” he says, “is to bring me to your house for dinner. Let’s surprise your mother. She will be cross with you because you did not give her fair warning, and your punishment will likely be larger than the crime. However, you will be privy to her bountiful feast.”
“So I’m not going to hell?” I ask him, earnestly.
“No,” he says, “not this time. But if this happens again – I can’t guarantee that you won’t end up there. Especially if she makes her famous Weiner sauce and you don’t share it with me. God sees everything.”
At that point, I was extremely relieved, and no less hungry than before. So, we walked to my house together, and I didn’t even mind that there would be at least ten fewer meatballs to go around because Father Sabi was in tow. It was worth a few mea culpa.