By Jim Triggs
The July sky is deep blue and the morning dew gives the lawn surrounding St. John-of-the-Cross a heavenly glow. As we approach St. John’s signature twin steeples, I begin seeing friends and familiar faces heading toward the main doors. We have been members for fifteen years and always attend 10 AM mass. At exactly 9:56, I drop off my family at the north door and park the car. If I time it correctly, I will slip into our regular pew just as Fr. Justin gives the signal to start mass. This weekly routine is a win-win scenario: my wife appreciates the chivalry and I avoid Doris Schmidt and the cross.
After parking and making small talk with … I can never remember his name … my pulse quickens as I enter the church. Like a veteran quarterback, I use my peripheral vision to survey the field. My field is the large gathering space outside of the main entrance to the nave. I walk casually – not too quickly – to the drinking fountain located on the western wall. This gives me the best viewing angle to find my opening. Feigning thirst, I lean over, let the water splash against my lips, roll my eyes to the left until they hurt and check her location.
There! At four o’clock! (I’m not sure four o’clock is an accurate description because I’m leaning over, looking sideways.) To the left of the sacristy, Doris lurks. She turns her head slowly, scanning left then right. Over six feet tall with a slender frame, Doris doesn’t weigh more than 100 pounds. Her Sunday garb never changes: black flats, black stockings, a long gray wool skirt, a charcoal black sweater, and large oversized reading glasses perched permanently on her small, eagle-like head. In the crowded hall before mass her height is an advantage and wherever she looks, parishioners scatter. Moses needed his staff and God to split the Red Sea; Doris Schmidt simply stares and the crowd parts.
The herd is particularly large this morning as Doris eyes her kill. Not too big – there needs to be some pain; it is the cross, after all. But not too small. She once made the mistake of choosing speed over size and the diminutive Eugene McCann lost control of the cross half way up the aisle. It was a messy scene as the lead altar boy dove into the pew and Father Justin received the full force of the cross on the top of his head. Mass was cancelled and Fr. Justin was rushed to – of all places – Methodist Hospital. According to the organist, Mrs. Deckenbach, it was a sign from God: “Jesus simply had to knock some sense into that man!”
I see the opening. With her haunches up, Doris heads due east toward the portrait of Pope John Paul II and an unsuspecting thirty-something who just finished brushing little PJ’s hair. Her gait is effortless and the unsuspecting dad has no idea he’s being stalked.
Proof that Freudenschade is alive and well, I catch myself grinning at the demise of this poor soul. I wipe my mouth and head toward my family while the coast is clear. Relax. Stay focused. Be not afraid. The Lord is my shepherd. My faith is rewarded and it’s safe to shift my thoughts from Doris’s whereabouts to more meaningful concerns: What time does the John Deere Classic start? Will the Yankees hold a lead today? How do I get out of the baby shower next week? Since when do men go to baby showers?
With victory in my grasp, I don’t just walk toward the pew, I saunter, savoring each stride knowing I’m in the clear. I’m only a few feet from salvation when I feel the familiar squeeze on my left elbow.
“OH, DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN … PLEASE LET THIS CUP PASS!”
Being a stoic Scandinavian (a redundant phrase if there ever was one), I don’t verbalize these emotions. Instead, I bury them deep inside and transfer all that anxiety to my cardiovascular system: my heart is pounding and my face feels flush.
I turn to my left in the futile hope Dr. Mike Gallagher is impersonating you-know-who. No such luck.
“Oh … good morning, Doris.”
My words come out garbled and insincere. It was a ‘good morning’ a few seconds ago. Now it’s a crappy morning.
“Father is about to begin mass and you need to carry the cross.”
In sales parlance, Doris is a closer. There is such finality and conviction and authority in her voice, it’s impossible to turn her down. But I’m a veteran with a few tricks of my own. The key is to keep the momentum going.
“Doris, what happened to that young buck back in the hall?”
Her grip tightens.
“That wimp has a bad back. Don’t play games. C’mon. Father’s waiting.”
Damn. Plan B thwarted by a lying son-of- a … My only hope is Dr. Mike. Mike is an anesthesiologist and the kindest, gentlest guy in the world. All the wives love Mike and wonder why their good-for-nothing husbands can’t be more like him. He’s caring, sensitive, thoughtful … and just ten feet away.
“Hey, Dr. Mike! Doris is looking for someone to carry the cross. How about …”
“Nice try. You the man! Remember, bend the knees.”
Reality sinks in. I’m defeated. I must take up my cross – in the most literal sense. I prefer the figurative sense because St. John-of-the-Cross chose the heaviest cross from whatever catalog you buy crosses from. It is ten feet tall and spans another six feet. Cut from solid oak, it weighs 80 pounds thanks in part to it’s realistic carving of Jesus in all his agony. This is no Vatican-II-New-Age piece of abstract art – the kind you would expect at St. Joan of Arc Church on the Left side of town. No, our cross is the real McCoy and Dr. Mike wasn’t joking. Using your legs to lift the cross is critical and God-forbid you let its center of gravity drift. That’s how Fr. Justin got clobbered.
Mrs. Deckenbach begins playing “Lift High the Cross” and Doris gives me a firm nudge to begin the procession. As I make my way up the aisle, I’m unaware of the music, my pace relative to the rest of the procession or where the heck my family is sitting. All I can see are the grins and winks coming from my so-called friends. Mockingly, Dr. Mike motions me to lift the cross higher.
Reaching the altar without tripping or feinting is half the battle. Whoever designed this cross intentionally drilled the hole at its base a mere two millimeters larger than the post that holds it upright. As I arrive at the altar, I know that my execution must be perfect. I have to lift the wooden structure about four feet and hold it perfectly vertical while I align the hole with the post. It is a feat of balance, strength and athletic prowess.
For seasoned St. John-of-the-Cross veterans watching from the pews, this is the fun part. They have had their turns with the cross and appreciate the degree of difficulty. According to parish lore, a clean lift-and-mount should take no more than four seconds. No one can forget the Sunday Randy Turner struggled for 23 seconds and motioned for help from the usher, 82 year-old Eddie Callahan. Eddie grabbed the cross from Randy, flashed him a look of utter disdain and mounted the cross in 3.5 seconds. Poor Randy never recovered and would have changed parishes if his wife was not director of the funeral choir – affectionately known as the “Dead Beats.”
Luckily, my ascent to the altar is uneventful and I successfully mount the cross without making a scene. Being a veteran cross-taker-upper, I remember to spin Jesus 180 degrees to make sure he’s facing the congregation. When rookies forget this last step, Doris – with a twirl of her index finger – will signal Eddie to spin Jesus.
After mass, Dr. Mike congratulates me on my successful lift-and-mount. He clocked it at 3.2 seconds, which is very respectable. John Taylor’s record of 2.3 seconds may never be broken but 3.2 is very good by any standard. That young dad with the “bad back” gives me a wink as he passes by with little PJ. Your time will come, wise guy; Doris Schmidt always gets her man.
Speaking of Doris, she grabs the cross from me like it’s a broomstick and says, in her matter-of-fact tone, “That drop-off-your-family-and-camp-out-at-the-drinking-fountain routine is the oldest trick in the book. Every Sunday I see you up there splashing water on your face and I think to myself, ‘Does he really think I’m that stupid?’ Honey, I’ve been doing this for 42 years and I’m smarter than you. When it’s your turn to take up the cross, it’s your turn to take up the cross. Deal with it.”
Doris turns with her cross – victorious – and walks away.
Her lecture is an attempt to shame and intimidate and a lesser man would admit defeat. I will not. Doris Schmidt is a worthy adversary and next Sunday we will meet again.
I wonder if there is a hidden path through the crying room.