What is in a body? We see flesh with blood going through, but who knows what it is? I never asked before. All my life I saw a body as just a body, this bit of flesh we’re put inside the day we come alive. All I cared for was the way a body moves me. I’m the best runner I know of, and I still brag to Olga I’m at my fastest going up a hill. On a straightaway, I lope along like a tired dog in summer. But something about a hill makes me leap up over its grasses and stones till I’m standing at the top.
In our town I know one good place for running. Sunday mornings I start from Olga’s house near the Illinois River, running up our highest and steepest hill to the park by Saint Roch’s Church. On a windy day I skate that hill like a cyclone. Sometimes I’m so fast the sky starts spinning and weaving, and I rise up with my arms as if saying I can fly. The one thing that stops me is the church. What a giant mark over the air and across the earth, shadowing our largest houses and blackening the sky. Once I see it, my body feels helpless. l scrunch down and keep a distance, watching from across Crosat Street as the people move toward the door. They go quietly with heads bowed, bodies serious and heavy. They would like to go back home, I think, but still they enter the dark.
Old Olga was a churchgoer, but she never forced me to join her. Not until last Saturday night when she promised to take me to the Sunday morning Mass. On my bedstand she set out white socks, my stiffest trousers, and a white shirt handed down from my cousin John. I kept badgering her about what was going to happen. She said, “It’s a Mass, is all. You get some sleep, now. When I wake you it’ll still be dark.”
I wasn’t much for sleeping. I imagined what it was like inside that building: cobwebs and darkened corners, then a maze of little rooms. The people coming in got pushed and scrunched together. They rushed from one room to the next, fighting in the race to get outside. I saw so many people in cramped rooms, I worried their bodies would stick together. I saw old people and young, a whole tangle of bodies. I got to sleep by telling myself none of them were hurt.
It was night when Olga woke me. I was having a dream that I would never go to church. Olga took me in her arms and carried me to the bathroom. “Clean up,” she said. “The water’s warm. Be sure to wash your face.”
She had the bath ready for me. I slid in up to my neck and the water was nice and warm. I hoped I would go to sleep and just dream again. But soon Olga came in and told me I was clean.
She wiped my ears and face with a washrag. Then she pulled me out of the water to dry me in a towel. I stood shaking as she slicked my hair with cream-colored oil. She always does that, even though it’s short enough; she ends up just shining the scalp. I get my hair cut with old clippers brought over from Yugoslavia. Grandpa cuts it to the nub, so I hardly grow any hair. Olga can see for herself nothing she does will make it pretty. She just likes to touch me.
I got dressed as Olga helped me. Then it was time for breakfast: struklij — a dumpling filled with cottage cheese, butter, and sweet spices — warm milk, butter cookies with toasted almonds, and a platter of homemade bread.
The kitchen smelled of kishke. Grandpa Tony had been making sausage, so I knew we’d have kishke for lunch and dinner, a kind of blood sausage made of white rice and the blood of pigs. I liked the smell, and even the way it looked. It came to you dark purple in a wrinkled skin. Then you opened it with a knife and inside it was a lighter purple, though not like real blood. It tasted like nothing else they ever tried to give you. It lay sweet and warm in your belly. You wouldn’t think of blood.
Olga got ready while I was eating. I eat slowly; I barely finished my struklij before it was time to go. She took my dishes, dropped them in the sink, brushed my bald head with her fingers, and then we went out the door. I didn’t watch where we were going. Olga wore a long dress, and all I saw was its white hem, or when her steps were wide, the tips of gray shoes just below her dress. I kept telling myself she was a good person for me to be with. If I fainted or felt wobbly, she would carry me in her arms.
“Here we are, Joey. Now you can relax.”
I looked up and saw the shadow. Over our town, over the Illinois River, all I saw was the shadow of the church. It rose like a wall of mountain, ending at the top with its wide arches and columns, a dark cross at the peak, above a tower that housed a giant bell.
Why would a body build such a thing? What does it prove? Beside the church, our old houses were nothing. They looked like a shanty town, a few boards set out and painted, put up quick to stop the wind. Only that church seemed as powerful as a mountain. Not only would it stop the wind, but once inside I wouldn’t hear thunder or rain, or even a bolt of lightning tearing the belly of a cloud. I imagined the church would bury me in its silence and its darkness.
I held close to Olga as she hurried me up the stairway. She pulled me by one hand. She lifted me when I touched her dress with my other hand.
She opened a door and the light bloomed soft and hazy. I saw no mazes of little rooms, just this old lobby where we entered, and then a great oval room with a ceiling that could touch a cloud.
An angel near Olga held out a shallow bowl of water. Olga dipped her hand straight into it. Then she touched her shoulders and face; I think she touched her heart. She gestured twice for me to do the same. My hands felt limp like dead fish, so she took one and laid it in the water. She touched my forehead with water to try and cool it. Next came my shoulders and heart. It surprised me to look closer at the angel. Even in shadows I knew they’d carved the angel from sheets of plaster, then painted him blue and gold. He looked holy and true when I blinked and turned away. When I looked near his eyes, though, I knew he was a fake.
My body stiffened as Olga led me farther. I saw six lighted candles on a white table, and as I edged closer, a gold box nestled between the lights. The box had double doors like in a child’s playhouse. I saw a funny-looking tent in front of it, bright green with a wide red stripe. I felt less afraid of whatever had to happen. It looked nice the way the colors fit together. I knew someone had thought hard, planning where certain things should be set. On the left, I saw a huge black book on a golden stand. I liked the way it looked there, proud and heavy. I knew if I arranged the entire table by myself, I wouldn’t make any change.
The people around me knelt down on the green boards between the benches. Some of the elderly rested their bodies on the benches, closing their eyes to sleep. I could feel I was safe so long as I stayed with Olga. When we came near the white table with all its things, I wanted to see it from every side. Instead, Olga tugged my arm and we knelt beside some people. They were the Moshniks, Frank and Mary Ellen, and they always bought kishke from my grandfather every week. Tony Klansek was world famous for the way he made his sausage. People came from as far away as Peoria, driving sixty miles for kishke, putting it on ice in their coolers and driving sixty miles home.
Here is what happened. Frank nodded to Olga. Mary Ellen nodded to me. I nodded to both Frank and Mary Ellen. Then I began to pray. Olga took out her rosary. There was nothing fancy about Olga. When she cooked, she cooked. When she prayed, even I could see she did nothing else. I tried to remember all the prayers I knew. Then I watched Olga — how she moved her lips without any sound coming out, and how her fingers moved from one bead to another to keep track of what she prayed. I didn’t know the different prayers that work to say a rosary. I felt kind of good, though, and so I thanked God for not using his home for torture.
Suddenly a man and two boys appeared in front of us. Everyone stood to greet them. Olga tugged my elbow, so I stood with all the rest. The man was the most beautiful. He wore a white robe down to his ankles and a brightly colored vest. I saw red, green, and purple, then flashes of gold and silver crossing like a double sword. Wherever he went, his boys would tag along. They wore long red robes, with white aprons at the waist. They folded their hands as if praying to their father. In a way he was very beautiful. But in another way he reminded me of Dr. Luzinski when he’s getting ready to give a shot, or to shine a light in someone’s throat. I never saw a body look quite so serious and pretty. Though I liked him for his colors, I hoped whatever he did wouldn’t hurt me by surprise. I wondered why Olga hadn’t dressed us up in beautiful colored clothing. In that whole church, only the man and his boys wore nice robes and looked pretty as a feast.
I knew the man would talk to us. First he lifted his arms over his head; then his voice came deep with every sound he made. I thought that I knew our language. Some of my elders had even told me I was good at using words. That’s because I used words like I and me and want. I heard everyone else using them, so I thought I understood. Only this strange man used a million sounds a body never heard of. I listened better than anyone, glancing at Olga and the Moshniks who seemed to understand. I felt dumb: I couldn’t find the slightest bit of meaning. The man was telling me something, but I was too ignorant to imagine what he said.
I started to itch beneath my collar. Then I started to itch down my spine, in all the places I couldn’t scratch. I was greedy to figure out the sounds. Sometimes I’d hear some hint of a word I knew, but nothing strung together to make pictures I could understand.
Finally I gave up on meaning, but kept listening for a rhythm. I didn’t try to make sense of it. Later I could ask Olga to teach me what it meant. Now, little by little, the sounds I heard were different. I began to feel them in my body where before I only itched. I forgot how important it was to give sounds their special meaning. But for a while that was better, listening for nothing but the sounds. It seemed like the changing rhythms gave the man his power and his glory. When I felt the sounds inside me, I had power in myself.
Old Olga and the Moshniks started talking. The man would raise his palms and say something lovely. Then Olga and the Moshniks and everyone else would say something in response. Later Olga could tell me if these sounds had any sort of meaning. I was sure the meanings would be as beautiful as the sounds.
A light started shining. It was nighttime long ago when we entered. Now the sun outside was strong, and the man had colored windows as high as houses making shadows with summer light. Olga and I found gold around our bellies. And Mrs. Moshnik, she had gold with lavender on her forehead. Even her husband Frank sparkled in circles of yellow light.
Then it happened. Mrs. Moshnik, with the glow rising all around us, looked at me and smiled. I smiled back and felt brighter inside. My breath came deep until the bright glow filled the center of my chest. I wanted to laugh out loud at how scared I’d been. When I held back, seeing I shouldn’t, the glowing just went away.
Then different voices came down to help me. The man raised his hands, giving the sign straight above for angels to begin to sing. I looked up and saw only the vaults with the arches and pillars. I felt angels near the ceiling, or even higher, maybe on the roof. For a while the bright glow came down to me. All I saw filled a lighted shadow. I touched my hand to Olga and sensed the glow. Then when I couldn’t laugh, no more light again. I kept looking for angels in the vaults where I heard the song. Sometimes I would bow low and pray for a better vision. Still when I glanced up, the angels would not appear. I gave up after quite a while of trying. I had set ideas on why angels would not appear.
Olga told me to sit. She stepped by me and went up the aisle with many other people. A low railing made a sort of fence before the white table. Olga knelt at the rail and the man came down to put something in her mouth. Mrs. Moshnik also opened her mouth to get something inside it. Frank Moshnik did not go up there. He sat on the bench with me.
When Olga and Mrs. Moshnik came back I heard another song. It was beautiful and deep, though the full glowing and warmth did not go in my body. Pretty soon the man folded his hands and bowed to us. Then with his two boys, he disappeared through a little door. The Moshniks and nearly everyone seemed anxious to leave the church. Only Olga saw more and more things to pray for. When I sat on the bench, she said I should thank God for being where I was. She just kept praying when everyone else had beat it. Then for one last prayer, she led me to the back of the church “to light candles for the saints.” She said, “These are candles,” as if anyone wouldn’t know. I saw bright rows of them, each shining a light in a different colored jar. I got to hold the matchstick and light a red one and a blue one. Then I leaned hard on Olga’s body, but she was too big to push anywhere near the door. I was greedy to get outside and ask her all my questions. She said, “Wait, we have to pray now. No one sees our candles unless we say a prayer.”
She took coins from a hanky and fit them in a slot. Then she closed her eyes, moving her lips in a quiet prayer. We stood there maybe for a minute. I was starting to itch when she gave one last bow and let me hurry her down the aisle.
Outside, we sparkled in our sunlight. I was just ready to ask my questions when four women waved to Olga from the curb. Olga waved back and went down to greet them. They formed a circle near the curbing, and the way Olga held me, I had no choice but to stand between them where I could barely see the sky.
I mostly saw big hands beside the colors of their dresses. Patches of blue, soft white, and yellow. And over my head, a big face nearly covering the sky. The women smelled sweet and warm from the cooking in their kitchens. Struklij, kishke, goulash . . . I thought I could smell the red cherries of summer ripening in the heat.
They each waited to say, “How are you?” to Grandma Olga. Then the whole bunch of them had to meet me, rubbing their dry fingers on my bald head as if touching a sacred charm. They kept repeating how cute I was. “And what a round head,” said one of them. “What a perfectly round head.”
Often it is good to understand nothing. One said, “Joey, isn’t that a nice name?” Then another chimed in, “I have a nephew named Joey.” And another, “So do I. He’s just in first grade now. And smarter than a whip.” It could’ve gone on like this forever. I had to lie and tell Olga I was hungry and tired and would like to go back home.
“Now don’t let us keep you,” said the biggest talker. “Nothing worse than a hungry child.”
“Oh, he eats well,” said Olga. “All my kishke and struklij. He eats everything in sight.”
“You gimme a call. All right, Olga?”
“And in the meantime you take care of our Joey.”
“Oh, I will. Before you know it he’ll be all grown up.”
Finally we were on Crosat Street. I got to ask Olga about those sounds; not just the man’s, but what were she and the Moshniks saying when they talked to him out loud?
She said, “The sounds were all in Latin. That’s an old language no one understands anymore. We don’t know what it means.”
“Well, what about the man?” I said. “Does the man know what he says?”
“You mean the priest,” she corrected. “I think he has special training. But for us it is the feeling that helps all of us to pray.”
I let this go. I remembered how sounds went through me. It wasn’t words I was hearing. Certain sounds go through a body.
“Well, what about the angels?” I thought aloud. “What I heard was just above me, but no one else looked up.”
We began to walk more slowly. When Olga’s confused, she bites her upper lip and sucks in her cheeks. I tried hard to explain the angels. I pointed to the sky and said voices came just above me, though I couldn’t find the singers whenever I looked up. I gave her my opinion. The angels might have been singing on the roof so I couldn’t see them. Or else they were near the ceiling where I thought they should be, though only visible to a martyr or a saint.
We stopped walking. Olga’s eyes widened. She stared at me as if I were not her flesh and blood. Then she looked at the sky and her body began to tremble. Her mouth opened wide and she giggled in her throat. I could tell she wanted to laugh or sing from the center of her body. She had the same problem I had when I was trying to be careful in the church. When she giggled again, she held her arms and shivered. Then she told me the singers were not angels but real people, even people of the town.
She stuck out her hand and drew a map of how it happened. The lobby — she called it a vestibule — met the line near the center of her palm. The high room with its vaults and benches filled the wide circle almost to her wrist. The white table called the altar came in just below her wrist. And up on her fingers, tilted, the small arc she called choir loft was where people gave us song.
“If you’d turned, Joey, you know who you would have seen?”
“Gus Brate,” she said. “And then Frankie Kastigar. Just friends we already know.”
I looked at her in silence. All that sound came from human voices? But how would a body ever know? When Olga kept talking, I didn’t want to listen. I imagined Gus Brate singing with his belly, booming it outward the way he did when he said hello. How strange that a man might act like he’s a singer. Gus’s job was bringing vegetables to my grandpa’s grocery, and I’d seen him carting boxes of carrots with mud on their roots, keeping them balanced in high stacks on the top of his belly. He’d breathe loud and deep, mouth drawn open. And if he tried to speak, every sound boomed upward from his gut. Down there old Gus was a two-ton barrel. And to carry vegetables, he’d rest the boxes on the flesh of his belly, tilting until his back swayed and his belly became a shelf. I could see him now, walking bowlegged down the aisle in Grandpa’s grocery. He’d be gritting his teeth and sweating, and he’d haul the vegetables to the counter and let go with a rush of air. It got hard for him to straighten his thick, bowed legs. He’d lift one off the floor and sort of shake it. Then the other, as he rubbed round his belly where he used it for a shelf. I wondered how and why a body like his would sing. If the sounds of angels came out of Gus Brate, then there’s more to a body than we see. As for the light inside, I knew no one would ever tell me. I looked at Olga and she was shiny. I felt wild but didn’t dare to speak.