You find a First Communion portrait on the roof. A graffiti-filled stairwell leads you to the third floor lobby. You divine the fate of an empty exhibition. The confessional line moves fast. Dots are connected. In this house, we say I'm sorry. Kids can't be sinners. You need a snack.
keywords: childhood Catholicism, found art, jalapeño kettle chips
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You are on the roof of a museum overlooking a city of garbage. Hands buried deep in your jacket pockets, you observe the red pall of the blood moon, a harbinger of end times. The glow transfixes you, but you find it more calming than sinister, a warm blanket of light.
Besides, if this is an omen, it’s a month too late. The rapture already came. A text message told you so:
All who are not Forgiven must report to a Departure station immediately.
You’re still piecing together the story. You don’t know if departure means exile, enslavement, or slaughter. You don’t know what it means to be forgiven. All you know is that you’re alone and, Jesus Christ, you’re hungry.
I mean, really hungry. Murder-someone-for-a-cheesesteak hungry. You dream of jalapeño kettle chips, the big bags, not the tiny ones on the rack by the deli counter. You recall that numbing crunch, that glorious, too-full feeling of beasting every last crumb. You remember how badly the chips scraped the roof of your mouth, and how tired your jaw got from so much chewing.
But they were worth it. They were always worth it.
A hatch to the south, by the roof’s dome, leads down into the museum.
On your way back inside, you hear something crack underfoot. You stoop down and see a picture frame with a broken glass front. Mounted inside is a 1970s-era department store portrait of a seven- or eight-year-old white girl. She kneels in her smooth, white dress and clasps her hands together in a pose of mock prayer. A sheer veil hangs from a clip in her hair. Even with a rosary laced through her fingers, she looks more like a child bride than a second-grader celebrating her First Communion.
You look around for other stray items on the roof. There’s nothing else here.
You take the photograph. For good measure, you also take a wedge-shaped shard of glass from the broken picture frame, wrap it in paper towels, and slide it in your bag.
Now you’re ready. You turn on the cell phone flashlight, climb down the hatch, and retrace your steps to the fourth floor lobby. There are bathrooms to the northeast, a locked door to the east, an elevator to the west, and a stairwell to the northwest.
The stairwell is narrow and cold. Graffiti covers the parged, gray walls, an unsanctioned mural of overlapping stencils and tags. Sharpied onto the metal banister are what must be the names of local bands--Barishnicop, Photomorgue, Girlscout--each stylized as one word. The sentence REST IN POWER DELBERT AFRICA takes up most of the western wall.
The exit door groans shut as you step into the lobby. Just like the fourth floor, there’s an elevator to the west, a door to the east that reads STAFF ONLY, and a railing to the south overlooking a vast darkness below. To the northeast is a water fountain and metal bench. To the north are two identical entrance ways, about forty feet apart.
You slide onto the bench and lean your head against the wall. Sitting feels good, but your stomach growls. You wonder if you’ll ever eat jalapeño kettle chips again. Maybe there’s an abandoned bodega somewhere with shelves filled with expired-but-still-edible snack food, where you could ransack the aisles and feast on every flavor of potato chips and Doritos and off-brand Takis, a dozen open bags at your feet, and you sitting criss-cross-applesauce with a four-pack of sugar-free Red Bull, because eating is right and good, and caffeine makes your heart feel alive.
Is this your craving or a memory of someone else’s? It feels so specific to your body, the way it triggers your dopamine receptors and makes your mouth water. It feels like you.
Something about that First Communion portrait troubles you. You slip it out of your bag for another look. This time, you notice a subtle halo around the girl’s cherubic face, like a saint in Byzantine art. Everything about this photo screams sanctity and purity, and purity is just Jesus-speak for virginity, a concept invented to teach girls that their goodness is precarious and their bodies aren’t their own.
This girl is eight.
And don’t you technically have to go to confession before receiving the Eucharist? It horrifies you to think anyone could call a child sinner. But that’s the crux of being Catholic. God sent his only begotten son to deliver us from evil. To save us from ourselves. You can’t believe in Christ without also believing you’re bad.
Facing north, you step through the right entranceway into a long gallery space. On the east wall is a sign that reads, Spellcheck: Dungeons, Dragons, and Collective Storytelling. The show features ephemera from actual tabletop roleplaying campaigns, including game master notes, rule books, box artwork, and player sheets.
Or so the copy claims. The walls and pedestals are empty. Labels describe absent objects. You can’t tell if the exhibition was abandoned while being installed or taken down.
Or maybe it was pillaged. You continue north through the gallery. Along the eastern wall are three vitrines with broken locks and fingerprints marring the bare glass shelves.
You remember what you read on the conference room markerboard, just after you woke up. At the top of a short, cryptic list were the words, what we can carry.
They knew. Everyone knew the end was coming. The curators had to decide what to save.
A pocket full of 20-sided dice. A map of a fantasy realm stuffed into a satchel. If something could be saved, it was worth saving.
The gallery eventually curves into a U back toward the lobby. At the bend is a division wall with an opening to a separate exhibition space. This area looks relatively untouched, and after a quick glance at the objects on display, you can guess why.
On the western wall is a 15-foot long photograph of a glowing Times Square marquee that reads, PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT.
On the opposite wall is an assortment of small, prefabricated home decor signs. Positive and affirming messages appear on plastic, brass, and distressed wood.
Home. Gather. Dream. Blessed.
Welcome. YOLO. This is us.
Live, laugh, love.
In this house, we believe Black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal.
In this house, we are real, we make mistakes, we say I’m sorry.
In this house, we do second chances, we do grace.
What even is grace? Proximity to God? Mrs. Montserrat says there’s grace in repentance. Your seven-year-old brain can’t fathom what that means. But the words echo in your head as you walk with your classmates to the church. It’s a gray January day, and there’s still frost on the grass. Trees at the edge of the school grounds mute the sound of suburban traffic. All is quiet save for the swishing of winter coats.
Once inside, Mrs. Montserrat seats the students boy-girl-boy-girl. You’re sandwiched in a pew between Lori Kozalowski and Jennifer Nash, who bow their heads in earnest reflection. While they pray, you eye their plaid jumpers and wonder what it’s like to be a girl.
The line for penance moves quickly. When your turn comes, you enter the confessional, kneel behind the screen, and follow the script:
Bless me father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.
And how have you’ve fallen short of the Lord’s teachings? Father Lenoire says.
You consider the past few months. Two weeks ago, Mrs. Montserrat busted you for reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book during math class. Last Saturday, you told your mom you hated Scott Levine, who’s lobbed more anti-Asian slurs than you even knew existed. She told you that hatred is a sin, that Jesus says to love our enemies.
So you disobeyed your teacher. You didn’t forgive your bully. But math is boring and Scott Levine is evil. Nothing you did makes you bad.
You’re not bad.
Father Lenoir clears his throat. My son? he says.
You don’t respond. You let the silence stretch on. And when the silence is too much to bear, you stand up and leave.
You don’t need forgiveness.
You need math to be interesting.
You need Scott Levine to feel true pain.
You need a charger before your phone dies.
But dear God, more than anything else, you need a snack.
Thank you for listening to Planet Radiant. Words and music by me, Sasha V. Logo by Jess Hamman. Beta tested by Jess Hamman and Christina Larocco.
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