by Gary Soto

Pink Hands

I miss not eating fish on Friday,
The halved lemon squeezed a third time around,
And our prayers, silent mutters
To God, whom we knew, whom we trusted
To make things right. I miss the incense,
White scarf of smoke. I miss Monsignor Singleton
Saying Mass in Latin with his back to us.
When he raised the Host, I looked down,
Usually at my hands, which were pink like the underside
Of a starfish. I miss the nuns, and the chalk smells
Of popped erasers, and the peppery corduroy
That swished when we walked. I never understood
The Trinity, and still have doubts,
But was happy for the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
I miss Sister Maria, her white-dove skin,
And the pagan babies waiting for our candles.
My favorite country was Italy, the boot country.
The Pope lived there in his purple cape,
And Venice was a flood of fishless canals.
Europe made me dream a lot. I wished my town
Were water, not dry lawns and thirsty kids.
I also like France, which was Catholic,
And England, which was not Catholic
But green and cool like the insides of trees.
I miss walking home in my Catholic clothes.
I miss crossing myself when an ambulance raced its siren.
At home a crucifix hung in almost every room,
Holy water in the cupboard behind the jam
And a box of pretzels. The Bible
Weighed less than our medical dictionary,
Where the dead lay with toes poking through white sheets.
Palm-leaf crosses withered in the kitchen window
For our Okie neighbors to look at in awe.

Okies are now the homeless, car salesmen,
And waitresses. The pagan babies are the simple poor,
The nuns in their sleds of black shadow
Women with skirts up to their knees.
Our school, condemned by the city, now creaks
With mice, not the polished shoes of Catholicism.
In school, I didn’t mean to be bad.
I wrote I WILL NOT TALK BACK a lot of times
On the blackboard, and some of that dust
Worked into my soul. Now I’m quiet,
The telephone is quiet, my family
And the people I like best are quiet.
The nuns would be proud of me,
And so would Monsignor Singleton,
Who once begged me to please be quiet in the confessional.
But Monsignor, I can’t help talking.
The Church is changed. We have folksy guitars
And an electric bass to thump our hearts, croissants
Instead of donuts, and three kinds of coffee,
Juice if you want. There are more lawyers
Than ever, doctors, teachers, and the educated
Looking for a way out. There are retreats,
Young Adult groups, spaghetti dinners,
For parents without partners,
Five-mile runs for priests and nuns,
Lay ministry, fewer bingo nights, more poor people
Cuddling newspapers over warm grates of steam.
Monsignor, good priest who stared holiness
Into my body, the church on Pine Street is in trouble:
At the alter of Mary, we have electric bulbs,
Not candles, sitting in the votive cups.
You drop a quarter
Into the slot and a single bulb comes on.
With more quarters, with more sins notching the soul,
The alter lights up like a pinball machine.
How do we kneel and pray at such a place?
Monsignor, come back, with a holy sleight of hand,
With the smoke, the wavering flame,
The glow of the votive cup like a red taillight,
The teary melt of wax.

-from Gary Soto: New and Selected Poems