I like nuns. All the nuns I remember from Holy Trinity Catholic school in Dallas, I liked. Tall Sister Theresa, with the bucktooth smile and a pocket full of caramel chews. Nervous Sister Grace, who made us kneel and pray every time an ambulance screamed down Hillcrest Road. Stern Sister Louisa, who rapped students’ knuckles red for walking back from communion with hands in pockets. They stay with me because they were impressive, and they were impressive because they made the best of a world they didn’t quite fit into.
The only nun I wasn’t quite sure of was Sister Mary. She was some kind of junior nun, still learning the ropes in her mid-forties, young by nun standards. She was like any other nun in her blue habit and black shoes – except when she stepped up to her water fountain duties.
If you caught Sister Mary in the hallway, she would be shuffling head-down across the red-tiled linoleum, hugging a slew of music books. In class, where she taught us the recorder, she seemed constantly disappointed in us. But she bloomed beside her water fountain, and the cold, grey box cooed and warbled next to her. She commanded that post, back erect, blue habit starched straight, gummy-soled feet wide part, ruler in hand. Her duty transformed her from a nervous teacher to an indispensable automaton of water distribution.
We all knew the drill: step up, hit the fountain button, listen to the metronome count of the ruler spanking her hand, and lap up as much as possible before ten or face unimaginable consequences. She didn’t even bother looking at us, just kept her eyes cast upwards on the stained-glass windows of the saints, certain we would understand the divine nature of her orders.
On one particular day, I was fifth in line behind Daniel Espinoza, the Alonzo twins, and Gabriel Gabo. Gabo never handled the pressure of the fountain well, which was unfortunate, because he probably needed the water most. We were all panting and sweaty from playing kickball at recess under the Dallas sun, the boys frantically tucking in their blue shirt tails, the girls squaring up their checkered dresses. On top of that anxiety, Gabo was overweight and clumsy, neither trait doing him much good at Sister’s fountain. He dove in with hopeful zeal, stretching up on his toes to engulf the curling water into his flapping jowls, splashing more water than he drank. Without looking down, Sister’s lower lip curled in disgust, and she tapped counts 7-10 faster to bring a merciful end to the sad display. Gabo walked away wet, bug-eyed and shaky, more tired and thirsty than before.
The twins had their own routine. Felicia always went first, tittering and stealing a secret glance back at her sister, who squeezed her eyes shut and tittered back until Sister slapped her ruler. Felicia would put two delicate fingers on the button, take three birdlike sips, and then end abruptly when Sister reached six. Her twin, Dolores, would step up and do exactly the same thing. Then they would hook arms and run to homeroom, tittering the whole way. Sister would roll her eyes; some kind of twin joke, beyond her but in no way divine.
Daniel was the coolest kid in fifth grade, and he usually didn’t subject himself to Sister’s drinking fountain. I wondered why he was in line until he turned and winked at me.
“I’m going for 20, Molanphy.”
Once I got over the fact the coolest kid in school knew my name, I was scared for him.
Daniel had a sideways grin that I would have undergone reconstructive surgery for. He laid it on Sister, who had to smile back. He grew his dark bangs long, something only Daniel Espinoza could get away with at Holy Trinity Catholic School. To drink, he had to hold back his droopy hair with one hand, like a habit that got in his way. He savored the water, his eyes closed and his impressive Adam’s Apple sliding up and down like a happy pump.
When sister reached nine and sensed Daniel wasn’t budging, she looked down on him and repeated nine three times because, well, it was Daniel Espinoza and the entire middle school was watching. What probably broke Sister, left her slapping his hand screaming “Nine! Nine! Nine!” like her Irish blood had discovered a strain of German, was Daniel’s pure enjoyment of the water. His thick-lashed eyes were locked but relaxed, like he napped and drank all at once.
Sister stepped up on her tippy-toes to bear down all her five-foot frame on the infraction. Her rosary clattered around her hips, and her glasses slipped to reveal blue, teary eyes. Daniel’s expression did not change, and he hit 20 easily, at least by my whispered count. When the vice-principal yanked him away by the scruff of his shirt, Daniel winked at me (just me!) as if I had been in on the prank from the start. We heard talk of this kind of grace in Scriptures and Sacraments class; Daniel Espinoza lived it.
Sister stood by her fountain, breathless and thirsty. Her heavy black glasses sunk into her aging cheeks. I saw that day in Sister what else I liked about nuns: they could fully pledge themselves to something they didn’t fully understand. It wasn’t just about a grey box that cooled and dispersed water; it was about discipline, and order, and some kind of ageless loyalty we were too young, thank God, to think about.
I looked behind me and found blank, thirsty faces. I looked at Sister and found her mildly disgusted with herself, like she was her own worst music student. I looked at the water fountain, warbling coyly. It was my turn. I took a step back and offered Sister my place in line.