Not Easy Being Green
An old man chewing an unlit cigar was
waiting in one of the red vinyl lounge chairs to get his hair cut. He
shifted the cigar from one side of his plum-colored mouth to the other as
he perused the Kenosha Journal, then peered past the paper to check
the progress of Hank Trutwinís Mohawk haircut. He made a sour face, as
if heíd just realized the cigar he was chewing tasted like rat turds,
which it must have if Hank was any judge. The old man pulled his fedora
down over his eyes to block out what he was seeing in the barber chair,
grumbling something unintelligible to himself.
"Whatís that you say, Vic?"
Willie, the barber, said, smiling mischievously.
"Said my old man wouldíve beat
me black and blue if Iíd come home lookiní like that."
"Stick around, Vic. We ainít
half finished yet. Wants a dye job, too." Willie flexed his bicep and
the hula dancer on his forearm did a little wiggle, something that had
made Hank laugh when heíd been six or so.
"Gonna dye it blond like that
Madonna girl I suppose," the old man said.
"Green," the barber said,
"like Kermit the Frog." He winked at the old codger when he
thought Hank wasnít paying attention.
"Whatís got into you, boy?"
the codger said.
Just then a peal of thunder jolted the
small building and seconds later the lights dimmed. Rain began to bead
against the window facing Main Street.
"Somethiní different," Hank
said, not wanting to get into a soliloquy about how he was tired of being
called a geek.
"Thought you was one of the good
ones," Willie said. "Your dad says you were on the A honor roll
"I was," Hank said.
"Thatís just it." Hank had not only been on the A honor roll
last semester; heíd had all Aís on his report card ever since first
"Tired of being called the
teacherís pet," Willie said, pushing Hankís head down in the
sink. "I can understand that. Nobody likes a pinhead."
He didnít know the half of it. The
other kids called Hank "T.P." for short. Fourteen years old and
heíd never had a date. Even his best friend Belinda wouldnít go out
with him, and theyíd been best buddies since kindergarten. Said she had
her reputation to protect among the Freaks.
The old man struck a wooden match on
the soul of his slipper and lit the soggy cigar, the smell of burning rope
sucking the air out of Hankís lungs. It had to be at least eighty
degrees; and yet the old duffer was wearing a tweed sports coat over a
flannel shirt, buttoned at the throat, and pleated woolen pants. Slippers
instead of shoes. And he thought Hank was weird!
When the dye job was done, Willie
slapped stinging, pungent witch hazel on Hankís bald spot and handed him
the mirror. "Howís that?" Willie said.
Even green hair couldnít change the
doe eyes and thick lashes, or toughen the full lips and rosy cheeks that
made Hank look even younger than his fourteen years. The haircut was a
dismal failure, but he wasnít about to admit it with the old duffer
sitting there in the vinyl red chair, acting like heíd never watched a
Chicago Bulls basketball game. Dennis Rodman didnít stop at green. He
had his hair colored all the colors in the rainbow, plus some. Green was
all Hank could afford.
"Thatíll be thirty bucks,"
the barber said.
Hank felt as though heíd just been
punched in the stomach. He didnít have enough money. Willie had said the
dye job would be ten dollars, and haircuts were usually nine. He must have
charged extra for the Mohawk.
"All Iíve got is twenty,"
Willie squinted at Hank, his receding
red hair kinking up in the humid weather. "Mohawks donít come
cheap, son. You can work it off, sweep up after the customers."
"But Iíve got to go to
school," Hank said.
Willie chuckled, clapped Hank on the
back, then lowered the chair with a clunk. "Just giving you the
razzberries, Hank. If you wanna get your hair dyed green, youíre gonna
have to learn how to take it. Your dad can pay me when he comes in next
week. The man is as regular as a morning dump."
The old duffer slapped his knee and the
cigar popped out of his mouth and rolled over under the chair where it was
soiled with hair the barber hadnít had time to sweep up yet. The old
duffer looked shocked. Served him right. The whole family was a laughing
stock it seemed. Henry handed over the twenty and scuffed through the
clippings out into the street, the chimes jingling as he shut the door.
Standing under the awning next to the
candy-cane barber pole waiting for the rain to let up, Hank cogitated over
his newest problem. He was pretty sure his old man would never pay the
extra ten dollars for the Mohawk and the dye job and that was all the
money Hank had from his grandmotherís birthday present. "Do
something foolish with the money," sheíd scrawled inside the card.
Well, he guessed heíd done that all right.
If Hank could be more like his hero
Jack Kerouac, Belinda just might have her eyes opened to the stud he
really was. Heíd been reading On the Road by Kerouac, and unlike
the jocks, who all wanted to be like Mike, Hank wanted to act like Jack. The
only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to
talk, mad to be saved . . . the ones who never yawn . . . but burn, burn,
burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the
stars was how Kerouac had put it. Hankíd racked his brain for a way
to become such a person, but he hadnít been able to think of anything
other than the haircut to show his true self.
When the rain let up some, Hank stepped
out from beneath the awning. He was about to cross the street when he was
blinded with the yellow glare of headlights on bright, and a massive
Oldsmobile bumped up against the curb, barely missing him, splashing him
with mud and water. The Oldsmobile stopped at a light, and a jumbo-sized
dude in a purple and yellow Hawaiian shirt shifted over on the passenger
side and rolled down his window spitting vitriol. "Fuckiní faggot.
Get off the goddamned street," he bawled, then stomped on the
accelerator, burning rubber when the light changed to green.
Must be that road rage Hank had been
hearing so much about. Hank took out his blue felt pen and jotted down the
manís license number in his notebook, as he had innumerable times during
his days on the safety patrol when some fool had ignored the flags.
Back at school, Hank sat in the office
waiting to turn in his permission slip. Bennie Cade, a senior wrestler,
plopped down next to him, draping his beefy arm around Hankís shoulder.
"You look like personified green snot, shrimp. Youíre gonna need
protection. Gimme all your money and Iíll keep the other jocks away from
"Thatís extortion, Bennie,"
Hank said. "I canít pay you."
"The nameís Mr. Cade to you,
There was a knock on the counter. Mrs.
Bonner, the secretary. "Leave that boy alone, you big lummox,"
she said. "If I see you bothering him again, Iíll squeeze your head
like a zit."
Bennie flinched like Bluto up against
Popeye gobbling a can spinach. "Youíve got me wrong, Mrs. Bonner.
Just counseling the boy is all."
Mrs. Bonner snorted. "If thatís
true, Iím the Queen of Sheba."
Bennie snuck Hank a wait-till-next-time
look and got up to leave.
Hank went to the counter, handed over
his permission slip. "Nice haircut," Mrs. Bonner said, giving
her gum a good workout. "I canít get my boys to do anything with
their hair," she said. "When they were babies I set it in curls
and everything. They were the cutest things, looked like little cherubs.
Everybody thought they were girls. These days they go for those awful buzz
Back in class, Mr. Abbott, Hankís
bearded social studies teacher scratched his chin, peeked at Hank out of
the corner of his eye when Hank gave him his late pass. These days you
could show up in class naked and the teachers would never let on they
noticed. Hank figured it had something to do with the self-esteem mandate
his homeroom teacher was always yapping about.
"Love your hair," Belinda
said as Hank took his seat toward the rear. Lately, he hadnít been
paying much attention in class, and the back of the room was where the
kids sat who never did their homework. These days Belinda sported nose
rings in both nostrils and black, witch-like hair streaked with
fire-engine red. And he was pretty sure she was doing drugs. Hank had been
trying to score some marijuana for the last week, but no one would take
him up on it. "What are you, a narc?" was the usual response.
Maybe now theyíd take him seriously.
Hank put his head down and tried to go
to sleep as two other boys were doing, but he couldnít do it. Never took
naps during the day, and despite himself, he became absorbed in Mr.
Abbottís lecture. It was about Guatemala.
Mr. Abbott had assumed his lecture
mode, sitting on a stool, dreamily staring out the window, seemingly
talking to himself. "Guatemala is a beautiful country, third largest
republic in Central America," he said. "There are volcanic
mountains and lakes and jungles. Pristine little villages in those
mountains with villagers descended from the Mayans. You can find evidence
of Mayan civilization in Petíen, the jungle area. And the animals!
Youíve never seen such animals. Besides domesticated animals, one might
find deer, monkeys, and peccaries, which resemble pigs. Also jaguars,
which are important in Mayan mythology, tapirs, and pumas. The official
language is Spanish, but twenty different Indian dialects are spoken.
Despite the beauty, malnutrition is a national problem. The rural
population lives in mud huts."
Belinda yawned, blurted: "Whatís
this got to do with us, Mr. A.?"
Mr. Abbott sputtered, turned an
unhealthy shade of yellowish-orange, couldnít seem to rouse himself from
his lecture stupor.
Before he really knew what he was
saying, Hank followed up on Belindaís comment. "Yeah, how are we
gonna use this when we get out of school?"
At that point the bell rang, and like a
herd of suicidal lemmings, the thirty or so teenagers pushed and shoved
their way out the narrow door, tramping several unfortunates in the
"Iíd like to see you for a
moment if I may, Hank," Mr. Abbott said, as Hank, whose manners
hadnít deserted him, waited for the crowd to thin.
Mr. Abbott scowled down at him,
scratched his chin. "Iíve been meaning to talk to you about your
last test, Hank. Youíre one of the smartest students Iíve ever had
and suddenly youíre not applying
yourself. And that comment about Guatemala . . . I mean, you know better
than that. Come with me. I want to show you something."
"Sorry, Mr. A. Woman problems. You
know how it is."
Mr. Abbott raised one eyebrow, stuffed
his papers and books into a battered mahogany briefcase, and Hank followed
him to his office--no more than a closet, the furniture a desk, two
hardbacked chairs and a telephone. The walls were painted battleship gray
and there was a jungle print on the wall above the desk.
"I think I know whatís bothering
you, Hank," Mr. Abbott said, pointing to one of the hardbacked
Hank sat on the edge, nibbling on what
was left of his fingernails.
"Itís hard to be a straight
arrow," Mr. Abbott said. "I should know, I was class
valedictorian. I wouldnít have been, however, if Brother Harold hadnít
taken a paddle to me. He practically killed me when I smarted off to him
"Thereís something to be said
for corporal punishment I guess," Hank said.
Mr. Abbott chuckled, then lit his pipe
with his flame-thrower of a lighter. He sat on the edge of his desk,
rubbing his eyes. Bluish-black bags were beginning to form under them. The
man obviously needed sleep.
"Belindaís question was really a
very important one, Hank. Iím sorry we ran out of time. What does
Guatemala have to do with you do you suppose, Hank?"
"Iím sorry, I canít think of
anything, Mr. Abbott."
"I spent a year in Guatemala after
I graduated college, working for the Peace Corps. If youíd been there
with me, youíd know what Guatemala has to do with you."
"What did you do there, Mr.
"At first we built latrines, but
then the villagers began to pester us about stoves. You see, the women
cook over open fires. And, you know, thatís not good in a mud hut.
Because of carbon monocide. Emphysema is a leading cause of death among
Mr. Abbott reached in a drawer, tossed
a colorful pamphlet in Hankís lap. It was a brochure for something
called Global Volunteer Resources.
Mr. Abbott drew on his pipe and
exhaled. The smoke had kind of a rum smell to it. He pointed the pipe stem
at Hank. "I think you might be interested in that. Itís a summer
program where you work on the cooperative farms in the rain forest."
Hank flipped through the small
pamphlet, not really paying any attention to what he was looking at.
"I donít know what gave you the idea . . . Whatís it like in
"Idyllic. No phones. No
transportation, outside of mules and horses. Everybodyís poor. Most were
proud to own a portable radio. I donít know why I left. When I finally
did, the whole town came out to say goodbye. We built those stoves for
less than $50 a piece. What do you pay for a shirt these days, Hank?"
"Something like that."
"And you donít appreciate it
either, do you? We took pictures of the villagers before we left. They got
dressed in their best clothes, combed their hair. The people said theyíd
pray for us every day of their lives. Iíve never felt so exhilerated."
"Kind of like when you dish out
food at the Salvation Army, huh? My mom made me do that a few years
"Multiply that feeling by a
hundred," Mr. Abbott said, knocking the pipe out in an ashtray.
"I heard they had guerilla
fighters down there in Guatemala," Hank said.
"You heard right, but donít go
looking for an excuse not to do this, Hank, cause youíll find one if you
do. Those guerillas are poor, just like the people youíll be helping.
They just want social justice is all."
"Whyíd you come back, Mr.
"No guts, I guess. And there was a
girl I was going with at the time who wasnít too happy with the year I
wasted, as she put it. She wasnít about to put up with any
"Youíre single, right?"
"Yeah, by the time I got back,
sheíd found her medical student."
"Ever see her again?"
"Oh, sure, during reunions. She
hasnít changed a bit."
"You were hoping sheíd put on
"Youíre psychic, boy. Whatís
that book youíve got there?"
"Jack Kerouac. On the Road.
Heard of it?"
"Heard of it? I practically wrote
it. Neil Cassidy. Mexican jungles. What do you think turned me on to
Guatemala in the first place?"
"Jeez, Iíd forgotten that
"You gotta go out there and
experience life if you expect a girl like Belinda to notice you, Hank.
Like Kerouac says, ĎThe only people for me are the mad ones, the ones
who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything
at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace
"Wow! What a coincidence. Thatís
my favorite quote in the whole world. You know what, Mr. A.? I think I
might be interested in this Global Volunteer Resources. Green hair
certainly isnít doing much for me. How long does it take for hair dye to
"Looks permanent to me. You know
you look like one of those little troll dolls, donít you?"
"That bad, huh?"
When Hank was gone, Mr. Abbott yawned,
stretched, looked at his watch. Ten minutes till his next class. Some kind
of bullshit about that girl who threw him over for a medical student. It
took an accomplished liar to salvage them these days.
When my boy Blake fell out of that
apple tree and fractured his arm, I toppled the sucker with my
neighborís chain saw. The boy, on the other hand, was thrilled.
Six-years-old and the only kid in his first grade class with a cast.
Since she discovered boys, my
twelve-year-old, Deanna, is almost as big a handful. Sheís especially
fond of Justin Timberlake, of that boy band ĎN Sync. Canít see it
myself. Blond curly hair and earrings in both ears. Tinkerbellíd have
Every time I say something lowbrow like
that, I get a tongue-lashing from the wife. I say, "Whatever happened
to Elvis Presley? I could see why girls went gaga over him. Hell, I was
taken with the guy."
She just shakes her head and asks me to
run down to Apperts to pick up some garlic pickles. Pregnant again.
Donít know what went wrong. She says, "The pill only works
ninety-eight percent of the time."
Anyway, Iím out here in the waiting
room, working up the gumption to go in and hold her hand. Thatís another
thing. My old man never had to do Lamaze at all. And he had ten kids, me
the youngest. Got to smoke while waiting, too. When I tried to light up a
Lucky, that nurse got so worked up youíd think Iíd taken Susan B.
Anthonyís name in vain.
I donít know what Iím gonna do to
pay for this baby. Iím the low man on the totem pole at the fire
department and the first one gone if thereís another budget cut. A
thirty-two-year-old rookie. You should see some of the crap those guys
pull on me. Really juvenile stuff. Shaving cream in my boots. Hotfoots
when I take a nap. And they call me W.W., short for water works, Ďcause
I cried the time we watched a video of To Kill a Mockingbird,
during the part where Atticus is sitting up all night with Jem. Couldnít
help it. Reminded me of Blake and that apple tree.
If it wasnít for the third-degree
burns on my right hand, youíd think those guys were giving me the
bumís rush. The flames were licking at the roof of that old Victorian
when I tossed the Miller boy out of a third floor window into the waiting
arms of Dexter Blake, my best buddy since third grade. Got a commendation
from the captain.
The wife said I could name this one if
I wanted to, so I went to the libraryĖ-first time Iíd ever been in the
placeĖ-and got a baby book. You should have seen the look from that
librarian. Youíd think Iíd had a booger hanging out of my nose.
Anyway, Iíve got it down to two choices. Alexander, for Alexander the
Great, was tops, but when I ran that one up the flag pole with Dexter, he
told me Alexander was a fairy, that all the Greeks were fairies. I tried
to tell him that if that were the case theyíd have all died out like the
He liked my second choice better.
Benjamin for Benny, my favorite uncle who took me ice fishing when the old
man never would. Pop used to say it was the only time he got any quiet
time for himself. He was always griping about the crashing sounds and the
screams coming from upstairs when he was trying to sleep. Fourteen hours
of post mauling steers at Ely Packingíll do that to yah. Ben is a real
manís name, unlike some of those the wife likes. Sheís been hinting
about Scott or Todd. Please.
Oh, I forgot to tell yah. Reason Iíve
been thinkiní about boysí names is cause the wife had one of those
amniocentrifical tests, and the Polaroid came out a boy. Not that I wanted
to know. Nobody has any patience these days.
Better get in there, I guess. Take my
medicine. Last time she was in labor for twelve hours. Got a narrow
pelvis. Hard on the birthing but not too hard on the eyes, know what I
mean? Called me every name in the book, and I donít mean the baby book.
As a matter of fact, she ragged on me
the first time we met. It was in a singles club down in the Cities. I was
a rube from the Range, thatís what we call the Mesabi iron mines here in
Minnesota. Fell in the love the second I saw her. Mustíve been the Ali
McGraw hair and those big cow eyes of hers. Anyways, when I sidled up to
her at the bar, I said, "Donít I know you from someplace? Didnít
we go to high school together? Pauline, right?" She called me a
Neanderthal. I could tell from the snide sound of her voice that it
wasnít a compliment. Later on, Dexter, told me it was a caveman.
Anyways, we finally hit it off cause the chick standing there next to her
was from Chisholm, and she and me got to talking about Robert Zimmerman,
better known as Bob Dylan, whoís also from the Range. Somehow she got
the idea I was musical, too. By the time she found out different, she was
preggo with Deanna.
The nurse is back. My, sheís a cranky
little thing. Peeked face like a constipated Chihuahua. Pipe cleaner legs.
Canít weigh more than a hundred pounds soaking wet. But thatís a
cliche, isnít it? Dexter he reads all these fancy books for the night
class heís taking at Bemidji State soís he can take the sergeantís
exam, and he sets me straight when I use one of those moth-eaten
expressions as he calls them.
"Youíll have to leave now,
sir," the Chihuahua says.
"But my wife," I say.
"Iím supposed to be in there helping birth our new baby."
"If you donít leave, Iím going
to have to call security. I felt sorry for you those other times."
Iím as addled as one of those steers
my pop conked with that post maul. Havenít been in the hospital since
Blake was born, and I donít remember ever seeing her. She must have me
mistaken for some other schmuck. "Nurse, if I donít go in there
soon, my wife will divorce me. First time we had a baby, I didnít know
how to deal with it and I had too much to drink . . ."
She punches a button on the wall, and
before I can say Jack Daniels, this clown in a Captain Kangaroo uniform
gloms onto my arm and drags me outside into the parking lot. "Back
again, eh Phil?" he says. "One of these times weíre going to
have to call the sheriff if you donít quit bothering people."
Itís misting outside, cold, miserable
stuff, like the dampness in a mausoleum. The lights are on and a new shift
is just arriving, all of them slouched with their hands shoved in their
pockets, like POWís on their way to roll call.
I scan the parking lot. Iíve
misplaced my old truck. "Iím confused," I say. "You seem
to know me, but I donít know you."
"Benny Askew. We went to school
"Youíve put on weight," I
joke, since I still donít remember him. "Tell me, Benny, whatís
going on here? My wife is in there about to deliver a baby. I need to be
"Your wife ainít in there, Phil.
You ainít even got a wife, and you certainly donít have any kids. Kind
of funny youíd think you did. Considering."
This has to be some kind of joke. If it
is, the boys at the fire department have certainly gotten inventive. Iím
going to kill Dexter. "Considering what, Benny?"
"Ah, considering the wound you got
in ĎNaam. You want me to give you a ride back to the group home? Nothing
much is happening around here."
"Let me get this straight. I take
it you mean I donít work for the fire department? I wasnít commended
for saving the Miller boyís life?"
"Well, you were a fireman. That
much is true. Thirty years ago, before you drew the low number in the
Benny dumps me off at a brick building
that looks as though it were once a school. A shriveled old man with white
shocks of hair like corn silk meets me at the door and takes my arm.
"Youíre gonna have to quit sneaking away like this, Phil," he
says. He steers me to my "room", where I flop down on the lumpy
twin bed and scope the place out. Brown, scratchy army blanket. Chest of
drawers. Scuffed straight-backed chair. Yellow stucco walls with plaster
missing. No pictures.
Tears trickle down my cheek, collecting
on my lower lip. Salty. Iím crying like a goddamn baby.
Dexter wouldnít approve. Cliche, you
Black and White
and Red All Over
"John Gibson, would you diagram sentence number four on the board,
please?" Sister Mary Agnes said.
Johnny snapped awake. The last
he remembered the class had been
listening to Sister nattering on and on and on about the Spanish American
War. The old nun, who looked like a cross between a bulldog and a catfish,
with the whiskers to prove it, had been getting it all wrong again--he
because he wanted to be a marine when he grew up and had read up on all
famous battles--she was lauding the efforts of Teddy Roosevelt and the
Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill, when anybody with a grain of sense
should know the Spanish had the high ground and T.R.'s actions had been
foolish and impetuous.
The Spanish American War and
its battles were a blip on the screen
of history anyway. He could really wake up this
sleepy class if he told them about Julius Caesar's siege of
Alesia, where he'd defeated Vercingetorix and 80,000 Gauls, building fifty
miles of field fortifications when he was surrounded himself by Gallic
allies marching to Vercingetorix's rescue.
And so he'd fallen asleep
again, with his eyes open, a tactic you
had to learn in Sister Mary Agnes's class if you wanted to see your
fourteenth birthday and the large check you were expecting from your
godfather Uncle Willie, who had the coolest job in the world, quality
control for Harley Davidson.
Momentarily, Johnny looked up
at the board behind the flag that the
class said the pledge of allegiance to each morning; In blue chalk the nun
had written: "Girls-$55.43; boys-$37.22." The girls were way
ahead of the
boys in the mission competition, something that really galled him. He was
so competitive that he'd pitch a fit if he lost a monopoly game.
"John Gibson. Did you hear
me? Stop that woolgathering!" She
sounded exactly like Margaret Hamilton, the witch with the trained monkeys
in The Wizard of Oz. He could kick himself for not noticing that the old
bat had changed speeds on him. English could get you killed if you didn't
stay one step ahead of her. How had they gotten into English without him
Theodora Lindsey, who had a
crush on him and sat right behind him,
pushed the book into his hand. She'd risked getting her knuckles rapped
with the steel-tipped ruler for him. Johnny hoped no one had seen her.
Terrible Ted was the goalie on his hockey team; she was so ugly that none
of the guys had known she was a girl at first. And by the time they'd
out, she was indispensable--virtually impenetrable in goal. Maybe he'd
her another look; she really wasn't that ugly: braces, cat's eyes glasses,
kinky hair that wouldn't take a comb; he'd rather eat his dinner out of a
Theodora," he whispered. She'd marked the number with
a little check mark. If the old battle-ax saw that, Ted would have to pay
for the book. She must really love me, he thought.
As he approached the board, he
stared down at the book and was
confronted with the impossible sentence, "Growing a garden can be an
especially arduous task." Be form, bend the line for the predicate
nominative. But what was that other garbage?
When he hesitated, Sister Mary
Agnes, who was sitting at her desk
massaging her chapped, chalk-ravished hands with lotion, asked, "Mr.
Gibson, are you having some difficulty? One would think that Clarise's
intelligence would have rubbed off on you somewhat."
She knew everyone's weakness;
his was an older sister she kept
comparing him to. If she kept it up, one of these days, he was going to
lose it and go for her throat.
"It's a gerund
phrase," somebody whispered. Thank God she was hard
of hearing. Not at all helpful, though. He must have been sleeping when
she'd showed them how to do those.
The old nun waddled up to the
board, wrenched the chalk out of his
hand and drew some kind of hieroglyphic where the subject was supposed to
"I hope this will sink
in," she said as she tapped him on the
forehead with her thimble--she was a well-armed nun: steel-tipped ruler,
thimble, heavy unabridged dictionary, biting tongue, and, of course, the
assurance of Heaven--which hurt worse than when she got a hold of your ear
and tried to twist it out of its socket. His arm stiffened as he began to
bring it up to swing on her; she smiled that I-really-wish you'd-try-it
smile and his knees went to butter and he dropped his hand.
"Copy a page out of the
encyclopedia, then report to Mr. Sutter for
lavatory duty," she said. Hank Sutter, the janitor, had never made it
of third grade and he liked to take it out on any uppity seventh grader
Sister Mary Agnes sent him. "Perhaps the task will help you cultivate
It was then he decided to kill
her; the old nun picked on just
about everybody, but she singled him out for the most demeaning drudgery
she could think of. She had to die; no self-respecting marine would take
this kind of guff.
When he got back to his seat,
Theodora whispered, "I'll help . . .
I can imitate your handwriting. See?" She passed him a note through
crack in his chair, inadvertently goosing him.
For a moment there, he'd
thought she meant help him do away with
the hideous Sister Mary Aggravation. Damned if the note wasn't exactly
his handwriting. No, he couldn't allow it; if the old battle-ax caught
them, she'd fricassee them both and feed their shredded bodies to the
goddamned parakeet she kept in the office next to the seventh grade
classroom, and she would catch them with her psychic powers. All witches
had psychic powers.
"Better not, Theodora. I
wouldn't want to get you in any trouble."
He wasn't really all that concerned with her getting into trouble; he just
didn't want her to get the wrong idea. Theodora was just too weird, and
ultra-religious; he could hear her muttering the rosary constantly, and
wrote the names of the saints on her notebook rather than boys and rock
stars. The ugly girls didn't think they had any other choice but to join
He went back to thinking about
killing Sister Mary Aggravation. How
would he do it? He'd suffered her impertinence for the last time. There
the time she'd asked him to open the window when she knew damn well it was
frozen shut. There was the time she'd given him an "F" on his
about baseball, just because she didn't like the Cincinnati Redlegs.
Goddamned Dodger fan. There was the time she'd taught the class ballroom
dancing and chose him as her partner to demonstrate the foxtrot. There was
the time she'd contracted the pink eye and gave it to him. The class
comedians had taunted him, singing "Aggie and Johnny" (to the
"Frankie and Johnny), for weeks everytime they saw him.
Sure he'd go to hell, but what
had Satan said in that poem she'd
read to them? Tis better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.
Something like that. He was kind of surprised she hadn't censored that
That night during hockey
practice he hashed out the plan with his
sidekick Rex Blake, a public school kid who had no compunctions about
offing a nun. Rex had sideburns and combed his hair in a ducktail, and
sleepy-looking eyes that reminded a guy of one of those private eye movies
where it was always dark and raining. Rex had been kept back a couple of
times, so he was already shaving, too.
The coach, Art "The
Fart" Engquist, was late again so they
discussed the Sister Mary Agnes matter as they skated back and forth along
the rink. Johnny's skates were a little too big since they were
hand-me-downs from his brother Hal, so he had trouble keeping up with Rex.
Stuffing paper in the toes didn't do much good.
Johnny had a cigarette wedged
in the corner of his lip in imitation
of Rex; he had bummed one from the old wino that Art "The Fart"
shovel the rink clear of snow. He had to give the derelect a quarter for
it; coulda got almost a whole pack for that much but couldn't risk his old
man catching him with them.
Almost immediately he had it.
"Why don't we wait until everybody is
gone, including Hank Sutter, the janitor, then we pour a pail of water
the steps. The old battle-ax is as regular as a morning dump; she stays
late correcting papers and she always comes out the same door."
Rex took a drag on his
cigarette. He played center and was the
leading scorer on the team and Art "the Fart" would even let him
the bench during a game.
"Sounds good, especially
if you want her to suffer. Maybe she'll
only break her neck and die a long, agonizing death, freezing her ass
"I hadn't thought of
that," Johnny said. "She's got such a shrill,
piercing voice the sisters in the convent next door to the school'll
probably hear her scream." He had to think of something better.
"I can do a pretty mean
hangman's knot," Rex said. "Maybe we can
fake a suicide."
"Why would a nun want to
commit suicide?" Rex wasn't the sharpest
knife in the drawer.
"How about we torch the
place? We bar the doors with a block of
firewood; if the place don't burn, she'll die of smoke inhalation."
"Nah, they'll make us go
to school in the church basement."
When Art "The Fart"
finally showed up, he put Johnny in the nets,
since Terrible Ted was home sick, and he gave up five goals during the
On the way home he got
another idea. His brother Hal had hated
Sister Mary Agnes just as much as he did, although Hal did laugh every
Johnny told him about the latest indignity she'd subjected him to. Hal
could lurk near Perpetual Redeemer Elementary School in his 1956 Mercury
with the cool fender skirts, waiting for the old battle-ax to come out,
then, as she was crossing the road, he could tool out into the street and
run her over. He could say the car skidded on the ice. But no, Hal would
never agree to denting the Merc. He had to think of something else.
He'd poisen the old battle-ax.
The old man had some arsenic in the
basement he used to kill the gophers that were chewing up the backyard.
Wasn't there something about having to sign for that stuff when you bought
it? They'd be able to trace it back to his old man, and ultimately back to
him. Curses, foiled again. There had to be a way.
Would it be possible to scare
her so bad she'd have a heart attack?
Nah, that wouldn't work. You had to have a heart in order to get a heart
That night they had chicken
noodle soup and balogna sandwiches for
supper again; Johnny's dad wasn't much of a cook and his ma was in the
hospital with a lung ailment. His little sister Allie was razzing him
all the times Theodora had called.
"Aren't you going to call
your girlfriend?" she'd say, and he'd
have to chase her up the stairs, out the window, and down the drainpipe
trying to get her to stop. He ran out of gas cause Rex had given him the
filthy habit of smoking and he didn't have as much lung capacity as he'd
At the supper table his dad was
going over the bills; he liked to
do that at the supper table so Johnny, his brother Hal, his sister Alice,
and the smart one, Clarise, would know the value of money. Johnny would
actually beg off to do his homework sometimes rather than listen to this.
One of the envelopes was a
personal letter, something the Gibson
family didn't see a whole lot of. The old man, whose hands were stained
from working with ink--he was a pressman for the local newspaper--tore the
envelope open. "It's from your teacher, Johnny Cake."
When would he ever lose that
nickname? He was almost fourteen years
old and the whole family still called him by his baby name.
"Whatever it is I didn't
"Awfully defensive, aren't
we?" the old man said, picking his teeth
with a broomstraw. They were the only family in town who couldn't afford
"It's a check. I don't
know if we can accept this. Sure is nice of
"Whaddya mean a
check?" Johnny said.
"Like I said, a check. For
$92.65. She says, 'So sorry to hear
about your wife's recent illness. I hope this small amount will help out.'
Signed, Sister Mary Agnes Stegora."
Johnny hadn't known nuns had
last names. She'd blown the mission
money on his mother. Was this legal? And here he'd been speculating that
under that black habit with the oversized rosary there was a tattoo that
read "Ruin their self-esteem."
That night it snowed, and Hal,
Allie, Clarisa, and Johnny were up
at six-thirty staring at the radio, begging it to tell them that school
been called off. But Minnesota administrators feel personally insulted
they have to cancel school because of inclement conditions, so they had to
go to school despite the four inches of new fluffy stuff. What good is it
if you can't get out of school because of it?
When Johnny got to school,
Sister Mary Genevieve, the principal
whom the kids called Shorty because she was only 4' 10", was
for Sister Mary Agnes. "Your teacher has had an unfortunate
Sister Mary Genevieve said. The class looked as if she
had said the moon
had escaped its orbit and was going to smack into the earth in fifteen
minutes. They looked so stunned because they'd always believed that Aggie
was indestructable. Some of them had grandmothers who had Sister Mary
for seventh grade.
Theodora poked him in the back.
"I tried to call you last night,"
she said. "Didn't your sister give you my messages?"
"Theodora, I hear you back
there. Keep your thoughts to yourself,"
Shorty said, in a voice lower than some
men. Telling a girl not to
talk was like telling a dog not to chase its tail.
"I heard she's dead,"
Theodora said. "Sister is waiting for Father
Brown to come talk to us. That's what I wanted to tell you."
Father Brown, a little man with
a slouch who must have had awfully
bad feet cause, when he walked, he seemed unable to lift them, showed up
just when it was time to go to lunch.
He sat on the edge of Nedra
Fleming's desk; Nedra moved way over on
the edge of her seat as if Father Brown had typhoid or something.
"I'm sorry to have to tell
you this, children," he said, "but your
teacher ..." He seemed to lose his train of thought as if he'd
why he was there.
"Sister Mary Agnes fell on
the ice last night and I'm afraid . . ."
Theodora said, "I told you
so . . . I wonder who we're gonna get
for our new teacher."
Father Brown went on in that
monotone that was a guaranteed remedy
if you had insomnia, "Sister stayed late correcting papers and she
have fallen on the ice on her way back to the convent. The snow quickly
covered up her body, and when she wasn't there for supper, the other nuns
went looking for her but were unable to find her because of the blinding
snow and sleet. They called Sheriff Harley Benboom and he found the
After Father Brown left, a
rumor circulated around the room that
Aggie's skull had been fractured and that part of her face had been eaten
off. The class speculated that wild dogs, somewhat of a problem in Beaver
Creek, had found Sister Mary Agnes's face scrumptious. Some of the same
comedians who had made fun of Johnny's pink eye pretended to puke.
Johnny was even more useless
than he usually was that day as he
couldn't get out of his mind the discussion he'd had with Rex at the
skating rink. Could Rex have gone ahead without him?
On the bus ride home Shirley
Donovan said, "I'll bet Sister
Genevieve did it. They were always arguing in the hall." According to
rumor, Sister Genevieve and Sister Mary Agnes disagreed on how to
discipline students, Sister Genevieve being an advocate of self
actualization and Sister Mary Agnes believing in proactive discipline.
"Oh, Bull," Johnny
said. "That's not enough of a reason to kill
"I heard she inherited a
million dollars and her brother, the only
other child, killed her because he wanted it all," Billy Murphy said.
was prone to flights of fantasy and didn't seem to know that when he took
off his watch cap he looked like he had his finger stuck in a wall socket.
"Don't you pay attention
in class," Johnny said. "In religion class
yesterday she was going on and on and on about her religious vocation and
how she was married to Christ and her fourteen brothers and sisters in
Nordeast Minneapolis, three of which are nuns and two of which are
when she was supposed to be talking about three persons in one God."
"Since when do you pay
attention to her stories?" Billy said.
"I was thinking about how
hard it must be to get into the bathroom.
There are only four of us kids at home and it's tough enough there. I was
thinking maybe she was the way she was because she was anal or
The rest of the way home Johnny
thought about how he was going to
bring up the subject of whether or not Rex had gone ahead on his own and
killed Sister Mary Agnes when he saw Rex at hockey practice.
His mom was out of the
hospital, not coughing quite as much, and
she made them his favorite meal that night, mashed potatoes with hamburger
gravy, which made him feel even more guilty about what Rex had most likely
done to Sister Mary Agnes since the money she'd given them had most likely
saved his mother's life.
"Ma, do you know the Blake
family very well?" Johnny asked.
"Henry and Irene Blake,
who live on Elm near the Baptist Church? Or
do you mean Elmer and Mary Beth Blake, the new family who moved into the
old Mensinger house?"
"Hell if I know. Rex
Blake's parents; he's a kid I play hockey with."
"Don't use such language,
Johnny Cake. People will think you're low
class. Let's see, I don't think Henry and Irene have any children over the
age of six or seven. Elmer drinks, though, you really shouldn't associate
with that kind."
She didn't know that Johnny
drank like a fish himself; Rex looked
old enough to get it and the liquor store clerks were afraid to ask for
Art "the Fart" was
late again that night and Rex and Johnny were
trying to get a bucket of pucks past Terrible Ted who was back in goal.
"That girl is
amazing," Rex said. "I'm gonna ask her if I can be
her manager. She's better than Terry Sawchuck. She can be the Jackie
Robinson of hockey and I'll be the next Branch Rickey."
"Say, Rex, you know what
we were talking about yesterday?"
"Yeah, that old nun. Looks
like somebody beat you to it, don't it?"
Rex took a drag on his cigarette and clanged one of the pipes. "Damn
almost got one by the bitch." He handed Johnny the cigarette, one of
new mentholated brands. Tasted like shit.
"You didn't do it, did
you?" Rex said. "I thought you was just
kiddin'. Sometimes I can't really tell, you know."
"Of course I didn't do
it," Johnny said. "Nobody did it. She just
slipped and fell and brained herself on the ice. That kind of thing
all the time."
"Kind of a coincidence,
though, ain't it?" Rex said. "What you call
ironical." Johnny didn't dare tell him there was no such word.
The next day it was all over
school. Sister Mary Agnes had not
fallen on the ice; she had been hit on the head with a blunt object, a
piece of wood most likely, according to Harley Benboon, who had found
splinters around her body.
Class that day was one long
study hall, worse than religion class
with Sister Mary Aggravation, which had proven in Johnny's mind that
Einstein was definitely right about the theory of relativity in that time
actually stood still when the old crone lectured them on the Baltimore
Kids were called into the
principal's office one at a time to talk
to Harley. When it was Johnny's turn he found out that he was a suspect.
Harley never wore his uniform.
Wool hunting pants, a green and
white flannel hunting shirt and a duck hunting cap, big wad of chewing
tobacco in his cheek.
"Take a seat there, Son.
How's the Red Wings doing? Ain't had much
of a chance to get to a game this year. Heard that new girl is a pretty
goalie. Didn't know they let girls play."
"It's a long story, Sir.
We won all our games so far. Rex already
has nineteen goals and twenty-five assists. He'd be a shoe-in for a
scholarship if he'd do better in school."
"Sheet. He can always play
up in Canada. Those boys are playing
semi-pro before they reach puberty." Harley spit in a coffee can he
"I'll get to the point,
Johnny. Somebody says you and the sister
had a little fracas in class the day she died. Why don't you tell me about
Somebody had to be Susan
Henderson, the biggest sycophant at
Perpetual Redeemer Elementary; who dusted erasers, cleaned the chalkboard
and emptied the wastebaskets for Sister Mary Aggravation every night after
school. And she hated him because he always beat her on the multiple
history tests, despite the fact he never studied or paid attention.
"Nothing much, Sir. She
hit me with her thimble again when I didn't
know an answer. You know how that hurts?"
"You shoulda seen 'em when
I was in school, Laddie. We had male
teachers and they'd beat you half to death if you looked at them funny. We
had this one guy who tore the phone book in half the first day of school.
Nobody ever gave him a bad time."
Harley paused for a moment, put
his shoes up on the desk, dug
around in his cheek, and came out with this big glop of goo which he shook
into the coffee can.
"Got any ideas who could
have done this, Son?"
"I'll admit that I was
awful mad at her, Sheriff, but you know, my
mom is sick and Sister was helping us out with money, so I never would
been able to hurt her. Are you sure she didn't just fall down and hit her
Harley took off his hat and ran
his fingers through the few strands
of hair he had left. "Don't let this get around, but the medical
found wood splinters in her scalp. And we have wood shard that we found at
the scene. It was definitely a homicide."
"You don't want to pay any
attention to what Susan Henderson said
about me, Sheriff. She's the biggest--"
"We'll need to take your
fingerprints, son. It's not just you.
We're taking all the boys' fingerprints just for safety sake."
Just the boys? Women really had
it made. Hardly ever heard about
one going to the gas chamber or the electric chair.
After the interview with Harley
Benboom, Johnny tried to read his
new Thin Man novel, which Sister Mary Aggravation would have snatched away
and confiscated forever but which Sister Genevieve didn't seem to notice.
But he couldn't seem to concentrate. Had Rex lied to him? Maybe he should
go back in there and tell Harley about Rex. There wasn't any reason for
Harley to talk to Rex since he went to public school and wouldn't know
Sister Mary Aggravation from a cathedral gargoyle.
The mumbling behind him stopped
and Theodora tapped him on the
shoulder. "What did he ask you?" she said.
"Oh, he only wanted to
know about the other day when Aggie tried to
brain me with that thimble. The Hen told on me."
Johnny turned to look at her;
she wasn't wearing her glasses and he
could swear her face had cleared up; either that or she was wearing
"Isn't she the biggest
tattletale? If you'd like I could have it
out with her."
"We should talk, Theodora.
I don't think we
should . . ."
Theodora looked crushed; her
eyes got all wide on him and he was
afraid she was going to cry. Here she was the best player--she could have
played center if she'd wanted to, ahead of Rex, and nobody on the team
could deal out such bone-crunching checks near the net--and she was going
to cry on him because she was afraid he was going to tell her he didn't
want to be friends.
"I meant we should talk
more, Theodora. You really know how to
listen." Her face lit up like the Five and Dime on a Friday night.
"Okay, I'll call you
tonight. You'll tell your sister you'll take
During lunch hour, after Johnny
had finished eating, Billy Murphy
came running into the gym where Johnny was shooting baskets.
"You shoulda seen
it," Billy said. "Old Theodora, you know she
usually sits in the corner nibbling on an apple and a peanut butter and
jelly sandwich, was sittin' with Susan Henderson and all of a sudden she
knocks Susan's tray on the floor and then she rares back and belts her one
in the eye. It swoll up like a rotten plum. I coulda died it was so funny.
I wished I coulda been there to hear what they said to each other. I think
we should pool our money and get that girl some kind of medal."
When Susan's mother came to get
her that afternoon-- Johnny figured
she was in the office with the parakeet--Mrs. Henderson did a whole lot of
screaming out in the hall about how she was "taking her child out of
asylum for good." The class couldn't help but hear, even though the
was closed. Shorty came back in the room after Mrs. Henderson left; her
face was so red Johnny was afraid she was going to stroke out, fall down
the floor, and start foaming at the mouth.
"Where do you think
they've got her?" Billy said, when Shorty moved
to the other side of the room to help Walter Garfield, who was having
trouble with one of his math problems.
Johnny was really irritated
because by now he was pretty sure
Terrible Ted had murdered Sister Mary Agnes. Because of him. If you put
and two together, you came up with five in Theodora's case: the splinters
of wood were most likely a hockey stick, the motive would be Sister Mary
Agnes's harassment of him at the blackboard, reemphasized by what the girl
had done to that waste-of-breathable-air, Susan Henderson--he hoped Mrs.
Henderson was serious about taking her out of school.
That night his hockey team lost
to the Mahnomen Meatpackers 12-5,
thanks to his deplorable efforts in goal. Nobody was talking to him, not
even Rex, who had scored all of the Red Wings' tallies.
When he got home that night,
Hal, Allie, Clarise and his dad were
gone. There was a note on the refrigerator door. "Meet us at the
Before he could get out
tňoor, the phone rang. He knew who it
was. He didn't really want to talk to her, but he had to know for sure.
"Theodora, you've got to
turn yourself in," he said.
"Whaddya mean, Theodora?
It's Rex. Are you going with Terrible Ted?
Jeez, you ain't got much taste in women do yah?"
"What's up, Rex? My ma's
in the hospital; I gotta get over there
"Oh, I just thought the
guys were a little tough on you is all. I
wanted to say I didn't blame you for lettin' in all those goals, what with
you not gettin' any practice in the nets. I couldnt'a done better myself.
Want to come over after you go to the hospital? I got some pepperment
schnapps. What did you mean about Theodora turnin' herself in? Do you
Ted killed the old nun?"
"It really looks that way,
I'm afraid, Rex. The reason she wasn't
at the game is cause she beat up this other girl over me."
"No shit. That's not what
I heard. Some of the guys after the game
were saying that Harley got the guy that done it. It was that old
panhandler that the nuns were always giving handy man jobs to. You bummed
cigarette off him the other day. They say he had the old nun's coin purse
A guy could lose a lot of respect for himself if he keeps
everybody all the time.
Today is one of the most depressing days of the year at St. Francis
Xavier High School. The sisters have determined that we students must
eight hours "reflecting," as Brother Damian, our retreat master,
Conversation of any sort is forbidden, even during lunch, on the pain of
sacrilege, which means that Father Wagner, the parish priest, would have
get permission from Pope Pius XII in order to forgive us if we talk.
It is now 8:30, according to
the buzzing IBM next to the Stars and
Stripes in the front corner of the room. I swear the clock hasn't moved in
the last ten minutes, the amount of time Father Damian has spent lecturing
us about the purpose of our retreat. Finally I resolve not to look at the
clock for the rest of the day and focus my attention on Brother Damian, a
tall, thin man with translucent skin who seems to glide as he paces to and
fro at the front of the room.
"When I was a young man
getting ready for the sacrament of
penance," he says, "I had a very difficult time forming a firm
amendment. I found myself repeating the same sins over and over and I was
growing quite frustrated."
It's kind of hard to believe
that Brother Damian has ever committed
a sin, what with the monkish cowl, his suffering, hounddog-like eyes, his
hands clasped in front of him in prayerful aspect, as if he were getting
ready to enter the Colosseum and submit to the lions.
"I'm sure most of you have
the same difficulty," he continues, "and
I have a suggestion which may be of some help to you. I want you to take a
moment to think of a shameful incident, one in which you were personally
involved, and then I want you to write a letter to yourself examining the
repercussions, formulating a plan of atonement, which I will collect,
and return to you during our next retreat. In order to help you with this
assignment, I shall give you some parameters. The letter should be written
in narrative form, like a story, in your best penmanship; if need be, you
may recopy it. Your account should be at least ten pages long."
The whole class groans. Most of
them have difficulty writing the
300 words that Sister Penelope, our English teacher, assigns. I, on the
other hand, usually have my compositions returned with the comment,
"Perhaps, we should try to be a little less loquacious,
Immediately I have an idea; I
sharpen three pencils so I won't be
interrupted. Thing is I'd feel stupid writing to myself. I decide to write
to Gene Tierney. I fell in love with her when I first saw her, in that
movie Laura. I begin to write, careful not to break the point of my
something that usually happens if I'm in too much of a hurry:
One summer day, just before I
went into seventh grade at Perpetual
Redeemer Elementary School--it must have been very early in the morning
cause I had to go drive tractor for Uncle Joe Schnell--I heard on the
that this girl named Sheila Reller and her brother had tied up their
drunken father with clothesline and Sheila had shot him with a .22 rifle.
Seems like he'd been bothering her sexually.
"Deserves what he
got," Mama said. Daddy said, "Shush, not in front
of the boy."
My ears turned red, as they did
whenever anybody even hinted at
sex, and I pretended I hadn't been paying any attention to the newscast. I
did this by shoveling Cheerios with even more gusto than usual, slopping
milk, clanging my spoon up against the side of the bowl, risking a swat up
side the head, as my dad was prone to do if my manners got too deplorable.
Sheila Reller was riding with
me that afternnoon on Uncle Joe's
tractor in the stifling ninety degree heat. It was so hot I was afraid I'd
gone to hell and hadn't realized it quite yet, but no one was prodding me
in the ribs with a fork and yelling at me to "shovel harder!" so
I was still in Minnesota. It's not really fair that summers in Minnesota
are so hot cause it gets to be about a hundred below during winter time. I
hear it's just right in California where you live, Gene.
Uncle Joe doesn't say much so
the only sounds were his John Deere
tractor making that "putt putt" noise and the thunder in the
God's comment on what Sheila's father had done most likely. Anytime now
forty days and forty nights would start. Someone ought to build an arc.
I remember being very nervous,
afraid Uncle Joe might send me home
for driving out of the windrows. I needed that dollar to buy more baseball
cards. I had a habit of driving out of the windrows even before Sheila
Reller decided to accompany me out into the hayfield. Folks, mine mainly,
call me a dreamer. Once I took this American History test and the essay
question was something like "Explain how Christopher Columbus went
discovering America and what the consequences were." I wrote about
I'd been Old Christopher I would have teamed up with the Indians and
crowned myself King of America, instead of making that old Ferdinand and
Isabella rich. Mama and Daddy had to go talk to the nun about that one.
Something about the sin of pride.
Sheila Reller pointed the rifle
at her father, right up against the
side of his head, and squeezed the trigger. I flinched and hit the brakes,
knocking Uncle Joe off of his feet back on the load of hay.
yelled. "I'm sorry," I said.
There was blood everywhere, and
Sheila's little brother wouldn't
stop screaming. I was pretty sure I was coming down with heat stroke. I
could see the gasoline fumes radiating off the muffler and the tractor
was so hot I was convinced I'd wind up looking like this kid I'd seen in
the shower room who had a big red blotch back there that the other guys
laughed at. I kept thinking: that jug of lemonade Uncle Joe has in the
chest would sure hit the spot. He wouldn't let me keep it up on the
cause the last time he did, I drank it all. As if the scalding heat and
disturbing hallucinations weren't enough, the mosquitoes were doing
kamikaze dives into my ears; they love it in there cause they know I can't
reach that far to swat them.
I was coming to the end of a
row and this got pretty tricky cause I
had to turn pretty wide, lay on the brake and swing around just right to
line up with the next windrow. I usually missed since I just wasn't cut
for that farmer stuff. I wished I was in town playing baseball with the
town kids. I'd never get to be the next Ted Williams at this rate since I
didn't have anybody else to play with. My brothers didn't care about
baseball. They didn't even know who Whitey Ford and Bob Turley were. In
case you don't know either, Gene, they're the best pitchers on the
my favorite team. Bob Turley can throw a ball through a brick wall he's so
I finally got the tractor lined
up again and headed on down the
row. I wiped my forehead with my sleeve, and sure enough, I knocked my
straw hat off and ran over it with a tractor wheel before I could stop. I
had just got that straw hat; it cost me a dollar forty-five; it was red
with a string that was supposed to keep it on your head. So much for
advertising. I love the smell of a new straw hat. Uncle Joe was laughing.
didn't see the humor in it personally.
Luckily, Uncle Joe was more
understanding than my dad. Daddy has
little patience with "Dummkopfs" who lose control of the Allys
crash into the barn.
That day I was driving Uncle
Joe's tractor since he didn't have any
kids of his own and he had to pay a neighbor kid a dollar a day to do it.
His wife, who is a teacher, was much too sophisticated to drive tractor
him. Uncle Joe isn't really my uncle; we just call him that cause he used
to come over to our house at Christmas time when he was still a widower
bring us presents.
Losing my hat had one good
effect; I had momentarily forgotten
about Sheila Reller, but now she was back and nagging at me like a the
on the back of Uncle Joe's neck had to be scolding him in the heat. What I
couldn't fathom was why a man would want to have sex with his own
Uncle Joe and I got the last
load of hay in the barn and went in to
have lunch. His new wife Alice had summer sausage sandwiches for us. That
and apple sauce, something we never get at home. Uncle Joe looked at her
if she'd been sniffing glue. Alice didn't have the cooking thing down too
good yet, and Uncle Joe wasn't too happy about it cause his first wife,
Maude, was one of the best cooks in the neighborhood.
Maude was the first person I
remember dying on me; we have pictures
of her in her coffin in the bottom drawer of our bureau. I can't imagine
why anybody would want to take a picture of a dead person, but they do it
all the time; we have lots of them in that photo album. Another person I
remember dying was Audrey Pekula's mother, and Sister Giles, the principal
at Perpetual Redeemer, made all of us third graders attend the wake and
a rosary; we had to go up and look at Mrs. Pekula, too; I thought she
smelled like Ajax cleaner. I thought I was gonna lose my dinner.
After lunch, Joe and I went out
in the barn to feed the cows. He
had some mighty peculiar cows out there; there's a couple of guernseys and
a brown swiss. They're a lot smaller than our Holsteins. Daddy says that
Holsteins give more milk; Uncle Joe says that guernseys are better for
butter fat, so I guess it's six of one and a half dozen of another; that's
something that Uncle Joe says a lot. Uncle Joe's cows don't seem to have
much of a personality either. I asked him once if his cows had names. He
said it would be foolish for him to give them names. All of our cows have
names. We have one called Ornery cause she kicks the Surge milking machine
off, and she'll come after you in the pasture. Must think she's a bull or
It was my job to scrape and
lime the walk between the gutters.
Needless to say, I can't be trusted with a fork. Once I poked out my
brother Sam's front tooth manuring out the barn. We were running the
loader out the door of the barn and I had a fork over my shoulder; I
stopped and he didn't. He didn't mind cause my older brother Dexter has a
chipped tooth, too, and he wanted to look like Dexter. Daddy minded,
though; he yelled at me and called me a Dummkopf again. I guess that means
dumbhead or something.
When I finished liming the
walk, I decided to ask Uncle Joe about
Sheila Reller since I'd never dare ask Daddy about something like that. I
cleared my throat and Uncle Joe, who was giving each pair of cows a little
pail of ground feed- it's like dessert to them--hears me right away,
something I really like about Uncle Joe, he pays attention to little kids
cause he ain't got any of his own. Before he was married, sometimes we had
to stay over at Uncle Joe's cause he needed us for more than one day and
most likely he was lonely. I hated that cause we had to sleep in the same
bed with him and I just wasn't comfortable doing that, so I'd lay awake,
unable to get used to a strange bed, and I'd be way over on the edge of
bed so I wouldn't be touching Uncle Joe. He didn't seem to notice. Anyway,
he stopped feeding the cows and listened.
"Uncle Joe, I wanted to
ask you something," I said.
"Sure, Bill, is it about
the straw hat?" Uncle Joe was always
looking for reasons to buy us something. Us, by the way, is me and my two
brothers, Dexter and Sam, Daddy's favorites, one older, one younger.
never hit the barn with the Allys Chalmers.
"No, that's not it. This
is hard to say." I was so discombobulated
that I fell off the walkway and stepped in the gutter.
Joe pulled me out and gave me a
handful of hay to wipe myself off.
"Go ahead, Billy, you can ask me anything," he said. Is it
said to you?" Uncle Joe was pretty tough on old Alice; I guess she
never measure up to his first wife Maude who was the best of all the great
cooks at our annual threshing get-togethers. I'd get so bloated during
threshing time that I wasn't much good for anything after dinner, not that
I was much good before we ate. We always had all kinds of pop and beer,
too, in the milk house cooler. It was the best time of the year, that and
the days the creamery gave away free chocolate milk on Dairy Days.
Kind of like what one of those
big picture premiers must be like
for you, Gene. Anybody ever ask why you spell your name like Gene Autry?
Jean Harlow spells hers with a "J".
"It's about that girl,
Sheila Reller," I said.
Uncle Joe's face puckered and
his eyes scanned the barn as if he
was looking for a place to hide. I guess what Sheila's father did to her
had been bothering him just as much as it had me.
"Maybe you should talk to
your mother about this, Billy," he said.
"But you said . . ."
Sometimes a guy couldn't count
on old Uncle Joe. I remember once we
gave him our dog that we had for like thirty years, her name was Pepper,
and when I asked about her, he said he had to shoot her cause she was an
"egg sucking bitch." I had a hard time forgiving him for that.
always wears these striped bib overalls, along with what looks like an
engineer's cap. I guess he wears the cap to cover up his bald head. My
daddy has a full head of hair. I hope I take after him and not my
grandfather on my mother's side who's just as bald as Uncle Joe.
"Your mom and dad wouldn't
want me talking to you about that girl."
I kicked a swath through the
newly limed walkway. Uncle Joe's barn
was always so clean. Later, I found out it was cause we didn't have one of
those big fans in our barn which kept the barn dry.
"I won't tell them."
"Let's get back into the
house. Alice will have supper waiting for us."
Alice had made fried chicken
for supper and it wasn't done; it was
pink on the inside. You can get sick from chicken that's not done, so I
didn't eat much. I thought about maybe asking her about Sheila Reller
she was a teacher and it's her job to tell us kids about things we don't
know. But Uncle Joe told me in no uncertain terms while we were cleaning
the manure off of our shoes at the mother's- little-helper in front of his
porch that I was not to mention Sheila Reller to Alice.
Uncle Joe was really letting me
down this time. I remember once one
of our neighbors, Willie Hammond, shot himself in the mouth with a
double-barreled shotgun. He did it out in the hay barn and all the
neighbors were out looking for him for hours before they finally found
Boy, was I glad I didn't see that. I had nightmares about Willie and his
shotgun for weeks. That was the first time I'd heard about suicide. My
mom, older brother, and Uncle Joe wouldn't explain that one to me either.
remember asking, "Is Willie Hammond in Hell, Ma?"
She said she thought suicides
went to Limbo or something. Limbo is
where the little babies go who die before they can get baptized. When I
heard about Limbo, I gave the nun a pretty hard time about it. "But
not fair, Sister," I said. "It's not their fault they didn't get
She made me go sit in the library all day by myself. I thought that day
would never get over. This wasn't the first theological disagreement we'd
had. We once had a shouting match over dog heaven. She said that dogs
didn't get to go to heaven when they died. I said, "Well, then I'm
Uncle Joe gave me a whole fifty
cents extra when he took me home
that night--I don't get to stay there overnight any more cause there isn't
enough room in his bed with Alice there and everything.
Sheila Reller would not go
away. Her name was in the paper and on
the radio the rest of the summer. She was going to be charged with
manslaughter. Sounded worse than murder to me, so I asked Dexter and he
said, "That's when it's a kind of accident, but you should've known
like driving drunk."
That very hot day in Uncle
Joe's hayfield was in July sometime and
I was still thinking about Sheila in September when school started. I even
wrote her a letter. I am a letter writing fool, let me tell you. When I
in fourth grade, Adlai Stevenson was running against Dwight D. Eisenhower
for president. I had my own election and everything cause they don't let
little kids vote--I had a big argument with Sister about discrimination
she made me sit in the library again--so I went around and asked the other
kids in all eight grades who they'd vote for until Hubert Dubell, a big
kid, tore up my tally sheet. I wrote a letter to the newspaper telling
everybody to vote for Stevenson cause he was a lot more qualified to be
president than Eisenhower since he'd been governor of Illinois and
everything, but they voted in Old Ike anyway cause he was this big shot
general who won World War II. Just cause you're good at fighting doesn't
mean you'll make a good president.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, I wrote
Sheila Reller a letter. It went
something like, "Dear Sheila, My friends think you're a murderer
shot your dad, but I think it's not murder if you're only defending
yourself. I tried to tell them that but they wouldn't listen to me.
Your friend, Billy Bessinger."
She didn't write back. That
first week of school Father Wagner took
all the boys into one room and Sister Giles took the girls in another.
Father Wagner is 6'6" and must weigh about three hundred pounds or
the boys call him Father Bunyun, after Paul. Whenever Sister Giles or one
of the other nuns need help with discipline, she calls in Father and he
clobbers the kid right in front of the class. We don't give Sister Giles a
lot of lip, let me tell you. Father Wagner is always giving his sermons in
German, and I never understand them, since Mama and Daddy only speak
when they don't want us to know what they're saying. Mama says Father
Wagner is talking about sex when he preaches in German. When he asks for
money, he uses English. We all get a dime to put in our collection
envelopes. Mama says it would be just too embarrassing to have a zero
behind our names when the financial report comes out at the beginning of
That particular day Father
Wagner told us about sex and showed us
on this doodle he drew on the board how it got done, mostly though he
talked about eggs and sperms, which didn't make a whole lot of sense to
Also, being a farm kid, I'd seen animals do it, and they came at it from
behind. I was wondering if it was okay to do it from the front, but I was
afraid to ask. I did ask about Sheila Reller, however.
Nobody else had any questions,
and I'm the type who can't stand it
when somebody asks if there are any questions and everybody sits there
a bunch of retards. I like to show off some, too.
And so I raised my hand.
"Yes, Billy, do you have a question?"
I wiped my forehead. I was
sweating some since I didn't quite know
how to put it. "Father, this past summer there was this girl; she
Blandon. She was in the paper and everything. They say her father was
having sex with her and she shot him, with a .22 rifle. What I was
wondering is why her father would do such a thing."
Father Wagner frowned. He
looked rather like one of those statues
on Mount Rushmore I'd seen in books. He cleared his throat. I think I had
him stumped cause it took at least a good five minutes for him to say
anything. Then he cleared his throat again and, I swear, every kid in that
room rose up out of his seat at least a foot.
"Sometimes the devil
finagles his way into the souls of people of
little faith," he said. He hesitated a moment establishing direct eye
contact with at least five or six kids in the class. "That's why you
want to miss mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation." This made
really scared cause sometimes I faked being sick on Sundays.
"Are there any other
questions?" Father said. "If not, I must get
back to the rectory." Of course, none of those other donkeys had any
questions. I had a million of them, but I was afraid to press my luck.
After class, Crybaby Willis and
I had a little discussion during
our lavatory break. We had to march down there two by two, and two of us
got to use the urinals at a time so as to prevent any antics as Sister
called them. Crybaby got his name in first grade cause he was homesick and
cried all day the first day and most of the first week. We'd been calling
him Crybaby so long, he even answered to it sometimes.
"My mother says those
people in Blandon are trash," Crybaby said,
standing at the urinal trying to overcome his bashful kidney. "It's
incest," he said. "My ma says it happens all the time,
"I kinda figured," I
said. "We got a dog like that who's the son of
our female and her own pup. I guess this is what they call a taboo."
Crybaby gave up, went over and
tapped the soap machine, ran water
over his hands, blotted them with a paper towel. He was going to have a
tough afternoon holding it in.
"What's a taboo?" he
"I read where the
aristocracy, the King of England, the Kaiser in
Germany and the Tsar in Russia was all like first cousins. They didn't
think ordinary people were good enough, so they married into the family.
Same deal in ancient Egypt, only in Egypt they actually married their
"You're lying again. I
swear you tell more tall tales."
"If I'm lyin' I'm dyin'.
The taboo is that they don't want us
ordinary saps gettin' too friendly with our close relatives--it would ruin
the wedding industry--so they spread these stories about incest causing
mental retardation and such."
Crybaby told on me, so I had to
spend the rest of the day in the
That night I went home and
asked my brother Dexter, who's sixteen
years old and has a ducktail just like Tony Curtis, about the frontal as
opposed to the rear approach during sex. He had lots of girls cause he was
the photographer for the annual at the high school and the girls all
their pictures in there. Once he caught me drawing naked pictures; I
thought he was going to tell Mama and Daddy on me, but he said I was doing
a pretty realistic job. I wasn't sure if girls had more than that little
patch of hair down there. He said they do, but he wouldn't go into any
We were out in the garage
working on his '52 Mercury, or I should
say he was as I wouldn't even know how to check the oil. "You can do
either way," Dexter said, wiping his hands on a rag. There was a
his face and for once his hair was mussed. "From the front or behind.
of other ways, too. Don't worry about them yet; girls are only interested
in the missionary position at this age." I didn't know what that was
either, but I didn't want to look stupid, so I didn't ask. I figured I
could always look it up later in the encyclopedia we got. It wasn't in
After our little talk I went to
the house and I got on the phone
with my baseball card trading partner, Teddy Liddle, and we talked for a
good forty-five minutes. I was looking for a Stan Musial; they must not
have made too many of them cause I had three Mickey Mantles and four Ted
Williams but no Stan Musials. I had spent a fortune trying to get one.
Anyway, my cards were kind of beat up cause I played this game with them
where I batted them around some. Teddy didn't want to trade unless they
were mint. Finally, after forty-five minutes, Mrs. Allenby, from the next
farm who's on the party line--Mama is always listening in on other
conversations--broke in and said she needed the phone. Kids had to get off
when adults wanted the line.
I went out to the barn to feed
the calves and the pigs when what
did I see but another reminder of Sheila Reller. I kind of felt like
Scrooge she was haunting me so much. Kind of like you were haunting Dana
Andrews in that picture Laura, Gene, before he found out you were still
alive. What a coincidence. Anyway, the name "Mike" was carved on
room door. Mike was this little boy who used to live on our farm who got
kicked in the head by a horse and died. At that time they had these big
draft horses, Percherons, that look like the horses you see in the King
Arthur stories. Anyway, they could really pack a wallop what with those
old hooves, so I guess Mikey didn't have much of a chance. I've been
hounding Mama to find out more about old Mike for me, but she always
forgets. Should be kind of easy since his brother Benny only lives a
of miles away. He's the town cop, but he lives on a farm by us.
I wonder what it's like to be
dead. Couldn't be too good for Sheila
Reller's dad. Mikey should be okay, though, cause he was just a little kid
and he was baptized and everything. Maybe he was still in purgatory for
something he did to one of his brothers, or for talking back to his mom
dad. I'd say the stations of the cross for old Mikey when Lent came around
again. That was worth a plenary indulgence and could get you out of
purgatory a lot faster. I'd do one for Sheila, too, just in case God
approve of girls defending themselves against fathers who were bothering
I really couldn't fathom being
dead, though. Mainly, cause
everything that happens happens through me. Sure I hear about wars in
and typhoons off the coast of Japan, but I have to take somebody else's
word for that. I have a feeling that if I kick off, everybody and
everything is going to go with me.
I got done with my chores and,
instead of watching The Range Rider
like I usually did, I wrote Sheila another letter, telling her I was still
thinking about her and asking her to answer my letter cause I was worried
about her. I just sent it to Sheila Reller and the name of the town. The
last one hadn't come back return to sender so I figured it had got there.
That Monday we had cold tuna
casserole for lunch; I swear that
stuff isn't fit for human consumption. When I tell the serving ladies with
the hair nets and the warts on their noses "just a little bit",
me more on purpose. It rebounds on me when I try to eat it, and I have to
force it down cause the nuns are hawking about, making sure we all clean
our plates. Anyway, I must have had the flu, cause I threw up all over the
table I was sitting at, got it on Crybaby, half way on purpose, and had to
go sit in the library and wait for Mama to come and get me. There are
sets of encyclopedias in there. I couldn't find the missionary position in
any of them.
That night I stole one of
Daddy's cigarettes and went out to the
barn and tried to inhale. I got very dizzy, leaning up against Ornery
listening to Bill Haley sing "Rock Around the Clock" on the barn
wouldn't try that again too soon.
I had another ordeal the next
day. Sister Giles had been after me
to become a mass server, and this was my first time.
Crybaby was my partner for my first mass; he told me he'd been sneaking
Communion wine. I gain a great deal of satisfaction imagining Father
catching him at it. He's lucky I'm not a rat like he is. He also tells me
that the servers like to change the responses. When the priest says,
"Dominus vobiscum," the servers say, "Et yer spinach
today?" I think that's
blasphemous. I'm surprised Sister Giles hasn't found out about it yet.
It goes well. I love the smell
of that incense. Incense, almost the
same as incest. I offer up my mass to Sheila.
This sex thing was beginning to
wear on me. That night I had an
accident. I hadn't wet the bed since I was five, but that night for some
reason I did. Dexter, who sleeps in the same bed, said it was a wet dream,
or a nocturnal emission, if I wanted to get technical.
He patted me on the head with
that condescending older brother look
on his face. Pretty ironic since I'm the one who gets the A's on his
card. The last I had checked Dexter had all D's.
"A guy needs to get it out
or he gets blue balls," he said. "When
you get your first girlfriend, you tell her that, and she'll feel sorry
you and she might let you do it to her."
Gene, you must think I'm worse
than Errol Flynn, mentioning
something like this. Brother Damian says that St. Peter and the other
apostles would whip themselves to keep from thinking about sex. Maybe I
should try that.
I had a feeling that Dexter's
girlfriend Lizzie McCall, head
cheerleader at St. Francis Xavier High, didn't know anything about any
balls. Perhaps I could use this little episode as a barter the next time I
needed a ride from Dexter.
Time went by; I went out for
the basketball team. I even got to
play the last sixty seconds against Nazareth Elementary from Blandon.
you believe, Gene, I somehow committed three fouls in one minute?
Sheila wasn't bothering me as
much since I'd begun to notice this
little blonde, Patty Weiss, who sat all the way over on the other side of
the room, which was kind of a good deal cause we could stare at each other
better that way. Whoever blinked first lost. I'd already had one fight on
the playground over her, with my best friend Marshal Fyten; he had me
pinned and she jumped on him and made him let me go. It was kind of
Then one day I got a letter. A
kid doesn't get a lot of mail on the
farm, unless he sends for an autograph from Lassie and Tommy Rettig, which
I did. There was no return address on the envelope. When I tore it open, I
found a card with a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary with golden
around her head, and on the inside was a note saying, "Thank you for
concern. You'll never know how much it meant to me. I hope to meet you
sometime. Sincerely yours, Sheila Reller."
The back of my neck is
tingling, and when I look up, Brother Damian
is standing there, his arms folded across his bony chest, his grey eyes
he says. The others are still grappling with
their first page.
I wad up the paper and stuff it
in my pocket. "I have a better
idea," I say, smiling like a newly potty-trained two year-old who's
soiled his pants.
Taking a fresh sheet from my
tablet, I start to write about the
time I stole Sam's piggy-bank money and squandered it at the County Fair.
There is no way I can turn in my reminiscences about Sheila Reller.
Damian might read them and discover that I'd burned that card with the
Blessed Virgin Mary's picture on it.