|Jul/Aug 2001 • Fiction|
I remember the second grade as the year I learned about hell—flames, pitchforks and all. I also remember it for some fleeting romantic moments, way too early even to be called puppy love. Unfortunately, the worst and the best that year became irredeemably entangled.
Before my family moved to Baltimore, I had gone to a public school and had received no religious instruction at home. My father, after having converted to Catholicism in order to marry my mother in the Church, had already lapsed and never went to Mass. My mother occasionally took me to church with her while we were living in Washington, D.C. during the Depression. We had a mellow old monsignor for a pastor, whose repeated themes were keeping the faith in bad times and contributing what we could to help him rebuild the rectory and the choir loft, neither of which got very deep into dogmatic details.
But, on moving north to Baltimore and having a Catholic school less than a mile away, my doctrinal fate was sealed, despite my pleadings that I had it on good authority that "they beat kids, and it's okay with the Pope." I was enrolled at Holy Redeemer.
Every day we had a religion period, which mostly involved learning things rote from the famous old Baltimore Catechism. Questions and verbatim answers, the same as we memorized prayers whose meaning was, at best, vague. Rote learning was a big part of elementary education then, and I figured we were just there to be little memory machines.
But it was our preparation for First Communion that got my attention, as it did with all of my classmates, and set me worrying about eternal damnation at night when I should have been asleep. Sister Mary Prudence, a determined old nun, parchment-faced and barely larger than her pupils, squinted at us through inflamed, granulated lids, her tiny blotched hands thrust into the opposite sleeves of her black habit, and described the hot temper of our God toward "those of his chil'ren who break his holy commandments" (at first, this gave me visions of Moses throwing down the tablets, a picture of which I'd seen in a Methodist friend's Bible storybook—unlike Protestants, we weren't taught Old Testament stories).
"They may get by with their transgressions"—another new concept for me—"for weeks, days, years, yea, even a lifetime, my chil'ren," she bitterly intoned. "But Gawd does not forget. He has a place reserved for them. Who knows the name of that place?"
Hands waved from virtually every desk, but not from mine, though I did have a hunch that proved correct.
"Hell, Sister Prudence."
"HELL, my chil'ren. Satan's little coming-out party!" And Sister Mary Prudence lifted up one side of her mouth and bobbed her head within its tight starched wimple in a dry yet enthusiastic laugh. We listened with rapt foreboding, it being a horror story in which we, thanks to our "first parents," were unfortunately cast.
"Who knows how long that party lasts?"
Almost as many hands went up.
"Anthony Dugan?" Theresa Marie Giorgio and little Tony, youngest of an enormous Irish family, were Sister's favorites and could be counted on for a lesson-advancing answer.
"FOREVER. Not a year. Not three-score and ten, a whole Biblical lifetime. Not a hundred years. Not a hundred times a hundred years. For-EVER. Also known, my chil'ren, as Eternity."
She nodded slowly and gave a strange downward smile with her lower lip pooched out. Justice, anyone could see, was being appropriately meted out.
"Bodies stacked like cordwood. Burning. All of you have gotten a little burn, I suppose. Too near the stove. Bumping into the radiator on a winter morning. Doesn't feel good, does it?"
"No, 'Ster," half-a-dozen pupils said on cue.
"Stacked like cordwood," a phrase I was to hear often from Sister Pruneface, as we, the boys at least, generally called her out of earshot. "One on top of another like logs in a furnace. All burning, screaming for mercy. And do you know what the devils do? They laugh—and rake the coals. 'You had your chance,' they say. 'But you turned away from Gawd and into our hands.' 'Water, water, only one sip of water,' the tormented souls beg. If the devils take any notice, they bring a glass for sure. But do you know what it contains? Hot vinegar. Ask your mother to let you taste some."
Sister P. turned her head to one side and coughed heavily and spat into a handkerchief she carried up her rustling, night-black sleeve. In most professions she would have long ago been retired, but here was Sister P. still straining to be dramatic and permanently influential to the end, saving the souls of her rank young charges.
"Sin. Sin is the cause. A transgression against Gawd's will. An act detestable in His eyes. But through the Holy Mother Church our sins may be removed, making us again acceptable in the eyes of Gawd. That is why the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist you chil'ren will soon receive are so important."
Out in the schoolyard at recess and lunch hour, I often watched with several other boys when there were girls using the swings. Most of the girls tucked their skirts underneath them when they started, but if you were patient enough and casual-looking enough and positioned just right, you could occasionally catch a glimpse of underpants as they swung up toward you. And on rare occasions, you'd get a real show. I'd do that when all three hopscotches were tied up and there wasn't a good game like dodgeball going on. Most of the girls wore white, I guess cotton, underpants. Some wore a more silky, maybe nylon white. But there was one girl from our class, Joan Beverly Fruehling, who wore pink, very silky-looking underpants. I thought they were sensational. When the other boys got tired of this—or when one of the sisters was in the vicinity and they fled—I held my ground, with one of my hands nonchalantly resting on the jungle gym, even at the risk of its being stepped on, if Joan Beverly was swinging; it was too wonderful to miss. She apparently loved to swing and kept reaching higher with her kicks, higher than any other girl, and wasn't paying any attention in my direction. And, of course, she'd soon forget about her modesty. The reward for patience was unbelievable. I was awfully good at checking out my fingernails or looking involved in watching four-square, and nobody on earth could have guessed my true interest.
Joan Beverly wasn't the prettiest girl in second grade, but I found her wildly attractive, and, of course, not only because of her captivating undergarments. She had long honey-blonde hair, which she usually wore gathered by a blue or yellow ribbon in back, always with a large, fetching bow. And blue sparkly eyes she seemed to use to great effect in swaying other girls. She had a slightly upturned nose I thought was simply perfect and a rather unmistakable chin, almost pointy at the tip, but nonetheless, to me, boundlessly alluring. Her smile when she was giggling with the other girls was a wide, dazzling display of white-as-snow, slightly crowded second teeth, radiant under the dramatically deployed eyes. A couple of her upper teeth on either side were slightly crossed over others, which, while disconcerting, gave her a dashing air—I sometimes thought of her in reveries as a pirate girl. She could play the hoyden with the other girls, mischievously untying a dress sash and then acting mock innocent until, when unmasked, she'd break into her grin, her imperfect teeth glistening, and then laugh hilariously, her victim usually joining in. Once, one of her friends, Agnes Strohecker, responded by playfully undoing Joan Beverly's bow, and her hair suddenly came down (they were getting ready to go on the swings and I was, naturally, stationed nearby). I can remember how glorious her hair was, framing her heart-shaped face—gold in the sunlight but mingled with both lighter, oaken strands and darker ones, perhaps wheat-colored—loose and awry, bouncing weightlessly on her shoulders. Didn't the other girl children in the schoolyard seem dull, standard-issue, uninspired beside this princess corsair? And she talked all in a rush when she was excited, so that it was hard to catch everything, though I struggled, when I could sidle up near her unobtrusively (Joan Beverly had been, I presumed, a lifelong Baltimore girl, and I was now maybe two months a Baltimore boy—still without that Baltimore twisty-vowel drawl, most notable on long O's—and I hadn't spoken a word to her ever). But I found it a delightfully tantalizing game to listen to her and to try to figure out what she was saying.
"Abbles-pitches-punkin-pie-hyow-many-years-afore-I-die," (while jumping rope, of course.)
This was 1939, the world was turning a corner, and all of us were starting to become frightened about the escalating events in Europe. We were learning how to crochet in school so we could do blanket squares for refugees. But we were really more scared about hell than war right then in Sister P.'s second grade.
Sister Pruneface was talking about sin. "There was a man in my church when I was a girl and, my, he was a real down-and-out sinner. Drink. Gambling. Chasing painted women." I envisioned a boozy old man running after a circus lady wearing clown paint. "Beating his wife. Letting his chil'ren run wild. Well, the parish priest kept telling him to come to church and do his Easter duty. But this miz'able sinner was scared white about going to confession, he had such a load to tell. But the priest kept all after him and he finally went to church one Easter in fixing to get back into Gawd's holy graces. And he planned to go to Communion like you chil'ren soon will be doing, Good Lord willing. But what did he have to do first before taking the Lord Jesus into his heart?"
A few hands went up. "Theresa Marie?"
"He had to go to confession, Sister Prudence."
"Exackly. Had to go to confession to remove the blackness of sin from his soul and replace it with snowy white. But did he go? He did not. That fellow knew he could fool the priest, who'd jist figger he went to another church to confess. His mistake was thinking he could fool the Awmighty Gawd.
"Sure, he went up to the altar rail with this sweet smile on his face like he was an altar boy, and the priest come by with the chalice and the Sacred Host between his finger and thumb. Well, that no-good wastrel, his soul still black as coal, opened his mouth to receive the Host and a monstrous snake came right out of that man's mouth and opened his jaws to take Jesus' body." Several of my classmates gasped. "Everyone in that church was stricken with horror. But the Host began to glow with a heavenly light and the great snake was struck dead on the spot.
"That, my chil'ren, is what can happen when we do not make a good confession and prepare ourselves properly to receive the body of Christ."
Horror had also crept into the classroom, but curiosity triumphed in my case. I raised my hand, although Sister had gone on to another cautionary tale, and was finally recognized. "What happened to the man with the dead snake in his mouth?"
"He learned a very important lesson, Walter."
"But did they get the snake out of his body?"
"That doesn't matter. Be seated."
"Did the priest give him Communion after that?"
"That's enough questions. The man learned his lesson, I said. He never tried to trick Gawd again."
"How did the snake ever get inside his body?"
Willie Cauley, who sat in front of me and had been held back in second this year, hid behind the girl in front and said aloud, "It was really just his weenie sticking out."
"WHO SAID THAT? Did you say that, Walter Hampstead?"
"Well, who said that?" Silence. Teeth-grinding silence. "I've got my eye on you, Walter Hampstead. You'd better not forget that. Now let's move on."
Joan Beverly Fruehling dropped a pencil, a chewed-up red pencil that said "Bethlehem Steel," in the corridor while rushing out of class. I ran to pick it up, and she was already well down the hallway toward the front door, her bundle of flaxen hair dancing behind. I started after her but knew immediately I could never just go up and speak to her. To another girl, maybe. Not to Joan Beverly. I went home, holding the divine pencil in my hand, trying to decide what to do. That night I slept with the pencil under my pillow, grasping it occasionally, this slender fragment once so close to her.
I left home early the next morning and got to school just as the gates were being unlocked. I got into our class first and left the pencil on her desk with a folded note, probably the longest I'd ever written:
Dear Joan Beverly,
You dropped this pencil
in the doorway yesterday.
I picked it up and saved
it for you. I love you.
I watched Joan Beverly come into the classroom and sit down on her pink panties, although I had to imagine that part. She immediately saw the note and read it. Her cheeks went from peaches and cream to ripe tomato. She looked up fast toward me, but I looked down at my angled desk top, feeling a hot blush surging into my face too. When I looked up she was standing by Sister P.'s desk. Sister had not yet arrived for class. She was going to give the note to Sister! Big-time trouble, probably the sort that meant a flogging in one of the dungeons some of the older boys said the nuns had in the basement. I could go up and apologize and ask for the note back. Why did I have to tell her I loved her? Because that was all I wrote the note for—I knew that. I still loved her, even though she was getting ready to turn me over to the wrath of Sister P. Maybe even Sister Colette, the principal. She stood there with the torn-off piece of composition paper in her hand. Girls walked past and spoke to her, but she stood ramrod-straight at the desk, her head with clenched jaw just below the photo of Pope Pius XI with his right hand extended in a blessing.
Sister Colette, who scared all of us to death, stuck her head in the door.
"Sister Prudence is ill today, children," she announced with an unusual pleasantness in her husky, terror-inducing voice. "I would like all of you to say a prayer for her. Mrs. Reilly, the Ladies Guild president, is coming to school to look after your class. Take out your catechisms and review your lesson for today. All of you take your seats, and I expect absolute quiet. Is that clear?"
"Yes, 'Ster," we all intoned, good as gold.
Joan Beverly started toward Sister Colette, and I held my breath, my health and welfare in the balance. But Sister had turned and was sailing off down the hallway like a tall ship before a gale. Joan Beverly closed her eyes and pushed out her lower lip, then glanced at the note. She looked at Sister P.'s trash basket, but then—you could see the thought cross her mind—folded it back and put it into a side pocket of the magnificently ruffled and flower-embroidered white pinafore she was wearing. Of course she wasn't saving it in order to snitch on me, but because it already was assuming the status of a treasure. I knew then the Good Lord was on my side. As she came up the aisle, she looked daggers at me. Suddenly, I wasn't worried. Contact had been established. Joan Beverly and I weren't strangers anymore, me a kid just arrived from Washington or not. I honestly believe I returned a slight smile. There seemed an aura of fragrance as she went past, but of course I was imagining. She took a breath I could hear, what, one row over and three desks in front, and sat back down on her angelic pink silk. I knew she would be frowning, and the other girls would be looking at each other and wondering.
I permitted myself reveries while glazing my eyes above the listing of the chief sources of sin: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth, of which I probably understood only Pride and Anger, maybe Gluttony. What I thought was her body scent was orbiting within my seven-year-old brain and beginning to neutralize the effects of gravity. Red and lacy Valentine images were dropping like economy-sized confetti in my mind. The light-green and prison-gray classroom, cacophonous with devotional posters, was losing its accustomed perspective. Oh, Joan Beverly Fruehling, I will love you not a year. Not three-score and ten. Not a hundred years. But for-EVER. Oh let me put my hands into your yellow hair, let me hold your hand, let me kiss—No, no, no—let me share my Dewy Square with you.
The schoolyard. I was actually talking with Joan Beverly Fruehling. She was standing right in front of me, maybe less than two feet from my face. I could see, in the split second before I looked down, the crooked teeth so well, a trace of milk at one corner of her mouth, fine sun-dusted hairs on the lobe of one ear, her flashing blue eyes so big and astonishing, so alive. Don't think about anything else—O God, help me—don't. I looked down instantly to try and stop my tingling, down to maybe the pointy part of her chin, which was absolutely gorgeous now. She wore a Peter Pan collar over a white fine-wool sweater, spotlessly clean but now preciously flecked with cookie crumbs. I could sense just the outer margins of her breath, Wrigley's spearmint-tinted.
"I saw you drop your pencil." I was speaking, amazed that I was doing so.
"Some-yucky-o-o-ol'-pencil-I-picked-up-in-th'kitchen-threw-it-away-soon-as-I could. Horrible-o-o-ol'-pencil-anyway-don't-you-kno-o-ow?" And her hands went bewitchingly to her hips as she scolded me, shrew-fashion.
"I didn't know. Honest." I was prickling like from the electric-shock gripper at the Timonium Fair last summer, and I desperately wanted to run away, but oh every second was so delicious, I knew I might never have a better moment than this in my life.
"Why did you say that in the no-o-ote?" She was speaking more slowly. And she wasn't mad anymore. I raised my glance up to her unbelievable blue eyes, picketed with long, darkish lashes. The electricity surged through me, and I must have been visibly shivering. She was looking at me closely and maybe being a little nice. I thought of taking my handkerchief and wiping the milk from her mouth, but, come on, I was light years from being ready for that. But she was maybe—Joan Beverly Fruehling was maybe—being a little nice.
"Say what?" I wasn't thinking too clearly, but I was also stalling for time. The experience was barely sustainable for me. Joan Beverly standing there all wonderful and alive in front of me in these marvelous white and brown saddle shoes, white socks with tiny pink flowers, a pleated red tartan (oh so girly) skirt—and, heaven forbid, no more!—and this so grown-up-looking wool pullover, all so radiantly feminine.
"You kno-o-ow what you said."
So unbearably intense was the moment, I was in mortal conflict with my craving to turn and run, to run till I dropped from exhaustion somewhere in a dark wood. I had no energy reserves with which to speak coherently. She spread her fingers forward on her hips in exasperation.
My eyes were lingering in a kind of dumb swoon on her mouth, jiggling gently as she worked her gum. Her lips were so smooth and glisteny in the autumn sunlight, so rapturously soft and pink. I wanted so bad to kiss her then, but not more than I wanted to run.
"Why did you write that, Wa-a-alter-Hampstead?" And she stamped a saddle-shod foot.
"Because I love you, Joan Beverly." It was such a relief to say that. I felt so fresh and unbound and elevated, so comforted, the tension gone, like I wasn't attached to the ground anymore, like I'd felt after she had saved the note and walked by my desk. But I quickly closed my eyes tight like you do when you expect a clap of thunder or an ice-cold shower, and inside I felt all cotton candy and sunwarm and soft-floating, and the skin on my face had this nice prickliness to it.
"Well, I certainly do-o-on't love you, Wa-a-alter Hampstead." She spoke firmly and turned away. I opened my eyes and lightheadedly watched her walk across the schoolyard in her freshly polished saddle shoes, her vivid tartan skirt swinging slightly to her brisk step. I stood there breathing air in gulps and feeling as terrific as I'd ever felt. It was okay if she didn't love me. I loved her, and that was enough. I had never loved a girl until Joan Beverly, and I could see why the songs on the radio were about love so much. There wasn't anything else at all quite like it.
Sister P. was covering Lesson Fifth in the Catechism on sin—original, actual, mortal, venial and the aforementioned "sources of sin," which were also called "capital sins." She was discussing each of the seven capital sins, one each day in religion period. So far we'd done Pride and Covetousness. I didn't have any problem with either, except on the second day when she said another kid has a new bike and you don't have one—which I didn't—and you find yourself wishing that bike was yours; that's the sin of Covetousness, violating the Tenth Commandment. It can also lead to breaking the Seventh, Thou shalt not steal, or, Lord help us, the Fifth, Thou shalt not kill. I decided I'd have to tone down my coveting, especially of all the toys and goodies my virtuous fourth-grader cousin Brigid had. We shared a rowhouse with her family, and I was learning the difficulty of the catechism's command to "rejoice in our neighbor's welfare."
Then Sister P. came to Lust, and I discovered I was in real trouble.
"Desires of the senses, my chil'ren, something you will be more aware of as you grow older and the evil spell of the flesh is upon you, when you must fight every hour of the day to control the impure appetites the Prince of Darkness places within you. When the God-given desires the Good Lord has bade you preserve until the Sacrament of Matrimony are perverted by demons from the Underworld and writhe to break loose and consume you. When you see another human being not as a fellow child of God to respect and honor but as an object of wicked, Satan-twisted urges."
The message was beginning to seem pertinent. Was loving Joan Beverly a sin of Lust? Just because I wanted to... to kiss her? I knew that kissing a girl was different than kissing your mother, but it was still a kiss. It must be the feelings that matter, not the kiss itself. I didn't know what all this about "impure appetites" was. An appetite was for supper, something it was good to have. I supposed you could also have an "appetite" for a kiss, although what did that have to do with being hungry? I just thought Joan Beverly was so pretty and nice, and it was, well, terrific to be close to her. But wasn't Sister P. saying these feelings were "God-given desires" I should save until I was married—until, that is, Joan Beverly and I were married? Was the devil getting inside me and making me act this way? I didn't feel any different than I had before, except when Joan Beverly was nearby, but maybe that was when the devil went to work.
"Just like Covetousness, my chil'ren, it's wanting something that isn't yours, unchaste pleasure with the sacred temple of another's body. It doesn't have to be some filthy love nonsense like you must see in the movies I know you all go to. It can even be the slightest kiss when unholy Lust is the reason. Even thinking about it can be enough to violate Gawd's law, to tear us away from Gawd's love and cast us into the arms of Satan. And you chil'ren know only too well what that leads to."
I knew. Hell. The cordwood and the screams. Just a kiss? Just thinking about a kiss? Was the devil doing this to me? Was I the only kid in Holy Redeemer, in Baltimore, in the United States, who felt this way? Was there something wrong with me? And how could I tell anybody—about filthy love feelings?
"We must fight these sordid sensations," Sister went on fiercely, her S's sizzling like hellfire. "We must get down on our knees and pray to Gawd, to Jesus, to the Blessed Virgin for help. They will help, I promise you. When these impure thoughts come into our minds, we must see them, know them as the voice of Satan, the Satan that even had the nerve to tempt Our Good Lord, whom he so envied. We should know who has planted these vicious thoughts in our minds and shout, 'Begone, Satan. Begone.'"
She was just warming up.
That night when I knelt down by my bed to say my prayers, I thought about what Sister P. had said. It all made me a little sick to my stomach. Then when I got under the covers, I thought of Joan Beverly's eyes, the way they narrowed when she smiled and how full of fun and mischief she looked, how you never knew when she was going to pull a prank or say something funny, how I longed to be one of the kids in her circle of playmates so I could tell jokes back to her and see her reaction. It was just a fun thing and not filthy at all. Even a kiss was just a way to show her how neat I thought she was and to sort of partake of that aura of neatness. Sister's words and how I felt just didn't seem to go together. But did they? Was that just part of Satan's tricks? But how could it be a trick if there wasn't anything more to it than enjoying the fun of being with somebody you liked? It wouldn't be a problem with another boy. Why was it suddenly so different with a girl? But Sister was religious and had been appointed by God to bring his children the truth. But God had created Joan Beverly and me too and made us the way we were. But maybe that was before Satan came along and twisted our thinking all out of shape. But why would God let Satan do something like that to His children? That was because of the sin of Adam and Eve and the punishment that God placed upon them and their children. But hadn't the Serpent tempted them before they committed any sin? But that was because God expected them to choose between him and the Fallen Angel, that their love wouldn't mean anything until it was tested. And around and around until I was too confused to think anymore.
For about a week Joan Beverly avoided me. And you can bet I avoided her. She kicked high and lustily in the chained swings without me in the audience. She passed by my desk without a glance, though the charge in the air was palpable. She quickly turned her back in deep preoccupation if I chanced close enough in the schoolyard, drawn by my pounding pulse. It was our joint sacrifice, I supposed, to God's will and what I sensed was our silently agreed-upon cooling-off period.
The day came when I was playing hopscotch with some boys—hopscotch was a game I was crazy about, mostly because I was pretty good—and Joan Beverly walked up and began watching with another girl, Agnes Strohecker. The other boys, mindless, noticed nothing, but for me it was as though warm pink spotlights had come on, the fragrance of flower fields pervaded the asphalted yard, and radio love ballads surged in our blood. I was holding the Cat's Paw heel at the time. Inspired, I made a perfect toss into Eight.
"Thought-this-was-a-girl's-game," Joan Beverly said kind of snide like—but I knew better—more or less toward me. I skipped away, snatched up the heel with a flourish, did a terrific jump spin on Nine and Ten, and looked at her, drinking in the warm light, the fragrance and the music. It was she. Sacrifice was over! She had on a necklace of little pink stones that was excitingly glamorous. Her smile—had it a hint of tentativeness? My heart throbbed with this guess. It was downturned at the corners, taunting in intention, showing her joanbeverlyesque teeth, unruly as children pushing in line.
"Naw, it's a boy's game, too. You wanna play?"
"Shur," she said.
The other guys grumbled but let her play. She was actually friendly to all of us, which was rare at Holy Redeemer, the genders pretty much staying among themselves. After my blood thrill had subsided, I realized she wasn't too bad, but, for the first time ever in a game, I found I was less interested in an opponent as an opponent than as a person. What a joy to be playing a game with Joan Beverly Fruehling, to watch her hopping and jumping with her pale legs, laughing with her high spirits, cutting her eyes at me in a new intimacy such as I, an only child, had never experienced with a female coeval. Friends! She was wearing a lace-trimmed pink-and-white dress this day, but it would bounce up over her knees when she took a jump, and I tried not to think about anything but the game and our friendship, but it was difficult.
"Aaah, stop bellyaching and play," my friend Francis Toole responded. I wanted to knock him down, but that would have spoiled the delicious secret. Suddenly the end-of-recess bell was being flailed from the black sleeve of the yard nun. Joan Beverly and Agnes ran ahead of us back into the schoolhouse. It was the most sublime recess of my lifetime to date, without question.
Now, all I was thinking about anytime during the day was Joan Beverly Fruehling. But struggling (and not always succeeding) to think of her as just a nice person and a friend and not in any Lust kind of way, like kissing or hugging or that.
When she came into the classroom, the ordinary became the inutterable. I fancied I forged bonds of willpower beyond my years in remaining at my desk as she walked by—Oh here is that red tartan skirt again!—and only raising my eyes to meet hers, not leaping up to grasp her in some mad embrace of which I fantasized, but of which my capacity was, of course, zilch. There was that prickliness on my face and even down my arms, and I'd inhale deeply, and it was like being in my grandparents' rose garden down in Waverly. Or I was tumbling in a sky blissful with songbirds and gentle sunrays, like one of those pretty moments in "Snow White" when the black-hearted queen wasn't around. But then once Sister Pruneface saw me sitting there with lowered lids, swaying my head with what I suppose was a silly grin on my face. She rustled darkly up the aisle with her pointer in hand and glared down at me with bleary, ruby-rimmed eyes, behind an aura of harsh soap.
"HAMPSTEAD!" And she gave a sharp, resounding rap with the pointer flat against my desktop, just missing one of my love-numbed hands.
"Are you getting enough sleep at night?"
"Sleep, 'Ster? Oh, yeah, I do. But I do spend a lot of time saying my prayers."
"More likely staying up listening to the radio."
"I only get to listen to Jack Armstrong and Bulldog Drummond and they aren't late. And they're both champions of good."
"I may have to talk to your mother. I won't have you mooning about my classroom. Do you hear, child?"
"Yes, 'Ster, but I was paying attention. You were talking about grace."
"And what is grace, Hampstead?"
Willie Cauley turned in his seat. "Grace Sanderson is that tall girl with the buck teeth in Sister Clement's third grade," he said straight-faced, gallantly trying to get me off the hook. As laughter broke out behind cupped hands, he took the pointer flat across his back for the trouble.
"Well, they're buck teeth in my book," he shot back, grinning bravely, as the rest of us cringed, knowing the volcano was about to erupt.
"Get out of my class, you little bounder!" Sister yelled at Willie, actually bringing a hint of color to her pallid face. "You go to Sister Colette's and tell her why I threw you out again." Willie smiled and snorted at Sister P. and went sashaying out of the classroom.
"What is grace, Hampstead?" a tremor in her voice. She placed one disembodied hand on my desk for support.
"By grace I mean a supernatural gift of God bestowed on us, through the merits of Jesus Christ, for our salvation," I rattled off, rote from the catechism.
"But can sinners receive it?" came the voice of Joan Beverly. "I mean, 'Ster, does it come to us sometimes when we don't deserve it?"
Sister P. was finally diverted by this earnest-seeming question. "Of course, Joan Beverly," she said with a strained Sister P. smile at my darling friend. "Do you think any man could ever truly merit such a marvelous gift of Gawd, earned by Christ's bloody Redemption? Grace can come at any moment, in any circumstance, to any person."
As she walked back by my desk, however, she said softly, "See me at three." That meant detention.
Two hundred times in good penmanship: "I will stay alert in the classroom." You did it by going down the columns of each page, "I-I-I-I-I-I" and then "will-will-will-will-will-will" and so forth, till your index finger throbbed and gradually grew numb. Penmanship was already emphasized in second grade, but letters were still formed slowly, painstakingly. If the punishment paper wasn't done neatly it, of course, was re-done. Every couple of pages of composition paper you stopped to sharpen your pencil and finished with a heavy blister that made writing either awkward or painful for several more days. But who cared about such trivia?
The next morning I entered the classroom and saw that Joan Beverly was already at her desk. She gave me what seemed a shy smile, unusual for her, and nodded toward my desk. There was a note.
Would you like to come
over my house to play
after school? But I don't
think I love you.
Joan Beverly F.
P.S.—I know why you stand
by the jungle gym during
(I have no doubt as to the exact wording because I keep this note in my roll-top desk, and it is at the moment lying next to my computer keyboard. In the lower right-hand corner she drew two hearts, close but not touching, with no arrow or further adornment. Their poetry was wholly lost on me, I imagine, at seven.)
My joy at the note was equaled by my embarrassment at the post script. How could she know? I couldn't look back toward her. I had taken occasionally to dropping by the swings again when Joan Beverly was swinging. She'd sometimes wave to me and then go kicking skyward, lost in exultation. Watching her I was able to share a little in her enjoyment, that was really the reason I was dropping by again, although you couldn't miss that spectacular flash of intimate pink when she was pulling and thrusting. And now she was my friend Joan Beverly and not a girl I hopelessly admired from an unbridgeable distance (Swinging was a girl thing at Holy Redeemer so it never occurred to me to join her and her friends). I knew what I was doing was bad, maybe even a sin of Lust. But I knew I was just a kid, and God might go easy on me. But now she knew. Did she think I was a bad person, the only boy in Holy Redeemer who's keen on underwear? Didn't she know other guys did the same thing? And there was that weird kid at Emerson in Washington, who used to wear a little mirror on his shoes to put under girls waiting in line. Now that was disgusting. Nevertheless, I was feeling that sick spin in my stomach from getting caught. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to go to her house to play.
But as the big clock beside Pope Pius neared three o'clock, I'd all but forgotten about the P.S. in the thrill and anxiety of the invitation.
She was waiting alone by the statue of the Blessed Virgin in front of school as I walked out the heavy push-bar front doors.
"Can-y'come?" she asked excitedly. On top of everything else, I felt that liberating gladness—having someone you care for waiting for you, just you, eager for your company.
"I guess so. But I gotta be home by dinnertime."
"Hyow-super!" And she actually clapped her hands softly in front of her smile. She already had her gum in action (She placed it on a gate stanchion in the morning where she could retrieve it during recess or after school).
"Is it far where you live?"
"How do you know where I live?"
"Shur. Why-shouldn't-I? 'Sa-free-country-bub. Come-on-let's-weigh-anchor." And she threw her book-bag over a shoulder and pulled me along, Jello-legged and lost in the sweetness of spearmint breath.
"Is that like 'Anchors Aweigh'?"
"Yeesh-whereya-been?" She cut her eyes slyly at me. "Dad-says-that. He's-in-the-Navy."
"Does Agnes know about your note?"
"'Course, dummy. She's-my-best-friend-lived-on-same-block-since-little-kids. And-about-the-swings-too. Gosh-you-boys're-terrible. Drippy, m'Gawd! But-my-sister-tol'me-boys-did-that-when-she's-in-lo-o-ower-grades." She cocked her head and smiled at me teasingly as we waited to cross the busy street at the corner of the school. I was sick to my stomach again. I must have looked it. She laughed in her hair-bouncing way and looked at me again with her head tilted like she was trying to figure out a really tough puzzle.
"Your sister?!" Tiny creepers of panic crept over my shoulders and down my wanton frame.
"Susan's-my-pal. She's-o-okay-she-won't-tell-Mother. Jist-didn't-kno-o-ow-boys-did-icky-things-like-that. 'So-o-okay. Maybe-a-little-well-y'kno-o-ow-nasty?" Her voice rose at the end and she gave me a mock frown as we reached the other curb in a crowd of departing kids.
"I just think it's a good place to rest and all there by the jungle gym."
"Yer-not-looking-at-girls'... well-y'kno-o-ow... crotches." The crudity of the word was like one of Willie's hard punches in the gut.
I stared miserably at the cracked, tar-veined sidewalk we followed, dragging my book-bag behind. She suddenly took my hand, negotiating to get her fingers entwined. "'So-o-okay. Jist-raggin'-y'nut. C'mon-stop-dawdlin'."
Her hand seemed like a little miracle in mine. Perhaps the color was slowly returning to my face. The supreme wonder, after all, was that I was walking along a suburban sidewalk in Baltimore, Maryland, with Joan Beverly Fruehling. Not just walking. Holding hands! Lord, if Brigid sees us she'll tell everyone at home. Oh, but what a splendiferous feeling... for the minute or so it lasted, because a panhandling cat we all knew came padding gingerly toward us, and she let go to give it its pet. She was wearing the cutest white scarf around her neck, over a pink cardigan I'd never seen before today, a flannel skirt with a bronze safety-pin brooch, and the always immaculate saddle shoes her mom must have polished nightly.
For a while there was a garbage truck following inconsiderately alongside, picking up cans—trash was another day—and the lemony putrid smell of garbage was diffused along the mostly hedge-lined avenue, now dimly sunlit through a thin cloud cover. We carefully went out into the street around cars parked in thoughtlessly short driveways, avoided the customary dog-do on the sidewalk, and deftly negotiated abandoned tricycles and scooters, a broken-wheeled Radio Flyer, a mucky, rubbish-clogged water-pipe excavation, and a wildly spinning sprinkler hopelessly placed in a yard virtually bereft of grass. All the while she was giggling and telling stories about her scintillating princess' court of girl friends, sanctified in my mind by her approval, despite occasional criticism. As we pressed on to our Elysian grove, slobbering dogs barked at us savagely from behind fences and porch rails; a gangsterish sedan honked loudly and screeched around a corner as we reached the curb, causing us both to step quickly back; and, in the next block, a vile stench enveloped an exterminator's van. Atop a two-story house a gang of roofers mopped the roof with steaming hot tar amid shouted obscenities, while others tossed down old shingles and slats that splattered on the sidewalk, one just missing me. And every second of the six or seven-block walk was charged with rapture.
The faint sun was pleasant—we both were wearing sweaters—and a good-natured breeze was blowing, causing tops of partially denuded oaks and maples to sway and departed leaves to whisper and tumble across our path. Joan Beverly, certainly nowhere near as smitten by the magic moment as I—who knew what excesses of boy-girl friendships she already had known?—chattered on happily about her dog, a Sealyham, "jist-the-op'sit-y'kno-o-ow-of-ol'-man- Ro-o-osevelt's-Fala-'cept-he-doesn't-have-Fala's-wunnerful-dispo-o-osition," her career plans, "I'm-gonna-be-a-nurse-when-I'm-big-and-help-sick-people-and-prob'ly-marry-a-doctor," (we'd see about that!), the tadpoles in the pond under dogwood trees at the end of her street "where-you-kno-o-ow-a-real-woods-begins-and-there's-gypsies-live-in-it," all the while skipping on every fourth or fifth step, walking along low retaining walls and brick planters, doing a zigzag run round an obstacle course of small privets in a newly planted hedge, and, after handing me her book-bag, leapfrogging a red fireplug. I marveled at her energy, mine being consumed by guiding my emotional raft down white-water rapids.
"So-o-o-whatchu-gonna-do-when-y'gro-o-ow-up?" she asked me breathlessly.
I tried to think straight. "I mostly want to do something that helps the world as long as it pays a lot of money. There's so many things that are terrible right now."
"Well-there's-th'war. But's-a-long-way-off'n-places-y'never-heard-of. Who're-the-Poles-anyway? From-the-North-Pole-or-something? I'm-not-shur."
"Why do people have to do horrible things to each other? Is it because of Adam and Eve, d'ya think?"
Joan Beverly saw a cat stalking a sparrow in the street and rushed to pet it. Disturbed at work, it angrily scurried off, while the sparrow continued its scavenging in the trail of a horse-drawn produce wagon.
"Yuck, birds!" she said with a grimace.
We reached her home, a house importantly all by itself, unlike ours. It was like a house from a movie, painted a handsome white with reddish trim and shutters, well-kept and smartly landscaped, in contrast with our second-from-the-alley rowhouse, neat, adequate but far from charming. "Sno-o-owball-is-in-back-y'gotta-see'm," she said, suddenly the hostess. "Daddy-made-me-this-gigantic-sandbox-but's-yucky-right-nyow-'causa-yestiday-the-stinking-rain." She pulled the latch string of the plank gate and I followed her into the suddenly chilly yard.
"Oh-hi-Damon," she said matter-of-factly.
Instant revulsion. Damon was sitting on the far-side bench of the sandbox to one side of the house-shaded yard beside a latticework bower lavish with pink tea roses. He seemed to have the slightly greater heft of a third-grader. He had barbarously curly brown-black hair, small but darkly brilliant eyes, a pug nose, and what seemed to me on scant evidence a wisenheimer air. He was indeed wearing a sweatshirt (we called it a "jersey") celebrating the New York World's Fair, with the ubiquitous Perisphere, Trylon and slogan of boundless promise, "The World of Tomorrow." Despite my parents' promises, all I saw of it was in the newspapers and newsreels.
"I got a silver filling in my bad tooth today and Mom gave me a Hershey almond for being brave," Damon announced.
"Lemmesee," my Joan Beverly said, filled with interest. Revulsion was maturing into a genuine disgust. Damon stretched his mouth wide and Joan Beverly rushed up to examine. He pointed to a rear molar.
"Hurt real bad," he said.
"I-never-had-a-filling, yeesh," she said with wonderment.
"It was so bad the dentist said I needed Novocain. Costed an extra two dollars. My mom also got me a Superman comic, brand-new. You wanna see?"
While Joan Beverly was enjoying Damon's largesse born of pain, I wandered around her serene, fussily organized yard, backed by an alley-facing garage and a grape arbor. I tasted a few red-purple grapes, so tart my eyes watered. I still hadn't met Snowball. A half-lifesize guardian angel statue was set in a bed of gardenias, perhaps assigned to watch over children's play. A croquet court, with precisely planted wickets, remained in place on the handsomely tended lawn, a genteel contrast from our weed-thick yard. I found the mallets and balls in a shed and proceeded to play a round on the still-damp grass—my ball a Damon stand-in—while Joan Beverly and the competition sat side by side on the sandbox bench and gabbed and laughed merrily.
The clamorous voice of a woman stabbed through my gloom. "Come home this minute, Damon Finster, and clean up this catastrophe." Over the tea roses I could see a head of coiling black tresses protruding from an upstairs window "two doors down," a pair of roller skates dangling from an outthrust hand.
I wondered if the Good Lord had intervened on my behalf. As quickly, I wondered if it was the other fellow.
Damon hurried out the gate after snatching his comic book. Joan Beverly turned and found me with mallet well in hand. She gave me a What-can-you-do? apologetic eye roll that momentarily restored my fickle euphoria.
"Where-is-that-silly-dog-o'-mine? SNO-O-OWBALL!" From out of the red doghouse—same paint as the shutters—on the rear porch came a small shaggy white dog, its stomach fur rubbing the planking. It shuffled down the steps and over to the sandbox.
"Sno-o-owball, this is a boy from my class who likes to watch girls when their dresses blo-o-ow up and then writes them love no-o-otes in class," she said, slowly and deliberately, wrinkling her nose with amusement... and giving me a bilious reflux of shame.
"Come and pet him, Wa-a-alter," she ordered. "He likes it." The wiggly little dog looked at me as fiercely as it was able and lifted its upper lip slightly. From its throat came a low rumble.
"SNO-O-OWBALL! This is my friend Wa-a-alter Hampstead. It's o-o-okay about the dresses." She smiled at me craftily—we obviously couldn't level with Snowball—and indicated a place beside her.
I sat down a few inches from her on the sandbox bench beside the pink climbing roses and put my hand on Snowball's bony head. I could still hear a rumble that sounded, counterproductively, more like a cat's purr. We both sat there occupied with the dog for minutes. Joan Beverly enlightened me on his flea problem, how he hated not only baths but the mere sight of a "warsh rag," the time he got stuck rear-to-rear with a stray female, hoisting his rear legs somewhat off the ground, and mortified her mother until they were separated via several buckets of cold water. Whose move was next, I, already a novice chess player, pondered. Don't look at me, I thought. It was really enough just being there, although it was disconcerting having to show such interest in Snowball, who was not my kind of dog. It was getting chilly there in the back yard, shaded from the late-afternoon sun by their house. I already had a couple of Snowball's legendary fleas working on my legs.
Suddenly Joan Beverly put Snowball down from her lap onto the lawn behind us. She took her gum out and pressed it against the underside of the bench and looked at me. "Do you really love me, Wa-a-alter?" she asked, her mouth slightly open, revealing her happily jostling canines and bicuspids. She asked, however, as though the fact remained in doubt. Her eyes so close were large and round, in the dimming light sky-blue amidst pure white. It was enchanting the way her hair swirled around the rim of her ear.
I nodded. Joan Beverly breathed in, almost a slight gasp of delight, I thought. I figured I was the first boy to tell her that since she now seemed so impressed. I was hoping with all of my heart that I was. I wanted to go on loving her, for us to get married some day and have lots of children, and continue loving each other till we were old and went around with gnarled hands and rheumy eyes like Sister P. But I only knew how I felt. I had to ask the terrible question, its importance totally new to me.
"But you don't love me—right?"
Our eyes met—hers glistening and all-seeing in her seven-year-old face. We were honestly struggling to grapple with a moment that carried both value and risk, peering unguardedly into one another and into the situation, asking hardly understood questions.
"Maybe I do, Wa-a-alter."
Gravity vanished. No longer did we sit with our feet in a damp sandbox in a shivery back yard in north Baltimore but were floating on soft clouds over a smiling sunlit woodland, joyous with bluebirds and fawns and cuddly Disney rabbits, all chirping and wagging and beaming for us. I probably sighed audibly.
Joan Beverly leaned toward me on the bench and lightly kissed my cheek.
And, at just about that point, the film went flapping off the reel. Snowball trundled off toward the house, barking excitedly. A man in a naval officer's dress whites stuck his head over the gate and in a raised voice said that Joan Beverly was supposed to be doing her homework right now because she had to go to choir practice. There would be no arguments, and she'd best get a move on.
"I hate choir," she said to me immediately. Minutes later, however, I was walking home in a state bordering on God's Reward. I remember that afternoon in a form close to total recall. I also remember its aftermath, but more in its broad and absolute sweep.
Damon had been spying on us from his bedroom window. That evening he telephoned Joan Beverly's mother and told her that Joan Beverly had kissed me. Perhaps with embellishments. He also related, with relish no doubt, what Agnes had told him about me watching girls on the swings. Joan Beverly's mother came to school the next morning and spoke with Sister Colette. Around two p.m. that day, I was called into Sister Colette's office. My days of philandering were at an end.
Sister Avila was much nicer than Sister Pruneface. When she spoke of sin, it didn't seem like anything to worry much about. We were good Catholic kids after all, and we'd know sin when we saw it. She seemed much more interested in English and Spelling than in hellfire. She was young and rosy-cheeked and always smelled of cloves. And when I won a spelling bee, she began to treat me like I was important, even loaned me some marvelous books by Robert Louis Stevenson (The Black Arrow showed me romance wasn't all bad), James Oliver Curwood and Jack London (two authors whose dogs were more interesting than people).
It was awfully hard passing Joan Beverly in the hallway and having her look away, kind of coldly. But as the weeks of second grade wore by, this forced separation gradually became a matter of routine. A gray void was at the center of my life.
"These, young man, are the last of your transgressions we will countenance," Sister Colette had said, although I had no idea what my other ones were. "You are being moved into Sister Avila's second grade immediately. Do you understand?"
"Do you know what an occasion of sin is, young man?"
"Yes, 'Ster. "It's someplace or somebody that leads you into sin."
"And where does sin lead man?"
"Into loss of the sight of God."
"And that is...?" I am sure I was on the verge of tears, if not beyond it.
"Then I am certain you will no longer be an occasion of sin for Joan Beverly." Waves of nausea rolled over me. I could look no higher than the taut knuckles of Sister's fisted hands emerging from the black recesses of her sleeves. "Will you, Walter?"
"Then you will not again under any circumstances associate with Joan Beverly in any way. You will not even speak with her, and you will of course never be in the same class with her again at Holy Redeemer. She has of course been told the same thing regarding you. Although I do not believe her guilty in any way, she has agreed. Is that clear, Walter Hampstead?"
"Your behavior at her home and on the schoolyard has been atrocious. Do not forget these matters when you make your Confession, young man. I am sure that Father will have further suggestions. Is there anything you would like to say?"
"Since you have shown an understanding—which is the first step to contrition, Walter—I will not use this," and she held up a heavy wooden ruler.
My mother took away my allowance—a dime a week—for two months. I also could not listen to my radio programs. My father gave me a talking to, mostly to the effect that we had to play the game the world's way and ending by saying he had thought girls' underpants were pretty sensational when he was in grammar school, and he didn't see anything so wrong about looking. "As far as kissing a girl in her back yard, well, congratulations, I guess."
"I didn't kiss her. She kissed me."
"Either way. I'd've kissed her back."
He said the sisters ought to worry more about the boys who weren't interested in girls. But, obviously, I was in a school situation where this was looked upon severely, and I'd have to behave accordingly. He was a realist. It was important to my mother that I go to a Catholic school, and he was going along with that. He said he thought Joan Beverly's parents were jerks, but I'd just have to tough it out. I didn't say anything to that. I wish I'd suggested he have a little sympathetic neighborly chat with them and let them have his worldly point of view. He of course hadn't the faintest idea of the size of the stakes. I mostly appreciated the fact my parents kept my disgrace within our little family group at home. It was bad enough that it was all over the second and third grades at school.
As I said, it was awfully hard to pass Joan Beverly in the hallway and in the schoolyard. I knew we still loved each other—I knew that because she played quietly now in the yard; there was no swinging, no laughing or tossing of her hair—but the love was slowly dying of starvation. Trembling and nauseous, I confessed everything to Father Dolan the day our class all went for our first sacrament of Penance the Saturday before First Communion. He gave me a gentle lecture about the evils of the flesh and the importance of pure thoughts. "All of these matters, my son, must wait until that day God calls you to the sacrament of Matrimony, if that is his call." He was a lot more interested in this, however, than the dozen or so other things I had been carefully enumerating over the last month, including stealing a nickel I saw on the walkway in front of Mrs. Wexler's house, telling my father I hated it when he picked his teeth at the dinner table, and socking Brigid for jokingly asking me in front of two of her girl friends if I'd like to see their panties. He only gave me five Hail Marys and one Our Father for penance, but he told me to pray to St. Augustine if these thoughts ever came into my head again, as he was a saint who had overcome the temptations of the flesh. I promised I would. I prayed to St. Augustine at least once a day until the school year ended, and I believed it was working.
That summer I went regularly and stood at the top of Springbrook Lane, hoping to see Joan Beverly playing down the hill. Only once did I see her, jumping rope in the street with several other girls. I ached to speak with her, to hear her heedless laughter, her headlong sentences. But Sister Colette's admonition was always there in my head. The last thing I wanted to do was harm Joan Beverly. I loved her too much to do that. Once I saw her coming out of the Saturday cowboy movie just as I was going in with some friends. Our eyes met, and she looked at me as though she felt the same as I did, as though she really wanted to speak to me, but something invisible was holding her back. Her lips even parted like she was getting ready to say something to me, and her eyes were wide. But she walked by me, only a few feet away, and my breath seemed to be dragged from me and taken with her as she passed.
At the beginning of third grade she wasn't at school—her girl friends told me her family moved to Hawaii—and I never saw her again. For a year or so, I walked by her old house now and then—it still looked the same out front—and looked to see the tiny pink roses climbing over the bower and the side wall and wondered what it was like in Hawaii and if she still planned to be a nurse. Dogs barked, and cars honked and screeched around corners, and life was gray and ordinary.