Jul/Aug 2004 Nonfiction

A Home in a World

by Jim Gourley

Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.(1)

My memories of childhood, as deeply as I can dredge, are draped in a sepia wash of fear. Not the numbing strain that breeds stuporous silence, it was more a muted background drone of imminent menace, a constant buzz of voices in hushed warning tones that whispered "Danger: The World, both This and the Next," in the best mad-eyed, fairy-taled tradition. There were Russians with missiles and Cuba with Russians and we sunk beneath the surface of our desks. There were too many children and not enough money, sickness and creeping madness that would slowly, very slowly come to a terribly quiet and bad end. And, of course, there was baseball, radios on summer nights telling of events from the hero world, far away downtown. Above and beyond it all, setting the mood, there was, of course, a high and very removed God who was not particularly friendly, eminently unapproachable, and, according to the minor league religious leaders who coached the game at my level, more than ready to sink my sorry soul into the steaming bilges of hell for as little as the entertainment of an impure thought, Praise God. I was born doomed, and, despite Baptism, believed that I remained so: awareness of sin was an occasion for sin, and since succumbing to an occasion was inevitable, so a Baptism perceived is a Baptism nullified, especially after realizing that the discovery of Female, that wonderful other, assuredly predated the earliest recollection I could possibly muster, including second-hand tales of the wonders of Baptism. I would learn that, yes, Baptism was a necessary pass, the secret handshake that would get me through the door, but if, and only if, the Gates were already open. After the first dawn of awareness - access to memory, the sorting of tenses, the first thin scratch coats of homegrown catechism - sin walked with me, and whether or not the original one had actually been scrubbed, began to hardly matter as the real complications of the medieval Catholic metaphysical landscape juddered its way into the unfocusable picture.

The recounting of early childhood memories, some a half-century old, is, at best, metaphoric reconstruction, veracity no longer, if ever, an issue. My oldest memories, like all my memories, are still images that slowly shift into motion: a point of chin, the shadow of jaw line, and there the mouth out of which came a language spoken softly songlike, from a distant other place - not here, not this place, not Philadelphia. Finally the face, a beautiful face; a young woman's face and I watched, the sound from her moving mouth, each word wrapped in unbearably lovely music. Then I am the small boy sitting in her lap, leaning back into her, the notes awash around my lucky head. The language of my grandparents spoken like I'd never heard it, and my head resting comfortably on this young woman's breast. This flood of natural beauty is too much to not be remembered, and far too beautiful to ever be denied. I was lolling in blinding sensuality long before the message became a rising distraction.

The best I can say is that I believe this happened. A young woman from Sligo, a cousin or family friend to some degree or other. I never knew her name, never saw her again, couldn't possibly track her down to share these notes, and tell her that, yes, she is not only a primary memory but a fundamental influence in my life. Sex and language, such exquisite misery. And I was only three or four, listening to a woman speaking in a gently measured brogue. I was gone.


Omniscience and ubiquity are tough concepts for humans to wrangle. For children, virtually impossible without placing them squarely within a heavily wired Stalag construct, where there are rules, lots of rules, but really, there is only one rule and that's Rule #1:

You are never alone!


If you understand, heartily, Rule #1, obeying all other rules is easy.

This particular form of tyranny is fundamental to control, effective, though only to a point. But at six years of age this divine insinuation actually works quite well. There is, at six, still the ability to believe in rightness and wrongness, blackness and whiteness, to experience the fundamental joy of being a member of the alarmingly correct and blindly trusted side of every and all conceivable issues. At six you are offered the world. (Later, we would learn that Jesus more or less said that if anyone offers the world you'd better be careful, because the tout may very well be the devil. But that wasn't until much later).

"I am being watched," seems comforting and safe, a sacred grace of ultimate nurture. No one can get me because God's my ever-present pal. He watches over me, covers my back, sees sinful danger coming and gives me the moral heads-up, is there, always there, beside me in the dark when I can't fall easily into sleep. It all seemed like all-win, even that low constant hum - the breathing of God keeping a close watch. These duties were assigned, by some, to guardian angels, but I knew that the team of angels was purely second-string, a lame concession to those who looked faithlessly at numbers, doubting that God alone could cover the planet with such precise and individualized attention. Since I never doubted the power of God, I was never distracted by the collective of angels. I always and only had God. I believed that He could do it all, without the least distraction. I was six and He was God, and there were no other gods before him. And God's a pretty good buddy to have when you're six. Almost as good as a warm, goofy dog.

As the interminably slow years piled on and life fleshed out a bit, this profound lack of privacy, this shared oneness with the scorekeeper/umpire, became less comforting with each passing day. Sometimes I just wanted to be alone, to work things out, to take a little break from all this attention. But as long as buddy God was peeking, the 'fair play' field was clearly lined, even while my pops off into foul territory were on the increase.

As the future - which precluded the possibility of an unfettered moment, an unobserved, non-graded thought - came better into view I began to see the long, long row of it disappearing into and beyond the pale, nebulous horizon, where 'alone' became 'almost alone,' and necessarily meant spending time, all time, in the company and all-ever-ness of this capital Gee God, who knew my name, my every thought, my every little action, and who had, within his infinite range of abilities, a compulsive knack for keeping individual stats. So, alone with God was as close as one could possibly get to ever having a truly private moment. This comfort developed an edge. There was no way around the inevitability of everything being known. God was in my head and already knew it, was already seeing exactly what I was seeing, knowing exactly what I was thinking. And to boot, He was writing it all down in a book. The God of my youth was a security system with mind-altering implants placed without so much as a cut and the telltale closing stitches. I was bugged and knew it, which made giving the 'right' answer to every and all questions not only a duty, but, more often, a troubling human dilemma. After the first couple slaps to the side of the head I learned fast that honesty was more an act of measured diplomacy than an accurate presentation of my very personal point of view on matters.

I eventually came to the realization that the laws of Heaven and the laws of Earth were not necessarily in overlapping agreement. There were sins against God and sins against man, and, of course, sins against man's interpretation of the sins against God, which all meant that, one way or the other, some form of pain was going to visit me, no matter which law I chose to break or obey. To a thoughtful child alone with God, this sort of paradox was indicative of the slowly evolving picture, one that included a growing list of 'why(s)' to be asked, as elements of life in this world, under a constant, withering fire from the next, came more into focus and collision. 'Just because' was often the answer, but for me it was not quite enough. And after too many flagrant wavings of the 'just because' flag, I realized that it was a reflexive side step, but, in some odd way, the very basis of grown-up faith. If it was not easy to answer then adults let out a 'just because,' often accompanied by 'that's the way God made it,' or 'that's what Jesus said.' Never a direct answer; never "I've got no clue!" So I was left to dream my imperfect dream that one day it would all make sense, that somehow my youth and utter lack of holiness was only a temporary obstacle to receiving answers to my growing list of questions.

'All in good Time' became a postscript to 'just because,' and I really had no choice but to buy it, a thoroughly packaged box of Hope.

As the weeks and months piled on, it became more apparent that there was really no good that could ever come of this 'alone together with God' forced duet. It was an impossible spiritual trap that inevitably led to, in the best case, a long stretch of sweat-time working off the scattershot stains of small sins - the venials - at the fringes of hell in a place called Purgatory. No one had ever seen it, nor could anyone provide a picture of a normal day-in-the-life there, but I was convinced it was absolutely there, a nasty place where the pain meted out was comparable to Hell, the only differences being the clock on the wall and, somewhere, an exit leading topside. The all-consuming darkness of one big sin - a mortal - was considerably more serious business; it was the guarantee of eternity in the darkly twisted labyrinths of Hell, where all doors only open in, perpetually. The line between the mere shred of hope and the eternity of hopelessness was maddeningly blurred, and no one seemed able to convincingly bring it into focus. Salvation depended on comprehending the meaning of terms such as intent, grievous offense, forever, and love. I struggled mightily with these concepts, this fugitive language, always on the run from understanding. I concluded that I was flawed, despite the accumulations of soul-saving sacraments.

What was known though was that, short of dying in a confessional after the slate-clearing wave of shadowy hand, going straight to Heaven upon death was such an astronomical long shot that the question of where my soul would journey when finally the body quit - which can come at any time, mind you, even walking to school (Don't Forget!) - was always one of degrees of pain, not the unimaginable joy of a diaphanous float into the misty folds of Heaven. Heaven was gated, and as such, could only be entered much later, after a re-tempering stretch in the crucible of Purgatory.

Finally, in a confessional, on the clicking heels of another Saturday afternoon absolution, I thought, "If the church collapses now and kills me, I'll go directly to heaven, because I've just received absolution, and I haven't thought once of the pharmacist's daughter, the one with the nice …."

And that was it. The weird flame of total absurdity flared brightly.

Hopelessness as a damp, warm condition as opposed to a dry, chilling concept was divinely revealed at that moment. All projections of this path inexorably ended in hell, pure and unpleasantly simple. Free will? Forget it. How free can one be living with a hair-trigger imagination, and the staggeringly high probability that death would occur moments after absolution, after the mind had already popped back into foul territory? There was absolutely no way to win in this park. The game was not just rigged, it was hopelessly rigged, and there was an eternity of difference between the two. There was no reasonable umpire with a reasonable book of rules, no scorekeeper who would reasonably give credit where credit was due, no reasonable expectation of stumbling into an acceptable eternity.

Death and damnation had command of the high ground, and there was no sense in believing that escape was possible. The white noise of anxiety was a persistent dry-bearing grind, not so much consciously noticed as constantly wearing. There didn't seem to be a way of actually shaking it off, no imagined venue where the world could possibly not be just like this, like it is right now, with, jesus christ, that God on my tail. And the point of it all seemed pretty clear: to be declared a mighty loser, then to be sentenced to an eternity of misery, where 'time served' would never be a consideration, since eternity doesn't know time from shinola. A rock, an incline and a perpetuity of pushing seemed like a suitable sidebar of heaven compared to the hell that I was made to imagine I was heading for.

'Seeing the light' doesn't necessarily mean that enlightened action can or will be taken. The only sensible thing to do when confronted with a lifetime slide into loopy paradox and 'bottomless perdition' was to say very simply that this odd model of explaining the universe and my place in it - which included a one-shot run at the planet and a very nasty retribution clause - was not really going to ever work for me, and that a walk-away was the only appropriate response. A good healthy plan with only one glitch: I was thirteen years old, with four long years in a Catholic high school formidably looming. There they had priests. And they punched. School, up to this point had not been good, and to imagine that it would get worse was just being realistic.


Every age and level of understanding should receive appropriate treatment. Therefore, as often as boys and the young, or those who cannot understand the seriousness of the penalty of excommunication, are guilty of misdeeds, they should be subjected to severe fasts or checked with sharp strokes so that they may be healed. —Chapter 30. The Manner of Reproving Boys (The Rule of St Benedict)

Considerations of immorality become less urgent when you are running for your life. The instinct to extend the present - to keep the heart beating - has first rights of control over the entire system; eternity and soul came eons after hypothalamus. Trying to save one's life is a reflex; trying to save a soul, an addendum. To override the limbic imperative requires intensive practice. Running into a burning building, once, to save a life is admirable. Doing it for a living is something else altogether.

My childhood, like most childhoods, was not a pastoral rush from a farmhouse door into the sloppy-tongued licks of a faithful dog who tail-waggingly guided me down the prickly paths of this perilous world to the land of well-ordered outcomes in places with barns and open spaces. Timmy didn't live in Philadelphia, where the only thing in barns were trolleys and, somewhere, police horses. Although I didn't know any children who led lives that could be mistaken for his, I believed that somewhere there had to be, must be some who did. Why I wasn't one of them was something only God, in His unfathomable wisdom, knew. I was led to believe that His plan for me, which I was not yet privy to, would be made clear, rest assured, sometime in the future, after much and more spiritual work and, of course, interminable stretches of penance.

Before Timmy had joined the Lassie family my life as a serious penitent had already begun in early September '56, the mid-Ike, pre-mandatory kindergarten days of light and hope. I'd just turned six and quickly learned that, besides being a simple celebration of the ennobled worker, Labor Day was mostly punctuation, a sinister exclamation of inevitable defeat. If Labor Day had a voice it would be a dark-broomed cackle. Aside from being the agreed end to what was always a hot summer in Philadelphia, that particular Monday was more than just another holiday when young fathers on front stoops, with radioed baseball drifting through the screen-summered windows, drank beer as if it were Sunday. It marked the following day, by far the shortest Tuesday of my life, as the last full day of independence before I, too, had to join the annual migration of children who were cleared from the streets and driven by law in flocks - like flight-feared goonies from August Midway Island - from ball fields and cool alleys into the dark halls of darker schools, where adults would try to break our spirit under the pretense of saving it. Being forced south with passing birds would have been less cruel and probably - as I saw it then and now still do - much more instructive.

On that long-ago brief Tuesday I had more than an inkling that I was about to be dragged into what would be the worst of all times, the real epoch of incredulity, the season of Darkness in which, I quickly concluded, there wasn't the least speck of Light anywhere in the collapsing honeycomb of darkening tunnels that was set to swallow me completely up. If I'd been a sailor on that last unleashed day of childhood I would have 'spliced the main brace' and offered up my arm for tattooing. Semper Futilitas comes to mind.

I have no blinding recollection of any particular event of that final pre-school day: no piece of furniture ominously lit by knife-edged shafts of setting sunlight, no horrible injury portending disaster, no screeching night birds or rattling visions of infants teetering at the edge of open wells, on the verge of imminent tumble into the dark bowels of earth. All that remains after all these years is a nebulously nagging memory of amorphous fear, and the knowledge that I didn't want to go to any school at any time, and especially the one I was told I must attend the next day. Nothing could have prepared me for that inevitable 'underway.'

My father, third-shift dispatcher for a trucking company in Manayunk, a steep section of Philadelphia that hugs the smudged Schuykill, rushed home from work in time to deliver me, nearly late, the first day to school. I'm sure we talked on the two-block ride between our row house on Weaver Street and what was to become my weekday lockdown, but whatever we discussed is lost to me now. I feel certain I tried to talk him out of stopping at the school, reasoning that a drive somewhere, anywhere, was ultimately saner than handing me over, willy-nilly, to strangers. But nothing I said was going to change the face of this day, this unavoidable commencement of the appointed rounds, the first station of the dragging of my personalized cross.

My final desperate act was a silent, unrehearsed plea to God to, please, hurry and send my real parents, the imperial ones, who had somehow, by mistake of course, misplaced me with this growing pack of Irish Catholic primitives. I begged that this loving couple would arrive in time to take me away to a place where I could have my own dog instead of living in a growing pile of barking siblings. Deus ex machina. Surely there had to be someone who would demand that I would not, could not possibly be forced to walk into a school on such a glorious day. But God had other plans for me, and the 'machine,' again, fell dumb.

I can still hear my father saying, "It'll be okay," as we parked on the street and walked into the unfenced yard of St Raymond's, a place that, up until that moment, had not been a threat. From that moment on it, as well as the other two schools I was forced to attend before final release from the system in 1968, would never be anything else. I was reluctantly led into a passion play of abject, weeping children, pleading with their respective parents, and anyone else who might hear and take pity, to surrender them another day, another year, another life, just not today, not us, please! This was my first experience of herd, the initial fearsome tapping of the deeply collective animal emotion that lies at the center of stampede. It would not be my last.

As the thick school door shut behind me, muffling, as well as terminating, the former known world, I realized that I'd been betrayed. My father, who I'd assumed for six years to be a loving parent, was a person I'd trusted more than any god or human, even when he smacked me around and I didn't like him much. He was, after all, my father. But he'd just handed me over to a tall, strange woman who, top to toes, was wrapped in black with pristine white facial extensions that gave her overall shape a blunted, blessed bullet-ness, as if she could easily be shot from a cannon and live to do it again tomorrow, the day after too, et in saecula saeculorum. She smiled. I didn't. My hand, held firmly in my father's, was somehow forced into hers, and I was led away like a lamb up the chute.

At the end of my first day - a day I viscerally realize the true meaning of public humiliation when I broke into tears as I was dragged away from my father by a person who smelled of pressed cotton and early September sweat — I realized that nothing was ever going to be the same again, and that this fundamental change, despite what anyone said, was not going to be for the better. It was, without a doubt, the end of innocence, although at the time I was oblivious to just how final things had actually become. Thankfully, it was impossible to envision the agonizingly long-term implications of this pressgang deliverance while standing in such small shoes, wanting very badly to suck my thumb. The pain of the moment was acute enough; a future full of the same was impossible to imagine.

As I was forced into this new routine it quickly became apparent that school was a burden I would have to bear, like polio or clubfoot. Although they were agents of the Lord, the clergy at school presented God as an adult, one who, yes, loved children, flowers, puppy dogs and the poor, but if, and only if, they all obeyed Him. And ultimate obeisance meant obeying the adults, who, without the least shred of doubt, knew what God needed everyone to do in order to spend eternity in His grace. Although I tried hard to do what I was told, I seemed to harbor an aberrant seed of resistance, as I began to suspect that the primary job of the wardens of school seemed to be to build and maintain a mighty buffer zone around my God. So, I reasoned, the only way to re-establish cloudless contact was to try my best to avoid attending school. Nearly every morning throughout first grade I told my mother I was sick. I tried everything, including guzzling hot tap water, after which I'd cajole my mother into taking my temperature. Though the hot water trick never worked, still I tried, assuming it was only a matter of time and timing, that one day I would get it right, and retake control of my small life from all the large adults who'd managed to botch it.

First grade wasn't a complete loss. A three-day mid-winter stint in Nazareth Hospital to have my tonsils and adenoids removed presented me with life's first high, as I was carried piggyback into pre-op by a young female nurse who comfortably placed me on a table before I was borne on an unforgettable, though brief, etherized float into a geometrically cart-wheeling wonderland, running up, up and up some more and then over the quivering edge into immemorial darkness, clear as a bell from here - including the voice and feel of the nurse - right up to the blackout. That the darkness was only broken much later when I awoke vomiting blood into a kidney-shaped, stainless steel pan, didn't ruin my enthusiasm for the buzz. At six, for better or worse, I'd been given an ephemeral glimpse of the unearthly, and it was duly noted. The promise of ice cream to soothe the aching throat as soon as the heaving stopped made the memory of ether even better. This particular feat of childhood bravery was rewarded with a Johnny Lattner football helmet and several more missed school days while recuperating at home.

And then there were the times with my aunt, an attractive, single woman with a black 51 Chevy, who, between a full-time job, Sodality meetings, seasonal novenas and, of course, daily Mass, always presented me with the possibility of escape: once to a circus where I spoke with a woman encased in an iron lung who was smoking a cigarette through the hands of a young man who hovered in a haze at her seemingly disembodied head; and another, a trip to Jersey City where a riverboat up the Hudson took us to the military academy at West Point where a passing cadet, polite and chiseled tall, took our photo together in front of Thayer Hall. That she was exceptional was never in question.

But school and my resistance to it filled most of my plate, as I struggled to understand why I was made, learned the secrets of counting and somehow managed to 'push 'n pull' my way through the cursive alphabet with a sharp eye always focused on June. But God wasn't quite finished with me and first grade yet.


Those who sin should be reprimanded in the presence of all, that the rest may fear. —(1 Tim 5:20)

In the spring of '57, under the deputized eyes of two female classmates who'd been given command of the class while our teacher was at church overseeing a First Communion practice, I was judged to have broken the strict silence rule. If a mouth uttered a sound other than the blessing of the hour, the offender's name was to be written on the blackboard, and he (always 'he') was sent to the principal's office. When I heard one of the uniformed girls say, "How do you spell Gourley?" my quiet heart exploded in my chest. I was innocent, that I knew, and I protested. But verbal objection constituted speech, and speech of any form, including righteous denial, was a violation of the no-talk decree. Snared again by the traps of tyranny, I was now guilty for sure. The principal, a hardened nut of a nun, shared some woodshed relationship with someone on my mother's side, though the string was weak and distant, stretching back across the foggy Atlantic. It hardly mattered though, since kinship couldn't stay her veiny hand or the rubber-tipped wooden pointer she used to suppress the minor rebellions of small children. As I shuffled down the corridor I envisioned the end of my life and the hell that surely awaited on the far side of the veil. I entered the office and into the company of three other boys who were quietly sitting on the twin benches that led to the door of the inner inner-sanctum. I took a spot next to a kid named Stephen, who whispered that the principal was also at Communion practice, which meant she would deal with us later, as we, the guilty, kneeled in front of the entire class, while she beat us, concentrating her open-hand slaps to the head, and the pointer to the back of the thighs and buttocks.

That this was my immediate future was just plain wrong. This much I knew as, I was sure, God did too. Beyond the fuzz of adult twists of logic and the Divine Right of Principals, I knew that I was holding some high ground that I just couldn't quite express, and that whatever reason the proxy nun of a classmate had given for my banishment from the fold was mistaken. I also knew that there were never negotiations; innocence was not a possibility. Appearance on the bench simply meant you were guilty, despite the fact that the judge and jury was also only six and also greatly struggled with spelling, short division and the neat-as-a-pin presentation of the written language.

Innocence and passion flamed into outrage and a half-baked plan of escape. There were no adults in the quiet office, just four unnaturally silent boys sitting on a bench awaiting flogging. After stating my innocence and being warned to keep quiet by another of the boys, I suggested that we run away from school.

Stunned silence, as if I'd just confessed to the murder of infants.

So I repeated my proposal, but, again, received the same blank response.

"I'm getting out of here," I finally said as I crossed the room and small-handed my way past the heavy office door, walked quietly, though directly, down the long, shadowed hallway, and out the door into head-on sunshine. Straight and alone I made my way across the empty schoolyard and escaped unnoticed into the alley that ran southeast towards home. When I appeared in my mother's kitchen a full hour-and-a-half before lunch I said, "I'm sick. They sent me home," and by then I really was sick, knowing the intensity of the storm that was quietly brewing over my once innocent head.

"In my stomach," I lied when my mother asked where. The remedy could only have been Milk of Magnesia (one spoon antacid, two spoons laxative), and once I'd gagged down a pair of large tablespoons I knew I was free from school for the rest of the day. I also knew that my thin thread of a tale would soon unravel like my bowels. But I was home in bed in pre-eruptive safety, briefly beyond the reach of unbalanced adult punishment. My father, working days at a new job, wouldn't be home until 6 o'clock.

It is difficult to understand the mechanics of resurrected events - how one thing led to another, why a person acted one way and someone else didn't - but the way this one unfolded was unusual, with an ending even Timmy couldn't have banked on. My sister, a year older, had come home for lunch, and somehow didn't learn that I was upstairs in bed. Returning to school she was summoned to the principal's office and asked if she knew where her brother was. She did not. She was told to go back home and inform her mother that her mother's eldest son, the first-grader, was lost, and that the safety patrol, fearlessly tall 8th graders from the mysterious second floor, had been pressed into action scouring the neighborhood, and that the police, as well, had been informed. All of this without a phone call to my mother. My sister, assuming tragedy, rushed home to spill the story of hapless Jimmy adrift in the bricked sea of West Oak Lane. I can still hear her desolate sobs and the subsequent hurried footfalls on the 13 stairs that led to my former refuge on the second floor.

Calls were made, and my sister returned to school. My father had been notified, and that boom had been set in motion. Between sprints to the bathroom I pled my case to my mother, and somehow she was able, after my father returned from work, to stay his quick hand. She must have recognized both my fear and indignation, and made the decision to, at the very least, present my cause. 'Presentation' is not 'championing,' and I'm sure that her explanation was littered with, "That's what he said," to both my father and the inquisitive principal. To my mother, Catholic to the marrow, celibate nuns were a notch higher on the sainthood stick than a secular woman with a swelling litter of pups. To have questioned the wisdom of actions not taken, questions not asked, phone calls not made, bordered on the heretical.

The following day in the schoolyard I was the only student without a school bag, the freak whom everyone from that moment forward knew as the "kid who ran away." Although I felt unarmed as I drifted into the jaws of school, possibly still guilty of a crime, I was not as afraid as before. I'd been warned that negotiations between home and the principal had been inconclusive, and I'd just have to go to school to see what happened next. But I felt that they could do anything to me, because I'd already had my say, had spoken in the only language that I was able to get them to hear. They could make me a public spectacle and I'd take it. And if they asked again I'd tell them, "I didn't do anything wrong," which only recently had become my mantra.

Classmates viewed me oddly, my teacher, a young nun who was really quite nice, said something that from here I can't recall. Later the principal came to the class and lectured on the evils of unauthorized exits, though she didn't single me out and whirled away without raising anything but her voice. Essentially, nothing more happened. Booklessly bagless I'd re-entered their world, the one I'd thoroughly rejected a long day ago, and somehow nothing happened. God had, no doubt, elbowed in, shined His light into the shadowed minds of all the benighted adults, and miraculously they'd all seen they were wrong. Better than a Timmy ending any day. I even thought that they, perhaps, might have to do penance.

I still hadn't yet realized that adults had elaborate strategies for redefining sin. When the prime directive is to trail the flock to greener pastures farther on, doggin' stragglers to keep the herd tight is the job. That the dogs come away tonguing bits of wool and, sometimes, flesh and blood, is the price sheep pay for needing so much tending to survive. I was slowly, very slowly learning that all dogs were not Lassie. To think that I had actually won was an early sign of either madness or unbridled hope in the good sense of God. It's hard to tell the difference, even from this distance.

Wobbling home the final day - arms full of books we'd been required to buy - for a reason that isn't clear to me now, I walked home down Williams Avenue rather than the customary Forest. In the mid-afternoon sun I watched as Danny Cavanaugh, an older kid from the next block - known by neighborhood parents as a serious load to bear and by the rest of us as someone admirably, wildly and, at times, violently a pip out of plumb - nonchalantly threw all of his books down the sewer, then continued on his lone way as if nothing punishable had happened. I watched from across the crowned expanse of the June-hot street - where once as a toddler I wandered naked and stopped traffic, just like a cop - struggling with the bookish weight of the year, and unsure of how to respond to what I'd just seen. He was alone and unaware that I could see him, though, in fact, he didn't care if anyone could. This tossing off of school was not done for any effect. It was loathing to the core, pure and simple. That later, inevitably, he would experience a good deal of pain at the hands of his father was not restraint enough to keep the books from being offered up to, eventually, the strange currents of the Schuykill.

I couldn't imagine arriving home without my books, which I knew would be boxed in the basement in hopes of being reused by younger siblings, an economic duty which I was obliged to keep. So I continued the slow struggle toward home, carrying the books as well as the image of Danny Cavanaugh, arms swinging free, as he walked unburdened into customized legend.


(1) "To God, the joy of my youth." In the Latin Mass this is the first response of altar boys after the initial priestly prodding of Introibo ad altare Dei: "I will go to the altar of God."


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