Holy Communion is many things: a good story about a young boy, a brilliant treatise on the boy from the point of view of a man — and with that man, we share the voice of the boy, with such spark of life in him! The book is also a seething indictment of the Catholic church — or any religion, for that matter — that fosters or tolerates such acting out of hatred towards children and especially little boys — in today’s times, such abuse. It directs our focus to the brain-washing done by the Catholic church regarding sin, women, and hell, among other things.
This little boy didn’t need someone to control him, as the Church tried to do; he needed someone to guide him, and to love him. Author Mykola Dementiuk makes us love him. He found his own way, that little boy! We can’t help but love him.
As far as the women in this book, the boy’s mother is loving, as is his godmother, and there are a few nice nuns, but at least one nasty Sister, that’s for sure. Sadistic sisters baby-sit and take advantage of the boy’s tender age for their own personal satisfaction and perhaps vendetta against other males of the family circle.
The boy’s father, an obvious alcoholic, plays a major role in the boy’s life, and we almost grow to hate him. There’s also a comic book store guy, who sees the boy’s loneliness and aching to be accepted, and who puts his own needs ahead of anything the boy might want or need, except for a little yellow earth-moving tractor.
Yes, this boy is used and abused and tossed around, but he finds a way to rise up above it all. The city provides the boy’s one source of pleasure and satisfaction (if you don’t count his hard penis), and it is here, on the streets, that his self-esteem grows to where he rebels, and he defies the authority of the adults in his life. And the Catholic church.
Heresy, for sure.
Sally Miller, Editor and Publisher Synergy Press September 2008
SCREAMS STIRRED HIM. He listened and drifted. The screams sounded again, louder, closer, piercing and brutal, drilling angrily into his ears. He poised tensely, prepared to flee, then drifted again, the screams subsiding and settling into a logical niche in his dreams. Suddenly he slid down and cried out and scrambled to the head of the bed. Again it had happened, and the fear and shame swept over him. He squinted at the light and rubbed one eye. His mother was tugging the sheet off the bed as his father watched in disgust. The mattress was wet.
“How long is this pissing in bed going to last?” his father shouted. “He’s seven years old and still acts like a baby!”
The boy cowered at the head of the bed as the sheet slid out from under him. His wet underpants had been pulled off in his sleep, and he crouched on the bare chafing mattress, looking at his father.
“I thought you said his bedwetting was over?”
His mother pulled the wet sheet off the bed but did not look at her husband. “You know he had a bad cold last winter,” she said, her voice tired, reproachful.
She was a small woman in the later months of pregnancy. She moved slowly and carefully, one knee on the mattress, one hand holding her stomach as she bent over the bed and spread a wrinkled plastic sheet atop the damp part of the mattress. She looked at the boy and gestured for him to get off the bed. He quickly climbed down and stood next to a wobbly twisted-legged chair in the corner of the room, his head lowered, his hands covering his crotch.
“It’s been months and months since he had that cold,” his exasperated father said, lighting a cigarette and snorting the smoke out his flared nostrils.
His mother unfolded a fresh clean sheet and billowed it over the bed. For a moment the sheet hovered in the air, then gracefully eased down to the plastic-covered mattress. “It was a bad cold,” she said quietly, as if to herself, then tucked in the corner of the linen, smoothing the center.
The boy leaned against the tilted chair. He had heard the story of his cold over and over — it was always repeated at times such as this. Somehow he had gotten a chill during the winter that he was unable to get rid of and was taken to a doctor who confirmed that it indeed was a bad chill, but who then shrugged and said the bedwetting was incidental to the cold, just one of those childhood things, and to drink less liquids before bedtime and that both, the cold and the bedwetting, would soon pass.
So through the winter the boy continued to sniffle and cough and wet his bed once or twice a week, but by the spring not only won over the rankling cold but also began to sleep more and more through the nights undisturbed, awakening guiltless and rested in a warm dry bed.
His mother even went so far as to one day remove the protective plastic covering from the mattress, trusting he could now hold it in and assuring him he had grown into a good big boy. “You’re my little man,” she gleamed, burying the crackling plastic deep in a cabinet drawer.
But in the past week, the plastic sheet not only came out of the cabinet as a reminder, but his father suggested bringing out the diapers, since once again the boy had lost control, this time not in bed, but at his desk in school.
Yet he had asked, he had pleaded, he had raised his hand and was told, No, you cannot leave the room. Put your hand down and stop disrupting the class, so he clenched his thighs and shook his legs and weaved back and forth, till he grimaced and 13 cried and peed in his pants just at the moment a stern old priest, the school religion teacher, was entering the classroom to instruct the children on their upcoming first Holy Communion. The girl seated behind the boy screamed out, Pee-pee! Pee-pee!
“This can’t go on,” the boy’s father said. “He’s getting too big for this.” He puffed on his cigarette and paced the few steps from the foot of the boy’s bed to the open doorway, clouding the small room with cigarette smoke and mumbling to himself. He was a tall thin man who carried his tallness as if he had never gotten used to being tall, walking stooped over in a rounded hunch, which clearly made him appear older. His yellowish puffy face was tired looking, and the corners of his eyes were creased in a permanent squint as if from sensitivity to light or from constant worry.
Somewhere in his preoccupied gaze there seemed to be a memory he was either trying to recall or frantically dispel. He rubbed his bristled cheek and again raised the cigarette to his mouth. A long gray ash fell to the floor. “Shit!” he said, and ground the ash into the linoleum with his bare foot.
“Go on, get out of here with that cigarette,” said the boy’s mother, coughing and waving her hand in the air to dispel the fumes.
The boy looked up at the swirling blue wispy smoke as it weaved into shimmering curlicues and drifted towards the light.
“And anyway, why were you checking his bed?” she asked.
The man glared at his wife. The boy leaned back on the chair; one side of the twisted-legged chair tilted and struck the side of the cabinet.
“Ach, the hell with you both!” the man cursed, and grabbed his head, then waved his hand in disgust and stalked from the room, breaking the smoke into desperate chaotic patterns as it chased and circled after him.
The boy’s mother looked at the boy and sadly shook her finger. But it was a halfhearted gesture, more an expression of disappointment than chastisement. He blushed and lowered his head. She handed him fresh underclothes, and he quickly dressed and lay on the dry sheet as his mother covered him with a thin blanket, then turned out the light and left the room.
The boy lay on the bed, the plastic crinkling accusingly beneath him, and listened to his father prepare for work. There was much grunting and farting and cursing, but the boy’s mother kept silent throughout the man’s ritualistic morning tirade. It was always the same one-sided argument: why is the shirt so dirty? why are the boots so soiled? where did you put my work gloves?
The boy turned on his side and stared at the shade-drawn window next to his bed. A gray morning mist peeped teasingly about the edges of the shade and the boy soon drifted back to sleep. When he next awoke it was already daylight and his father had departed for work long before.
“C’mon, c’mon, sleepy head!” his mother said, shaking his leg and slipping a sock on his foot. “Time to get up.”
The boy curled his toes and darted his foot away, but his mother caught the foot and quickly succeeded in hoisting the sock up to his ankle — it was a ritual they performed every morning.
“C’mon, c’mon,” she smiled, tugging the blanket off, “you don’t want to be late for the class trip, do you?”
The boy tensed and wanted to cry. He buried his head in the pillow and ground his pelvis into the crinkly mattress.
Just yesterday, at the end of the school day, after the children had put on their jackets and stood at their desks ready to leave for home, the nun reminded them not to forget their movie 15 money, then called the boy’s name and announced he was not welcome on the class trip because not only had he disrupted and shamed the class by his disgusting pants-wetting, but he had also hit the little girl behind him so hard that she toppled from her seat and hurt her ankle; how could he be trusted to go on a class trip and not embarrass the school in public? Then she called another boy’s name and berated him for fighting in the bathroom that morning and announced that he, too, was not welcome on the trip. No, it was best the two boys stay at home and study their catechisms and perhaps Jesus would forgive them. The boy had said nothing at home.
“C’mon, c’mon,” the woman repeated, pulling him up by the arm and wiping his face with a damp cloth.
The room came into focus and the boy looked at his smiling mother. The bedwetting incident of only a few hours ago had not only been forgotten but also forgiven.
“Get up,” she gestured, and left the room.
The boy tugged at his sleep-stiff penis and positioned it against his belly, then rose from bed and shuffled past his mother in the kitchen and entered the bathroom. He lowered his underwear and sat down on the toilet seat, his softening penis dangling between his thighs. A thin trickle of urine hissed onto the gray porcelain above the waterline and streamed into the bowl. He propped his elbows on his knees and rested his chin in his palms and strained; a few more drops quietly dribbled into the bowl. It felt good to be sitting and peeing. In the boy’s room at school he always felt awkward as he stood at the open urinals with the other boys and vied to splash up the loudest water in the narrow bowls but ended up scowling and aiming around the sides of the bowl while the other boys argued and peed and insisted theirs was the loudest.
“C’mon, it’s getting late!” his mother called from the kitchen. “Stop taking so long!”
The boy pulled up his shorts, flushed the toilet, and joined his mother in the kitchen. He sat and ate his cereal and drank a few sips of the woman’s tepid coffee which she always let him have. His mother handed him a pair of pants she had just ironed, and as he was pulling them on, gave him a dollar for the movie and a quarter for candy.
“Put this in your pocket,” she said, “and make sure you give the dollar to Sister as soon as you get to class.”
The boy frowned and looked away from his mother, slipping the bill and coin into his pants pocket. Suddenly he brightened. If he had the money for the trip, the nun would have to let him go. Yes, it would be all right then. He would give her the money and she would take it and he would join his classmates and he wouldn’t make in his pants and he wouldn’t hit anyone and everything would be all right.
He finished dressing and returned to the kitchen. His mother straightened his tie, handed him a sandwich in a paper bag along with his jacket, and opened the front door. She bent her head and he craned up to kiss her cheek.
She gazed apprehensively at him. Though he was now in the second grade and old enough to walk the three blocks to school unescorted, he was her only child — she had miscarried twice — and she was always anxious about parting from him and letting him go off on his own.
On his first day at kindergarten, which the boy had been dreading from the moment he realized his mother was hinting about separating from him, he became hysterical and screamed, cried and clung to his mother’s dress as desperately as she clung to him. After similar attempts to bring him to class on other days, the exasperated nuns and priests agreed he was not ready for school, but sternly counseled the woman to let the boy spend more time with other children so he would adapt and not be afraid of them.
The woman agreed, Yes, yes, but he’s never been like this, he likes other children, and she bustled the sobbing boy away from the kindergarten class where some of the frightened gaping children, not convinced of the reasons for their own separation from their mothers, were also beginning to wail and demand to be taken home. He succeeded in staying out of kindergarten that year.
The rest of the school year the boy, as he had always done, remained with his mother during the day; and after she left for work, stayed with his father during the evenings. Sometimes when his father was late in coming home, he would be taken to his godmother’s house and be looked after by her two daughters; but he didn’t always like it there and wished he were back home, in his room, where he could sit on his bed and stare out at the silent backyard his window faced.
There wasn’t much to look at — tenements across the way, wooden fences separating garbage-strewn building yards, clotheslines strung from windows to utility poles — but there was one skinny tree which seemed to have suddenly appeared as if stuck into the ground by an irate passerby, one of those indomitable city trees which poke out of the ground and take hold of the smallest bit of free soil and in the barest amount of time grow to staggering heights and foliage. The tree, which had first spouted as a scrawny, leafy stick the previous spring, now reached his window; and each day he inspected the slim but stiff branches for new buds and leaves and calculated its rapid growth. Soon it would tower over the window, and he wondered how high it could grow.
When the boy finally did start school, an entire year late, he was officially too old for kindergarten and was enrolled directly into the first grade. Somehow, as his mother watched with hands to her face, there was no fear or hesitancy on that first day. He walked stoically into the group of strange gawking children and did not turn to look at his mother sobbing behind him.
“Make sure you give Sister the dollar as soon as you get into class,” his mother called after him as he walked down the stairs and out of the apartment building.
It was a warm and sunny spring day and the street was crowded with people hurrying to work and children sauntering towards school. The boy folded his paper lunch bag and crammed it into his jacket pocket. He walked briskly and surely, darting his hand every now and then towards his pants pocket to check on his money; the paper bill and silver coin made him feel good and he was confident about joining his classmates on the trip. Once before, during Christmas season, the class had traveled uptown to see a holiday pageant at a big music hall, and the children were abuzz for days with talk of the trip. The boy felt the same excitement building and echoing in his classmates.
A block from school he spotted a boy waiting on the corner for the light to change. He slowed his pace; he hoped the other boy didn’t see him. After the nun’s dismissal yesterday the boys in his class, on the way home from school, jeered and baited and taunted him for not being allowed on the trip — somehow the other dismissed boy had slunk away unobserved.
“Make sure you study your catechism,” they laughed and made faces and bumped into him. “And don’t make any pee-pee!” someone jeered.
The boy had done all he could to keep from crying in front of them. He hurried home, jostled by the boys who went out of their own way home to tag after him, until he broke away and ran into his building and burst into solitary sobs, whimpering. It’s not fair! It’s not fair! as their laughing voices echoed from the street outside.
As the boy neared the corner he frowned when the waiting boy turned and waved, signaling for the boy to hurry up. The boy grimaced and slowed his pace to the corner.
“Ain’t you supposed to stay at home today?” the other boy finally said, looking him up and down.
The boy turned red and shrugged; he did not reply.
“Sister won’t let you come,” the other boy continued. “She said you were bad.”
The boy winced and wanted to run away. His eyes welled up, and he wished he could hit the other boy and scream that it was not true: he was not bad, he was good. He had a dollar, and if he gave it to Sister, she would like him and let him on the trip and he would be even better than the other children because the priest said that everyone is born with original sin and first Holy Communion would wipe out that sin forever. He wished communion were today.
“You’re stupid!” he spat out at the other boy, and darted across the street, leaving behind his startled classmate.
He trotted up the avenue, turned a corner, and ran past a few gate-shuttered stores, soon coming to the church where the children assembled each school day to hear morning mass. This was not only a preparatory exercise for the upcoming communion ceremony but also a mandatory requirement for the entire school. All grades attended mass at the start of each school day. Perhaps the nuns felt that any rebellious spiteful streak still lingering from the previous school day could be appeased by a good dosage of Holy Script; the older children in the upper grades thought otherwise, and the pews reserved for them were often sparsely filled.
The boy caught his breath and wiped his brow, then climbed the steep steps and entered the church, walking up the dark candle-flickering aisle and pushing his way into his alphabetically assigned seat at the front of the church.
Soon the pews filled with the rest of the students, and as an altar boy signaled the chimes, a priest entered from a side door, bowed before the altar, and began the morning mass. The boy mumbled the responses to the mass along with the other sleepy students and rose and knelt at the appropriate times, but all the while fingering the dollar and coin outlined in his pocket. What if the nun took the dollar and still refused to let him come? What if she took the quarter and gave it to the little girl?
Hadn’t his father always complained that the church and school kept demanding contributions for one thing or another and never gave anything in return? When the raffle sale ended, the candy drive began, and when that was over, donations for a dumb bazaar were being solicited. All they ever do is take and take, his father often whined, and for what?
The boy inserted his hand in his pocket and tightly clutched his money.
The mass came to an abrupt and welcome end; the children shuffled from their pews and marched the short distance around the corner to school. The boy tried to avoid looking at the nun. He had caught her eye during the mass when she walked up the aisle, but assumed that if she had not yanked him out of the pew as soon as she spotted him, she would allow him to remain with the class the rest of the day. He kept his hand in his pocket and couldn’t wait to give her the dollar!
In school the boy hung up his jacket and pushed out of the crowded cloakroom at the rear of the classroom. He sat down at his desk, ignoring the stares and whispers of the children about him. He had dismissed their earlier scrutiny of him on the walk from church and did not attempt to join in their talkativeness, knowing their incredulous exchange of looks with each other only silenced him and separated him further from them.
Still, it wasn’t fair, he kept thinking, staring down at his desk. If only the nun had kept him after the class and told him in private that he was to stay home, he could later lie to his classmates and say he got sick and couldn’t come and still maintain a sense of belonging. But their knowledge of his rejection and dismissal only made their accusatory stares and whispers all the more painful. He was bad. The nun had said so. They all knew it. He wasn’t supposed to be here.
The nun pushed open the door and entered the classroom, followed by a big girl who carried a large brown envelope under her arm. The children instantly hushed and scattered and dropped to their seats, their hands folded atop their desks, their wary eyes focused on the nun. She was a large woman whose distinctive and imposing black-garbed figure commanded deference and compliance with her authority. Her stern ascetic face, shrouded by a crisp white wimple, was meager of humor and caprice; her strict icy gaze, accentuated by the thick lenses of her steel-rimmed glasses balanced on her long blunt nose, dispelled any notion of warmth or affinity. She was rumored by the students to be the worst Sister in school, while her colleagues regarded her as a proper disciplinarian amidst heathenish ruffians.
She stood at her desk, sternly surveying the children, then snapped her fingers and gestured for the class to rise. After the ritualistic pledge to flag, to justice, to country — as half-spirited and uninspiring as the repetitive morning mass — the class resettled in their seats; the nun opened the attendance book and began to call the roll.
Though school would be over in a month or so, and she was by now familiar with the names and faces of the children, she still persisted in a daily chant of calling the roll and making an official tic in the book as each name was responded to. Present! She made a simple notation if a name went unanswered, often pausing at a particular name to scrutinize the cringing child who had misbehaved the previous day and still had the audacity to return to class. She nodded her head and notated some verbose comment next to the name as the guilty child sat and squirmed and racked his mind with feeble justifications and defensive accusations.
While the names were being called — in that strange Catholic alphabetical order in which the children sat at their desks, in total disregard of their body size, height, or vision problems — the big girl with the envelope moved from child to child and collected the movie money, inserting the wrinkled dollar bills into the large brown envelope. The boy held his hands in his lap, the dollar clutched in his fist, and swayed slightly back and forth.
Oh please, please, he prayed. Let me say, “Present!” Please!
The name of the child in front of him echoed in the quiet classroom.
“Present!” a little girl answered, and handed her dollar to the big girl.
The big girl inserted the dollar in her envelope and took a step towards the boy’s desk. Quickly his eyes skimmed down her face and settled on the large bosom in her blue school jumper. Though she was his godmother’s daughter and often looked after him on Friday nights, there was no hint of silent greeting or recognition on her face. She gazed at him aloofly, disinterested. He blushed, looked away from her bosom, and held out the dollar to her.
The name of the little girl seated behind him sounded in the quiet room.
The boy stared disbelieving at the nun and saw the children around him shift in their seats to look at him. He glanced up at the big girl and felt very cold, as if everything had become sharp and clear and distinct but he himself was dissolving, melding into mist, fragmented and opaque. He saw the big girl’s bosom move, and he focused on the school insignia patch sewn on the blue jumper just above her left breast. A tiny piece of loose thread peeped at the edge of the golden insignia. He lowered his head and looked at the plain block lettering on his tie. He knew he did not belong here.
“Present!” the voice of the little girl behind him replied.
The big girl looked up at the nun.
“Well?” the nun said gruffly. The girl glanced down at the boy, then shrugged and moved to the desk behind him.
The nun repeated the little girl’s name. The boy heard the rustling of the envelope open and close and the big girl moving farther away. He lowered his arm and clutched the dollar in his hand and stared at the grainy wood pattern on his desk; each line in the squiggling pattern stood out clear and distinct. As the nun continued the roll and the children behind him answered their presence, the boy seemed to inch further and further from his surroundings. It was as though he were sitting at his desk, yet able to observe himself and his classmates from a vast distance. The clear brittle sharpness that had suddenly seized the room dispelled any warmth of companionship or belonging. He shivered. His name had not been called; would he ever say, Present?
“Is there anyone whose name I haven’t called?” asked the nun, when she completed her roll and looked over the class.
The boy jerked his head up and felt a sudden stirring of hope as if everything were really okay. The big girl waited near the doorway to the class, clutching the money-filled envelope against her bosom. The boy raised his arm.
The nun looked at him. “And who are you?” she asked, shutting the roll book and inserting it in her desk.
The boy’s sudden hope and confidence flickered and he stammered his name. But his voice was faint and timid, distant and unsure, the familiar syllables of his name sounding alien and strange. Was it his name he had just mumbled?
The nun rose from her desk and spotted the big girl lingering by the door. “Take the envelope to the principal’s office,” she said sternly, and slammed her desk drawer.
The big girl glared at the nun, glanced at the boy, then scurried from the room, her heels echoing on the marble hall floor.
The nun looked at the boy and walked down the aisle to his desk. He stared at her moving towards him and he crumpled the dollar in his fist. He sat with his hands atop his desk, his mouth dry, unable to swallow. He felt afraid and wanted to cry. The nun stopped before his desk and snapped her fingers, motioning for him to rise. He looked up at her, then stood from his desk and stared at the silver crucifix dangling about her neck. Was it a sin to nail the little metal figure of Jesus to a metal cross?
The nun placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and turned him towards the back of the room. His legs shook as he walked hesitantly down the aisle, the nun prodding him from behind. When they reached the cloakroom, she gestured for him to open the door.
In desperation he held out the crumbled dollar bill his mother had given him. “My mother told me to give this to you for the movie,” he whimpered.
“Put that in your pocket!” the nun said. “You’re not going to any movie!”
He cringed and stared at the nun. The rejection he had been unwilling to believe and accept finally swept over him. He grew pale and disorientated, looking around as for comfort, his face twisted, tears beginning to stream down his cheeks.
Again he held out the dollar to the nun. “My mother . . .” he began, trying to push the dollar into her hand, but she slapped the side of his face and shoved him into the cloakroom.
“You were told to stay home!” she shouted, her fist now clenched and poised at her waist. “Put on your coat and get out of here!”
Her fist jerked out and struck the boy at the side of his neck. He clasped his throat and whimpered and clawed through the hanging garments, searching from coat to coat, his ear ringing, his hurt jaw pulsing. Finally, he spotted his jacket on a lower hook, covered by another child’s similar jacket. He reached for it just as the exasperated nun struck him in the shoulders and flung him into the slew of children’s coats. He jabbed the side of his face against an exposed clothes-hook and screamed in pain, grabbing his head, clawing his temple.
“Put on that jacket and get out of here!” the nun screamed, seizing his jacket and flinging it into his face.
The boy struggled with the garment and tried to stick his arm in a sleeve when the nun grabbed him by his hair and pulled him out of the cloakroom. His jacket flapped about him and he frantically clutched at her fingers on his head, but she jerked him from side to side and tugged him to the front of the room. He ran after her, screaming and crying, his arms flailing as the startled children gaped from their seats. The nun opened the classroom door and pulled the boy out. She let go of his hair and grabbed him beneath the jaw, her long fingers choking and squeezing the sides of his face.
“You put that jacket on, young man, and march right back home!” she screamed. “You were told yesterday not to come to school! You were dismissed!”
She jerked him away and let go of his face. His head snapped back. He tottered and skidded on the polished hall floor, but regained his footing and saw the nun turn and re-enter the classroom, slamming the door behind her. He felt a quick puff of air from the slammed door shoot across his face. He stood alone in the hall, disheveled and mussed, his jacket draped from one arm, his shirt-tails pulled from his pants, his hair standing in rigid peaks where the nun had pulled him.
He lifted his hand and wiped his eyes, wincing as the dollar bill he still clutched scratched his damp cheeks. He stared forlornly at the dollar and almost burst into fresh sobs, but shook his head and crammed the bill in his jacket pocket. He wiped his face and looked about him. The stark hallway was long and narrow, and behind the doors which lined the sides of the hall he imagined other children in other classes were sitting behind desks and studying lessons. He looked at the shut door of his own classroom and sighed. The bump he had received on his temple began to throb. He touched it and twinged in pain. Gently he caressed the burning sore spots on his head where the nun had pulled his hair, and smoothed the mussed strands of hair.
Nothing made any sense. What did he do wrong? He was not the only one in class who had made in his pants. Since the school year started two girls and another boy couldn’t hold it in, and they were not banned from the trip. It wasn’t fair. He was not the only one.
He sniffled and leaned against a wall across from his class. Down the corridor a hallway door opened, and the big girl who had collected the movie money came out of the stairwell carrying a bundle of papers. She saw the boy and stopped. He bolted upright and slipped his bare arm into his jacket. The girl walked slowly up the hall. She paused before a classroom door and gazed at the boy, then pushed open the door, entered the room, and softly shut the door behind her. He heard the door click and he shivered.
For a moment he wished she had come to him and asked what was wrong. Asked him why he was crying and why he stood there alone. Asked him why he was not allowed on the trip. Asked him what he had done that separated him from the other children. Asked him why he was so bad. But what answer could he give to the questions? How would talking about it help? How could she relate to his pain and hurt? Rejection was a solitary ritual; it could not be shared with others. One suffered alone. Tears were the only expression one could relate to.
Again he wiped his eyes, buttoned his jacket, and started down the hall. At the doorway to the stairwell he paused and looked back at his classroom. From down the hall, in another classroom, children chanted A-B-C. He grimaced and walked down a flight of stairs to the school building lobby.
He saw a young priest talking to a nun; the two looked at his rumpled appearance and at each other. The priest beckoned to him, but the boy scurried across the lobby and down a short flight of stairs, darting towards the open school door.
Sunlight streaked into his face. He squinted and struck his foot against a little wooden block holding the front door open, the door swinging shut behind him.
He quickly moved away from the school building and walked up the quiet street. He was frightened and confused. Where could he go? Home? And face the perplexed look of his mother and later the angry accusations of his father? No, home was as distant as the school; very near, but unapproachable.
He leaned against a parked car and looked down the street. To his left, the school building loomed forever uninviting and imposing; to his right, the busy avenue beckoned enticingly. He jerked upright off the car and started back down the street. The avenue had to be avoided. It contained shops and stores and people, and it was the people on the avenue he had to avoid, because amongst the people would be acquaintances of his mother and father and possibly even his mother herself. She would be out there shopping and strolling and talking with her friends, and he could not let her or anyone spot him.
He retraced his steps down the street, slinking past the shut school door and looking at a yellow school bus now parked alongside the curb, its shiny chrome gleaming, its engine idling, its open door avidly awaiting excited children. Since the children all lived within walking distance of the school, a ride on a yellow school bus was certainly an event out of the ordinary, and something to be anticipated and enjoyed.
The boy turned away from the bus. Suddenly the school door opened behind him, and a small group of screaming boys burst out of the building. They were startled by the boy and looked at each other, then darted around him, pointing their fingers and screaming and laughing.
“Nah, nah nah, nah, nah! You’re not going on the trip!”
Other boys from his class piled through the door and joined in the baiting and taunting. The boy began to cry and tried to push past them when the nun bounded out the school door and stepped into the melee, reaching for the boy.
He saw her, panicked, and burst through the line of boys that circled him, sprinting into the street. A car horn blared, tires screeched, but he leaped ahead of the jolting automobile and 28 darted between parked cars, fleeing towards the avenue. He didn’t care who saw him now — as long as he got away — and by the time he reached the corner he was doubled over, leaning against a parked car, gasping for breath, tears streaming from his eyes. The short sprint had exhausted him, but he was glad to have escaped the nun. He hated her. He hated the boys. He hated the school.
He wiped his face, straightened up, and looked back down the street. The nun was bustling the children into the school bus and talking to the driver; once she struck a misbehaving boy in the head, and he bolted up the school bus steps.
The boy sighed and sank down behind the car, squatting on the sidewalk. He heard footsteps and squinted at a woman’s legs. The legs paused, uncertain, then walked away. The boy wiped his face and inched back up behind the car. He looked at the school bus; it was moving up the street towards him. He rested his elbows on the hood of the car and watched the bus slowly approaching, sitting tall and regal above the small squat cars moving before and behind it.
The bus neared the corner. Some of the children spotted him from their high-seated windows, and they began gesturing and jeering. A few of the boys pounded on the windows and stuck out their tongues and made crude faces. The black-garbed nun rushed up the aisle of the bus and the children pointed at him. He watched the nun stoop down and look at him through the high windows, her large white face joined with the small gawking faces of his now-silent classmates.
In their staring silence he felt an even greater taunting and rejection than if they had spat out at him in disgust. Their raucous jeering was bearable: he could fight back with tears; it was their silence and blank faces which were devastating: the silence was judgmental, and the judgment was condemnation.
The bus rounded the corner and disappeared on the avenue, swallowed in the jerky momentum of trucks and autos, taxis and cycles, red lights and sprinting pedestrians. The boy 29 remained peering over the hood of the car, staring towards the bustling avenue, but he had stopped crying and felt very calm. The uneasiness which seized him upon walking out of the school building had left him, and he seemed resigned and indifferent to being alone on the street. The entire class had gone on a trip; he was left behind. It didn’t seem to be such a big thing after all.
He sighed, smoothed his jacket, and stuck his hand in his pocket. The dollar was still there. He pulled the bill out and crammed it into his pants pocket next to the quarter. He glanced at the busy avenue, then turned and walked quickly past the ugly school building. For a moment he imagined his empty classroom and thought perhaps he could sit there for the day, but he shook his head and rounded the corner and came before the church. A large black metal fence enclosed the steps, and a heavy silver lock braced the corner bars.
He looked about. The street was quiet; a man stood nearby holding a dog chain and looking at his dog between parked cars. The boy pursed his lips and spat out a heavy stream of saliva through a gap in the bars of the fence. The saliva landed in droplets on the concrete church steps.
The boy walked away. He did not know where to go, but he knew he had to keep walking — he had to get away from school and church and not let anyone see him. He walked briskly, as if he had a destination, and kept his eyes and ears wary and alert for any familiar faces and voices.
Once he thought he spotted a friend of his parents approaching up the street; he darted between two parked cars and slunk around them until the person had passed. A few times he thought he heard a familiar voice, and without turning to look at the speaker, broke into a run until the familiar voice was far behind him.
He often found himself retracing his steps and walking down streets he had already passed. He went in circles and knew that no matter how long he kept walking, he was never too far from the school and church, and he could always find his way 30 back quickly. He would cross one street, walk the length of a block, then turn left and continue for a few more blocks, make another left, walk the street, turn left, go a short distance, and find himself back where he started. Sometimes he altered his pattern, walked right, and began the cycle in the opposite direction.
Each street was as interesting as the previous one, drawing and pulling him on. He found himself on shadowed streets where the buildings were tall and made of glass and the streets crowded with people dressed in suits and ties as if it were a Sunday. He came to other streets where the sunny sidewalks were strewn with rubbish and trash and the buildings were squat and vacant and boarded up, shards of glass sticking out of tenement windows like insulting tongues. He passed people carrying enormous bundles and others lying asleep in dirty doorways — one man lay in a puddle which streamed from his torso to the gutter, and the boy wondered if the man were like him and made whenever he slept. He shuddered and walked on.
Once he stared wide-eyed at the street before him and wanted to run — he had come upon the dreaded avenue he had been avoiding all day — but looking around, he suspected his mother and her friends would rarely come this far.
The shops were garish, and neon signs flashed crudely in the daylight as if trying to outdo the sun. The avenue was filled with people who walked lazily, sauntering and pausing before window displays, taking their time about getting to their destinations. They seemed relaxed and unconcerned as they stood at counters nibbling on snacks, or peering into store windows where knives and rifles lay together with radios and guitars.
The boy paused before one window display and stared at pictures of half-naked women. He thought of his godmother’s daughters: whenever he was left alone with them, usually on Friday nights when his mother had gone to work and his father was out drinking after work, they would walk about half-dressed and put on makeup and do funny things and kiss him and pretend he was their boyfriend.
He gazed at the pictures and someone yelled, Hey kid, get away from there! He quickly moved away from the window and heard, Fucking brat, should be in school!
He walked, and came upon groups of men passing around a bottle. He thought of his father: he would drink and grow loud and everything would be funny and pleasant, when suddenly the boisterous laughter would turn to angry shouts and threats, and the raucous noise and merriment would erupt into crashing glasses and plates and swinging fists.
Was it the bad drink that had him fighting? Was one too many? Or not enough? The boy heard a bottle break behind him and saw two men poised with fists circling about each other. He walked on.
The endless vibrant streets kept opening before him and drawing him in with a hypnotic passion. Whether they be rough neon-flashing streets or sedate tree-lined ones, they were all enticing and alluring. The pattern of the streets was enchanting with its own rhythm and structure. The noise, the sights, the smells were a wonder to the boy. They teased and baited, and he followed. Though he felt frightened at times by the things around him, it was more a sense of surprise and wary interest than a sense of danger. Alone on the street he felt calm and safe, as if he were also a vital part of the street. The buildings, the sidewalks, the people, the lights, the traffic — all swept and poured into him and permeated him with a strange feeling of understanding and acceptance.
He had entered as a reject and found he belonged. Separated from his peers he had taken stock of himself and unknowingly severed the link which tied him to the confusing actions of his companions and elders. Rejected, he did not shirk from aloneness but plunged headlong in. Pushed aside, he would find it difficult to pull back.
It was mid-afternoon when he came to a small window display of second-hand books and journals, old news magazines, and used comic books. The store was a few blocks from school, and he had stopped many times in the shop to look at comic books on Saturday afternoons or on the way home from school, but had avoided the store and street today — it was too close to the shopping avenue.
Still, he was tired and his feet were aching. Since he had kept walking in almost constant motion throughout the day, he wished he could rest for longer than just the few moments it took for a street light to change or a shop window to lose its interest. The familiar comic/magazine store was clearly inviting.
He peered into the window: dusty comic books, circled by old magazines, lined the center window display, their once-bright colors pale and faded. The super-heroes they portrayed displayed an ashy blunted tint, and the vitality of the battles waged between caped heroes and villains appeared to have lost its exuberance and zest. Looked down on by the scowling self-indulgent faces of real-life heroes and failures, the stance of the super-heroes’ arms appeared wavering, more like a hesitant self-conscious pose than a flaunting of justified triumph over evil. It was not an alluring display; the wonder and excitement of the fantasy world the comics presented had been stifled and usurped by the accusing judgmental reality of the commonplace: handsome muscled super-heroes with incredible powers and strengths took second place to the sundry politicos, momentary stars, and historic riff-raff.
The boy hesitated and fingered the money in his pocket. Though he had eaten the sandwich his mother gave him, he was wary of buying a soda or candy, not really sure his money was enough for either or if he would be cheated or robbed. He entered the store.
It was bleary and dim. The stuffy smell of aging paper choked the air, nipping at his nostrils and throat. He sniffled, tweaked his nose, and coughed, shutting the door behind him.
The old bald man who ran the place sat behind a trinketstrewn counter and glanced up from his newspaper. Since it was rare for children to come into the store at this time of day, the bald man eyed his unexpected customer curiously.
The boy walked up and down the aisles of used comics and magazines finally coming to the section displaying his favorite super-hero. He eagerly picked up a comic and began to leaf through the pages. The soft comic book was soothing and inviting. He held it at ease, as if it were a part of himself. It didn’t matter that some of the pages were wrinkled and stained by previous careless readers or that the coupons had been clipped out for tanks and bazookas — impress your neighbors! — or for battalions of toy soldiers at the ready for war; the comic felt as fresh and new as if it had just been printed. The boy wished he had come here earlier instead of walking around all day.
The old bald man never seemed to care how much time the boys spent amongst the racks on a Saturday afternoon as long they were quiet and at least one of them eventually bought a comic, a top, a ball, or something. Often, when they purchased a certain number of comics, the bald man threw in an extra one for free.
He seemed a nice old man, but he was always prowling the aisles, grinning at the boys, trying to touch their shoulders, tuck in their shirts, straighten their belts, or cajole one of them to go into the backroom where he promised newer and different and more exciting comics. Many times before entering the store the boys would flip a coin to see who would distract the man while giving the other boys a chance to read their comics in peace. Once he had seen the man lower the zipper of the boy who lost the coin toss. He stood apart from his friends, and the man put his hand inside the boy’s pants as he stood calmly before the comic rack, turning the pages of a comic as if oblivious to the groping hand in his crotch. The boy wondered if he would ever lose a toss.
He looked up from his comic. The old bald man had put down his newspaper and was shuffling about the racks and counters, straightening comics and aligning magazines. He was a large man, and his fat round belly protruded over his belt and wobbled ponderously as he moved about the store. His thick hairy arms were arrayed with faded tattoos, and his blue t-shirt was sweat-stained at the armpits and beneath his puffy breasts. He moved slowly through the aisles, wetting his lips with his tongue, his eyes gleaming as he came closer to the boy.
The boy snatched up a few comics and moved to another aisle, away from the man. He opened a magazine on a display counter and flipped through the pages: pictures of men in bathing suits stood flexing their muscles at each other.
The old bald man entered the boy’s aisle and slowly approached, smiling and nodding his head. The boy glanced around him. The aisle ended at a wall, and the old bald man blocked the only way out.
The boy was trapped; a strange queasiness ran from his stomach to the pit of his bowels. He stuck his hand in his pocket and felt the silver coin. Blushing, he pulled his hand out: his penis was stiff.
“You like these pictures?” the man asked, his bloated stubbled face gleaming.
The boy shrugged.
The old bald man put his finger on the picture of a man clad in a bathing suit. He slid his finger down the man’s muscular chest and stopped at the crotch, where he rested his finger a moment, then moved it down the well-developed legs. The boy stared fascinated. His mouth was dry and his breathing was very fast and shallow.
“I’ll bet you have some nice muscles,” the man said, placing his hands on the boy’s shoulders. The boy tensed and clutched his comics. He looked up at the bald man. The man’s expression was dreamy and his face shone brightly. Little beads of sweat glistened on his ruddy nose. He moved his hand along the boy’s shoulder and slid it down his neck, gently massaging and caressing. 35
“I know where else you have muscles,” he said, stooping over and reaching beneath the boy’s thigh-length jacket. He clasped the boy between his buttocks.
The boy tensed and stayed very rigid, staring at the picture of the contorting muscle man.
“Turn the page,” the man whispered, his hot breath blowing on the boy’s neck. “Turn the page!”
The boy flipped the glossy sheet and looked down at the muscle man in a different pose. The muscles bulged and the body gleamed, the small tight bathing-suit clearly outlining his distended crotch. The boy felt his own penis jerk in his pants. The bald man sucked in a gasp of air and pulled the boy to him, grinding his pelvis against the boy’s upper arm. He lowered his hand between the boy’s buttocks and legs and cupped the boy’s stiff crotch.
“Oh! That’s so nice!” the bald man sighed, squeezing the boy’s penis and smiling as the stiff penis flitted about in the loose school pants.
The boy relaxed and leaned against the man’s pelvis, resting his head on the man’s large stomach. The man looked down at him, then pulled him closer and kissed the top of his head. “Oh, you’re so nice!” he wheezed. “So nice!”
His lips brushed over the bump on the boy’s temple. The boy winced but he remained leaning against the man’s chest. The man let go of the boy’s crotch and pulled his hand out from between the small thighs and took the boy’s hand and raised it against the tense bulge in his own pants, rubbing the boy’s unresisting fingers along the outline of the large swollen penis. He was surprised at the eager readiness and willingness of the boy to continue clasping and squeezing the bulking crotch once he let go of the boy’s fingers. The fingers quickly did their chore: the man shut his eyes and shivered and seized the boy and groaned and buckled against the boy’s chest and neck, trapping the little hand on his crotch, and clamping the boy’s head and face to his fat sweaty t-shirted belly.
“Oh, you’re so nice,” he repeated, sliding down and kneeling before the boy. He blushed and lowered his head, then suddenly looked up. “Do you like me?” he bashfully whispered, and squeezed the boy’s buttocks.
The boy also blushed and glanced across the comic book racks. The man moved one hand up the boy’s back, pulled the boy to him, and began kissing his face. Saliva spattered onto the boy’s cheeks, and the man jabbed his lips on the boy’s mouth and darted his tongue in between the boy’s teeth. The boy shuddered and gagged from the strange taste, and spat out the tongue, his mouth filling with water, coughing and desperate for air. He squirmed loose of the man’s hold and gagged once more, then coughed and spat out a heavy stream of saliva onto the man’s face and shirt. The man looked at the boy and tried to rise, but the boy quickly darted around him and bolted to the front door, dropping a comic book and kicking it across the floor.
“Wait!” the old bald man shouted hoarsely. “Wait!”
The boy stopped and looked back at the old man. He was stooped in the aisle, squatting on his haunches, one hand clutching his crotch, the other held out to the boy.
“Wait!” the man pleaded.
The boy snatched up the comic off the floor, and clasping the ones he already held, ran out the door.
He raced to the corner and looked back at the comic book store. The street was quiet; the old bald man had not come out after him. He glanced at the comics in his hand and frowned; he had clutched them the entire time the man rubbed against him.
He looked at the super-hero: his muscles were big. The boy grimaced and shoved the comics beneath his arm, turning away from the store.
He walked briskly around the corner. A few blocks away he could see the luminous gray church spires climbing up into the darkening cloudy sky. He sighed; soon it would be time to go home. Soon it would be time to eat and sit and rest and sleep. Still, what was that all about? Why did the man kiss him? Did he like him so much? His father never kissed him when he did it. His father never even looked at him.
The boy slipped his hand into his pocket and groped past his money and felt his soft penis. It felt good when it was hard. He thought of his father. He thought of his godmother’s daughters. He sometimes liked being kissed by them. He felt his penis stiffen and he blushed, quickly removing his hand.
He approached the school and crouched behind a parked car a short distance way, staring at the front entrance to the school building. A small group of women stood before the shut door, talking and awaiting their children.
He looked at his comics. He had stolen them. He scowled, and rolled them into a telescope-like tube and raised it to his eye, surveying the narrow scene.
Soon the women waiting outside stirred as the doors were propped open and the children came out. The boy recognized the disheveled first-graders, who were always the first to exit the school, followed by the even more disheveled higher classes, yelling and shouting and pushing each other as if in belated retribution after a day of suffering brutal insult and silent rage. It was a noisy scene: desperate, chaotic, disordered, and not a responsible nun in sight.
But where was his second-grade class? He lowered his make-shift telescope and wondered if perhaps his class had arrived from the movie early and were already dispersed home. How was it last time they went on a class trip? Did they return early? He couldn’t remember. But would his mother expect him back early? Would she be looking for him? None of his classmates lived near him and only a few passed his house on the way home; still, his mother seemed to have an uncanny sense about such things.
Once he followed a group of boys away from the park they normally played in and went to explore the vast hilly forest-like park along the river, taunting passers-by and whistling and cursing at the women. The boy’s mother, upon his return home, immediately began to question him on his whereabouts and warned him against disappearing to God knows where.
He watched the screaming children piling up the street and he quickly turned away. Even though they were in other classes and did not know him, he was certain that somehow the entire school-body was aware of that morning’s rejection and humiliation, and he did not want to be spotted by any of them.
He glanced at his coiled comics and blushed. He unrolled and flattened them and shoved them into the waist of his pants, smoothing his jacket atop them.
It was a short sprint home, but when he reached his building he paused for a moment in the vestibule to regain his breathing, then looked himself over and again smoothed his jacket over the stolen comic books. It wouldn’t be difficult to slip into his room and stash them beneath the bed.
He climbed the stairs and came to his door and listened. It was very quiet. He rapped and waited and peered through a tiny crack in the glass-paned door into the apartment. He couldn’t see much, just the edge of the kitchen table, but the light was on and the faint tinkling of a muted radio wafted through the crack. He rapped harder and crossed his legs.
“C’mon!” he mumbled to himself, and frowned, sucking his breath. “Open the door!”
All day he had been able to walk about the streets and not once have to use the bathroom — it wouldn’t have been much of a problem anyway, the parks were always nearby and he could scurry into one of the open public restrooms, take a piss, and just as quickly, before anyone smiled and beckoned him from an open stall, scurry out — but now his bladder squeezed and tightened and he flexed his thighs and bounded from foot to foot and rapped louder and harder.
Down the hall a door opened and an old gray-haired woman poked her head out. She was dressed in a frayed, greasy blue smock which hung limply about her stooped body, and she stood in the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest, staring haughtily at the boy. He looked down and scowled at her shabby mismatched slippers, one brown, the other pink, certain the brown one had once been discarded by his father.
Why couldn’t she stay inside? Why was she always poking her head out the door to see who was coming and going in the hall? Even when he crept silently along the stairs, trying not to attract her attention, the woman would fling her door open and demand to know what he was sneaking about for and who had taught him to act like a little thief.
“Go on, keep knocking!” the woman snorted, gesturing towards his door. “She must have earned her money by now.”
The boy grimaced and bit the inside of his cheek. He looked at his door. Except for the tinkling radio, the inside of the apartment was hushed and quiet. He knocked again and sucked in his breath and squeezed his crossed legs together. His face was beaded in sweat; he looked back at the old woman.
“It’s disgraceful!” the woman said, shaking a finger at him. “What kind of baby is going to come from all that?” She spat in disgust and glared at the boy, then turned and slammed the door behind her.
The boy groaned, unbuttoned his jacket, and pulled the comics from his waist. His stomach was fat and bulging and hung distended over his belt. Desperately he raised his leg and doubled over and tightened his belly. The pressure in his bladder slowly eased, and he sighed in relief. From inside the apartment he thought he heard movement. He peeped into the crack in the glass-paned door. A shadow passed through the kitchen. The boy backed away from the crack.
At the other end of the hall he heard the old woman reopening her door. He scrambled down the stairs and ran to the front door. He opened it and let go, watching it slam to the door-frame, then quietly tip-toed back across the hall and stood behind the stairs. Soft footsteps shuffled in the hall above him, and he imagined it was the old woman pausing with her ear to his door or peering down the railing of the stairs. Stupid witch!
She never dared come out when his father was around. The man often rushed at her door and pounded angrily, screaming for her to show her face after he learned of some new malicious gossip and innuendoes the woman had spread in the building.
I’ll shove your fucking teeth down your goddamned throat! he would scream at the woman’s door.
The woman would stay out of the hall for days, only peering out when she was certain the man was not at home. Yet after a while, she would again venture out her door, and prowl the hall and stop whoever came up or down the stairs, once more starting up her wretched gossip and snooping.
The boy kept very still. Upstairs he heard a door close. He did not understand. Sometimes the old woman seemed nice and would smile and offer him a candy, which he always debated whether to eat or not — somehow distrusting her good nature — and other times she was bitter and spiteful, calling him and his mother names.
She’s an old woman, his mother would say, by way of explanation, and old people get to be like that.
The boy shuddered. It was as if growth and age and knowledge were not a guarantee of understanding and compassion; as if experience of life was not an assurance of a sensitive and benign response to it. He grimaced.
Again his bladder clenched tightly. He squeezed his thighs together and moved behind the stairs.
The hallway was dimly lighted — a weak bulb shone above the front door but its frail rays barely reached the foot of the stairs — and he bumped against a garbage can and froze, clutching the rattled metal can.
He listened. The silence was welcome; almost a conspiratorial ally was the shadowed stillness around him.
He inched further into the darkening hall and gazed hopefully at the aged and gnarly wooden frame of the cellar door. He knew there was a toilet down the stairs; many times he had crept down the dark steps and warily prowled through the cellar, only to flee at the slightest sound or shadow.
Once when he was halfway down the cellar stairs, he heard whimpering and crying from below. He raced up the stairs, imagining ghosts and demons, and lingered on the stoop outside the building. He watched a strange worried-looking man, whose face was beaded in sweat, come quickly out of the building, glance at the boy, and hurry up the street.
Later in the day a bruised and mute little girl was found in the cellar. As she was being carried away, her betrayed glassy eyes staring at the crowd about her, the boy looked at the blood on her torn dress and assumed she had fallen down the stairs. He was sternly warned to keep away from the cellar.
He stared at the rotted door. It was splintered in places and large jagged wood-chipped cracks stood out between the beams. The boy clasped the handle and tugged on the heavy door. It was bolted shut. High above his head a large metal lock bulged from the doorframe, holding the door securely closed. He winced and reached up for the lock; it was shiny and new, the cold metal brusquely repellent.
He let go of the lock and rubbed his face, crossed his legs and swayed from foot to foot. He shivered and crouched down, noting the garbage cans lined up against the wall a few steps away. He dropped his comics to the floor, lifted a garbage lid, and peered in. A small paper bag filled with refuse lay at the bottom of the can. He looked up at the ceiling and listened. 42 The hall was quiet. Quickly he un-zippered his pants and lowered them. Clutching the sides of the can, he hoisted himself atop the container, hovering above the open can.
Instantly his bowels and bladder opened and a surge of excrement and urine gushed out and splattered onto the refuse in the can. He sighed in relief and shifted his palms along the rim of the metal can. Another stream of piss and shit splashed into the garbage. His face cooled and he felt very weak and tired.
Again he moved his hands along the edge of the can and suddenly screamed out in pain. A piece of protruding metal had stabbed his palm, and he jerked his hand up and dropped into the receptacle. He screamed and twisted about, trying to straighten himself up, and splattered his hands and arms in shit and piss. Garbage poked at his face and he flailed at the sides of the can, trying to pull himself out.
Upstairs a door opened and heavy footsteps started down the stairs. The boy froze, holding himself up on one hand, his legs in the air.
“Whew! It stinks like shit down here!” a man’s voice boomed on the stairs.
The boy grimaced and gagged; the shit-smell clawed at his throat. He swayed and tried to grab the top of the can and jerk himself out, his wet fingers bobbing and clasping, but he was unable to get a good grip.
The heavy footsteps reached the bottom of the stairs, paused, then boomed to the rear of the hall. The boy froze in terror. His eyes were clamped shut and his face and throat and stomach were twisted in a contorting grimace of gagging and retching. The footsteps stopped.
Suddenly the boy’s body tensed. A hand brushed over his buttocks and a finger groped in between his legs. It felt his scrotum and suddenly pulled back. “A fucking boy!” a man’s voice said in disgust.
The boy whimpered and his body quivered. He barely gurgled the word, “Help!”
“Hey!” the voice screamed out, grabbing the boy by the back of his jacket and yanking him out of the can. “There’s a kid down here!”
The boy’s head scraped the metal sides of the receptacle and he was pulled out and set on his feet, crying and gasping for air.
The boy wiped his eyes and looked at the man before him. He was clad in dirty paint-splattered overalls, and flecks of dried paint dotted his puffy face. Atop his head roosted a wrinkled paint-cap with a paint company logo almost obliterated by smears of paint; the boy instinctively looked at the man’s hands for a paint brush and bucket.
Above him footsteps started down the stairs; they were followed by another pair of steps, tired and shuffling. The boy stooped down to pull up his pants. The first pair of steps waddled up the hall and the boy heard his mother’s voice. “Oh, my God!” she gasped.
The boy looked up at his mother. She stood clutching the sides of her face and shaking her head. Her large belly bulged out before her and seemed to shiver beneath her loose-fitting dress. She moved her hands from her face to her neck, her mouth in a painful disbelieving grimace.
“Is this yours?” the man asked, pointing at the boy.
The woman bent down before the boy and clutched his shoulders. He burst out crying and she stooped down and pulled him to her, draping her arms around him. She hugged him, and her hands smeared the shit on the back of his jacket. She looked at her soiled hands and burst out coughing and choking and pushing away from the boy. She snatched up a comic book, opened it, wiped her hands on the porous comic paper, and flung it into the open trash can. She looked at the boy and once more gagged, coughed, and spat out on the floor. From down the hall the nosey old neighbor approached. She looked at the boy and his mother, haughtily nodding her head.
“Ptui!” the painter spat out, moving away from the boy. “Give him a bath, for Christ’s sake!” He looked at his own fingers, cursed, spat out once more. and wiped them on the boy’s jacket.
“Jesus!” he said, and looked at the boy’s mother, then walked to the front of the hall and paused near the front door, passing the old woman propped against a wall.
The boy’s mother angrily glared at the old woman, bustling the boy away from the rear of the hall. She stopped at the front of the stairs and looked at the painter standing by the door.
“Go!” she said to the boy, prodding a dry corner of his shoulder.
The boy mounted the steps and looked at his mother; she was staring intently at the man, her lower lip quivering, her right hand stroking the bottom of her belly.
The boy sniffled. “I couldn’t hold it in,” he whimpered, a single tear easing down his cheek.
“I said go!” his mother snapped, and again pushed his shoulder, accidentally smearing a streak of shit.
He lowered his head and heard his mother gag, and he looked at his hand. The jagged metal sliver of the can had not pierced the flesh, but a small sunken indentation was clearly visible in the lines of the palm. Behind him he heard the front door open. He started up the stairs.
THE NEXT DAY THE CLASSROOM was abuzz with talk of the trip. The boys and girls hovered about in their seats and chattered noisily, laughing and prodding each other as they recalled the excitement of the previous day.
“You cried at the end of the movie,” one girl taunted another.
“So what?” the other replied. “You cried in the middle.”
The boy hung his coat, took his seat, and tried to ignore the cacophony of voices around him, but the noise was incessant. It clattered about his head and drilled into his ears and taunted that he could not add anything to the chatter.
“You got lost when you went to the bathroom,” he heard one boy gibe another.
“Oh, yeah?” the other responded. “Well, you had no money for popcorn!”
“Yes, I did!”
“No, you didn’t!”
The boy tried to shut out the jabbering children. He stared at the black curlicue alphabet letters lacing the top of the blackboard from end to end like an authoritative and magisterial crown. This is the way we really look, they seemed to say. Whenever the boy recited the alphabet to himself, he always envisioned the letters in just such fancy bold swirls and even once tried to write out his name in their fashion. It looked nothing like the letters above the board; he even misspelled his first name and made a total jumble of his last.
Having entered school late, he had difficulty catching up with the lessons of the first-grade class. His homework and exams always came back not only with the assignments and answers red-marked, but also with his name corrected. The few times he had shown his homework to his mother for her to look over, she just stared vacantly at the paper he held out to her and smiled awkwardly as she tousled his hair. Some days later the assignment would be returned, butchered and splattered in red. It was like that in the second grade as well.
“Wasn’t that a beautiful part,” he heard a girl ask, “when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette?”
“Yeah,” another girl responded, “and no one saw her except Bernadette.”
“That’s because her brother and sister left Bernadette behind,” another girl joined in. “They didn’t want her to come.”
The boy stared at the curlicue letter B and wanted to cry. He wondered what the movie was about. It just wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t they shut up? Who cared what the movie was about? Who cared how much candy they ate, or who got lost, or who cried, or who laughed? The boy glanced across the room at the other boy who had not gone on the trip. He seemed removed, and unconcerned about the voices around him, staring aloof and bored at the sunny window. Where did he spend the day?
Suddenly the nun entered the room. The children immediately grew silent and took their seats facing the front of the class. The boy sighed. He was glad he didn’t have to hear any more about the trip he’d missed. The nun set some papers and books on her desk and looked out over the class. She did not seem as stern as usual.
“Good morning, Sister!” the class sang out in unison.
The nun nodded and the children rose from their seats to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. When the class was reseated, the nun pulled out her roll-book but gave it only a cursory glance and made a few tics, then beamed good-naturedly at the children.
“Wasn’t that a good movie?” she said, as if unable to restrain herself any longer. “Who would like to tell us about what we just saw?”
The boy winced and lowered his eyes: the nun’s words made him feel instantly cut off from the class. He huddled in his seat, red-faced and feeling worthless, as the children around him raised their arms and waved them frantically. He was certain he was the only one in class who had not raised a hand; he forgot about the other boy. The nun called the girl behind him. The boy studied the grainy wood patterns on his desk, tracing the dark dense line running from edge to edge. He wondered if it continued beneath the desk.
The girl behind him stood up and started her narration of the film, her voice burrowing deep into the boy’s neck and ears. It’s not fair! he wanted to scream. Not fair!
“Bernadette was a poor little girl,” the voice behind him recited. “And one day she went to gather wood with her brother and sister.”
The boy squirmed in his seat. The room was hot and sticky. Every child’s breath seemed to lessen the air about him, and his breathing became deep and heavy as if he were trying to hold in as much as he could.
Suddenly the children around him began to disagree with the girl’s narration, and the nun called on another child to continue the story.
The boy raised his head and listened. He glanced at the smiling nun. Soon the children’s voices rose up again in protest and another child was called upon to correct and continue the tale.
It’s not fair, he thought, as his shoulders drooped and he sank limply in his seat. His head lolled to one side and saliva dribbled from his lips. For a moment he looked at the front of the room and saw the nun quickly approaching down the aisle; spots flickered before his eyes and his head tilted back and struck the desk behind him. He instantly straightened and whimpered in surprise, looking madly about, then his eyes closed, his body slumped, and his head fell to his desk.
When he came to, he was lying on the floor, his tie removed and his collar loosened and undone. A young priest hovered above him pressing a damp cloth to the boy’s brow, and behind him a group of worried nuns stood whispering and staring down at the scene. The boy noticed his classmates were no longer in the room. He was frightened. Had he made in his pants?
“It’s hot,” he mumbled, trying to rise.
“Be still,” the young priest said, looking at the boy.
The boy relaxed. Though he had fled from this young priest in the school lobby yesterday morning, the boy liked him. He was so different from the other austere black-garbed old priests and nuns who prowled the halls or droned the mass or snarled the religious instruction that the boy had doubts the young priest actually was a real priest: he had once seen this young priest take off his white collar on a hot summer day and join the big boys in the park to play basketball. The boy was amazed he had done so without fear of chastisement or damnation. The priest bounded and leaped and shouted and scored and his hair flew askew and pasted itself to his sweat-stained forehead and the boy joined the spectators in shouting, Go, Father!
“Bring me some water,” the young priest said to the boy’s nun-teacher.
For a moment the nun seemed disconcerted and stared incredulously at the priest, her lips clenched in anger; then she turned to a younger nun and repeated the priest’s order. The younger nun scurried from the room. The boy was astounded that the young priest had actually ordered the nun to do something, and he began to look hopefully at the friendly face of the young man; he regretted not having paused in the lobby.
“I feel much better,” he said, pushing himself up. He quickly glanced at his crotch. It seemed dry.
“You sure?” the priest asked.
The boy nodded.
The younger nun returned with a cup of water and handed it to the young priest. He dipped the cup to the boy’s lips.
The boy greedily gulped the cool water. “Thank you,” he said.
“That’s some bump you have there,” said the young priest, looking at the boy.
The boy raised his hand to his forehead.
“Don’t touch it.”
The boy lowered his hand and tried to rise.
“Feel okay?” the priest asked, examining the boy’s eyes and face.
The boy nodded and the priest helped him to his feet, patting him on his shoulder.
“He’ll be all right,” the priest said, turning to the nuns in the room. “Just a little dizzy spell.” He smiled at the boy and again patted his shoulder. “He even feels better than before, right?” he winked, and tousled the boy’s hair.
The boy winced and glanced at the nun standing nearby, the lump of his head pounding and pulsing. The nun gazed at him indifferently and the boy lowered his eyes.
“There wasn’t anything wrong to begin with,” he heard the nun say.
He wished he could tell the priest that he hated the nun, that she had not let him go to the movies, that she had not let him go on the bus, that she was mean and cruel, that he had walked the streets all day, that a man kissed him, that he fell into shit, and that he hated everybody.
He wished he could talk and tell the priest what had happened, but he kept quiet and stared at the floor, gently touching the bump on his forehead. It stung and burned. He frowned and brushed his hair down over his forehead and sought out the other bump he had received on the side of his head. Wasn’t there a bump on the back of his head too?
“I think it’s all right to bring the children back in,” the priest said to the nun, looking at the boy.
The boy quickly lowered his hand from his head. The young priest stooped down and replaced the elastic band of the boy’s necktie around the boy’s neck, leaving the shirt collar unbuttoned.
“If you feel faint,” he said, “put your head down for a few moments, or else leave the room and get some air.”
The boy nodded and the young priest again patted his shoulder and steered him to his seat. The boy felt tired and disappointed. What was the priest talking about? Leave the room? The nun would not let him leave the room no matter how badly he had to go. What a bunch of unfair lies!
The classroom quickly cleared of the gawking frightened nuns, and the doorway filled with curious children who had been kept in the lunch room; they now poured into the classroom and stared warily at the boy and priest, circling the two and giving them a wide berth, bounding into their seats as if into a safe refuge which protected them from the hazardous boy.
The young priest stood talking with the nun, then smiled at the children, winked at the boy, and gave his benediction to the class, weaving his hand limply in a sign of the cross over the heads of the children. He left the room as their sing-song voices called out, “Thank you, Father!”
For a moment, an awkward silence fell over the class as the children looked from the boy to the nun to each other and shrugged or grimaced, not knowing what to expect. The boy was frightened and sat with his head down. He knew the nun would not abide these constant disturbances whenever he was with the class and was afraid she would punish him by making him kneel at the front of the room with his hands raised in the air.
This was her usual form of chastisement for disruptive children, and it was one the boy had suffered many times and always dreaded. Down on his knees with his arms raised above his head, it did not take long for the small body to contort and cringe and twist in pain; the arms aloft ached desperately to be lowered and the pressured knees on the cruel floor throbbed painfully to be soothed. The body would weave and rock and there would be a tightening of the chest and a clasping in the lower back, and in desperation, hoping the nun was not looking, the child would risk a momentary lowering of the arm and ease down on his haunches. A swift blow to the head or a brutal kick in the thighs would bring the young body up to punishing attention, and the ferocious and writhing pain would start anew.
“Take out your Catechisms and turn to page nine,” the nun finally said, breaking the ominous tension.
The boy was relieved and quickly pulled his Catechism from his desk. It was a small thin booklet with large bold print and profuse illustrations depicting the different sacraments and various parts of the mass. Each chapter was devoted to an individual section of the rite, and for the past month the children had been concentrating on the responses and prayers celebrating the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion, which they would partake of within a few days.
The boy opened the book and turned to the designated page. It was smudged from heavy use, and the faces of the priest and altar boys in the drawing were blackened-in with ink; crude devil’s horns protruded from the heads of the altar boys. The boy placed his hand over the sullied page to cover the drawing. He had once been caught using a red crayon to sketch in dripping blood from the outstretched pierced hands of Jesus, and he was immediately forced to erase his cruel handiwork; the erasure tore through the paper and left a gash in the hands of the Lord. For this artistic realism the boy received a swift paddling on his palms and was unable to hold a crayon or a pencil the remainder of the day.
The children began their recitation of the prayer of Repentance, and their high piping voices filled the room, quickly dispelling the anxiety and gloom which had hung about the boy all morning. His voice strained as loudly as his classmates’ and he was grateful for the respite from attention drawn to him. With each vowel, syllable, and phrase he uttered the boy felt himself a part of the group, of the class. Together with the children he was able to recite the prayer with certainty and confidence. In the anonymity of the group his voice lost its distinctness, and his only concern was lest he speed up the prayer or lag behind.
Recitation melded him to the children and bespoke of acceptance; rejection had been dismissed.
The class continued this interminable repetition of various prayers throughout the morning. On and on they droned: prayers of Jesus, of Mary, of Joseph; paeans to God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost; intonations of forgiveness and repentance; invocations to the angels and all the saints. They prayed and prayed as though they were the greatest sinners in the world: O Lord! Forgive, forgive, forgive!
The children’s voices drifted into a monotonous dirge. Their attention lapsed and some lost tread with the cadence. The nun began to call on them individually to recite the prayers with their book closed. By now, after weeks of this drudgery, the prayers had permeated their minds, and every child was able to recite each prayer from memory. The boy self-consciously stammered when it was his turn, but after the first syllables found his pace and correctly recited the prayer.
Religious prayers and invocations finished, the class turned to other mundane matters and recited multiplication tables and history dates as if now beseeching still another God, a secular one, who too demanded his share of worship and devotion.
“Two times two is four! Two times three is six!” Little voices chanted shrilly, stridently. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Voices piped and swelled, buoyant, confident, monotonous.
Sometime before they broke for lunch the principal of the school, an elderly nun whose gentleness and kind demeanor seemed contrary to her position of authority, interrupted the class. Standing in the doorway and smiling at the children, she beckoned the nun-teacher outside.
“Continue reading to yourselves,” the nun told the children as she joined the principal in the doorway. The two stepped out in the hall.
Some of the children did as instructed and buried their heads in their books, while others looked about the room and made faces at their neighbors, and still others whispered and gestured amongst themselves, curious at the principal’s interruption. But the nun’s absence was brief. She quickly returned to the class and called out the boy’s name.
“Get your coat and things and go with Sister,” she said, standing at her desk and looking at the boy.
A murmur passed through the room as the boy rose and shuffled to the cloakroom. Something was wrong and he knew it was his fault. He easily found his coat — a long black rain-coat which he usually wore only on Sunday, but his regular jacket was too dirty from his fall into the garbage can — and returned to his desk. He retrieved his schoolbag from beneath his chair, crammed his notebooks and catechism into it, and without looking at the nun or any of his classmates, joined the principal awaiting him in the doorway.
“Take out your Writing books,” he heard the nun tell the class behind him. “And we’ll start in after lunch. No talking!”
The boy walked with the old nun down the hall, and she put her arm around his shoulder and led him towards her office. He was nervous but leaned against her and fell in step with her slow gait.
“Your mother had an accident,” the principal finally said, her eyes glistening as she paused and stared sadly at the boy. “And your godmother is here to take care of you for a while.”
The boy tensed and grimaced in confusion and looked up at the old nun. She looked very sad but he instinctively moved closer to her as she caressed his shoulder. She was a kind woman, warm and generous; her demeanor, unlike that of the other clerics, was the same whether she spoke to children or listened to adults. There was no condescension or fawning in her manner, and the children were drawn automatically to her simplicity and kindness. On her name date, which fell in late spring at the end of the school year, she would have ice cream distributed to all the children and instruct the teachers not to assign any homework that day. She was a sensitive and gentle woman, a decent lady.
“Did you have a nice time yesterday?” she asked, as they continued up the hall.
The boy could no longer hold in his tears. He felt betrayed and began to sob convulsively. Did you have a nice time? his mother had also asked, as he lay in the warm water of the kitchen tub, the woman pouring in more heated water from a vat she had brewing on the kitchen stove.
Yes, he nodded, looking away.
He had climbed the stairs and entered the apartment as his mother followed behind him, gagging and clutching her stomach. He struggled out of his dirty clothes, his thighs and back smeared in shit; he crawled into the tub and sat down in the tepid water. The smeared shit softened and floated from his thighs. His mother drew the plug of the tub and the dirty water gurgled away. She recapped the tub and went to the kitchen stove.
Here it comes! she said, and smiled awkwardly, pouring warm water onto the boy. In the cold water flat it was necessary to heat water for washing, and on Saturday evenings, when the family usually took their baths, the woman had vats of water continually brewing on the four spigots of the gas range and on the large wood-burning stove that warmed the apartment.
The boy shut his eyes and rubbed the warm water over his face and chest. His mother poured another pot of water. He lay back and imagined he was beneath a waterfall, the warm droplets soothing and caressing his sticky skin. It was exhilarating!
After he washed, he stood up and his mother dried him and wrapped him in a towel. The boy stepped out of the tub reluctantly. Because of her pregnancy it had been a long time since she carried him from his bath to his bed, and it was always a disappointment and shock for the boy to step from the warm tub onto the cold kitchen linoleum.
He quickly scurried to his room and darted beneath the covers of his bed. Out the window the tree in the backyard seemed lusher than it had the day before; soon the fresh leaves would cover the window and rustle against the glass and keep him awake on hot summer nights. His eyelids opened and closed and he felt himself drifting to sleep. His mother entered the room. He sleepily looked up at her, then jolted upright. She held a dollar bill and a quarter in her open palm.
Didn’t Sister collect the money? she asked.
The boy winced. It was getting late, he lied, his eyes darting from his mother, his face red. And we had to hurry for the bus.
He sank down to the covers and looked out the window. The leaves of the tree were vibrant, glowing in the fading daylight.
She said she’ll collect it tomorrow, he continued lying, but did not look at his mother.
The woman stared at him a moment, then placed the money on a cabinet near the door.
Didn’t you buy any candy? she asked.
The boy shook his head and closed his eyes. He heard his mother leave the room and return to the kitchen. He turned on his side, away from the window, and looked at the cabinet. The wrinkled dollar lay atop the dark dirty wood, its damp corners curled and twisted. Tears came to his eyes and he sank his head into the pillow.
“There, there,” the old principal said softly in his ear. “It’s all right.”
She pulled a handkerchief from the sash about her waist and wiped the boy’s eyes and nose and squeezed his shoulders and hugged him. The boy relaxed in her hold. It felt so good to be hugged. He wished she would pick him up and carry him away.
The nun caressed him and dried his eyes again, looking at him sadly. The boy stopped crying and wiped his nose with his fingers. Slowly and painfully the nun straightened herself up and stuffed the handkerchief back in her sash, smiling at the boy. He halfheartedly returned her smile. She took him by the hand and led him down a flight of stairs; the boy felt refreshed and calm.
When they entered the principal’s office, the boy stiffened and blushed as his godmother, who had been flipping through a textbook at the principal’s desk, jumped from her seat and rushed up to him. She stooped down to kiss his red face, noticed he had been crying, and looked at the nun.
“I told him his mother had an accident,” said the old principal, moving to her desk.
The woman frowned and turned to the boy. “Oh, darling,” she purred, hugging him and brushing his hair from his forehead.
The boy winced as her fingers touched the bump, and he stepped away from her.
“Poor baby,” she muttered. “What a nasty bump you have there!” She turned and looked at the principal.
“He hit his head on the desk when he had that dizzy spell I told you about,” said the old nun, standing behind her desk and studying the woman.
The woman nodded and kissed the boy on his cheek. He glanced at the nun, blushed, and shook his head, letting his hair fall back over his eyes. He was embarrassed and wished the woman would leave him alone; but his godmother was an ebullient woman, free and unrestrained with her emotions. She displayed her ardor or annoyance at any time, whether it was appropriate or not, and was unconcerned with people’s embarrassed or disparaging looks. She caressed and hugged the child and kissed his flushed cheeks.
“I’ll take him home,” she finally said, straightening up and brushing her skirt. “He’ll be taken care of until . . . until his father comes for him.” Her voice hardened. She blushed and looked away from the boy, patting her thick red hair.
“Wouldn’t it be better,” the principal asked, “to leave him here for the rest of the day and have your girls bring him after school?”
“No,” replied the woman, shaking her head and again brushing her skirt. “They have dancing class right after school. It’s best I take him now, before I go to work.”
The principal nodded. “Remember,” she said, “confession is tomorrow at one and communion is Sunday at nine.” She picked up the textbook the woman had been reading and replaced it in the bookcase behind her desk, edging the book evenly on the shelf with the other books.
“He’ll be there,” the woman said, straightening the boy’s raincoat at his shoulders and leading him out of the office.
In the doorway the boy paused and looked back at the principal. She had taken a seat behind her desk and appeared very small and frail amidst the stacks of papers and books piled neatly on the desk before her. Her crisp white wimple shrouded her tired wrinkled face, and she seemed very withdrawn and removed from her surroundings. The boy realized he liked her very much. She smiled at him and he brightly returned her smile, then turned and gripped the handle of his schoolbag and followed his godmother out the door.
It was a short walk to his godmother’s house, and the pair walked briskly along the crowded sun-drenched avenue, the woman stepping boldly and surely along the pavement and the boy holding her hand and trailing jerkily behind. As they paused at the traffic lights the woman would stoop down and straighten the boy’s coat or brush back his hair and the boy would jerk and pull his coat back to its original askew position or shake his hair to its prior tousled disorder.
They came before the boy’s building. He stared at the doorway and squeezed his godmother’s hand, hoping she would take him in. He thought he saw the old woman from down the hall going in the front door. He lowered his head.
What kind of mother would forget her child like that? he recalled the old woman’s voice from the day before.
He had felt his mother’s hand slide off his shit-smeared shoulder and he heard an angry intake of breath as his mother gagged behind him. He grasped the railing and climbed slowly, clutching his un-zippered pants around his waist.
A child needs a mother who cares for him, the old neighbor continued. Not someone who . . . Someone who what? his mother had suddenly flared, turning to face the old woman, her voice at a loud, stern, and threatening crescendo. Go on, say it! Say it, you old hag! Say it and I’ll ram your phony teeth down your useless throat!
The boy turned around. His mother stood a few steps below him, waving her fist at the small and shrunken old woman leaning against her hallway door.
Just one word out of your mouth, his mother shouted. Go on, say it!
The old woman swayed her head from side to side and mumbled beneath her breath, then crossed herself and clasped her hands together, rocking them back and forth as in a beseeching prayer.
What did you say? his mother screamed, pouncing down a few steps. What did you say?
The old woman crossed herself again as the paint-garbed man quickly came back up the hall.
Now, now, that’s enough, said the painting man, coming to the foot of the stairs and standing between the boy’s mother and the old woman. Take care of the boy, he gestured to the boy’s mother. And you, he said, turning to the old woman, don’t think just because you’re old you won’t get a fist in your mouth.
Aieeh! the old woman shrieked, quickly crossing and re-crossing herself and retreating to the rear of the hall, her eyes wide in terror. They’ll murder an old woman! she cried.
No one’s talking about murder, you old fool, the exasperated man said, then spat out and turned away from the stairs. Ach! he exclaimed, this is getting ridiculous.
He looked at the boy’s mother, then lifted his painter’s cap and wiped his moist brow. The hell with her, he said quietly. Take care of the kid.
The man stared at the boy’s mother, then averted his eyes and looked at the boy. He sighed and replaced the cap on his head and turned and walked to the front door. He glanced back a final time, then scowled and walked out the building, the front door slamming behind him. The boy stared at his mother. She seemed lost in thought, far away, looking at the front door as if she could see through it, then she shivered slightly, glanced at the huddled old woman mumbling to herself, and turned to the boy.
C’mon, she said. Let’s not stand around here. Let’s go home.
The boy raised his head and looked up at his building. Home, he sighed to himself. He wanted to go home.
“We’re going to my house first,” his godmother said, and pulled his hand, leading him up the street. “We’ll come back later, all right?
The boy nodded and turned away, continuing to drag after his godmother.
When they finally reached her street, the woman slowed her pace as if she had arrived at a safe and secure haven. The boy was able to walk evenly with her and was relieved when they reached her door. He was tired and sweaty and wanted to sit down. But he followed her up two flights of stairs and entered her bright and cheery apartment. He always enjoyed being there with his godmother.
The house was filled with knick-knacks, vases, plants on window sills, magazines on end tables, fruits in platters on table-tops, and soft chairs to curl up in. All the bric-a-brac thrilled and excited him, but it was also a blunt reminder of the stark contrast to his own drab apartment. His father did not go 63 in for such ornamentation and dictated that the boy’s mother purchase only what was necessary.
Once the boy’s mother bought a vase and placed some scanty flowers in it. That night, when the boy’s father came home drunk and got into an argument with her, the vase went crashing to the ground after the man held it threateningly over his head. The boy thought how funny it was that the water from the upturned vase splashed his father’s face, yet could not understand why afterwards the man broke into convulsive sobs.
The boy dropped his schoolbag near the doorway to the living room, removed his coat, and sat down in a cushiony chair. He surveyed the room to see if he could spot any new objects that had been brought into the house since his last visit, yet everything looked so new. The woman brought the boy a sandwich and a glass of milk, then went into another room where she began to rummage about in drawers and cabinets. When he finished eating, the boy returned the empty plate and glass to the kitchen and lingered awhile, wondering if he could sneak a peek into the refrigerator, but decided against it and went back to the living room to look out the window.
Unlike his own apartment, which faced the backyards of tenements — and where the only movement outside the window was the swaying of clotheslines, the passing of a wary stray cat, or garbage thrown out the window by a slovenly neighbor — his godmother’s apartment faced the front of her building, and the windows opened onto a conflux of noise, movement, and vibrancy.
The boy glanced at the traffic through the closed window and returned to the soft chair. He slipped off his shoes and lay down, dangling his legs over one armrest while resting his head on the other. He pulled off his tie, crumbled it into a ball, and tossed it towards his schoolbag; a perfect toss! But the tie-ball quickly came undone and lay in a mess by the schoolbag. He stared at the window. The shimmering sunlight, broken by Venetian blind slats, streaked into the room and fell in stripes across the patterned linoleum floor. He squinted and turned away from the window.
On an end table near the couch he spotted a stack of brightly colored comic books. He jumped from the chair and went to retrieve them. He flipped through a few pages and frowned, glad none of his classmates saw him reading these sissy comics filled with boys and girls laughing, playing, running, dancing, holding hands, and kissing; there were no super-heroes and no battles being waged.
He put the comics down and thought of the ones he had taken from the store yesterday. Too bad he dropped them by the cellar door. Maybe he could check for them later. His mother wiped her hands on only one of them; perhaps the other two would still be there. Yes, he would check as soon as he got home.
But who would take him home? His father? When would that be? After the girls got through with him, that’s for sure. Then his father would start in. He would be drunk and he would be angry. Why did his mother have an accident? Why did she go away? Because he lied? Because the nun wouldn’t collect the movie money and he never bought any candy? Why did he lie? Every time you told a lie Jesus cried in heaven. But if Jesus cried because he sinned, where was his mother? She had an accident. What was an accident?
The boy looked up at a crucifix hanging on the wall above the couch. He was sorry he hurt Jesus. He would pray tonight for his mother and tomorrow tell the priest in confession what he had done. He would tell about the lie and about the money. Since he had not gone to the movies, was it a sin to keep the dollar? He would tell about the stolen comics — was it really theft if he was running from a man who was kissing him? — and he would talk about the long walk through the city streets and the memory of jeering faces in a school bus window — was it a lie his mother thought he was at the movies and he was not?
He returned to the chair and sat down, tucking his legs beneath him, and seemed greatly relieved at having thought out his course of action. He only wished his confessor would be the young priest who had given him water that morning. He would confess his sins and tell him everything. Even the shit smeared on his face and clothes? He frowned. Was that a sin? . . . An accident? . . . A lie?
The boy’s godmother returned to the room and scowled, disapproving of his studied mood; she did not like him looking so moody and serious. “Did you finish the sandwich?” she asked, looking about for the glass and plate.
“Uh huh.” he answered, blinking his eyes and yawning.
“Want some ice cream?” she teased.
The boy instantly brightened and avidly bobbed his head.
“C’mon,” she said. “You can scoop out as much as you like.”
The boy leaped from his chair and darted ahead of the woman to the kitchen. She followed, and spotting the sandwich plate and glass on the kitchen table, smiled warmly at him.
“Good boy,” she said approvingly, and brushed back his hair.
The boy shook his head and sat down at the table, watching the woman set a deep dish and spoon before him and retrieve a box of ice cream from the refrigerator. A fragile mist hovered about the ice-encrusted carton and a tinge of cold air wafted from the box as the boy lifted its cover and greedily peered in. The deep rich vanilla aroma circled onto his nostrils, and his mouth watered in hungry anticipation. He dipped the spoon in and struggled with the hard frozen mass, finally scooping out a large mound and dumping it on his dish. He hesitated and looked up at his godmother. She smiled and nodded; he blushed and reached back into the box, bringing out another big scoop.
His godmother laughed. “Can I have some?” she asked, pouting in a little girl’s voice.
The boy let go of the box and began to lick the spoon. The cold ice cream pierced and stabbed through the joints of his jaw and his head tingled viciously, but he didn’t care. He bit boldly into the frigid cream as his eyelids scowled in protest and his temples throbbed in pain. It was delicious!
The woman ladled some ice cream for herself and replaced the box in the freezer. Seated across from the boy she winked at him, and the two ate quietly and contentedly.
The boy liked his godmother. She was a happy and robust woman, and though she made him feel uncomfortable and self-conscious when she fawned over him in public, he enjoyed her preoccupation with him when they were alone. He especially liked the little toys and presents she lavished on him. Today she promised him a penny for every freckle he counted on her auburn-spotted face. There must have been a billion of them, but his poor arithmetic only got him as far as nineteen — the highest number he knew. His godmother helped him count to twenty-five and gave him a quarter for his effort. He shamefacedly took it, knowing he would add it to the other coin and bill he had in his pocket.
When they finished their ice cream the woman gathered up the dishes and placed them in the sink, running water over them. The boy returned to the living room, where he picked up one of the sissy comic books and curled up in his chair, staring at the boys and girls kissing. In one of the panels a girl stared wide-eyed at a boy walking past her — little red hearts glowed around her head — and the boy slowly traced his fingernail along the contour of her breast. Slowly the comic drooped to his face; his eyes shut and he fell asleep.
He heard voices of children, opened his eyes, and looked about the room. Recognizing where he was, he jerked from his seat and hurried to the window. A group of boys were coming from school, yelling and cursing and punching each other. He did not recognize any of the boys — they were from another 67 school — and he gazed warily at them, hoping they did not spot him in the window. Once when he was at his godmother’s house in winter, he watched some boys having a snowball fight. When one of them noticed him staring out the window and pointed him out to the others, they shouted, Sissy! and let loose a barrage of snowballs which jarred the window glass. He backed away and cried in alarm as his godmother quickly raised the sash and screamed at the boys, who only laughed and aimed a few snowballs at her before running away, shouting and cursing.
Another group of children came by the window and he brightened as he recognized his classmates. He wanted to call out and wave to them and tell them he had ice cream, but he scowled and remained very still, staring at them quietly and thoughtfully. He recalled their taunts of yesterday and grew angry and sad as he watched them pass by on their way home, trudging with their schoolbags, laughing and screaming, their school uniforms disheveled. He thought to make a face at them but knew it was meaningless if no one saw his gesture.
He turned away from the window and went to his chair; other children’s voices sounded in the street but he remained seated and no longer cared to look out. The day was slowly darkening and the room turning shadowy gray; the boy yawned a few times, sprawled out on the chair, and again shut his eyes.
He awoke with a start. From the other room there was muffled conversation. He sat up and rubbed his eyes and shifted the sleep-erection in his pants. Every day after his mother roused him from sleep, he tried to linger in bed until his erection went down or he could maneuver it against his belly; she blushed when he carelessly rose from bed with the stiff pecker poking at his underwear.
Hide that little thing, she’d say, turning away from him.
From the other room he heard voices and muffled laughter and recognized it as that of his godmother’s older daughter, the girl who yesterday collected the movie money from the children in his class. His penis stiffened.
He yawned and moved in his chair. The comic book he had been glancing at fell to the floor.
The older girl peered in from the kitchen. “He’s awake,” he heard her say. He saw his godmother look in from the kitchen door and the older girl come into the living room and sit down on the couch across from his chair. The boy stared at the floor. The comic book lay open; a boy was roller skating past a group of girls; little hearts were everywhere.
The boy’s godmother came into the room and stooped before him. She had changed her dress and combed back her thick red hair. The boy grimaced. He knew the woman was getting ready for work.
“Did you have a nice sleep?” she asked, brushing his hair from his forehead.
The boy nodded and rubbed his nose.
The woman’s younger daughter came in from the other room and joined her sister on the couch. The two girls looked at each other and burst out laughing.
Their mother glanced at them. “You be nice to him, you hear?” she warned, and stood up.
The girls giggled.
The woman strode to a wall mirror and began applying lipstick to her mouth. Her younger daughter rose from the couch, and noticing the riffled comic on the floor near the boy’s chair, quickly snatched it up.
“He got it all dirty,” she scowled, glaring at the boy and flipping through the comic.
“Leave him alone,” the woman said, looking at the boy through the mirror. “He’s been an angel all afternoon.”
The younger girl snorted and returned to the couch.
Her older sister remained silent, staring at the boy. “Where’d you get the bump?” she finally asked.
The boy touched his forehead. He had forgotten about the swelling and his fingers gently stroked the small lump. “I hit my head,” he mumbled.
“Don’t play with it!” his godmother said.
The boy lowered his hand.
“He had a fainting spell in school,” the woman said. She finished applying the rouge and rubbed her lips together, examining her teeth, puffing up the sides of her coarse red hair.
“Dinner’s all ready,” she said, turning to the girls. “All you have to do is warm it up.” She smoothed her dress and looked at the boy.
“He may have to sleep here tonight,” she said. “It’s Friday, and who knows what time they’ll come in.”
The boy jumped from his seat. “No!” he shouted, shaking his head. “I don’t want to stay here. No!”
He stared wide-eyed at the girls, then ran to his godmother and clutched her waist, snuggling his head in her belly. “I want to go home!” he sobbed. “I want my mother!”
“There, there,” said the woman, stooping down and cradling him in her arms. “It’s all right. It’s all right.”
The boy sobbed and whimpered into the woman’s shoulder and she hugged and petted and swayed and softly sang in his ear. “Oh, he misses his mother!” she cooed, rocking him back and forth.
The boy clung to the woman and wished she could pick him up and carry him away.
The older girl rose from the couch, went up to the boy, and poked his shoulder. He instantly froze and looked up at her.
“Oh, c’mon,” she said, leering slyly. “We won’t bite you.”
The boy stared at the girl. Her dark beehive hairdo, which reminded him of an upside-down mop with its dried stringy cords held stiffly in place, accentuated her thin white nose. Her pencil-thin eyebrows, arched over her piercing eyes, added a sinister touch to her thin lips. He stopped crying.
“That’s a good boy,” said the woman, letting go of him and rising to her feet. “They’ll take real good care of you.” She brushed back his hair, bent down, and kissed the top of his head. The boy let his hair stay put.
“Of course we will,” said the older girl, tousling his hair.
The boy rubbed his face and looked at the older girl’s bosom; he glanced at her sister behind her. Perhaps his father would not take so long and come on time. His mother usually brought him to the apartment and the two women would depart for their jobs as office cleaners while the two girls looked after him. During the week his father would pick him up about an hour or so after he had been dropped off, but on Fridays, when the man received his pay envelope, the boy would wait long hours for his father to come and take him home. The boy didn’t like being with the girls on Fridays.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” he said.
“So go!” snarled the young girl from the couch, flipping her comics. “And stop being such a baby!”
“I’m not a baby!” the boy whimpered.
“Oh, yeah?” the girl taunted. “We all know how you piss in your pants!”
“Keep quiet!” the woman shouted, and turned to the boy. He strained to keep his tears from starting anew. His godmother quickly ushered him out of the room, glaring at her younger daughter.
“It’s true,” the girl snorted, and buried her head back in the comic book.
“Don’t listen to them,” the woman said to the boy as she led him to the bathroom. She pulled a thin red-striped light cord and shut the door on her way out.
“Take your time,” he heard her say. The boy relaxed and sighed in relief. It felt so good to be alone. He wiped his eyes and peered about the small room. It would be nice to take a bath in private, behind a closed door, all alone.
He sighed again and looked up at the various bottles and jars which lined the cabinet shelves above the bathroom sink. He hoisted himself up on the sink and stared into the mirror. His round florid face stared back at him; his moist eyes peered sadly at his reflection. His dark hair hovered chaotically over his forehead, and the large mole on his check looked as if something had crawled up his face and adhered itself to his skin. He stuck out his jaw, his lower lip protruding out beneath his upper one, and blew out a stream of air, his hair darting above his eyes and the shiny red bump on his forehead.
He opened his mouth and glanced at his tongue and teeth, then lowered himself off the sink and un-zippered his pants. He stood before the toilet bowl and tugged on his penis, pulling the skin back and forth, the urine hovering somewhere between the pit of his stomach and the edge of his crotch. He tugged a few more times and strained, and a cackling fart buzzed from his bottom.
He blushed and looked at the door, inserted his penis back in his pants, zippered them up, and flushed the unsoiled water. The gurgling sound echoed loudly in the small room, and he watched the water swirl in an eddy and suck itself down the porcelain pit.
He opened the bathroom door and saw his godmother standing in the kitchen, wearing a coat, ready to leave. She called to him and stooped down to the floor. He went into her arms where she hugged and kissed him.
“Be a good boy and your father will come soon,” she said, brushing back his hair. “Now go to the window and I’ll wave to you.”
The boy sadly turned away from the woman and paused. The older girl stood in the doorway to the living room and blocked his way. He braced himself and approached the girl. She looked down at him, then moved aside and let him pass.
“I left a note for your father on the refrigerator,” he heard the woman tell her daughter. “The hospital people said someone would try to find her husband at his job, but who knows? Make sure he gets it. They’ll probably both come in drunk.”
She sighed, opened the front door, and stepped out into the hall. “Remember to give him something to eat,” she said, turning back to her daughter.
“Don’t worry,” said the exasperated girl. “Everything will be fine. Just go!”
The woman looked at her daughter. “And no boys,” she said.
“Oh, Jesus!” the girl cried.
“I mean it,” warned her mother.
“No boys,” sighed her daughter.
The woman looked at her, then turned and left. The older girl slammed the door behind her mother and latched and shut the locks in place. She went into the living room and sat down on the couch, staring and pecking at her fingernails. The boy stood by the window and peered out for his godmother.
The younger girl came into the room and looked at her sister. “Has she gone?”
The boy turned to look at the girl. She had removed her school skirt and blouse and was clad in a blue dance leotard. She held her body stiffly erect and her small breasts pushed weakly at the frumpy material of the leotard that drooped at her bosom and gathered in small folds at her crotch. Like her mother, she was a redhead. Her freckle-spotted arms and thighs contrasted starkly with the bright blue cloth as she pulled the leotard down over her buttocks and snapped the elastic bottom.
The older girl nodded. “Let’s wait till we’re sure no one comes,” she said, biting at a hangnail.
“What do you think happened to her?” the younger girl asked. The two girls looked at the boy by the window. He turned and looked out towards the street.
“Who knows?” said the older girl, spitting out a piece of torn nail. “She was the most horniest slut around even before she got pregnant. Whenever she came to pick him up at school she’d go into heat just looking at the big boys.”
The two girls laughed; the boy limply raised his arm, and gave a weak wave.
That morning his mother had followed him down the stairs and walked him to the corner. I’m going to your godmother’s house. We need to buy a few things for Sunday. She winked one eye and slowly bent down to kiss him.
He beamed and blushed, trying to contain his excitement. Oh, boy! he thought to himself. A communion present!
She patted him on the shoulder, looked up at the green light, and nodded for him to scamper across the avenue. On the other side he turned to look back. His mother smiled and waved. The boy raised his arm. Suddenly he frowned. Behind his mother he saw the painting man slowly approaching up the street. . . .
He waved weakly again, lowered his arm, and turned around. The older girl rose from the couch and un-zippered the sides of her skirt, letting it fall to her ankles. Her legs were in brown hose and laced by white garters that inched up her thighs and disappeared into pink panties. A dark triangle shimmered at her crotch.
She picked up the skirt, folded it neatly, and draped it over a chair, her pink-pantied bottom quivering at the boy. She removed her blouse and placed it atop the skirt. Her large bosom was compressed by a tight white bra that pushed her bulbous breasts out of the bra cups. Drops of perspiration gleamed at her cleavage. She stood for a moment, her arms akimbo, then gathered up her clothes and left the room.
The boy moved away from the window and sat down in his chair. He had avidly watched the older girl undress and his penis stiffened. He wished the girl had not left the room. Maybe she’d come back naked.
It was strange; though he was afraid of her, he liked when she pretended he was her boyfriend. She would press herself to him and clasp him tightly and it felt nice. She would tease and touch and gently guide, pulling his hands along her body. He would cuddle and caress, knead and massage, till she groaned and shivered and faintly smiled, passing him on to the younger girl who would vainly try to imitate her satisfied sister.
But the younger girl was rough and crude; she bit rather than kissed, scratched instead of fondled. She would push and pound and claw and pinch until the two tousled and disheveled children would lay exhausted and spent, panting as if weakened by childish brawling rather than having successfully mimicked adult lovemaking. The boy did not like the younger girl.
He shifted the erection in his pants and held his hands in his lap.
The two girls returned shortly and sat on the couch, ignoring the boy opposite them. The older girl carried a makeup kit and looked at herself in a small mirror.
“Did the dancing teacher ask about me?” she asked her sister, pursing her lips in the mirror.
“I told him you were sick,” replied the younger girl, and then gushed. “Tell me what happened with your boyfriend.”
“Oh, God!” cried the older girl, glaring at her sister. “How many times do I have to tell you? He’s not my boyfriend!”
She opened a bottle of facial cream and poured a dab onto her palm. “I met him after school,” she said, looking in the mirror and applying the cream to her cheeks. She smoothed the cream on her face and it covered her flesh deeply and richly, glistening on her cheeks and nose. She handed the bottle to her sister and the younger girl followed suit.
“What else?” asked the younger girl, smearing the facial cream along her forehead. “Tell me.”
“There’s nothing to tell,” sighed the older girl. “We went to his house and all he did was feel my tits.” She examined both sides of her face.
“What else?” asked her sister. “C’mon, tell me!”
“Nothing!” the older girl said. “He shot in his pants.”
“Huh?” the younger girl looked at her sister, then started to giggle. “What a creep!”
“Yeah,” agreed the older girl. “He only felt my tits about three times and then groans and apologizes. The creep apologizes for shooting in his pants!”
The younger girl snorted in disgust and shook her head; the older girl glanced at the boy. “They’re all alike,” she said. “First they can’t wait to do it, and then they can’t even do it right. Creeps!” Her nostrils puffed. She sighed, looked in the mirror and continued her facial adornment.
The two girls gossiped and talked of sex and applied dark pencils to their eyebrows and mascara to their lashes. They talked of sex and tinted their eyelids and smeared lipstick on their mouths. After they talked of sex and preened and giggled, they soon resembled lustily made-up store-window mannequins: sexual, but bland and corpse-like, the makeup hiding and disfiguring true expression — smiles turned to frowns and sadness smirking grotesquely.
It was as if adornment and decoration had freed them from all inhibition and innocence, giving them free rein to loosen their desires and fulfill imagined needs. Yet that freedom was based on falseness: sweet sensuality perverted into gutter prostitution; teasing and inviting, beckoning and tempting, fulfilling its promise of sex and lust, purchase and payment, copulation and pleasure, but also its finality of deception and fraud, frustration and defeat, humiliation and withdrawal, masturbation and wasted pleasure.
They quickly ran out of makeup.
The older girl glanced in the mirror, ran her tongue along her lips, then looked at the boy. He sat in his chair, his legs crossed beneath him, his hands in his lap, his penis stiff in his pants, staring fascinated at the girls, engrossed by their transformation.
The older girl separated her legs slightly. “C’mere,” she called, crossing her arms over her chest and clutching her shoulders.
The boy did not move.
“Hey!” she called again. “C’mere!” She lowered her arms down her chest, clasping the front of her bra and pulling it down to expose her breasts. She circled her fingertips around the stiff nipples, then clasped the breasts from underneath and lifted them, squeezing and massaging and rubbing. She opened her mouth and lowered her head and darted her tongue atop a nipple. “C’mere,” she moaned.
“Yeah!” her sister said, and jumped from the couch. “Bring that cock over here!” She grabbed his wrist and pulled him off the chair. He limped after her, and she flung him onto the couch next to her sister.
The older girl reached for his crotch. “Jesus!” she said, groping between his legs. “He’s hard as hell!”
The younger girl reached out and wriggled her hand atop his crotch. “Horny little creep,” she hissed, squeezing his hard penis.
The boy winced and pulled away from her.
“Let go,” said the older girl, pushing her sister’s hand away. “If I didn’t get any this afternoon maybe I can get some now.” She pulled him between her outspread legs and lay back on the couch. “Hmm,” she moaned.
She wrapped her legs around him and began to kiss his face. Her breath was heavy and moist. He cringed but she held him and stuck her tongue in his ear, then pulled his mouth atop hers, probing his clenched teeth with her tongue. Her thick lipstick smeared his face and he slackened his jaws; their tongues met and he tasted the girl’s saliva, surprising and strange and enticing. He did not pull back or feel as repelled as he had from the fat man’s sour taste, darting his tongue against the girl’s as she plunged deeper and deeper towards his throat.
Suddenly she jerked her head away and wiped her mouth. She twisted and rolled atop him, straddling his torso, grinding and bouncing her hips on his crotch. She grabbed his hands and lifted them to her chest, and he automatically began squeezing and massaging. She grew frantic and bounced faster and faster; he jerked his hips up to meet her pulsations, when suddenly, she spasmed and shivered and collapsed atop him, shuddering and clutching him.
For a moment they lay together, panting and heaving, the boy smothered by the girl’s weight atop him, her hot breath pulsing against the side of his face. Then the girl pushed herself up, crawled off, and fell into the chair opposite the couch.
Her red lipstick was smeared up the side of her cheeks; the dark mascara around her glassy brown eyes was smudged and blotched. Her body glistened in moisture and her damp panties clung to her torso as if smeared on.
The boy tried to sit up but the younger girl grabbed his crotch and held him down. “Do you have to pee?” she anxiously asked, kneeling before him and groping his legs.
He shook his head.
The girl stared at him, her mouth open, the gray metal braces on her front teeth cold and threatening. She fumbled with his zipper and jerked down his pants and shorts. His stiff penis arched above his thighs, and the girl reached out and squeezed. Her hand was warm and soft, but she jerked too roughly and rapidly, burning the inner flesh of his penis as her hand tugged and tore back the tender uncut foreskin.
Suddenly she lowered her head and snuggled between his thighs, pulling his pants and shorts lower down his legs. She wet her lips and flicked her tongue against the head of his penis. It jerked and she caught it in her mouth, sucking and bobbing her head up and down.
Her sharp biting braces ripped into his flesh. He cringed and tried to pull away, but the girl only bit him harder and swallowed deeper and bobbed her face more rapidly against his thin belly and outspread thighs.
The older girl, who had been sitting in the chair, her hand down her damp panties, rose from her seat and approached the couch. She rubbed her hand between her legs and dangled it before the boy’s face. He darted his head aside as she smeared her moist fingers on his lips and nostrils. The strong odor swept in his mouth and his eyes watered; he gagged and heaved and the girl struck him on the side of his face.
“You pig!” she said.
The boy touched his reddening cheek and looked at the girl in fear. She cursed and lowered her panties, tossing them aside. She grabbed the boy’s hand and pulled it between her legs. His fingers winced at the touch of her wet hairs, and he tried to jerk away, but the girl clutched his hand and straightened his fingers and hoisted them into herself. She yelped, her face contorted, then she lowered her torso and began pumping the boy’s fingers in and out of her body.
She pulled his hand out and dropped down atop him, straddling his shoulders, her nyloned thighs rubbing against his face. He jerked from side to side, so the girl grabbed his head and lifted it into the hairy bush between her legs. He recoiled and spasmed, muffled dry heaves tearing at his throat.
“Open your mouth!” the girl screamed. “Open your mouth!”
Wet hairy flesh seared his lips and jarred them open as an acrid taste swept over his tongue; it was noxious, harsh, pungent. Coarse brittle hairs pried into his teeth, his eyes watered, and he continued to gag. He felt himself suffocating and he wanted to flee, to sleep, to disappear.
Suddenly the older girl atop him froze. She let go of his head and looked towards the kitchen doorway. The sound of sucking and slurping echoed in the quiet room as the younger girl continued her nursing at the boy’s crotch. The boy wriggled his hand to his face and desperately scratched his nose and mouth. He heard the eerie creepy sound of a key being inserted into a lock. He looked up at the girl. She also heard it and stared down at him in panic. She leaped off his chest and grabbed at her sister between the boy’s legs. The younger girl looked up in glazed confusion and seemed reluctant to expel the boy’s penis from her mouth.
“Father’s coming!” the older girl hissed in terror.
The younger girl spat out the penis and jumped from the couch, saliva dribbling from her mouth as she ran from the room. There was a clatter at the door and the doorknob rattled violently.
“Get dressed!” the older girl shrilled at the boy. “Hurry up!” She bolted from the room.
The boy rose from the couch and pulled up his shorts. The cotton fabric burned the exposed head of his penis; he reached in his shorts and pulled the tight skin painfully back over his dry penis tip and positioned it upright against his belly. He zippered his pants and slipped into his shoes, then wiped his mouth and wished he could spit out the girl’s bitter taste.
The older girl hurried back in the room, wearing a blouse and dungarees. Her makeup had been hastily wiped off, yet evident smudges remained around her eyes and lips. Her beehive hairdo was disheveled and dark ringlets dangled about her neck and temples. She pulled the boy to her, wiped her smudged lipstick off his face with her sleeve, and straightened out his rumpled clothes.
There was a pounding at the front door.
“Just a minute!” the girl called, and turned to the boy. “You’d better keep quiet,” she glared at him, waving a fist before his face. “Or else you’ll get it.”
Outside the front door there was laughter and again the clatter of the shaking doorknob. The boy recognized his father’s voice and that of his godmother’s husband, the father of the girls. The men sounded boisterous and merry, and the boy knew they were drunk.
The older girl looked the boy over and glanced about the room. She snatched up the makeup kit and hurried to the kitchen, fumbling with the front door locks.
The boy sat down in the chair and spotted the pink panties the older girl had discarded by the couch. He quickly stooped down and picked them up. They were damp. He grimaced but crushed them into a small tight ball and shoved them into his back pocket. He heard the two men enter the apartment as he sat down.
“Why did we have to wait so long?” the girl’s father shouted in the kitchen.
“We were in the other room,” the girl replied.
The boy’s father trudged into the living room and looked stupidly at his son. “What the hell are you doing here?” he bellowed.
“Godmother brought me here,” the boy stammered, his eyes watering.
The boy’s father stared at him and weaved from side to side. He was shabbily dressed in soiled work clothes and looked grubby and tired. His job as housewrecker, tearing down old buildings, was dirty and brutal. No matter how diligently and often he washed and scrubbed his face and hands and body, he could never remove the smell of old broken concrete and cement soot from his pores; his flesh seemed permeated with tiring toil.
He fell exhausted into a chair and called his son to him. The boy approached and quickly kissed the man on his proffered stubbled cheek. The aroma of stagnant alcohol wafted into the boy’s nostrils, and he backed away from the man.
“Huh? Godmother brought you here?” his father asked, squinting at the boy. His face was yellow and bloated and his skin was stretched tightly over his cheek bones as if ready to rip and peel off. His mouth drooped and hung open. He licked and loudly smacked his lips. “Godmother?” he repeated, as if roused from sleep.
The girls’ father entered the room carrying a bottle of beer in each hand. He looked at the boy, handed a bottle to the seated man, then collapsed onto the couch with his legs outspread before him. Like the boy’s father, he was similarly dressed, grubby and smelly, but not as carelessly drunk. He thumped his boots on the floor and greedily gulped down the beer.
The two men were of equal age and had been through World War II together. Each carried that lingering sad air — both peculiar and distinctive — of the survivor about them, yet the girls’ father was more robust and lively than the boy’s father, who seemed more an unlucky victim of the war than a fortunate survivor. The exhausting demolition work commingled with the painful war experience did not seem to drain the girls’ father as much or as brutally as it did the boy’s father. Like his wife, the girls’ father was outgoing and robust, ready to express himself at any moment.
“Hey! What’s the kid doin’ here?” the girls’ father yelled, and again thumped his boots on the floor.
The older girl came into the living room from the kitchen. With the men there her confident and assertive manner had changed. She seemed timid, not only shy and self-conscious, but actually frightened.
“Mother left you a note,” she said softly, holding out a piece of paper.
“A note?” the man looked up, surprised. He took the note from his daughter and stared blankly at the page, then looked back at the girl and sniffed.
“Are you wearing perfume?” he asked, glaring at her.
The girl blushed and stepped back, frantically shaking her head.
The man looked at the paper. “What kind of fuckin’ chicken scratching is this?” he mumbled to himself, turning the paper over and looking at the girl.
The girl turned to the boy’s father. “Your wife is in the hospital,” she quickly blurted out, not looking at her father.
“Something happened at home and the police came and the ambulance took her away.”
She gestured at the boy. “Mother brought him here from school,” she said, and quickly stepped back and paused in the doorway to the other room, looking at the two men.
The boy’s father stared vacantly at the girl and tried to sit up in his chair. He appeared to sober slightly, and his glassy eyes struggled to focus as he strained to concentrate and assess the information the girl had just related.
“Hospital . . . something at home . . . boy from school . . . ambulance . . . ach!”
It was an incoherent jumble. He closed his eyes as if in pain and ran his hand through his flat thinning hair. Suddenly he looked angry and leaped from his chair. Just as quickly he lost his balance and fell backwards, bounding off the chair’s armrest and sprawling onto the floor, the beer bottle rolling from his hands.
The girl’s father darted from the couch and rushed to the fallen man. He propped him up and leaned him against the front of the chair.
“I . . . have to . . .” the boy’s father mumbled, trying to rise.
“Sit still,” the other man said, holding him down. “Just sit still.”
“I . . . must . . .”
The boy picked up the beer bottle his father dropped and stared at the glistening suds. They shimmered and fizzed atop the linoleum and ran in rivulets towards the center of the floor. The boy thought of the man he had seen lying in a puddle on the street, and he suddenly realized he needed to go to the bathroom. He had been holding himself in since his erection went down. Clenching his thighs, he tried to move slowly out of the room.
“I . . . have to . . .” mumbled the boy’s father, gazing confused about him.
The other man succeeded in hoisting him off the floor and sitting him up in the chair.
The boy edged around the two men and saw his father looking at him vacantly. The boy took a step, and his father reached out to catch his arm.
“Oh, my son!” the man spluttered, as if recognizing him for the first time. He pulled the boy to him and clasped his shoulders, and the boy cringed from the caresses as the man rubbed his hard bristled face against the boy’s tender cheeks.
“My only son!” he drooled.
The boy’s bladder was clenching and squeezing, his bloated belly churning and gripping. He tried to break away from his father’s sticky clasp, but the man cuddled and petted and held on to the boy.
“What’s this?” he suddenly asked, pawing the boy’s bulging back pocket. “What have you got there?”
The boy froze. His eyes widened and he stared at his father in disbelief. The man inserted his fingers into the boy’s pocket and pulled out the older girl’s panties. He held them to the light and seemed confused by the flimsy material.
“What’s this?” he slobbered, recognizing the satin material and elastic waist. “What are you doing with this?” He seemed incredibly sober and shook the panties before the boy’s lowered face.
“Look at what he’s playing with now,” he turned to the other man, waving the panties in the air. “Next he’ll be wanting to wear them!”
The girl’s father looked at his older daughter. Her face was white and her lips were clenched.
“He was trying to steal them!” she blurted out, her timidity gone. She grabbed the panties from the man’s fingers and ran out of the room.
“Steal them?” the boy’s father said, squinting after the girl.
There was no trace of drunkenness about him. He appeared lucid and sober and justified in his indignation. “Steal them? I’ll give you steal them!”
He grabbed the boy and brutally shook him, then pulled the boy across his lap, raising his arm and forcefully bringing it down on the boy’s backside. The boy spasmed from the harsh blow, but his father struck him again. The boy cried and screamed and twisted as his father pounded his body viciously and repeatedly.
Suddenly his father’s arm paused in mid-air, and he looked at his open palm. He snorted in disgust and flung the boy off his lap. “Ugh!” he shouted. “What are you doing now? What the hell are you doing?”
The boy fell to the floor and let go of the beer bottle he held in his hands; it rolled across the linoleum, spewing foamy beer in its path. He lay still and whimpered. Urine poured from him and a puddle spread around his thighs.
The boy’s father leaped from his seat and brushed at the wet stain on his lap. “I’ll show you!” he screamed, and rammed his booted foot into the boy’s side. “I’ll show you, you fuckin’ little piss-pot!”
The boy doubled over. The man stooped down and grabbed his head and hurled it into the wet linoleum. “This is the only way to teach you!” he roared, smearing the boy’s face into the urine and beer puddle.
The girls’ father, who had made no attempt to stop the earlier paddling, now roused himself and rushed at the man. He tried to pull him off the boy, but the boy’s father pushed him aside and continued grinding the boy’s face into the wet linoleum. He lifted the boy’s head and again flung it to the floor. The boy gasped and tried to spit out the beer and piss flooding his throat; blood seeped from his nose and mouth, and he felt himself going limp.
His father let go of the boy’s head, straightened up, and kicked him in the side of his chest. The girls’ father lunged at the man and tackled him to the ground. His drunkenness seemed to have suddenly returned, and he looked perplexed at his son lying inches from him.
“Jesus!” he mumbled.
The boy lay still, his face resting in the sour puddle around him, little reddish bubbles gurgling from his mouth and nostrils.
THE BOY AWOKE FEVERISH AND CHILLED, his throat sore, his body aching. He touched his face. It was puffy and tender, his lips and nose numb. Slowly he tugged the blanket down to his legs and moaned.
The side of his chest and waist throbbed painfully. He lifted his head and looked at his crotch and grimaced. His underwear was damp and clung to his clammy torso. He inserted his fingers into the tattered waistband of his shorts and clutched his flaccid penis. He winced, jerked his hand out, and lowered the front of his shorts. The penis was raw and ravaged; brownish red splotches circled the flesh where the girl’s teeth and braces tore at his skin. He touched the wounds and buckled: they burned. He blew a breath of air onto the penis, then pulled up at the front of his shorts and turned on his side.
He listened. In the kitchen, a ticking clock beat slowly. The rest of the house was still. He was tired and sore and felt as if he had not even slept.
He looked towards the window. Dawn was easing its way into the day, and the buds of the growing tree stood poised in the gray light to catch the certain warm rays of the rising sun.
The boy sighed and turned away, not bothering to look if any new buds had blossomed. A bluish morning haze was quickly seeping into the room; it was calm and peaceful yet filled with expectancy.
He touched his lips and looked towards the already sun-lit living room. The linoleum gleamed in the morning light as if sprinkled and splattered with water. The boy stared at the floor and touched his face.
There’s nothing wrong with him! his father had shouted, and pulled him off the wet floor at his godmother’s house, as the two girls peered in from the doorway to the other room. Their own father grappled with the man and shoved him down on the couch, bustling the boy out of the room. He ordered his older daughter to take care of the boy, and she quickly dabbed his face with water and gently washed the blood from his mouth and nose. The boy stopped crying and stared wide-eyed and mute, as if unfamiliar with his surroundings.
In the other room the two men threatened and screamed at each other until the boy’s father burst into the kitchen and grabbed the boy’s arm yelling, He’s my son so don’t tell me what to do! and marched the boy out of the house. The father’s footsteps were rapid and pounding but slightly weaving as though his drunkenness flirted and allowed some lucidity to come through but just as easily overcame the well-intentioned but too-late attempt at sobriety.
The boy trailed limply after his father with his large steps. Eventually he was dragged along. He succeeded in getting home without further blows and hastened to his room, undressing in the dark and crawling into bed in his wet underwear.
In the kitchen his father stumbled about flinging pots and pans, then the boy heard the front door open and close. He bolted upright and listened. The house was quiet. He stared at the doorway to the dark living room, disbelieving he had been left alone in the apartment at night. He was frightened and wanted to run after his father. Why hadn’t he come into the bedroom as he usually did when he was drunk?
The boy looked at the dark window and clutched his pillow, soon falling into a restless sleep, jerking his legs and tossing the cover about. Once there was a loud noise that jolted him upright; he looked about the dark room, panting and sweating and trying to remember where he was. There were footsteps in the other room, and he shuddered and closed his eyes, settling again back into a fitful sleep from which he did not awaken till daylight.
The boy pushed himself up, holding his breath from the pain in his side, and dangled his legs over the edge of the bed, staring at his stockinged feet. In his haste to go to bed he had kept his socks on, and the dirt-caked heels and toes now chafed and irritated his skin. He pulled the socks off and flung them beneath the twisted chair in his room. He eased himself off the bed, his toes curling and wiggling atop the crisp cold floor. He paused in the doorway to the living room.
Sunlight streaked through the curtains of the room and played merrily on the flower-patterned floor and wallpaper. It crept about the shoddy furniture and dispelled the gloom that seemed to pervade the apartment.
The boy squinted and stepped on the bright bouquet floor. He peered into his parents’ room. A clothed contorted figure lay face down on the bed breathing heavily. The foul raspy alcohol snorts of the sleeping figure were rapacious and desperate; the vile stench of dirty clothes and unwashed flesh rushed at the boy. He gagged, his mouth watering, his eyes tearing.
He took a step back and bolted into the kitchen. He spat into the sink, then hoisted himself up and stuck his mouth to the tap. He turned on the spigot and the brackish water spewed into his mouth and ran down his sore throat, but he drank too quickly and swallowed too greedily, making him cough and sneeze and the water spurt from his nostrils as he almost tottered off the sink. He caught himself just in time, clutching the faucet and splashing water on his arms and chest.
He spat out, wiped his nose, and turned the spigot down a bit, then again lowered his mouth to the tap and sipped slowly, noticing how strange and heavy his lips felt rimming the cold metal tap.
He turned off the water and leaped off the sink, yelping as a spasm of pain jolted up from the floor and sped up his legs and through his torso and rocked his chest. He held onto the sink. The pain pushed around his neck and seemed to puff out his face and eyes. He realized he could not clamp his teeth together or stick his tongue out farther than his fat bloated lips. He waited, and the pain seemed to move back down his body to his legs and return through his feet to the floor.
He stepped away from the sink and went to the bathroom. He shuddered in disgust. The putrid stench of festering piss and shit surged into his nostrils and stabbed his watery eyes. He desperately tried not to move his body needlessly and reached for the toilet chain to flush down the rancid contents of the bowl.
He detested his father’s vile habit of not flushing after himself, and often whenever the man was at home, the boy resisted as long as possible using the bathroom once his father had been in. Who was he trying to impress with his shit? It was disgusting!
He leaned against a wall and held his hand to his nose and breathed through his mouth. He wiped his eyes and the water in the bowl bubbled, slurped, and grew still. There was a gentle sprinkling hiss as the wooden tank high up on the wall refilled with fresh clean water.
The boy lowered his damp shorts and sat down on the toilet seat. A buzzing fart escaped his bowels and a thin trickle of urine dribbled into the bowl. He strained and pushed, but nothing further came. He stood and pulled up his underwear, then frowned and wrinkled his face. Were the underpants damp from the previous night or had he peed in his bed anew?
He flushed and left the toilet, inching past his parents’ room, and returned to his own room. He spread his hands along the bed and felt the mattress. The sheet was damp and clammy, the plastic beneath the sheet crinkling accusingly.
He sighed, pulled the blanket over the sheet, and sat at the foot of the bed. He scratched his waist and tugged the damp underwear off his legs, draping them over a bedpost; a few streams of elastic at the waistband had come undone and hung limply about the soiled garment. The boy pulled on the stringy elastic and snapped it against the bedpost.
He leaned and sniffed: the cotton shorts reeked of urine and were yellowed at the crotch. He sighed and rose from the bed, going to his small clothes cabinet and pulling open a drawer. Except for a t-shirt, the rest of the drawer was bare. Usually he had a week’s supply of clean underwear, which would normally last him until Saturday when his mother did the wash, but because of his accident in school earlier in the week, he had worn through this week’s allotment.
He pulled open another drawer and stared at his folded dungarees. They looked as fresh and crisp as if they were new, and the many washings his mother had already put them through still had not faded their rich blueness or sapped their rough resilience. He pulled them out and returned to bed. He always wore them on Saturdays and would do so today; the nun had said nothing about dressing for confession.
He lay down on the bed and slipped beneath the blanket, maneuvering himself so as not to lay on the damp part of the mattress. For a while he rested his head on his bundled dungarees, but they were too rough and hard. He tossed them on the floor and reached for his pillow.
Brownish streaks smeared the pillowcase where the blood from the wounds on his lips and nose had opened and seeped during the night. He scratched at the dried streaks of blood and touched his nose. It was large and tender. His entire face seemed different. When he moved his mouth the lips felt numb and awkward; when he blinked his eyes the eyeballs felt puffed out; when he tweaked his nose the nostrils twinged to drip and sniffle; when he moved his jaw and neck it was as if a new layer of heavy skin had grown over his head in the night.
He turned the stained side of the pillow down and lay on the clean side. For a long time he remained very still and stared about the room. It was a small, sparsely furnished room with dingy blue walls and a bleary gray ceiling with flaking paint; a bare light bulb dangled over the bed, a thin cord hanging from the light socket.
In the corner his small clothes cabinet stood next to the broken chair that wobbled precariously. His father had once thrown the chair in a drunken rage and twisted the metal legs so they tottered lopsided. The chair had been relegated to the boy’s room where he often sat and wove from tilted leg to tilted leg till his father would storm into the room and yell for him to stop the clamorous drumming.
His father was always complaining about some racket or other. Many times he would sit clutching his head, his face in a gruesome grimace, tormented by an inner noise that shook him with violent headaches and explosive anger. It seemed things were always too loud for him: the radio was tuned up too loudly; the woman spoke too loudly; the upstairs neighbor paced too loudly; the boy played too loudly. Yet the man seemed to have an inconsistent need for silence: he wanted things quiet, yet when he was drunk, created the greatest uproar of all.
The boy noticed the room darkening and looked out the window. The sunlight had faded and the sky was clouded. A misty rain had begun to fall, streaking the glass in steady long tears that slid gently to the wooden casing. The sound was soothing and hypnotic, beating softly against the glass. He stared at the branches weaving in the slow wind and drifted back to sleep.
There was a loud banging. He curled up and pulled the blanket tighter about him. The banging sounded again and he bolted upright. He sat still, breathing heavily, and thought he had dreamt it. The banging came from the other room.
He jumped out of bed and groaned, his side aching. After sliding on his damp underpants, he slunk from the room, glancing at his sleeping father and frowning at the smell that hovered about the apartment. He held his breath and inched to the front door. There was loud knocking and the door shook violently.
“Who is it?” he stammered.
“Let me in!” his godmother ordered.
He fumbled with the latches and opened the door. His godmother gasped. She bent down and pulled him to her, hugging him and stroking his hair. He began to cry and held onto her. Her rain-wet sweater itched his bare arms, and the umbrella she carried wet his backside, but he didn’t care. She picked him up and cradled him, and he saw the old woman neighbor standing strangely quiet at the end of the hall as his godmother slammed the door with her foot. The boy clung to her, resting his head on her shoulder and glancing at his schoolbag in the woman’s hands — strange, he must have forgotten it in her apartment. He closed his eyes. It felt so good to be hugged and carried and taken care of. He wished she would carry him away.
“Where’s your father?” she asked angrily.
“Sleeping,” he mumbled in her ear, and lifted his head off her shoulder.
Her mouth was clenched, and her eyes and forehead were wrinkled and drawn together. Her red hair was darkened from beads of rain, and her lips and nose glistened with moisture. She carried the boy to the kitchen table and set him down on top. He dangled his legs over the edge and suddenly remembered his mother had once said it was a sin to sit or climb up on the table because bread was eaten at the table and bread represented Jesus; he didn’t want to hurt Jesus and struggled to climb down.
“Sit still,” his godmother ordered. She tossed her wet umbrella into the sink and draped her wet sweater over a chair to dry. She ran water onto a small towel and wiped the dried blood off the boy’s face. He winced as she rubbed his nose, but the cool cloth was refreshing and it seemed as if the puffiness and hurt on his face were being wiped away. He wished she would wash him and give him clean underpants to put on.
“Did you eat anything?” she asked.
He shook his head.
She picked him off the table and set him down on the floor.
“Go get dressed,” she said, kissing the top of his head.
He picked up his schoolbag and hurried to his room, grabbing his dungarees off the floor and tugging them up his legs. The blue denim squeezed his thighs and crotch tightly, so he squatted on his haunches to soften the rough material and make it pliant. He picked up the grimed socks he had slept in and slipped them on; they bit and itched at the ankles and made him curl his toes, but he had no choice but to keep them on. He bent down and from beneath the dresser pulled out a pair of bedraggled sneakers and slowly laced them on his feet.
He glanced down at the front of his t-shirt. It seemed clean; just a few specks of dried brown blood. He opened a drawer of the cabinet and looked at the remaining clean t-shirt. He would save it for Sunday.
From another drawer he pulled out a tan long-sleeved shirt, slipped it on, and buttoned it. He reached for the pants he had worn the previous day and went through the pockets, pulling out his godmother’s quarter, along with the dollar and quarter his mother had given him such a long time before. If only he had told her the truth then, that he was not allowed to go to the movies because he was bad, perhaps she would be all right now? He sighed, staring at the bill and coins, then tossed his godmother’s coin in a little bank he had; three pennies were in the bank already.
Suddenly a harsh, blaring noise swept through the dingy apartment; the boy started and stared wide-eyed at the doorway to his room. His godmother had turned on the small radio in the kitchen, and a raucous melody raced about the rooms. The screeching volume of sound strained the tiny speaker of the radio and produced a blaring brassy yawp hardly discernable as music. The boy bolted from his room to turn it down; it was a new radio and he didn’t want to lose this one, too.
One morning as the boy’s mother played the radio too loudly, his hung-over and still-drunk father raged into the kitchen and flung the blaring radio against a wall, shattering the delicate tubes and crystals into a useless mass. The radio was beyond repair, and it was a long time before a new one was purchased.
The boy froze in the doorway. Before him, his father came staggering out of the bedroom. The man clutched the doorframe, momentarily balancing himself, then propelled himself into the kitchen.
The boy drew back to his room. From the kitchen there was loud shouting and cursing, yet his godmother’s voice was as voluble as his father’s. The man would threaten and the woman would dare him to act on his threat. He would respond by cursing and yelling and warning her a final time; she would laugh and curse back and dare him again as the radio continued to blare and squawk.
Suddenly there was a slap and something heavy fell to the kitchen floor followed by a scream from his godmother, then muffled grunts and groans.
The boy crept from his room and inched towards the kitchen. His godmother was on her hands and knees with her face pressed to the floor. Her dress was hoisted up around her waist and her panties were slipped to one side. The boy’s father knelt behind the woman, gripping her by the waist. His pants were lowered and his skinny thighs smacked crudely against the woman’s flesh. The couple moved rhythmically and moaned in chaotic grunts and snorts. They panted and gasped and the boy heard his father fart.
He turned away from the couple and returned to his room. The loud music drowned out the grunting pair on the kitchen floor, and the boy sat on his bed, his head resting against the bedpost. He felt as if he were alone in the apartment. 98 He glanced at the window. Outside, the rain slashed heavily against the glass, and the branches of the tree snapped frantically back and forth. The boy closed his eyes and wondered where he could have gone if it rained on the day of the class trip.
From the kitchen his godmother screamed again. The boy stiffened and he stared at the doorway. Outside, a strong gust rattled the window and the boy jerked his head off the post; rain drops streamed down the glass and gathered on the sill. The boy shivered and lay on the bed again.
The radio was turned off and the apartment was quiet. In the kitchen there was movement, but it was slow, hesitant and wary. The boy wished he were outside. He shut his eyes. Someone shuffled through the living room and stood in the doorway to his room. He sensed being stared at and remained very still, as if he were sleeping.
The footsteps retreated and the boy looked up. From his bed he could see into the dimly lighted living room and his father staggering to the couch. He was naked from the waist down, clad only in a t-shirt that showed off his skinny buttocks. He fell on the couch and his head dropped back. He appeared to have fallen asleep, though one hand continued stroking and squeezing his genitals; the boy marveled at the size of his father’s large glistening penis.
The boy heard the toilet flush and his godmother went into the living room. Her hair was mussed and her dress draped awkwardly about her.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” he heard her say. “Don’t you know the boy is in the apartment?”
The man jerked his head up and snorted, then leaned over and spat into an ashtray on an end table. “Fuck ‘im!” he said, wiping his mouth. “C’mere!”
He pulled back the skin of his penis and exposed the top of the bloated red cock-head. For a moment the woman stared at the penis — hesitant, uncertain — then blinked and shook her head and turned away from the man.
The boy shut his eyes again. He heard the woman enter his room and sit down on the edge of his bed. She placed a hand on his shoulder and roused him. He pretended to waken and turned to face her. She smiled awkwardly.
“Get dressed,” she said. “You’re coming with me.”
“I have to be in church at one,” said the boy, faking a yawn.
“There’s plenty of time,” the woman assured him.
She bent down to kiss him, but the boy pushed out of her way and sat up. The woman looked at him and lowered her head. Her freckled face was flushed and tired-looking and she seemed embarrassed. She sat quietly for a moment, pondering and stroking the bed with her fingers, then stood up and without looking at the boy, left the room. The man called to her as she walked through the living room, but she ignored him and went to the kitchen.
The boy looked at his father; he had lit a cigarette and continued to caress his genitals. The woman returned with her sweater draped round her shoulders and her hair covered with a kerchief. Her dress was aligned on her body; she clutched her damp umbrella in one hand.
“Let’s go,” she said to the boy, reaching for his hand.
The boy grabbed his raincoat and followed the woman, glancing at his father on the couch. The man was dozing off, his head tilted to one side, his mouth open, his tongue protruding from his lips. The cigarette burned in the crook of his limp fingers while his other hand still clutched his now-flaccid penis.
“The cigarette,” the boy said, looking at his godmother.
The woman let go of the boy’s hand, and he went to his father to remove the burning cigarette from the man’s limp fingers. His father did not move. The boy stubbed out the cigarette and gagged as the ember sizzled out in the sputum-filled ashtray. He glanced at his father’s soft wet penis, then cleared his throat and followed his godmother out the door.
Outside the rain had stopped, and the sun was breaking through the lingering clouds. The rain-slick puddled avenue was already filled with early morning Saturday shoppers. The woman and boy weaved through the already crowded avenue as if they were evading something and impatient with the sauntering people who blocked their progress.
They passed acquaintances of the woman, who paused to talk with her, but she simply greeted them and hurried on, leaving the acquaintances staring curiously after her and the boy’s bloated face. He tried keeping up with his godmother, but she was always a step or two ahead of him. As he trailed after her, he wished she had left him at home; he did not want to be with her. He resented being dragged all over the place by this woman. Why was she butting in? He squirmed his hand out of the woman’s palm and stuck it in his pocket, fingering the smooth quarter and crinkly dollar bill. He’d buy something after confession — when he was rid of the woman — when he was alone. He even smiled to himself; heck, he even had another quarter in his little bank at home; things were looking good.
The pair finally came to the woman’s house, and the boy followed her up the stairs, hoping the girls would not be home; luckily they were out. His godmother fixed him some scrambled eggs with toast, and he gobbled down his breakfast sitting at the kitchen table. He had not eaten since the day before and the food was delicious!
When he finished eating he went to the bathroom, pulled down his pants and sat on the toilet, glad to be rid of his itchy underpants. He briskly scratched his thighs and lower back and watched as the skin turned a bright streaky red. He sat awhile, and when nothing came, wiped himself anyway and flushed. Reluctantly he pulled the itchy soiled underpants back up his legs, zippered his dungarees, and left the bathroom.
In the living room he glanced at the floor where he had urinated the night before, and wondered if the stains had been wiped away or if the puddle had been left to dry on its own.
He sat in the chair and touched his nose. It was tender. He ran his fingers along his face. The cheeks still felt puffy, but the swelling about his lips seemed to have gone down. He pulled a piece of loose skin on his cracked lower lip and winced as he ripped it off; a small splotch of blood bubbled up on his lip. He licked it with his tongue and examined the torn-off skin. It was gray and ragged; he rolled it between his fingers and flicked it away.
He thought of returning to the bathroom to look in the mirror but remained in his chair. He yawned. In the other room he could hear the woman rummaging about.
She came in carrying a sackful of dirty clothes and placed them by the door. Unlike his mother, who washed the family clothes by hand because his father would not stand for her to spend money on the Laundromat, his godmother had no such compunction.
“What time do you have to be in church?” she asked.
“One,” the boy replied.
It was almost noon. “Will you be able to get to church alone? I have to do the laundry.”
The boy nodded, wistfully looking at her bundle and hoping he could toss his underwear into the bulging sack. He remembered a long time before when his mother had gone to the Laundromat and he watched fascinated as their dirty clothes spun and sloshed and rinsed and dried. He recognized many of his own shirts and socks twirling about in the water, and the spinning of the colored clothes made him feel giddy. He was very happy and excited that day and couldn’t wait to get home to change into fresh clothes.
But at home his father confronted them and demanded to know how much the boy’s mother had spent. He accused her of laziness while he himself worked so hard for the money she was always frittering away.
What is wrong with washing the clothes by hand? the man wanted to know. Did she think money grew on trees? Did she think the streets were lined with gold? Did she think everyone lived like a lord and baron? What did she think?
The boy sat quietly in his room and did not change into fresh clothes until the next day, yet somehow his father’s insults had sullied the freshness of the clean clothes and made them seem old and soiled and stained. The boy felt guilty just putting them on.
“Need to go to the bathroom?” his godmother asked.
The boy shook his head. “I just went,” he mumbled, and blushed.
The woman also blushed and looked sadly at the boy. “Let’s go.” She gathered up her sack and held it in front of her.
The Laundromat was on the way to the church, and the boy trailed after the woman as she waddled ahead of him with the laundry sack. It reminded him of the way his mother walked with her big belly; he wondered when she would come home.
He looked up at his godmother. Why was he spending so much time with her? Earlier, when they walked to her house, the boy had briefly clutched her hand; but now, when she wanted him to clasp the side of her dress, he refused to do so. Somehow the warmth and trust he felt for his godmother was receding, and a feeling of distance and aloofness was taking its place. But it wasn’t only his godmother he was disappointed in; since Thursday, when he walked the streets alone, he had come to realize that he could be separated and pushed aside at the whim of any adult. His wishes, his desires, his fears and wants were meaningless to those who fed and clothed him, lectured and befriended him. Their fleeting expressions of warmth and goodness rang suspiciously hollow with the reality of their constant iciness, and whatever affection was offered seemed arbitrary and capricious.
The boy sensed that his parents loved him and that his godmother also cared deeply for him, yet in the midst of their love there hovered the certainty of loss. More and more it permeated his day, and more and more he was forced to respond to it. Lurking approximate to soothing acceptance was the grinning constancy of cold rejection and separation.
If his response was denial, confusion, indifference, flight, and tears, this response was but a buttress and first bulwark in attempting to prepare for and retreat from the coldness about him. Receiving conflicting signals, the boy clung to one brutal truth: being alone was preferable to the fickleness of companionship.
They reached the Laundromat and he was glad to be rid of the woman. She instructed him to go straight to church, watch out for cars, and when he was finished with confession return directly to her house. The boy grimaced and nodded, Yes, yes, he would do so. The woman bent down over her laundry sack and told him to give her a kiss. He pecked her lightly on the proffered cheek and hurried away.
It was a relief to be walking down the street alone. He sensed the woman staring after him but he did not turn around; he did not want to wave at anyone or have anyone wave to him.
At the corner he paused and waited for the light to change, then crossed the avenue and turned right and continued walking. He would take the long way to church; by now he was familiar with the pavements and did not fear getting lost. He walked past store windows he had gazed into Thursday, and they looked as interesting and inviting as they did then. Suddenly he spotted the comic book store. He covered his mouth and darted a glance at the dirty window. How did he pick this block? Past the aisles of second-hand comics he could see the old bald man, a newspaper before him, crouched behind the trinket-strewn counter. There was no one else in the store. The boy felt a tingling in the pit of his stomach as his penis started to swell. Maybe he could buy a comic? He blinked his eyes and looked up the street. His penis had grown hard. He stuck his hand in his pocket and clutched his dollar and quarter. He looked at the man in the store, then shook his head and quickly removed his hand from his pocket and ran up the street, away from the store.
But there was no need to rush; he did not want to arrive too early. He did not want to stand around looking foolish and lonely as if he were eagerly and avidly anticipating the arrival of his classmates. No, he would not do so. He would not stand alone and wait for anyone. He would join them only when they had assembled. It would be less conspicuous and there would be less time for them to taunt him.
Not far from church he saw that a group of children had indeed assembled before the gates of the church, and a nun directed them in a double-file up the stairs. He hurried and joined the tail-end of the line, ignoring the children who looked at his bloated face and gestured amongst themselves. He was grateful the nun did not reproach him for being late.
Though it was a different nun than the nun he had in class, he always felt belittled in the presence of any of them. He knew that some were more equitable than others, yet something sinister lurked about them as a whole. Their black garb signified voluntary poverty and separation from the world; yet their demeanor, rather than being one of humility, manifested an open contempt for laity. Whenever he spotted any of them on the streets or shopping for food in the markets, he could not understand why so many obeisances were paid them. Why did people bow and scrape as though the nuns were icons of purity? If they had chosen their separateness from the world, why lord it over all who didn’t?
What was most contradictory to the nuns’ professed love of God was their treatment of children, particularly the boys. Though a majority of girls in school hovered and groveled about the nuns, the boys made themselves scarce and avoided as much as possible drawing any attention to themselves. Still, in every class there were a few who were singled out to serve as examples to the rest of the class of what awaited them if they misbehaved, and this year the boy felt himself to be just such a scapegoat.
The nun peered curiously at his face, but said nothing about his bruises and ushered him into the dark church. He dipped his fingers in the font by the door and crossed himself, then folded his hands and walked up the center aisle to the pew reserved for boys. The girls were segregated and sat in opposite pews. He wondered if the girls would confess to a nun rather than a priest. He smirked, and instantly regretted it, thinking such a thought might be a sin. The priests and nuns had warned against idle thoughts and said there were many children in hell that had gotten there because they let their minds drift into sin. He wondered if God had slain them instantly.
He closed his eyes and lowered his head. It was very quiet and the church smelled of candles and incense; he liked the smell. Suddenly the familiar strident voice of his nun-teacher echoed through the large church.
He jerked his head up and saw her standing before the altar. In the dark sanctuary she stood misted in gray, but her presence was unmistakable as she bellowed in a loud firm voice.
“Kneel down and recite three Hail Marys!” the nun’s voice admonished the class.
The boy started and stared curiously at her. Never had he heard a nun talk aloud in church — it was the domain of the priests; the nuns bustled about in whispers — and her voice seemed as out of place and alien in the huge cavern as would be the voice of his . . . father, mother, or godmother, if they themselves had come and spoken aloud in church. One would be wary of their statements and certainly question the validity of their authority.
The children shuffled to their knees, and their melodious yet sing-song voices filled the dark church. They sped through the words of the prayer and some finished reciting the phrases sooner than their neighbors. An uneven, cacophonous echo stirred through the church.
At one point the nun raised her own voice as she recited the prayer with them, to bring some order to the din, but she could not slow down the speeding prayers. The boy was glad he was in a pew far from the nun because his own cadence of the prayer was confused and out of sync with those around him, and he did not relish the thought of looking into the nun’s angry and outraged eyes.
The children ended their prayers with scattered Amens resounding through the church. The nun’s shrill voice immediately filled the air. “Now what was that all about?” she cried, her voice a shrill buzzing squawk. “What kind of praying do you call that?”
A cowed silence swept through the awkward congregation as the children cringed in their seats. The nun stalked down the center aisle and glared at the frightened class.
“You will recite the prayer in the proper way,” she shrieked, “or you will sit here all day until you do!”
The children glanced and scowled at each other. They wanted to protest that it was not their fault; they had stayed in cadence; it was their neighbor who was to blame.
“Now, all together!” she buzzed again. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee!” her loud shrill voice began the recital. The children picked up the pace and diligently followed along, the words of the prayer evenly spaced and mouthed slowly and cautiously.
“Blessed art Thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus!”
The boy’s eyes, as those of the other children, were glued to the lips of the nun. He did not want to lose pace with the prayer and mimicked her oration as much as possible.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God!”
The nun paced the aisle in time to the prayer and motioned with her hands in silent rhythm as the children chanted along spellbound. At any moment they knew her hands could fly out and strike at a child’s head and chastise the tiny sinner. The nun wielded the power of God that the children were always threatened with and warned against. God was not humorfilled, understanding, or joyful; he was an angry and spiteful entity who smote His enemies instantly and mercilessly. What should have been a paean of glory to the Mother of God had, for the children, turned into a frightful, morbid, and hopeless foreboding of their own imminent destruction.
“Pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our deaths, Amen!”
An uneasy silence filled the church. The boy waited for the nun to berate the class and make them recite anew the prayer they had just finished, but she seemed pleasantly satisfied with their recital, and her mood changed from one of stern severity to that of tolerant indifference.
She addressed the children in tones totally dissimilar to those used earlier, and the boy could feel some of the tension lifting from the mood of his classmates. He was glad the nun’s attitude had changed: it was unlikely he would now be singled out for some infringement or other.
“I’m certain,” said the nun, looking over the class, “that we have examined our consciences and are ready to ask God for forgiveness?”
“Yes, Sister,” the children hesitantly replied. Their voices echoed in the cavernous church and the boy, though he had just recited the Hail Mary, was slightly surprised by the hollow sound of his own timid voice. He felt it to stand out alone and ring full of guilt. He expected his fellow congregants to turn around and spit at him in disgust, for he had not examined his conscience. He had forgotten to do so and was not even quite sure what “examination of conscience” really meant anyway. Was it simply a re-hashing of one’s sins and evil thoughts, or did it mean looking for the good and sincere acts one was also occasionally prone to do?
He didn’t know. The priests and nuns had always stressed sin — their focus was always on evil. Jesus was always crying in heaven and God was always punishing someone or other; one’s guardian angel departed long ago and one only sank deeper and deeper until the devil smiled and danced with glee. It seemed rather hopeless.
“We will go to confession row by row, just as we practiced at school,” said the nun. “And remember, you are to go straight home after confession and avoid talking to each other.” Her mood changed, and she looked sternly at the class once again, her eyes seeming to burrow into each sinful little face. “Don’t tempt the devil more than you have already done so,” she continued, and gestured to the girls in front. “Now, first row, and girls first!”
The boy watched as the girls in the first aisle, followed by the boys, stood and exited the pews. Each child genuflected and with folded hands walked slowly to the confessionals at the rear of the church.
“The rest of you remain seated,” said the nun, “and continue to examine your consciences. There is to be no talking or moving about! Is that understood?” She followed along behind the row of children.
The boy lowered his head and stared at the frayed footrest at the bottom of the pew. Suddenly he felt his pew-mates stirring and a neighbor poke him in the arm. He looked up and winced. The nun stood at the entrance to the pew and snapped her fingers, motioning for him to rise. In the dark church her white wimple encircled her face like an evil nimbus; he recalled rumors that beneath their starched head-cloths the nuns were bald. He saw his tiny reflection in the nun’s stark steel-rimmed glasses, and her eyes seemed to gaze jealously at the boy’s bloated face.
“You, come with me,” she said. Her voice was crisp, even, and dispassionate, with no anger or rage, which made it all the more terrifying.
The boy rose, fumbled past his neighbors, then exited the pew and tried to genuflect, but the nun stopped him halfway and jerked him upright.
“What do you mean by coming to church in dungarees and sneakers?” she hissed, poking his shoulder.
The boy could see the children in back of the church lining up before the confessionals, the boys in front of one booth, the girls before another. Behind them votive candles glimmered along the walls, and the boy’s eyes pinpointed the candle his mother always lit on Sundays before mass.
It’s for everyone so far away, his mother would say softly, as she dipped a flaming taper into the little glass bowl.
The boy knew vague stories of relatives in other countries, of uncles and aunts and grandparents scattered about in camps, on battlefields, in graveyards. He had heard tales of marches, of flags, of barbed wire and war. He had heard whispers of hunger and pain, and sometimes accusations of deception and betrayal. There were so many guilty, so many innocent.
It’s for the ones who did not survive, his mother sighed, as the candlewick caught hold of the flame and surged up in a spurt of brilliant fire. How long could the candle keep burning?
The boy looked up at the nun and stammered meekly in defense of his clothes, but she seized his shoulder and marched him down the aisle. Would she lead him outside and once again dismiss him? If he was not welcome for confession today, where would he walk for communion tomorrow?
She stopped him at the rear of the church, near the confessionals, and positioned him on line with the girls. The nun always threatened, whenever they misbehaved, to place the boys with the girls, and many times there would be a solitary shamefaced boy sitting in the girls’ section of the lunchroom, dejectedly eating his lunch, or standing in the girls’ corner of the playground as they merrily skipped rope, or humiliated into donning an apron for cookie-cutting class while his comrades were disassembling little whirling motors in another room. Of course, the girls always resented this intrusion and shunned the offending boy as much as possible.
However, in church they could do little to volubly protest, and simply stood glaring at the boy. The girls next to him squirmed and shrank away and angrily shuffled their feet on the ground. He reddened and shame welled up inside him and he wanted to scream, No! No! but he folded his hands and stared straight ahead into the shadowed church, oblivious to the children in the pews whispering to each other and the boys on the other line smirking to themselves.
“The rest of you turn around!” the nun screamed at the children. “Where do you think you are?”
As if in answer, silence filled the church. The nun glared at the boy, then turned and walked up the aisle to the front pews.
There was movement on the line and a girl entered the confessional as the remaining girls moved a step closer to the booth. The boy warily took a step, but slightly apart from the girl nearest him.
Girls were always so unapproachable. Once when the class was walking from church to school and the children were clutching each other’s hands, he felt his partner’s fingers squirming away from his so he held on tighter until the girl screamed, Let go of me! and the nun quickly ran up and berated him for being a filthy boy who grabbed at girls. Since then, whenever the class walked in double file and he had no alternative but to do so, he held onto a classmate’s hand as lightly as possible.
He glanced at the boys’ line. They, too, had started moving, and a boy was entering the confessional booth. The boy lowered his head. He had to get ready. What was he supposed to say? Bless me Father for I have sinned? Bless me Father for I am bad? Bless me Father for I am evil? Bless me Father, bless me?
The girls on line stirred as the confessional door once again opened, and the girl who had entered stepped from the booth. She was the first one to have confessed her sins, and she walked with hands folded and head bowed to the front of the church and knelt before the altar to say her penance.
The boy wished he could see her face, for the priests and nuns had promised that confession would cleanse their sins, and he wondered if the girl looked relieved, unburdened, freed. From the back she appeared the same as when she had entered.
Again the line moved and he inched closer to the booth. Three girls stood ahead of him, and at the front of the church the nun ordered another pew of girls to approach. He saw the girls march down the center aisle, and he lowered his head as they warily lined up beside him. He was in the middle of a line of girls and suddenly a slight jerk snapped in his crotch. His belly tightened and he clenched his thighs — he had to go to the bathroom. He scowled at the nun; she stood in the front center aisle keeping stern vigil over the children praying silently in the pews.
The line again moved and he took a step. A spasm rushed through his lower torso, and he desperately crossed his legs, clenched his crotch, and weaved back and forth. His hand shot up and he waved at the nun. The girls around him inched away, whispering to each other.
The nun rushed down the aisle and grabbed his arm. “What do you think you’re doing?” she shouted.
“I have to pee,” he stammered, crossing and re-crossing his legs.
“Keep still!” said the nun, shaking him.
From the confession booth a priest poked his head out and looked at the commotion. It was the same old priest who had entered the classroom as the boy was peeing in his pants a week before. His wrinkled face was pale and ashen, flustered and irate, and the boy knew that the priest would remember him and his sins forever and order him to do penance he could never fulfill.
The nun continued jerking and tugging at the boy. “Keep still, I said!” she shouted.
The boy’s bladder eased and his sudden need to go abated. He relaxed in her grip, but she held onto him and pushed him to the head of the line. The priest glared at him, and shaking his head, moved back into the booth. The boy shivered.
“There had better be no further disruptions from you,” the nun warned, waving a finger before his face.
The boy was quiet and lowered his head. He was afraid, and tears strained to erupt from the corners of his eyes. A girl stepped out of the booth and gaped at the boy, the nun, the line of girls; the nun pushed the boy into the confessional.
The boy bounded into the dim cubicle, and the door slammed behind him. He focused his eyes to the hazy darkness and saw a contorted figure of Jesus hung from a crucifix on the wall. The booth seemed more like a hopeless coffin than a redeeming confessional. It was stifling; the air heavy and stagnant, smelling like a fart. One would come to this booth not to reveal, but to hide. There was no prospect of salvation here.
The boy knelt and stared at the grille before him. The dim figure of the priest was visible through the pale yellowish grille; he was softly intoning to himself. The boy made the sign of the cross.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” he whispered. “This is my first confession and these are the sins I have committed.”
His voice was dry and hesitant. He felt afraid and did not want to be here. He wanted his mother. He wanted to get away from this dark dreadful booth before everything became a lie.
He began a recital of the sins that came to mind. He told the priest of some early lies he had told his parents (where he had not been and who he was not with), and the time he glanced over and spotted a different spelling of a test word on a neighbor’s exam paper and wrote it on his own (it turned out to be wrong), of some chalk he had stolen from the blackboard and marked up the building wall across from school (someone else was blamed), of the girl he had struck seated behind him (this only because the old priest had witnessed him do so).
He whispered how bad he was and that he was sorry he had hurt Jesus and he wanted so much for God to take away his sins and forgive him. He also wanted to scream and protest that it was not his fault, that he did not know why these things were happening, why everything was going wrong. He wanted to shout that his mother was in the hospital, that he made in his pants, that he was not allowed on the class trip, that a man had kissed him, that girls did things to him, that his father was drunk and did things to his godmother.
Oh, he wanted to tell of things that were hurting him, that were pushing and pulling him away from the people who were confusing and tormenting him. He wanted God — Oh, please, Jesus! — to come and ease him, to stroke his head in love, to make him a good boy. He wanted to cry out and tell everything: the sins, the lies, the truth.
He grimaced and jerked and doubled over and clutched his belly as a trickle of urine escaped his penis, running down his leg. He crouched on his knees, his face beaded in sweat, and rocked back and forth. At any moment he would no longer be able to hold it in and it would erupt in his pants.
He looked about him. Beneath the prie-dieu on which he knelt a plush red carpet lined the booth. He glanced at the figure behind the grille, then un-zippered his pants and pulled out his penis and began to urinate against the wall of the confessional. The liquid spewed refreshingly out and ran down to the carpet. He felt calm and relaxed.
On the other side the priest began his homily to the boy, telling him, by rote, the importance of penance and redemption. The boy felt at peace, relieved, all anxiety having left him.
He strained and pushed out a few remaining drops, then zippered his pants and surveyed the room. The urine had spread to the carpet beneath the prie-dieu but the darkness of the confessional hid the stain from showing too readily. A warm brothy smell hovered about the dingy booth. The boy crossed himself and thanked the priest for his benediction, then glanced indifferently at the carpet and exited the room.
He did not look at the girls on line but walked briskly to the front of the church and joined the group of scattered children kneeling before the altar and saying their penance. He wondered how long he should remain kneeling and pretend to pray for forgiveness. He had not heard what the priest told him to do to atone for his sins, and he wasn’t certain what exactly was required of him.
He crossed himself and bowed his head. A boy kneeling nearby rose and walked away. How long had he been there? He recited an Our Father to himself. Too short. He said another one. Two Hail Marys wouldn’t hurt. He saw another boy rise and depart. He was certain the boy had come to the altar after him. He recited one more Hail Mary, then crossed himself and walked away.
He spotted the nun. She stood in the center aisle, next to the few remaining children in the quickly emptying pews, sternly surveying the constant movement of the other children throughout the church. The boy bowed his head and walked quietly down the aisle. The weaving bottom of the nun’s black habit and the cracked leather toes of her worn black shoes appeared in a corner of his eyes. He walked past and was almost free of the vision when she suddenly grabbed and spun him around.
“Do you still have to go to the bathroom or have you made in your pants?” the nun bellowed and shook his shoulder.
“No, Sister,” he stammered.
“I don’t have to go,” he said quietly.
The nun stooped down and groped between his legs. He squirmed and tried to break away, but she held him tightly. “Just make sure you behave until tomorrow,” she hissed, and slapped him on his backside, propelling him away from her.
He shoved past the gawking children and rushed to the rear, pushing open the heavy doors of the dark church. Sunlight struck his wet eyes. Behind him a girl squealed in disgust and a din arose from the few remaining girls on line. He turned and saw a girl pointing at the floor of the confessional he had been in as the nun raced down the aisle. His eyes widened, and he turned and bolted through the door, leaping down the steep church steps.
He darted past a few lingering children at the bottom of the steps and ran up the street, legs and arms pumping, his lungs aching, his bruised chest hurting and pulsing, but his cadence smooth and even, till the church was far behind him.
He slowed and came to a trot, then fell exhausted onto a stoop of a building. Slowly he regained his breath and looked down the street. Two of his classmates had rounded the corner and were coming up the block. He jumped from the stoop and hurried away. Suddenly he froze and saw the comic book store. Sunlight shimmered at the dusty gray windows and the door was slightly ajar. The boy’s stomach tingled and his thighs tensed. He looked back at his approaching classmates — they still had not spotted him — and sticking his hand in his pocket, entered the store.
The mustiness was cool and welcome. The old bald man, busy with a customer in a corner of the store, started when he saw the boy, then smiled when he saw him enter alone, and returned to his customer.
The boy quietly shut the door and strode to the aisle of his super-hero. He picked up a comic book and scanned through the pages: the super-hero stood with arms akimbo and legs spread wide, his cape fluttering behind him as evil crooks cowered in doorways and behind cars. Outside the store his two classmates walked by the store, peering idly at the dirty window. The boy turned from them and buried his head in the comic book; the two walked on.
The bald man rang up a sale and walked his customer to the door. “Come back next week,” he said. “I expect a shipment from overseas, and you know what kind of stuff they put out.” He winked. The customer leered, squeezed his parcel, and walked out the door.
The bald man turned and looked at the boy. For a moment he hesitated, then clicked the door locks shut and hung a Closed sign in the window. The boy watched mesmerized. His stomach tingled and his penis had grown hard and slipped out the leg of his underpants, rubbing harshly against his coarse dungarees. The man approached and the boy’s penis jerked. He looked up at the man.
The man frowned. “What happened to your face?” he asked, looking nervously at the boy.
“I fell in my godmother’s house,” the boy stammered, turning red.
The man looked at him. “Did she hit you?”
The boy lowered his eyes.
The man stooped down before the boy and tenderly touched his arm. “If anyone hurts you,” he said, “you tell me and I’ll fix ‘em, okay?”
The boy looked up at the bald man; they were very close together.
“Okay?” the man repeated.
The boy nodded.
The man pulled the boy to him and hugged him; the boy tensed, but the man’s clasp was gentle and he slowly relaxed in the man’s arms. “Why did you run away last time?” the man whispered, nibbling on the boy’s ear and reaching in back and fondling the boy’s buttocks. His hot breath pulsed into the boy’s ear and tingled the short hairs on his neck. The boy shivered and put his arms around the man. The man looked at him, then smiled and lowered himself. Holding on to the boy, he lay down on the floor between the aisles, pulling the boy atop him. As the big girl had done to him, the boy straddled the man and began to sway against the man’s large thighs.
The man lay back, his eyes shut, rhythmically lifting his fat torso to meet the little boy’s, then he groaned and hoisted the small body up his chest and pulled the boy’s head to his own. Their lips met and the man’s huge tongue probed the boy’s mouth. The boy remained atop the man and his lips responded, saliva dribbling from his mouth and rolling down the man’s cheek. They swayed and rocked and the man frantically clove to the boy’s buttocks and crotch, then twisted him over and rolled atop him.
The boy groaned, whimpered, and desperately flailed at the heavy man. The man eased himself off; their lips separated and he rose to his knees, looking down at the panting boy. For a moment he was still, then quickly he undid his pants and pushed them down his fat thighs.
The man’s erect penis haughtily probed at the air and he inched up along the boy’s chest. He grabbed the boy’s hand and squeezed the small fingers around his penis, moving the hand back and forth until the boy freely clasped and stroked the tense penis unassisted. The boy pounded his hand and hypnotically gaped at the glistening head of the huge red cock, his nostrils quivering and straining at the sweaty lush aroma.
Suddenly the man bounded against the boy’s face and shot out a long spurt of semen onto the boy’s cheeks and lips. The boy let go of the penis and frantically scrambled to move his face away — he thought the man was peeing — but his arms and head were pinned by the man’s legs as the penis emptied itself on the boy’s face. Gobs of sticky semen seared the boy’s distended skin, and the man gripped his cock and squeezed and drained it on the boy’s mouth, probing and prodding at the clenched lips and nostrils, smearing his cock in the viscid scum.
His torso jerked a few more times, then he lowered himself and began licking his own scum off the boy’s face, hungrily lapping up the warm semen, slurping and swallowing and stroking the boy’s hot sweaty hair.
“What a nice boy,” he cooed, nibbling and darting his tongue along the boy’s fleshy ear lobe. He again licked the boy’s face, then tenderly kissed him. He looked down at the boy. “Remember,” he said, “this is our little secret, eh?”
He hesitated and stared at the boy’s face. “And if anyone hurts you, you just tell me and I’ll fix ’em, all right?”
He made a fist and swung a swift uppercut in the air before him, then quickly tugged up his pants, buckled his belt, and slowly straightened up. The boy lay motionless on the hard aisle floor.
“C’mon,” the man said nervously, gesturing for him to rise.
The boy hesitated, then slowly stood up and rubbed his moist face on the sleeve of his coat. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
The man frowned and glanced at the store window. “You can’t hold it in?” he asked.
The boy shook his head and crossed his legs. “In the back,” the man gestured nervously.
He bustled the boy into the dark backroom and clicked on the lights. Unlike the neat store itself, the backroom was a jumble of magazines and comics and books strewn helter-skelter. It seemed that whatever was not placed on display out front was haphazardly tossed in the back and forgotten.
The boy stepped over the piles of magazines and followed the man deeper into the backroom, until they came to a bare toilet bowl standing solitary in a corner of the messy storeroom. The boy had hoped for some privacy. He blushed as he hoisted his coat, unzipped his pants, pulled out his little penis, and quickly shot out a stream of urine into the filthy brown bowl. The man stooped down and stared inquisitively at the ragged red flesh of the boy’s penis.
“Who did that?” he asked suspiciously.
The boy looked down at the splotchy sore skin. He was silent, his urine splashing into the dark bowl.
“Your godmother?” the man asked.
The boy clutched his small penis and grimaced. He wished the man would leave him alone. Just because he mentioned his godmother didn’t mean she caused the sores.
“She’s a woman, a damned filthy whore!” The man straightened up and began pacing around the boy.
“All women are sluts!” he lectured, and punched the air. “They’re all no good! Sluts and whores!”
The boy quickly inserted his penis back in his pants and zippered them up; a warm trickle of urine dribbled down his leg. “I have to go.”
The man stopped pacing and punching the air and looked at the boy as if coming to. “Yes, yes,” he said. “This way.” He retraced his steps and led the boy past the scattered refuse of magazines and comics, pausing in the doorway to the front store. He peered at the front window, then quickly bustled the boy out of the backroom. The boy walked past aisles of super-heroes and put his hand on the locked front door.
“Wait,” the man called. He went behind the counter and beckoned the boy to him. “I have something for you,” he said, and winked.
A communion present, the boy thought, and frowned. But he slowly went back to the man and looked down at the small trinkets lined on the shelves in the glass counter. Little toy soldiers stood guard over roller-skate keys, toy-gun caps, and packets of baseball cards. In a lower corner, a half-filled bucket of pink rubber Spaulding balls stood proudly as if in silent victory over the dusty piles of notebooks and pocket dictionaries lying forlornly nearby. On a center shelf an array of gleaming Matchbox cars and trucks stood poised on their mark, ready to rev their engines and burn some tire.
“How about a spauldeen?” the man asked, saying it in the street name instead of the proper Spaulding name, smiling and reaching for a bucket of pink rubber balls.
The boy shook his head and pointed at a little yellow Matchbox toy tractor. It was a miniature replica of a giant earth-mover and stood slightly apart from the other cars and autos, the jagged teeth of its shovel glaring at its squat neighbors.
The man looked peevishly at the boy, then grimaced and reached for the tractor. “This one?”
The boy nodded.
The man removed the tractor off the shelf and placed it on the counter. The boy hesitantly reached for it and ran his fingers along the yellow metal. It was smooth and cold, and he slid the tractor across the glass counter.
“Don’t scratch the glass!” the man said.
The boy frowned and let go of the tractor. “That’s an expensive one,” the man added, gesturing towards the tractor. “It costs a quarter, but it’s just like new.”
The boy reached into his pocket. “I have money,” he said, pulling out his wrinkled dollar bill and holding the coin out to the man.
The man glanced at the bill in the boy’s other hand. “Forget it,” he waved in dismissal. “It’s a gift. Only don’t tell anyone I gave it to you for free, okay?”
The boy stared at the man, then nodded.
The man turned around, reached into a cabinet behind him, and brought out a little box, placing it on the counter next to the tractor. “Do you want this?”
The boy took the little cardboard box the Matchbox toy came with and slipped the tractor inside. He shut the end flaps and crammed the box into his pocket.
He looked up at the old bald man. “Thank you,” he mumbled, and turned to leave.
The man followed him to the door and unbolted the locks. “You come anytime you want,” he said. “But remember, don’t tell anyone. It’s our little secret.” He winked and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, tenderly stroking his neck, then sighed, opened the door, and let the boy go.
The boy walked without turning around onto the sun-filled street and hurried away from the store. He walked very rapidly, but his stride was uneven and jerky, as if uncertain whether to proceed or turn back. The tractor bulged in his pocket and poked at his thigh. He touched the hard box a few times, but quickly let go as his palm seared with the memory of the man’s surging penis.
He came to the Laundromat where he had left his godmother earlier in the day and peered in. The bustling store was crowded with women going about their chores. Some stood loading and unloading their wash into and out of the coin-operated washing and drying machines, while others sat on benches reading old magazines, folding clothes, or gossiping with their neighbors. He did not see his godmother and walked on.
She had told him to return after church and his stomach grumbled as he thought of the meal he expected her to have waiting. Perhaps his father would be there; he grimaced and recalled the smells of the drunken man, the beating of the night before, and the scene in the kitchen that morning with his godmother on her knees and his father grunting behind her.
He slowed his pace. He wished he could run away. But most of all he wished he could see his mother. Why did she leave him? He did not mean to lie to her about the trip; it was just that he knew she would be sad and angry if he told her the truth. Sometimes it seemed best not to say a thing. He had been silent so many times.
Last Christmas, when the school put on its holiday pageant, the boy was passed over for the parts of shepherds, soldiers, Magi, and the Holy Family, and did not tell his mother anything about it until the day of the spectacle when he sat stoically with her in the audience as his classmates acted out the Nativity on stage.
After the show, before the applause had died down, his mother grabbed his hand and marched him backstage where she accosted the nun and demanded to know why her son had not been given a part. Is he an orphan or something? she shouted.
But the nun was not perturbed or put off by his mother’s eruption and calmly explained that the children had been given a note to be signed by the parents agreeing to create a costume for the child’s character. The boy never returned the note and therefore was not a member of the cast.
The boy stood with head bowed next to his mother and wanted to scream that he had given the note to his father, who exploded in rage and demanded to know where he thought the money for a stupid costume would come from, then crumpled up the note and tossed it in the garbage.The boy later retrieved it, smoothed it out, and stashed it in his schoolbag where it lay now, wrinkled and unsigned.
But he only mumbled when his mother demanded to know why he had not shown her the note. He buried his head against her thigh and began to sob and cling to her dress as children garbed in shepherd’s robes and soldier’s regalia gaped at the scene.
What is the point of truth? the boy wondered. It could never dispel disaster after the fact. If he had shown his mother the note, she would have looked as dumbly upon it as she did his homework, herself having never learned to write or read. Sometimes it seemed better not to act or speak: whatever you did or said would be twisted about and your actions and words would be interpreted or misinterpreted as the other saw fit to suit their own purposes and needs. Lies or truth? In the end you always got hurt.
The boy stopped before his godmother’s house and sat down on the front stoop. In the distance he could see the thick trees of the park protruding out over the street, and he wondered if any of his classmates had gathered in the park to play. Probably not. The nun had told the children, particularly the boys, to go straight home after confession and avoid all talking lest they start lying and bragging, fall into sin, and be doomed on Sunday, much less forever.
“Remember,” the nun warned, “the devil will be lurking about all day just waiting to grab your souls and drag them into hell.”
The boy shuddered, and ran up the stairs to his godmother’s apartment. He rapped on the door and instantly frowned as his godmother’s younger daughter appeared in the doorway.
“What do you want?” she glared at him, but she studied his bruised face curiously.
He stammered that his godmother told him to come to their house after church. The girl snorted in disgust, but stepped aside to let him in. “She’s not here,” the girl said, shutting the door behind him.
The boy cringed and lowered his head. His nose began to itch; he felt awkward and wanted to leave. Perhaps he should have looked closer at the Laundromat; she was probably still there.
He glanced at the girl. There was no makeup or rouge on her face and she was dressed in a shirt and jeans. Perhaps his godmother stepped out briefly and would soon return. He hoped the girl would not act funny.
“Don’t stand there looking at me!” she shouted. “Go and sit down!”
The boy entered the living room, took off his coat, and sat on the couch. Sunlight streaked through the Venetian blinds; the room was glazed in cheery brightness. The boy stared at the floor and touched his face. Some of the puffiness in his cheeks had gone down, but his nose still tinged in now-and-then pain. He squeezed the small box in his pocket and went to the window, lifting the slats of the blind and peering out into the street. Perhaps his godmother went to the hospital to get his mother and bring her back home. Perhaps she went to see his father . . .
“Well, if it ain’t little piss-pants,” he heard behind him.
The boy turned from the window and blushed. The older girl stood in the center of the living room; her legs spread wide, her arms akimbo, a smirking grin on her face. Unlike her dressed younger sister, she was clad in a pair of skimpy black panties and bra. Behind her, the younger girl peered in from the kitchen doorway.
“Did you tell the priest all your dirty little sins?” the older girl sneered. She approached and studied his bruised face for a moment, then put her arm around him and led him to the couch and sat down, pulling him close to her. His face nestled in the armpit of her bra. He tried to move his head away from the pungent armpit smell, but the girl held him tightly and pulled his legs up over her own and caressed his buttocks.
”Did you tell the priest how you tried to steal my panties?” she cooed in his ear.
The boy was silent, his crotch tightening.
“I’ll bet the fucking priest would’ve liked to have stolen them himself!” the younger girl laughed from the kitchen.
The older girl squeezed the boy’s thighs and fingered the box in his pocket.
“What’s that . . . hard thing you have there?” she asked, winking at her sister.
“A tractor,” he stammered, and hoped the girl would not ask where he got it. She briefly pawed the pointed hard box then moved her hand to his crotch.
“Is it hard there too?” she sighed, squeezing the small bulge between his legs.
Her hot heavy breath pulsed over his forehead as she squeezed and pawed his crotch. She groped at the zipper and undid his pants, plunging her warm hand into them. She fumbled past his underwear, her fingers encircling and stroking his hard penis.
He winced as her fleshy palm seared the tender teeth marks, but he reached up to the girl’s chest, just as she had trained him to do, and inserted his hand into the frilly bra and cupped her large bulbous breast. It was soft and warm. He pinched the hardening nipple, and the girl moaned.
She kissed his forehead, nose, cheeks, and mouth. She burrowed her tongue between his teeth and plunged it down his throat, making him gag and his body shake; the girl momentarily withdrew her prodding tongue and playfully flicked it across his teeth and lips.
“You smell like spit,” she suddenly said, moving her head away, but keeping her fist around his sore penis.
The younger girl stepped away from the kitchen doorway and sat in a chair opposite the boy and girl. “Isn’t that a sin?” she said, crossing her legs and rocking her thighs together.
“Of course it is,” the older girl giggled. “And he’s gonna go straight to hell for it.”
The boy shuddered and pulled his hand out of the girl’s bra. He tried to free himself from her clasp, but she held onto him. She wriggled her breast out of her constricting bra-cup and rubbed her teat in his face.
The boy stopped squirming and lay back on the girl’s lap; the warm breast bobbed on his face. He opened his mouth and gulped the sweaty breast as deeply as he could, his tongue lapping and sucking the firm hard nipple.
“You’re both going to hell,” the younger girl barely whispered, her voice deep and throaty. She rocked her legs, lifting her knee higher with each pulsing sway, and squeezed her own small breasts through her shirt.
“So why don’t you join us?” her sister beckoned, and pushed her fist under her naked breast, kneading it into the boy’s sucking mouth.
“I have a better idea,” the younger girl said, letting go of her own breast and standing up. “Why don’t we get him ready for communion?”
She grinned at her sister, then nodded her head up and down as if agreeing with herself and darted from the room.
The older girl stared after her and shrugged. She lifted her breast teasingly off the boy’s face and dangled it above his mouth, taunting and baiting his lips with the delicacy of her nipple. The boy raised his head and surged at the large swaying bosom. The girl pulled her breast away and grinned, then lowered herself once more.
“Come to mama,” she teased, dangling the breast above his face.
The younger girl returned to the room carrying a plastic-encased white dress. “It should fit him,” she said, removing the dress from the plastic and holding it up before her.
The boy tilted his head away from the bosom and gazed at the dress. It shimmered in the window sunlight. The girl fluffed out the delicate gossamer bottom and pecked at the dainty little bows gathered about the neck of the long-sleeved gown. The sisters had worn the dress a few years apart at their own first Holy Communion ceremonies, and though it had been kept in the closet as a memento and had slightly yellowed with age, the frilly laciness of the long dress still maintained a pleasing veneer of youthful attractiveness.
“Yeah, it’ll fit ‘im,” said the older girl. She let go of the boy’s penis and disentangled herself from him, re-cupping her large wet bosom and rising from the couch. She took the dress from her sister and ran her fingers along the satiny long sleeves.
The boy’s stomach tingled and his penis jerked as he stared at the white dress.
The older girl turned and looked at the boy. “Yeah, he’s the same size we were when we had our first communion,” she said, dangling the dress above the boy’s lap.
The unyielding bottom hem brushed his penis. He clenched his thighs, and the girl lowered the dress, letting it fall in folds onto his hard penis. She reached out and sheeted it in the gossamer material; she squeezed and he winced as the fabric bit into the tender skin and seared the burning sores. Suddenly she let go, pulled the dress off his penis, and handed it back to her sister.
“Take off your clothes,” she said to the boy.
The boy shook his head. “I don’t want to.”
The younger girl tossed the dress onto the chair and rushed at the boy, grabbing the front of his shirt. “You take off your clothes or you’ll get this in your teeth!” she hissed, waving her fist before his face. “You’re black and blue as it is,” she continued, “and no one will know if I give you a punch.”
The boy lowered his head and undid the buttons of his shirt. He slipped it off his arms and pulled the t-shirt up over his head. The room felt very cold. His nipples quickly stiffened and goose-bumps sprinkled down along his arms. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the tractor box.
“What the hell is that?” the younger girl asked.
The boy showed her the box. She smacked his hand and sent the box flying across the room, where it struck a table leg and dropped to the floor; the box flapped open, and the little tractor hesitantly rolled halfway out and stopped.
“We don’t need no faggot toys around here,” the younger girl snorted. “Now get those stinking pants off!”
The boy looked at the tractor on the floor, then undid his belt and lowered his pants together with his dirty underwear. He struggled to remove the dungarees over his shod feet when the exasperated younger girl pushed him down on the couch, jerked his sneakers and socks off, and tugged his pants off inside-out.
He sat naked on the couch, his hands at his side, his hard little penis arched stiffly from his tiny, shrunken scrotum. Many times he had been naked before the girls, yet each time did not make it easier to be exposed and bared anew. He whimpered the first few times and tried to resist, but the girls were convincing and soothing and cooed for him to undress and pouted they wouldn’t hurt him; all we want to do is look. They looked and touched and they scratched and bit. Each time the girls lowered his pants or took off his clothes he came away with welts and sores that barely healed before he was again left alone with them and ordered to disrobe.
The older girl moved before him and began to lower her panties, slowly swaying and gyrating. The boy realized she had more hair between her legs than did his father or the bald man in the store. He clenched his mouth shut.
“We’ve got to do this right,” the older girl said, stepping out of her panties and kneeling before the boy.
She inserted his legs into the small panties and pulled them up his thighs. He lifted his bottom and the sheer lace wrapped around his buttocks seductively and soothingly. On the girl the panties were skimpy and barely covered her pubic area; but on the boy, they fit snugly and surely, as if tailored just for him.
He liked the feel of the clinging fabric: it was much gentler than the rough irritating cotton he always wore. The silken panties were soft and tender, richly luxurious and elegant; his stiff penis stretched boldly against the sheer fragile silk.
The older girl reached behind her back and unsnapped her bra. Her large breasts bounded from their constricting hold and surged before her, seeming to have grown larger in their un-cupped freedom. She removed her bra and wrapped it around the boy’s chest. But unlike the tight clinging panties, the bra was much too large, and it dropped and sagged about him.
“Get me a safety pin,” she said to her sister. She adjusted the shoulder straps so the large bra cups were positioned in front of the boy’s breasts, and when the younger girl returned with a safety pin, the older girl pulled the bra strap in the back and pinned it shut. “Stand up,” she said to the boy, pulling him up from the couch.
The boy stood before both girls.
“They don’t look right,” said the younger girl, shaking her head.
The boy stared at the white lacy bra cups protruding from his flat chest; his stomach tingled and his penis jerked.
The younger girl stooped down and gathered up his underclothes, t-shirt and shorts, and rolled each up into a tight ball. Suddenly she squealed in disgust and flung the boy’s underpants away from her. “Ugh, God!” she grimaced. “They smell!”
The older girl laughed. “Of course they smell,” she said, glaring at the boy. “He thinks they’re diapers.”
The boy winced and blushed. He felt a trickle of sweat roll down the small of his back and stop at the panty waist. His penis tensed.
The older girl took the wadded shirt from her sister and knelt before the boy. She stuffed the t-shirt into a bra cup and spread it smoothly so the material would not protrude out the top of the bra.
“Get me another shirt or something,” she said to her sister.
The younger girl darted into the kitchen and quickly returned with a small towel. She handed it to her sister, and the older girl also wadded the towel into a ball and pushed it into the boy’s bra cup. She squeezed the manufactured breasts and grinned at her sister.
“Almost like the real thing,” she said, and lowered her hands to the boy’s crotch. “And just look at the size of her pussy!”
The two girls laughed.
“It must be that time of month for her,” the younger girl giggled, and again hurried from the room. She returned with a box of sanitary napkins and pulled out a blue-lined gauzesheathed pad. The napkin was large and thick and threatening in appearance; it was like an enormous bandage. The boy often saw his mother carrying the familiar blue box into the bathroom with her, and he always wondered what mysterious unseen wound she was dressing.
The older girl lowered the boy’s panties and flicked her fingers along his stiff penis. The torn skin and red shiny splotches were clearly visible. “You should file your teeth,” the older girl admonished her sister.
The younger girl blushed and pulled out an elastic belt from the blue box, holding it out to the other girl. “Well,” she snorted back, “since you’re on your knees, let’s see you do better.”
The older girl grinned and held open the elastic belt at the boy’s feet, motioning him to step into it. She pulled the belt up his thighs and positioned it around his waist. A pair of short garters dangled from the belt, one at each end, and the older girl took the sanitary napkin pad and looped one end into one of the garters and pushed the pad back between the boy’s legs.
It’s a diaper! His face flushed from embarrassment.
The younger girl grabbed the other end of the napkin, jerked it tightly between his buttocks, and looped the napkin into the other garter. The boy’s penis protruded from the side of the napkin, and the older girl tucked it back in, pressing the napkin over it. She pulled the panties up his legs and smoothed them over his bulging napkin. “Now the bitch is ready to bleed!” the younger girl hissed, rising to her knees.
The boy felt calm and strangely at ease. The bra pinched and bit into his armpits and the napkin garter irritated the soft skin between his buttocks, but the girls’ adornment of him was a welcome and satisfying thing. He relished in the transformation of himself into another being.
“Raise your hands,” the younger girl said.
He raised his arms, and the younger girl slipped the white communion dress over his head and pulled the long silken sleeves down his arms. She tugged the dress over his large bulky breasts and fluffed it out at the waist. The dress fell to below the knees and she turned him around and struggled with the zipper, straining forcibly to link the metallic teeth, his large fabricated bosom stretching the material more than it was designed for. The boy held his breath, pulled in his stomach, and suddenly yelped out in pain as the zipper snagged and bit the shriveled skin on his back.
“Stand still!” the girl ordered, grappling behind him, and with a rough yank succeeded in pulling the zipper shut, gripping the boy tightly from waist to neck, his manufactured bosom heaving cumbrously.
“Where’s the veil?” the older girl asked.
“Here,” said the younger girl, removing the long white veil from the plastic-wrapped hanger and handing it to her sister.
The older girl positioned the veil on the boy’s head and stepped back to admire her feminizing handiwork. Except for his bare feet and grotesque bosom, the boy did indeed look like a little girl ready for her first Holy Communion.
“What a pretty little girl!” exclaimed the older girl. “I always wanted another sister to play with.”
“Me, too,” agreed her sister. “And now we have one.”
The two girls laughed. The boy looked at the grinning girls but did not feel ashamed or humiliated. His own breasts were as large as the naked girl’s breasts, and he was garbed in a much prettier outfit than the younger girl’s restrictive dungarees. He was glad he was like them, a little girl.
“Let’s make sure she knows how to receive her communion,” the older girl said. She approached the boy and ran her hands along the constricting waist up to his large hard breasts. She briefly squeezed the blown up bosom, then put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him down to the floor.
“On your knees, whore!” she commanded, in a loud stern voice. “On your knees and confess!”
The boy lowered himself before the girl and stared at her hairy crotch. She inched closer and clutched him by the ears, pulling at the lobes and inserting her fingers in his eardrums. Her bristly pubic hairs pinched his face and he jerked away, but the girl clamped onto his ears and rigidly held his head.
“Confess!” she ordered. “Confess how much you like to suck cock!”
The boy whimpered into the girl’s moist crotch, and his face burned as if hot liquid had been splattered on it.
“Confess!” she screamed. “Confess, you cocksucker!”
“Yes,” the boy mumbled. “Yes.”
“Yes, what?” the older hissed, tugging on his ears.
“Yes,” he stammered. “I . . . like to . . . suck cock.” He lurched forward and tried to sink his mouth on the girl’s crotch, but she laughed, let go his head, and stepped away from him. He tottered, but regained his balance and wobbled on his aching knees.
“Too bad we don’t have a nice juicy cock for her,” the younger girl giggled. “She looks hungry.”
“That’s okay,” her sister winked, and smiled. “I have something better.” She looked down at the boy, her naked body glistening with moisture; a pleasing odor of perfume and sweat and hair-spray wafted about her flesh. “It’s time for Holy Communion,” she solemnly intoned. “Now, close your eyes and open your mouth.”
The boy hesitated, sensing betrayal; his breast heaved, his thighs shook, and he felt very fearful and expectant. He looked up at the girl. A haughty smugness lay about her snide face. He looked up at her naked breasts and crotch. Slowly he shut his eyes, and heard the girl shuffle and move before him.
“Glory Hallelujah!” she sang out. “Here’s your Holy Communion!”
He instantly opened his eyes and stared in terror at the older girl’s dark and hairy ass. A fleck of toilet paper lay stuck to a circular clump of pasted hair and he jerked back, but the younger girl grabbed his veiled head and pushed him into her sister’s ass. Brittle hairs surged into his mouth and nostrils and he shook his head, trying to break away, when suddenly the older girl moaned and farted and the taste of shit swept past his teeth and tongue and flushed down his throat.
He gagged and buckled over and convulsed into dry heaves, his synthetic bosom shuddering and shaking. The younger girl gripped his neck, straightened him up, and pushed his face back into the older girl’s putrid ass.
Excrement scalded his lips and teeth; his stomach churned and the back of his throat spasmed. He violently retched out a stream of green and yellow bile, splattering the girl’s wriggling back and thighs. She screamed and turned and kicked him in the chest, striking him in the cleavage of his fabricated bosom.
He doubled over, convulsing and gagging, clutching his arms around his stomach. Suddenly the pressure at the large phony bosom gave way as the fabric near the zipper burst loose in a running tear, wriggling down his back from the shoulders to the waist, parting the silky material in a relaxing swoon and revealing the tightly pinned bra-strap lacing across his shoulders.
The younger girl shrieked and stared at the dress in horror. “You ripped it!” she screamed. “You ripped it!” She plunged her fingernails into his neck and began to choke him. Vomit dribbled down his throat as he fought off her hands, gagged, and struggled to rise. “You ripped it!” she screamed again, and slapped him.
The long white veil stuck to the sides of his wet face and streaks of bile and shit flecked the front of the dress. The girl spun him around, grabbed his neck, and pulled the soiled dress down. It passed easily over his massive lopsided bosom, but his t-shirt wriggled out over the top of the bra and the bra-cup crushed against his chest.
The girl pushed him to the couch, grabbed the crumpled t-shirt, and threw it on the floor. Her older sister snatched it up and began wiping her vomit-stained buttocks. She stuffed it into her crack and wiped herself clean, then flung the shit and vomit-streaked t-shirt at the boy’s face and stalked from the room.
The younger girl tugged the dress over the boy’s waist and down his legs and held it out before her. The white crinoline lace at the chest was discolored by thick yellowish mucus, and the satiny sleeves were splattered with small lumps of puke. On the back of the dress, shredded lacy strings swayed limply where the material had been connected to and torn from the zipper.
The girl shrieked and struck the boy in the head with her fist. She snatched at the veil, pulled it off, and ran from the room, holding the dress away from her.
The boy sat on the couch sobbing and shivering. His nausea had ceased, and he felt very tired and thirsty. The bra around his chest, though not as tight and binding without the wadded t-shirt, still cut into the tender flesh beneath his arms, and he pulled at the other filled bra-cup. The crumbled towel spilled out of the bra and fell gently onto his lap. The boy reached behind himself and struggled with the pin holding the bra together, but it was too difficult to grasp properly, so he pulled the tight straps off his shoulders and tugged the bra up his chest and over his head.
He rose from the couch, lowered the panties to his knees, and tugged at the tight sanitary-napkin garter-belt. Briefly studying how the napkin gauze was laced to the metal garter, he untied one end of the napkin and freed himself of the cumbersome diaper. He did not bother unlacing the other end of the napkin, but lowered the belt with the sanitary napkin dangling in the rear down and over the panties at his knees.
He stepped out of the belt and for a brief moment hesitated, then pulled the soft panties back up his thighs. They wrapped round his buttocks and tenderly clutched his limp penis and tightened scrotum; he felt his penis stiffen. Reluctantly he reached for his fetid underwear, which the younger girl had discarded in disgust, and pulled them over his silken panties.
He hoisted his dirty socks back on his feet, reversed his dungarees and slipped them on, then picked up his shit-smeared t-shirt. He gagged and fell to the couch. The brown stains on the shirt were moist and thick and reeked of excrement and vomit; his face contorted and he dropped the shirt. He spasmed, thinking he would throw up again, but his stomach only brought up stale, dry, twisting and frantic heaves.
The spasms abated. He stood back up and glanced at the t-shirt on the floor; he kicked it beneath the couch. He picked up his long-sleeved shirt and buttoned it up, tucking the tails into his dungarees, then picked up his knotted sneakers, untied the laces, and stepped into them, slowly tying and knotting the dirty gray laces. He had only recently mastered the intricacy of the knots and usually had to make a few attempts at correctly looping the laces together; this time he succeeded on the first try.
Quickly he snatched up his little box and tractor and crammed them into his pocket. The sharp edges of the box poked his belly and he worried about ripping the panties. He pulled the box out and inserted it into a rear pocket; it felt better there.
He looked about the room, slipped on his coat, and went to the kitchen. He looked at the refrigerator and sighed. As quietly as possible he undid the latches on the front door, and as he exited the apartment, he could hear the two sisters arguing and screaming in the other room. He pulled the door closed behind him.
On the street a sense of relief swept over him, and he felt calm and unafraid. The anxiety and fear and tension which had hung over him in the apartment eased, and he walked purposefully away from the building towards the avenue.
Though still daylight, Saturday evening was quickly approaching, and the crowds along the streets moved slowly and aimlessly, prowling as if on the lookout for a worthy Saturday-night adventure. A few cars and trucks, in expectation of the coming darkness, already sported lit headlights, and the flashing neon signs in darkened bar windows and cafes looked pretty and enticing. He wondered if his father was in any of the bars . . .
His mother had often sent him into barrooms to try and convince his father to come home, and he always found the rough bar atmosphere and camaraderie exciting. The men at the bar yelled out to him and offered him little twisted pretzels, though his father greeted the intrusion with anger and rage. His father would bolt from his stool and storm out of the bar to confront the woman waiting outside. Their angry voices echoed through the open bar door as the bar patrons winked at each other or sat uncomfortably mulling over their drinks. The bartender would set a glass of soda and a small bag of overburnt chips before the boy, with a wink and a tousle of his hair. The boy sat at a large table in a fake-leather-lined booth and stared at the open doorway, knowing he’d be staying there the rest of the night. And always, his father returned after his argument with his wife, stalked back to his stool, downed his drink, and ordered another.
Goddamned bitch! he’d exclaim, and pant from the burning drink.
The boy knew his mother would not return, having left for work, or shopping, or somewhere, so he’d sit in the booth and sip his tepid soda and nibble his over-burnt chips and listen to his father berate the woman to his laughing and drinking companions, who’d agree that all women were alike — the bitches, the cunts, the sluts, the whores!
The boy would stay in the bar long into the night and watch his father drink and have a good time and not appear as sad or withdrawn as the boy knew him to be. He’d laugh and shout and the money would flow across the counter and into the hands of the overseer bartender, who’d pour the drinks and wipe the stains but remain aloof from the apparent festivities.
The boy was always confused by his father’s contradictory noisy and generous behavior; at home, there would have to be total silence because of his headaches, yet if there were noise, it was usually the man berating the woman for any noise she or the boy might make. In the bar, surrounded by his drinking comrades, the man seemed totally unconcerned about the noise around him or the amounts of cash he moved across the bar-top, as long as his drink stood readily at hand.
C’mon, he’d roar at the bartender, loudly clicking his shot-glass on the wet wooden counter. Another one! Quick! Gimme another one!
The boy passed the neon-lit bars and cafes and walked slowly along the avenue till he turned onto his street and finally came before his building. He paused briefly and looked up at the familiar red-brick tenement, lights shining in a few of the curtained windows, then entered the hall and mounted the stairs.
The sound of a screeching radio blared from an upper floor, but the boy climbed quietly and carefully, avoiding the steps he knew to creak. He came to his landing and eyed the old woman’s door down the hall. It was shut and silent.
He approached his dark glass-paned door and listened. The apartment was quiet. Gently he rattled the doorknob and leaned his head to the door. Silence. He peeked through a crack in the glass pane and shook the knob again. Suddenly he started and stepped back. From behind the door the latches violently shook free and the door flew open. His father stood glaring at him. He had neither shaved nor washed, and his dirty clothes were the same he had worn since yesterday. The boy was terrified.
“Where have you been?” the man shouted, grabbing the boy and pulling him into the apartment.
The kitchen was a drunkard’s battlefield. Empty beer bottles lay strewn along the table and stove and sink, and the floor was littered with threatening jagged bottle-caps. The rest of the apartment was a shambles. The boy thought how ugly the place looked.
The man slapped the boy’s face. “Where have you been?” he shouted again.
“At godmother’s,” the boy sobbed, his hands to his face.
The man turned away and picked up a half-filled bottle of beer. He greedily gulped the remaining contents and tossed the empty bottle in the sink. For a moment he looked stupidly at the crying boy, then, as if in recognition, fell to his knees and began sobbing and shaking. He clutched the frightened boy and blathered incoherently.
The boy heard something about his mother and the police and being alone from now on. He felt himself gasping for breath and trying to push away, but the drunken man held him and started kissing his face. The boy panicked and broke free and instantly regretted having done so.
For a second the man stared bewildered at the boy, then anger flushed his dirty drunken face and he rose from the floor, towering above his son.
“So, you don’t like it when I kiss you?” the man said loudly, somehow sober and serious. “Who do you think will kiss you now, your fuckin’ mother?”
He glared crazily at the boy, then slung out his arm at the kitchen table and swept the empty beer bottles, sending them crashing to the floor. For a moment, he looked vacantly about, as if surprised and bewildered by the loudly clattering bottles, then screamed and clutched his head and fell into a chair.
“Whore! Whore!” he moaned, rocking back and forth. “Whore!”
The boy stood pressed against the front door, looking at his father. He had long been used to the man’s erratic outbursts of sudden violence or brooding silence or unaccountable friendliness, and he felt a confused mixture of fear and patience. He knew that soon the violence would pass, but so would the peace that followed. One could not pinpoint or predict a response to a particular action or deed. Sometimes evil went unchallenged and the good went unrewarded. Or was it the other way around?
He looked about at the scattered bottles — none of them had broken — and took a step towards the man. He reached out and placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. The man bolted and glared stupidly at his son.
“Get away from me!” he hissed. “Get away!”
The boy’s face twisted in pain and tears welled in his eyes. He placed his arms around the man’s shoulders.
“Get away!” the man shouted again. He jumped from his chair and grabbed the boy’s wrists and flung him to the floor. “You’re not my son!” he screamed. “Who the hell knows whose son you are anyway?”
The boy landed on his backside and shrieked out in pain. The little tractor box in his rear pocket stabbed into his buttock and the pain seared across his lower back. He rolled on his side and desperately pulled the box from his rear pants pocket.
The man looked down at the boy. “What’s that?” he asked, gesturing towards the box. His voice was calm and he no longer seemed angry. “What did you steal now?”
The boy looked up at his father and painfully sat up, holding out the little box.
The man bent down, took the small parcel from the boy’s hand, and shook the tractor out. He snorted in disgust. “So, you like tractors, eh? You think they’re fun to play with? Just wait till you have to work in the dirt all day, then you’ll see how much fun it is.”
He moved the little shovel up and down. “Where’d you get it?” he asked.
The boy stopped crying and turned pale. He wanted to run away and disappear. He could feel the tears on his cheeks drying and his face starting to itch. He looked at the tractor in his father’s hand. “Bought it,” he lied.
“How much?!” the man erupted.
The boy’s face showed no expression. He no longer cared and was not afraid. “Five cents,” he lied again.
He felt very calm and peaceful. The lie did not rend his soul and he did not feel sinful. Though his body and face were bruised, and humiliation and shame imbedded in him, he felt better than he had all week.
Confession had not cleansed him; defiance had.
He glared at his father. “Five cents,” he repeated. His voice was clear and crisp; it echoed boldly in the stagnant apartment as if challenging the father to respond to the son’s audacious lie.
But the man’s drunken thoughts and concerns had already carried him elsewhere, and he dropped the little tractor and box and went to the ice-box to retrieve another bottle of beer. For a few moments he fumbled about for an opener, then found it in the clutter of empty bottles in the sink. He uncapped the bottle and let the metal cap drop to the floor. It circled about his feet and came to rest before the little tractor.
The boy remained on the floor and watched his father drink. The man greedily gulped down the beer, then collapsed into a chair by the table, propping his head up with one arm and staring into space.
The boy quietly gathered up the little box and tractor and crawled out of the kitchen — the man did not even glance at him. He went to his room and removed his coat and sneakers and climbed up on the bed. For a long time he sat cross-legged and played half-heartedly with the tractor, running it along the hills and valleys of his crumpled blanket, then he sighed and placed the tractor on the window sill.
Outside, the tree had blended into the dark evening, and across the yard somebody laughed. In the kitchen there were long stretches of silence broken at times by the desperate clatter of clinking bottles, curses, thuds, and slams. A few times the boy heard his father whimpering and sobbing and muttering to himself, but the drunken remorse was always fleeting and the cruel brooding silence always resumed.
Sometime during the long evening he heard his father’s throaty snore, and the boy came out of his motionless trance. He tried to lie down but his legs had fallen asleep, and as he attempted to straighten them, the electric prickling pulsing in his veins convulsed him into uncontrollable laughter. He buried his face in the pillow and convulsed hysterically.
But soon, the blood slowly re-circulated through his legs, and he was able to straighten them and remove his pants. There was nothing funny and the laughter had done little to relieve his fear, anxiety, and doubt. He felt very tired and exhausted. He yawned and shut his eyes. Yet he knew when he awoke it would all be the same. The boy sighed. Tomorrow would be no different. Probably even worse.
He had confessed and been cleansed of sin, and had lied and sullied himself anew. Tomorrow he would be punished for his sins. Tomorrow Jesus would enter his soul and slay him. The priests and nuns, his classmates and their parents would drag his corpse out of the church and dump him in the garbage. He would be spat upon and left for the rats and roaches.
Yet he had tried so hard! He reached out to people. He believed what he was told about goodness, about love, about hope. He believed, but had found otherwise. Instead of goodness he came upon sly and smirking evil; where he had expected love, there was deceit, trickery, and rejection; when he had summoned hope, he was faced with thwarting ridicule and shame. Perhaps it indeed would be best if he were slain.
He blinked his eyes and a tear escaped and rolled down the side of his temple. He unbuttoned his shirt and touched his bare chest. He wondered what his godmother would do when she found his crumpled shit-smeared t-shirt beneath the couch. After he was dead, would she save it?
He sighed and removed his shirt. He slipped off his scratchy socks and crawled beneath the cold covers. His hands went to his crotch and he rubbed his penis through his underwear. Suddenly he tossed off the covers and jerked down his cotton shorts; he had forgotten he was clad in the older girl’s soothing silk panties. He dropped his coarse underwear to the floor, lay back, and pulled the covers to his chest. He delicately massaged his crotch through the satiny material and his little penis quickly stiffened in his palm. It felt nice to be touched. He rubbed and squeezed his penis and felt his bladder prodding. He made a face. He had to pee.
He listened. In the other room his father snored; the boy rose from bed and quietly tip-toed to the kitchen. The man sat sleeping at the table and looked incredibly dirty and tired. The boy clasped his nose, eased himself around the man’s outspread legs, and went to the bathroom.
He lowered his panties, sat down and peed gratefully, the liquid leaving his sore and tired body. He yawned, stood up, and pulled up the girl’s panties. A droplet of urine dribbled from his penis, the moisture spreading quickly along the front of the satiny material. He pulled the toilet chain and immediately regretted having done so. The water surged loudly and gurgled itself into the bowl with a deep phlegmatic snort. He looked down at the panties, instantly wishing he had not taken off his shorts.
Outside the bathroom he heard his father cough and begin to stir about. The boy waited, motionless, tight-faced, hoping the man would drift back to sleep. The water in the bowl continued churning and gurgling.
“What’re you doin’ in there?” his father called. “I gotta go.”
The boy took a breath and exited the bathroom. His roused father sat at the table and turned to look at his son. His mouth drooped open, his eyes looked vacant and glassy as if still asleep, but at the sight of the silk panty-clad boy he quickly focused and began to look cunningly sober. He cleared his throat and leered at his son. Instinctively the boy moved his hands to his crotch and lowered his head.
The man rose slowly from the table and approached the boy. The boy looked up. A large bulge had formed at the crotch of the man’s pants. The boy moved his hands away from his own crotch and held them behind his back. His stomach and bowels tingled expectantly. The man stood before the boy and placed his hand on the boy’s bare shoulder and caressed the goosebumped flesh. His touch was gentle.
“So, you stole a pair anyway,” the man said, smiling lecherously and moving his hand down to the boy’s chest.
The boy’s penis quickly stiffened and he jerked; he took a step towards his father.
MORNING BROKE, THE SUN STREAKING into the living room and sliding onto the boy's face. He bolted upright off the couch where he had fallen asleep, waiting, hoping his mother would return. With the smirking cleverness of a lie, the onslaught of sunlight shimmered across the frayed furniture, piercing into the dusty corners, stressing the ugly drabness. He rubbed his eyes and looked towards the doorway to his parents' room. He sighed; the inrushing day offered no promise of change or hope of salvation.
He swung his legs off the couch and walked quickly to the bathroom. The apartment was cold; he shivered and thought of his mother. She was always the first one up in the morning. He often stirred in his sleep to hear her puttering about at dawn as she struggled to light the black wood-burning stove in the kitchen in time to warm the house before the boy and father arose from their beds. It had been such a long time since she went to the hospital. When was that? Friday? Yes, Friday; then Saturday went by. Yesterday. And today. That was two days ago. That’s all?
He pulled down his panties and sat on the toilet seat. A long swift stream of urine gushed into the bowl. He farted and his stomach gripped and churned. He tensed as his bowels opened and a heavy clump of excrement plopped into the bowl followed by a watery stream of noxious shit. His anus burned and tightened. He grimaced at the smell, then strained some more, wiped himself, pulled up his panties, and left the bathroom.
For a moment he shivered and looked at the misty kitchen and remembered his father touching him. He blinked his eyes and shivered, then hunched his shoulders and opened the pantry door where his mother kept the bread.
A large cockroach scampered across a bulky bag in the pantry and the boy jerked back, cringing in disgust. Boldly he reached in, grabbed a corner of the bag, and plucked it out, the bag dropping to the floor. He prodded with his toe, convinced the roach lay hidden in a crook of the bag, then bent down and picked the bag up, ready to drop it at the slightest rustle of a fleeing roach.
He opened the bag and pulled out a large loaf of dark bread. Sticking his fingers into the crusty dry center, he scooped out a heavy chunk of the crumbling bread. The loaf was some days old and had already lost much of its meaty moisture, but he chewed it gratefully as though it were fresh from the bakers; indeed, to him, it was as good as freshly baked bread. He was hungry. He smacked his lips and scooped out another huge morsel, then replaced the loaf in the bag and put it back.
He climbed up on the sink, drank some water from the tap, and knocked over an empty beer bottle; it tottered noisily in the enameled sink and he froze, listening. Except for the slow ticking clock on the shelf above his head, the apartment was still.
He climbed down from the sink and looked up at the clock. For a moment he strained to place the positions of the hands of the clock into the schemata of the day he carried in his head, and finally calculated that the clock was off — no one had wound it in days. Still, it was already daylight, and no matter what the clock said, he knew he had to hurry, get dressed, and get out of the house and into the street before his godmother came for him, as he expected she would, or before his father awoke, of which the chances were slim. He did not wish to see either of them.
He slunk out of the bottle-strewn kitchen and returned to the living room. The sun had eased its harsh attack on the room and moved on, leaving a smoky morning haze to stand sentinel over the damned premises. The boy gathered up his blanket from the couch and went to his room.
He picked up his dirty socks off the floor and pulled them on his feet. Instantly his toes began to itch and he curled them up and clawed his ankles, then frantically pulled the sock off. Perhaps if he reversed them? No, he would have to go sock-less. His pants were long enough to reach his shoes and cover his ankles, but he would have to be careful kneeling; still, by then it would no longer matter.
He squatted down on his haunches and from beneath the bed pulled out a large flat parcel. He placed it on the bed, lifted the top cover, and took out a new white shirt, removing it from its plastic wrapping. As he had often observed his mother do, he carefully unstuck the pins holding the shirt together and collected them in a little pile on the bed. When he had unfolded and unbuttoned the new shirt, he gathered up the pins and placed them atop his cabinet — his mother always saved the pins.
He pulled the shirt on, buttoned the front, and sat down on the bed, staring thoughtfully at the white communion tie and arm-ribbon lying in the box. His suit was in the other room and he had to risk rousing his father in retrieving it.
He recalled the fuss and to-do that had been made over the purchase of his communion garments the previous week: they went to the vast thrift market on the other side of the city and he wandered fascinated and amazed at the countless garments that hung on display in various store windows and on racks embracing the front of each store. There had been millions of coats and jackets and suits and pants, and with such a great selection to choose from, the boy was embarrassed and frustrated that at each shop his parents entered they argued and haggled over the price of a suit until they stormed out of one establishment and pulled the boy along to another where they approached full of smiles and compliments to the owner and immediately began baiting and bobbing for a lower price. It was a tiresome expedition, but the suit, after countless fittings and pullings and tuggings and hoistings, was finally selected and quibbled over, purchased and brought home — where it was tried on once again so that the pants could be hemmed up. The suit now hung in his parents’ bedroom closet.
He sighed, climbed off the bed, and crept out of his room. In his parents’ doorway he paused and looked at his father on the bed. The man slept peacefully, his arms at his side, gently breathing, his pants around his ankles, a blanket covering his torso, and he seemed to be lying in the same position the boy had left him in the night before.
The boy clasped his nostrils from the stench; holding his breath he inched to his parents’ clothes closet and carefully opened the door halfway, just before the point he knew the hinges would start to creak, then breathed out and looked up at his suit.
It was fresh and crisp and new and stood out from his parents’ old frumpy garments, but it hung too high for him to retrieve together with the hanger. Finally he reached up and tugged at the pants, hoisting them down, then flapped the jacket a few times till it also slipped off the hanger and fell into his arms.
He clutched his suit, turned around, and glanced at his sleeping father; the man lay still. The boy left the room and heard the closet door eerily creak behind him. He did not look back.
He went to his room, dropped the suit on his bed, and slipped on the pants. From another box beneath the bed he brought out a pair of new black shoes. They were also purchased during the suit expedition the week before, but there had been no haggling over their price. The boy tugged them on his bare feet and accurately tied the laces on the first try.
He stood and picked up his white communion tie. He pulled the elastic band over his head, tucked it beneath his shirt collar, positioning the knot at his neck and crimping it in the center, then slipped on his jacket. Over his left arm he pulled up the white communion bow and aligned it on his bicep, the two long ceremonial ribbons falling neatly down his arm.
He glanced down on himself. He seemed okay. He turned to go and froze. From the other room he heard his father struggling to get out of bed. There were grunts and sighs and creaking bed-springs; he heard the man stagger from the room and into the kitchen.
The boy waited. If his father went to the bathroom, the boy could hurry out of the house unobserved. He did not want the man to look at him. The man was ugly.
The boy stood near the doorway of his room and listened. The house was quiet. He peered out, took a step, inched across the living room, and entered the kitchen. The man stood by the sink, his pants hoisted around his waist, his penis and scrotum protruding between the separated zipper flaps, and he was struggling to open an aspirin bottle.
He did not seem embarrassed or even aware of his crude halfundress, staring at the boy as if concentrating intensely and struggling to remember something. He shook his head in dismissal and held the aspirin bottle out to the boy.
“Open it,” he pleaded, rubbing his bristled face.
The boy easily unscrewed the cap and handed it back to his father. The man shook some pills and desperately downed them with a cup of water. He held onto the sink and panted heavily. The boy was afraid. He knew he had to get away. The man was ugly. The whole place was ugly. The man moved and took a step towards the bathroom. The boy stared at his father’s flaccid scrotum swaying, and his throat and stomach contracted. A dry heave burst from his mouth and rocked his body. He wiped his lips and shuddered in disgust.
The man turned and looked sadly at the boy, holding out a limp hand to him. The boy suddenly hated the whole vile thing. Many times the tired or drunken or hung-over man would beckon the boy to him, wrap his arm around his son’s small shoulders, and leaning down, plod along limply as the boy escorted him to the bathroom or couch or bed. The boy winced. He did not want the man to touch him. Last night he was able to pick the boy up and carry him to the bed; why couldn’t he walk unassisted today? Why was he so needy now? The man upturned his limp hand and looked at the boy. Again he seemed to strain at a forgotten memory. His mouth drooped open and his reddish glassy eyeballs jumped from the boy’s face to the sink to the floor.
The boy was angry. He looked at his father’s strange yellow pallor and small shriveled penis and took a step towards him. Quickly he clasped the man’s clammy fingers and pulled him towards the bathroom. For a moment the man seemed to hesitate, holding the boy back, then he relaxed his grip and staggered after the child, his eyelids drooping, his mouth open, as though resigned to the physical condition he was in.
The boy opened the bathroom door and gagged from the stench of his own un-flushed waste trapped in the tiny room. He wriggled his hand out of his father’s grip and clamped his nose as the man staggered into the bathroom, bounding his arms off the walls and finally collapsing onto the toilet seat.
The boy slammed the door shut. He spun around and walked loudly across the kitchen, refusing to listen or take notice of any sounds the man might make, and undid the latches on the front door. He paused and looked out into the dimly lighted hallway, then turned and hurried back to his room. He picked up his crumpled dungarees, removed the wrinkled dollar and silver quarter his mother had given him such a long time ago, and slipped them into his suit pocket.
He glanced at the window. The pinkish buds of the tree shone brilliantly in the morning sun. He leaned over his bed and grabbed the little tractor from the window sill, inserted it into its small box, and dropped it into a side pocket. It bulged, and someone might ask what he had in there, but he didn’t care. He wouldn’t tell them anyway. It was his. A present. A secret.
He walked past the doorway to his parents’ room and looked at the rumpled bed. The blanket lay on the floor and he stepped in to put it back on the bed. He grimaced; the bed was wet. He bolted from the room and out the front door and fled from the drab apartment.
The sunlit street revived him. His anger and disgust eased; he walked purposefully up the block and away from his house. The few people he passed on the quiet Sunday street, carrying bulky newspapers or walking their dogs, looked pleasantly at him in his communion garb. He imagined a few of them smiled at him; he smiled back.
He came to the corner, and though the light was against him, he slowly sauntered across the deserted avenue — there was not a moving car in sight. In the center of the wide street he paused and looked up and down the thoroughfare. It felt exhilarating to be standing all alone in a place which would later be teeming with bustle and commotion. He crossed to the other side and continued his way up the quiet street.
He soon came to the church and stopped before the towering edifice. In the quiet morning it stood awesome and imposing, and he wished he did not have to enter the dark brown building. But there was still enough time for that; it was early and only a few old women, all bundled from the morning chill, their gray heads covered with pretty flowered kerchiefs, made their way up the steep steps to an early mass. The boy walked on.
Though he wished he could continue walking till he was far, far away, he knew he would remain in the vicinity of the church, even though by now he was convinced of what was to happen inside. Wasn’t he afraid? The warning and threats had been pounded into his skull for months. If you sin, you die. There was no way out. Sin made you evil; and the evil were instantly slain. Quickly. Mercilessly. He wondered how many boys and girls, besides him, would be punished and killed in church today.
Yet what would happen if he kept walking and did not show up? Maybe he could confess again? Maybe he could seek out the nice young priest and tell him he had lied to his mother and lied to his father about the tractor.
So, if you were not at the movies, where were you all day? If the tractor wasn’t five cents, how much did it really cost?
He shook his head. What was the use of talking, of confessing, of telling anyone anything? They’d only nod their heads as though they understood, then betray and kill you.
Suddenly he stopped and gazed open-mouthed at the comic book store. The dirty windows were dark and dim, and a large metal gate enclosed the locked front door in a web-like embrace. The boy’s stomach tingled; he approached and peered into the dusty barred window.
Through the morning dimness his eyes flew over the rows of comics and focused on the aisle where he had lain with the fat man the previous day. The boy clutched the tractor in his pocket. Looking at the aisle from this angle he realized that no one peering in from the street would be able to see what was happening on the aisle floor. Everything was secret. The boy looked towards the doorway to the backroom. He wondered if the man slept there. Was there a bed in back?
He frowned and rested his forehead on the rusted metal gate of the door. His favorite super-hero, flying through the air with his dark-haired girlfriend in his arms, smiled up from the dusty window. He looked at the girlfriend’s arms around her hero’s neck and sighed.
His father had also picked him up and laid him down gently on the large bed, and he began sucking and kissing the boy’s breasts and groping at his hard little penis. The panties excited the man. He worked his tongue to the boy’s belly, licking the elastic waist band and lapping up the satiny material.
His lips sought out and quickly found the boy’s stiff penis through the panty fabric. The man lowered his own pants and began to masturbate furiously. He lapped and bit, and his unshaven stubbled cheeks scratched and burned the boy’s tender thighs. Suddenly the man bolted up on his knees and frantically tossed the boy over and hoisted his pelvis up. He pulled down the boy’s panties and lowered himself atop the boy.
The boy clutched at the blankets and pillows and stared at the wall. His own penis had gone limp, and he felt afraid as the man pushed and strained and prodded behind him. His father cursed and grabbed the boy’s hands and pulled them back and ordered he clasp his buttocks and spread them wide. The boy did so, his face smothered in a pillow, and his penis once again grew hard as the man grunted and mauled his lower back and pushed and pounded and struggled to pierce the boy’s tight constricted sphincter.
Suddenly the man spasmed and buckled against the boy; droplets of hot scum splattered on the boy’s buttocks. The man dug his fingers into the boy’s slim waist and rubbed his flaccid penis against the boy’s semen-wet back. He grunted and shivered, then let go of the boy and fell down exhausted. He smacked his lips a few times and fell asleep.
The boy was struck by how much the man smelled. He climbed down off the bed and rubbed his wet buttocks. His hand was sticky and clammy. He stared at it, raised it to his face, and breathed in the fresh, dew-like aroma. He thought of the man in the comic book store, and as if mesmerized by the new odor, dipped the tip of his tongue into his father’s semen.
Instantly he gagged and almost tottered to the floor as the panties around his knees distorted his balance, but he caught himself and gripped the bed, wiping his hand on the blanket and spitting on the floor.
The man snorted in his sleep; his soft penis lay limply in a tangle of wet hairs, a final long droplet of semen streaming from the head. The boy took a blanket, and covered his father.
The boy sighed again. He lifted his head off the metal gate of the store and rubbed his creased forehead. Two large and heavy locks hung boldly from the gate ensuring the safe enclosure of the store. The boy pulled the tractor from his pocket and held it before his face, pondering the little colored box. His penis was stiff.
Unexpectedly he let go of the little box and watched it fall through an opening in the bars of the gate. The box tumbled 156 towards the door and stopped. The boy bent down and looked through the gate; the bald man would certainly know where it came from. He stuck his arm into the gate and reached for the box. His fingers brushed the little parcel and the tractor wobbled out slightly. It was inches from his grasp; if only he could find a stick. He stood up, smoothed his jacket, and turned around.
“This is not the time to be looking at comics!” a woman’s shrill voice screeched into his ears.
Instantly he drew back against the hard metal gate. He braced himself and stared at the little girl who sat behind him in class, clutching her mother’s hand and grinning at him. Like his godmother’s younger daughter, the little girl also wore braces on her teeth; her grin, darkened by the dark gray metal in her mouth, seemed wicked and threatening, more like that of a sly rabid beast than of a sweet little girl. Are all girls alike? he wondered. Possibly.
“Where are your parents?” the girl’s mother shouted again. “Do they know you’re staring at comics instead of being in church?”
The boy looked up at the woman. She was dressed in a bright red skirt and jacket, her neck, wrists, and earlobes laden with thick heavy jewelry. Saliva splattered from her lipstick-smeared lips, and her dark outlined eyes accentuated her grotesqueness. Still, the boy was not intimidated and glared back at the large loud woman.
The boy hoped the woman would stoop down so that the ludicrous hat roosting on her head would topple over and fall to the gutter — it looked ripe for a good solid kick. He grinned at the thought.
“What are you grinning at?” the woman shouted. “Where are your mother and father?”
The little girl began to tug her mother’s hand. The boy wanted to laugh. The day before he had worn a similar dress to what the flat-chested little girl had on, and he knew that his was prettier than hers. At least his had bows at the neck.
“That’s the boy whose mother went to the hospital, remember?” the little girl blurted out.
After he had pushed the little girl the week before in class and she had fallen from her seat, the woman came to his house after school to admonish his mother over her uncontrollable son. The boy was frightened and fled to his room as the two angry women shouted at each other in the kitchen.
He peered out a few times to see the little girl sitting on the couch and sticking her tongue out at him. He did the same to her, when suddenly the little girl pocketed one of the plastic soldiers he had been playing with before she came, and he ran out of his room and demanded she give it back. His mother pulled him away, cursed the woman and her daughter, and told them to get out of the house. The woman bustled her thieving daughter out of the apartment and cried, This is not the last of it! The next day, the little girl slipped the soldier into her pencil-box at school and taunted the boy by making sure he caught a glimpse of it whenever she pulled out a pencil, but jerked away each time he made a move to grab it.
“Where are your parents, I asked!” the woman insisted, her hand on her waist, her black purse dangling against her fat thigh.
The boy glared at her and moved off the store gate. His sneering grin faded and he wanted to cry. What right had they to talk of his mother? What did they know? He moved to the side of the woman and felt his eyes well in tears. He had to get away. He would not let them see his hurt. He would not let them satiate their hunger for his pain. He would offer his tears to no one.
For there is something predatory in watching someone cry. As much as one feels uncomfortable in the presence of a sobbing person, either wanting to reach out and soothe them, or else gaze at them indifferently and complacently, one also gluts on the other’s pain and assuages one’s own insecurities. To witness another crying is a refreshing experience. It is a good feeling. The dry-eyed onlookers revel in the sight of tears and summon their friends to watch, too.
No, he would not let them see. He would cry alone, or better yet, not cry at all.
He hurried away.
“Well, I never!” the flustered woman shouted after him. “You come right back here, young man!”
The boy glanced over his shoulder, made a face, then quickened his pace and broke into a trot, leaving the surprised woman and her malicious little daughter staring open-mouthed after him.
He ran up the street and his sock-less feet chafed and rubbed harshly against his stiff new shoes. He wanted to stop and rest but ran on, heedlessly darting against street-lights and past surprised communion-clothed classmates on the way to church with their equally overdressed parents.
He wished he could run to the hospital and see his mother; he wished he could run home and find his father dressed and sober and smiling; he wished he could run to his godmother’s house and the girls would be his friends; he wished he could run to school and the nun would not single him out; he wished he could run away and that all of these confused longings would stop forever.
He came before the church, slowed his pace, and wiped his brow. His feet burned and ached. He stopped and looked back at the people he had passed but he didn’t care what they thought any more. He bent down, pulled up his pants, and stared at his bare ankle; the skin above the shoe tops was raw and red. Gently he touched the raw chafed skin. It burned. He sighed, stood up, and smoothed his jacket. He walked stoically past a few more staring, whispering people, and loped around the corner to the school where the class was to assemble.
At the entrance to the building a group of parents stood talking and laughing amongst themselves. They had a crisp morning-scrubbed look about their smug contented faces. As he neared, the parents fell into hushed whispers and eyed him curiously.
“It was the painter,” he heard someone say. The boy winced.
“Yes,” someone else added. “The old woman always heard them fighting. He had blood all over his white pants.”
The boy limped into the building.
“What a mother!” he heard someone say. The boy rubbed his eyes. What are they talking about? Painter? Old woman? Blood on white pants? Everywhere I go everybody knows everything about everyone else. Do they know of the shit in the hall?
He wrinkled up his face and made his way to the auditorium. The hall was so eerie and quiet that he wondered if he were the first one there. He paused in the auditorium doorway. A smattering of his classmates sat silently in the brightly lighted arena, their prayer books before them, looking incredibly frightened and subdued.
He shivered. Were they all going to die?
Suddenly he heard loud and unmistakable footsteps in the hallway behind him. He darted quickly into the auditorium and fell into an empty seat, reaching in his pockets for his prayer book. He groaned. How could he have forgotten it? Today of all days. Where did he leave it? In his schoolbag? Atop the cabinet? . . . What difference did it make? At least he knew all the prayers by heart.
He lowered his head and mumbled the opening line of a prayer and grimaced. No good. He lapsed into another prayer and uttered a few words, squinting his eyes in concentration. He repeated the words but they did nothing to prompt further words. They seemed different and out of place, and the once so easily memorized paean to God came out as a mish-mash of broken phrases and disconnected clauses. Perhaps if he just pretended to pray? All he had to do was keep his head down and who would know?
He looked about. More frightened children were filing into the auditorium, and the seats were rapidly filling. The bright room grew extremely hot, and the children, in their new and unfamiliar clothes, squirmed in their seats and taunted and pushed each other. The girls stared contemptuously at their neighbors’ dresses. The boys started tugging each other’s elastic ceremonial arm bands and snapping them back. One boy grabbed a girl’s veil from behind and jerked it off, so the girl turned and flailed him with her purse. Nearby another girl grabbed at another boy’s white tie and pulled it as far as the elastic collar band would stretch, then let go; the tie snapped back and struck the boy in his nose, so he snatched at the girl’s rosary and the beads separated, scattering loudly on the wooden-slatted floor.
Just then the nun entered the auditorium, her eyes wide in anger, her face set, staring in disbelief at the heathenish chaos before her. “Where do you think you are?!” the nun screamed. “Have you forgotten why you’re here today?”
She stood before the cowering class, grinding her jaws as if suppressing the rage which was straining to burst forth, the eyeglasses on her stern white face quivering.
The boy stared slyly at the nun and wondered if she were wearing the same black habit she wore everyday or if she had other habits to change into. This one looked cleaner and darker; a Sunday one, perhaps.
Once in class the nun had leaned against the blackboard, and each time she turned around the children sniggered at the white streak of chalk lining her lower back, and they strained not to burst out laughing.
Suddenly the little girl who sat behind him betrayed the smirking of her classmates. Sister, Sister! she blurted out. Your bottom is all white!
The nun’s face reddened, and she angrily wiped her back as the children burst into loud guffaws. The nun did not find this amusing, and as punishment assigned extra homework.
Me too? the little girl haughtily asked.
The nun glared at the girl. The girl shrank in her seat, knowing full well she had no choice but to do the unexpected assignment she had brought upon herself and her grumbling classmates.
“Open your prayer books!” the nun shouted, as more arriving children slunk into the auditorium, and instantly grasping the tense situation, dropped into vacant seats.
The nun spotted the boy and called his name. “Come with me,” she said, and, without turning to see if he followed, walked out of the auditorium.
The boy scowled and rose from his seat. He was afraid and angry. What did she want of him? He had not participated in the earlier melee; he had pulled no one’s veil, or tugged an armband, or broken a rosary. He had watched aloof and frightened. Why was he being singled out? It wasn’t fair. He clenched his jaws, stood up, and pushed his way past his classmates, stepping on toes and pushing roughly against knees.
The nun waited in the doorway. He approached and she moved aside, then let go of the door behind him. Would she send him home?
“What did you do in church?” she instantly asked, grabbing his beribboned arm and squeezing his bicep.
“Nothing,” he mumbled, poised to raise up his free arm to protect his face.
“You made in the confessional,” she said, squeezing his arm harder and scrutinizing his face.
“No, I didn’t!” he feebly protested.
“Don’t lie,” she said quietly, slowly releasing his arm and scowling as if recalling something. “Don’t lie.”
“It was already wet when I went in,” he whimpered.
The nun let go of his arm but kept staring at his face. “Did you fall?” she asked.
The boy shook his head. Why doesn’t she hit me?
“Father will be here shortly,” she sighed. “You can confess to him one more time.”
She moved away from the boy and opened the door. He was stunned and looked at the back of her black habit. What was she up to? He returned to the auditorium. Confess? Again? And what had he done? Wasn’t it all being done to him? He felt very suspicious and uneasy. Did he have one final chance at redemption? Was it so simple that after all this time he could still be saved? The boy shook his head. It made no sense. It was too easy. Confess? What made her think that talking about it would save him?
Confession, private or public, did not always bring about redemption. In speaking the truth, one flirted with crucifixion. They would love nothing better than to drive stakes into him and suspend him on display. Oh, yes, they wanted him to talk, to confess, to tell all. They would listen and pretend to care and promise friendship and wink at each other, but when they discovered his weakness they would strike out and bore in and betray and kill.
Confess? Confess, and die. That was the plan from the start, wasn’t it?
The boy made his way to his seat and saw the nun summon the other boy, along with the girl whose rosary had been broken, out into the hall. There were loud shouts and cries from the hallway. When the trio returned, the boy was crying and holding the side of his face, the girl limply dangling his rosary from her fingers.
“But it’s black!” she protested. “And it doesn’t match my dress!”
“Sit down!” the nun ordered, glaring at the girl, and looked out over her class.
“You are all playing with grave danger!” she shouted at the children, waving her finger in the air. “All morning you have been tempting the devil and he has been running around this room and Jesus has been standing outside crying!”
The children cringed in their seats, their heads lowered, not daring to look about.
“Father will be upstairs one final time,” the nun continued, “and will hear any sins you have committed since yesterday’s confession.”
She looked over the cowering group. “Who needs to confess one final time?” she asked, and shut her eyes.
The boy glared at the nun. It seemed as if she were praying, but he knew she was waiting for him to raise his hand. It was his last chance. If his hand went up he would admit he was a liar: that he had lied to his mother about the movie and to his father about the price of the tractor; he would admit he was a thief: that he had stolen comic books and panties; he would admit he was a cheat: that he knew things about people and about himself that he could never tell anyone.
No, it was too late. Whether he was guilty of anything or not, he could no longer reach out to people and confess or share. If he confessed and opened his soul and put his feelings on display, which one of them — nuns, priests, guardians, companions — would commiserate and put their arms about him and say, There, there, it’s all right? . . .
Arms about him? Ha! He knew all about people putting their arms about him. Either they caressed or clawed you. And it amounted to the same thing. What a farce! Confess? Who did they think they were, eliciting his words and tears and staring greedily at his wounds? Open up and tell Jesus everything? Jesus will cleanse your soul? Jesus? Jesus was just like them: old. Confess? Ha! He’d rather spit in their wrinkled old faces than tell them anything. Pigs! Old pigs! Ha!
The nun opened her eyes and looked stonily at the mute class. Not one hand had been raised. The boy looked directly at her; their eyes did not meet.
“Very well,” she said, and glanced at her watch. Her voice seemed detached and distant, as if resigned to the entire damning affair. She looked indifferently at the children, then turned and walked out of the auditorium.
A frightened murmur swept through the class as the children started to accuse each other of various sins and being unworthy of receiving communion.
“You should confess!” a girl shouted at her neighbor, as though she were a personal witness to all the sins that had been committed.
“Oh, yeah?” the neighbor replied. “What about you? All you do is snitch and lie on everybody.”
The accuser turned her back. “We’ll see who goes to hell today.”
From the rear of the auditorium a loud commotion broke out. Children scattered over and across seats as two boys flailed at each other and fell to the floor, kicking and punching at one another.
“If you don’t confess, I’ll confess for you!” the boy atop the other screamed.
“Fuck you!” the boy on the bottom spat out.
Suddenly the hallway door opened and the nun gaped at the fresh chaotic scene in the auditorium. Behind her stood the old priest who had confessed the boy and the girls on Saturday. The priest punched his way around the gaping nun and plunged into the melee, grabbing the two disheveled and bloodied fighters by the scruff of their collars and marching them out of the auditorium.
The remaining children dropped haphazardly into vacant seats. At any moment they expected the angry nun to plunge into the group and trounce at least five children and accuse another five of abetting them, yet she remained by the door, staring at her disordered class, her face white and stony, her left-hand fingers clutching a long rosary connected to the sash at her waist, drawing it slowly bead by bead.
“The following children,” she finally said, “will line up in the hall and go to confession one more time.”
Her voice was cold, steady, indifferent. She slowly enunciated each child’s name, her fingers drawing a rosary bead each time a child approached.
The boy shivered as he heard his own name called.
The designated group of children gathered by the door and made their way out of the auditorium. Some began to whimper and sob as they trudged into the hallway, while others walked stiffly and surely, as if unconcerned about having to face one more rigmarole they could do little about anyway.
The boy stood near the end of the line, his head bowed, his hands clasped, but aware and alert to the movement and direction of the nun. She led them down the hall and up a short flight of stairs, past the front entrance to the school where parents with cameras lingered in the doorway and stirred in expectation of the approaching communion procession. They looked curiously at each other as the small group of children walked by and started up the stairs.
The children halted before an upstairs office and lined up against the wall next to an open doorway as the nun went in; the boy caught a glimpse of the young priest who had given him water on Friday. He brightened and peered avidly over the shoulders of his classmates to see what was going on. Suddenly the nun’s loud and angry voice shrilled through the open doorway followed by the equally loud and angry voice of the young priest.
“They have to learn their lesson!” the nun shouted.
“They don’t need any more confession!” the priest shouted back.
Fear and dread spread through the group of children and the boy looked away from the doorway. Next to him a girl started crying, shriveled up against a wall; she shook convulsively and sobbed for her mother to take her home. Her tilted veil draped awkwardly down the side of her head, and her white dress, seeming to reflect her despairing mood, hung limply and forlornly on her body, its flounce and buoyancy drained and spent.
At the near end of the line, next to the doorway, a small boy with dark hair stood as if ready to spring away from the door, then he let out the crescendo of a beseeching moan. The children near him pulled away and stared at his darkening pants and the puddle forming at his feet.
The boy looked sympathetically at his urinating classmate and was no longer afraid. He felt very sad.
Anger should have been the proper response, anger and rage at the circumstances, the events, the persons involved. The entire morbid rite of confession and communion was seizing his innocence from him and instilling in him instead a stigma of fear, dread, and guilt.
But anger was useless and meaningless. He was under such tight disgust that he could rant and shout or cry and sulk, and what would it all prove? They would only tell him to stop feeling sorry for himself, to stop acting like a baby. So why should he reveal himself? Why should anyone know he was angry and disgusted? They were wrong and that’s all that mattered. They were wrong from the moment they entered his life and spouted their stupidities, to the moment they left and were replaced by other, equally stupid accomplices and flunkies . . .
It seemed an incredibly long line of stupidity. From the moment he opened his eyes it was stupidity and more stupidity. And he was just as stupid. He had believed and trusted, yet he had been betrayed at every turn. They had tricked him, played a cruel Halloween jest, wherein the treat was a trick and the trick was death.
Though they had no right to do this to him, a child, a boy, he would acquiesce in their judgment of death because he refused to be soothed by their lies of life any longer. He had lived; he had sinned; he would die.
Fuck their Holy Communion! Fuck their Confession! Fuck their Jesus who killed little boys!
After communion it would no longer matter that he had once been innocent; after communion he would be eternally guilty; after communion he would be responsible for all his actions, and no longer would the stigma of Original Sin excuse him to carefree abandon and unconcern. Once cleansed and freed, he would join the sad ranks of his morose elders and begin the guilty struggle to find acceptance in a useless and incomprehensible existence.
His innocent state of childhood would be traded for the responsible realm of growing-up as if it were a blessing rather than a curse passed on from generation to generation. Indeed it was a curse, a slap in the face, a kick in the ass — sudden, brutal, and swift. You woke up and the innocence of childhood, if there ever was such a time, was irreparably gone forever.
In the end you were left with nothing but experience and memories of betrayal and loss and deception. It was as if an entire epoch had received the Judas kiss and was doomed to repetitive betrayal. For once innocence is lost and truth betrayed, there is no resurrection, there is only death: slow and patient, but tireless, certain, scrupulous.
So go ahead, go ahead and kill me and be done with it! I’ve got nothing more to say. I’ll be still and silent. For silence will be my response to your belligerent shouting and raucous existence. I will be silent for it is too late for explanation, it is too late for confession and forgiveness and communion. I have committed a sin and the sin is life and the only penance is death. Forgive me Father for I have sinned . . .
The nun came out of the office and confronted the shaken group. Her loud discourse with the young priest seemed to have revived her from her previous restrained and stoic demeanor, and she was back to her usual self: stern, angry, judgmental, the long beaded rosary swaying freely from her waist sash.
“Now what’s going on?!” she cried, grabbing the small dark-haired boy who had wet his pants. She shook him back and forth. “What have you done?” she shouted, her fist poised at her waist. “What have you done?”
The small child whimpered and saliva dribbled from his mouth and wet snot popped from his nostrils. His communion outfit was in disarray: his tie pushed to the side of his neck, his arm ribbon twisted into his armpit.
“What have you done!?” the nun shouted again, and struck her fist at the side of the small child’s neck.
The boy looked at the sobbing dark-haired boy and was glad he wasn’t responsible. He was glad he hadn’t wet his pants.
Suddenly the young priest stepped out of the office and stood in the hallway shaking his head, as if vindicated by the confusion surrounding the nun. He walked up the cowering line, spotted the boy, and motioned him to follow; the boy entered the office and the priest shut the door behind him. The 169 priest gently put his arm on the boy’s shoulder, led him to a corner of the room by the window, and gestured for him to kneel on an elaborately carved and embroidered prie-dieu by the open window. The priest draped a confessional amice around his neck and sat down before the prie-dieu.
“What happened to your face?” he asked.
The boy glanced out the window; a car horn blared. “We were playing Ringolevio,” he quietly lied, “and I fell down.”
The priest frowned at the boy for a moment; he hated the street game which injured so many boys over the years. He made a sign of the cross over the boy’s head and leaned one arm atop the prie-dieu, shutting his eyes as if in prayer.
The boy was disappointed. It was so easy to lie! It was such an accepted thing! He sighed and crossed himself and began his confession. His mind raced. He needed a sin. What was a sin? Anything but the truth. Something that made Jesus cry. Something that made your guardian angel go away. Cowards! Just when saviors and angels were needed most, they reverted to crying and deserting you. Abandonment. That’s what a sin was. When you sinned, you were alone. A sin separated you from the rest of the world. It wasn’t that you were damned to burn in hell for an eternity; it was that you would be damned to be alone for a lifetime. Alone. Apart. Wasn’t that punishment enough?
The boy shifted on his knees and looked at the priest before him. Hug me Father for I have sinned. The priest was distant, closed off, his eyes shut, lost in prayer.
“Since my last confession,” the boy said quietly, “I lied to my mother.”
The priest opened his eyes and studied the boy. “How many times?” he asked.
“Once,” the boy nervously lied. He knew something was wrong.
The priest again shut his eyes, rocking his head and softly murmuring to himself. “What did you tell her?” he finally asked.
“I told her the comics I bought cost ten cents and they really cost a quarter,” the boy replied, looking away from the priest.
“When did you tell her this?” the man asked slowly, once more opening his eyes and staring at the boy.
“Yesterday,” the boy stammered. “Yesterday after confession I bought comics and…”
“You lied to your mother yesterday?”
The boy nodded.
“That’s enough!” the priest blurted, sitting stiffly upright and glaring at the boy. “Stop lying!” he said. “When did your mother go to the hospital?”
The boy stared at the priest in disbelief; the names of days raced through his head. “Friday,” he meekly stammered.
The priest rubbed his face and made a quick sign of the cross over the boy’s head, but it was more like a barren dismissal than a holy anointing. “Say two Our Fathers,” he said. His voice was sullen and tired, bored, resigned. “And stop lying,” he repeated softly.
The boy shivered. A lie; another lie. Or was it the same lie? How many lies can one say in a lifetime? How many sins can be committed? Isn’t the first one always the decisive one, since that’s the one that dooms you forever? And what of truth? If it’s a sin to tell a lie, is there a credit or reward for speaking the truth?
“Thank you, Father.” The boy crossed himself and fled from the room. He hurried past the lined-up children in the hall and walked quickly towards the stairwell. He was glad the nun was not about. But where should he say his penance? Two Our Fathers. Should he return to the auditorium and kneel before his classmates? Should he wait till he got to church and kneel before the gawking adults?
He turned and entered the Boy’s Room.
The white tile of the walls and floor, the sparkling enamel and silver piping of the wash basins, all gleamed brightly, and a faint biting scent of ammonia hovered in the air. The boy walked slowly past the wall urinals and peered into each stall. They were empty. He was alone. He hoisted himself up onto a sink and stared into a mirror. The bruises on his face, yellow and tawny-looking, were still clearly and harshly visible. His large nose, lumpy and bloated, seemed to have shifted and set to the other side. He scowled. The image only faintly resembled what he thought he looked like. Did it matter?
He lowered himself off the sink and went to the window, then tried to lift the large-frosted glass. It was shut, a thick screw holding the window securely in place. He knew the window faced the street and he smiled to himself. Wouldn’t it be great if he could poke his head out and spit on the stupid parents below? His grin widened.
Once when he was in the bathroom alone, older boys from the upper classes, marauding through the school on the lunch break, burst in screaming and yelling and carrying a large silver fire extinguisher. They ignored the boy and went to the window — they had no difficulty lifting it open — upturned the fire extinguisher, and aimed towards the street, spewing a swift stream of extinguishing solvent on the pedestrians below. It was great! The boys screamed and laughed and cursed and spat and waved fists out the window, then just as suddenly as they had entered, fled from the room, dropping the metal extinguisher to the hard tiled floor where it clanged and echoed and bounded from end to end.
The boy stared wide-eyed, excited, but knew enough to scamper out of the room after the older fleeing marauders. He was breathless and thrilled, racing madly down the hall, losing track of the rioting companions as they scattered in chaotic directions, but he felt fortunately conspiratorial, as if he had been blessed in the involvement of something grand and regal.
Indeed it was grand! It was pure rebellion — exhilarating, wonderful, instantaneous — a fleeting destructive moment bestowed briefly and lasting but an instant, yet an instant that would be remembered and cherished forever.
The boy stared at the shut window and suddenly spat on the frosted glass, his saliva streaming slowly down the pane. He turned and entered a toilet stall, snapping the bolt on the door behind him. Lowering his pants, he sat down and rested his elbows on his knees. He squinted into the crotch of the panties about his ankles, looking at the streak of brown that had rubbed off his ass and smeared the satiny material.
He strained and farted, and a few droplets of urine fell to the water. He was glad he had not made in his pants. The other boy would probably be sent home to change. He would return in fresh clothes and the incident would be forgotten. The boy sighed. What if he made in his pants? Where could he go to change? To change into what?
He stood up and pulled the panties up his thighs. The silky material wrapped tautly round his waist and his little scrotum bulged smoothly from his legs. He gently brushed his fingers along the bulge and his penis began to stiffen. The boy sat back down. He leaned against the water pipe of the toilet and inserted his hand into the panties. His fingers encircled his stiffening penis and he closed his eyes. He licked his lips and touched his face and slid down on the toilet seat, one end of the U-shape seat boring into his buttocks, and began to move the flesh of his penis back and forth. He thought of his father and wondered if he could make that sticky stuff and rub it on his face. He thought of the fat bald man . . .
He froze. The outer door in the bathroom was flung open and footsteps pounded along the hard tiled floor. He bolted upright. There was no mistaking the ominous-sounding steps. 173 He gasped and reached behind him to flush the toilet, quickly rose and pulled up his pants. His penis remained stiff. The stall door shook.
“Who’s in there?” the nun called out.
“I’m almost finished,” he stammered. Suddenly his eyes bulged wide. Other footsteps sounded across the floor and his godmother called to him. Her voice seemed strained and painful. What the hell did she want? He heard the nun telling the woman to leave, but his godmother, as disrespectful of the boy’s privacy as was the nun, stood her ground and refused to do so.
“He has no one else,” the woman said softly, and sniffled.
The boy pressed down on his stiff penis pushing against the zipper of his pants and buttoned his jacket. He rubbed his forehead, and suddenly flinched back from the stall door.
“Why hasn’t he been told?” he heard the nun’s angry voice.
The boy spun around and again pulled the toilet flush. There was a knock on the door.
“Come out,” the nun said quietly.
The boy was afraid and sighed heavily, opening the latch on the stall door.
For a moment the two adults stared at him as he stepped out of the stall. His godmother sank to her knees and pulled the boy to her, clutching and hugging him tightly. The boy did not look at the nun.
“Why didn’t you wait for me?” the woman asked, brushing his hair off his forehead.
The boy turned red. His eyes watered and he wanted to cry and clasp the woman, but just as quickly his tears ebbed and he stood mutely, his hands at his sides, his head lowered.
“Oh, baby, why didn’t you wait?” his godmother gushed.
The boy wrinkled his nose at the odor of the woman’s perfume and pushed himself away, shaking his head, his hair falling over his forehead.
Wait? Wait for her? For what? To be slobbered over and hugged and kissed? To be left alone and made up and scratched and bit? To be clutched and questioned? That’s all they ever did. Hugging. Hugging. Hugging. Questions. Questions. Questions. A madman’s inquisition! Everybody wants to know everything.
Where were you? What did you do? What is this? What is that? Are you sick? How do you feel? Who are you? Tell us. Tell us. Tell us. Do you love me? Tell me. I love you.
What crap! What utter disgusting crap! He wished he could slap these romancers in their puking faces. That’d show ‘em how he felt. Feelings? Yeah, he had feelings. He had a hard-on in his pants.
Wanna feel it? Maybe I should unzip my pants and pull my prick out. I’ll bet you a million bucks you’d be on your knees, your mouths open, your tongues flicking. Feels good, huh? Feelings? Feelings, my ass! What the fuck do you know about feelings? You grope and paw and leer and ask me how I feel.
Tell us how you feel . . . tell us the truth . . . you can trust us . . . we’re your friends . . . we’ve been through it too. Tell us. Trust us. We love you. Ha!
Yeah, sure! Since when is love dispensed in moronic fits and starts like some spasmodic judgment of a jittery, insane court?
Trust? Trust, shit! It’s all pretense. A sham. A bit of role-playing.
For to dare trust and expose one’s inner feelings and pain is to risk betrayal. And betrayal is always an enticing temptation. Because those who know most about you also know your weaknesses, and out of jealousy and conceit will bore in and slay you.
Those who hunger for knowledge of you can only be satiated by feasting on your corpse. Those who demand information and friendship of you will gorge on your shattered soul as on manna from heaven.
For an animal is certainly more appetizing when one has participated in the stalking, killing, and slaying of the beast. And look: the hunters crowd together in groups, drawing you out, enticing and baiting, offering friendship, love, smiling so sweetly, so gently, so innocently, but ever alert, ever ready to spring out, to strike, to kill and eat.
Trust? Step out of the forest. Love? Dare I expect love? Move into the clearing. Friendship? Oh, please be gentle with your spears . . .
The woman stared uneasily at the boy, then rose to her feet and glanced at the nun, who was eyeing the boy curiously. From the waist of her black habit the nun pulled out a small silver pocket watch and glanced at the time. “I think we should rejoin the class,” she said quietly, inserting the watch back into the sash about her waist and walking away from the boy and his godmother.
She opened the inner door of the bathroom and held it open for the child and woman. The boy glanced up at her, walked past, and opened the outer door, his godmother trailing behind him with the nun following.
In the hallway the nun stopped the boy. “Return to the auditorium,” she said quietly.
The boy saw his godmother about to reach out for him, but he quickly turned and walked down the hall.
“He doesn’t know,” he heard his godmother mumble after him. “Poor baby doesn’t know.”
He winced and wanted to turn around. Know what? he thought to himself, continuing down the hall. Know what? But then, would he ever know anything?
He turned a corner and passed an open office where the old principal sat behind her desk, hunched over a pile of papers before her. He tried to scurry by, but she had already lifted her head and spotted him. She called out to him.
The syllables of his name sounded so soothing and comfortable he almost did not recognize them. Three syllables, gentle and serene, spoken not with the condescension or authoritative threats of the other nuns and priests, but with kindness and respect, softness and concern. He approached willingly.
The nun rose from her seat, came from behind her desk and stood in the middle of the room. “Are you ready for Holy Communion?” she asked, smiling down at the boy and fluffing at the ribbon on his arm.
He nodded. As ready as he would ever be. So what if he died today? Today or tomorrow, what’s the big deal? He sinned and was going to pay for his sins. That was part of the agreement, wasn’t it? You sinned, you died. Simple.
The nun touched his shoulder, and the boy looked up and felt very uneasy. The old principal looked extremely sad. Her leathery skin was very white; the creases, the wrinkles about her lips and eyes seemed to have deepened and lengthened. The boy recalled a picture he had seen in his geography book of a mountain crag somewhere that resembled the face of an old man. Or maybe it was an old woman?
“Do you miss you mother very much?” the principal asked.
The boy froze. This was unexpected. Not since he had been told his mother was taken to the hospital had any adult mentioned her again. Except for his father’s confused slobbering and weeping, he knew nothing of her condition. And he had not asked . . .
It was as if his mother had ceased to exist for everyone. As if she never was at all. Why was this? Had they forgotten so quickly? The boy frowned. Had he also forgotten? He tried to remember the few times he had thought of her. Not many. Not many at all. Jesus, how far had he drifted?
He looked up at the nun and began to cry softly. His cheeks reddened as the tears rolled down his face, and he wiped his nose on the sleeve of his jacket.
“Don’t do that,” the nun said. She pulled out a handkerchief from her waist and lightly brushed the boy’s nose.
He wondered if it was the same handkerchief he had blown his nose into on Friday.
“There, there,” she said softly, and stroked his hair down his forehead.
The boy wanted to put his arms around her, but he kept still.
“Your mother is with Jesus,” the nun whispered.
“And your baby sister is with her.”
“And they will always be looking after you and smiling down on you from heaven.”
The boy sniffled and tried to focus his eyes. What? What is she talking about? Heaven? What heaven? His mother was in the hospital. Something happened and she was sick and she would get well. What? What? And she would come back. What?
He stared at the nun and slowly the room became very bright and cold. It was as if something tapped him on his forehead to remind him of something he had forgotten and his mouth hung open and his eyes bulged wide, suddenly remembering, and disbelieving.
But he believed it all right. He believed it and had known it all along. His mother was dead and she would never come back. She had died because of his sins and it was all his fault.
Dead . . . and yes, he had known it all along; known it since he had last seen her waving to him from the corner of the street. It was all so strange. Did he wave back? Did he take a last look? What did she look like anyway? In heaven. With who? A baby sister? What baby sister? Why didn’t he see her?
His mother left and took a baby and went to heaven? She was smiling? Why? He hardly ever smiled anymore. What was so funny? Was it a merry thing to do? To leave someone alone? To push someone away? To take the love you have inspired and leave the person confused? Sad? Angry? Bitter? Lost?
Lost, yes, that was it. He was lost and no one sought after him, no one wanted to be with him anymore. He had been tricked and deceived and betrayed. His mother was in heaven with someone; together they were smiling down on him.
Smiles? He cringed at the thought of their ridiculing sneers. At any moment he expected loud guffaws to echo behind him and to turn and see his happy mother clutching a happy little baby girl.
What had he done to please his mother? What good was he? He was no fun. He never returned her kisses, always squirmed in her hold, never confided in her. What was he doing? What had he thought? He didn’t think anything.
In his silence, his solitude, he stared vacantly at a world beyond his comprehension. Somehow the entire business of life seemed slightly askew to him. He always walked with some sort of dread of being caught, revealed, and found out not to belong, not to be a part. So he walked, invisible, formless, passing by people he knew and assuming they did not recognize him because he had taken on another shape. What other shape? There was no shape. He had already disappeared. Formless. He was nothing. Not even little. Nothing. His mother was in heaven with a little girl and he was on earth alone. Alone with nothing.
He blinked and looked at the old nun. The writhing figure of Jesus hung from the crucifix at her bosom. She stooped down before the boy and clutched his hands in her own. Her eyes glistened through her steel-rimmed glasses and she seemed very sad. The boy poised himself to break from her hold. He knew if she hugged him he would collapse and blurt out everything.
“Sometimes,” the old nun said slowly, gently squeezing his hands, “God has greater need for people than we do. He takes away those we love, and we are angry and sad because we do not understand. Whenever something is taken away, it is replaced with something else. When one door closes, another is opened. When God called your mother to heaven, He did not leave you all alone; He gave you something in return. You may not see it now, but you will.”
The boy stared furiously at her, calculating the time that had elapsed since he had last seen his mother. What had he been given in return?
“God is good,” the old nun continued pensively. “If He had not loved your mother as much as you, He would not have called her to Him so early.”
The old nun clasped the boy’s shoulders. He stiffened and glared at her. “Today is the most important day of your life,” she said sadly, inserting a finger behind her glasses and wiping at the corner of her eyes. “You have been freed from sin and will accept Jesus in your soul and your mother will be happy. She will be singing with all the angels in heaven when Jesus comes into your heart.”
She paused and swallowed heavily. “You will never forget this day,” she sighed.
She laced her arms around the boy and pulled him to her. Tears rolled down his face, but he remained silent and rigid in her arms, staring into a corner of her wimple that had opened at the temple. Short thin wisps of hair lay glued to her almost hairless head. The boy winced and shut his eyes. His face burned, and he pushed himself away from the nun.
She studied him a moment, then kissed his wet cheek and slowly rose to her feet. Once again she wiped his face with her handkerchief and smiled faintly at him. The boy stopped crying as the old nun fluffed at his ribbon, brushed his shoulders, and straightened his tie.
“Let’s join the class,” she said softly, taking his hand and leading him out of the office.
The two walked slowly and silently down the hall to the auditorium. It was eerily quiet, and for a moment the boy thought his classmates had already left for church, when suddenly sharp slapping sounds rang through the open door of the auditorium and echoed in the hall. The boy stiffened, but the old principal pulled him along and they entered the vast room, where mute and frightened children were lining up for the ceremonial march to church. The boy glanced indifferently at the scene; he didn’t care if they all died.
“Don’t crowd each other so much!” a nun shouted, clapping her hands for emphasis.
The boy let go of the old nun’s hand and walked towards his classmates. They stood in a long line stretching the length of the auditorium, each boy paired with a girl, and each child clasping a prayer book and rosary before them. He lifted his head and stared at the children, his eyes darting and searching for a spot where he could unobtrusively take his place on the line. All the spots were filled.
“Come here!” the nun at the front called to him.
He stiffened and quickly walked up the long line of children looking vacantly at him. The nun met him halfway, then turned and pulled a boy out of line. It was one of the fighting boys, and his face was red and scratched, his hair disheveled, his jacket wrinkled and hanging atilt, his manner timid and subdued. The nun positioned the boy on the line and led the other away; there was no sound of protest from him.
The boy took his place, folded his hands together, and mumbled, Shit! Shit! Shit! Beside him stood the little girl he had fled from in disgust earlier that morning. He turned and grinned at the girl and recalled her shocked mother yelling after him. His grin widened.
It had felt so good to leave idiotic people behind; to run from their crap. What was he supposed to do? Stand there and listen and drown in their sanctimonious bullshit? No, he would leave. He would turn and walk and run and flee like a madman. If they thought him a coward, so what? He’d be gone, and fast, too.
The boy tried not to laugh. The little girl opened her mouth and gaped at him in alarm. The boy was struck by how ugly and vicious her braces looked; probably meant to disguise her fangs, he thought to himself, and snorted. The little girl started to fidget and tried to attract the nun’s attention. The nun, after leading the fighting boy somewhere to the end of the line, returned and walked past the little girl, silencing her with a glare, then joined the old principal. The girl looked nervously at the boy.
Other nuns had entered the auditorium. They paced about, admiring the long line of cleanly dressed children. A few of the children surreptitiously dared to return their approving smiles, then quickly lowered their heads as though in guilty shame.
The boy stopped grinning and turned away from the little girl. He felt very tired and bored and wished the procession would start. What were they waiting for? Suddenly the nun loudly clapped her hands for attention, and the old priest, wearing a long white cassock and gold chasuble that shimmered and weaved with color whenever he moved, entered the hall and paused before the long line of frightened and anxious children.
The priest was followed by three grinning altar boys dressed in black cassocks and crisp over-starched white vestments which irritated their necks and wrists and hung stiffly on their restless bodies; one of the boys held aloft a large gold crucifix — with a very relaxed-looking Christ lolling on the cross — while the other altar boys each held a long and fat unlit candle before them.
The boy stared at the altar boys and bowed his head. He was about to pay for his sins. Justice would be meted out. His mother was in heaven with a little girl. All he wanted to do was get it over with. Go to church and be slain. Then it would be finished. He’d be able to sleep and not be afraid when he awoke that things had gotten worse. He’d be able to sleep and not have to wake. Okay, so his mother was in heaven with a little girl; he’d be in hell by himself. He’d stick his tongue out at them. What little girl? Probably like the stupid little brace-mouthed blonde girl next to him. Or like his godmothers’ daughters. Stupid . . . girls . . . little girl. His mother was in heaven with a little girl . . . a little girl in a pretty dress . . . girl . . . big tits . . . little girl . . . pretty dress . . . girl.
He lowered his folded hands and pressed them against his crotch. His penis was stiff. He stared at the back of the dress of the girl in line before him. It was similar to the one he had worn the previous day, widening from the waist and falling below the knees. He wondered at the color of the panties. Probably white. Ha! He pressed his crotch. If he reached beneath her arms could he clasp her breasts? What breasts? She was a little girl. Only he had breasts. And they were big. He wished he had them now.
He clenched his thighs and pressed his legs together. If only he could lower his zipper and squeeze his cock. Or if someone could squeeze it for him. He raised his head and looked toward the front of the hall. Instantly his face reddened; he jerked his hands to his chest and relaxed his thighs. The nun was staring directly at him. He remained still and stared at the crucifix held up by the altar boy. The children began to recite a prayer.
“Our Father which art in heaven…”
Along with my mother, the boy thought.
“Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
His penis pulsed in his pants. He glanced at the nun. She was looking away from him and also mouthing the prayer. Good. He did not want her to feel him to see if he had wet his pants. He knew better now. If he had to go, he’d whip it out and piss on them all. He’d urinate in her stupid nun mouth.
“Give us this day our daily bread.”
His mouth filled with the belched aroma of the bread he had eaten that morning and his eyes widened. It was useless. Hopeless, really. Another sin. He had repeatedly been warned not to eat before communion, yet he had gone and slobbered as much as he could. How many sins had he committed since Saturday? Yesterday, it was. Yesterday? Only yesterday? Aw, what was the use? He had been warned. He knew all along what to do, yet he did otherwise. Don’t lie; he lied. Don’t eat; he ate. Don’t steal; he stole. Don’t sin; he sinned. Don’t; it was done.
“And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Trespass, yeah. They come and trespass and camp on your land and you can shoot ‘em. What trespass? Couldn’t they make any sense? Riddles. Always stinkin’ riddles. There was no land. Between his house and the school and church there was only the street. What trespass? He could walk anywhere he wanted. Sure, sure. Between his house and the school was his godmother’s house. Big deal. Between her house and the school was the comic book store. Very funny. Where else could he go? Home? Ha! School? Ha! Perhaps to church? Where trespassers were shot? And that was all right. He was trespassing where he did not belong. He was a sinner, and he knew it. There was only one kind of Holy Communion for him and he had already received it: a mouthful of reeking shit . . . everything else was trespass.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil . . .”
Straight to good. To goodness. To be a good boy. All so simple. One. Two. Three. A snap of a finger and it is good. All is good. Is it good? Delicious. Terrible. Yum-yum. Send more boys. Eat ‘em up. Good. Ah! To be good. Decide to be good. Can you be good? Only good? God is good. God will kill you. That is good. You are bad. Bad. Look at you. Where are you? Killer. Of course she went away. With a good little girl. All dressed up in good little girl clothes. Fine. I have clothes too. See? Makeup: on. Silk and lace: on. It bulges. They’re big. Gee. Bend over. More. Now.
He was shoved and lost his balance and toppled against the girl next to him, grabbing her arm to prevent himself from falling further. The sleeve at the top of the girl’s shoulder separated a bit at the seam and she began screaming furiously. The boy blinked his eyes in confusion. Lost in his staccato thoughts, his eyes glazed in dreamy abandon, he lowered his hands and squeezed his crotch over and over and did not see the nun approach until she struck him full-force. He found himself again grabbing at the little girl beside him who broke his fall from the nun’s brutal shove.
“Keep quiet!” the nun shouted at the girl, and grabbed the boy. She pawed him between his legs and shook her head in disgust. “If you have to use the Boy’s Room,” she angrily shouted, “why don’t you raise your hand instead of playing with yourself?”
The altar boys at the front burst out laughing. The old priest turned and swung his fist at the cross-bearing boy who jerked away from the misaimed fist and braced the crucifix as if to protect himself.
“Do you have to go?” the nun asked loudly, and shook the boy by his bicep.
At the front of the hall the old unsmiling priest turned away from the altar boys and looked at the boy with obvious consternation and anger. Behind him the three altar boys smirked contemptuously. The cross-bearer leaned the crucifix against his shoulder and raised the middle finger of his right hand, gesturing obscenely at the priest’s back. The principal stood with her head bowed, drawing on her rosary beads.
“No,” the boy mumbled, shaking his head.
He hated everyone.
“Sister!” the old priest called from the front. “Can we please continue with the prayer?”
The nun glared at the priest, then looked back at the boy. He winced from the anger in her face and lowered his eyes. At least when he died he would be freed from having to look at her again. She moved away from him and touched the girl’s torn sleeve, flouncing her veil to cover the rip of her dress at the shoulder. “It’s okay,” she said, and walked away from the children.
“I’ll get you,” the little girl hissed at the boy.
He kept his head down. Yeah, she’ll get me; eventually they’ll all try to get me.
The nun rejoined the priest at the front of the auditorium. The prayer resumed and just as quickly ended with a loud, drawn-out, final “Amen!” A sigh of relief swept through the auditorium and the room seemed to fidget in anxious anticipation of release. Everybody wanted to get out, get the procession moving, get the ceremony over with. The morning had been dragging on much too long. Other ceremonies awaited. Let’s go!
The nun clapped her hands for attention as the old priest turned indifferently away from the children and began to walk out of the auditorium, the three altar boys following, one holding the tall crucifix rigidly aloft, the other two behind him, carrying the fat candles vertically before them. As they left the auditorium a nun berated one of the candle-bearers and pointed to his black and white sneakers and blue dungarees peeping from under his long black cassock. He shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something. The nun glared at him, then struck a match and lit the fat candle he held. She moved with the lighted match to the other candle boy.
The front of the long line stirred, and the first children on line followed the priest and altar boys out the door. A few of the nuns positioned themselves along the line and motioned for the children to move along. But the line crawled slowly, its pace thwarted by doorways, by stairs, by corners. Finally the children in front of the boy moved up. The boy steeled himself and took a brisk step forward, leaving his girl partner behind.
“Stay together!” a nun called out. “Do not lose your partners!”
The girl quickly caught up to the boy but he did not look at her. The line slowed. The children inched step by step and moved jerkily out of the auditorium, pausing in the hallway where the cool fresh air seemed to ease some of their tension and irritability. Now that the procession had actually begun, the children became quiet and dignified, almost adult-like, as they solemnly and patiently shuffled in the weaving line.
The line moved and stopped. The boy grabbed the banister at the foot of the stairs and leaned his body against the wooden railing. He felt very tired. He lifted one leg and balanced it on the first step. He blushed and quickly lowered it: his sockless foot was clearly visible. He wished he could stoop down and soothe the sores and blisters he was certain had developed on his feet from his new shoes.
He wriggled his toes. They did not feel too bad. One time he had worn a new pair of sneakers all day, making the damp socks curl at the toes, chafe and irritate his skin until large bubbly blisters developed between his toes and along the sides of his feet. They felt strange. He kept fingering and playing with the sores until he pressed down hard enough on a fat blister for the bubble to burst and squirt liquid on his face and fingers. . . . Do I have any fat ones now?
The line moved and the children climbed the stairs. They walked down the long hall and came to another stairway before the school entrance. At the top of the stairs the boy could see the welcoming sunlit street, and on each side of the doorway anxious but proud and beaming parents gawked into the school.
“Sister! Sister!” the girl next to the boy called out to the nun who had scolded the candle-boy and was bustling the children down the stairs.
The exasperated nun looked at the girl and motioned for her to keep quiet and move along. “We’re already late as it is.”
“But Sister,” the girl whined, and pointed at the boy. “He doesn’t have his prayer book and rosary, and my mother’s going to take pictures.”
The nun looked at the boy. His face reddened. His hands, palms pressed together, suddenly felt very empty and limp and useless. Stupid pig! he thought. As soon as anyone aimed a camera at him, he’d stick his tongue out, that’s what he’d do.
“Where’s your prayer book?” the nun asked.
The boy shrugged; he no longer cared. “Forgot it,” he mumbled.
“It’s a wonder some of you don’t forget yourselves,” she snorted and turned away.
The boy held his hands before him and stared straight ahead. That’s one thing I will never do: forget myself!
“Don’t worry,” he heard the nun tell the girl, “your mother will only take pictures of you.” Looking at the boy, she added, “I can assure you of that.”
She moved the children along as the line once more picked up sufficient speed, and the children marched through the school front door and onto the sidewalk. Parents parted for the line to pass, shouting to their children to look and smile into the cameras they held before them.
“Here we are!” they called. “Look here!”
The nuns scurried up and down the line, moving the children along and pleading with the adults not to slow down the procession since there would be plenty of time for photographs afterwards.
“Look here! This way!” other parents further up the line called, and the nuns turned reproachfully towards them.
The boy walked as briskly as the jerky momentum of the line could carry him. He had resisted looking at the gauntlet of adults crowding the line of children, but the parade-like atmosphere of shouting and posing was exciting. He wished someone called to him. One time he looked up and saw a woman pointing a finger at him and whispering to a man beside her. The two eyed him curiously, as if reproaching him for something, making the boy blush and look away and again quicken his pace.
Yet why was he in such a hurry? He knew what awaited him in church. Why was he marching so willingly? Would it make a difference if at the last moment he stopped and refused to go further, if he simply fled and disappeared?
Alas, flight is not always a guarantee of freedom or peace; in the safety of your solitude, the security of your reclusion, there is always the echo of unfinished words, the dullness of 189 dreamless eyes, the memory of an unshared love, an unlived life. No, flight can never be the answer; flight can never be a respite.
The only true freedom and peace is death. All else is stupidity. Teachers, nuns, priests, saints, parents, grown-ups, elders, friendship, struggle, love, life, ach! Ptui!
He would be alone. He would make the final break from a life which no longer had a claim on him in any way. He would no longer join with them. He would participate in their charade and kneel and fold his hands and open his mouth and accept the Holy Host and feign battle and die.
Because the only true freedom and peace is death. Only death. And Holy Communion would be glorious! He would pay for his sins. He would be separate. He would be singled out. He would die . . . and win!
He heard his name and looked up. The line had snaked around the corner and was mounting the steps of the church. The adults surrounding and keeping pace with the line darted ahead of the children, ran up the stairs, and positioned themselves at vantage points to take better photos of the procession.
He heard his name again and frantically searched the crowd for a familiar face. Who could be calling him? Finally he saw her. His godmother’s older daughter was standing at the middle of the stairway holding a camera in one hand and waving to him with the other.
She was dressed in a bright-red two-piece outfit, but unlike the little girl’s mother, the big girl’s crimson skirt and jacket, black blouse, and beehive hairdo only complimented and inflamed her lusty prettiness. From the bottom of the steps the boy was certain he could smell her perfume. He wondered at the color of her panties. Wait. If he was wearing hers, was she wearing any? He blushed. Of course; she had plenty.
Next to the girl, the boy’s sad godmother stood looking up at him. He could see she had been crying. Suddenly he, too, wanted to cry. He felt alone. His mother should have been there. It simply was not fair. All these mothers and fathers lining the stairs — gawking, calling, pushing, running — were they not aware that one of their own wasn’t there? A parent, just like them, of a child like theirs, was missing? Was dead? Didn’t they know? Of course they knew. They had been staring and jabbering all morning. They just didn’t care. They had more important things to think about. Themselves.
At what point in time does indifference and insensitivity enter a soul and stifle potential love and compassion and drive out altruism and empathy? Is there one sole event that occurs, forever making one possessive rather than generous, stagnant rather than growing, spiteful rather than loving? No. People are basically afraid to express love outside the parameters set for it. Love expressed aloud and out of context — in words, in kindness, in gifts — makes one uncomfortable and wary. Love disarms because of the potential for deception and abuse. Once expressed, it cannot be controlled. So they block it up and keep it barricaded within the bonds of family and nation, ready to die for some stupid senseless cause of their country, yet ignoring the desperate pleas of help and mercy from their neighbors. Shh, quiet, get away from the window . . .
They cling and clutch and couple to each other and see love as something distant and alien to the essentials of daily existence: Love won’t pay the rent, they mutter; Love won’t put food on the table, they grunt; Love won’t give you life, they fart. Ah, the wisdom of the ages! Passed down from ignorant generation to ignorant generation. Wait till you grow up, then you’ll see . . .
You bet I will, you blind loveless mother-fuckers! You bet I will!
Again the older girl smiled and waved her arm. “C’mon, smile!” she called.
He smiled, yet tried to remain unobtrusive, certain the nun was noting each child who stopped and posed and hindered the progress of the line. Boy, would they get it tomorrow! He was glad they would be punished; this was a religious procession, not a fashion show.
“Wait!” the big girl shouted, pushing her way through the crowd and pulling the boy out of line. “I wanna take a good one!”
“Don’t,” the girl’s mother called half-heartedly. “He’ll miss his spot in church.”
“It’ll only take a second,” the girl shouted back.
The boy looked nervously up the stairs and spotted the nun at the top peering through the doorway into the church. The line continued up the steps, and he hoped the girl would hurry and take her photo so he could catch up to his place before the nun turned around.
The girl peered through the camera and lowered it without snapping the shutter. “Where’s your prayer book?” she asked.
The boy shrugged.
She turned and looked up the steps, calling out to a big boy standing near her mother. He was of the same age as the girl and was dressed in a dark suit and tie, his black hair combed back in a thick gleaming pompadour high on his forehead. He was chewing gum, his jacket was unbuttoned, and his hands shoved into his pants pocket. He kept looking off into the crowd and grinning to himself.
“Gimme your prayer book!” the girl called to him.
The big boy blinked his eyes and looked at the girl. “Huh?” he groaned, as if waking up, a bemused expression lining his face.
The girl looked at him, then darted her eyes in the direction the big boy had been staring. A group of her classmates, dressed in their show-off Sunday finery, giggled back at her. The girl glared at the big boy. “Give me your prayer book!” she hissed angrily.
The big boy sluggishly pulled out a prayer book from his side jacket pocket and held it high over the heads of the crowd between the two of them. The girl easily snatched it from his fingers, glared at him angrily, then turned and handed the book to the boy. The big boy made a face at the back of the girl’s head, then winked and grinned at the boy.
The boy blushed and lowered his head. Suddenly he frowned. What if the big boy had been at his godmother’s house? He looked up. The big boy was looking back at the girls in the crowd. Was he also wearing panties?
“C’mon, smile!” said the girl, holding the camera before her.
The boy held the prayer book open and stared at the camera lens; he did not smile. The girl snapped her photo and quickly turned to look at the big boy, who had instinctively turned away from the other girls and once again looked at her. He smirked and she blushed.
By now the back of the line had mounted the stairs; people began crowding and pushing at the rear and forcing their way up the steps. The boy held out the prayer book to give it back to the girl, but his arm was pushed and he almost dropped it as he was carried along by the towering adults about him. His godmother called his name, and the people around him cursed and warned each other to stop shoving. The boy was whisked up the stairs and through the church doors.
He squinted at the surprising brightness of the chandeliers suspended from the ceiling — they were usually unlit — and he broke from the crowd, inching his way to the center aisle and the pews reserved for the communicants — boys on one side, girls on the other — as people darted about for empty seats or a standing spot adjacent to a wall or column.
He slowed his pace. The nun stood at the end of the aisle, blocking the way of any adults attempting to claim a seat in the children’s pews and looking sternly at the disheveled and red-faced boy. From the crowd pouring into church a few more camera-posing stragglers broke loose and nervously made their way towards the nun.
“Take your assigned seats,” she said sternly.
All the stragglers scurried from her and fled up the aisle to their seats. The boy came to his pew, genuflected, and pushed his way into the resistant group of contemptuous classmates.
“Watch it!” a boy hissed at him, and punched his thigh.
He stepped on toes and pushed against knees and bumped the heads of the boys in the pew before him, finally collapsing onto the bench.
“Stupid!” someone hissed behind him.
He winced and his ear burned. He lowered his head and ignored the snorting classmates about him, clutching the prayer book the girl had given him. The black book lay comfortably in his palms, and he tenderly fingered the torn and tattered cover. Silently he made out the syllables of the big boy’s name and repeated them to himself. It was a comfortable-sounding name, not too long and not too complicated, simply assertive and certain of itself; unlike his own — which seemed overly drawn out and dredged in foreign syllabic complications — the big boy’s name presented itself clearly and succinctly. There were no raised eyebrows or twitters or tongue-twisting clicks, simply acceptance and approval. If a name is alienating, what of the individual?
Suddenly at the foot of the church a side door opened, and the old priest who led the procession from school came out carrying a large, gilded, heavy-looking tome. Behind him followed the three altar boys — no longer carrying the cross and candles — who had marched with the priest. They were now joined by a fourth boy, who was late and kept yawning. He had not participated in the earlier procession.
The church nave made a tired, groaning sound as the congregation rose from the old wooden pews and stared expectantly at the altar. The priest faced the crowd, waved the large book before him, and after blessing the worshipers, turned and placed the book atop the altar. He bent down and kissed the cover, then opened the large volume to start the mass.
“Blessed is the kingdom of the Father,” he chanted, “and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever, world without end.”
“Amen!” the congregation responded.
The children sat back down, and the boy flipped through the prayer book in an attempt to locate the mass. He came upon some red-lined passages, which in his own book indicated the congregation’s response to the priest, but the words were different and he had difficulty following along. They did not appear to be the words he had studied for so long. He finally gave up looking for the correct passages and simply held the book in his hands, silently opening his mouth whenever the children gave response. Amen was always easy to say.
As the priest droned on in his sonorous voice, the solemnity of the ceremony soon began to pale, and the children squirmed and fidgeted in their hard seats and looked around the church trying to spot familiar faces. It was hot and uncomfortable. A few of the children even shut their prayer books, yawned, and seemed to be dozing off. The response of the crowd also slackened, and only half of the congregation still kept up with the mass and responded to the priest. The rest stared about vacantly, fanning themselves with unread church newsletters, bored with the affair and their surroundings; or they stared crudely, silently assessing and ridiculing the dress, hairdo, and demeanor of their fellow congregants.
The boy blinked. Chimes rang out from the front of the church, and the congregation rustled expectantly. The children, stirred awake and regaining interest in their surroundings, slid from their seats and knelt on the cushioned footrests beneath them, their eyes glued on the priest at the altar.
He stood resplendent in his sparkling robes, his arms uplifted, his head tilted back.
The boy gazed at the ciborium atop the altar. The little house looked so tiny. Jesus was in that little house. The priest would take the chalice out and make the wine and bread holy and Jesus would enter and poke around everyone’s soul and chase the devil out. But Jesus was picky and choosey. He liked clean souls. A spot of sin and down you went. An evil thought and out you go.
The boy shuddered. Weeks and weeks of preparation had gone into this affair and it was now before him. Everything should have been perfect. The plan was flawless, the training precise. Prayers had been memorized; clean clothes purchased; sins confessed. So what went wrong? Where was the flaw in the program? Why were the prayers jumbled, the clothes mussed, the sins repeated? What was the pattern in this march towards death? Yes, the same thing over and over as if a rehearsal for extermination.
C’mon, let’s get this rejection right. Tell me one more time how you do not want to be with me. Explain how you despise me. Ah, yes, tell me to go away. Push me aside. Look into my vacant eyes. See how they elicit rejection. Flee from me. Hang me on a cross. Shove me in a ciborium. Now. Go. To other people. To heaven. To little girls.
Oh, come sweet Jesus! . . . But what for?
“Receive, eat,” the priest intoned. “This is my body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.”
His voice was deep, throaty, respectful. He lowered his arms, made the sign of the cross, and bowed deeply. One of the altar boys rang the chimes; the priest lifted a large gold chalice and raised it above his head.
“All of you drink of this, this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.”
The chimes rang again. The priest lowered the chalice, made the sign of the cross over the altar, then once more bowed and lowered his head in silent prayer.
The boy looked around him. All the boys in his pew and in the pew before him knelt stiffly erect. He wished he could lean back and rest, but during communion practice the children had constantly been rebuked for relaxing on their haunches and resting their backs on the seats behind them.
“Jesus does not want lazy pray-ers,” the nun had sternly warned.
Jesus sure wanted a lot!
The boy eased himself back down. His buttocks touched the seat behind him and he relaxed. What difference did it make? He was tired. It was hot. It felt so good and comfortable to take it easy and sit hunched over, his knees on the kneeling cushion, his back supported by the seat behind him, his arms resting on the pew before him. The other boys soon noticed he was boldly leaning back, and they, too, defiantly abandoned their stiff postures and eased down to the long bench.
At the altar the priest continued gesturing and bowing and moving his arm about and preparing the accoutrements for the communion rite. Suddenly footsteps resounded up the center aisle. The slouching boys jerked erect and resumed their holy postures. The nun walked to the front of the church, genuflected at the first pew, and stood facing the altar, her back to the children. The boy imagined her stern face and knew he’d better not crouch down again.
The old priest turned from the altar and faced the congregation, his hands folded before him. The four altar boys also turned and looked out at the church; two of the boys, on one end of the altar, poked each other and gestured to some girls in the balcony, while the boys at the other end, one infected by the other’s sleepiness, kept opening and closing their mouths in rhythmic yawns and sighs.
“The children will now recite the Lord’s Prayer,” the priest announced, and nodded at the nun.
The nun shifted about and looked at her children. They were poised, ready and alert, eager to recite again the prayer they had practiced for so long. The nun opened her mouth and raised her hand to prompt the children.
“Our Father, which art in heaven . . .”
Each child’s voice came in on the mark and was evenly cadenced and enunciated. There were no slurs or lapses or sped-up phrases. The nun slowly waved her hand in silent tempo, and the priest rocked gently back and forth and smiled contentedly as the little voices echoed in the crowded church. The boy’s words echoed clearly and crisply.
“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.”
The congregation stirred and beamed proudly at each other. The adults seemed to be boasting: These are our kids. The months of rehearsal have paid off. It’s a fine performance. They aren’t such bad kids, after all. A few rotten apples here and there. But they knew their prayers; they’ve confessed their sins; they are growing up. It is enough to raise goose-bumps on one’s flesh and put a lump in one’s throat. Our kids.
From somewhere at the rear of the church applause broke out and spread sporadically, hesitantly, then was quickly picked up by the rest of the congregation, and the church rocked in thunderous clapping. A few of the children, assuming this to be some part of the mass they had not rehearsed, joined in the applause and looked amused at one another. All that was missing were a few foot-stomping Hip Hip Hurrahs! and some high-pitched whistling. Bravo!
The priest stared in horror at the crowd and raised his arms to silence his exuberant congregation. “This is a Mass!” he screamed. “Where do you think you are?”
He turned his back on the congregation, and the applause subsided as the crowd sat with their heads hung, darting embarrassed but smug and merry looks at one another.
When the applause had first started and the children began turning in their seats to see what the commotion was about, the boy instantly spotted his father, who stood in the back of the church, almost buried in the dense crowd, his fragile tired figure removed from his surroundings. Somehow he was alone and apart from the mob, bunched in by the horde, yet distant and separated as if he were a stranger, an intruder, and did not belong. He was clean-shaven and dressed in a blue suit and grey tie, but his haggard droopy face only stressed the discomfort of his entire demeanor. He kept squinting his eyes and dabbing at the sweat on his forehead.
The boy cursed his godmother. Always butting in. She had probably gone in that morning and forced the man to wash and shave. Did she squat on the floor before him? Stupid! The boy looked away from the man and scanned the faces of the crowd. Where was she? He couldn’t spot her.
Suddenly he stiffened. This is it. The children in the front pews were rising and leaving their seats and approaching the altar. They walked quickly but respectfully, staring straight ahead and clutching their prayer books and rosaries before them. The nun moved from pew to pew and signaled each row to rise.
The boy was confused. Isn’t this happening much too quickly? Can’t we slow it down a bit? How about another rendition of the Lord’s Prayer? Or a few Hail Marys?
The boys in his pew stood. He wanted to cry. He clutched the back rest of the pew before him and rose. For a moment he tottered and bumped against a boy beside him who prodded him roughly and pushed him against the boy on his other side.
At the head of the pew the nun, seeing a possible fracas about to break loose, clenched her mouth and struck her knuckles on the wooden pew, jarring the shoving boys into instant obedience.
The boy regained his balance and breathed deeply. It wasn’t fair. He was doomed, trapped, and he couldn’t even make an attempt at escape. It wasn’t that the exits were sealed and barred; there were no exits. The path of the sinner never led back, never turned left or right. Only the good were allowed freedom of movement, freedom of memory, freedom to pick and choose and discard. They could cavort and romp and still be greeted with open arms and smiles at the end: I’m sorry . . . It’s all right.
But the sinner trudged alone — wary, anxious, solicitous to please, to be accepted — yet he was always confined within himself, not knowing anything, but recalling everything. At the end there were no rewards, no merit citations, no hearty handclasps, only judgment and condemnation. Death and hell were a certainty. It was prophesized, written, lectured, memorized, warned against; yet it still went unheeded. Someone always dared to test the rules. Be it greed, stupidity, boldness, or rebellion, a hand crept out, grabbed what was restricted, and slunk back into the shadows.
Be it comic books or panties, friendship or respect, amity or love, the sinner could never approach confidently in the open and patiently build and receive the rewards of his labor. He would creep into the night and rout and pillage as if the human heart were just another hamlet in the steppe ripe for his Tatar flame. But what was the alternative?
One ravaged out of desperation, a longing born not only of evil or a lust for revenge, but with a knowledge of the limit of time. A desire for acceptance, a need to belong, to somehow fit in, with a desire gone unmet, therefore stifled and suppressed, but carried further to other eyes, other faces, other hearts, to somehow dare and hope and try again.
Ah, the dancing lights of a happy abode! The warmth of a hearth! Flickering, ever fleeting, ever dying . . .
He genuflected at the head of the pew and looked at the nun. He would never see her again, that was for sure. Good. He followed the line of boys up the center aisle to the front of the church, stopped a few feet from the altar, and knelt. The children were clustered shoulder to shoulder. It was hot and sticky, and as more children squeezed in on their knees, the communicants were bunched even closer together.
Suddenly at the far end of the kneeling line a girl burst into loud frightened sobs. She was quickly seized and led away from the altar by a nun clasping her shoulder and bustling her down the aisle and out of the church.
The boy’s eyes widened. Maybe there was a way out! Perhaps salvation lay in tears. At the last moment he, too, could start crying and be led away and given another chance at confession and communion.
But what was the point of tears? They no longer seemed to elicit pity, only reproach and belittlement. Stop being such a baby; only babies cry. The little girl was probably being hugged and preened over and told that it’s all right; she’d get another chance at confession, and she would receive communion another day and she would live and be happy. Isn’t that the way it always should be? Happily ever after?
At the altar the old priest was joined by the young priest to assist in the distribution of communion to the large group of children. They each held a cloth-covered chalice filled with wine and the host, and faced the crowd. “Approach with the fear of God and with Faith,” the old priest intoned.
The two priests separated and walked away from the altar, one to the left, the other to the right, and began the dispensation of the Holy Communion to the long line of kneeling children.
Behind the altar a huge mural of Jesus gazed benignly at the congregation. The boy always liked the mural; Jesus did not look like a scary God. His face was colored in soft hushed tones, and his eyes, though indifferent and aloof, seemed soothing and gentle. Their understanding was awesome. Jesus held out his pierced hands, not as a vindictive reproach, but in a gesture of serene understanding and forgiveness. Though his matted beard gave him an angry betrayed expression, it was not a look of condescension or spite. It was somehow compassionate, yet at the same time removed from all concern. It was not the face of a child-killer.
Out of the corner of his eye the boy could see the two priests moving closer to him along the line of kneeling children and stooping to offer them their first Holy Communion. The priests moved briskly from child to child, dropping the Eucharist, the bread and wine, from a little spoon into open mouths; and so far, not one child had been struck dead. The boy wondered how many children were slain each year. According to the nun, there were dozens, hundreds, thousands. It seemed such a common and accepted occurrence. Where do they keep the bodies and coffins? In the basement?
The two priests came closer. There was no commotion anywhere. He would be the only one. He glanced over his shoulder. One final look. A throng of brilliant white faces stared back at him.
Oh, Father! Hug me Father for I have sinned. Oh, Mother! Wash me Mother for I am soiled. Dead. Oh, no! And all I did was walk around. A man kissed me. Is that bad? I so much wanted to go on the trip! But they wouldn’t let me. They laughed and I cried. And I knew I did not belong. Oh, Mother, more than anything I want to be with you! What little girl? You can dress me and I’ll be your little girl. Oh, I’m so sorry. Please. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Oh, sweet Jesus!
Sweat broke out on his brow and his eyes widened in terror. The young priest was stooping down and holding the little spoon out to the boy. The boy shut his eyes and tilted his head back and opened his mouth.
Now. Glory Hallelujah! Here’s your Holy Communion!
The little spoon entered his mouth and mushy bread and wine dropped on his tongue and an almost inaudible cry, much like a gasp of relief, broke from his throat. He shut his lips and swallowed his first Holy Communion.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then his stomach grumbled and his bowels tightened and his mouth filled with water. He felt the bread and wine rise to his throat, so he swallowed again and stifled the gag. A sudden sense of relaxation swept over him. The Eucharist stayed down. He felt very calm and accepting. This was it. He was certain. It was coming. He would drop. Now!
The boy next to him brushed his shoulder and he opened his eyes. The expressionless face of Jesus looked down at him from the mural. The priest had moved on to the next child, and children were rising and returning to their pews.
The boy stared at the empty altar. The little door of the ciborium had been left open. After communion, the priest would leave a small amount of any unused host and wine in the chalice and return it to the ciborium to be used at the next mass; this reserve signified the symbolic perpetuation and continuity of the Holy Mass. But now, the boy looked at the open door of the ciborium. So much room inside!
He crossed himself, rose, and walked away from the altar, holding the big boy’s prayer book before his hard crotch.
He returned to his pew and looked at his classmates. Though some were still at the altar, the rest were already in their pews and impatiently looking about them. Everyone was there, including the little crying girl who had been bustled away — had she been convinced there really was nothing to fear?
They were all there, including the boy who had wet his pants in the hallway, looking extremely unctuous in his blue jacket and brown pants. They were all there. No need to count. Not one child had dropped or been slain on the spot. All were alive. Was it a miracle? Were they all good? Was he good? Or had his mother and little sister interceded and asked the angels to protect him? Or had Jesus forgiven the sin and let him live?
What sin? What exactly had he done wrong? Whatever it was he was guilty of, he had been willing to pay the price for his transgressions. He had boldly knelt before God and God did nothing. So why was his heroism so laced and intermeshed with cowardice? For he was a coward. He had carried his sins within and tormented himself with judgment and condemnation, just as the adults had taught him to do. He was sinner, accuser, judge, and executioner all in one. He had found himself guilty and sentenced himself to death.
But the drama that had been played out in his soul was a farce, a bit of vaudeville for the sell-out crowd. No one would believe it, and no one would take it seriously.
See the child, ha-ha! Make ca-ca for mama! That’s it, that’s it. Confess, you little sinner. Here, put fingers around it. Like this? That’s it! Ah, yes! Jesus loves you. Confess. Bend over. Oh, look what you made me do! Oh, bad, bad; you are bad. Evil. You will die.
He blinked his eyes. Stupid, all stupid. He did not die. He was alive because he had done nothing wrong. He was innocent.
If he had committed any sinful acts, he had done so out of a vague need for survival. Whether he lied to his drunken father or distant mother, he lied so as not to hurt them; whether he stole comic books or panties, he stole so as not to get in trouble. He had thought of others and little of himself. He believed others and listened and accepted their bullshit because he so much wanted to fit in and be like them, and he had dispelled the questions and doubts about their worth in his own mind.
They were the ones who were wrong. They were the ones who had lied. They were the sinners. The ultimate sinners. Jesus did not kill little children; adults did. If the boy had committed the greatest unpardonable transgression, Jesus had instantly forgiven him, because a child is guilty of nothing! Jesus had no need to play God; He was one!
“Amen!” the children around him sang out, as the mass finally came to a relieving end.
People stirred from their seats and crowded the aisles, pushing and shoving in an attempt to get to the rear doors leading out from the hot and stifling church. The nuns gave up hope of any orderly control of the overheated mob, and left the children to fend for themselves. The children quickly and gracelessly bolted out of the constricting pews and surged into the towering horde, easily squirming their way past thighs and buttocks and edging their way outdoors.
The air outside hung heavy with moisture; a slight rain had passed over the city but it did little to cool the hot muggy streets. The humidity gripped at the neck and behind the ears and sweat dribbled irritatingly down the crook of one’s back. A repetitive groan went out from the adults as they exited the church. Ties were loosened and jackets removed and sleeves rolled up; the ladies dabbed their foreheads with little lacy handkerchiefs and straightened their hats and hoped their cheap perfume would cover the stench of sweat until they got home.
The crowd spilled onto the streets. Sunday traffic was sparse, and children darted about to find their parents. Groups formed and cameras clicked. Little presents were handed the children and faces beamed.
The boy heard his name. He had raced out of the church with his classmates and now lingered awkwardly at the bottom of the stairs, not knowing what to do. At one point he saw the little girl whose sleeve he had torn, standing with her mother and showing the damaged dress to the nun, who suddenly shook her head, shrugged, and waved her hand in dismissal, walking from the flustered pair. The boy knew the old pig and her little piglet would come looking for him and find him — if not today, then another day; he’d be ready.
He heard his name again, and turned. His godmother’s two daughters stood across the street from the church waving their arms for him to come over. The big boy who had given him the prayer book stood next to the older girl, and he was holding her red jacket.
The boy blushed and frowned, then crossed the street and went up to the girls. He held out the prayer book to the big boy, but the older girl grabbed his arm and propped him up against a tree. The boy looked up at the lush foliage. Tiny beads of rain simmered on the leaves, sweetly clinging to the verdant blossoms.
“C’mon, look holy!” the older girl laughed, and raised a camera to her eyes.
The boy slouched against the tree, the prayer book open before him, and grinned. The big boy stared open-mouthed at the older girl’s large breasts. She clicked her photo, lowered the camera, and caught the big boy unaware. “What are you looking at?” she said, and thrust the camera at him. “Here! Get us all together!”
She approached the boy against the tree and put her arm around his shoulder. He gazed up at the side of her bosom and breathed in her rich perfume and felt his penis jerk and stomach tingle. The girl’s younger sister stood at the boy’s other side.
“You better get it right!” the older girl hissed at the big boy.
“What happened to his face?” the big boy asked.
“Just take the freakin’ picture!” the older girl said.
The big boy shrugged and raised the camera to his face. The trio stood before the tree, gazing at the camera, and the boy glanced quickly at the big boy’s crotch. It seemed to be bulging. He reddened and darted his eyes away from the camera. The big boy snapped his photo.
Suddenly the younger girl spotted her mother and began calling and waving to her across the street. “Maah!!” she shouted.
The boy’s godmother spotted them and raced towards the children, leaving behind her husband and the boy’s father. She ran up to the boy and grabbed him tightly to her. She was hot and smelly and sticky and the boy wanted to gag. He pushed himself out of her hold, and the woman stood up and brushed back the hair off the boy’s forehead. The boy shook his head furiously, letting the damp strands of hair fall back above his eyes.
“I have something for you.” The woman opened her purse and pulled out a large envelope.
She handed it to the boy. He slipped the big boy’s prayer book into his pocket and ripped the envelope open. He pulled out a colored card with illustrations of Jesus holding a lamb and blessing a small boy and girl kneeling before him. The boy opened the card. Inside was a crisp five-dollar bill. The boy beamed and removed the bill and shut the card. He did not bother to read the card’s printed message or what his god-mother had written.
“Think of all the comic books you can buy with that,” the younger girl said.
The boy frowned.
“Or little tractors,” the older girl added.
He angrily looked up at her, but she had already turned away and was flirting with the big boy. The boy’s father and his godmother’s husband came up to the group, and the boy turned from the girl and looked up at the two men. His father seemed very old and tired and squinted back at him as if perplexed by some thought or other. The boy showed him the card and five-dollar bill.
“We’ll put that it in the bank,” his father mumbled.
The boy clutched the money to his chest and glared at his father. The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a long thin parcel wrapped in shiny paper and laced with a slim blue ribbon. He glanced sadly at the boy’s godmother.
“This is from your mother,” he said slowly, and held the parcel out to the boy.
The boy’s godmother exchanged a silent look with her husband and two daughters — the big boy had inched away from the family at the approach of the men and was leaning back against a building stoop railing, one leg resting on the bottom step.
The boy was afraid. He looked uneasily at his father and reached for the proffered parcel, eying it carefully. It felt light and fragile, with a wispy weightlessness to it.
His godmother reached for the card and money she had given him. “I’ll hold it while you open your mother’s present,” she reassured him.
The boy looked at her, then reluctantly let go of her gift and concentrated on his mother’s. He carefully peeled open the tape at the end of the parcel and pulled the paper off to expose a thin, gilt-edged box with curlicue letters on top. A black fountain pen and a black mechanical pencil lay neatly tucked into white satin and held in place by a thin strip of elastic, looping the pen and pencil in the middle. The boy sighed. Even if his mother were alive, she still wouldn’t be able to read what he wrote.
The boy held out the box and showed his mother’s gifts to the adults. They each in turn marveled at the gleaming writing instruments. The boy’s godmother stooped down and kissed the top of his head, and again brushed his hair off his forehead, but he broke from her and shook his head, snapping the box shut and slipping it into his jacket pocket, along with the gift paper. He held his hand out to retrieve his godmother’s card and money. He placed the card in his pocket next to the pen set, but he crumpled the five-dollar bill and crammed it into his pants next to the dollar and quarter his mother had given him so long ago.
“Don’t lose it,” the younger girl said.
The boy glared at her.
“Well, shall we go?” the woman’s husband said, looking at the group.
The woman turned and looked at him. “Have they put her out yet?” she whispered softly.
The man swallowed. “The parlor director said they’d put her out before noon,” he mumbled awkwardly. The boy’s father lowered his head and raised a hand up to his face.
The woman rushed up to him and put her arm into his elbow. “Let’s go,” she said, leading him away and gesturing for her husband to follow.
She held a hand out to the boy, but he ignored it and stuck his hands in his pants pockets, moving closer to the big girl. The adults walked away. The big girl waved at the big boy and he pushed himself up off the stoop. He winked at the boy and took the girl’s hand, but she flinched and pulled away, nervously looking at her parents moving down the street with the boy’s father between them. The big boy shrugged and stuck his hands in his pants pockets.
“Oh, c’mon,” the big girl pouted, and moved closer to him, puffing out her chest and putting her hand in his elbow.
The big boy winked at the girl and they both looked at the parents moving away. They quickly kissed each other.
“Where are we going?” the big boy asked.
The girl looked down at the boy. “You know,” she said, nervously darting her eyes from boy to boy.
“Is there gonna be food?” the big boy asked.
“How the hell do I know?” she said, and glared at her giggling sister. “Just let’s go.”
She pulled the big boy’s arm. The younger girl stopped giggling and glared at the boy clutching his money in his pockets. He moved his eyes off her red freckled face and stared at her small bosom. Probably wearing her sister’s bra, he thought, and suddenly darted around her and ran up to the older girl and her boyfriend. The younger girl screamed for them to wait and also ran up to her sister.
“Well, c’mon,” said the older girl.
The younger girl looked at the big boy and blushed. He was looking at her rumpled bosom.
“Creep!” she cursed, and ran to catch up to her parents.
The big boy looked at the big girl. “How old is she?” he asked.
“Not old enough,” the girl giggled. She looked down at the boy and also blushed.
The trio moved up the street, away from the church and crowds. When the parents and younger girl rounded the corner, the older girl held back and leered at the big boy. They kissed each other, the sides on their mouths pulsing with their stabbing tongues. The boy watched and scowled as the big boy ground his crotch against the girl’s uplifted thigh.
They broke and continued walking, with the boy tagging beside them as they approached the comic book store. He peered into the doorway behind the closed metal gate; the little tractor was still there.
“C’mon,” the older girl called.
“Look,” he said, pointing to the gate and staring hopefully at the big boy. “I can’t reach it.”
The big boy peered through the gate and his eyes widened. He stooped down on his haunches, stuck his arm through the grating, and easily retrieved the little tractor. “Ain’t you lucky,” he said, handing the tractor to the boy. “You want the box?”
The boy looked at the little box in the doorway. “Nah,” he shook his head and spat at the box through the bar on the gate.
“C’mon, let’s go!” the older girl yelled impatiently, glaring at the big boy, her arms akimbo on her waist, her bosom protruding before her.
“We’re coming.” The big boy looked at the box and also spat through the gate. “Hold your horses!”
Both boys laughed. The big boy put his arm around the younger boy’s shoulder and winked at him. They walked towards the girl, grinning and leering at each other. Each had an erection.
Note from the author
In the spring and summer of 1989 I was working nights as a news monitor in a news retrieval firm on 42nd Street between Eight and Ninth Avenues. I would watch the nightly news and try to catch the mention of a product like Pepsi-Cola or Coca-Cola or some movie starlet’s name. I was working there part time while coming near the end of my first novel, Holy Communion. I would work early afternoon on the book, with the rest of the day to do what I wanted, usually nothing much after my writing, just walking around and seeing the city, until I had to go to work. It was quite boring and dull, but life and the news soon got pretty exciting and alive.
The students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing took over in April, and the authorities didn’t know how to react to them. Having majored in political science, I found this very exhilarating. What would the students do? After all, these were Communist rulers and there was but one way they would react — yet the Communists might falter and fail. At each moment the suspense was increasing and rising; there were rumblings throughout the world that spring and early summer.
Tiananmen fell apart as quickly as it blossomed. After seven weeks of the students’ “dis-control” the authorities swooped in with their machine guns and killed over 700 students and injured/jailed thousands more, gaining re-control over the city of Beijing once again. Sadness was complete. . . .
Around October of that year I finished Holy Communion and breathed a sigh of relief at its conclusion. Three years I had struggled with it. I heard echoes of the book even years before I started writing, but my drinking prevented me from doing any real work. Once I slashed my wrists, the words on paper just came pouring out. Of course, those were the days before computers, when manual or electric typewriters were the norm, and I struggled through this as well.
By the end of October, with the novel finished and my stay in the news retrieval firm coming to a dead end, I decided to treat 214 myself to a break in Europe, where I had been born. I spent a few days in Amsterdam; I did the same in Copenhagen, and thought I’d travel further north into the land of Knut Hamsun, Strindberg, or Ibsen, my idols back then. But once again the news from Eastern Europe was inflamed by people wanting a little bit more than they were getting from their governments. I decided to head back into the heart of the beast; Tiananmen had nothing on me, I thought, I was going to the city of Berlin.
Of course I was scared: West Berlin was surrounded by a concrete wall almost twenty feet tall topped with barbed wire and guarded by Communist soldiers with nonchalant orders to shoot first and never mind anyone’s questions. Getting into West Berlin from Copenhagen was pretty easy: the train dipped into East Berlin and stopped at Alexanderplatz to relieve passengers, most of the riders on the train. The station was teeming with people, each thinking to get aboard that particular train but not one daring to . . . they silently watched as our nearly empty train pulled out and disappeared into the West, West Berlin.
I thought about my mother being in Berlin so many years earlier. Being from Ukraine she couldn’t speak or write the German language, yet found herself at age sixteen or so in Berlin with the Nazis in control of the city and country. It wasn’t the time for a young woman to be there, especially a non-German. When a Nazi asked what she was doing in the station, she told him she was lost, that she couldn’t speak the language, and that all she wanted was to find her sister. Strange, but the Nazi laughingly took pity on her and directed her back into the Ukraine, where she thought she would find her sister and way back home. Needless to say, she didn’t; the war broke out, erasing much of what Europe had been.
My train finally made it into the heart of Berlin, the bombed out Wilhelm Church on Kurfursdamm. Did my mother see those names? Either way the place would have been vastly different then . . .
I don’t know what my first reactions or feelings were when I saw the Berlin Wall in early November — fear, confusion, disappointment that the chipping away was so little compared to what the Communists were doing — but it was real. I trailed the Wall from Checkpoint Charlie to the Reichstag for the next few days, back and forth, as throngs of people gathered and events grew greater and greater with the fall of the Wall happening around me. Snapping away my camera I must have taken over a hundred rolls of film and had my pocket bag filled. By the end of that week, with the festivities getting still bigger, I’d had enough and decided to get out a final time. Vienna was my destination, where I could rest and recuperate from the madness which seemed to be taking over Berlin.
Aww, Vienna . . . peace . . . rest . . . ennui . . . If I could live like that it would be bliss . . . but I couldn’t; after a week of walking and taking it easy, it was time to start heading back home to America. . . .
Back home I went into a depression which lasted through the writing of Stallers, a book about Times Square. Only when I had finished writing Vienna Dolorosa was the sadness lifted as I was released and eased from the chains that held me. Maybe it was the fact that I had found the correct hours to write, early morning, which I do now. By the time people are setting off for work, I’m pretty much through with mine.
I can’t walk like I used to do, or follow street after street after street . . . my stroke took care of that. In the end I just shrug, smile, and look at life taking over. . . .