Memories of my first day in 8th grade are tied to, and intermingled with, distinct smells; waking to Mom’s breakfast bacon bouquet filling our house with Good Morning!, the tannin and Kiwi polish whiff of my new black Thom McAn brogues, a musty cedar bite wafting up from sharpened Ticonderoga #2’s in my pencil box and a lilac vapor trail that dogged me from the bathroom, exuded by a scalpload of Odell Hair Trainer (“…for unruly hair”). “Trainer” was a blatantly dishonest brag. Odell’s “green goop,” when dry, merely fixed my pompadour and side part into a hardened hair-helmet; the strands so clumped that only crunching them between my fingers or being dowsed in a September cloudburst would undo such unappreciated, ersatz ruliness.
Last Spring’s classroom drudgery and eye-crossing boredom had beaten me into numbed submission but, now, seeing old friends, being a full grade above idiot 7th Graders and the remote prospect of having a happy-go-lucky Nun who didn’t assign homework, tickled me into a giddy state of jollity. Plus, 8th grade was as far as St. Boniface would take me before high school. This was an additional lagniappe; a looming present for my patience as I waited through Thanksgiving, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day and Memorial Day. 252 mornings from now, “No more teachers, no more books!” Elementary books that is. I was convinced that 9th grade, and my prestigious title of High School Freshman, would grant me untold privileges far beyond the narrow ken of these Dominican Penguins and their starchy, linen stank.
Hah!The wiseguys of Stalag 17 knew nothing of the penitence a 70 year-old nun with asthma can exact. And WE would all eventually escape; burning books in the schoolyard incinerator, hanging school ties from bicycle handlebars like streamers and the girls, oh yes, the girls would skip and giggle and fling their SBS beanies like flying saucers into the air. Not a weary 252 days from now, dear friends - 251 and a wake-up!
I was 13, numerically, therefore officially, a teenager. But more importantly to me, I was now a man and each day I found it harder to acquiesce to bullies – be it teacher, tough guy or turn-around collar. I nurtured a burgeoning self-righteousness that welled within me. I was not to be trifled with! Save your browbeating for the punks and sissies. I’ve crawled through the candle-smudged, storm-runoff pipelines under own town! I set off matchhead bombs in The Sand Pit! I built a go-cart with a lawnmower engine and raced down Dead Man’s Hill when it was a sheet of ice!
Ecce Homo, Man!
I wolfed my breakfast. Perfect as usual: scrambled eggs – a crumbly, tasteless mass, bacon – burned black at the edges and orange juice – slowly sublimating in the Tupperware pitcher from a solid, frozen cylinder into the three-cans-of-water reconstitution that rendered it drinkable. As I swallowed, its sugary pulp shreds blended reluctantly with sharp, salty shards of bacon to produce a cloyingly sweet, yet brackish, slurry. Six years later, I would recall that very smack while swilling “33” beer and scarfing fried pork rinds in a Saigon bar. A little piece of home sat alongside me there.
Mom finished her coffee, gave me a send-off smooch and, since it was nearly 6, went to wake my brothers and sister. I grabbed my cassock and surplice, spotless in their plastic garment bag, and left our warm, fragrant house. I was scheduled to serve as altar boy at 6:30 Mass and my partner, Brian Cantamessa, was usually late – unless the summer sun had broiled some sense into his ruddy head.
But that was a longshot. So I hurried.
Other kids meandered along the street, one trudging his schoolbag as though it was full of seawater, sloshing along, banging it against his shin, a cargo of seaweed and fouled trawler hawsers within, pulling his arm down, forcing an oblique ear-shoulder shrug, eyes fixed on his path – the empty sidewalk. Girls, noses blanched with flakes of dry skin in mid-peel, chattered “guess-who’s.” Boys sported fresh haircuts, shirts lined with first-wearing package-creases – here, a clutch of backyard flowers – there, a Yankee’s cap or fielder’s mitt.
The pupil parade celebrated our summer’s flow into fall’s pumpkin chill when the pounding warmth of the sun would be forgotten as surely as last winter’s snow.
I took a shortcut through St. Boniface’s cemetery toward our chalky white, clapboard church and saw Sal Mucci. I stopped. Sal and I were mortal enemies; both of us pudgy, irreverent and tenacious. I hated him because he currently hated me. Other than that, he was a great guy.
Friendships were different in The New Frontier.
He slid out of his father’s pickup truck and waited, eyes rolled to the heavens, while his Dad yelled a mouthful of Italian toward him. Sal smirked and shrugged. Unconsciously, I shrugged too. Neither of us cared what his old man was trying to say.
Mucci, or “Mucous” as his friends and enemies called him, was a changeable as the weather on Long Island Sound; one moment glassy, reflecting a cloudless blue sky, the next, a wind-tossed fury capsizing sailboats and smashing yachts into expensive firewood. If you were in Sal’s favor, “Mucous” was his hip nickname, if you were at odds with him… expect fists, blood and blackened eyes.
Western Long Island, especially Elmont, was a lumpy, post-war mix of middle-class Irish, Italian, and Jews, with a smattering of shotgun-shack Negroes who lived around Belmont Park. Belmont is still the hoity-toity Triple Crown Thoroughbred Track, but in the `60’s it was surrounded by a hive of cut `n shoot bars. The whole neighborhood was known as a “bucket of blood” and, since Sal’s family lived there, his Dad drove him to school every day, usually at 6:30 as he began his Mucci Landscaping route.
Sal strolled into the school’s cafeteria, knowing the kitchen women were starting their day; having coffee, putting together a menu and sharing church gossip. Of course, they would welcome him with hot chocolate. Of course, they would dote on him. And, who knows, one of the gals might pinch his cheek or twirl his forelock around her finger and call him Sally. He was dark with olive skin and the Lunch Ladies cooed that he had “bedroom eyes” and was “a real heartbreaker.”
He looked like a frog; bug eyes, fish lips and a nose that looked as if it had been thrown onto his face from across the room. I figured the women were just lonely, because, when I was on the altar holding the communion paten under their ample double chins, they looked up at me as though I was Saint Martin, and their eyes watered in appreciation of my devout consideration. Yecch.
Being an altar boy was how a guy figured out who was who and what was what in the parish. Better yet, serving at a funeral added a chance of receiving a cash stipend. And weddings? BINGO! The Best Man, usually half in-the-bag, would have a “tip” envelope in his breast pocket. My Divine Mission? Get in the receiving line, shake hands up to the bride, then say, “You are such a beautiful couple. I’m glad I skipped my paper route to serve you on this glorious day.” And POW! They’d want a picture posing between us altar boys. At this point, the Groom would invariably elbow the Best Man. “Where’s theenvelope?”
Ah! Miraculously, a pair of Hamilton’s appeared quicker than divots in Padre Pio’s mitts. Payday! One tenner for me, one for Cantamessa and an afternoon of bowling, sodas and balsa-wood gliders.
I walked into the sacristy. Brian was already there – his cassock in a shopping bag, his surplice draped over his shoulder like a bath towel. He stared, wide-eyed out the window toward the schoolyard. “Marty? It’s Mucous!” then yelled, “MUCCI! HIGGINS SAYS YOUR MOTHER IS A DOORKNOB. EVERYBODY GETS A TURN!”
My adrenaline kicked in.
“Gotcha!” Brian chortled, then pogo’ed like Daffy Duck, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!” toward the sacristy refrigerator. “BRIAN!” I yelled, but he was still in Loopyland. I shot a look at the clock. 6:25.
Father Desmond will be here any minute andwe will be in trouble plenty.
Cantamessa yanked open the fridge door, grabbed the sacramental wine jug and took a long pull. He pushed the vino into my hands. My mouth was adrenaline dry.
“Now, YOU!” he dared.
I looked to the rectory door. I didn’t want the wine.
“DRINK!” he roared!
He was resolute, so I took a glug. It tasted inordinately sweet, like watered-down grape jelly, and left a coat of sugar grit on my teeth. “Gimme’” Brian said, and took another mouthful. Then it became a double-dare, so I took two big swigs. It went down hard and I gagged as I stuck the jug back in the fridge.
“Come on! It’s 6:30!”
We pulled on our vestments as Father Desmond rolled in on a gust of stale air.
“Good morning, boys! Go see that the doors are unlocked, would ya’ both?”
We walked out on the altar, headed to the back of the church, then stopped.
Of course the doors are unlocked, there are people kneeling; waiting!
As we re-entered the sacristy, we caught Desmond polishing off a pre-Mass chalice of wine. He blew out a grapestink burp and, as he licked his lips, I heard the wine in my stomach growl. A gut-wrench knitted my brow and spread a thin sheen of sweat across my face. I was nauseous, but Brian was staring at Desmond, wagging his eyebrows up and down like Groucho Marx. I had to fight back a laugh.
Brian didn’t know all the Latin in The Mass. But he was a skilled Latin mumbler.
For example: The Confiteor, a 66 word confession prayer takes approximately 30 seconds to rattle off in English. In Latin, it goes “Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatæ Mariæ, 58 similar words then, Dominum Deum nostrum.” Brian consistently knocked it out in 15 seconds flat. I’d hear the first five words and the last three, but between them I swear he was spouting baseball scores, part of Abbot & Costello’s Who’s On First? routine and a smattering of Turkey Irish. Abundaberstaband?
Even though an early-morning Mass usually ran 35 real-time minutes, to me, this one had a subjective length of 9 hours, the last 3 of which featured a splitting migraine headache.
I got to the schoolyard at 7:15, five minutes before start, and leaned against the building, trying not to heave. Lines of students were forming under grade numbers penciled on shirt cardboards. Ann DeMaria ran to me, eyes wide, teeth clenched,
“We got Conceptor!”
My head split further, my stomach rumbled and I needed to perform every bodily function.
Ann nodded vigorously, “Yeah! Crappedy crap! And she HATES boys.”
I knew. Everybody knew. I once saw her slap a guy silly then twist his ears and tweak his nose.
“You namby-pamby!” she sputtered, “Namby-pamby!”
I had heard “Sissy!” and “Weakling!” and “Pantywaist!” while getting a Sisterly clouting myself, so I went to the dictionary to look up this new insult – “Namby-pamby - A satirical nickname for 18th century, English poet Ambrose Philips to mock his sentimental Pastoral verse.”
A poet? Wow. Conceptor must have a flabbergasting arsenal of insults.
The entry suggested synonyms “Milksop” and “Milquetoast” – basically “girly boy” in Nunspeak. I knew I couldn’t use any of these ancient slams on Mucci. I’d sound like, well… like an elderlynun.
A black and white monolith swooshed out of the building, hovering along seemingly footless above a voluminous tunic. Conceptor’s pink melon-head was perched atop a starched circular wimple and framed by a hooded black veil that spilled over her wide shoulders. The kid chatter ended abruptly. We froze and averted our eyes. The uninitiated, party only to furtive rumors about her, held their gaze, in full thrall of her immense, threatening presence. I spied something half-hidden under a bulge in her cape.
Oh, my GOD! Is that… a gun?
Her arm rose with a swirling flourish and a brilliant brassy gleam caught my eye. Kids flinched – one jumped in abject fear.
A bell! It’s okay, it’s only a bell!
Then, the clanging began. Again and again it pealed, ringing-out at an ear-buzzing volume.
“LINE UP!” Conceptor bellowed, “LINE UP, NOW!” the bell handle dwarfed by her huge paw.
That’s not a human hand!It’s as big as… a Smithfield Ham!
I then realized why her presence was so frightening. We were already in line. There were no stragglers. Everyone had tightened up the spacing and straightened the rows but, on and on, the bell clanged.
“GET IN LINE!” Conceptor announced, “I’M NOT GOING TO SAY IT AGAIN!”
But she did, again and again, as her bell-arm, like an appendage with a mind of its own, clanged the brass in a different, but no less unhinged, rhythm. I began to lapse into a Medieval Catholic panic.
8th grade will be Bosch’s Hell and the Garden of Earthly Delights: hollow tree men, detached, knife-nipped ears, ravenous, hawk-head Satan and infernal hurdy-gurdys!
My mind swam with painful memories: splinters, papercuts, firecracker-burned fingers, bee stings and, for some reason, bagpipes.
Conceptor scanned the queues, squinting through her wire-framed glasses, craning her neck in a slow, reptilian gyre, looking for her prey: the slouching boy, the class clown, the pre-occupied nose-picker. When the bell stopped, its reverberation gave the schoolyard an ominous undertone – imparting a pervasive sense of impending doom that dissipated oh-so slowly into the balmy morning air.
Glazed, I wondered what would come next. I was standing ramrod tall – more from fear than discipline – until my eyes eventually focused on the object they were thoughtlessly trained on – Conceptor’s considerable face-meat. Yes, her mug was as round as outsized Honeydew and every bit as pasty pale, but more distressing was her hound-like jowls that flanked tiny, pursed lips. Her chin, small and round as a dimpled half Ping Pong ball, glistened above a long, loose dewlap that waggled its way down into her tight collar.
I realized that her gaze was fixed on me! The momentary shock of that carelessness made my sphincter contract. The stomachache, forgotten during the terror, returned with a gurgling, twisting stab of pain. Conceptor could see I was beset by something and a faint, lipless smile flashed. She nodded in grim approval, turned, and swept into the building.
GOD! I have passed into The Land of Nod. The Knowing Nod…
The yard bell was alarming, but St. Boniface’s class bell was insufferable; not a ding or beep, but a submarine’s dive klaxon tuned to a most nerve-wracking pitch. It was blared through an intercom system I’m sure came from some deserted Mexican bus terminal. The tinny, wall-mounted speaker horns were coated with fuzzy dust and laced with a scatter of single-strand cobwebs. The pronouncements that belched from them seemed detached from here-and-now, as if they were wisps of desperate advisements, issued long ago, far away: class schedules droning up from Steinbeck’s parched Dust Bowl, lunch menus muttered as part of a Trans-Atlantic ship-to-shore Mayday call, students summoned to the Main Office by a surly Ellis Island Immigration Clerk with a pronounced denture whistle.
And then there was our principal’s voice. To this day, I picture Sister Vanard sitting at a bullet-shaped chromium microphone with a spring-clip clothespin pinching her nose firmly shut. If she had packed her sinuses with excelsior she couldn’t have been more nasal. She spoke with a kazoo-like hum; short on hard consonants, long on flattened vowels. The day began with “Guh muh-ney s’dude-inz…” followed by our group recitation of the Hail Mary, Pledge of Allegiance, Star-Spangled Banner and, to remind us that we were in the capable hands of Dominican nuns, a raspy 45 of Soeur Sourire’s Dominique which had just hit the Pop Charts.
To fully enjoy this singular treat, we were allowed to sit and sing along. None of us attempted to learn the tongue-twisting French verses. Aside from being rapid-fire, they were lifted from the scratchy vinyl record, amplified through a single-speaker record player, blared into Vanard’s Buck Rogers microphone, broadcast through the intercom tinhorns and drilled into our precious little ears. No discernable wordforms made it through that sonic obstacle course.
We were, however, required to join in on the chorus, which related how the plucky St. Dominic traipsed around Aix en Provence jabbering on about the Good Lord.
Dominique -inique -inique s'en allait tout simplement, Routier, pauvre et chantant! En tous chemins, en tous lieux,' Il ne parle que du Bon Dieu!
Repeating the last line of the chorus was our toss to the scruffy priest’s joie de vivre. But, being Long Island 8th Graders, it came out, “In Nepal `kay doo-be-doo” sounding like the Dalai Lama knocking out a Karaoke Sinatra impersonation. The song had too many verses (once the French feel a joie they prattle on about it for the rest of their vivre) but after the second verse, the needle was skritched off the record and… silence. Enough fun for one day.
Conceptor smacked her ruler on her desktop and began the lesson.
“Take out your copybooks!”
We scrambled to avoid being the last to have the marble-covered composition book open, fresh pencil in its valley, and sit bolt upright, gripping our knees.
But something was terribly wrong. Someone was still moving! Gerard Constantine was digging through his schoolbag, becoming more and more frantic. We knew that two throat-clearingwarnings were Conceptor’s limit. The Ruler would speak third.
What could Gerard do? The copybook wasn’t there!
Conceptor’s first cautionary phlegm-hock resonated like a thunder clap. We fought to keep our eyes forward, but she was on the move! I twisted to get a peek as she sauntered, yardstick in hand, toward Gerard.
Beneath his desk, I saw a drop fall from its bookrack to a small puddle below. I nudged Mary Fitzgerald who sat in front of me.
“Stop!” she whispered, fearing for her life.
Conceptor’s throat, cleared by the first warning, now articulated the word precisely. I nudged Mary again, “Gerard peed!” Unable to resist, she turned saw the puddle, went wide-eyed and started giggling. She nudged the boy in front of her.
Like an iguana sensing movement in its peripheral vision, Conceptor pivoted and shot her a glare that could stop a clock.
Constantine was a shambles. Teary-eyed, he implored the colossal canoness, “Thermos! Not my fault!”
I blurted, “Thermos? That’s Lemonade?” – standard schoolkid code for pee. And, with that, the class looked, saw the yellow and erupted in hysterics – pure tension release – that rolled around the room. Conceptor’s close-set eyes drilled into me. She backpedaled down the aisle while dispatching her “pet,” Angelina.
“Get the custodian. We need a mop.”
The scrawny, brownnoser ditz hurried to the door repeating the complicated message, “Need a mop. Need a mop.” I tried to make myself disappear in the class’s hubbub, but it was futile. Our psycho-theatre was afoot.
Conceptor breathed in a lungful of our fear and streamed out jets of pure crimson anger through her hair-snarled nostrils.
I froze, praying Jesus himself would appear.
He could do it, right? He could intercede!
He’d pop into the room amid a bedazzlement of sacred light and incense smoke, midway between me and His Loyal Behemoth, uttering soothing words,
“Beloved Sister, behold Martin… a strayed lamb who bleated innocently at Gerard’s failing.
Oh, that would be perfect! Go on, Jesus!
“And, lo, Martin, who serves at my altar.”
Uh-oh, He’s looking at me…
“Tell, me Child. Why did you speak out?”
I thought fast… be honest!
“`Cause Gerard peed?”
Jesus reacted like he had been dowsed with a wave of ice water; teeth bared, hands clapped to his ears, shaking in disbelief.
“Hoo-boy! Sonny, you are dead meat!”
Conceptor’s ruler slapped down on my desk. There would be no Jesus, no intercession, no mercy.
“MR. HIGGINS? Or shall I say Professor Higgins as Sister Seamus Eileen likes to call you?”
“No, Sister.” Goddamn George Bernard Shaw!Damn his goat-ass beard!
“Well, let’s see how smart you are, Marty the Smartypants!”
I knew this tone. I was headed for a Hallway Beating.
“UP!” she bellowed.
I stood and she jabbed the ruler toward the door. “January, February, MARCH, young man!”
I crabwalked around her and looked back at my class, who were aghast, imagining the cuffing I would receive. All except Mucous, that fat turd. He was grinning and winking like an idiot as I walked out the door. I gave him the stink eye.
After school, wiseass, behind the Bowling Alley.
I was a cooked goose, waiting to be slapped and twisted and pinched into contrition. The jelly wine sent up a grapey burp mixed with bitter bacony bile. My low-level migraine fired up and throbbed my temples. Conceptor stepped out, spun and leaned back through the doorway.
“Heads down on desks! Begin the Rosary!” then turned to me.
She was trembling, gasping and ghostly white. “Stand… right… here… do NOT move!” I watched walk to the office, fishing for something that rattled in her tunic pocket and pawing at the wall to steady herself. I waited. When she returned, she looked less shaky, but not “all there.”
“What’s the story… with you… and Salvatore?”
“I don’t know Sister. We are… we were friends until, I don’t know, he started saying bad stuff about my family and my mother. Real bad stuff.”
She looked through me. “And Constantine?”
“He’s my best friend.”
“Best friend too…”
“Professor Higgins! How many best friends can a person have?”
“One, I guess.”
She looked into my soul, then whispered, “It was Mucci’s Thermos.”
“There was no urination. It was Mucci being cruel.”
I saw my punishment moment pass. She pointed to the classroom and I walked back in. The room was abuzz with the Hail Mary and I beheld a field of heads mumbling into Formica. By the time I got to my desk, Conceptor was at the front of the room writing on the blackboard – block letters – S-A-C-R-E-D H-E-A-R-T. But, as she crossed the top of the “T” she stumbled forward and the chalkstick snapped. It skidded across the slate, sending a shuddering, intolerably shrill squeal into the air.
It was as though an excruciating static charge flowed though our nervous systems, plucking phantom nerves that conjured upbent fingernails, teeth grinding eggshells and the Banshee’s ear-piercing screech. Shoulders rose to ears, fingers clenched in irritation claws, lips pulled back into sardonic grins. If the students were tortured by the chalk’s shriek, Conceptor seemed positively stricken by it. Her head drooped, shaking side-to-side, and she released remainder of the chalk and it shattered on the floor. When she turned to face the class, she was sweating, gasping for breath. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard.
“Higgins,” she huffed. “Point him out.”
I didn’t get it at first, and innocently turned to look at Mucci. Everyone did. He lifted his head.
“WHAT?” He clutched his heart, eyebrows arched to his widow’s peak. “What’d I do?
Conceptor took a deep, staggered breath and pointed to me, “You… take your seat.” Her finger swung to Mucci.
“You. Office. NOW!”
As Sal walked past me he whispered under his breath “You’re dead!”
Great. He thinks I ratted on him.
Conceptor was a strategic genius. Why work herself into a sweat slapping me around when she could set up Mucci to beat me after school? Now my classmates were thrilled. It was well past 9, we hadn’t done a stitch of schoolwork and there was a fight to look forward to. As the morning dragged on, I tried to remember the best fight moves in my dog-eared copy of Karate:The Art of “Empty Hand” Fighting. My stomach roiled with grape-tinged vinegar and the prospect of an intramural Battle Royale depleted every jot of energy my body could muster. I yawned in exhaustion as the lessons floated by.
By lunchtime, I was contemplating the Reaper.
When Kennedy committed us to reach the moon, Catholic schools started adding science to the curriculum. Not chemistry or astronomy or, God forbid, biology, but folksy, historical retellings of early inventors and the Industrial Revolution. In `63, our Dominicans were preparing us to excel in the futuristic world of 1938. After all, most of them were in their 60’s and 70’s, an unimaginable vintage I could only grasp by picturing them as a gaggle of teens watching the Wright brothers play with their Flyer.
“Cyrus McCormick invented the… WHAT?” She held up the splayed Exploring God’s World science book to show a tiny, grainy illustration.
“The reaper, Sister!” sang out a handful of students.
“And what did the reaper give us?”
Silence. I ventured a guess, “Easy reaping?”
“That’s correct, Mr. Higgins.” She snapped the book closed. “Cheap bread.”
And that was it for science.
The klaxon blared, we formed two rows – girl line, boy line – and marched to lunch.
The St. Boniface cafeteria was as noisy as a foundry, but the precise layout of the tables, chairs and students suggested a high security penal facility. A complex choreography, moving in rank and file, smartly executed turns and ensemble sitting and rising took each class through the food line and to their table, quickly and silently. Split-second military precision was effected with metal “cricket clickers” the nuns kept hidden in a habit pocket. “Click-clack” and the class stood and formed a short-to-tall platoon. “Click-clack” and they picked up trays, walked past the service window and got their meatball heroes or grilled-cheese sandwiches and chocolate milk. “Click-clack” and stomachs churned, blood sugar rose.
I returned with an empty tray. Martin’s Sommelier Tip: Sacramental wine sticks to your ribs!
The afternoon straggled into a long, drawn-out anxiety contraction. I rolled my head to pop my stiff neckbones dozens of times, and yet, a gripping sense of hazard consumed me, tightening my shoulders. My fight planning became a series of mentally rehearsed actions which unconsciously prompted odd body jerkings and exhalations. The girls saw it as strange, but the boys understood. You’re judged on your moves. Style and surprise were highly regarded and the true winner would be the one who didn’t lose face in the confrontation.
I was chair-fighting the way pilots chair-fly – trying to pattern perfection.
But all that was a load of crap. If you got a tooth knocked out or had your nose broken, those trophies became part of your permanent identity.
When the end-of-day DIVE! warning sounded, we packed up and waited to be released.
Conceptor stood, shuffled out and, after a respectful while, so did we.
Argo Lanes was half a block from school and, during the summer, I had done yeoman duty as part-time pin-boy, kicking the temperamental Brunswick Pinsetters. “Fully automatic!” the adverts read, leaving out the honest rejoinder, “One minimum-wage attendant required!” The building’s tree-ringed rear lot was our community’s multi-purpose space; where one could ditch a junk car, stash dirty books, smoke stolen cigs, huff airplane glue or fight with enough room for a cheering mob.
Cookie, the manager, had called the cops many times to roust juvenile delinquents. For a moment I thought of enlisting her to forestall my fate. The idea nagged at me, but I realized, without a fight, Mucci would plan something worse. My ace-in-the-hole was a couple of swift karate moves to dazzle him and a sucker punch in the gut. Since I was 13, I had mistakenly focused on the “breaking bricks” and “snapping 2x4’s” section of my Empty Hand book.
A dull realization occurred to me. Rather than trotting out my non-existent Black Belt abilities, I would be better off using an unbroken brick or full-length 2x4 to smack Frog Face into next week, then “chop up” these martial aids after the fight to pass out as souvenirs.
Nervously, I ran my tongue across my teeth and imagined finding an empty socket along the way.
When I arrived, a small crowd had formed: Devaney, Constantine, a load of goofball 6th graders and an old woman with a babushka and shopping bag who seemed to be a witness at every fight. The next 30 seconds flashed by so fast, I only recall snapshot memories of it.
Mucci rolled up his sleeves and snapped out Marquis of Queensbury pugilist poses. The crowd added nervous laughter and obscenities. Devaney was the only one I could count on if the fight became a riot.
I needed to punctuate the mounting incitement and rage, so I strode up to the brick wall, crouched, and fired a twisting punch from the waist. A searing pain shot up my arm, but I held my pain in check. The crowd gasped and I had their full attention. Blood flowed freely from my knuckles and dripped onto the asphalt.
I calmly walked toward Sal, who was struck dumb. The thought of fighting me fled him. I brought my smashed fist up to chest level and slowly shoved him backwards. He stumbled but managed to keep his balance.
End of fight. I was just too crazy to monkey with.
The next day, exaggerated tales of boxing, karate and a fist-sized blood stain over Mucci’s heart crackled through the grapevine. From then on, I called him Mucous to his face.
Conceptor found out what had happened, but never mentioned it.
8th grade sailed along until just after Thanksgiving, when Sister Seamus Eileen took over our class. She announced that a heart-attack had taken Conceptor to her next class – in Heaven. She said Sister had wished us all a good Christmas and graduation. Later, Seamus Eileen told me another of Conceptor’s deathbed requests.
“Keep a wary eye on Professor Higgins.”
I cried aloud, wondering if Conceptor hadn’t hated me all that much, after all.
Throughout the rest of that school year, my eyes were often drawn tiny spot on the blackboard. A shallow chip, filled with chalk dust. It spoke to me.
Spirit trumps flesh.
I stared that point, the precise moment in time – when Conceptor’s flesh first failed but her spirit prevailed – where the chalkstick broke as she wrote SACRED HEART.