It’s 1980. Charlie Delaney is stuck in 6th grade at St. Bernadette Catholic School. He’s in love with Rosemary but doesn’t know what to do about it. His best friend sees a priest kissing a woman in the sacristy. Should he tell someone? He begins to investigate, but the more he finds out the more questions he has. Metzger, a creep janitor, is lurking about. His teacher, Sr. Constance, has no mercy and wields a yardstick like a samurai sword. St. Bernadette has make-out parties, sacrilegious altar boys, lip gloss and training bras. Charlie’s story is set against the local and national politics of the day. Mayor Barry and Ronnie Reagan are looking over his shoulder. Is that John DeLorean over in the corner?
He walks out the front door.
Sometimes he gets scared being in the house by himself, even though he’s 12 and people think he’s strong and brave. It’s a new house that doesn’t feel like home. Home is where he lived when he was younger, and his best friend was across the street. He still goes to the same school, but things are different now. He wonders if it’s because of living here, in a new neighborhood, or because he’s older, or because things always change, no matter what. Maybe it’s just how the world is.
The new house makes strange noises. His mom said it was just the frame settling, but this sounds like the kind of thing parents say when they don’t know the answer but are afraid of admitting it. Why do they do that? Why do they do it so often? Teachers are the same. Coaches, boy scout leaders. He’s not sure about priests.
He’s too old to be frightened of a house, and he knows this, but he also understands that it’s okay. He’s still too young, though, to untangle this contradiction. A thing can be true and its opposite can also be true. Okay, but how is this possible? His father, and the nuns at school, are rigorous in their approach to logic and order. He has been taught to make rows and columns, to put each thing in its proper place. The problem—and it’s becoming a bigger and more serious problem every day—is that many things belong in more than one place, or want to share a place with something else, or in fact do not have a place at all.
Outside, in the crisp autumn air, it’s easier to stop thinking about this higher math, where solutions bend back on themselves, where functions do not always operate in the same way, where the iron laws of arithmetic prove tenuous and floppy, where no givens can ever be fully trusted.
He walks to the end of the cul-de-sac, circles around, passes his house, and looks out over the gray treetops. There is a small stream behind the houses on the far side of the street. A few weeks ago a smaller boy, strange and hyperactive, reached into the cold moving water and grabbed a yellow fish. He held it up and smiled like he was going to eat it.
He tramps through the small forest several times a week without direction or purpose. He’s found used condoms, a fox skull, broken umbrellas, a dead raccoon, a nest of dirty Polaroids, old tires, a rusting stove partially buried in the soil that seemed to reach out for someone’s hand.
Thinking of this, he considers the houses that are still half-built. Skeletons of unpainted wood haunt the subdivision, Lee-Brooke. Sometimes he rides his skateboard across the foundations of the newest structures. He likes to circle the empty space, letting a hand brush against the copper pipes, the PVC and joists. He rides through piles of sawdust and likes the sound his wheels make when they collide with brackets and leftover nails. He’s fascinated by abandoned spears of rebar and bundles of plywood tethered with thin metal bands.
There are no children here, at least not that he’s discovered, but he has a bike and school friends who live in adjacent neighborhoods. He doesn’t see them as often as he’d like, and he gets lonely sometimes, very lonely, but for some reason there are times when he prefers to be alone even when he longs for company. He does not question this, but rather goes along with whatever his body, or perhaps the soul, is goading him to do. There are very few things he does not question, but he feels powerless against his own incorrigible impulses.
He walks up the street and back down again. He goes into the garage and gets his bike. He rides to the dirt lot that, he supposes, will one day become a new clutch of houses. He finds a broken sheet of plywood and arranges it under a cinderblock. He tests the ramp by standing on it, bouncing, running up to the end and jumping off. He imagines how stupid this must look, but no one is watching. The ramp appears to be sound.
He hops on his bike, rides to the treeline, turns around, pedals as fast as he can.
At the last moment he rises up in the saddle, dips his body, and, near the splintered lip of the plywood, jerks the handlebars. He flies through the air. There are no sounds. He sees nothing but the featureless white sky. He likes how the air feels rushing against his face. He wonders if his hair is blowing back and if this makes him look cool. He smiles, thinking about something that happened in school, but the smile is torn away. He senses that something is wrong but doesn’t know what. It seems as if he has been in the air forever and might never land.
It began simply enough, on the playground after lunch, but from that day on everything would lead, without pause, to that terrible place—consciousness.
“Well, I guess old Pinterboner’s not such a big fat fag after all.”
“What are you talking about?”
Jimmy Sheehan, my best friend, was a little husky, but for some reason he always went around calling people fat. He had thin straight blonde hair that he was always pushing out of his eyes and a lot of faint, nearly imperceptible, freckles. Unlike most freckled people, though, he could tan. In the summer he spent every moment he could at the pool, like we all did, and he wore a deep dark tan that lasted through September. The thing I remember most about Jimmy is how he was always pulling up his pants. I don’t know if his mom bought them too big or if he didn’t wear a belt, but he seemed to spend all day yanking them up. If you went to St. Bernadette’s in the 70s or 80s, then chances are you saw Jimmy Sheehan’s white Fruit-of-the-Looms and at least three inches of butt-crack.
“I was over in the sacristy—” he began.
“How much you get?”
We were both altar boys. Weddings and funeral were the best because you usually got a tip. At weddings we’d loiter near the groom and keep asking him if he needed anything until he offered us money, but at funerals this didn’t seem right, so we just stood around in our albs pretending to clean incense out of the thurible, hoping someone got the message.
“Anyway,” Jimmy said, “after we cleaned the cruets, put away the candle snuffers, folded our vestments, and all that crap, I started walking back.” The church was connected to the school by a long dark hallway. There were rosaries, scapulars, medals and other objects for sale in glass display cases. “But I forgot my sweatshirt, so I turned around and went back.”
“And then what?”
“Well, it was real quiet in there. Nobody around. Not even those old bags with scarves over their hair that sit around and pray the rosary all day, you know?”
“They’re always around.”
“I know, sheez. They must get their jollies by saying the ‘Hail Mary’ or something. Anyway, the place was totally empty. Dark, too. The organist must’ve turned off the lights. Or, I dunno, maybe it was Fr. Pinterbone.”
Jimmy had a funny look in his eyes. That was the first time I heard him use the priest’s real name. It was always Pinterboner, Splinterboner, Old Fart-face or something even worse. I don’t think it was a sin or a sacrilege, though. Not even a venial sin. I mean, Jimmy was just fooling around and Fr. Pinterbone could be pretty mean sometimes.
“So there’s no light coming in through the stained glass and the place was kinda dark.”
I nodded. It was almost winter. Everything was gray, cold, windy.
“For some reason I stopped and looked up at the statue of Mary. You know, the big one on the wall next to the altar? I just stood there looking at it like a retard. And then I looked at the statue on the other side of the altar. Never could figure out if that was supposed to be Jesus, Joseph or some other holy guy from, you know, Biblical times.”
“It’s got that big red heart on it,” I said, “so that mean’s it’s Jesus. You know, it’s the…bleeding scared heart of…the Lord or something.”
“Oh, yeah. Forgot about that.”
Jimmy tapped his foot on the blacktop, looking all around like he expected to get in trouble for something. He popped the collar of his Mork vest and started blowing air out of his mouth. Since it was cold out, it looked like he was smoking, which is a classic move. We could hear two lunch ladies talking and looking at their watches. I could never figure out what old ladies like them had to talk about. Nothing, probably. Pretty soon the teacher would come out and we’d have to line up, in absolute silence, and march single-file back to the classroom.
“It was spooky in there, really spooky. Not to sound incredibly gay or anything, like Richard Simmons and Liberace licking each other’s balls—”
Jimmy stopped so I could laugh. He was one of the funniest guys in our grade.
“—but it felt like God was watching me. Like he was right there beside me, just hanging out or whatever.”
“Huh.” It didn’t sound gay, but it didn’t sound like Jimmy either.
“You ever get that feeling?” Jimmy asked.
“Yeah, sometimes I guess. At Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, when the priest is wearing the fancy gold robes, holding up the monstrance, praying in Latin. The air’s all smoky from incense and the choir sounds really good and the pipe organ’s making those creepy noises like from a Vincent Price movie. I get pretty choked up.” I was almost ready to cry. I had to look away, at the girls playing hopscotch next to the dumpster.
“Ah, that’s different. You’re just getting a little high from the incense. Plus, they crank up the heater too much. I almost fainted last year.”
We laughed. You could tell Jimmy was just saying this to make me forget how I was about to cry.
“Better hurry up and finish the story. Sr. Constance’ll be out in a sec.”
“Yeah, so, I walked real slow back to the sacristy. Didn’t want to make a sound. I don’t know why, but I just didn’t. I went up the altar, turned right, down the padded steps, and stopped by the table where they keep the water and wine. The door was closed. Before I could grab the knob and open it, I heard something. I put my ear to the door and could tell it was Fr. Pinterbone. He sounded funny, like he was exercising or something.”
I had no idea where the story was going, but I felt like throwing up.
“I opened the door real slow, just an inch. Fr. Pinterbone was standing sort of around the corner kissing some woman.”
“Really, he was. I’m not lying.”
I inspected his face closely.
“Scout’s honor.” Jimmy held up three fingers, the scout’s salute.
Jimmy was telling the truth. Not because of the salute—he got kicked out of scouts for peeing on John Denslow’s sleeping bag—but I could tell.
“Who was it?”
He shrugged. “Ida’no. But his hands were all over her.”
“What’d you do?”
“Shut the door, backed up, got the hell out of there.”
No one said anything for a few seconds. Jimmy inhaled through his nose as hard as he could, to make the snot go back up into his head. He also pulled up his pants, which made me think of how Sr. Constance was always grabbing the lapels of her pale-gray vest and covering her breasts. They were really big and floppy, which was pretty obvious even in her baggy nun outfit. No one ever talked about this, but you could feel all the boys watching her. The girls, too. Sr. Constance was old and mean and nobody wanted to think about her breasts, but it was almost impossible not to.
“But he’s a priest,” I said. “How could a priest make out with a woman?”
“Know something, Charlie? You’re pretty naive for a sixth-grader.” He pronounced it nave.
“No I’m not.”
“Are too. Priests do that kinda stuff all the time. Sheez, don’t you know anything?”
“But they take vows, stupid.”
“Yeah and they break them. Stupid. Look, a grown man just can’t keep it in his pants, no matter who he is. Even if he wears a dog collar. Everybody knows that.”
“No they don’t. They’d fire him.”
“Look, Delaney.” Jimmy put his arm around my shoulder. “They’re just glad he’s not porkin’ one of us.”
Sr. Constance clapped three times, a lot louder than you’d think, and playtime was over.