Storylandia, Spring 2019, Issue 29
Crime Spree and Other Stories
by Tom Larsen
Storylandia 29 sample pages
From journeyman printer to small-time crook, pothead senior to retired nun, Tom Larsen has captured a wide range of life experiences in theses self-contained stories. This collection is an homage to the random fortunes of the baby boom. Whether set in the inner city, suburbia or the northwest coast, Larsen’s colorful cast confirms he knows of what he speaks.
Crime Spree and Other Stories
Take it from me. You can fall asleep on your feet, but sooner or later your knees will buckle. Happened plenty of times running presses over at Acme Press. It’s a crazy feeling waking up like that and sometimes, for a second there, you don’t know where the hell you are. Then it’s back in a flash and you see it’s so wrong for you. At least I did, which is why I quit.
Clever name, Acme, right? Believe me these guys were murder. The Donnelli brothers would screw you just to stay in shape and every guy there had gone a few rounds with them. Jack, the bulldog, throwing his arms around, smacking his head like he can’t believe it. Believe it, Jack. Things go wrong all the time in a print shop. For what the Donnellis charge, customers expect the best. But I can tell you that’s expecting too much.
Then there’s Al. The “brains” of the family, a man with more tics than a cuckoo clock. Al’s the excitable type. He has a degree in dentistry, but the histrionics make him unemployable. He’s also gay; a bad combination in a Neanderthal trade. I liked to work him up into a lather then get all big and crazy so he’d think he’d crossed a line. If that’s homophobic, so be it. Where I come from an asshole is an asshole.
Some days I’d get a long run, twenty, thirty thousand and an hour in that press would be running itself. Forget about shooting the breeze or catching a few scores in the paper. The Donnellis wanted their pound of flesh and that meant keeping your nose to the grindstone. So you pull a few sheets and you fiddle around and pretty soon you start to fade. Maybe you were up late or you had a few too many and you know you’ve got five more hours of standing around watching the clock, worrying about one stupid thing or another. It wears you out, I can tell you. Pretty soon the eyes are drooping and the noise seems to fade and then boom! Your knees give out. It’s a funny thing to see unless your name’s Donnelli.
Most guys I’ve worked with would kill to get out of the business, but with families and the time put in it’s hard to walk away. I did and I ain’t looking back. People don’t realize the pressure printers are under. One little mistake and it’s ten grand down the shitter. The halftones are reversed or phone number’s scrambled and it’s NFG (No Fucking Good)! Skids of product no one can use and you get to run the whole thing over. Not your fault, maybe, but you made it irreversible. Shit didn’t run itself, dude. That’s not even considering the stuff that is your fault, you backed it up wrong or it’s crooked or it offset or a million other things. Every printer I know drinks too much and most have an ex-wife or two on retainer.
The schmoozing thing really bugged me. You work with guys every day, but if you can’t talk to them you can’t get to know them. And I’m the kind of guy; if I don’t know you I generally don’t like you. It drives my wife nuts but it’s something I can’t change. To me everybody’s a blowhard until they prove different. So Acme was basically a shop full of grumblers who hated the boss and kept their distance. I was there ten years. I spent more time with those shmos than I did with my family, but I didn’t know where one of them lived. Take it from me it wasn’t natural.
So OK, I may be slow to warm, but I’m no sociopath. I’ve worked in places where the crew was as tight as a TV family. Worked together, played together, married each other, got divorced. I still have friends I haven’t worked with in twenty years. So when I say Acme was unnatural, I hold myself apart from it. From my first day I could see what the problem was. I was fifteen years younger than the next guy and I was pushing forty. A few decades running presses will knock the snot out of you and suddenly the old pension’s so close you can taste it. So the job sucks. It’s almost over. Get through the fucking day.
None of this was lost on the Donnellis.
Not that we NEVER talked to each other. Some days there’d be nothing else to do or you’d run into one of them in the mall and you’d have a few words, mostly about the boss. The Donnellis did this or said that, and always some big talk about getting even, dropping a wrench between cylinders or tipping off OSHA. The longer I was there, the worse it got.
OK, that’s my fault. You don’t like the job you get another or you do something to change it. But the only thing worse than working is not working. I’ve been there often enough. Sit around the house driving the old lady nuts, Try finding work when you really need it, especially when you’ve been around and expect to earn a decent wage. The trades have dried up here and everywhere, so you hold on to what you got. You might not like it, but you shut up and take it. Or you walk away and hope for the best.
When I think back to how I got into printing it’s almost comical. I’d been to college a few years, but what I got out of it was either sexually transmitted or drug related. This was back in the seventies when a career was what your dad had and your dad was a loser. Guys I know now are surprised when they hear I went to college. Most of them came from working class where higher education meant finishing twelfth grade. My dad made a good living, but he was convinced a degree would have made him and he was probably right. From the time we could listen he harped on college, drummed it in our heads until we hated to be around him. He must have thought we’d go along just to shut him up and for a while we did. Then the old man died and in the end not a one of us could hack it.
I knew I’d have to get a job, but back then I was pretty particular. No suit and tie, no sucking up, no working my way up the ladder, not me. I wanted a skill that would let me be mobile. Not a career but an occupation, something to pay the bills while I figured out how to make my mark. I was leafing through the phone book to see what was out there and when I got to the P’s my fate was sealed. If I’d given it any thought I would have seen the limitations, advancement, for instance. Once you’re the printer there’s nowhere to go. OK, foreman, maybe, but that’s a suck up job and the pay is only slightly higher. So where does that leave you? You’re never going to own the place, not on a printer’s paycheck. It took me a while to see my mistake. What’s good money when you’re 20 is peanuts when you’re hitting 50 and your kid brother just bought a place in Pompano.
Acme Press is a real shit hole, I can tell you. Funny thing is I loved the building, a hundred years old, easy, with high ceilings and big windows facing out on the city. You couldn’t really see through them, what with fifty years of grime, but some mornings those shafts of light were as soft and warm as an old flannel shirt. The place was a monument to industry, one of those brick monoliths that take up the whole block, covered in graffiti, rust belt down to the dumb waiters and the wood brick floors. From a distance the building looked haunted and up close it could break your heart. I got to like going to work in a scary looking place. When I left for the last time I pried up one of those wood bricks and took it home with me.
It was the mouse that pushed me over the edge. Being old and semi permeable, the building was a haven for the lower life forms. Rats, bats, pigeons, the odd crackhead, and bugs! Holy Jesus! Horrible things with fat, hairy bodies and more legs than they’d ever need. And not shy about making an appearance either. You’d be smoothing ink into the fountain and all of a sudden something would catch your eye, moving fast over the wooden bricks, slipping under your press and not coming out. Gave me the willies, I can tell you. One time Big Lenny crushed three toes stomping one of them on his shoe, a truly funny thing to see.
So the place was a dump and a few bugs weren’t gonna make much difference. But then Jack brought his wife in to work the phones and the Godzilla of bugs took up in the file cabinet. Like she’d found a head in there from the way she went off. Jack called in an exterminator, skinny guy with a spray wand. He went along the floors and into the corners, nodding and smiling like we were all in the same boat. The smile of a man who expected more from life, but believed, in his way, he was making a difference. We watched him angling around work tables, squeezing into places no one ever thought to go, spritzing every cranny with God knows what. We stood there smirking in the time-honored way of slightly skilled men lording it over slightly less skilled men.
“What the hell is he so happy about?” Big Lenny wondered.
I shrugged. “Maybe he’s drunk.”
“What kind of job is that for a grown man?” Owens shook his head. ”I stopped killing bugs when I was six.”
“The kind you have right before you throw yourself off the bridge.” Lenny snickered.
Owens sucked his teeth reflectively. “It’s the uniform, with the name above the pocket. That’s where I draw the line.”
I looked down at my own uniform, then to Lenny’s, then Owens.
“OK, but ours are cool,” Owens said in all seriousness, glancing at the name above his pocket, something long and Polish. “It’s like a disguise or something.”
“The bow tie,” Lenny muttered, almost to himself. “That’s where I draw the fucking line,”
The guy wasn’t wearing a bow tie but Owens and I never let on.
I first saw the mouse when I was cleaning up to go home. Things were slow and I was drawing it out. It’s the slow days that never end. I was digging through a box of parts when I spotted him under my workbench. There was something wrong with his leg or back, some deformity or old injury. It didn’t seem to bother him much, but it made me wonder what was in that spray wand.
I watched him poke around an old gripper assembly, nosing along as the press pounded a few feet away. I figured he was hungry so I tossed a few donut crumbs over. The crumbs startled him and he darted off, but a few minutes later he was back, sniffing the length of chain, sniffing the crumbs then sniffing all the other crap down there. Marking things for later, or so I thought. But the crumbs were there the next day and may be there still for all I know.
He’d only show when the press was cranking. Maybe with the noise he thought I couldn’t see him, or maybe with the noise he couldn’t see me. What I know about mice is they’re smaller than you’d think. I’ll admit I looked forward to seeing him. What the hell, he was cute. I thought about what it must be like creeping around the old plant at night, not so bad, I suppose. There’s heat and water and plenty of junk to hide in. You can pass in or out in a million places and there are two fast food dumpsters in the alley out back. A mouse might spend his whole life in here, generation after generation passing down the secrets.
How long does a mouse live anyway? My guess is not too long. Almost anything will kill you and tunneling through garbage all day can’t be healthy. To me mice seem super skittish and I’m thinking lots of them die of fright. When you’re that small and that defenseless you know your place on the food chain. Low man must be stressful. When your number’s up you blow all the gaskets.
“Got a little mouse at the job,” I told the wife over supper.
“A mouse? You sure it’s not a rat?”
“Believe me, you wouldn’t get them confused. This guy’s tiny,” I held my finger and thumb a mouse length apart.
“Better kill it.”
“What do you mean? I like him.”
“Mice have fleas and fleas carry diseases. Remember that show on PBS?”
“I’m not going to kill him. He’s a friend of mine.”
“His name is Bernardo.”
I was running Safeco’s annual report when the pest control guy showed up again. Watching him, I couldn’t help wondering what it was like, exterminating for a living. The day’s work measured in small-scale carnage, genocide, when you think about it. Sure it’s bugs and vermin, but they were living and now they’re dead. Where he goes tiny organs dissolve, synapses misfire, little limbs and segments wriggle their last. Whole populations, countless thousands wiped out in the wave of his wand. The few who survive breed a stronger strain, immune to the toxins, then stronger toxins.
There must be consequences to his line of work.
He made his way toward me and smiled his big smile. I gave him a nod and motioned him over.
“Hiya,” he studied the thumping Heidleberg, eyes wide at the wonder of it. “Boy, ain’t she something,”
I glanced back then led him off a few paces. He stood solemn and trusting, the wand at his side. My smile was barely menacing.
“Listen,” I checked his shirt, “Bert, can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure. What’s the problem, uh…” he squinted at mine. “Pinky?”
“The problem is I got a thing about, you know,” I pointed to the canister.
“Look, I know you got a job to do, but…” I ran a hand over my face for effect. “You remember Agent Orange, right Bert?”
“That’s right. Pleku, it’s not something I like to talk about.”
“No hey, I understand.”
“I mean most of the time I feel OK, OK?”
He looked down at the wand, the canister. I did the hand over the face thing again.
“Whaddya say Bert, can we make a deal? Do what you have to do, but can we skip around here. Just, you know,” I gestured to the immediate area.
“I gotta tell you though, this stuff has been tested by every underwriter in the business. Seriously. The chances of you…”
I let the smile sag.
“Uh,” he looked around as if someone could hear us. “See, I’d have to check with the owner.”
“Bert, look at me,” the smile gone now, replaced by a world-weary grimace. “I didn’t ask to be sterilized. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t sign on to have my liver pickled or my brain cells scrambled.”
“Oh my Lord.”
“You ever get night sweats, Bert? How about it?”
“Gee no, but–“
“C’mere,” I drew him to me. “Answer me this. Did you ever catch yourself staring into space trying to remember your kid’s name?”
Bert turned deathly pale.
“It’s not that much to ask, my friend. Not that you owe me a thing.”
“OK,” his eyes didn’t quite meet mine. “It’s against company policy, but you’re right. Jesus. We’ve done enough to you already.”
“You’re a stand-up guy Bert. I won’t forget it,” I clapped him on the shoulder and sent him on his murdering way.
Not that it would make any difference. Hosed down the way it was the building had to be toxic. The mouse came around now and then but he probably combed the whole building, soaking up poisons like a sponge. Spray day had to be the worst, though, a fresh coating of lethal substance settling over. Surely he can smell it and feel it in his eyes. Hey, I’m no animal rights nut, but I’m no sadist either. The nature of pain is to be painful. For the creepy-crawlies you can overlook it, but a crippled little mouse? I don’t know. It didn’t sit right.
I didn’t see Bernardo for a while. I went on vacation and when I came back, the shop had been painted. They’d covered the presses, moved everything else away from the walls and sprayed the whole place. The color, a slight variation on the old toothpaste green made it feel more like prison than it did before. I couldn’t see why the Donellis would bother, but then Lenny told me they’d gotten a “deal” on it, some poor schlub working off his business card debt, if I had to bet. He said Jack’s wife had nagged him into it, but brother Al was refusing to kick in. I don’t know why this cheered me up but it did. Something about the brothers going at it always made my day.
The schlub’s crew really botched the job. Paint had hardened into lumps and dribbles. The floor was rimmed inches deep and the windows and fixtures had taken a dusting. Anything that hadn’t been moved had been painted over, including the arm of my chair and my poster of Westbrook breaking a long one. Paint was everywhere. I could still smell it.
Shortly after lunch something moved under my workbench. Crouching down I saw a gob of green inching along the green gripper assembly. The mouse was crusted in paint, just his legs moving under a green shell. It didn’t look like collateral damage either. Someone had zeroed in. On top of everything else Bernardo had been gang painted.
Enough was enough. Those Donellis always struck me as sadists, but this was way beyond the pale. I scrunched down on my hands and knees and poked around with the dolly hook. Bernardo rolled out and I scooped him up. Oh man, it was pitiful. One of his legs was bound up inside and his eyes had been painted shut! I took him to the sink but it was hopeless. I could pick away bits and pieces but only a solvent would do the job. And then I noticed he wasn’t moving anymore. I touched his little head but it just rolled back in the collar of paint. I’d been careful with the water so he couldn’t have drowned. I might have scared him too much, but I had to do something. I was sure he was dead, but I laid him on workbench and checked on him all morning to be sure. Little guy never moved a muscle. Just before noon I walked into the lunchroom, opened the refrigerator, popped a Tupperware top and buried Bernardo in Jack’s lasagna. That done I cleaned out my locker, pried up a floor brick and took the el home.
We were too smart to get caught. That’s what we told ourselves. We knew morons who were making out and nitwits who could buy and sell us. Oh sure, once in a while one of them would serve a stretch, but not for so long you’d even notice. Crime paid pretty well from what we could see.
And working a hustle was so easy in those days. No computers, no high tech security, not much to separate you from their money. Take checking accounts, for instance. The most sophisticated system they had back then was a thing called Telecheck. The store would call a number, the number would call the bank and the bank would confirm that you had the funds. Of course if it was the weekend no checks would clear so your balance came up the same every time. As long as you didn’t cross that line on any one purchase, the check would be OK’d. Write a dozen checks for the full amount or less and every one would sail right through.
Candy from a baby, am I right?
Andree wasn’t keen on the idea at first. We’d kept our noses clean over the years and lived a pretty conventional life. Oh, I’d sell a little weed sometimes but mostly I just smoked it. Andree had a scrip or two, but we were lightweights compared to most, a couple of working stiffs, paying taxes and getting the shaft.
“I think we should go for it,” I nagged her.
Andree gave me her ‘get serious’ look. “Let me ask you something. Do you think Allan Bateman would consider something like this?”
Allan was my one friend from the neighborhood who turned out OK. More than OK when you threw in the house in Seaside and the Aprils in Paris. Andree played the Allan card whenever I talked nonsense. Usually it worked, but I’d seen my guy recently and he was driving a car that cost more than my condo!
“Al has the knack,” I explained for the hundredth time. “He can spin straw into gold, so what? Does that mean the rest of us have to eke out a living?”
“It’s not that. He would look at the downside. The downside of a felony is jail. End of pipedream.”
Pipedream. That was her dad’s word. He used it to describe anything I came up with in the way of a future for his daughter. Mercifully, he’s dead now but the word lives on.
“The chances of getting caught are slim and none.”
That was my dad talking, usually in regards to my prospects in life. The old boys were much the same on that score.
“OK, mastermind” Andree folded her arms. “Tell me again how you’d do this.”
“OK, first I get some fake ID.”
“Then I open a checking account.”
“How is that racketeering? It’s a just a checking account!”
“It’s a racket! What do you think, they’ll go easy on you just because you have an apostrophe in your name?”
O’Keefe, that’s me. In her heart Andree loves that apostrophe, the little oomph it gives her first name? She had a point, though. It’s been a century or two since the micks ran the bunco squad, if there still was a bunco squad.
“Listen to you!” I tried to sound miffed. “If I go to the precinct house and make a full confession maybe, just maybe I take a fall. We’re talking sleight of hand here, not smash and grab!”
“Don’t snow me Vic. You can always talk the game but we both know better.”
“What about your brother? He beat the finance company and he couldn’t read a bus schedule.”
“You can’t count on people being stupid.”
“Yes. You can.”
I knew I could make her come around. Andree had her eye on a tiger maple chest for the living room and if I could convince her it could be hers, the means would be easier to swallow. It wouldn’t be HER ass, after all, worst-case scenario she’d be rid of me for a while, though I didn’t want to stress that point. The condo and the car were already in her name and no one could take the apostrophe from her.
I’m not her first husband, it goes without saying.
First thing, fake ID. Back then they had a state issued card that looked just like a driver’s license if you ignored the words ‘This Is Not A License To Drive’ lettered in yellow across the top. Didn’t matter. ID was ID. Hey, people who don’t drive have to cash checks too. Getting the card was as easy as covering the names and dates on my birth certificate, making a copy and filling in the spaces with different names and dates. I picked Wilson, keeping my first name to avoid slip-ups.
Setting Wilson up with an address was a little stickier. No post office would accept my bogus birth certificate. But for a nominal fee the Edgewood Arms was glad to oblige, lodgings by the month, week, or hour, according to the Yellow Pages. It took a few calls and a trip across town, but a flophouse mail drop seemed so right. I filled in the address on the ID application, had my picture taken and in a matter of weeks I had my nom de guerre.
Andree was not impressed.
“Who’s Victor Wilson?” she waved the ID card in my face. “And where’s 11A, Edgewood Arms?”
“That’s suite 11A.”
“You know you’re really getting on my nerves with this. Why can’t I have a normal husband with the normal screws loose?”
“I’m taking money from a bank! It’s a victimless crime!”
“Oh sure, in the unlikely event you get away with it.”
“You’re so negative,” I tossed her one of her own lines. “I’d think you’d want to support me on this.”
“Aiding and abetting.”
“Admit it. You never thought I’d get this far. Baby, I got the freaking ID!”
“Big deal. What about a work history? What about a social security card?” she reeled off a half dozen more. “Banks care about that stuff, you know.”
“You’re wrong, Andree. Banks don’t care about that stuff. Give them a deposit and they’ll open an account. Jake the bookie has overdraft protection, for Christ sake. That’s like giving a diabetic the key to the cookie jar.”
A sloppy analogy, but then she wasn’t listening anyway.
“What do you use for a deposit, huh? And how do you get it back once the shit hits the fan?” Her old man again. Shit hitting fans was a theme with him.
“Let me worry about that, will you? This will be a piece of cake,” my dad, on his pipedreams.
Amazingly, it went just like I said it would. I picked a bank in the burbs for the obvious reasons. Nobody asked any questions and no one had the slightest doubt I was who I said I was. I opened the account with a six hundred dollar advance from Andree’s Visa card and just like that we were in business.
But before diving in, I wanted to check in with Herbie for some professional insight. Herbie, my dope connection, is a practicing fence and recovering crackhead. We did two years in juvee together and I trust him as much as I trust anyone. A good man, Herbie, had a rap sheet that read like a telephone book, but that’s the angle I was looking for. If there was a way to fuck up, Herbie would know about it. Took me a few days but I finally tracked him down on the basketball court at the rec center.
“Too white collar for me, pissant,” he nailed a rainbow jumper from half court. “Your basic entrepreneur sees a black man flash a check and all the red flags go up.”
“What about a disguise?” I faked left and hooked right. Herbie slammed it back in my face.
“What for, brother?” he laughed that lazy laugh. “You already impersonating a real human being.”
“But what if somebody recognizes me?” I rubbed the welt on my forehead. “I’m thinking disguise. Maybe a fake beard or something.”
“You always were a little freaky, pissant.”
With Herbie everything comes with a measure of abuse. We’d known each other for a lot of years, but I don’t think he’s ever called me by name.
I faked left and drove right. Herbie was waiting for me.
“OK, forget the disguise” I ran the ball down and checked it for bloodstains. “How about unloading the stuff. You can take care of it?”
He blew by me for a windmill slam. “Think about it, pissant. At ten cents on the dollar you’d be better off just getting what you need.”
“But that sorta takes the edge off of knowing a fence, doesn’t it?”
“Hey man, my brother’s a plumber. That don’t mean he’s been in my toilet.”
So much for criminal expertise.
I did my homework. To make sure the Telecheck system worked like I said it did, I put a few things on my own account. I hit the malls on a Saturday. None of my purchases exceeded my tiny balance, but together they nearly tripled it. Not a problem. The salesmen made the calls and got the OK’s. Then I tried some items that were over my limit and sure enough, Telecheck nixed the deal. Twice in a row I’d called it right. Reason enough to give it up, Andree would say.
It was time to get her going on this.
“I was over at the Antique Barn. They still have that chest, you liked”
“Don’t snow me, Victor,” she held a hand up. ”You’re gonna do what you’re gonna do so skip the song and dance.”
Victor. Not good. It worried me to think she could see right through me, but then ten years together give you a sense of things. Lucky for me that stuff works both ways.
“… and bath towels. Plush ones like they have in the hotels,” Andree underlined the “plush”. We were in McGlinchey’s and the vodka tonics were working their magic. “Oh, and new pots, the old ones are disgusting.”
It took some work but the tiger maple chest was the clincher. Sometimes all you have to do is sow the seed.
“What about that rug in the hallway?” I pushed some more buttons.
“And new curtains! I saw some in Wannamakers that would be perfect for the kitchen.”
What the hell, Herbie was probably right. Get what you need while you have the chance. Besides, there were plenty of checks to go around.
“What kind of TV can you get for six bills?” I wondered.
“A Tinitron. With one remote that works everything.”
“You checked?” I tried to sound surprised.
“Hey, if you’re gonna throw it all away you might as well have something to show for it.”
One thing still bothered me. In the unlikely event we had to make a run for it, I didn’t want it to be in our own car. Most of the rental agencies wanted a credit card, but another go at the Yellow Pages turned up Charlie’s Rent a Wreck. Low budget, high mileage, no questions asked.
“This here one’s only twelve years old. One previous owner,” Charlie circled the Country Squire.
Andree leaned inside. “It’s got 200,000 miles on it. Jesus, the poor guy musta lived behind the wheel.”
“Fuller brush man. Thirty years on the road and not so much as a speeding ticket,” Charlie laid it on.
“What about the van?” I pointed to a dented Econoline with a primered front end.
“I’m kinda partial to the wagon, here,” Charlie picked at some rust on the quarter panel. “Don’t build ‘em like this anymore.”
“Thing is, we’re moving so we need something roomy,” I told him.
“You don’t want that van then, Damn things fulla tars.”
“He means tires,” Andree translated.
“Nothing good,” Charlie shrugged. “Old retreads and such. I tried to get rid of ‘em but you can’t dump tars no more, since that far under the freeway.”
“I know what he means.”
“Besides, you can fit just as much or more in this old Squar.”
The wagon was a boat all right. We’d have to hold off on a couple of things but the bulk of the list was within cargo range.
“How much for the weekend?”
Charlie grinned, “You two are in luck. We just started a weekend special, thirty samolies, plus a deposit.”
“You take a check?”
“Personal check?” I could hear the old boy’s wheels turning. “Let me make a call on that and we’ll see what we can do. Oh. I’ll need your driver’s license.”
I filled out a check and handed him the ID. Charlie checked the card.
“Says here this ain’t no driver’s license,” he flipped it over like that might clear things up.
“Shit! I must have left it in my other wallet.” I slapped at my pockets. “That card’s valid though. They’ll OK the check.”
“You’re not trying to pull a fast one on me, are you?” Charlie’s smile was a dental nightmare. “See, cause it makes me nervous, young couple like you rentin’ a heap like this. What do you want the car for anyway?”
“Like I said, we’re moving,”
“That’s OK, I don’t want to know,” he waved me off and turned for the office. “Long as the check’s good we can finagle the rest.”
“You’re a good man Charlie. I’ll make it up to you.”
The old man hacked up a laugh. “I’m thinking a man with two wallets will promise you anything.”
I was getting a real good feeling about this.
We took the bus to Rent a Wreck the following Friday. The Country Squire looked bigger than I remembered and we nearly clipped a gatepost pulling out of the lot.
“You look like an idiot. You know that, don’t you?” Andree called over from across the seat.
“What? I think it changes my look completely,” I double-checked the moustache in the mirror.
“It’s not even touching your face at the ends. It’s like you stapled it to your lip.”
“You notice because you know it’s not real. No one else will even see it.”
“But it won’t match the picture on the ID card.”
“So, maybe I just grew it.”
“I’m just saying, you walk into a store with a shrubbery on you lip and people tend to notice.”
“Just humor me, OK?”
The gas gauge read half a tank but to play it safe I pulled in the station for a fill up. The kid at the pumps wasn’t going for it.
“At’s a fake moustache ain’t it?”
“Just fill the tank, will ya?”
“You gotta unlock the flap.”
I felt around the floor, pushing buttons and pulling levers. The seat whirred and the back came forward, folding me into the steering wheel. The switches on the door worked a window apiece and the handle under the dash popped the front hood. The kid just looked at me, holding the nozzle like he might have to use it. The markings on the dashboard controls had worn away so I pushed, pulled and switched them all. Wipers, washers, flashers, all worked like a charm.
“At’s a rug, too, ain’t it?” the kid snickered.
“Know what?” I peeled off the moustache and tossed it out the window. “Forget the gas.”
The mall was a new one in the Northeast. I had a little trouble finding it, which is like having trouble finding the Atlantic in Atlantic City. OK, Andree’s line, but close to the truth. The parking lot stretched farther than the eye could see. I cruised around for a spot close in, but the only ones open wouldn’t fit half the Squire.
“There’s somebody leaving,” Andree nodded to a fat guy shuffling across the blacktop. I fell in behind him, moving at a crawl.
“So we get the bikes already assembled, got it?” I inched up half a car length.
“But they’ll take up so much room.”
“I’m no mechanic, baby.”
“My dad could take my bike apart and put it together with one hand tied behind his back.”
“That’s funny. My take was your dad couldn’t find his ass with BOTH hands tied behind his back.”
“What’s this thing you have about my father’s ass?”
The fat guy cut between two cars and over a row. I gunned the Squire around and up the other side.
“Where the hell did he go?”
“There’s somebody else,” Andree pointed to an old black woman loading bags in her trunk. Three rows away, but a half-mile in cutbacks.
“Hurry!” Andree jabbed me in the knee.
“In a mall? You know how many kids live here?”
By some miracle she was still at it when we drove up minutes later. From where we sat you could see rolls of flesh bunched above her old lady stockings. When the last bag was in just right she pulled something out and placed it in a second bag. Then she took two things out of the second bag and put one each in bags one and three. That was no better so she switched two of the bags around. I gave the horn a poke. Bip!
“Don’t you honk that horn at me,” she said without turning. “You be an old man before I move this car, you pasty face motherfucker.”
“Maybe we can find something else,” Andree pointed to empty stretch near the curvature of the earth. I put the Squire in gear.
The mall smelled of paint and industrial carpeting. A third of the stores weren’t open yet and the ones that were had a slapdash feel. Still, the place was packed. They had a guy on stilts passing fliers in the atrium and a manic clown to make the kids cry. An hour since the doors opened and somebody had already puked on the escalator.
“This can’t be real,” I took a long look around. “They’re piping in Herb Alpert.”
“What’s the difference?”
“In the mall? That’s like a Doors soundtrack to a Viet Nam movie. Something bad has to happen.”
“Look, there’s Macy’s,” Andree pulled ahead. Something about the way she moved told me I was losing control.
“Oh, this would go perfect with my new shoes,” she checked a price tag in the mid three figures. ”And it’s on sale!”
“I didn’t see slinky black dress on the list.”
“Thirty percent off! Cough it up mastermind.”
The girl at the register studied the photo on my ID.
“Well that’s a coincidence,” her eyes darted from the picture to me. “You’re wearing the same shirt.”
“Huh, Whaddya know?”
Hardly coincidence, dearie, more a last minute concession to the stupid moustache. If the faces didn’t match at least I would be wearing Wilson’s clothes.
“Let me just verify this and you’re good to go,” she held up my check like exhibit A.
“Oh man, I have to pee,” Andree clutched at my arm as the sales girl made the call. It took a bit longer than expected, but she soon returned with a chipper smile.
“Will there be anything else for you today?” she pushed my card across the counter.
“No, I don’t think–“
“How much is this paisley scarf?” Andree fingered one of a dozen.
“We’ll take it… and these two… three.”
“Oh my God, you were right!” she practically danced down the concourse. “It’s like a dream come true!”
“Cool it, will you? This place is probably crawling with security. Here, let’s try this one.” I steered her into an electronics outlet. A thousand components flashed triple zeroes as three saleschildren converged.
“How can I help you?” a little porker cut them off at mid counter.
“We need a new stereo,” I nodded to a shelf full. “Something with all the bells and whistles.”
“We have a full line of tuners and receivers,” he led us along, gesturing as if it scarcely mattered. “Your brand names, your imports. Did you have a particular unit in mind?”
“Your $600 unit,” I checked the names for something recognizable.
“With one remote that works everything,” Andree added.
“All our tuners have full capability. How about a Hitachi?” he pointed to a finger smudged floor model. “This baby will do everything but feed the cat.”
“Sold,” I whipped out my checkbook.
“Excellent!” he signaled to a stock boy thrice his age. “I just purchased one myself. The multi-functional menu display is a real nice feature. Now then, can I interest you in something else? A set of new speakers?”
“Just the receiver.”
“Tape deck? VCR?”
“Just the receiver.”
“Do you have Trinitrons?” Andree had to ask.
“Ah, we do indeed.” Salesboy herded us over to a wall of TVs, all shapes and sizes, Oprah times fifty at least.
“This is our most popular video item,” Salesboy draped an arm over a mid-size Oprah. “In fact, we may be temporarily out of them. At the opening they were flying off the shelf.”
“Does it come in any other color?” Andree cocked her head.
Salesboy smiled sadly, “I’m afraid basic black is the industry standard.”
“How about white?”
He looked to me, but the kid was on his own here.
“I could check,” he headed off in a low waddle. I waited until he was out of earshot before making my case.
“What are you doing, Andree? The TV alone is over the limit.”
“You should have used a bigger deposit.”
I held my tongue. Her credit card statement wouldn’t come for a week yet.
“Besides, we don’t have to buy here,” she reached over and switched stations. “It’ll give us a basis for comparison.”
The out of synch Trinitron showed a golfer poised to make a putt. The crowd rimmed around a sand trap, the announcers falling silent. The golfer stood still as a statue, only his hat moving as he checked the flag, then the ball, then the flag…
“What’s wrong?” Andree leaned in closer.
“I think he’s stuck.”
Sure enough, the man couldn’t pull the trigger. A full minute passed. Clouds drifted over the green. A paper wrapper skittered left to right. The camera seemed to tremble under the strain.
I grabbed Andree’s arm. “Here comes Spanky.”
“Wait. I want to see what happens.”
What happened was nothing. The camera continued to roll but the fucking guy was paralyzed. We watched until our boy arrived then the three of us watched together. A pair of seagulls sauntered into the picture and the wrapper blew back the way it came. When they finally broke for commercials the air seemed to go out of the showroom.
“Sir?” Spanky’s forehead was speckled in sweat. “I hate to tell you this, but both items are out of stock at the moment.”
“OK, give me whatever you got.”
“I’m afraid we’re pretty much out of everything. There was a problem with delivery, new store and all.”
I folded my arms to keep from throttling him. “You knew this going in, didn’t you fatso?”
He blushed brightly, but held his ground.
“Sir, we’ve got everything on back order. The truck should be here on Wednesday. Free delivery, it goes without saying.”
“Wednesday!” I checked my watch. We’d wasted an hour.
The flat tire took another twenty minutes. By the time we were on the road again my shirt was sweat soaked and my fingers were black.
“I mean the kid was what? Fifteen?” Andree kept at me about the sales guy. “You know, you can be a real bully at times.”
“Come on, the kid played me like a violin.”
“You didn’t have to make him cry!”
“Look, we gotta concentrate. There’s a time element involved here.”
I watched the blood drain from Andree’s face. “Stop the car, we have to go back.”
“I left the dress in the stereo store. FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!” she pounded the dash until the glove box flipped open.
“There’s no going back, baby,” I glared at her. “They see us coming they call the cops.”
“No, I’ll go in. I can reason with them.”
“Forget it. We keep going,” I eased up as taillights flickered ahead. Off to the side red lights were flashing.
“What now?” Andree groaned.
“Aww look at this! I can see the fucking mall from here.”
The jam up spread across three lanes. I toed the brake and the Squire squealed like a Septa bus.
It was nearly four by the time they cleared the wreckage. We squeezed through, drove a mile then cued up at the line for the Plymouth Meeting Mall exit. Forty minutes later we were in. I parked as close as I could, a short cab ride at most.
By now we were barely on speaking terms. I don’t know what it is in men that make them blame their wives for everything, but whatever it is, I’ve got it. Royal bastard, that’s me. Andree’s girlfriends all say she’s lucky to have me, but what they know about luck you could fit in a thimble. Without Andree I’d be just like they are, lonely, bitter, much divorced. At my worst, their ex’s couldn’t touch me.
“The way it fits together, ‘jackknifed tractor trailer’, like a snazzy new truck line,” I muttered, as if to myself. “And how come WHEN they jackknife they’re just long enough to block the whole interstate? Coincidence…? I think not.”
“Please God, make him stop,” Andree rolled her eyes to the heavens.
“Oh that’s rich. Tell you something, I wish there was a God. You know what? I’d break his fucking nose.”
“Just for five minutes, Jesus. That’s all I ask.”
“It just kills me. You know what this is like? It’s like a blind man with 48 hours to see but nobody knows how to turn on the fucking lights! It’s like–”
“Strike him dead if you must, Lord, but please…”
The bikes were a breeze. Keith, the salesman knew more about cycling than selling so we gave him all the rope he needed. You could hear the excitement in his voice when we got to the racers and a catch in his throat as he called up his glory days, the prep school trophies, tracing the route of the Tour de France. We settled on a pair of Pirellis, factory assembled. Keith was so thrilled, I thought he’d pay for them himself.
We stashed the bikes in the Squire and hustled back for more. Stuff for the bathroom, stuff for the bedroom, stuff we needed like a hole in the head. A popcorn popper, a pasta maker, a mini refrigerator, one of those wave machines, future shower and wedding gifts all. I don’t know, when it’s all free your needs seem many. Andree concentrated on essentials, new lamps, gardening tool, six cases of assorted wines. Her shopping skills were sharper than mine but I did my bit, carting off her booty with a good-natured grunt. My style was more all over the place. A box of ratchets I’d never open, new skis to hang in the basement, golf clubs and fishing gear, should I ever take them up. There’s a rhythm to marathon shopping and we soon found ourselves falling into it. A casual entrance, a bit of indecision, an afterthought or two and boom! We were gone.
It took a good bit of rearranging, but in four trips the Squire was loaded.
“You forgot that,” Andree pointed to the mini fridge behind me.
“aaaAAH Jesus Christ! Why didn’t you say something sooner?”
She gave me that crushed scrotum look, with the hand on the hips and the foot tap going. “I don’t know. Maybe I thought if I waited long enough you’d have a stroke.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Sorry…” the eyes narrowed, “ummmm, maybe I couldn’t think of the words,” she conked herself on the head. “I don’t know. I got gaps.”
I gave a grunt. “How about the old standby ‘I did, but you don’t remember’. Or even better, ‘I’m glad it doesn’t fit. I really hated it’.”
“Come on. Let’s go.”
“We can’t just leave it here.”
“It won’t fit. Forget about it.”
”Good. I really hated it.”
That first day really took it out of us. By the time we got home and unloaded, we could barely lift our vodka tonics. Six trips each up three flights then down a long hallway will do that to you. We didn’t have the strength to put things away so it just piled up in the middle of the room. New stuff, ain’t it pretty?
“It makes me nuts, that dress,” Andree said, not for the first time.
“Baby, all this loot and you’re worried about a dress? Tomorrow we’ll get twenty dresses.”
“It just grates on me. I loved that dress. Everything I really love I lose.”
“Come on,” I gestured to the pile. “How can you lose a Cuisinart?”
“To just walk off and leave it with that imbecile!”
“Ah hell, Skippy wasn’t that bad.”
“I thought it was Spanky.”
“Whatever it was he’ll hate it at sixty.”
“And my scarves! I already had an outfit picked out for each one.”
“Look, we were lucky to get anything. That wreck could have hung us up for days.”
We studied the pile again over breakfast. The stuff didn’t look ours yet. We didn’t know the quirks and design flaws, hadn’t yet discovered the defects or missing pieces. In time we’d use it up and throw it away, but for now it was all new and all ours.
“If I had a camera I’d take a picture of it,” I framed the pile with my fingers.
“Camera,” Andree aimed her finger at me. “Put it on the list.”
“Cam-corder. Oh, and a cordless drill.”
“I don’t know. Drilling situations.”
“I’m getting a whole new wardrobe. I can’t believe I get to say that in my lifetime.”
I cleared the dishes and poured two shots to soothe the nerves.
“Mazel tov!” we hailed each other and sallied forth.
Day two was a romp. Once we’d shit-canned indecision there was no stopping us. Andree snookered every shoe store in sight while I saw more dressing rooms than a backstage groupie. It was work, I can tell you. Try taking your shoes and pants off a few dozen times and you’ll have some idea. At the same time it was exhilarating. We were cranked up and zeroed in. We were serious consumers on an all-consuming quest. Conditions couldn’t have been better. Stores were stocked with the latest styles and sales staffs were quick and courteous. Like shooting cats in a barrel, as my dad would say.
Our last stop was the Antique Barn just before the bridge to Jersey. We filled the tiger maple chest with shoes and wedged it between the trash compactor and the gas grill.
“You folks sure been busy,” antique guy looked over our loot.
“We Wilson’s come from hardy shopping stock,” Andree assured him.
“Used to have me one of these,” he ran a hand over the Squire’s front fender. “Fine vehicle, as I recall. Don’t see too many on the road these days.”
“Here, hold your arms out,” Andree draped him with coats and cleared a space for the new brass lamp.
“Always carting the kids off to one thing or another,” he steadied the load with his chin. “It was a very functional automobile.”
“A regular shopping machine,” she actually jabbed him in the ribs. Loaded back up, we bid Barn guy farewell and headed off into the sunset, the old wagon packed to the gunwales.
“$10,237.66,” Andree totaled the receipts. “You really did it this time, buster.”
“Get rid of those will ya?”
“Whatever you say, Wilson. First trashcan you see.”
“I gotta tell you, the whole time I really felt like I WAS someone else.”
“That’s funny. I have a sudden craving for someone else,” she gave me a wink. “Take me home lover boy.”
“Piece of cake. What’d I tell you?”
“I can’t believe it’s over.”
“I’d like to cash this.”
“Certainly sir, let’s see six hundred dollars.” The teller ran my check and reached for the cash drawer. I could feel my stomach turning flips.
“Could you excuse me one minute? I’m out of twenties,” she slipped from her stool and headed off to wherever they keep them. When she returned she had a slight, bald headed man with her.
“Mr. Wilson? I wonder if I could have a moment.” He nodded me to a nearby desk.
“Is there a problem? I asked.
“Mr. Wilson. It’s been brought to my attention that we had a flurry of activity in your checking account over the weekend.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, it appears there were an inordinate number of checks written on that account,” he winced. “Forty-seven, to be exact.”
“No, I’m afraid I’m not kidding.”
I edged forward in my chair. “That’s a lot of checks.”
“It’s not the number that troubles us. It’s the amounts. The sum total is more than your balance, you see.”
“How much more?”
“A great deal more,” he nodded in an almost friendly fashion. “We tried to call you, but it seems your phone number is not in service. Naturally we suspected that someone had stolen your checkbook, but… I see you have it with you.”
I glanced down at the damn thing clutched in my hand. “So I do.”
“Naturally we’re concerned,” his eyes flicked toward the door. “Of course I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.”
“Of course,” I rose from my chair and tossed the checkbook on his desk. He opened it to the three remaining.
“This is a very serious matter, Mr. Wilson. What do you intend to do about it?”
Through the window behind him I could see a squad car stuck in traffic.
“Well?” baldy pushed it.
“These overdrafts. What are you going to do?”
What I always do. Fake left and hit the door running.
The elevator doors slide open. The old girls look at us packed shoulder to shoulder and roll their eyes in resignation. More hip to shoulder in my case, beanpole that I am. Andree glances over with a teary smile, make that two beanpoles neck deep in grannies. Add to that they’re in costume! The one next to me is a bug of some kind. Her coiled antennae bonk me whenever she turns her head. Directly across is the devil herself, and you know this one really is a devil. Those baby blues brimming with mischief, trouble still, even with the walker. There’s a bunny here and Frankenstein there and in back, Darth Vadar in a pink chenille bathrobe.
Best of all, they’re nuns every one, with us still though decommissioned, marking the time till they’re called to heaven. And while they’re waiting… well it IS Halloween.
The doors take forever to close and the ones outside are looking at me, Raggedy Anne smiling coyly, Statue of Liberty with a pink paper torch. She whispers something to the scarecrow beside her and I blush like I always do when the girls talk about me.
We take turns pushing buttons and the doors finally close and either the floors are too far apart or this is the slowest elevator ever. The old girls shout over their deafness, friends and sisters for a lifetime, so right they should finish together.
Muriel introduces us and they ooh and ahh while we smile and fidget, the two of us eight years old once again, though a decade, at best, from our own dotage.
Then the doors slide open and it’s more of the same, a pair of pirates, a coven of witches, cowgirls in wheel chairs ready to roll, a few not quite with it but hanging in there, flapping their gums and scolding their IV bags.
The old nuns, bless ‘em.
And we as lapsed as we can be. My last Sunday mass somewhere back in Latin, out of practice but slipping back into it. The nuns will do that to you. A softening of the spirit words can’t describe, losing yourself in their good graces, the row house accents, the smell of soap.
The party’s just starting when we hit the lobby and it takes a while to push through the crowd. And what a crowd it is! Wrinkled faces smeared in makeup, funny hats and fake moustaches, more Fellini than Fellini, the sort of thing you can’t make up.
“The sisters really go all out, eh Muriel?” I guide her out the door.
“I think the full moon has a lot to do with it,” she takes my arm.
“Are you sure you want to miss this?”
Muriel, aka Sister Pascal, one of Andree’s two surviving aunts and as close to a saint as I’m likely to get. Until recently she was a tiny tower of strength, but the years and the hip replacements have taken a toll. She walks like there’s a bad connection, which, of course, there is though she’s not complaining. Good as new is what she tells us, a real trooper, as Andree’s dad would say.
We are here at St. Joseph’s to take her to lunch. I can usually get out of this sort of thing, but Muriel is a favorite of mine and I could use the credit. The truth is I’m a sucker for the old folks. All of them have a story to tell and I’m the one who can pull it out of them. I ask away and Muriel always answers. Andree calls it interrogation but we think of it as banter. In her eyes I see Muriel knows my type well.
We cross the parking lot passed the statue that looks like a logo, our eyes are drawn to the face without features.
“Let me guess. St. Joseph?” I venture.
“So they tell me,” Muriel grunts.
“His head looks like a donut.”
“It’s an abstract. It takes getting used to.”
“You hate it, right?”
“You hate it.”
She’s the matriarch by attrition, from a time when each clan sent a few to the calling. Second oldest of five sisters, Port Richmond born and raised. Just 18 when she joined the convent and I think of her then and I have to wonder. Too young to vote or buy a bottle, old enough to vow it all away. A single photo shows a handsome girl smiling into the sun. A wide brimmed hat, her only extravagance, but quite the extravagance, I must say.
The sister who became a sister, the rest going on to boyfriends then husbands and their share of the baby boom. Like most nuns Muriel became a teacher and like most teachers she worked the circuit, transferred on diocesan whim, Broad Street to Bristol and points in between. Never long enough to become a fixture, at least that’s what they must have figured. One of that army of savants and drill sergeants that made Catholic schools the best in the business. Sixty years at the head of the classroom, past middle age and onto the downside. Those husbands gone, some forgotten, five sister widows left behind. The last years spent in ill health and loneliness. Going, going, and they’re gone.
Except for Muriel.
“My problem with St. Joseph is he gets no credit,” I say as we turn into traffic. “I mean what was really in it for him?”
“What do you mean ‘in it’?”
“Well, he gets to be the husband but not the father, and then after Christmas you never hear of him again.”
“Maybe that’s the way he wanted it,” Muriel smiles.
“But what do we know about him? I mean he’s just a footnote.”
“We know he was a carpenter.”
“Well yeah, OK. He had a job, but the rest they skip over. He doesn’t even have any lines!”
“I didn’t realize you were a biblical scholar.”
“Just basic Catholic school stuff, Sister. I mean was he a good carpenter or just the guy with the hammer.”
“He was an excellent carpenter.”
“Where does it say that?”
“In the epistles… St. Paul. Corinthians.”
“You’re making that up,” I look to Andree. “She’s making that up.”
“Do you even own a bible?” Muriel wonders.
“I can get one.”
We’d planned on going to the Italian place but when we pull in the lot the sign says Closed. So we drive around arguing scripture until we spot a Beef and Ale with cars in the lot.
“What do you think?” I signal left.
“Tom, it’s a bar!” Andree kicks me under the seat.
“Yeah, but they have chicken fried steaks! When was the last time Muriel had a chicken fried steak?”
“What’s a chicken fried steak?” Muriel wonders.
“One of the great culinary mysteries,” I turn in. “Think of the Trinity without the Holy Ghost.”
The place is done up like an English pub. We hang our coats on the booth hook and slide in beneath a fake stained glass window. Out the window is a picture of a deer grazing in a picture of a meadow. The jukebox is playing something by Ella and the barman has a walrus moustache. My kind of place.
“Give us three chicken fried steaks and a round of Guinness,” I tell the waitress.
“None for me, thanks,” Andree overrules me. “I’ll have the garden salad.”
I look to Muriel. “Just you and me kiddo,”
“Is it chicken or steak?”
“It’s both and it’s neither. Trust me on this.”
While we’re waiting for our order Muriel updates us on the state of the sisterhood, a regular feature of our program and invariably dire. It’s not something she’d volunteer on her own, so I make a point to ask. She speaks directly and doesn’t flinch.
“So then sister, how are we doing?”
“Not well, I’m afraid. If you can believe it, we’re down to four.”
“Four nuns?!” Andree bugs her eyes.
“Four enlistees,” I set her straight.
“Novitiates,” Muriel sets me straight.
“Oh my God, that’s awful,” Andree tries to conceive of it.
“A widow, a divorcee and two young Guatemalan girls,” Muriel breaks it down. “I’m beginning to think we’re doomed to extinction.”
“Beginning? That biological clock is barely ticking,” I ignore Andree’s kicks under the table. “What about the average age?”
“It’s getting higher.”
“Let me guess. The widow and the divorcee are no spring chickens. So that leaves the Guatemalans to hold down the curve. Sheesh! And they’ll probably run off with, I don’t know, leftist guerrillas or something.”
“The numbers are discouraging, but it’s the why that concerns me,” Muriel says.
“Gee I don’t know. Maybe because these days 18-year-old girls have more than two options?” Wise guy that I am.
“That might explain a reduction, but a complete lack of interest?”
“Hey, check the seminaries. They’re staying away in droves. But that’s another story,” which earns me another cautionary kick.
And just what does Muriel think of our predator priests? The blackest cloud we could ever imagine, the bad news in bunches that shocks even me, a confirmed infidel and practicing cynic. Muriel can be as candid as I am curious, but neither of us are going there.
“OK, average age then. Gotta be what? Sixty?”
“Jesus, what’s the average LIFE expectancy?”
“It’s a crisis. What can you do but pray?”
“Well, for one thing they could let the clergy get married. Other religions allow it.”
“Perhaps one day,” she smiles. “When I’m gone.”
“By then it might be academic. I’m just saying if you need more fish you should make the pond bigger.”
“Yes. What would be the harm?” Andree shrugs off my clever analogy.
“There’s the matter of commitment,” Muriel explains, “Celibacy is not a punishment. It’s a discipline.”
“It’s asking too much.”
“Yes well,” Muriel shrugs. “You know what they say about old dogs.”
I study a spotted spoon. “I have an old dog and he’s not celibate.”
Our food arrives and Andree toys with her salad while Muriel and I dig in. The steaks are superb and we nod and chew as Ella gives way to Dinah. I make a note to remember this place.
“What do you think?” I ask with my mouth full.
“Very good,” Muriel nods in earnest. In between bites we throw back the Guinness. The old girl matches me measure for measure. Andree rolls her eyes and spears an olive.
“I suppose they’ll be closing schools.” I watch Muriel slather a french fry in ketchup.
“Whole parishes, if the cardinal has his way,” she pops it in whole.
“And more believers slipping in every day. Can you imagine? A world without Catholic school.”
“They can’t close them all,” Andree hopes against hope. “Where will the mob kids go?”
“That reminds me, Muriel. You ever see any of your old students?”
“Oh my, yes. In fact every Christmas I have dinner with three of them.”
“So they made out OK? I mean what do they do for a living?”
She holds my eyes. “They’re retired.”
“You’re kidding.” But the math is easy. School kids to pensioners before you know it.
“There’s a few more in Brigantine. I see them when we’re down the shore.”
“They put you up?”
“No, the order has a summer home.”
“On the beach?”
“Why yes, we’ve been going there for years.”
Visions of old nuns in bikinis come on before I can stop them, frolicking past until Andree kicks me. I try to recall seeing nuns at the shore, but the nuns in bikinis come popping up again and I excuse myself to grab a smoke. Out in the parking lot the nicotine hits me harder than usual and I feel all fuzzy and I think of the nuns. Catholic school. If you didn’t go you have no reference. The stuff of countless novels and comedy routines cannot be known second hand. When I was a kid I envied my public school friends, but the older you get the more you cling to what defines you. Catholic school, which is to say the nuns.
Thirty years later I watch the kids heading off in their uniforms and skinny ties and I know what they face. The rod, the rule, myth and ritual beyond comprehension, truth and faith mixed with wild yarns and glaring gaps of logic. You may not come out of it pure of heart, but you know right from wrong and your handwriting puts the heathens to shame.
What’s special in Muriel is easy to see, too sharp to lose advantage and too quick with a laugh not to know how to use it. Every school had one, impish and disarming, passing down from brother to sister. The one who could strike sparks and reach the unreachable. I don’t know what Catholic school is like these days, but I’m guessing innocence has taken a hit. Now the pulpit is the last refuge of the scoundrel and the Catholic Church has the scoundrels to prove it. Suffer the children, feed thy lambs, the wages of sin will flatten you.
The sisters taught us that.
“So, why Pascal?” I think to ask as we turn out of the parking lot. “Your official name. How did you decide on it?”
“You are the curious one, aren’t you?” Muriel smiles via rear view mirror.
“I’ve always wondered. It’s a great name compared to some. Sister Humphrey Aloysius comes to mind.”
Even Muriel wrinkles her nose at that one. Sister Al, my third-grade cross to bear, a name that fit her, warts and all.
“I don’t know how the other orders do it, but when you’re ready to take your vows they ask you to submit three names for consideration,” Muriel tells us.
“Pascal?” I raise a finger. “Isn’t he the one that blesses your throat?’
“And what a quaint little custom THAT is. Kneeling there with candles crossed at your neck. Scared to death you’ll choke on a chicken bone.”
“It beats Ash Wednesday,” Andree points out.
“He’s been known to work miracles,” Muriel reminds us.
“I don’t know,” I check her in the mirror. “I’ll take Saint Heimelich every time.”
“It’s not just choking. Saint Pascal protects against disease.”
“That’s why you picked him? Or was it the sound. Sister Pascal. From France.”
“I didn’t pick it.”
“What about the three names?”
“They assigned me Pascal. I’ll admit it was disappointing at first, but I came to like the sound of it.”
“Did any of the others get a name they picked?”
“Not a one,” Muriel shakes her head. “But it’s funny. A few years ago I was walking around the convent grounds with Sister Margaret Louise and we passed through the cemetery. At the end, just before the gate we saw a grave marked Sister Pascal and behind it, another marked Sister Margaret Louise.”
“You’re recycled?!?” I yelped.
An unsettling tradition and clearly deceptive, but it’s not like a cool name will get you somewhere. The next Pascal will have a tough act to follow. A namesake with a hundred year legacy, presuming Muriel isn’t last in the line. There’s a measure of comfort in this strange conveyance. Her tenure may be drawing to a close but a Sister Pascal will be always with us.
The party is down to diehards when we return to St. Joseph’s. There’s a lone figure singing into a dead microphone while the devil herself bangs out Chopsticks on the piano. There are no lyrics to Chopsticks that I know of, which might account for the dead mike and Sister Satan’s devilish grin. Gangs of nuns are gathered at the elevator, gabbing like they haven’t seen each other in years. Considering their varying degrees of immobility, it’s possible they haven’t.
We pile in the elevator and the crowd thins at every floor. Then it’s down to us and Muriel’s neighbor, Sister Immaculata, a name that never made a wish list. The two go back a long way and I can see the bond and I envy them for it. The years spent in the struggle, a lifetime holding up their end. It’s a bond few men live to hope for, weightless as God’s grace and stronger than a mother’s will. In the end the priests were like our father’s, distant and imperious, volatile but avoidable. Like our moms the nuns were entrusted to raise us using wisdom, guile and no more force than necessary. They saw us through the events that shaped us, from A-Bombs to astronauts, presidents to popes.
“You know,” Sister Immaculata says to me. “For years people thought Sister Pascal and I were sisters.”
“Biological sisters,” Muriel explains.
“What do you think?” Immaculata shoulders up. They’re both old and both tiny. Any further resemblance would be a stretch.
“Why, it’s uncanny,” I tell them. “Twin sister sisters.”
“Of course, I’ve put on some weight,” Immaculata says, though you’d never know it. The two of them could fit in my pocket.
We visited Muriel’s room, an invite I couldn’t pass up. The nuns were such a relentless presence it’s hard to imagine what they went home to. When we got there I was surprised to see a TV and remote control, an overstuffed chair, an electric coffee maker and yesterday’s Inquirer folded on the bed. The room was small, just a cell really, but it’s on the top floor and came with a view. Add an ashtray and a beer cooler and it would do me nicely.
“Cable?” I wonder.
“Oh my, yes,” Immaculata assures us.
“A gift from Heaven,” Muriel concurs.
It’s dusk when we bow out with hugs all around and a promise to return. I’m looking forward to keeping that promise. Like most things Catholic St Joseph’s has that fade away feel and I can’t deny the spirit suits me. We circle the statue and head down the lane, the place lit up like a grand hotel. We pray they’ll all meet again in heaven. And if there’s a God who holds up his end, he’ll see that they’re happy forever and ever. Amen.
End of Excerpt