St. Mary’s was a tiny, predominantly Irish-Catholic school – first grade through eighth grade. There were thirty-seven kids in my graduating class – 1963. There was Armstrong. Flaherty. McGowan. Lynch. O’Connor. There was Father Shanley. Monsignor O’Neill. And of course, there were the nuns who may or may not have been Irish. Who knows? They all changed their names and dressed the same. Sister Grace Mary. Sister Thomas Marie. Sister Mary Anunciata. So who knows?
Then there was me – Johnnie Stanizzi. I am not Irish. And my father was funny about that. He had himself convinced that because I was the only Italian kid in the school, the nuns had it out for me. Sometimes I kind of agreed with him. But most of the time I knew it had nothing to do with me being Italian. It had everything to do with me being a little jerk.
For example, one time, for a reason that really remains a mystery, someone – probably Father Shanley – decided that it would be a good idea to allow Greg and me to be in charge of “Milk Duty.” It was an extremely short stint, I assure you. And during that exceedingly abbreviated stretch on milk duty I took part in a miracle. No exaggeration. And if it were not an “actual” spiritual, God-kinda miracle, it was a miracle, nonetheless. It figures, right? Catholic school, nuns all over the place, and priests, and lots and lots of praying and church. I figure, why should a miracle be out of the question?
I guess, in a way, I understand what Father Shanley was thinking (if it was actually his idea) by putting us on milk duty, but how could he have been that naïve. It still strikes me as utterly unbelievable. Greg and me? Milk duty? The two most slippery eels in the entire school. I remember thinking, This is amazing! I can’t believe it! But it was true, and like I said, I think I understand what Father might have been thinking.
The nuns were with us every single day, all day long, so they got the full force of our obstinance. But Father Shanley only stopped into our classroom maybe twice a week, and then only for a couple of minutes. The door would open, and there he would be. And that’s when you heard the loud, scratchy sound of chairs begin scraped backwards along the floor, and the shuffling, rumbling sound of the entire class rising at once and chanting, “Gooood mornnnning, Faaaather Shannnley.”
“You may be seated, children,” he’d smile. Then he might ask a couple of random kids what they were working on, have a few whispered words with Sister, wish us good-bye, and exit. So, you see, he only got the stories of our “misbehavior” from the Sisters’ point of view. And I really think he underestimated how just much disruption we caused, because on more than one occasion he’d intervene on some behavioral issue, and when he doled out the punishment, it was never as bad as what the sisters would give us. They’d keep us after school and force us to write a thousand times I will not take the Lord’s name in vain. Or I will not talk in class. Or I will not bother Teresa ever again.
Father Shanley wouldn’t do anything like that. In fact, his detentions weren’t even at the school, they were at the rectory which I had to walk right by on my way home, anyway. When I got to the rectory he’d always greet me with a big smile. Then he’d joke around a little and talk to me as if we were a normal human being. The nuns never did that, ever. Trust me! And the punishment he handed out didn’t feel anything like punishment. It felt like fun. He’d have me vacuum and dust the place, Windex the windows, dust the paintings. And most of the time, Father Shanley would just hang around with me and talk about things. And he never gave me the feeling that he was hanging around so he could check up on me. It felt more like he just liked being with me. That’s why I think letting Greg and me do the milk duty job unsupervised had to be his idea. It had to be. There was no way the nuns would ever let Greg and me go anywhere unsupervised. That was guaranteed trouble. Guaranteed. But Father…well I think he just liked spending time with us; in fact, I know he did.
There was no cafeteria at St. Mary’s. Everyone brought their lunches to school in small brown, grease-sopped bags. And everything was wrapped in useless waxed paper. Soggy sandwiches. Bruised apples. A couple of soft Oreos. We left our lunches in the “cloak room,” which was a long, dark corridor directly behind the classroom where we hung our “cloaks” and stashed out lunches. One door opened out to the hallway. The door on the other end opened into the classroom. Mornings, we’d file from the hallway and into the darkened cloak room, toss our lunch bags on the floor, hang up our “cloaks,” and enter the classroom at the other end.
As the morning wore on, the smells from all those bags would waft out of the cloak room and begin to permeate the air in the class. All those different lunches…peanut butter and jelly, bologna, salami, olive loaf, last night’s leftovers – meatloaf, chicken, some kind of “American” macaroni – all those smells hung in the air, and I swear it got up to a hundred degrees by the time May rolled around. We ate in that classroom, too, at our desks. It was disgusting. I will never, ever forget the smell and foul taste of a wilted lettuce, rancid tomato, hot mayonnaise, bologna sandwich, on soggy Wonder Bread. I will never un-see that slick tomato and greasy lettuce dripping from that flattened, wet bread.
Also stashed in our greasy brown lunch bags was a nickel. That was for milk, which was delivered to the school at lunch time. The milk guy would drive up to the door at the back of the school which opened to the basement. There was a long corridor that led to a big open area where the church held bingo and spaghetti dinners. The corridor had boys’ and girls’ bathrooms on the right side, and a couple of storage rooms on the left. The storage rooms were where they warehoused the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigade uniforms, props for the Christmas Minstrel, reams of paper, folding tables, and those sorts of things. And oh yeah, that’s where Frenchie’s closet was. Frenchie was the janitor. He was really Mr. Thibadeau, but everybody called him Frenchie, even outside of school. I heard them.
It had to be somebody’s job to go down and meet the milk guy. That was job number one of the milk duty team, which was always made up of a couple of the “good” kids, kids Sister had deemed “trustworthy.” But this one time, after Greg and I had gotten into some trouble – I don’t remember what it was exactly – Father Shanley must have made the decision to give the milk duty job to Greg and me. I know. Right.
This was 5th grade. We had already been in every kind of trouble you can imagine, though as I think of it now, the infractions that made our reputations legendary were so innocuous, so silly, so innocent, that all the drama that swirled around us was entirely unnecessary and a creation of the nuns and their own cockeyed view of what was “bad behavior,” and hence, how to treat the children who demonstrated such behavior.
The nuns and my parents; what a team! Talk about terrorism! There wasn’t an ounce of patience or understanding among them, and their preconceived notions about us traveled with us and grew from grade to grade.
But what had we actually done wrong in the first place to derail this train? Talk back? Probably. Not do our work? Yeah, I guess. Pick on kids at recess? I suppose so, but not too much. Vandalize the school? Yup. Once. But, man, the way the nuns regarded us, and the way they explained it to our parents, you might have thought we were like wild animals, careless hoodlums who intimidated everyone in the school, in the classrooms, and on the playground. You know, I never really thought of myself as a bad kid. Not at first, anyway. You know how it goes. If someone keeps telling you that you’re a bad child long enough, you not only start to believe it, but you start to act on it. Anyway, for whatever reason, Father Shanley thought it might be a good idea to put the two biggest gangsters in the school on milk duty.
And here’s how that went.
The milk guy brought all the milk down to a little room off that hallway I told you about in the basement. He carted it in plastic cases and rolled it on a dolly. The room we were waiting in was very remote. No classrooms. No people, except maybe Frenchie. But there was nothing else down there. It was totally empty and remote. Just the smell of sawdust and Pine-Sol, and a whole lot of nothing…a long, empty corridor…a few rooms. And that’s where the milk man rolled his dolly…down that hallway, and into a room where we were waiting. He tossed the plastic milk crates onto the table and left.
And there we were. On milk duty. Oh geez.
It was our job to divvy up the milk. Fourteen milks for Sister Grace Mary’s class. Nine white. Five chocolate. Sixteen for Sister Thomas Marie….and so on. Then we’d traipse all over the school, delivering the milk to each classroom. Totally unsupervised. It was amazing to me. An absolute invitation for trouble. I could feel the mischievous excitement being to roil in my belly! I just couldn’t grasp being so completely unsupervised.
And, ultimately, I couldn’t handle it.
On our last day of milk duty – which also happened to be the second day — I discovered that if you squeezed one of these small milk containers firmly and quickly, the milk would spray out in a nice, hard, thin stream. I don’t remember exactly how I figured it out. But I do remember saying, Hey, Greg. And when he looked up from milk-divvying, I shot him. Squirrrrt!!! Chocolate milk right off the chin.
“You fucker! What the fuc…..”
But before he could get another word out, I shot him again.
Instantly. I mean instantly, Greg picked up a carton and shot me.
And that was it. It was on!
We began unloading milk at each other with complete abandon. Consequences? Whatever! Squirt!! Squirt!!
When we were both drenched in luke-warm milk, Greg had had enough; he ran out of the room, cackling, and headed for the exit door at the end of the hall, maybe twenty yards away. I have no idea where he thought he was going. That door opened to the parking of a wooden, four-story walk-up next to the school. What was he going to do out there? I started to run after him, chocolate weapon in hand.
And that’s when the miracle happened.
Greg had made it to the exit door. Pushed it open with all his might. And screamed with delight, anticipating being hit. In fact, he not only made it to the door, he actually made it out the door!
That’s when I let my chocolate grenade fly. I threw the container half the length of the hallway, as hard as I could. And when the airborne carton reached the door, Greg was all but vanishing out to the safety of the parking lot. The door was nearly completely closed. Greg was safe. But somehow that little eight-ounce milk container passed through the five-inch crack of the closing door, smacked Greg directly in the back of his escaping head with an audible SPLAT! OW!! and it exploded in a glorious spume of utterly slow-motion chocolate milk. It seemed to levitate there is the air for a moment. Everything had gone utterly silent, the whole scene had been placed on pause.
This remains one of the single most amazing, impossible, remarkable, startling things I have ever seen in my life. It was an impossible throw. Incomprehensible. Not doable. But it happened.
OK. Count. One-one thousand. Two-one thousand.
The pause button was off!!
That’s when Greg opened the door and come back in, soaking wet, out of breath, hands on his hips. That’s also how long it took for the two of us to realize what we had done. And what we would probably face next.
We ran back into the milk room where, just a short time ago, the milk delivery guy had come and given us the milk for the day – our second day. Our last day. What a mess. There were crushed milk containers all over the place, and the table and the floor and the wall had milk all over them. What the hell were we going to do. We were sopping wet with milk, and THERE WAS NO MILK FOR THE STUDENTS! Oh, Lord, we were freakin’ screwed.
That’s when the door opened.
I mean we hadn’t even had a chance to try to think of a plan before the door opened. What could we do besides stand there staring at each other like the couple of jerks we were.
Father Shanley just wanted to see how things were going on our second milk day, so he came down to check. Not in a mean, suspicious way. If things had been OK down there he probably would have joked around with us like he always did, and feel really happy with himself that he had let the two dirtiest rats in school loose to do milk duty and that they had done a good job!
But things were not OK down there. Things were about as far from OK as possible.
Father stopped dead in his tracks, standing in milk. And he did not say one single word. I really don’t think he could. I truly believe that the milk room scene had somehow seized up his brain. All he did was stand there looking all around very, very slowly. And Greg and I were like, “What the hell are we supposed to do now.” Father answered that question quickly enough.
He decided to come over to me first. And so, slopping through the milk, he slowly made his way to me, his face completely red, and when he got to me he put both of his hands around my neck. Did you catch that? He. Put. Both. Of. His. Hands. Around. My. Neck.
Then he began to squeeze, and said – and I will never forget this as long as I live. If I live to be a million, I will never forget this! I mean if there was ever any doubt about how bad a kid I was this was proof positive – with his hands around my neck and his red face about an inch from my nose, he pushed me by the neck and, SLAM!, up against the wall. I’ll tell you the truth, I’ve never, ever been so scared in my whole life. He squeezed my neck a little harder and then he said in a deep, hissy voice that I’d never heard him use before, “You goddam little snake in the grass!”
Holy crap! I made Father Shanley swear! This is bad. I also made him compare me to Satan! My life was over. Oh my God.
Then he slopped through some more milk and headed toward Greg, but I guess he had used up most of his anger and swear words and comparisons to Satan, and he did not say one word to Greg. He didn’t touch him. Or swear at him. Or nothin’. He just stared at Greg for what seemed a really, really long time, and then he turned and squished toward the door, and just before he slammed the door so hard I thought the hinges would break, he said, “Clean this mess up now! Then see me in my office!”
I made Father Shanley swear. I was the worst of the worst, for sure.
I started thinking about the ramifications of our stupidity. The kids would not get their milk. We would have to go and confess to Sister, dressed in saturated, sour smelling clothes, and we knew for sure that our punishment this time would have nothing to do with Father having us vacuum the rectory or knock the dust off a few old paintings. Milk duty, for us, was almost over. The only thing left to do was to hear what our punishment would be, and you wouldn’t believe the things I was imagining even if I told you.
John L. Stanizzi is author of the collections Ecstasy Among Ghosts, Sleepwalking, Dance Against the Wall, After the Bell, Hallelujah Time!, High Tide – Ebb Tide, Four Bits, Chants, Sundowning, and POND. Besides Ovunque Siamo, John’s poems have been widely published and have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, American Life in Poetry, Praxis, The New York Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, The Laurel Review, The Caribbean Writer, Blue Mountain Review, Rust + Moth, Tar River, Poetlore, Rattle, Hawk & Handsaw, and many others.