If you counted all the grains of sand on every beach in the world it would not add up to one second in Hell, snarled Sister Maria Richard to us, her fifth-grade class.
Sister Maria Richard’s face was red-with-a-hint-of-blue, the kind of kisser that old drunks blossom over time. She also had false teeth, top and bottom, and they were never secure. They were very busy and alive in her mouth. It was truly mesmerizing when Sister got excited. The upper bridge would detach in a perfect horizontal drop, and in an implausible, synchronized movement, several things happened simultaneously. The bridge of disconnected teeth leapt forward and out of her mouth, while at the same exact moment, Sister’s hand flew up in a blur and slammed the teeth back into her Holy head, while she continued jabbering without a hitch, as if this ghastly thing had not just happened. She tried her best to hide it, but you could tell it freaked her out because for one second her eyes looked mortified and buggy. It was truly an incredible thing.
Our desks were tiny and old and brown, with years of varnish slathered over them every summer so they were nice and shiny when we returned in September. They were also screwed to the floor, as if some desk thief were going to snatch one up and dash away with it. The tops of the desks opened like a car hood, and the legs were wrought-iron, and when the varnish-besmearing was done, Mr. Thibodeau, our custodian, slapped a new coat of black paint on the legs.
Poor Mr. Thibodeau. He wore all of his keys on a contraption connected to his belt. The keys were attached to a long, retractable wire that rolled up into a round metal thing that hooked on his belt. All he had to do was grab the clump of keys, give it a pull, and choose the key he needed. When he was done with the key he just let go and the whole batch of them would retract with a whirrrr back into that metal thing attached to his belt. Well, for bored, stupid seventh and eighth grade boys the retractable key chain was irresistible. Every once in a while, one of us would run up to Mr. Thibodeau, grab the key chain, give it a long pull, and laugh our asses off when all the keys snapped back and whacked Frenchie in the belt. That was when we’d get a good taste of his heavy accent.
“Son of bitch bastard you leave dem key alone you or you gonna know what for! Dem damn kid dem!”
And every desk had some kind of carving on it, usually things like JS & CC forever. Or maybe a lopsided heart with an arrow going through it, and someone’s initials under it.
I found it interesting, the thought that kids from some bygone era had sat at these very desks. The idea of such a thing was kind of enthralling. The audacity of writing or carving into the desk was a huge risk, with Sister standing right there, just a few feet away, blathering about something impossibly boring. If you got caught you’d be in a major league jam, for sure. I never carved anything. I was too afraid of getting busted.
I remember that my desk said M.M. and EG, and they became kind of imaginary friends. Trusty. Reliable. They were there every day. I tried to imagine what they were like now, what they did, and if they were still together, which they probably were not. Heck, they might have even been dead, for all I know.
Each desk had a little hole in the upper right-hand corner. That was where the ink well was, way back in the day when kids used ink. That little cup was for you to dip your pen in. But of course, there was also the old story passed from generation to generation about dipping the pigtails of the girl in front of you into the ink, which was long before my time. But I could certainly see how giving a kid a little bowl of ink right in his desk could bring nothing but trouble of one sort or another.
Every classroom also had what appeared to be a pull-down map, rolled up and hanging in the front of the room. However, St. Mary’s pull-down maps were not maps at all. What should have been maps were paintings of Hell. And when Sister would get frustrated with our antsy, chatty, Campbell’s-Soup-smelling, sweat-stinking, mouth-breathing, red-faced little snot-pusses, she’d flow into her chant — If you counted all the grains of sand…and while she was yattering she’d pull down the “map.” They all did it. All the nuns used the “map trick” to frighten us. And they started this terrorism right at the the very beginning, when we were first graders. We were tiny. Babies, really. Little kids. First grade. Second grade. Third grade. Exposed to a painting of human beings being deep-fried in the eternal flames of Hell. I mean, what’s up with that? How could any adult, except an adult who was a crazed lunatic butcher-knife murderer or something, think that showing little kids something like that was a good lesson for them? Pretty fucked up, right?
And when Sister pulled down that picture we all had to crane our necks and look up at it to really see it because we were so tiny. And that added to the repulsion and scariness of the wretched image, straining our little pencil-necks, looking up at burning people clawing at the smoky air. What we saw could never be unseen. Naked people. In profile. Their heads thrown back, their contorted mouths in screaming agony. Their arms reaching up in utter desperation, hands like claws pawing through the flames toward the Heaven they would never, ever see. And the flames. The flames – from the waist down you saw no bodies, just solid fire, thick, red, molten, and all consuming, licking up past their waists and to their chests. And they were screeching, these tortured, naked souls, some of them up to their necks in fire. The agony in their faces, those clawed hands scraping at the smoke and flames. It was hypnotic. Red flames. Red smoke. Red naked bodies in profile scrabbling at the sky. Writhing in unimaginable anguish. Man, after “A Painting of Hell Day” that was really all you thought about for the rest of the day, and sometimes even longer than that. You just couldn’t get it out of your head. And Sister would swat the painting with her pointer as she explained to us how we could very easily make our way into Hell.
If you counted – SWAT! — all the grains of sand on every beach in the world– SWAT! — it would not add up– SWAT! — to one second in Hell. – SWAT! — And this, children, is what Hell is like. – SWAT! SWAT! SWAT!
Wouldn’t it have been easier on everyone if they had just shipped us off to Riker’s Island for a while, until we learned to behave ourselves and love Jesus? But Hell! I mean, “What the hell!!” And I’m not trying to be funny. The map was horrifying!
Then she wouldn’t speak for a while. She’d waddle over to her desk, sit down heavily, out of breath from walking fifteen feet, and just sit there and watch us stare at the people in Hell. Those poor burning souls.
Every grain of sand? How can there be so much time? I’m a little kid with the entirety of my life in front of me, and Sister is telling me that my whole, entire life is less than a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a single second in Hell. I was terrified. I knew I would not be able to handle it. I knew I wouldn’t. I wanted to leap from my seat and run across the river to Sosie’s house, where I’d feel safe and hidden from such abject misery.
To add to her scariness, Sister was also quite deaf and she shook…a lot.
Those were the days when things of a technological nature were huge. Remember when one computer took up a whole room, or more? Well, it was kind of the same thing with Sister’s hearing aids which were, shall we say, cumbersome. They were shoved in behind the heavily starched linen that wrapped around her ears, her cheeks, down her chest, and even onto the top of her head where it blossomed into a pure white crown about five inches high and which was held in place by a heavy, black serge veil which went all the way down past her waist. It was as if she had wrapped her whole head – except her nun-face – in a heavy sheet, and then sprayed the hell out of it with can after can of spray starch. Every once in a while, if Sister turned just the right way, I’d catch of glimpse of her hair, which I always found amazing. It was short and fuzzy, rather like a baby eagle’s. And the hearing aids? The hearing aids were huge, like two ’56 Buicks hanging off the sides of her head and smooshed in behind the thick linen. There was also feedback, lots of feedback. As she turned her head from left to right to refocus her gaze from kid to kid, the electric, sci-fi whine of feedback traveled with her, moving invisibly through the air around her, like the eerie soundtrack of an old horror film — EEE…OOO…EEEE…IIII…OOO!!!
It late May, the room would get hot, and that warmth of spring would obscure the classroom into a dreamy softness, the smell of the lilacs from the playground growing more fragrant, and every sound in the room — which admittedly was mostly Sister’s voice and perhaps the occasional clearing of a throat – would become amplified and echo-y and slow. This was my life. I was trapped in an old, stuffy room where everything was some shade of brown. Time had stopped. My face rested in my palm, smooshing my cheek into my nose. The only image that existed in the world, down the tunnel of my young-kid-half-shut-eyes, was Sister’s red face. And the way the sunlight filtered into the room at certain times of the day could become problematic. And here’s why.
Sister Maria Richard wore glasses; all the nuns wore glasses, little round jobs with silver frames, and depending on how her lenses caught the sunlight coming in through the massive windows, a very strange and dangerous thing would happen. The sunlight would blank out the lens and hide her eyes completely, so that we could not tell who she was actually looking at.
She’d hiss, “The next one of you that I see talking will see me after school. Now stop jabbering!” Her head was shaking, the beastly top bridge of her teeth was leaping forward as she spoke, and her hearing-aids fed back loudly under her habit. It was…incredible. But the real problem was that when I looked up, right into her face, her glasses were behaving just like mirrored glasses State Trooper glasses. And so I had no clue who she was looking at.
“Stop that blathering! You’re making me cross!”
Cross? We’re making her cross? Don’t even get me started on CROSS!
Anyway, her anger and frustration were beginning to peak. And I would have bet money that she was looking right at Robert or Danny, who sat across the room from me. In fact, I was sure of it. Or pretty sure, anyway. And this was my opportunity to chance it. I leaned way over and poked Greg with my pencil. He sat a couple of seats over from me, and that instantly got him going, which, let’s face it, was easy. In those days, all we had to do was look at each other in some place that demanded solemnity, and we were goners. That was it. Church on Sunday? Catch a glimpse of Greg and we were off. A funeral? One quick glance and it was off to stupid-land where the only “language” we knew was uncontrollable, belly-aching laughter that we tried to hold in.
Sister was on the prowl, determined to flush out the distracters. And the more she stalked the aisles, shouting Enough! Enough!, smacking the weapon of her ruler on each desk, the more Greg and I melted into full-blown hilarity, that spitting, snorting, hand-over-the-nose-and-mouth, shoulder-quaking, belly-hurting, heavy-breathing, sweat-inducing, tear-pouring convulsion of laughter.
Up one aisle and down the next, Sister stalked, her rosary bead belt clattering its woody clatter. I had her in my sights and I was sure she was not looking at Greg or me, so our sniggering escalated. Past Mary and Katie, past Gary and Elizabeth. Sister was locked in. And it didn’t dawn on me until way, way too late, as Sister approached my desk and slapped me across the head with an ear-ringing whack directly into the right side of my face and over my ear, that I had read her glasses completely wrong. My face got hot. The only thing I could hear was a high-pitched ringing. And though I tried desperately to maintain the smile on my red face, the tears welled-up and overflowed anyway, big, hot tears rolling down my smiling face and into the corners of my mouth. Greg and I had been in her sights the whole time, and from behind her State Trooper glasses she had seen that we were the disobedient ones.
“You like to laugh,” she said, like she had caught me shooting heroin. “You like that? Well, you can laugh to your heart’s content after school today.”
To my heart’s content. That’s another one. Don’t get me started. It’ll make me cross!
It was spring and the windows in the classroom were open. The windows were tall and rectangular, and you had to open them with a pole whose long handle was smooth and worn, with long streaks of black in the grain, the stains of years of human oil. You’d hook the end of the pole into the loop at the top of the window and pull toward you. In one lengthy, smooth movement, the big window slid up and opened from the top in one fascinating, effortless, and unlikely motion. Sister, Sister, can I open the window? Pleeease? That’s how interesting opening the window was. Kids were willing to argue over who got to do it. And having the windows open meant that the scent of lilacs hanging over the fence from Mrs. Leonard’s yard filled the classroom. The smell of those lilacs, along with the gathering heat, our sweaty little bodies, and the fading smells of thirty bagged lunches made sitting at that desk and staying awake nearly impossible. The lilacs were the final ingredient in the sleeping draught that told you summer was coming, just before you nodded off there at your desk, closing in on 2.30 in the afternoon, late May, East Hartford, Connecticut, 1958.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this was not Bing Crosby’s St. Mary’s. We didn’t have any bells. They must have been too expensive. When school was over the nuns would just say, Children, you may be dismissed. And there would be the immediate scrapping of chairs on the hard wood floors, the frantic chatter of the released, the weights lifted from our shoulders.
“Not you, Mister Stanizzi and Mister Willett! You may stay right where you are.”
The quiet in the room after all the kids had gone was not the same quiet as when, say, everyone was taking a test. This was a deeper quiet, a big, hollow, empty quiet, a quiet in which you could hear the birds outside, the occasional car, a quiet that let you know there was no one in building. It was a lonely quiet.
Sister sat behind her desk. She was red and huge and sober and silent. We sat at our desks, the laughter worn out of us, and waited. I had to fight the urge to put my head down on my desk and nod off.
Finally, Sister straightened in her chair. We, automatically, straightened in ours.
“Come up here, you two,” Sister said in a flat, stern, spent voice. Greg and I looked at each other as if we were checking to be sure she meant us. Then we rose, tentatively. We looked at each other and then looked back at Sister, who sat still behind her desk, hands folded on top. We were not sure what to do or what was going to happen. It was a terribly uneasy feeling. After it had buzzed all day with the sounds of kids and nuns, the silence in the school was disconcerting, almost embarrassing in a strange way. And it made me feel a little like throwing up.
She finally spoke. “Bring two chairs up here,” she said. We each took a chair from a couple of front desks. “Place them down right there in front of my desk, facing each other,” she said, never moving a muscle, except her mouth. “Closer together!” she snapped. And we moved the chairs closer together.
“Now. Sit,” she snapped.
When we sat down our knees were almost touching. It was very awkward, and a little scary. And now, unlike a few moments ago, we could not look at each other. We were just too close together. And the sounds of quiet were all I could hear. The birds. Cars driving by the school. The boiler room in the basement. The things you hear only when it’s quiet.
I was afraid to move, afraid to look at Sister, but I could tell that she had gone back into silent mode. I could see her mass in my peripheral vision, sitting there behind that heavy antique desk, doing nothing. Just sitting.
I couldn’t look at Greg either, so we sat across from each other, knees nearly touching, and stared straight down at the floor.
I heard Sister sigh and then her chair squeaked in the silence. I was looking down at Greg’s knees. I don’t know what he was doing, but I know he wasn’t moving.
“Now…” She had started to speak….
I began to blink really fast, trying not to let my eyes dart in the direction of her desk.
“Now,” she said, “since you both find it so difficult to control your laughter during class, I would like you to laugh….now.”
Greg and I shot looks at each other, and then immediately looked back down at each other’s knees. My thoughts raced. Laugh? Now?
“Go ahead,” Sister said in a slow toneless voice. “You find it so amusing to laugh during my class. Then laugh now. Go ahead.” She paused a beat. And then she hissed, “Laugh.” She sounded breathy and evil.
I didn’t know what to do. I shot a look at Sister. Her hands were folded on the desk. Her head moved almost unnoticeably from side to side on her neck hidden somewhere beneath all that starched linen.
“Laugh,” she taunted again. “Now.”
I was trapped and needed to look to Greg for some kind of guidance. I looked up into his face. He was already staring at me, both of us on the ledge of panic. We locked onto each other’s faces and then I saw it. Oh, God, no. Please, no!
The corners of Greg’s mouth had begun to twitch. His mouth was closed but it had begun to stretch across his face into something between a grimace and a terrified smile. His eyebrows started to dance over his frightened and brightening eyes. His shoulders jerked in little imperceptible spasms. And then, from the back of his throat came a kind of panting that released itself into his chest and belly and shoulders, which had now begun quake. And I could not believe this was happening.
And there it was! A choking sound as his chin jutted forward, and a snot shot from his left nostril and disappeared back into his head. Oh God help us! And then there was a sound like an injured animal emerging from Greg’s throat. He raised his right arm straight out and pointed at me, and in a posture of complete submission, he leaned back in the chair and began making a sound somewhere between a scream and a laugh. Which was way more than enough for me to start, a little tentative a first, trying to hold back. But then Greg leaned forward, still pointing, the tears of uncontrolled laughter starting, and he shrieked, You wanna laugh!!?? Laugh now!! And he threw his head back in hysteria.
Whatever control I might have had was utterly gone. I was thrust into full, laugh-in-church-while-trying-not-laugh mode, uncontrollable, belly hurting laughter, made worse by the insanity of Greg’s guffawing from a foot and a half away from me. And each time we made eye contact, or our knees bumped each other, the hysteria rebooted, one arm across the belly, the other arm straight out pointing.
Sister was like a statue.
By now, Greg had begun to slide down his chair, howling with laughter and pointing at me. He was trying to say something but could not get it out. “The, the, the….I see the….”
At first, I had no idea what he was trying to say, but his failed attempt at speaking just fueled my own hysteria.
He was pointing, and wailing, and sliding off the chair onto the floor. “I see the…the…the…I see…the vein. And he howled with laughter! Ahahhahhahaaaaa!!! I see the vein!!” he screamed!
When I finally understood what he was trying to say I completely lost it. I remembered that he had told me once about the vein. Apparently when I laugh really hard a large vein is raised on my forehead, right down the middle, from my hair line and down between my eyebrows. And now the vein was in full effect.
Greg was on the floor pointing up at the vein and dying with laughter.
Whatever happened after that has been lost to time. My last memory of that afternoon is the image of Greg sliding off the chair, legs splayed, left arm around his belly, right arm pointing up from the floor, and through that uncontrollable, inappropriate, sweet, sweet laughter, bellowing, “The vein! I see the vein.” Sister’s head bobbed from left to right. Birds and hearing-aid-feedback filled the hot air of the classroom. St. Mary’s School. A late spring afternoon, fifth grade. 1958. I still laugh when I think about it.
John L. Stanizzi has authored 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 appeared in Prairie Schooner, Cortland Review, New York Quarterly, American Life in Poetry, Rattle, Paterson Literary Review, Poetlore, and many others. He’s been translated into Italian and has appeared widely in Italy. He’s had nonfiction in Stone Coast Review, Ovunque Siamo, Adelaide, Scarlet Leaf, Literature and Belief, Evening Street, Praxis, and others. He is fiction editor for Abstract Magazine TV and teaches literature at Manchester Community College. John lives with his wife, Carol, in Connecticut.