Thursday, February 18, 2010

Old Friends

(this story was published by Foliate Oak, the on-line literary magazine of the University of Arkansas, Monticello in 2007)

Dover, July 30, 1942

Dear Arthur,

    It was a war, though not our own little war, that tore us apart. Right after we both left for our far-away-from-each-other destinations, I read the following in a radical paper that was handed to me on the street. I found it both consoling and disturbing.

…After all, who owns any war? The ones who declare it never appear in the muck and blood of the front lines. They remain clean, untarnished, in their shiny suits, speak from podiums to hushed, respectful crowds who don't dare question their motives, sleep at night (oh, how can they sleep at night) in comfortable beds in their comfortable homes. They may award me a purple heart, a gold cross, or even a medal of honor when all is said and done because my service to my country has drawn blood, my own blood, and the blood of the enemy I have been sent to vanquish…


Darling, the damned war doesn't matter. You matter. That's why I'm writing this letter. You said you could not wait for me if we went. I confess I am severely impatient. I wanted you and you alone, and I didn't give a damn what anyone thought. I was willing to risk the consequences, go abroad if need be, anything, anything, for you. I cannot help but think that this war has given you a convenient out, a way to avoid the prospect of us. Well, that may be cruel and cynical of me, but it's because I care so very deeply for you. I wanted to grow old with you. There. I've said everything I've always been afraid to say for fear of losing you. I will always be yours, no matter what.

All my love,


London, October 29, 1972

Dear Arthur,

    Believe me, I feel just as awkward writing this as you must feel reading it after thirty years in absentia. I am sitting here with my wife — yes, I got married. It was the only way I could heal my loneliness and emptiness and it was a too frank admission that I would never, ever have you. We had a son together. His name is Kip. Remember? You and I both loved Kipling. Kip is a Frost scholar at NYU in the states. His mother Martha and I work tirelessly at our jobs all week with little time to see each other.

On weekends in the summer, at our little cottage in Dover, we sit and drink our tea and read the Times. This is our quality time as they say, though our talk is insubstantial. We are dispassionate, reserved, controlled. This suits Martha. She feels safe in these innocuous conversations. I must admit I do feel protective of her. She has assuaged my loneliness for many years now. I ought to respect that at least. Martha and Kip have drifted apart over the years. After he finished college, she wanted so badly for him to meet a "nice girl". Settle down. Have children. You know how that goes. Kip flew across the pond a few years ago to introduce us to his partner Daniel. I thought it was very courageous of him to do so. Of course, after that, Martha stopped prodding Kip about finding a "nice girl".

Should you and I ever see each other again, I would hope that your feelings for me have not changed one iota. I can freely say that my love for you has never wavered. I just had to let you know that. I apologize for the intrusion, if , indeed, this is an intrusion.

Love always,


December 20, 1993

My Dearest Arthur,

    After a long and painful battle, Martha has succumbed to cancer. She was sick for nearly three years. I managed to provide home hospice care for her with help from an agency that Kip paid for. After Martha died, Kip invited me to move to New York and stay with him and Daniel. I protested that I would be a burden, but he insisted. I hope you like this picture of the three of us. I've been living here for six months now, on the west side of Manhattan. There's something consoling about the anonymous hustle and bustle of this city "that never sleeps". I take a long walk every day around noon in Central Park, except for during the harshest part of winter. During those bleak winter months, when I become quite depressed because of the absence of regular sunlight, I work on jigsaw puzzles for hours and hours at a time. Kip and Daniel have talked about adopting, but as yet, I have no grandchildren. Kip and Daniel are both away much of the time. I am so grateful for the care they have afforded me, though. A visiting nurse comes by every day to check on me. We've become quite good friends.

    Winter makes me think of the end of my life, dear heart, the end of the possibility of us. However, I think I've finally begun to accept it. Ironic isn't it, that I can grow to accept something I've refused to accept all my life, living without you, and it makes me feel closer than ever to you.

Love always,


    John suffered massive cardiac arrest and died instantly two days shy of his seventy-seventh birthday. On the day of the wake, Kip was gathering his father's meager belongings, not sure what he would do with them. He decided to clean out the drawers of the corner desk that his father liked to use. There were the war medals that John kept in a cardboard box, his father's pipe, some old photographs of John with another soldier. He didn't recognize the other solder. He found an unfinished letter tucked into a corner of the blotter.

    My Dearest Arthur,

    I can hardly write. My motivation has always been your unbearable absence. Since you found me in Central Park yesterday, I am beyond words. Your return to my life is real isn't it? It's not a dream is it? If it is, please don't wake me! Let me dream.

    Kip was beside himself when I returned home so late that night. My poor son was worried sick. He started ranting about getting me a cell phone. I hate those things. People everywhere talking out loud as if to themselves. There's no privacy anymore.

    You being in Manhattan is simply too much to bear. It's just our luck (and such a great sign!) that both Kip and Daniel have tomorrow off and will be home. They're planning to take me to the opera. I think we should ask them straight away if we can both stay here until we get our own place. How soon can you get here from the hotel?


    Kip tried to place this revelation into his memories of his parents' marriage which rolled through his mind like a video on fast forward. It was a film of sober sadness and fidelity. He considered his mother's estrangement. He looked again at the letter he held in his hands. His tears dropped on the page and smudged the ink. Daniel was already at the funeral parlor to meet the florist. Kip thought about calling him. He didn't. It was much too much to explain.

    John's wake was attended almost exclusively by Kip and Dan's friends. John had one sister who was not well enough to travel to the states for the funeral. A couple of Martha's relatives sent cards. When the wake was about to end, a very dignified elderly gentleman arrived to pay his respects. He took off his fedora and carefully hung up his great coat and scarf as Kip and Daniel observed him from their end of the nearly empty funeral parlor. He walked toward them steadily with a straight, military bearing. His face wore an expression of recognition, familiarity. Kip and Daniel glanced at each other.

    He reached them and extended a hand to Kip. He spoke with a British accent .

    "Hello Kip. I feel I've known you for much of my life. My name is Arthur Longley."

Eddie Justine

(this story was published by Bare Root Review, the on-line literary magazine of Southeastern Minnesota State University)

Tom Salois, the loudmouthed leader of the School Street gang, comprised of five boys aged ten to twelve, would ask Eddie Justine to do just about anything. Tom was always the spokesperson for the gang. He was never at a loss for words. He got things done by talking, usually louder than anyone else. He was irrepressibly cocky. He loved, more than TV or sports, getting Eddie Justine to do pranks, pranks he was way too smart to ever try himself. At Tom's urging, Eddie could and would do stupid pranks, anytime, anywhere, because Eddie wanted to belong, to prove himself to Tom and the others, blind to Tom's innate cruelty. Tom's last words to get Eddie to consent were always "it'll be all right."

Whenever the gang thought up a new stupid prank, they would go by Eddie's house and there he'd be, more often than not, playing with his yoyo, the deluxe championship-caliber yoyo his Aunt Florine bought for him. She was a spinster and could afford to lavish such things upon her sole nephew. Unlike the other School Street boys who had paternal and maternal grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins around very corner of Melanville, Eddie had only Aunt Florin. Eddie's father abandoned him and his mother and sister before he could even walk. His paternal and maternal grandparents were all dead.

Eddie couldn't actually do any tricks with the deluxe yoyo, but he kept trying. He'd lay out the little poorly-illustrated instruction booklet written in battered English by someone at the Japanese yoyo factory, and struggle to learn such classic tricks as walking the dog or rocking the baby that he saw demonstrated so easily on TV. Whenever the gang approached, he'd say enthusiastically, with his severe lisp "Look at thith one guyth." Then he'd botch the yoyo trick and say, with unflagged enthusiasm: "Thtill workin' on it fellath, thtill workin' on it."

Tom talked Eddie into detonating a bullfrog with ten boxes of cap-gun caps taped to its belly. The plan was for Eddie to drop a huge round stone on a hapless, semi-conscious bullfrog the gang caught at one of the golf source water hazards by whacking it over the head with a stick. The gang convinced him it would blow the frog to smithereens and leave a crater in the ground just like a hand grenade in a war movie. As Eddie struggled to raise a stone the size of a football above his head, each of the gang backed out range of the frog guts that exploded when Eddie dropped the rock. There was no big bang of caps. It sounded like a small balloon bursting. Frog guts sprayed onto Eddie's bare white shins while the gang rocked back and forth laughing uncontrollably, pointing at Eddie. Usually, when the gang pulled a prank, after a brief moment of dismay, Eddie too would laugh.

Once Eddie was invited to ride ponies at Tom Salois' grandfather's farm. It was the coolest thing he had ever been invited to do with the gang. Eddie was on top of the world after mounting the pony, lost in his cowboy fantasies, until George Gervais whipped the pony's hindquarters with a switch and Eddie was thrown head over heels into the pasture muck, landing flat on his face. Tom and George felt the tiniest prick of fear while Eddie lay face down, motionless in the mud, for a few seconds. Finally, Eddie lifted his muddied face and spat out: "That wath awthum!" Tom and George laughed.

Eddie's craving to belong made him immune to embarrassment. He always dusted himself off and came back for more. But something unusual happened that summer when the pranks were the best ever. Eddie became good at something. He became an unbeatable mumblety peg player. Mumblety peg is a game in which you play baseball by flipping a jack knife and trying to stick it on a wooden table. Depending on how the knife sticks in, you get a single, double, triple, or homerun. If it doesn't stick in, you get an out.

Eddie's rise from perennial loser to mumblety peg master began when his Aunt Florine bought him, for his eleventh birthday in July, a jackknife, because in the fall, Eddie would be joining the Boy Scouts. The knife came with a burgundy leather carrying pouch with a little drawstring and had a smooth, rosewood handle with his initials "EJ" inlaid. This wasn't a knife you could buy at Boucher's Hardware. This knife was only available by mail order catalog. Eddie's mother knew he would take it to the playground. She knew the other kids would convince Eddie to let them use his new knife and leave him out of the mumblety peg games.

"I don't want you playing mumblety peg with unless you get to play", she told him.

The first few times Eddie took his knife to the playground, he was afraid to take it out of the left front pocket of his shorts. He was afraid that what his mother feared would happen. Kids would talk him into borrowing his knife, and leave him out. On the day he finally unveiled his knife, there were only a few kids at the mumblety peg picnic table, Tom Salois and the gang among them.

"Who wants to go first?", Salois asked.

"I do," said Eddie, standing up straight on the picnic table bench and quickly wrenching the leather pouch from the pocket of his shorts. He loosened the draw string and pulled out the rosewood-handled, monogrammed knife.

There was a moment of silence, like the silence before the derisive, convulsive, abusive laughter that had often been directed at Eddie Justine when he was conned into doing a stupid prank. This time no laughter followed the silent pause.

"Holy shit," said Tom Salois, "let me see that," as he reached towards Eddie, expecting Eddie to hand it over to him for inspection.

Eddie drew the knife towards himself.

"My mother said I could only use it in games I play in," announced Eddie with a confidence that surprised himself and everyone there.

Eddie Justine played in more mumblety peg games that summer than anyone. He became very good at it. By the end of the summer, he was magnificent and peerless at mumblety peg, playing game after game after game. Kids would actually wait for him to show up in the morning so they could play against him and get to use his knife. After a while, Eddie even felt genuinely liked, not just for his knife, but for himself. He belonged.

Prior to that summer, the best mumblety peg player around had been Tom Salois. Eddie's prowess at the game, eventually left him little time to pursue pranks offered up by the gang. By summer's end Tom Salois thought a nice, humiliating prank just before going back to school would be just the thing to put Eddie in his proper place. Plus they'd have the usual good belly laughs.

Tom humbled himself to walk home alone with Eddie from the playground the day after the finals of the mumblety peg tournament, which Eddie won. He would never want to be seen walking alone with Eddie Justine as if he and Eddie were friends. As long as Eddie was on the periphery, the butt of jokes, the world was in order for Tom.

"Eddie, wait up!", yelled Tom as Eddie was leaving the playground.

Eddie turned and was surprised to see Tom running after him. When Tom caught up with him, they walked together, Tom jealously eyeing the bulge in Eddie's pocket where the knife and pouch were and judging how stupid and futile it was for Eddie to still be carrying his yoyo and trying to do tricks he would never master.

"Eddie, I've got an idea." This was Salois' code to Eddie that Tom had cooked up a prank for him to try. Eddie found it odd that Tom alone, and not the whole gang was asking him about a prank. His first reaction, which he didn't dare speak to Tom, and which surprised Eddie, was that he had no interest. "Have you ever gone water skiing?", Tom asked Eddie.

Eddie's momentary resistance to considering a prank disappeared. Eddie always wanted to try water skiing. At his Aunt Florine's camp, he watched his well-to-do neighbors motor around Lake Tautog. He never got up the nerve to ask if he could try. It was too scary. This frustrated Eddie, since he was, after all, the one who never feared stupid pranks. Buoyed by the confidence his mumblety peg success got him, Eddie agreed to listen to Tom.


The next day, the last weekday of summer vacation, the gang spent most of the day making the water skis. The prank was to make an old pair of work boots nailed to two-by-fours into water skis. As Tom explained it to Eddie and the gang, at Clair Quarry, Eddie would use the rope swing above the quarry water, let go, and ski across the surface. The gang made the water skis in George Gervais' cellar, using his old man's table saw and carpenter's glue and nails and screws to fashion an old pair of George's dad's work boots.

When they got to the cliff it was close to supper time. Most of the other kids who swim at Clair Quarry had gone home. The long, thick rope that hung from a massive oak tree overhanging the quarry, was free.

Tom Salois did the honors of fitting Eddie with his new water ski boots. Tom triple-knotted the leather laces, while telling George Gervais to climb the huge oak that hung out over the quarry water to unfasten the rope swing. It was an unwritten rule that when done with the rope, the users would catch it on the backswing and tie it around the tree when finished. If the older kids came to use the rope swing and they found it untied from the tree and hanging over the water, they would threaten to throw the younger kids off the cliff until somebody fessed up about leaving the rope untied. George once falsely confessed to leaving the rope untied to save his younger brother from being tossed off the cliff.

Tom and the gang couldn't wait to see Eddie fly out over the pond and land on the water. Tom believed the homemade water skis might actually work. It would be a good laugh to see Eddie skim across the water.

Tom coached Eddie. "Now when you let go of the rope, make sure you land with your feet first and your feet flat. Bend your knees a little. You won't sink." This was going to be good.

After George retrieved the rope, Tom and George had to boost Eddie up so he could shimmy his way to a knot in the rope that was about seven feet off the ground. As Eddie grabbed the knot and struggled to hold on, the rest of the gang labored like they were in a tug of war pulling the sagging rope and Eddie as far up away from the edge of the cliff as possible to give Eddie the biggest swing. They sweated, panted, groaned, and spit and kicked their way through the low brush to get the end of the rope as far as they could. While they labored, Eddie looked back and forth from the gang just below him to the quarry water which kept getting farther and farther away. Eddie crossed his legs to stop from peeing.

"No, don't cross your legs!" Tom shouted at Eddie. "Keep them straight and apart!"

"Hold it! Hold it!" Tom barked to the rope pullers.

"Ready?" Tom asked Eddie

"Yeth." lisped Eddie, quickly turning from the rope crew to the water way below as his urine unleashed down his leg and the breeze carried a few drops of it toward the rope gang.

"Gross!" they yelled just as Tom commanded "Let go!" Eddie's flight reminded the boys of a circus trapeze artist. They were transfixed as he sped in long pendulum arc, pee dripping down his skinny legs, his legs straight and knees slightly bent, the work boots already chafing his bare ankles, his sweaty palms losing their grip on the big knot. When he let go at the crest of the swing, he wasn't sure if he did it on his own or if the echo off the quarry rocks of Tom Salois' voice screaming "Now!" made him do it. Eddie felt a brief, tremendous sensation of speed as the two-by-fours slapped the water.

Eddie did not ski at all. He immediately began to sink, gently at first, the way water skiers do when they let go of a tow rope, except Eddie had no rope and he had no life jacket. Then he disappeared beneath the surface just as the rope swung made its return to the cliff, and Tom Salois failed, by inches, to grab the rope and it swung back toward the spot where Eddie went down. Tom knew the rope would not come back. The quick burst of laughter that came form the boys on the cliff dissipated as quickly as Eddie sunk. The younger boys ran home, to escape this awful, final prank of the summer.

"He'll be all right", said Tom turning to George Gervais, the only other boy left on the cliff. George was already running for an inner tube he noticed someone had left behind in the low shrubs.

"We've got to save him", barked George, running toward the cliff and then over the edge, his fat belly and cheeks bouncing like jello as he ran towards the cliff holding the inner tube with both arms pressed to his chest. George smashed into the surface of the water, the sting making him yelp and a second later Tom Salois jumped in beside him. They were as panicked as passengers from a sinking ship.

About twenty yards away, Eddie sank slowly and dreamily, thinking of a TV show he saw once about astronauts, weightless in a special gravity-free chamber. Then he realized he wasn't floating. He was sinking and the light from the surface faded as he headed down into the dark. He jammed his right hand into the hip pocket of his shorts. He yanked out his knife pouch, kicked his weighted legs to try to keep from sinking. His legs barely moved, like he was in a bad dream unable to run away from a monster. He flailed his arms, clutching the knife pouch. He continued to sink. It got darker. He pulled his knife from the bag and stabbed and sliced at the laces of George Gervais' father's old work books, cutting himself on the shins and above his ankles. Between each lunge at the laces, he stroked his arms and kicked his legs to try to stop the sinking.

Eddie finally freed one foot from its boot. He focused for a moment on the blood from his leg rising in the darkening water like smoke from a cigarette. He lashed out at the other boot to free his second leg, but the effort took all he had left. When he was ready to head for the surface, it was pitch dark, he was in slow motion, his exhausted arms and legs stopped moving, and open-mouthed, he swallowed water as if refreshing himself on a hot summer day. His last thought was the idea of freeing himself. 'Am I free now?' he asked himself. His knife fell from his open palm. It hit the dark bottom, followed by his body.


It took two days for the Melanville Fire Department and state police divers to recover Eddie's body. His burgundy leather pouch and rosewood handle knife remained at the bottom of the quarry with stolen cars and other things that would never be retrieved. Not by conspiracy, but from fear of telling the terrible truth, the gang all told the same story to their parents and the grief counselors who were sent to their school that fall: Eddie Justine drowned after he swung into the quarry with the rope. It was just an awful accident. Eddie was foolish. Nobody mentioned homemade water skis. There was some mystery about the number of cuts on Eddie's legs. The medical examiner attributed those to Eddie's body landing among the stolen cars and other sharp debris at the bottom of the quarry and left it at that. The parents scolded their boys: 'I hope that teaches you a lesson'.

So Eddie Justine died a lesson in recklessness, foolishness, danger. The School Street gang would never again go swimming at the quarry, even years later when they were all in high school, when friends outside their circle insisted and called them pansies. They felt that they, unlike Eddie, had escaped something awful and at the same time remained prisoners of some monstrous truth they were still defining. The reassuring phrase "it'll be all right" disappeared from their vocabulary as permanently as Eddie, and their childhoods.

In the Closet

(this story was published by Zing magazine in 2007

The first time Rene "Pinky" Lafleur was caught talking and told to stand up by Sister Marie Antoine Gravier, he hoped she would punish him by putting him in the closet. He had heard the rumors. He wanted to know if they were true.

The closet in Sister Gravier's third-grade classroom was in the front of the room, to the right of the slate blackboards which stretched across the front wall of the room from the windows on Church Street to the corner where the closet was. Sister Gravier was the only one allowed to open the closet door. She had the only key: a large, shiny silver key. Not even the janitor had a key.

Whenever she opened the heavy, thick oak closet door, it's top edge brushed the American flag which hung by the classroom door. The flag would ruffle briefly, as if moved by a gentle breeze, and then settle back into its limp state. Every classroom in St. Rapier's School in Melanville, known to the French-Canadian locals as Ecole Saint-Rapier or St. Rape's, had such a closet. The closet was the repository of paper, pencils, chalk, erasers and other school supplies, as well as art supplies and rags and buckets for washing the huge slate blackboards. It was also where Sister Gravier kept her thermos of black coffee, her vitamin pills, copies of old newspapers from her hometown in Quebec, and who knows what else.

In addition to its ordinary purpose, the closet in Sister Gravier's class was occasionally, if the disciplinary situation was serious enough, used for punishment. So whenever Sister Gravier unlocked the closet to get something, every third grader in her room tried mightily to crane their necks to get a better view of what was in the closet. They all tried to pretend, without conviction, that the closet in Sister Marie Antoine Gravier's classroom was just a closet, a place to store things, but the rumors had put other ideas in their heads, weird unconfirmed ideas.

Unconfirmed because Joe Mongeau, Celine Dumond, and Pinky's cousin, Ray Lafleche had been in the closet for punishment in Sister Gravier's room, but they refused to talk about it. They met every single one of Pinky's or anyone else's insistent attempts to get information about the closet with a silence that would make monastics proud. They refused to talk about it to anyone at all. Their trips to the inside of the closet remained a secret both inside and outside the walls of Sister Gravier's classroom. As far as the children were concerned, if their parents found out that they had been inside the closet, their parents would kill them. If they told anyone else in school about being put in the closet, Sister Gravier would kill them.

So the children in third grade who had been in the closet pretended that they had never been in there. They simply tried to erase the memory of it from their lives the way Sister Gravier erased the slate blackboard of spelling words. In fact they went beyond that, they cleaned the slates of their little third-grade minds like a do-gooder who stayed after school to wipe the board down with a rag and water.

Pinky was not the most likely candidate to be afforded the supreme punishment of going into the closet. Pinky was as inoffensive and unobtrusive as a boy could be. Quiet and obedient to a fault: obedience based on mortal fear instilled by the nuns of St. Rape's.

Pinky had fair, pinkish skin. It was the first thing anyone noticed about Pinky. Not his dirty blond hair, his plastic-framed glasses, his missing earlobe (courtesy of one of his neighbor Mini Peltier's German shepherds), but his pinkish skin. Whenever Pinky and his family went to the beach, his mother greased him with sunscreen and made him wear a long-sleeve shirt and long pants and socks and shoes. At the beach, Pinky, fully-clothed, would walk in the small alleys of sand between the endless blankets of people in bathing suits sunning themselves relentlessly. Pinky would never be one of them. When Pinky wanted to go in the water, he had to undress in front of this sea of people. Even though he was merely peeling off the layers till he got to his bathing suit, he still felt the embarrassment of undressing in public.

It had been "Pinky" since the first day of kindergarten at St. Rape's. Billy Boulin, a fat eight-grader, had plowed into Pinky during a touch football game the big kids were playing and which Pinky was watching from the edge of the macadam basketball court during recess. Billy blindsided Pinky and sent him sprawling to the blacktop. Billy's friends gathered near the fallen Pinky, a full three feet shorter and a couple of hundred pounds smaller than Billy, and laughed sarcastically.

"Billy, ohhhhh, you knocked over the little pink pip-squeak!"

Lots of kindergarteners heard it. For the first few days of his kindergarten career, Pinky was, more than once, humiliated by one of his new classmates in the hallways of St. Rape's saying "Hey! Aren't you Pinky Pip-Squeak?" Plenty of giggles would surface on these occasions, as students streamed towards the lunch room or outdoor recess. Eventually the nickname was shortened to just "Pinky". The nickname stuck, just like the phlegm in Sister Gravier's throat on cold winter mornings when she tried to expectorate into the white handkerchief she kept tucked way up in the sleeve of her black habit.

When Sister Gravier saw Pinky Lafleur leaning across the aisle and talking to Ray Lafleche moments after the math quiz began, she was shocked. She did not expect such a brazen act from Rene "Pinky" Lafleur. She knew his parents. She had had his older brother and sisters. His parents were respectable members of the parish, not like the parents of some of the riff-raff in her class, the ones who forced their kids to go to Catholic school but never even went to Mass or confession. Rene was not a troublemaker. As wonderful as the conversion of a sinner to God's grace was, to witness the fall of a good person into temptation and sin was deeply disturbing. Her job was to put the fear of God into these innocents, to keep them from crossing the line. She must now save the sinner, and stay in character doing it.

"Mr. Lefleur, stand up!" she said loudly, as she rose to her feet from behind her desk and walked toward the front row of desks. She felt a slight twinge of pity for the boy as he turned his head toward the front of the room at her, some six desks deep in the aisle, and his face filled with the blush of shame.

Pinky's body, emphatically stretched across the aisle towards Ray's desk, froze momentarily. He thought he would pee his pants. When he rose to his feet, it was very slowly, as if someone were pointing a gun at him. This was a brand new experience for Pinky. Never in his brief life had he been called out for anything, not by his parents, not by the priest, and certainly not by Sister Gravier. He did not know how to play the miscreant, didn't know the protocol. He had walked several steps in her direction before Sister Gravier bellowed "Mister Lafleur, come here." But he was already only a step of two away from her. He wanted to say 'I am here', but didn't.

Sister Gravier was a short, small-bodied woman of around forty, who had a face so severe, it was if she had perpetually been the recipient of bad news. Her countenance bore the burden of single-handedly trying to guarantee the salvation of each of her students. Even as he considered how fierce she appeared to him, a miraculous calm engulfed Pinky, as if he had gained entrance to a secret place by an act of supreme courage. He stood before her, head tilted slightly back, transfixed. He momentarily forgot why he was standing there in front of the room with Sister Gravier. He had never been in this territory before. He had to remind himself: the closet.

Pinky could not wait to find out what was in the closet. Sister Gravier was both the obstacle he would have to overcome and the key to getting into the closet. She was the cyclops to Pinky's Odysseus. He wanted the closet, but until Sister Gravier moved with that fateful, deliberate backpedal she used the few times he had seen her use the closet for punishment, he could not be sure what his fate would be. She might prefer her more ordinary punishment: have the offender stand in front of the class, confess the sin that had been committed, and then threaten to call his mother. The offender would then be allowed to return to his or her desk, defeated, degraded, chastened.

Sister Gravier did not move.

"Mister Lefleur, exactly what were you doing just now?" she blasted.

"I was talking, sister," answered Pinky meekly.

"Yes, you were. You know that talking is not allowed?"

"Yes, sister," replied Pinky as obediently as a convent postulant.

His brother Raymond, a fifth grader now (he had skipped fourth grade because there weren't enough desks in fourth grade and the nuns knew he might be smart enough to do it), had told Pinky at the end of the summer, before his year with Sister Gravier began: "If she ever makes you go to the front of the room, just keep saying 'Yes, sister.' Okay. No bull shit. She'll fry you. And by the way, so will Mon and Dad." Raymond knew it was unlikely his shy little brother would get in trouble with Sister Gravier, but he issued the warning nonetheless, so fearsome was her reputation. He wanted to protect his brother.

Pinky was becoming dizzy from the pressure of facing Sister Gravier and the disappointment of not going into the closet. His head turreted from her to the closet and back again several times as he repeated 'Yes, sister' even though Sister Gravier was not talking to him.

"Mr. Lafleur. That's enough!"

"Yes, sister," said Pinky once more.

Pinky's small, bold step over the edge, his repeating 'Yes, sister' even though Sister Gravier had not even been talking to him, as unconscious as it was, lit a bulb in his little, above-average third-grade brain. What if he went on the offensive, took the upper hand, forced her to put him in the closet, ratcheted up the discipline? It was then that Pinky did what even he considered the most outrageous thing he had ever done. He couldn't believe he had the unmitigated gall, the nerve, the sheer balls to do it. He turned toward Sister Gravier and absolutely without malice or a shred of anger and as if he were completely innocently unaware of the obscenity and crassness of the gesture, he gave Sr. Marie Antoine Gravier the finger.

Pinky was not sure whether Sister Gravier's twisting, vice-like grip that crushed his tiny right hand would break his middle finger, all his fingers, his wrist, his arm, or all of them all at once. His knees buckled from the pain. He considered begging for mercy. But then like a convict swinging a ball and chain, Sister Gravier whirled Pinky in the direction of the closet door. With her free hand, she reached for the knob. His eyes wide open and about to overflow with tears and struggling not to yelp like an abused dog, Pinky was suspended between the ravages of extreme pain and the delight at being on the threshold of entering the closet.

The frantic, way-too-loud end-of-day bell shot itself into the room from the hallway and Sister Marie Antoine Gravier released Pinky from her grip. The two combatants stood by the classroom and closet doors, staring at each other as, automatically, the rest of the third grade quickly filed out of Sister Gravier's room, brushing and bumping Pinky as if the room and he were on fire. When they were all gone, Pinky looked down and felt for his right hand with his left, checking to see if it was still intact, still usable.

"Mr. Lafleur, you will be staying after school with me and you will wash the blackboards, or", she paused with malevolent glee, "I will call your mother." Pinky was so relieved that he had a way out of his mother finding out about what he had done, so grateful the day was done, for the time being, he forgot all about the closet. When Pinky left St. Rape's that day, the slate blackboards in Sister Gravier's third-grade classroom were as clean as they had ever been at the hands of any do-gooder. All the time he worked on the blackboards, Sister Gravier sat at her desk in silence doing paperwork. He glanced at her several times, but she never looked up, didn't even seem to be aware of his presence. Yet as soon as he was done the last stretch of blackboard he turned to go empty the bucket in the janitor's closet and bumped into her. The cold buckle of her wide black belt touched his nose. Her black habit smelled of chalk dust and body odor. He stepped back.

"You may go after you return the bucket to the janitor's closet, Mr. Lafleur", she said.

He thought he saw the very slightest hint of a smile on her lips, felt coming from her some tiny morsel of kindness. He stepped past her without saying a word and she grabbed him again, this time almost gently, by the upper arm.

"What do you say?" she inquired without facing him or turning him around.

Pinky didn't know what to say. He tried "Thank you" and she released her grip and he kept going like a wind-up toy out of her room. All the way home, he wondered if what happened that day really happened. Then he felt the soreness in his wrist. For now, his mother and father wouldn't be told. He was safe until the word got out because someone in the class told the story of what Pinky did that day. And the word would get out. He was sure of that. It would be added to the lore of the closet in Sister Marie Antoine Gravier's room. Even if his mother and father eventually found out, Pinky warmed to the idea of being talked about as if he were some kind of hero.