Thursday, February 18, 2010

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.

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