Authors: David Schickler
ALSO BY DAVID SCHICKLER
Kissing in Manhattan
Sweet and Vicious
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Copyright Â© 2013 by David Schickler
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Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author's alone.
I changed the names, places of origin, and identifying characteristics of many people in this memoir to honor their privacy, and I was tempted to make them all seven-foot-tall Canadian podiatrists raised by wolves. That way I could have pretended that they were merely colorful fictions.
But they aren't fictions. Everyone in this story was and is real. Whether I got punched by him, or slept with her, each person acted nearly just as I've written. This is a work of memory, though, so here come the caveats: a lover who shouts may have whisperedÂ .Â .Â . a slapped face may have been a shoved shoulder. I compressed time sparingly.
The truth still comes through, I believe. The bullies were bullies, that wild girl was wild, the gentle were gentle. I'm still discerning whether I was wild, gentle, both, or neither. In the meantime, I hope all the people in this story are still out there being their truest selves, thriving somehow, with grace on their side. I hope we all are.
For John Francis Schickler
and Luke Francis Schickler
For Martha Alison Schickler
and Cora Alison Schickler
For Peggy Schickler
And for Larry Wroblewski, S.J.,
my first and best writing teacher
and a wonderful priest
This nearness to you in the darkness is too simple and too close for excitement. It is commonplace for all things to live an unexpected life in the night.
I'M TEN YEARS OLD,
sitting at Mass, listening to my sweet wife cry while I watch the priest. My wife is Caitlin Brenner, the blond, blue-eyed beauty who is snuffling quietly in the pew three back from mine, and the priest is Father Jonas, who's up on the altar blessing the Eucharist on this Easter morning, 1980. I look back at weepy Caitlin and then I look again at Father Jonas, like I'm supposed to, like we're all supposed to. I'm caught between them.
Caitlin hasn't agreed to marry me yet. We rarely talk, but soon she'll realize that we each have four syllables total in our names and both our last names end with
. David Schickler. Caitlin Brenner. This means that we shall wed and have four children. Caitlin and I are the best spellers in the Saint Helen's parish fifth-grade class. She came in second in the spelling bee last month by spelling
. I beat her by spelling
, and when Caitlin heard me do so, she probably wanted to make out with me right then to congratulate me, I'm convinced of it, even though all she did in actuality was look pissed off and then mock my upside-down brown bowl of a haircut.
Now, here at Mass, three pews back with her family, Caitlin is crying because her old, smeary-eyed cocker spaniel, Gus, died last week. She's been weeping about him at school, too. I've wanted to comfort her with apples, as the Bible says, which would be easy since this is Rochester, in upstate New York, apple country. But I haven't said anything to her, and even just being a few feet away from her is making my blood jump.
“May the body of Christ bring you everlasting life,” booms Father Jonas from the altar.
He makes my blood jump, too. Not romantically, the way Caitlin does, but spiritually and deeply anyway. He's powerful because he's a priest, but he's also just cool. Father Jonas is young, with jet-black hair and a tan. Down in Brazil he runs a mission school for boys and each spring he visits our parish to ask for donations. Even Tommy Marzipretta, a mustachioed bully of a boy in our congregation, shuts up when Father Jonas speaks. The man has an edge. As I watch him raise the wafer, a deep part of me says,
Be like him, David. Have that edge. Spend your life consecrating the host, turning something plain into God. Be a priest.
Caitlin sniffles more loudly. I turn and try to use telepathy on her. I use telepathy when I'm afraid of talking.
Don't worry, Caitlin,
I tell her with my eyes.
The Book of Revelation says that God will wipe away your every tear, but how about if insteadâsurprise!âit's me, Dave Schickler, who wipes your tears away? I want to skate with you at Olympic Roller Rink, and your eyes are the bluest answers to all of life's questions andâ
“David? What are you staring at?”
It's my father, sitting beside me. His name is John but the world calls him Jack. Beyond him are my three sisters and my mother.
I'm still focused on Caitlin, bombarding her with woo.
“David,” my father says, “turn around and sit still. Enough rumpus.”
Every Sunday the six of us sit three rows back from the front on the right side of the church's main aisle. That's the Schickler row.
“Rumpus,” says my younger sister, Jeanne, trying out the word. She is six.
My two elder sisters, Anne Marie and Pamela, have their heads together. They're whispering the lyrics to Kool and the Gang's “Ladies Night” and using their fingers on their palms to go over choreography for an upcoming dance recital. All my sisters dance constantly,
ballet-jazz-tap, step-ball-change, pas de bourrÃ©e
Anne Marie and Pamela start doing sexy growls like Kool himself. My mother, Peggy, sighs and my sisters' chatter stops. During Mass my mother closes her eyes and travels to somewhere deep and private.
“Pay attention, David,” says my father.
I try, but it's Easter and the colors in church are extra wrong. Mrs. Millichek, the acoustic guitarist, is wearing an alarmingly yellow dress. She is so yellow, I can't pray. Many other parishioners are wearing outfits with Easter-eggy colorsâorange, yellow, pink, lavender. These colors are making me headachy and nauseous. Now it's time to go up for Communion, but here comes Mr. Bonticello, the usher, wearing the same robin's-egg-blue suit that he always does each Sunday, and his suit is making me itch because the color is too weak and too lame to have anything to do with God.
“David,” says my father. “Communion time.”
I don't move. I focus on the hat hooks on the back of the pew before me. I love these hooks. They're made of heavy brass and they feel strong and necessary under my thumb. They're the opposite of Mr. Bonticello's suit.
“What's the matter?” asks my father.
I want to tell him,
That guy's suit is messing with me. That suit sucks
My father pats my shoulder. “The air's just close in here, buddy. We'll be out soon.”
I follow him up to the priest. When I swallow the wafer, I wait for God to bloom to life in my stomach, to give me muscles or wisdom. God doesn't seem to do this, but I'm hoping that one day He will.
After Communion my father lets me go to the back foyer while he and my mother and sisters stay for the final hymn. As I often do when I'm alone in the foyer, I visit the stand of white votive candles. Each is contained in a bloodred stained-glass holder. These lit candles are like secrets that call out to me. They are so beautifulâthe strong clean whiteness of them against the deep red stained glass!âthat I need to take part in them somehow. I feel this strange urge each Sunday, and the urge seems better obeyed than understood. So I plunge my fingers into the warm, white, waxy meat below the wicks, until all my fingers are coated and dripping.
“Schickler, you retarded faggot, what the hell are you doing?”
I turn, surprised, my face flushing. Tommy Marzipretta stands a few feet away, scowling. Tommy lives in a neighborhood near mine. He is two years older than I am and he goes to public school and likes to punch people. I was in his house once and his parents have a Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders poster taped on the ceiling over their bed and on their nightstand was the book
. On my parents' nightstand are copies of the Catholic magazine
and several rosaries, those snakes made of beads, coiled and holy and slithering everywhere.
Standing with Tommy now in the church foyer is his nine-year-old brother, Tony.
I look at the wax on my fingers. “IÂ .Â .Â . like these candles.”
Tommy shakes his head. “You're a tard, Schickler.”
Tony laughs and nudges Tommy. “How come he's such a tard?”
“Who knows?” Tommy shrugs. “Tards are tards. They do tard things.”
The congregation lets out, sweeping the Marzipretta boys away and my father to my side. I look at him, relieved. He's six feet tall, with black hair and black, serious eyes. He's an executive for General Motors at their Rochester Products Division, but he grew up on a farm and has country-strong shoulders. I look more like my motherâmy green eyes are knockoffs of her blue onesâand although my shoulders are tough like my father's, they'll never be quite as tough as his, as all of him. I once saw two-by-fours fall from our garage rafters onto his head and he just glared at them.
He sees the wax on my fingers and sighs. “Again?” he says.
My family and I drive home to Twin Circle Drive, the cul-de-sac we live on. Once I'm inside I change into jeans and a sweatshirt. My sisters are in the living room, working on their Kool and the Gang routine. They are always working on dance routines. I know the steps and they ask me to join in, but right now I need the path, so I beg off and put on my coat and boots and head outside.
Twin Circle Drive borders a woods and on the other side of the woods is Black Creek Country Club golf course, a private club to which my family partially belongs (we don't have the money to be full, golfing members, but we're social members, meaning we can eat in the club and swim in the pool). Our back lawn blends into the Black Creek woods as seamlessly as the inside of a wardrobe becoming Narnia.
The Black Creek clubhouse, grand like an English country estate, is just half a mile from Twin Circle Drive, but the woods between them are vast. There is a pathâjust dirt in most places, paved in a fewâthat cuts from my backyard through these woods, then cuts down a hill, then skirts between the forest and the tenth-hole pond, and finally ends behind the club greenskeeper's garage. Almost every day for almost as long as I can remember, I've walked this path.
It is a dark path. The huge cherry, oak, and maple trees that crowd the woods and loom over the path keep it shaded year-round. The nearby tenth-hole pond always seems to have blue twilight hanging over it, every minute of every day of the year.
On this Easter morning I walk to a spot on the pathâmy spotâwhere I stand on the narrow strip of land between the woods and pond. I face the woods and stare at the low pockets of shadows among the trees. I trust these shadows. Like the brass hat hooks and the white candle wax at church, these shadows call to me. They feel like they were put on earth so that I wouldn't miss out on something special. But I trust the shadows more than the hat hooks and wax because the shadows are alive, and they're close to my home, and they're less public, more secret. On summer nights they come alive with green ticking sounds. Possibly they contain hobbits. Even when the woods are snowy, these shadows are here, black, serene, and deep.
I stand on the path now and stare at the shadows and then I do what I always do alone here and that I so often can't do in church. I pray.
Please help me to stop being a retarded faggot. I know that words like
might offend You, but I have to use them sometimes, Lord. If I don't occasionally call other kids in my class tards, then I myself will be called a tard. I'm sorry, but it's true. Help me to stop shoving my fingers into candles and to stop crying whenever I hear that song “Shining Star” by The Manhattans. I don't want to cry, but then I hear “Shining Star” and it's beautiful. Candle-shoving and crying at songs are tard things for a boy to do, so help me to stop. Amen, Lord. Okay, now You go. You talk.
I wait for the darkness to speak. I don't expect God to talk to me out loud right this second, but I believe that on some crucial day He will. I know my Bible and God pretty much lets people hear His Voice only once per lifetime. It's usually a blunt plan for the rest of your existence:
This is what you are to say to the IsraelitesÂ .Â .Â . I AM has sent me to you
Pick up your mat and walk!
I listen for my marching orders. I know that somehow, when God talks to me, He will do it from the shadows, from the dark path.
I talk to no one about this, but I walk on the path often. I keep an eye out for Frodo Baggins and an ear out for God.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
three months later, and I'm at the country club pool and Lesley Hendrik is wearing a navy blue two-piece bathing suit. Lesley is my age and lives on Raven Road, just across the golf course from Twin Circle Drive. Raven Road is also where Tommy Marzipretta lives, so I steer clear of that neighborhood. But thankfully the Hendriks belong to the club and the Marziprettas don't. I love it when Lesley shows up at the pool. She has amber eyes and long, syrup-brown hair which she ties back in a braid when she swims. She has a four-syllable name. Lesley is my summer wife, though I've never told her. She is special because her family is of Dutch descent (unheard of in our mostly Italian corner of Rochester), and she's dangerous because she's a Protestant.
I'm underwater right now, holding my breath, trying to outlast my best friend and next-door neighbor, Scott Barella, who's underwater beside me. He's holding his nose and his face is about to explode with laughter. To make sure that I don't laugh, I'm looking away from Scott, toward the deep end, where Lesley and my elder sisters and other girls are practicing the loveliest thing ever, girls' water ballet. They're gearing up for the club's end-of-summer show. I watch Lesley scissor-kick until my lungs ache, and then I surface.
“You beat me by twenty seconds,” says Scott. “Minghia!”
“Minghia” (pronounced MEEN-gyah) is a saying that rules the neighborhoods of Twin Circle Drive and Raven Road. It comes from an Italian word for
, and it basically means “Holy shit!” or “Fucking A!” If I say it in my German-Irish household and my father hears, I get chores.
Scott and I climb out of the pool. From the vending machines we get Sunkist sodas and Snickers bars and sit on the grass near the tenth-hole tee to watch golfers. After our snack we walk home on the dark path, and Scott knows to let me get past my favorite spot in silence. Sometimes we stray into the woods on our way home. We dig giant foxholes to play War and find broken china plates buried in the dirt. On this evening, though, we stay on the path and Scott invites me over for dinner.
“I can't come,” I say. “We're having Father Anselm over.”
“Shit bomb.” Scott says this when he's bummed or surprised.
Father Anselm is our pastor at Saint Helen's. He is tall with thick white hair and he's too cheerful. At dinner my mother serves him roast beef and Blue Nun wine. I sit between the priest and my dad. Father Anselm tousles my hair and talks about the upcoming parish Country Fair.
“You gonna win some goldfish, sport?” he asks me. His laugh is a cluck. “Or a nifty stuffed panda?”
, I think, and I get my headachy, nauseous feeling. It happens when I'm around God people, priests or nuns, and they talk all bubbly-safe, meaning all chipper and scrubbed too clean. I can't help that it happens. It's like Mr. Bonticello in his pastel-colored suit in church. It freaks me out. It's wrong.