Mr. Catastrophe by Robert Hamill
I lifted the window pole to open the front window from the top. Out the bottom of my eye, I saw a boy about my age, wearing a small dark yarmulke, playing on the schoolyard blacktop. The Jewish kids had the day off. Not us. I dawdled when I got to the back window, watching the boy. He extended his right hand grasping some yellow thing and pulled on a string. A brilliant yellow whirly bird spun up into the September breeze. It drifted up and over the chain-link fence that separated St. Jerome's with a concrete alley from a long block of row houses. The yarmulke boy dashed down the steps, out into the alley. I watched him until he disappeared behind a bushy tree.
"Chester, what's so interesting out there?" Sister Mary Ellen tapped my sleeve with her wooden pointer.
I whirled around, surprised, shocked and worried. Sister had come up and caught me gazing out the window.
"Young man, Sister Boniface told me good things about you," she turned to pull the entire class into her confidence, "but I'm having doubts." Sister glanced out at the now empty schoolyard. "Wasting your time. An idle mind is as much the devil's workshop as idle hands. Take your seat, now."
Sister Mary Ellen walked back to the front of the classroom. "As seventh graders, you are starting on a new stage. Later this fall you will received the sacrament of Confirmation. As a beginning step, you were given a summer assignment."
My classmates groaned out loud. I groaned inside. Quickly. Not wasting time on what was, but readying for what was to be. Over the summer our assignment was to write 'The Story of My Life'.
"Joshua Bishop." Sister fixed the boy in the first row, first seat with a steady look. His last name was his biggest problem. Each year he seemed to prove to the school sisters of Notre Dame that he was not fit for his religious last name.
"Yes, Sister." Josh stood up next to his desk. His curly blond hair and pale blue eyes were in his favor, but he clowned at everything.
"Well, Mr. Bishop. We're waiting."
Josh opened a plastic folder.
That was worrisome. I had such fun over the summer playing baseball, Monopoly, and mixing chemicals that I never got around to the assignment. And Josh had his in a folder!
"On January 20, 1947 a great catastrophe occurred. I was born."
We laughed at his joke. Even Sister had to fight a smile.
After a brief moment, Sister slapped her hand down on the corner of her large brown desk. "Calm down, class." She walked over to the window. I wondered if the Jewish boy had returned with the whirly bird. With her back to the class, Sister ordered, "Continue."
Josh swallowed, rolled his eyes at Sister's back, before continuing. "My first memory is when Father Flannery came to visit after my little sister was born. My Dad yelled at me to sit up straight. I jumped and spilled ice tea onto Father Flannery's lap."
The class laughed.
Perhaps I could start my story, "In the second week of September 1947 another mouth was born into the Almon family." No, that wasn't how I truly felt.
Josh continued, peppering his life story with the various catastrophes he had loosed upon the world.
Finally, he came to 'The End'.
"Thank you, Joshua." Sister didn't seem to mean it as a compliment, because she continued, "for telling us why your father's hair turned grey before thirty, why your mother prays so intently in her pew, and why your confessions are so long."
Sister walked across the front of the rows of desks. For a second, I thought she was going to preach to us, but she sat down behind her desk. "Thomas, next."
Ah, down the first row. That meant I had four persons in that row then my row.
What could I fake quickly? Could I mention that most nights I experiment with my chemicals? No, that's not the type of story she wants.
Thomas's story wasn't in a folder, just a lined sheet of white paper. I could see his neat handwriting in blue ink.
"The Lord blessed my parents with child on the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas. That's how I got my name."
Perhaps I could say, "The master biologist in the sky wanted my cells born on September 8." No, Sister would have a heart attack and surely a bolt from heaven would smite me.
Thomas continued reading, not looking up, but looking humble. Everything he did naturally reflected his modesty. So irritating. "Since the first grade," he said, "I've completed every novena and every first Saturday that St. Jerome's has celebrated."
"Yeah, but what about Sundays?" Josh yelled out.
We laughed, until Sister leaned forward and rapped her pointer sharply on the edge of Josh's desk.
"Lovely essay, Thomas," Sister complimented the best altar boy at St. Jerome's. "Your parents should be proud of such a holy and humble child as yourself." Thomas blushed furiously.
Sister took pity on him and called for the next student. "Now class, I want you all to be nice to our new student. Betsy Kaiser."
Sister gestured for her to stand up.
She looked familiar. Where had I seen her before? She was very attractive. And what luck - in my class!
"I understand," Sister said, "when Father Flannery visited your house, he told you about this assignment."
"Yes, Sister." Betsy's voice was smooth and sweet.
To think that she sat only a seat ahead of me in the first row. The best possible seat in the world. I could gaze at her for hours, paying only slight attention to the mathematics and English that Sister would teach - over and over.
Betsy's dark brown hair curled lightly at her shoulders. She was average height. Her skin glowed with the remains of a summer tan. From the back, I noticed her arms, not muscular, but toned. Her legs the same. She would just get more attractive every year. No doubt.
Now I remember. This past summer, while I was in the attic room at my grandma's house, grinding ferric ammonium sulfate for a magic show, I happened to look out the window, down towards the lazy street scene of the hot August afternoon and saw her. Betsy waltzed down Carmella Ave. towards the grocery store.
The object of my thoughts stood at her seat with a half-filled sheet of loose-leaf paper.
"I was born," her voice filled me with excitement to know everything about her, "on the last day of 1947. My older brother Luke is in St. Jerome's too. My mother tells me that as a child I was quieter than Luke and never got into trouble. I started school at five and have been in it ever since." She stopped and looked around quickly, then added, "I like to dance too."
Betsy sat down.
Sister's head was tilted down, but she looked over the top of her glasses. "That's all?" Although she asked a question, Sister went on, apparently not expecting an answer. "Your brother is in Sister Agnes eighth grade class, Betsy?"
"Yes, Sister," our new student said quietly.
What was I to say when it was my turn? Perhaps I could say, "As middle child I'm expected to go along with anything my sisters wanted." No, that only bothered me sometimes. I wanted to say the story of my life wasn't over so I couldn't tell its story already.
My other classmates had better take longer than Betsy and be less funny than Josh if I was to be ready by my turn.
Susan stood up and started without being called. "The child of two hard-working and church-going parents, I was born on the eighth day of the twelfth month nearly two thousand years after the birth of our Lord. I don't need to tell you that my birthday's the same as the feast day of the Immaculate Conception."
Perhaps I could say, "Born on the same day as Isaac Newton, I plan to follow in his steps." No, I knew that wasn't true, besides I get kidded enough about thinking I'm a Brainiac without adding to the ammunition against me.
Susan built up to an intense conclusion, "... to devote my life to our Blessed Mother's honor."
A sharp rap on the glass window in the front classroom door destroyed her momentum. Sister Anastasia, the principal, her arms triangled on her hips, beckoned Sister Mary Ellen to the hallway.
I leaned forward and towards the first row. "What do you think it is, Betsy?"
Her intelligent, but unimaginative answer "How should I know?" stopped me for only a second.
"Look at Josh." I lifted my eyebrows toward him. He had two rulers under his upper lip like walrus tusks. He leaned over Thomas's desk, foraging for food on the wooden plain.
Betsy scrunched up her face in a look of distaste. "Does he always do such dumb things?"
I nodded, held back my laughter, and tried to pull her attention to me. "Betsy, didn't I see you on Carmella Avenue this summer?"
"Perhaps. We moved onto Lorraine in July. Maybe you saw me when I was going to the A&P for my mother. I didn't see you." "I was at my grandmother. You're only a few blocks from my house," I said, excited.
Betsy smiled. "My Daddy bought the Derby Bar and Grill. We live in the house on the corner of Lorraine and Grandview."
"The big one with the porch all around?" I asked, curling my arms to show how the porch went around the frame house.
"Yes, that's it. We have a new TV and I have my own room." She didn't seem so quiet with the teacher out of the room.
There are very few non-roughhouses in Patapsco and she lives in the biggest one.
I use to have my own bedroom. Michael slept in the crib in my parents' room until he was two when he got his own bed in my room. Suzanne and Brigitte share the back bedroom.
"Maybe you can come with Luke to our football games in the Big Yard?" Most afternoons in the fall four or six or eight of us guys played touch football in the double lot next to the Scooter's house.
Before Betsy could answer, the sound and stir of the room changed. I drew back into my chair.
Sister Mary Ellen slammed the classroom door.
She strode up to Josh's desk. The two rulers fell from beneath his lip, clattering onto Thomas's desktop. Sister's long, flowing black habit cascaded over Josh's desk.
Instead of the expected 'What do you think you're doing', Sister said, "Joshua, where were you yesterday afternoon at 1 o'clock?"
"Sister, we didn't have school yesterday. I picked up my surplice, then I stopped at the grocery store. I'm serving mass this Sunday."
"Maybe not. Guess what you left at the store?" Receiving no answer, Sister continued. "Your surplice. Mr. Goldman was kind enough to bring it to the rectory this morning."
"Gee, I'm sorry, Sister," Josh said in his best altar boy voice, "but I didn't do it on purpose."
"That's not all. Guess what you left in the pocket." Without waiting for an answer, she practically spit it out. "Cigarettes!"
Sister's face looked like Walt Disney's inspiration for the witch in 'Sleeping Beauty'. She crossed her forearms, locking her hands on the opposite elbows.
"What do you have to say for yourself, Joshua?" I saw the buildup of air in her checks, but she stopped herself. Sister didn't say his last name, Bishop. She truly found his last name sacrilegious.
"Oh, I didn't ..." Josh stammered for an excuse. "That is, they were cigarettes for my mother."
"Lies on top of sins, Mr. Catastrophe. The Principal called your house. Your mother didn't mention cigarettes on the shopping list she gave you."
"But I bought them for her. I'm telling the truth, Sister."
"Why start now? You told us all morning of your repeated disasters. You try to make them funny, but they're actually sins against the Lord!"
Sister let him stew - she just stared down at him.
I took a quick glance at Betsy. Her fine features were barely moved by Josh's predicament.
"Not only do I hear about this in the hallway, but I return to find you acting up. I'm so mad with you that I might sin by punishing you too much. So I'll let your classmates decide your fate."
"Make him go to mass every day for the rest of the school year," Thomas suggested.
Other voices said, "Make him work in the church after school" and "Don't let him have lunch."
"Wait." Sister's voice was sharp, demanding attention. "I have a better idea. Rather than waste everybody's time, I'll select two students who'll decide his punishment." She looked around. "Chester, here's your chance to redeem yourself. Let’s see what you and," she looked a bit more, "and our new student, Betsy, think is a proper punishment for Mr. Catastrophe.”
Betsy stood up, ready to start.
Myself, I didn't think Josh did anything so wrong. Every once in awhile, we guys would get together and smoke cigarettes, cigars, pipes - even green stems that fall off that tree over on Lorraine Ave.
I hesitated to stand. I didn't want to be involved with this ... but Betsy.
"Chester," Sister scolded me, "are you resisting? Perhaps you pulled the wool over on Sister Boniface? I guarantee you won't on me!"
"Chester." Betsy coaxed me. I understood now how the Sirens lured Greek wanderers. I stood up.
Sister turned to Betsy and me. "Go back in the cloakroom and decide what punishment Joshua deserves."
"Sister." Betsy looked confused.
"I'm new to St. Jerome's. What do the school rules say?"
"That it's wrong. Now you and Chester go decide Joshua's punishment.”
I slid down the cloakroom wall into an Indian squat. Betsy sat across from me.
There was just enough light from the door at the end of the room to see - like in the movies.
"What a break! Getting out of class before my turn," I said. "But I still have to come up with something."
"Chester." Betsy's voice was music to my ears, but she insisted on using my given name. That was the wrong note.
She wore Jean Nate perfume like my big sister, Suzanne, but it smelled much better on Betsy.
"My name is Chet," I corrected her. "Don't call me that other name."
"But I just heard the teacher call you that."
"I hope you don't call Sister by every name people call her. Josh called her Sister Stoneface this morning as we walked the alley to school."
Her mouth widened to a grin, but her words belied it. "You've a naughty streak, Chet Almon. I don't know how well you'll do, thinking up a punishment for Joshua. Or should I call him Josh?"
She was quicker than my first impression.
"Yeah, Josh. He's really got himself into a pickle now. Thomas'll have him before the Inquisition!"
A winkle of disagreement furrowed her brow at my exaggeration. She thought a moment before she spoke. When she spoke, it was calmly and with complete certainness. "Smoking's a sin. It spoils one's body. Perhaps a fitting punishment would be cleaning the sisters' convent. Maybe for the rest of the year?"
I snorted. "Sure and we could get Father Flannery to oversee things. He sins, at least two packs a day."
"I don't know about Father Flannery, but he's a good bit older than twelve. It might stunt Josh's growth." Moving somebody's jacket aside, Betsy leaned her head back against the wall.
I had always thought that the girl's sky blue uniforms made each girl look like every other girl, but that wasn't true with Betsy. There was something distinctive about the way she wore her crisply pressed blue cotton jumper and white blouse. Something in the way she held herself. She seemed so sure of herself.
I reached up onto the shelf where my lunch bag was. What had Mom packed today?
I lifted a ham sandwich out of the bag. Underneath was dessert. "Grapes. Like some?" I asked.
"No." She shook her head. "You want me to ruin my uniform with purple juice?"
"Of course not." How could she take offense at my offer? Another mystery to add to the mystery list that started with 'always was and always will be'.
We lapsed into silence. I popped a big grape into my mouth and took care to spit the seed out as quietly as possible into the cellophane.
I to sit and look at Betsy was a fine treat. In the background I heard some guy telling about his great baseball catch, reminding me of three-flies-in game on the hottest August day this summer.
I shook my head, clearing the cobwebs of my daydream. "What?"
"Are you just going to eat grapes?" I saw her forehead had a worry frown. "Since you didn’t like my punishment idea, what’s your idea?"
I took a deep breath. "What about getting him to swear that he'll never smoke again?"
"That's no punishment.”
She was right, but if she was going to be difficult, so could I. "You know, Betsy, last week I went up the woods by the railroad tracks where they go along side the Patapsco River."
"There were two hobos and one of them wasn't much older than us. And you know what they were doing? Don't try to guess. I'll tell you. They were smoking up a storm. What do you think? They might be available to help Josh and Father Flannery clean the convent."
Her brow furrow deepened and her mouth turned down. "Chet, I'm new to St. Jerome's and there are many things I'll have to learn, but there's one thing I already know. If we don’t come out of here with a good punishment, Sister will take it out on us."
I nodded slightly, irritated that she was right.
"Do you think," she said, "Josh would be too upset if we suggested he have to stay after school for a month and clean up the classroom?"
"Absolutely. And he'd hate me forever. Josh and I've never been great friends," I told her. "We just leave each other alone. He'd be real mad."
Betsy shook her head. "I don't want to make anybody mad at me and despite his goofy humor he seems nice. He's certainly cute, but staying after school is nothing. I did it every day at my old school."
"Josh would go crazy if he was stuck in here with that old witch - when he could be home making new catastrophes!" That was true, but what I really wanted to know was, did she think I was cute too?
"Chet, we're going to have to go out there soon. What are we going to recommend?"
"Let's see. What about Saturday mass?"
"Yes, every week for the rest of the year."
"No. No. That's too harsh," I said. "Five first Saturdays in a row earns a plenary indulgence."
She looked at me and smiled. "And a plenary indulgence forgives him the sin of smoking."
"And all Mr. Catastrophe's other sins. Truly an awesome punishment."
I was being cynical, but she didn't seem to notice it.
She nodded her head and stood up. "Let's go tell Sister."
Yikes! I'd been enjoying our meeting so much I'd forgot to prepare for 'The Story of My Life'.
Sister walked to the door and called Joshua Bishop back into the classroom.
"Young man, Chester and Betsy have come up with a suitable punishment for you. In October and November and December and January and February..."
Sister dragged out the description of his punishment as much as she could. Josh's glare at me increased as the months ticked off. When Sister finally concluded, "You must attend mass every first Saturday," Josh turned to Betsy with a wide smile revealing his straight, white teeth. He brushed back a wayward curl which had fallen on his forehead.
Betsy smiled back at him.
"And Joshua, if you should miss one of those masses," Sister said, "you have to start over. Now sit down and be quiet, Mr. Catastrophe.”
Josh turned away from Sister when he sat down. He mouthed, “I’ll get you” to me.
Sister walked back to her desk. She took a quick glance at her roll book. “Chester, you’re the last one to give us the story of your life. We're ready.”
I wasn't, but I stood in the aisle holding a blank piece of notebook paper. I hoped Sister wouldn't notice.
“I was born September 8. My parents already had two girls and my little brother came soon after. I play sports every day. Wall ball at school, baseball during the summer and football in the winter.”
Sister gave me a look that I took to mean I'd better say something more sensible, even if it wasn't true.
I wanted to say I liked school, but I just couldn’t. Hisses and boos plus Josh's looks to kill would be too much.
But I had to say something else. It may be hokey but honesty is the best policy.
“One thing I’ve learned by being in a big family it's hard to get anything for yourself. My last birthday I asked for and got a chemistry set. Nobody else wanted any part of it. So I got it all to myself.”
When she saw I had nothing more to say, Sister waved me to sit down. "Pretty short, Chester. Not much to your life, is there?"
Sister tapped her desk with her pointer. "Thank you, children. I see that some of you are holy," she smiled at Thomas and Susan, "and some of you are not." I expected her to look at Josh and she did, but then she turned her evil eye on me.
What had I done that was so bad?
Oh, forgotten to mention God in the story of my life!