The Day the War Was Almost Over
David Quinn is an educator who lives with his wife in Macomb, Illinois. In addition to professional publications for his discipline (Spanish literature), he has published feature articles in The Philadelphia Bulletin and the San Francisco Chronicle. His short stories have appeared in Nocturne Horizons, The Fiction Primer, DownState Story, and Eureka Literary Magazine.
“Get into your pajamas,” Ma ordered, and it was just a little after four in the afternoon.
“Why?” I asked.
“Just do it,” her voice trembled. “Just do something for a change without always asking why. Will you just do that without fighting me all the time?”
I started up the back stairs from the kitchen to my bedroom and was about half way up when Ma offered an explanation: “Your father’ll be home any time now and he’s not going to like what I have to tell him.”
“What?” I hollered down the steps behind me.
“Just pretend you’re a little sick and maybe nothing’ll happen.”
“Yeah!” I mumbled to myself, getting to my room. Whenever Ma and Father started arguing, more often than not Father would take his anger out on me. So I was learning what to do: Play dumb. Hide what I’m thinking. Lie when I have to. Just like with Sister Celeste, Right? And then it hit me what all of this was about. The sealed report card I’d just brought home to be read and signed by my parents must have been bad. Real bad!
“She’s never liked me. Right from that first day,” I said aloud, flopping back on my bed.
It was September, I remember, and we’d just moved from Castor Avenue in the Northeast to Mitchell Street in Roxborough to the Northwest and it turned out I was the youngest boy in our third-grade class. And everything had started off on the wrong foot.
“Holy Innocents suggested against it,” Ma explained to the head nun at St. John’s who would later pass on the word to Monsignor McKenna who was Head Priest of the parish and the only one capable of making any meaningful decisions. “But his brother Ray is just thirteen months older and since they accepted him when he was just five, born in May and starting first grade in September, Peter is just a month younger than that, so . . .”
So they accepted me, begrudgingly, for sure, but they did it, and that first day set the pattern: It was like getting in line for weekly confession, but instead of waiting to feel nervous in the dark and quiet of the confessional, my shortcomings were already written in uppercase letters. And worse yet, like an alleged criminal in the stocks among the early Quakers, my deviations from the straight and narrow were hanging around my neck so everybody could see them.
That exceptional time at the beginning of each academic year, the hundreds of us, boys and girls alike, were told to meet in the “back” schoolyard, and I wound up just standing there looking. Nobody knew me and nobody wanted to, either. The church was on one side, the boys’ school in the front, the girls’ on the third side, and like in Europe as I was to find out much later, the big wall you couldn’t see over had a cemetery on the other side. Anyhow, there were these mountains of cement with hundreds of excited voices bouncing off the walls and each other, and in a couple of minutes there was no way anybody could hear or understand anybody else.
Then it happened! A whistle blew and everybody, miraculously, shut up, just like birds a minute after the sun goes down.
“Line up by class and side by side,” a tall, skinny nun with a long nose commanded, and in about two seconds everybody but me had melded together like books on a library shelf. I didn’t know where to go, but I knew I had to get somewhere quick, so I jumped in the end of the line of boys nearest me.
“This’s third grade, you stupe,” one of the guys in front of me whispered without moving his lips and without turning around. “First grade’s over there,” he insisted, motioning with a slight twitching of his shoulder toward the line closest to the boys’ school.
“I’m in third grade,” I whispered. “Not first.”
He turned around to take another look at me, and it was then that the nun who turned out to be Sister Celeste moved, bat-like, from the front of our group to the back. “Silence,” she ordered. “Are you in the right line?” she challenged. She kept staring at me and trying to get a roster out of the pocket of her black habit with a pale hand that looked like something prehistoric. It was thin and bony and it ended with some kind of wooden clicker that looked like a beak.
“I’m supposed to be in third grade,” I offered before she could successfully read any names.
“We’ll see,” she harrumphed and then her beaker barked and we filed through the back door and up a flight of stairs with only the squeaking of new shoes breaking the silence.
“Stand outside the door until I call each of you by name,” she commanded; so, little by little, alphabetically, we were allowed into the classroom. There were the Burkes and the Brennans, the Collins and the Clouds, the Friels and the Frys, the Mermans and the Murphys, with a lot of others monopolizing individual letters. I straightened up, wiped the dust off my new shoes on the back of each pant leg, and rearranged my tie because my name was coming up. If I was on the nun’s list for the third grade.
“You are on the list,” Sister Celeste muttered, and you could read the disappointment in her voice at even being suspected of ever being fallible.
“You are indeed one of us,” she finally exhaled, checking off my name on her list and then telling me to sit in the very last row even though there were still plenty of alphabetically assigned empty seats in front of me.
“The runt of the litter,” somebody whispered as I passed by the boys already seated, and everybody laughed.
Finally, Sister Celeste stood at the front of the class like somebody on a shopping spree on Main Street and, with no attempt whatsoever of hiding her disgust, finding every store there either closed up or displaying a GOING OUT OF BUSINESS sign. “It’s time to establish some basics,” she began. “In the first place, you probably know that Jesus was killed by men, by Jews specifically. It’s important to emphasize that it was spoken from the cross that they didn’t know what they were doing. And that was true, of course. Those men didn’t know what they were doing at all.”
Why’s she bringing up Jesus? I wondered. This supposed to be church or sump’in?
Sister Celeste paused a moment and stared first at me. A long time. Then at the guys to my left and right. “May God have mercy on all of those God-forsaken Jews . . . and on all of you.”
Then she got to business closer to home.
“The girls in the schoolyard some of you undoubtedly were getting fresh with are wearing uniforms so they don’t stand out. And I can assure you they not only look alike, they’re more importantly of the same mind. They know the difference between right and wrong and they always behave like the virgins they are.”
Again she paused and as she stood there straightening the sleeves of her habit, you could actually see her skeletal face lighting up and her eyes starting to shine like flashlights illuminating a forbidden underground cave.
“Now it’s time to introduce myself,” she announced, holding up her left hand with its back facing us. It was long and bony with only a gold ring making it distinguishable from the almost uniform blackness of her Immaculate Heart of Mary habit. “I’m Jesus’ bride,” she whispered, “and you, worthy or not of the honor . . . you are God’s children. God’s children and mine.”
Holy shit!, I almost blurted out as images flashed by of the nuns at Holy Innocents who shared the same bony bleakness and the same gold ring. It was like an unexpected blow to the head. I know now that what I was thinking was heretical. How many wives does Jesus have? Why’s He not satisfied with just one like everybody else? Think there’s sump’in the matter with him?
I stole a quick glance to my left and right trying to make sure nothing really serious was happening to my eyes. And these ugly brutes with almost impossible names—can they REALLY be my brothers?
Sister Celeste, stopping momentarily like a priest carefully distributing holy communion, gave each of us a wooden pen with a tube-like metal nib holding enough ink to write four or five words, and a lined sheet of paper. I was used to all of that because we had the same thing at Holy Innocents where the first-grade nun had told us we should learn to speak the way we write: only a couple of words at a time and leaving plenty of time in between for “watching your Ps and Qs.” The advice was moot, though, because back then, at the same time, we were just coming to Z in the alphabet. And our writings skills were almost nonexistent.
“I want you to say when and where you were born, when and where you were baptized, whether or not you’re confirmed, and a couple of words about what your father does.”
I started immediately, beginning at the end: My father Paul has two jobs, one at night, midnight to eight, fixing wires in the subway for the Philadelphia Transportation Company; and he works in the day helping a friend take care of sick oil burners in people’s cellars. Until I was born, he used to row on the Schuylkill and now he has lots of brown trophies up in the attic to prove it.
But suddenly my hand was speared to the desk with the rubber end of a blackboard pointer. “What are you doing?” Sister Celeste screamed.
“I just finished saying my father . . .”
“Why are you writing with that hand?” she continued, and the rubber pointer now started pressing into my left hand like the tip of an arrow.
“I’m left-handed,” I answered and hunkered up like a clam with all of my soft spots looking for somewhere else to be. “At Holy Innocents they said it was alright because . . .”
“Nobody here at St. John’s writes that way,” Sister Celeste challenged, and now the pointer smacked over my knuckles and restrained tears suddenly puffed up my eyes. “Write with your right hand like everybody else. Who do you think you are, anyway?” And now she was on a real roll. “The Devil himself wanted to be different and you know what happened to him, don’t you? They did teach you that at your precious Holy Innocents, didn’t they?”
My mother’s voice, ascending the back staircase like a frightened animal hunkering close to the ground, interrupted my memories. “Your father’s home. Supper’ll be ready in about five minutes.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Did you do what I told you?” Ma semi-whispered.
“What’s all this talking in secret all about?” I heard Father ask, but I jumped from the bed and started undressing so fast I couldn’t hear anything else my mother said. Half-way down the steps, wearing my winter long johns that covered me from neck to foot, with a pee slit in the front and a trap door in the back, I stopped cold. Ma and Father were already arguing in the “shed”—our name for the narrow room at the back of the house where Ma did the cooking.
“You think I wanted to get this way again?” Ma pleaded, and I could tell she was already crying. I had no idea about what, but I was already starting to think that maybe she knew something I didn’t when she told me to get into my pjs and to look like something sorry inside was trying to get out.
“Here comes Ray,” I heard Father announce and then the back door opened and my brother walked in with an altar boy’s gown over his arm. Father loved Ray, probably because he was never any problem either at home or in school. More likely, though, it was because, like it is with angels, he was always close to the priests and nuns at St. John’s. And the weirdest thing of all, for him a grade ahead of me, everything started off hunky-dory. As proof, despite the fact that he and I share the S in our last name, something that should’ve had us both placed alphabetically in about the middle row of the class, right off he was assigned a seat in the very first row.
Think it’s true what they say—that you’ve got only one chance to make a first impression? Do people ever judge us just by the way we look even before us getting a chance to say something, to do something . . . Anything at all? Are people thinkin’ I got horns on my head or sump’in?
“Yeah! Here comes good ol’ Ray! Angel practice is over,” I mumbled, taking advantage at the same time to run barefooted through the kitchen and out of sight into the pillow-covered living room couch.
“And Rita?” Father asked, obviously relaxing. But that didn’t last anytime at all. One moment he was looking like a bee with an overload of pollen and honey spilling from his mouth, and the very next he was all charged up like a bare wire. A live one you don’t wanna even get close to. “It’s almost five o’clock and if I’m gonna work two jobs, the least you can do, Myrt, is have the kids here and get my supper on the table on time.”
“I’ll call Blanche. That’s where I took her when I went to the doctor’s.”
Right then a horn sounded out front and Rita came running through the front door with her red hair dancing like the sun burning in the middle of summer. Father really loved her—we all did—but if she even saw me curled up on the couch, she didn’t say a thing.
Then it really happened. All hell let loose outside, like on New Year’s Eve or the 4th of July. It seemed like everybody on our Mitchell Street was banging on plates, lighting firecrackers, and . . . Damn! Somebody out there, for sure, was shooting a gun. Not a cap pistol like the ones we’d all play with. A real gun! I ran to the door and flew out on the porch. It was true! It was May, May the eighth, and with daylight savings time and all of that, there was lots of light. Mitchell Street, though, was so different! The asphalt itself looked like it was dancing and everybody was trying to hold on by shaking hands, hugging . . . kissing!
“What’s going on?” Father shouted as he ran through the door I’d left open behind me.
Again he made the same demand, but now with his hands cupped around his mouth like somebody with an amplifier. But that didn’t work, either. Nobody was paying any attention to him at all because in the short year we’d lived there in Roxborough, he had offended almost everybody for one reason or another.
The Wrights next door in our duplex were nice people. But they were Protestants. So that was that. And on the other side of them were the Gearys. And then the Harps and the . . . “But all of them,” Father never tired of saying, “all of them’d been born with the same sorrow.” Topping things off, some of them had animals and there was nothing Father hated more than being around dog or cat do-do. That, though, was something he had to put up with almost every day while doing oil burner clean-outs in people’s basements.
The Bentleys on the other side of us were of the true faith, so it never hurt with people like that to have a beer or two every now and then. But even then it wouldn’t be right to do it on a regular basis. Right next to the Bentleys, on the corner itself, was Mrs. Hilton’s house. It was the only single one on the whole block and it had three floors. She herself was a school teacher in a public school who never married. “Just living there wasting the place,” Father would always complain. And to top things off she, too, “knows more about heretics like that Luther guy than she does about Jesus, Peter and Paul and all the rest of the saints.”
I know I should’ve felt complimented hearing my name mentioned in such supposedly good company, but deep down something really started worrying me about it. The same as Sister Celeste saying she’s Jesus’ bride. At home, especially with Ray and Rita, but never with Ma and me, you’d hear Father called “Pa.” Outside, particularly with strangers, he was always “The PTC guy” or “The Oil Burner Fixer-Upper.” When I got a little older and would be playing stick ball or shooting hoops with the other guys in the neighborhood, Father was called other names. They called him “the grouch” or “that pain in the ass.”
Was I born into the wrong family? Adopted, maybe? Didn’t Ma have any say about naming me Peter when Peter and Paul always seemed to be together like bosom buddies?
Mr. Conroy right across the street was of the true faith, but he had his problems and seemed to be drunk all the time. You could always tell how deep he’d been swimming in his cups because the more his bottle would rush to be bottom’s up, the redder his face would get. Right now his whole face—bleary eyes, sunken cheeks and hung-open mouth—were burning up. Same religion or not, he hated Father because he’d always park his “service” station wagon in front of the Conroy house instead of in front of ours. Was Father consciously or unconsciously ashamed of something? Right now Mr. Conroy was dancing like some kind of red-feathered Indian after a scalping, and his pistol was dotting the sky, one bullet right after the other.
“Get inside,” Father shouted above the din and the dancing. “Your behind’s hanging out.”
Ma ran out on the porch shouting “The War’s over! The War’s over!” and she was looking really happy. “Blanche just called. Ed’s ship’ll be coming home! Ed’ll be coming home!”
Uncle Ed and Aunt Blanche always had Hobbie, a collie rescued from the shelter, and that was probably the reason why Father and my uncle, living just a few blocks away, never got along at all. Or maybe it was on account of Grandma Bertha, who never seemed to get tired of saying, especially in front of us kids, that Ma’s whole family was nothing but a pack of no-good drunks.
“Get inside,” my father barked a second time, but his eyes were fixed on his enemy Charlie Conroy across the street who was still dancing, prancing, and shooting every this way and that.
The next thing I knew I got one of Father’s famous “backhanders” right across my face. And down I went. While rolling over and pushing myself up, I had tears in my eyes and the taste of something metallic in my mouth.
“It’s after five, Myrt,” Father screamed, turning to my mother who was standing at the front door with two fingers over her mouth, trying to blind herself to what she’d just seen. “I wanna eat, an’ I wanna eat right now.”
My report card turned out to be okay—nothing spectacular, but nothing disastrous, either. It was the Air Raid Warden again, threatening to file another report about seeing lights—mine, for the third time—and when that happens you start losing ration coupons for gas, meat, butter or whatever.
That, though, wasn’t the whole thing, either—not the really big thing.
I hardly knew anything then about how babies came or went, but the doctor had just told my mother she was pregnant again.
Since Ma and Father couldn’t seem to be able to even talk civilly to each other, Ma insisted on sharing a double bed in the middle room upstairs with Rita. Father, though, wouldn’t have any of that at all. Monsignor McKenna got involved with us Stones yet again, and this time he sent a young priest to have a “private” talk with both of my parents. They sat at the kitchen table at the bottom of the back stairs sharing coffee. Ray was at angel practice again and Rita was spending the day with Aunt Blanche. I, though, had been sent upstairs to my room and told to get into my pjs. And that’s what I did, but then I rushed to do what I’d often do: I got down on my belly with my head held up cupped in both hands. Listening. So despite the never ceasing screech of chairs being rearranged over and over again and the clink, clink, clink of spoons constantly stirring coffee, I heard almost everything. But I didn’t understand some of the highfaluting words. Words like “St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians” (Who, pray tell were THEY?), “conjugal duties,” and “God’s ordination of men to always be in charge while it’s always women’s role to forever be subservient.” All of this had to do with the making of babies, I was almost sure.
And that, retrospectively, is what had happened. Those words were like a magician’s magic wand and Ma got pregnant. She never got to bring the baby home, though. Father, looking like somebody who’d just won a brand-new shiny trophy to place in front of the years-old, tarnished ones collecting dust in the attic, gave the three of us an explanation. It was short and simple. “God made a mistake. Born brain-dead.”
God can be wrong? Make mistakes? I wondered. But I didn’t say anything, letting Blanche’s often repeated words find meaning in this new context—something triggered by the fate of our poor dead brother who never made it home from the hospital. “Your SOB of a husband,” she’d repeat time and time again, “your SOB of a husband was born emotion-dead.”
That could be right, but there he was every evening moaning about having to work two jobs with hot wires and smelly shit, about me, and then always getting shortchanged about eating on time.
Topping off all the news that wonderful day in May, when Father got into his station wagon/service truck the day after all the celebration, it was limping on the Conroy side of the street.
“They’re bullet holes,” Father claimed as he protested to the Knights of Columbus’ insurance agent, the poor guy whose company represented both the plaintiff and the defendant.
Mr. Conroy countered: “You ran over lots’a glass ‘cause you’re blind as a bat and a coot ta boot, else’n the army would’a stuck a gun up your ass an’ blown the shit outta yeh.” He kept saying the same thing, or shortened, somewhat more sanitized versions of it, over and over again, just as Catholics do while saying the miraculous rosary that undoubtedly has positive results. If you keep saying it day and night, time, the universal panacea for those who wait long enough, makes the problem go away. Or until the petitioner finally dies, whichever comes first. Finally, though, Mr. Conroy came up with something different. “And if’n I was unlucky enough to find myself in the army fightin’ next to you, I’d paint a red target on your chest and push you outta the trench.”
So with VE Day and all of that, who was even gonna take a second look at a couple of tires with bullet holes in them, even real bullet holes? Or of the other important things like Ma’s miscarriage, my so-so report cards, or the reading lights peeping out from under the shades in my bedroom?
That was the day the war was over, I thought. But I was wrong: Everybody now started talking about how THE WAR was continuing against Japan.
“It’ll be over soon. We beat the hell outta ‘the squared-headed Krauts’ and that’s what we’ll do with ‘the slant-eyed Jap monkeys’ ’cause they’re a hundred times stupider.” So that’s where we were: suspended between a certainty and a quandary, a circular dot at the bottom of a question mark and an inverted spoon on top whose upside-down bowl is forever empty.
This doubly semantic physical representation of a question mark is for me a symbol of what started that September in third grade at St. John’s in our ethnically diverse Manayunk and Roxborough with Sister Celeste’s mostly arbitrary division of her “children” into the easily tractable ones—the perfectly rounded dots—and then those of us always with more questions than there are ever enough answers.
The rest of us. Who specifically are we?
We are the Rowanskis, the Scrockis, the Taborellis and the Violas . . . and me—Peter Stone. More often than not we’re socially and sometimes physically big and ugly. Decidedly malformed because we don’t come out of any mold. We’re different—so much so that if you were to close your eyes and just listen to our division of the classroom, our mélange of offensive words and actions would make you think you were in an unkempt zoo where the animals are all running loose. And nobody can completely ignore us: Always talking among ourselves. Grunting, groaning, conniving, and kibitzing along with a barrage of silent, curly and bugle-blast farts.
We, mainly, are recovering Catholics and we owe a grateful thank you to Sister Celeste and to all of the other nuns at Holy Innocents and St. John’s for selectively seating and treating us so specially. And for letting us know what’s really what since Jesus’ brides were always there to set us straight. What better preparation, I ask, for the unpredictable vagaries life has for all of us?
Without a doubt, then, that was the day the war was almost over.