• John Califano

Sister V

Sister Maria Veronica was my seventh-grade teacher. She was tall and young, with a pretty face and wonderful, plump breasts neatly tucked away under her black habit. Her brown eyes were filled with life and set under brows so thick they almost touched each other. Every few weeks she’d tweeze them, leaving a light-gray pattern around each. In my mind, her brows were endearing, and I thought she was cute as hell for thinking that she needed to pluck them.

Once, at the end of a history lesson, she asked if anyone had any questions. My hand was the first in the air. “Did you tweeze your eyebrows last night?” I asked. My question caught her off guard, and I sensed that she was embarrassed by it. I hadn’t meant to put her on the spot. It was just my dumb way of letting her know that I liked her and thought she was special.

“Well, as a matter of fact, I did,” she replied. “And thank you for pointing that out to the class, Mr. Caruso,” she added.

“I thought so.” I beamed. “My sister, Connie, shaves her eyebrows, and they look just like yours.”

The thing I loved about Sister V was that she wasn’t jaded like some of the older nuns at Precious Mother, most of whom were Irish-American and very vocal about having given their life to Christ. I didn’t know why she had decided to become a nun, but I got the feeling she wasn’t entirely on board with the program.

I could also tell that some of the older nuns were jealous of her because she was liked by all the kids. She always tried to make lessons fun and would sometimes have us sing Broadway show tunes. Her favorite was “Do-Re-Me” from The Sound of Music. She would have the boys and girls sing different verses at the same time while she stood up front, waving her arms, ruler in hand, looking like a real conductor. It was great fun; everyone participated and sang out hard and loud.

It was the sixties, and like most Brooklyn parochial schools at the time, Precious Mother had a firm stance when it came to physical exercise and school yard games. The school was strictly focused on academics, with no recreation period, no dodgeball or relay races or any of the fun stuff that most of my buddies who went to public school regularly talked about. Just listening to them made me feel like I was doing hard time at Dannemora.

One day Sister V took our class down to the school yard where she had us do toe touches and jumping jacks for thirty minutes. It wasn’t the same as school yard games, but just to be able to get some sunshine and fresh oxygen in our lungs during class time was a huge relief. When Sister Gilhouly, the principal, got wind of this, she almost had a shitfit. Gilhouly was serious business, a stern-looking nun whose watery eyes peered at you over wire-rimmed glasses pushed far down on her nose. Everyone joked that Gilhouly was actually one of the children of the damned, a fictional group of English schoolchildren who had the power to set a house on fire just by staring at it with their eyes that shot out intense beams of white light. If Gilhouly singled you out for something, she would very slowly lower her head and shoot you one of her death-ray stares over the top of her spectacles, a look that made you want to hide under a desk.

The classroom door was slightly ajar, and we all sat attentively listening to Gilhouly reprimand Sister V in an intense, ear chomping whisper. The way she carried on you would have thought Sister V had taken the class outside for a cigarette break.

“It’s just not how things are done around here!” the old windbag said.

“Yes, Sister, I understand, but—”

“What if one of the children sprained their ankle? What am I going to tell their parents?”

“I just thought a little exercise might help the children—”

“We are a learning institution!” said Gilhouly. “If parents wanted their children to do jumping jacks all day, they would have sent them to public school!”

When Sister V walked back into the classroom, she closed the door behind her and tossed her arms up. “Well,” she said with sheepish smile, “at least I tried.”

My mother had started battling fits of depression. This began when my older brother surprised my parents by enlisting in the army. At the time I didn’t understand what “depression” actually meant. I thought it was something that you caught like a cold and that you could knock it out in a week or so with couple of aspirins and some hot tea. Our doctor put my mother on an antidepressant called Miltown, and for well over a month, she spent a good portion of each day in bed. This placed an extra burden on my nineteen-year-old sister, Connie, who was tasked with taking care of me and picking up the slack around the house while our mother was under the covers. Connie resented her new role as surrogate mother, and most of the time she and I were at odds with each other.

One morning I was getting ready for school and the two of us got into a blowout. It was raining heavily, and she insisted that I put on a pair of old galoshes that belonged to my brother. “It’s pouring outside!” she barked. “If you don’t put these on, you’re gonna ruin your shoes, and then I’ll never hear the end of it from your father.” Connie had a habit of conveniently removing herself from the family lineage. Whenever she got heated with me, she made a point of referring to our dad as “your father.”

I didn’t have any rain boots, and there was no way in hell I was going to wear Frank’s galoshes. They were too big and made my feet look like Goofy’s from The Mickey Mouse Club. “Forget it,” I said. “I’m not puttin’ those on.”

Our argument woke my father, who was sleeping off a hangover. He came charging out of his bedroom, bare chested and wearing boxer shorts. “What the hell’s goin’ on here?” he said.

“It’s raining out, and he doesn’t wanna wear galoshes,” Connie explained flatly, one hand resting on her hip, the other extended in my direction. She sounded like a trial lawyer referring to me as exhibit A.

“Why not?” he asked.

“He says they make his feet look big. I swear”—she shook her head in frustration—“I don’t know what I’m gonna do with him.”

My father grabbed the galoshes and pushed them into my chest. “Put on the goddamn galoshes!” he shouted.

“I’m not wearing them,” I said, folding my arms. “They’re big and stupid looking.”

In an instant my father began to kick and slap me, right hand, left hand. He looked half crazed, his nostrils flared and his eyes wide and threatening. Like a fighter in a clench, I held my arms over my head and tried to back away, but he didn’t let up. He slapped me from the dining area all the way into the kitchen, where he rammed me against the wall and kneed me in my stomach. “I don’t wanna hear another word out of you!” he shouted. He grabbed my hair and dragged me out of the kitchen. “You put on those galoshes, and get your ass to school! And I want you back here by three thirty; no dillydallying after class! Now get movin’!”

Both my cheeks were bruised and puffed, and my thighs were spasming from being kicked. I walked to school flipping him the bird every twenty yards and cursing under my breath. (“Fuck you, you fucking drunk bastard. I hope you fall down a flight of stairs and drop dead!”)

I also hated my sister for ratting me out. She had broken our unspoken agreement, which was: when it came to the old man, always cover each other’s asses no matter what.

When Sister Veronica noticed me in class, she stopped her lesson and asked me to step out in the hall.

“Good Loooord,” she said. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing,” I said. I started to turn away, but she crouched in front of me and examined my face while steadying both of my arms with her hands.

“Listen, John,” she said, peering deeply into my eyes. “I know you don’t believe me, but you can talk to Sister and tell her if something is wrong.”

I swallowed, fighting back tears. I wanted to tell her everything, but I was afraid that if word got back to my father, he would come up to school and beat the crap out of me in front of everyone, something he often threatened to do.

“Did you have a fight with one of the older kids?” I tried to avoid eye contact, but every time I looked away her eyes continued to follow mine, pressing me to speak up.

“My father woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” I said, hoping that would satisfy her.

“Your father did this to you?” she said. The alarm in her voice scared me.

“Please don’t say anything.” I pleaded.

“When did this happen?” she asked, holding my chin in her hand, gently turning my head from side to side.

“This morning,” I said. “If my father finds out I told anybody he’ll kill me.”

“I understand.” She nodded, gently brushing a clump of hair dangling over my forehead. “How about if we talk a little more after class?” she said. “Would you like that?”

My mouth was dry and knees felt weak. I couldn’t speak. I just stood there staring at her and thinking that I had made the biggest mistake of my life.

“It’ll be just be between you and me,” said Sister V, her eyes patient and encouraging. I could feel a lump in my throat.

“Okay.” I nodded.

For the rest of the day my head was buzzing. I was convinced that word of my confiding in Sister V would somehow get back to my father and that he’d break my legs. The old man had this thing about divulging family business to anyone outside of the house. I remember one day back in first grade when my teacher had sensed that something was troubling me; she pulled me aside and asked what was wrong. It seemed like a simple, straightforward question, and I gave her a simple, straightforward answer: I told her my parents had been fighting and that my father had slapped my mother. When I mentioned this to my father, he flipped out. At the time, I was sitting on the toilet seat watching him shave at the sink. In an instant he put down his razor and slapped my face so hard my head flew back like a screen door caught in a windstorm. I was stunned; it was the first time he had whacked me in the face. In the moment, I didn’t understand what he was so angry about. “Don’t you ever . . . EVER tell anybody our business!” he said, jabbing his finger directly into my face. I left the bathroom crying, feeling like I had violated some sacred family code.

After the three-o’clock bell, I waited until the class cleared out. Just as Sister V and I sat down to talk, Mr. Jefferies, the school maintenance man showed up with a metal tool box and announced that he needed repair the radiator. Sister Veronica suggested that we go up to the convent located on t