It was the first day of Advent, about an hour before the whole school would go out into the lobby to light the first candle; I was in the front seat again, moved from the back for bothering Emma Dolan, the girl of my dreams.
We were listening to the seemingly immortal Sister Mary Agnes---she had to be at least eighty-five---read the Marley scene from “The Christmas Carol.” She was pacing up and down---kind of bent over with that king-sized rosary she always wore scraping the floor, and I swear to God, the thing clanged and clunked just like Marley’s ledger books in the story. She held the book in the palm of her left hand, gesturing furiously with her right, her eyes rolled back in her head, like a voodoo princess.
Thing is, occasionally, Aggie would get tired, or else she’d feel guilty about showing off instead of teaching us how to read, and she’d have one of us poor schmucks do the reading, and since I was in the front row, I was a likely victim. Lately, she’d taken to calling me Bud, which is my father’s name; he’d had her for seventh grade, too.
Since she was preoccupied, I thought I could slide a stick of Doublemint under my tongue; my mouth was so dry, with the dread of having to read aloud, that I needed to risk it.
“What’s that you have in your mouth, Mr. Abbott?” she demanded. She called the boys by their last names; the girls she called “Lady Jane,” no matter who they were. “You know the penalty for chewing gum. Cows chew their cud. My boys and girls will not adopt that deplorable habit.”
I put the gum in a piece of paper and waited for her to give me the word to put it in the wastebasket in the corner of the room by the pencil sharpener. She put it over there on purpose so we’d have to walk all the way across the room, the floorboards creaking in the old building, and all the way back, suffering the smirks and other facial taunts of our former friends.
“You will stay to sweep the room, Mr. Abbott.”
Me and Sister Mary Agnes had a love/hate relationship. Despite her advancing age, she was the only nun who would come out for recess and actually play with us kids, and she was the only nun who wore tennis shoes, the hightop kind. She could throw a football the length of the playground. The old nun had linebacker’s eyes and that drool they get when they’re homing in on the quarterback. Usually, it was Sister and two other kids against the whole seventh grade class. She had the spin move and head slap down pat. She’d be on that quarterback before he could blink, and she’d drag nine or ten of us across the goal on her back with the fumble she’d just scooped up. So I didn’t really mind sweeping the room after school.
Sister Mary Agnes finished reading, right around where Scrooge breaks up with his former fiancée, and she had me pass out these old Life and Look magazines that she musta had for thirty or forty years. It was bulletin board time again. This was one of the ways the old nun taught us current events and history.
“Teaching history is a waste of time unless you can relate what has happened to what is happening today,” she said. “For instance, when Washington crossed the Delaware to attack the Hessians, he was going through the nadir of his generalship. Bud, can you relate that to something current?”
“My name isn’t Bud, Sister Mary Agnes,” I said. “Bud was my father. My name is Jake.”
She looked confused for just the briefest moment, as if she were one of those Twilight Zone characters waking up in the future.
Feeling around up her sleeve, she came out with a wadded up handkerchief, wiped her nose, and said, “It doesn’t matter, Mr. Abbott, answer the question.”
I knew very well she’d forgotten what she’d asked me. I thought I’d give her a little ribbing and maybe impress Emma some, although I doubted it.
“That’s thirty-four, Sister,” I said.
Amy Ryerson, teacher’s pet and biggest tattletale at St. Francis Xavier, raised her hand. “He’s being disrespectful, Sister. You asked him to relate George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware to a current event.”
“Put out your hand, Mr. Abbott.”
I received several swats across the knuckles and tried to look as though it hurt. It kinda did actually but nothing like the belt buckle the old man would use on me when I’d invoked his wrath.
“I’m sorry, Sister. John Kennedy’s victory in the presidential election would be a relevant example. He went from an obscure congressman to the president of the United States with the handicap of having been raised Catholic. No previous president had been born Catholic.”
Sister folded her arms across her chest and her face lit St. Francis Xavier church on Christmas Eve.
“That’s a good boy, Bud. See what you can do when you apply yourself?”
We all went back to the dull scissors and the intoxicating glue. I found a revealing picture of Marilyn Monroe with her dress swirling over a subway grate and showed it to Neal Abrahamson, the only Jewish kid in the class, the only non-Catholic kid in Beaver Creek for that matter. His dad owned the Five and Dime and there was no other school in town. Neal blushed so hard I thought he was going to explode like a cherry bomb during the
Fourth of July parade. I cut the picture out and put it in the back of my tablet. I wasn’t crazy enough to put it up on the bulletin board with the other pictures. I’d wait a few weeks.
After we lit the Advent candle and said a few dozen prayers, it was time for lunch. We had chili, which presented another problem for me. I couldn’t stand those poisonous tomato clumps the cooks put in there. I had to find a way to get rid of them without the monitors seeing them. We all had to clean up every scrap in our bowls or suffer the consequences---at this late date in the year, probably shoveling the walk at the church, which was at least a half mile long, not much of an exaggeration. I put the tomato clumps in my shoe when the monitors were contending with another rebellious kid, then I switched places with Neal Abrahamson so I could sit next to Emma.
She put down her spoon and adjusted the napkin she had tied around her neck to protect her adorable blue dress with a snowflake pattern. “Why did you do that to Sister?” she asked. “I thought that was mean.”
“I couldn’t help myself. You know me.”
Emma brushed a hair out of her brown eyes and smiled a smile that would knock a B-52 out of the sky. “You could be the smartest kid in class if you wanted.”
She wasn’t really the prettiest girl in class---she had rather short hair, cut like a boy who’d let it grow a little too long. I guess it was her personality that intrigued me more than her looks. And, oh yeah, she had calves that wouldn’t quit. She wore those white knee-highs and flat shoes that set them off just right.
“Who wants to be the smartest kid in class?” I said.
“You do, if you want to get any place with me.”
“Is that a promise?”
“If you get all A’s on your next report card, I’ll go to the Paramount with you on amateur night. I heard that’s your favorite diversion. You better go now. Sister Mercedes is looking this way.”
After dinner Sister Mary Agnes started out with a spelling assignment, something about how vowels before double consonants take on a short sound, like the word “shopping.” But then, suddenly, she went off on a tangent about her family in Northeast Minneapolis, which she called Nordeast, and how they were all very good spellers and that she had medals to prove it. We already knew all of this since she’d shown us the medals about a thousand times already, and we knew that her brothers and sisters had alphabetical names. The boys were Albert, Alvin, Arvid, Arthur, and Axel, and the girls were Mildred, Maude, Millicent, Mary Margaret, and Minnie. Two of them were priests and three of them were nuns, including Sister.
What was rather shocking today was that not only was she calling me Bud, but she was also referring to some of the other kids as the previously mentioned brothers and sisters and the date was no longer 1962, but 1934 in the midst of The Depression.
“We must do all we can to provide for the Miller family,” she said. “They’ve been living on dandelion soup. The father has lost his job at the brewery; he has gone to find work harvesting grain in the Dakotas; they are destitute. I shall take in laundry; you two girls, Millicent and Maude, will hold a bake sale.” She was pointing at Emma and Patricia Widness.
When she turned her back, I crawled back to where Emma sat in the back row. “Should we go get the principal?” I asked.
“Get back up there. I thought we had a deal. She’ll snap out of it in a minute. She always does.”
“But she’s never called any of us by her sisters’ names before. I think it’s delirium tremens. She’s been drinking the communion wine on the sly for years.”
“Here she comes,” she said, unable to keep the glee out of her voice. “You’re going to get it now.”
“You’ve been acting up all day, Bud,” Sister said. “Is there anything wrong in your family? Is your mother all right?”
It was common knowledge that my mother had never been the same since she’d had my little brother Max. Of course, just because it was common knowledge didn’t mean it was true .
“She’s been feeling poorly, Sister.”
“You are getting enough to eat, aren’t you? Why don’t you stop over after school and I’ll get the cook to give you some homemade bread.”
“I’d appreciate that, Sister. I’m sorry about this. Emma and I were discussing The Depression.”
“Take your seat then, Bud. We’ll be doing our penmanship lesson next.”
Penmanship! We didn’t do penmanship in seventh grade.
When the bell rang at three-thirty, after hours of flipflopping between the thirties and the sixties, as we were getting our coats out of the cloak room, Sister said the strangest thing she’d said all day.
“Pray for me, children. Today, I go to God.”
Emma was so concerned about Sister’s behavior that she made me go with her to talk to Principal Hines. Principal Hines was the only lay teacher in the building. He also taught eighth grade.
“Will you keep this under your hats if I tell you?” Mr. Hines said. He was a bald man with eyes so small he could have been a cartoon.
We nodded, though both of us had our fingers crossed behind our backs.
“This is Sister’s last year as seventh grade teacher. She didn’t want anyone to know.”
I cursed under my breath. The toughest teacher ever and I had to miss not having her by one year. The kids next year would probably get that wienie Sister Rachel.
“But why would she say that about going to God?” Emma said. “I’m worried about her.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing, Emma,” Hines said. “But to set your mind at ease, I’ll call over to the convent to check on her later this evening. You can go home now.”
The next day we had Sister Rachel as a substitute. The kids called Sister Rachel “The Hawk” cause, when she got flustered, she’d flap her arms and turn in a circle. Sister Rachel was a practice teacher, and usually, Sister Mary Agnes would only let her give spelling tests and grade the tons of homework she assigned in the little office next to the seventh grade classroom.
Today, Sister Rachel folded her hands in front of her and said, her hawk nose twitching just a bit, “Sister Mary Agnes has gone on a short sabbatical. She should return in a few weeks or so.” And then she turned on the projector. We were going to watch a movie about the lumber industry in Minnesota, the only kind of movie the school could afford since it was free. It was only slightly slanted in favor of clear cutting.
We all knew this sabbatical stuff was baloney cause of what Sister had said the day before about going to God, and so, after school, Emma, Neal, and me went to see Sister Rosemary, the cook at the convent who would always give us newly baked break with gobs of butter when we came to see her, that and sometimes that hard candy old people like so much and kids hate.
Sister Rosemary, as round as she was tall, was the biggest gossip in town, so we figured she’d know where Sister had gone if anybody knew.
“It’s true ,” she said. “Sister asked Mother Superior for a two week sabbatical. Mother Superior asked if she wanted a ride to the bus station and Sister said that wouldn’t be necessary. She’d didn’t say where she was going. Of course, the rest of us wanted to know, and Mother let it be known in no uncertain terms that it was none of our business. There’s no law that says we can’t speculate, though. Let me see, she was always talking about Lourdes, so much so that she began to sound like a broken record. She even asked the bishop if she would be allowed to go, but I’m almost positive he turned her down.”
Emma, Neal, and me went down to the bus station and asked Mr. Anderson, the manager, if Sister had purchased a bus ticket. He hadn’t sold a ticket to any nun. Emma crossed Lourdes off as a possible destination.
We stood around watching people get on a bus bound for Duluth.
“I think she went to die in Nordeast,” Emma said.
“I think she did like the old Eskimos she told us about. She found an ice flow and drifted off into the mist. Let’s go look down by the river.”
“You are such a cynic,” Emma said. “Don’t you remember that lecture she gave us when old Mrs. Mensinger committed suicide, what a horrible place they go to. Even worse than hell. She’d never do such a thing.”
“Maybe she didn’t think it was suicide,” Neal said, shifting his feet. He had to go to the bathroom again. The kid needed new kidneys.
“Let’s call her folks. What’s her last name?”
“I didn’t know nuns had last names,” I said.
“We better go ask Sister Rosemary,” Emma said.
Sister Mary Agnes’s last name was Stegora, and there was only one Stegora in the Minneapolis phone book which we got at the public library. His name was Axel. “There can’t be two Axel Stegoras,” Emma said.
We went down to the telephone booth outside The Five and Dime and made the call. I had to break my piggy bank to find enough change. Anything to impress my darling Emma.
Axel was at work, but his wife said that he and Sister hadn’t spoken in twenty years.
“Isn’t resentment one of the seven deadly sins?” I asked.
It was starting to snow and the flakes started to accumulate on Emma’s nose. I wanted to lick them off.
“He probably put her in the nunnery during the Depression,” I said, “cause the family couldn’t afford to feed all of those kids, and she’s still holding it against him.”
“I’ll bet he married a protestant girl,” Emma said.
“What now?” Neal asked.
“I think she was really ashamed about having such a lousy memory,” Emma said. “How would you like it if you were going senile? I think we should reconsider the possibility of suicide.”
“If I were going to starve myself to death, I’d go sit in one of those deserted mine shafts at the Big Hat,” I said. “They’re all boarded up. They must go on for miles. Let’s go check them out.”
“I’m going to tell my Uncle Mike,” Emma said. Emma’s Uncle Mike was a deputy sheriff of Beaver Creek County.
“You’re no fun at all.”
“You’ll never find out, will you?” she said, slapping me with that knockout smile.
We followed a road grader down to the sheriff’s office, which was on the outskirts of town, next to the pickle processing plant where my mom and dad worked. Emma’s Uncle Mike was working at his desk, typing a report with two fingers. We told him what Sister had said the day before and how we’d checked out the bus station, called her family etc. Uncle Mike, a worried-looking man always on the lookout for votes no matter what your age, was more inclined to take the matter seriously.
“It does sound kind of strange,” he said. “And you say she’s been rather delusional lately?”
“Calls us by her brothers and sisters’ names,” I said.
“There’s this disease called Alzheimers,” he said. “Old people who have it sometimes get lost and wander off into the woods or fall into the river. We better not take a chance. We’ll check the mineshafts first, although I doubt that she’d get that far.”
Uncle Mike and the two deputies, Cliff O’Dell and Wendell Watts, checked the mine, the woods outside town, and they searched the river for places she may have gone through the ice. No sign of Sister Mary Agnes. The two week sabbatical came to an end. Still no Sister Mary Agnes. Sister Rachel was driving me up the wall. I swear she didn’t even know the alphabet.
Then one day Emma came up with the idea to search Sister’s things for a clue. After school, we hung around the gym shooting baskets until everyone went home; then we got the keys to the seventh grade classroom from the janitor, Pete Jensen, who was so lazy he wore elastic pants cause buckling a belt was too strenuous. I told him I’d left my jacket in the room and he handed me the keys. “Stay out of Sister’s desk,” he said.
“What, do you think we’re crazy?” I said.
Pete gave us the horse laugh; he’d had Sister for seventh grade, back when cars were called horseless carriages.
I’d always loved the way that room smelled, kind of a combination of floor wax, chalk, and radiator fumes. I had a piece of sharpened wire that I was going to use to jimmy the desk drawers, but we didn’t need it. I should have know Sister Rachel would leave them open.
“I have something here,” Neal said. “There’s a slip of paper in her copy of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. It’s got some funny words on it.”
“Let me see that,” Emma said. “’Loa’, ‘hounga’ and
“Mambo is a dance,” I said.
“Oh, shut up,” Emma said. “Get an encyclopedia. Make yourself useful. If you’re going to stand there and joke all the time, you might as well go home.”
I tried to look like I was going to cry, but she wouldn’t look at me.
The words ‘loa’ and ‘hounga’ were not in the encyclopedia, and just as I had tried to tell her, ‘mambo’ was a dance.
Emma found a little black book in the bottom drawer with a bunch of writing in it. She sat down and began to read. “The Dahomean people of Haiti believe in ancestor worship. The loa act as guardian angels or spirit helpers; they communicate with the devotee through dreams.”
“Sounds like voodoo to me,” I said. “What’s Sister doing with that voodoo stuff? Doesn’t she know the commandments? I am the Lord thy God and thou shalt have no strange gods before me?”
“Shut up and look up Dahomea,” Emma said.
The way Sister had looked when she’d been reading the Marley scene came back to me. I looked under voodoo, and, sure enough, the words ‘loa’, ‘hounga’, and ‘mambo’ were in there. Hounga and mambos were voodoo priests.
“Just as I said. Here look, smarty pants. I hope you’ve learned not to doubt my word.”
Emma and Neal looked like I must have that time I’d been playing with that electrical outlet when I was five and almost got electrocuted.
“I think it was the ancestor stuff,” I said, “she was always talking about her relatives; it says here that the Haitians worship their ancestors.”
“Yeah, and the loa is a spirit guide like the Egyptians had when they got mummified,” Neal said.
“This is all too much for me,” I said. “My stomach is getting all churny. I have a very delicate disposition.”
“I’m going to take this journal home and read every word of it,” Emma said.
Pete Jensen was standing in the door, leaning on a broom he’d probably been using as a crutch, since one of his legs was a good six inches shorter than the other one.
“You kids done here yet?” he asked. “I don’t want to be here all night.”
That night I called Emma at around ten---I always stayed up to watch Johnny, Ed, and Doc---to see if she’d been able to decipher any more of the journal.
I could hear Maggie, Emma’s little sister, in the background; it sounded like she was jumping up and down on the bed springs. “Not much,” Emma said. “There’s something in there about how the Haitians synthesized Roman Catholic ritual with the old African magic. The journal says the loa can possess a person.”
I took a drag on the Camel I’d stolen from my dad’s pack in the kitchen cabinet. Both my parents had to be to work at five in the morning so they went to bed early and slept through blizzards, train wrecks, and the blaring TV. “I think she lost her mind along with her memory,” I said.
“I guess you’re right,” she said. “Maggie, get off that bed! You’re gonna get a licking.” I could visualize Maggie sticking her tongue out at her older sister.
We never did find out what happened to Sister Mary Agnes. Sister Rachel surprised the hell out of me the next few weeks. I was sitting in the front seat more than ever. She made us keep a diary on the evening news and tested us on it each day; she had us look up words from the Reader’s Digest, and she even had us simulate marriage---I got that troll Amy Ryerson---and keep a budget. It was kind of fun.
Then one night fourteen inches of snow descended on the town and a battalion of snow plows and trucks began rearranging the snow, pushing most of it into giant mountains which were perfect for King of the Hill. The best one was right on the corner edge of the playground, and if you got pushed off, a guy could roll into the street and get schmucked, so when Sister Rachel came out onto the playground that day, we figured she was going to yell at us, but what she did was claw her way up that mountain of snow and barrel into the kid at the top, knocking him asshole-over-teakettle out into the street. Sister was having so much fun we had an extra half hour of recess that day. It was almost like the good old days when Sister Mary Agnes played linebacker during our football games.