The crumbling nunnery occupied an entire city block of Galvez Street and defined one boundary of the neighborhood, beyond which lay the terra incognita of moldy parchment maps, forbidden and as terrifying as the flat edge of the world feared by Portuguese mariners in the days of Prince Henry. Paw, who read a bit of history, said the nunnery proved the survival of the Dark Ages. One almost expected to see blind and crippled mendicants begging near the gates and bands of warriors watering their horses before they charged off to secure the borders of some besieged viceroy or marquis. Surrounded by soft, redolent brick, the nuns had renounced human commerce, committed themselves to the Savior’s grace and sequestered themselves within His compound. During the Spanish occupation Governor Alejandro O’Reilly had imported seventeen galleons of bricks directly from Seville, bricks manufactured by artisans who belonged to a secret order of Jewish cabbalists, in order to construct the three-foot thick barrier he believed would keep the only virgins in New Orleans chaste. The nuns floated along intricate walkways, protected by parapets rising from the walls, and their silence seemed an eerie rejoinder to the earthly bustle of the neighborhood.
Jake and his deaf and speech-impaired cousin Dougie avoided the place because the wrinkled wraith-like sisters reminded them of old Miss Yunt, an ancient, cranky neighbor down the street, a blasphemous comparison that they knew might earn them the everlasting fires of hell. Nor did they care much for the idea that nuns marry Jesus. Dougie found the notion hilarious.
“That Jeez,” he laughed, “he fuckey them old ladies every night.”
Jake had long suspected that Jesus had it in for him and didn’t want to worsen his fate. “No,” he said, “they’re married but not like that.” To communicate with Dougie he often resorted to his cousin’s pronunciations, and he knew what the word “fuck” meant because his friend Dave Silner at McDonogh 9 had once explained it to him as a grotesque ritual during which parents become Siamese twins.
“Jesus doesn’t fuckey,” he insisted. “Jesus is too good.”
Dougie looked perplexed. “Then what does he do?”
About ten blocks in the opposite direction the neighborhood abruptly ceased at furious, arid Broad Street, more an ugly northern turnpike with its constant rush of cars, buses and rumbling trucks than the shaded lazy asphalt lanes Jake and his cousins roamed. The neighborhood, a fragile oasis of present, seemed bounded on one side by the unimaginable recesses of the past and on the other, a frantic, hazardous future. In the “other” directions, vertical to Jake’s mind, Esplanade and LeHarpe constituted the outer, nether fringes of reality. The cousins liked Esplanade, a sloppy wide avenue lined with magnolias and sycamores and formidable if dilapidated mansions that no one seemed to inhabit. Its shabby grandeur attracted little traffic. For whatever reasons, this stretch of Esplanade never caught on, had failed in its civic and urban potential and seemed destined to remain a neglected bypass for stragglers and lost souls. Yet its beauty was incontestable, unlike LeHarpe Street, which was just another street, a little more fashionable than Columbus perhaps because the city had paved it a few years earlier. City Hall called it progress, and the denizens of LaHarpe therefore raised their noses slightly higher than their more backward neighbors two streets up. But Jake and Dougie wouldn’t think of playing on LeHarp Street; along with the asphalt went the shells, gravel and pebbles they never tired of slinging at something—telephone poles, garbage cans, stray cats, passing cars, whatever could be smacked, whatever made noise when smacked, whatever looked too pristine to resist.
When they walked or rode their bikes around the corner to Galvez Street they stayed on the side where the piano teacher lived in a house subsumed by crepe myrtle. Jake could not understand why Miss Gomez wanted to live across the street from a nunnery. Trudging up her concrete steps for lessons required enough valor, although his sister Ruthie didn’t seem to mind, probably because she played better than Jake. Jake had perfect pitch, which she did not, but he had never learned to read music properly because he could not stand Miss Gomez’s rotten breath. Eighth notes, he would later claim, killed him as a musician; sixteenth notes were infernal
Ruthie usually took her lesson first for about half an hour, after which he and their mother Violet would walk to Miss Gomez’s house, not because Jake couldn’t find his way alone, but in order to retrieve his sister. Jake hated the abrupt bang the teacher’s screen door made when it slammed, leaving him alone in the room with her as his mother and Ruthie left for home. Through the filthy moth-clogged screen he sadly watched them fade away.
“Stop that,” Miss Gomez would snarl. “You wind up a mama’s boy. You want mamma’s boy, eh?”
The woman’s breath was so vile he often felt on the verge of asphyxiation and told Dougie that Miss Gomez ate dead dogs for supper. The entire room reeked of sulphur and ammonia and the cloying fetor of human sweat laced with cloves. He would take his place next to her at the piano bench and she would say, “Now do thees arpeggio, we see how you practice.” He cocked his head, but she always cupped his farther ear with her warm moist palm and nudged it upright. “Que frijo,” she sighed, “put life in fingerteeps. Do arpeggio again, like Ruthie.” Sometimes when she got up and hobbled to the bookcase where she kept her scores, Miss Gomez seemed to have no shape at all, that beyond looking merely old, she was more gaseous than solid and thus diffused in several places at once.
“You need new book, a more easy one,” she would announce each new session as if the idea had just occurred to her. “Play, Jake, por favor, the song we learn, you remember, The Old Oaken Bucket.” As he played Miss Gomez sang along with abandon, for the tune touched her heart. Years before in Havana she had heard an American tourist whistle it as he sliced off the tip of a cigar with his Swiss army knife on the Calle Cervantes. Ruthie knew it too. They played it so often that their father once leapt from the sofa and cried, “If I hear The Old Oaken Bucket one more time I’m going to rip the keys off that piano.” By piano he meant the family Spinet they had pushed against one of the walls of the living room. Miss Gomez had a better piano, a baby grand.
“You got no passion,” the teacher sighed.
Jake assumed “passion” was a word grown-ups loved.
But he always plodded along with his lesson and actually forgot about Miss Gomez’s odor whenever the music itself began to transport him. He liked to play piano. How could she say he had no passion?
When the lesson ended Jake remembered again how unhappy he always felt locked in a gloomy stinking room with a person who said seester for sister. Miss Gomez tried to engage in pleasant small talk but he always sped away without even telling her goodbye. Throughout the lesson he longed for the moment when his finger would separate the hook and eye on her screen door and he would not see her for another week. A week was eternity.
Piano lessons seemed a breeze next to Kindergarten. Jake had clung to Violet’s hand and squirmed fiercely the entire six blocks to McDonogh 9 as she escorted him to school and up the stairs into the cheerful classroom of Miss Swander, his first school teacher, a small, stooped and wiry woman with hair the texture of pine needles. The teacher gushed with enthusiasm as she welcomed Violet into the room. Violet told him later that Miss Swander had caught small pox as a child, which accounted for the craters on her face as well as the curvature of her spine. One night when she was only seven years old Miss Swander woke to a chilling sweat and dread in her heart. She opened her eyes to see the small pox demon zig-zag above her face, buzzing like a horse fly. She rolled over on her stomach and pulled the pillow over her head, but the demon dove into the back of her neck, gnawed at her flesh and burrowed in, spreading pathogens into her bones and blood. Her fever raged for days until Father Rinaldi of St. Rosa de Lima administered extreme unction. Miss Swander’s distraught father prayed to St. Rosa and begged for his child’s life. He promised to repair the stained glass of the church windows for the rest of his days if she granted his wish. Within two hours Miss Swander’s fever abated, she opened her eyes for the first time since she saw the demon and meekly asked for a slice of king cake. The next day she hopped out of bed and, except for her disfigurement, proved the healthiest child in the neighborhood. Her strength became extraordinary. Still only seven, the child could lift her father’s Packard by the chrome bumper and hold it steadily two feet off the ground. She could thrash any boy in her neighborhood, even many grown men, though she only fought in self-defense. There was not a malicious corpuscle in her body.
One morning when she was away at school Mr. Swander ransacked his daughter’s room in search of the smallpox demon. He found an evil red insect with tiny horns protruding from its head; he tempted it into a mayonnaise jar with a chunk of rotten crawfish and drowned it in his own urine. The insect turned black, sizzled, clawed frantically at the sides of the glass and then, to Mr. Swander’s amazement, exploded into hundreds of small nuggets that resembled tiny four o’clock seeds. He drained the urine, poured the seeds into a lead box and soldered it shut, then buried it six feet below ground. He thanked St.Rosa and spent every spare minute of the rest of his life repairing the church’s windows, for as soon as he replaced glass or resoldered one, another would break in relentless, merciless succession. At age ninety he perished of chronic lead poisoning. His doctors marveled over the man’s constitution; the amount of lead in his body would have killed a battalion of soldiers. When Miss Swander bent over to kiss her father’s corpse goodbye, she tasted metal, a taste she could never brush or gargle away. Some said it accounted for the silverish tint to her lips.
“And how’s the young man today?” Miss Swander squinted down at Jake over her pince-nez.
“Well . . . ,” Violet raised her eyebrows.
“Oh, pooh,” Miss Swander said, cupping his head with her palm, “we’ll just have to stop that whimpering, won’t we?”
Jake despised the woman instantly. It was one thing to whimper but quite another to be exposed in front of all the other children by someone who had probably never whimpered in her life, who could not possibly grasp the urgent need to whimper.
He preferred to keep his Kindergarten reputation a secret, for he was quite aware that he had lost control. He spent an entire week self-exiled in the sandbox of Miss Swander’s merry class, refusing to participate or turn the pages of his workbook or even sit next to the other students at their little lacquered tables, detesting his so-called locker, which smelled like vomit. His grief knew no limit; his heart was broken; his mother had abandoned him. Never did he blame or hold it against her; Violet would not desert him unless forced into it. Thus silently and with mounting displeasure he unleashed his torrential woe upon Miss Swander
The teacher finally capitulated and allowed him to sulk and grieve, the way he chose to spend his entire day. During recess he sought out sacred spots on the school grounds beside the azalea bushes or near the row of startling poinsettias whose lush red blossoms looked edible, places where his mother had walked with him or hugged him goodbye; or he hovered with longing near the unscalable wire fence that separated him from her and everything he knew, as a prisoner clings to the very bars which make freedom a dream. The places his mother had traversed were magical, spiritual sites, and he reasoned that if he returned to them, rooted himself in place for hour on end, he might reverse history, bring her back, end the dismay which swept him away from not only her and Columbus Street but even himself.
Yet as time passed he drifted away from the magic places, for obviously their magic did not work, his mother did not solidify in thin air, he was not instantly transported back to Columbus Street. One day he crept out of the sandbox toward Miss Swander’s desk and whispered into her ear that he wanted now to assume his place at one of the tables. He plunged himself into the baleful workshop exercises with the solemnity of a scholar, took his locker in stride, joshed around with the children in his class, who weren’t so bad after all, and in effect became a model student. It had become clear that no one would tolerate any less, that he would otherwise have soon become one of the very neighborhood coo-coos he and everybody else made fun of and taunted. And he succeeded in making his first real friend outside the family, that skinny boy Dave Silner who taught him all the dirty words and just so happened to live on the next block of Columbus Street. It was Dave who introduced Jake to such unspeakable secrets that he reeled simultaneously with horror and unquenchable curiosity. Dave had a deck of playing cards that depicted a fat young woman with skin pale as tissue engaged in fellatio with a naked man whose body was so hairy Jake could not tell if he were man or beast. The first time Jake saw the card he felt his heart catapult. The sight destroyed his peace of mind for weeks. He could think of nothing else, though he didn’t know what the act meant or why the naked people would resort to such ignominy. Yet they looked exceedingly happy. The playing card implied scandalous, mysterious vices—and incontestable pleasures—lying dimly ahead in the future, a future he longed to leap into, a future he prayed kept its distance.
© Louis Gallo
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty]