Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Paddlin'

There is no story that is not true.
~ Chinua Achebe

Author’s Note: Some dialogue in this work of fiction uses profanity. While I do not condone the use of profanity, its use was necessary to paint an accurate picture of selected characters. Those offended by this type of language should not read on…

On a December day in 1978, the day before Christmas break, Marco Manfredi walked into the Priest’s first period freshman Religion class just ahead of the bell. Glancing over, Marco could see the good Father, the Priest, at the front of the room, feet kicked up on the desk, reading the newspaper. This wasn’t unusual, and Marco was hoping the Priest would keep on reading, even after the bell rang because he had some work to do for his next class. Marco slipped into his desk, and looked up at the Father, waiting for class to start.

The Priest wore the traditional black garb and white collar of a Catholic man of the cloth…with one exception, that being the football shoes. Yes, at the school, and sometimes even when he held Mass, the Priest wore white Adidas Star football shoes with black stripes. Some of the guys got a kick out of it, but not many kids openly busted on the Priest. If you got caught doing that, you were sure to get a slap across the back of the head and a one-way ticket to Hell.

So, why did the Priest wear football cleats? Well, they were our team’s game shoes, and the Priest was the team Chaplin. However, the quiet consensus was that the Priest had as much reverence for the Coach as he did for the Almighty Himself. This always struck Marco and some of the boys as odd. The Coach was pretty much a brutal and savage guy, and he bred fear like a flash fire. That’s how he kept things under control, which seemed to clash with the whole peace, love, and agape that the Priest preached on those rare days when he was inclined to teach and live as a man of the cloth.

In fact, in the fall, Marco had read Of Mice and Men in his English class. He had joked with some of the guys that the Priest and the Coach were really kind of like George and Lenny. He put a good bit together, and he would crack the boys up on the bus home from school with his version of Of Men and Mieces.

“Coach is my friend. Coach, tell me more about the rabbits.”
“Goddamnit Father! I’m tired of fucking telling you fucking rabbit stories.”
“But Coach, I want to love them, and touch them, and pet them, and…”
“Shaddup, Father. Now go get me the church wine and a pouch of chew.”
“Ok Coach, ok Coach! Coach is my friend…”

That would usually get them yuckin’ it up on the bus, and Marco liked to make people laugh. He had a thing for impressions, and the chicks seem to dig it.
Sometimes, when they were together, it was fun to watch the Priest following the Coach around, and you could hear the Priest cursing, just like the Coach. He was definitely a secular wannabe, which was really somewhat sad. However, that really wasn’t Marco’s biggest concern at the moment. He had his mind set on the twenty-five terms that he had not yet looked up and defined for his next class.

When the bell rang, the Priest put his paper down and glared at the freshman over the thick round lenses of his John Lennon-style specs. He had a blonde bowl haircut that would have made Oliver Cromwell proud, and he always frowned before he talked.

“I’m not teaching today. Sit down, shut up and do something.”
Finally, in a Religion class, no less, God answered one of Marco’s prayers. He now had time to get his World Cultures homework done for second period.

“Thank you sweet Lord!” Marco muttered. He tapped Michael Murray on the shoulder. “Hey, man. Can I borrow a pencil?”

Marco buried his head, hunched over the textbook and study questions, and put his mind to work. If he could just get through this day, the rest of the week was gravy. Tomorrow was a half day, and after the school Mass, Christmas break began. The word was that after Mass, one of the girls from the junior class was having a big party at her Gran’s house over in Shenandoah. Granny was off to New York for the holidays, and her doting granddaughter was watching after Granny’s parrot.

Michael Murray started a deep, hushed conversation with Debbi Sweeny who was sitting next to him. They were talking about the party. Marco was soon lost in World Cultures. Abruptly, the voice of a pissed-off Priest drew Marco’s attention. It was directed at him.

“Manfredi, I thought I told you to shut up and do something.”
“Father, I’m not talking! I’m doing my homework for next period.”
“Don’t tell me what I hear and don’t hear Manfredi, just shut up and do something.”
This was a losing battle, and Marco answered with a respectful “Yes Father” and went back to work. The clock was ticking. Lost in a fog of definitions and terms from ancient Mesopotamia, Marco was soon back in his groove, and it looked as if he might actually get this homework done for the next class.

For a second time, Marco was pulled back by the sound of the Priest’s voice.
“Manfredi, are you deaf or what? What the hell’s wrong with you?”
In this reply, Marco got a bit more defensive and angry in his response to the Priest.
“Father, it’s not me! I’m not talkin’! I’m working on something.” at the same time holding his homework paper up and waving and rattling it, probably a bit more forceful than necessary, it in the air “Look Father!”

“Are you saying I don’t hear you talkin’, Marco?”
“Father, I’m sayin’ it’s not me you hear talking’, it’s them!” Marco pointed to Michael and Debbi in front of him. Normally, he didn’t sell out anyone, but this was getting ridiculous.

The Priest glared at Marco for a good ten seconds, but the glint of the ancient lighting in the classroom made his eyes invisible and hard to read. Marco glared back, perhaps with too much defiance. Finally, the Priest buried his face back behind the paper again, murmuring something that Marco couldn’t hear. Marco cast a glance to the big clock next to the crucifix on the front wall. He had twenty minutes left and fifteen more terms to define.

“Cuneiform” he muttered underneath his breath and started back to leafing through the pages of the text to find the definition.

With about ten minutes left in class, there was a final exchange. However, this time, the Priest jumped up from his chair to deliver some fire and brimstone.

“Dammit the hell, Manfredi! You’re a damn hard head, aren’t you?” Marco stared in shock (and it wasn’t because of the language) at the Priest. The Priest glared at Marco one last time and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

The class erupted.
“Damn Marco, what did you do?”
“What’s wrong?”
“Where’s he going?”
“Do we have any homework?”
“Hey, did you hear about the big party in Frackville after Mass tomorrow?”
“It’s not in Frackville, moron. It’s in Shenandoah.”
“Hey, did anyone do the World Cultures homework?”

Marco didn’t understand what the deal was with the Padre, but he wasn’t going to worry about it now. Only two definitions left.

The Priest never returned to class…

Marco took the long way around to his locker between classes. He was trying to avoid Esther, his crazy ex-girlfriend. She was his first high school steady, but he’d broken up with her months ago. Since then, she’d left him a death note in his locker. She always carried a blade in her purse, and she’d vowed to cut him at the first opportunity. When he did see her in the halls, she would start to reach into the purse. She was from Girardville, and he should have known better. They were all crazy over in Gville.

Marco reached his locker uncut and unmolested; he tossed the Religion book to the bottom, and then jogged up the back stairs, slipping into Mr. McGuire’s Western Civs class just before the bell rang. He wound his way through the rows to his seat. First row, last seat. It was the perfect location for daydreaming, and seats hadn’t been changed since they were first assigned back in September. It was winter now, of course, and the view out of the large windows was spectacular. The first real snow of that year covered the landscape, and Marco could see far across the valley, and up the gentle slope of Broad Mountain. Almost every day since school started, Marco spent a large part of World Cultures lost in la-la land while McGuire waxed and waned about the Sumerians and Cuneiform, the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, and a host of other ancient civilizations.

The bell rang, but McGuire wasn’t yet in class. Marco looked around. It was a typical day in second period. Pam Shea sat at the front, taking aspirins in a lame attempt to make herself sick so she could go home. The guy in front of Marco was copying the homework of the girl in front of him, and everyone else was talking. Someone on the other side of the room asked “Where’s McGuire?” Marco wondered that himself as he browsed through the terms that he had hastily defined in the Priest’s class, crossing all t’s and dotting all i’s. Finally, Mr. McGuire appeared at the door and called the class to attention.

“Quiet down!” He glared at the class, his bushy grey eyebrows drawn in a stern line across his forehead. A hush quickly fell over twenty-five freshman. He cleared his throat.

“Mr. Marco Manfredi. I have a message for you.”
Instantly, Marco’s stomach felt funny, and his spider sense began tingling. In a very dramatic fashion, one exclusively inherent to teachers of history, McGuire strolled across the room carefully enunciating his words.

“Please… report…immediately… to… the Coach’s office.” He looked at Marco, Marco looked back at McGuire, and then he noticed everyone looking at him. Nobody said a thing. Nobody had to say a thing; everybody knew…this wasn’t good.

Slowly, Marco made his way through the mingled desks, his mind running a mile a minute. Walking into the hall, he heard Mr. McGuire pulling the door shut and beginning his daily drone. “All right class, take out your definitions and turn to page...”

Marco walked down the stairs and then outside into the December cold. He wracked his brain, wondering what the deal was. The Coach had been riding him hard since football season finished. Coach knew that Marco was pissed because Coach had not “permitted” him to play freshman basketball. Rather, the Coach thought Marco’s time would be better-spent pumping iron in the weight room. Despite what you wanted to do, at Bishop McShea, in December of 1978, you did what the Coach told you to do, or you paid. On top of that, someone, an old player probably, had told the Coach that Marco was ripped at a keg party up at one of the strippin’ pits two weeks ago. Well, he was ripped, there was no denying that, but Marco thought it was wrong to single him out. Everybody else was drinking too, including most of his teammates, and a good chunk of the student body of McShea High. Either way, it was just another excuse for Coach to bust Marco’s balls, and Coach had warned Marco recently to “get your shit together” if he wanted to play football for the Coach and McShea High.

The wind bit into Marco’s exposed skin, and he pulled the sleeves down on his navy blue school sweater. Following the path from the school to field house, Marco walked into the warm gym. It was empty and dark; his footfalls echoed as he walked across the hardwood floors to the door that led downstairs into Coach’s small, secluded office in the locker room.

The moment Marco walked through the door he knew he was screwed. The Coach’s voice boomed.

“Manfredi! Get your ass in here. We’ve been waiting for you!”
There they both sat, the Priest and the Coach, feet kicked up on Coach’s desk, each wearing white Adidas Star football shoes. Both smiled at Marco, and he quickly realized this situation had the potential to get very ugly. However, even as Marco began to consider how bad this scene could turn out for him, he was still, in that far away part of his mind that views images objectively, amused at the picture before him. It really was a surreal scene. There was the Coach, sitting in the anointed robes of his profession, gray sweats and a white “McShea PE” t-shirt emblazed with blue letters, a huge chew grinding in his mouth, tobacco juice running down his chin, staining his biker-style goatee. And of course, the Priest, like coach, a fat wad of chew in his mouth. A dirty brass spittoon sat on the cluttered desk between them. The Coach spoke again. It was time for the game to begin.

“So, Marco, the Padre here tells me you’ve been dickin’ around in religion class. What’s your fuckin’ problem Manfredi? This is a fuckin’ Catlic’ school. We can’t have you being a damn jackass in Religion class. That's bullshit, son.”

Marco tried to mount a defense, but it was futile.
“But Coach, I didn’t do anything, I swear…”

He cut Marco off with a raised had, and an abrupt “Bullshit!” Juice and spit spewed from his mouth; he slammed his fist on the desk and his voice he grew louder and louder. “Bullshit, Bullshit, Bullshit, Bullshit! The last “bullshit” echoed in the small locker room when the Coach finished roaring. Then he sat back down, put his feet back up on the desk, spit out some juice into the spittoon, and continued in a taunting tone.

“Marco, are you tellin’ me that the Padre here, a man of the cloth, anointed by Jesus H. Christ himself, is lying to me? Is that what you’re tellin’ me? Is that? Is that what you’re sayin’? This man of God is lyin’? That’s what you’re sayin’. Is that what you think he’s saying Padre?”

For the first time, the Priest spoke up.
“Yeah..I think that’s what he’s saying.”

Marco locked eyes with the priest, and his contempt for this servant of God certainly showed on his face like words written on a giant billboard.

“I hate this bastard…this prick…I fucking hate him.” Sinful thoughts spewed through Marco’s mind. Disillusionment danced in his head, and at that moment, he lost faith in the Church. His brain worked overtime. “Why would he lie? Why? What did the Priest prove by lying?” There would be more questions later. One more thought…”To Hell with the Church. I’m done.”

The Coach smiled. That sick bastard was enjoying this, and the party was just getting started. Marco could see tiny pieces of tobacco in his teeth. Now Marco began to get scared.

“Manfredi, I told you a week ago to get your shit together, and you just thought I was shootin’ the shit, didn’t ya?”
“No Coach, I didn’t. I’m trying.”
“Well then, what’s this bullshit all about? Did you think I was blowin’ smoke up your ass, son? Did you?”
“No Coach, I didn’t.”
“Well, I’m gonna tell you what, Marco, I’m not going to paddle you. I’m gonna let the Padre here deliver your punishment. Maybe this is your lucky day.” He started laughing, a diabolical, “He, he, he…” The Padre, just like his secular idol, joined in with laughter. Fucking George and Lenny.

The Coach rose from his chair, and he reached for the large paddle with holes in it that hung amid the trophies, plaques, and framed certificates on the wall behind his desk.

Marco thought, “Maybe he’s right. Maybe it is my lucky day? The Priest didn’t look like an incredibly strong man, and the dude was 150 lbs or so, soaking wet. As far as Marco knew, the Priest wasn’t in great shape either. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad?

The Coach handed the paddle to the priest and pointed to a line taped on the tile locker room floor.

“Go head Marco, grab your ankles. It’s time for your penance.” They both yucked it up at the reference to one of the seven sacraments.

Marco grabbed his ankles and looked through his legs. The last thing he saw as he braced for impact was the Priest’s white Adidas Star football shoes settling into position behind him. Marco closed his eyes…

…The force of the blow lurched Marco forward, and the sting was immediate.
So was the Coach’s coaching. He jumped from the chair. He loved this.

“No, no, no Padre! You have to keep your hips square and follow through, just like you’re hitting a tee shot. Square your hips, square’em! Try it again, Manfredi won’t mind. You don’t mind, do you, son?”

“No Coach.” The pain was growing, but when coach pointed, Marco moved again to the line on the floor. They were not going to break him.

“Now go ahead Padre, remember, square your hips and follow through. Again, the white shoes stepped up, and Marco braced…

The second blow was much harder than the first, and the sound of the paddle connecting with Marco’s ass popped like a .22 caliber pistol shot. Marco could feel tears welling up as the pain screamed across his hindquarters. This time, the Priest knocked Marco even farther across the locker room.
Again, the Coach was up and coaching, feeling it necessary to critique the Priest’s style and form.

“Atta boy Padre, much better! But, look, you still pulled up a bit, try it again and follow through. Remember, square up and follow through. Assume the position Manfredi, we’re going to get this right.”

Anger, pain, sadness and frustration all welled inside of Marco simultaneously. This was not fair, this was wrong. Marco now knew these two sick bastards set him up, and they were enjoying this sadistic ceremony. Even worse, one of them was a Priest. It was so wrong. He tried badly to keep himself together, but he could feel his internal stitches pulling apart at the seam. He was very close to losing his shit. Tears ran down his face now, and the pain was almost unbearable; he was wrong about the Priest. He was stronger than he looked, but he wasn’t going to let either of them think they’d won. In an act of defiance, and without being told, Marco stepped to the line and assumed the position.

The final blow from the Priest knocked Marco to his knees, and pain seared and erupted through him. It was stinging and burning, and Marco leaned his head onto the cold tiled floor. There was silence for just a second, and then Marco heard the Coach’s raspy voice slicing through his waves of agony.

“Goddammit Padre! That sucked. You’re swingin’ like a Goddam frickin’ pussy. Gimme that fucking paddle and let me show you how to do it. Jesus H. Christ, Padre. Get your ass off the floor, Marco.” Marco moved slowly, too slowly. The next thing he felt was the Coach’s foot kicking him in the ass.

“I said…get your ass off that fucking floor, toe that fucking line and assume the position…now, you little prick!”

Marco limped to the line and bent over. All his movements, now, were filled with pain. He briefly opened his eyes in time to see the spit stained white Adidas Star football shoes stepping up, the raising up and down, settling finally, into a comfortable stance, and then Marco closed his eyes as the Coach’s toes pointed slightly inward.

This time, like the blast from a shotgun, the sound of the paddle connecting with Marco filled the small room, and then lingered in the air. The mighty force of the blow drove Marco into the lockers, and the smash of the cold metal against his face broke his forward motion. Marco slide down the lockers and then crumbled to the floor, heaving sobs now, like a baby. His whole body hurt now, and tears, mingled with blood from the cuts to his face and head from the lockers, fell to the floor in rivulets. Marco heaved and wept. It was more than the pain, now, that made him cry. It was the degradation, the humiliation, the corruption of trust, and the pure evil of the whole ugly scene, the aberration of faith, and ultimately a final loss of innocence, which drove him to honest, real and raw despair. Marco bawled and moaned, crying, as he had never cried before…and he couldn’t stop.

The Coach and the Priest started out the door and up the steps to the gym. The Coach stopped, turned and barked at Marco.
“Get your shit together. You have fifteen minutes to get to class. If you’re late, I see your ass right back here. Don’t ever lie to a man of the fucking cloth, you fucking pussy…and keep your mouth shut in Goddam Religion class.” The Priest peered over the Coach’s shoulder, taking the scene in. Marco could barely see either of them.

The door closed and Marco could hear them laughing as they walked up the stairs. Things got dark and foggy and Marco closed his eyes.

Time passed, and with the pain, Marco wasn’t sure if he was hallucinating or dreaming there on the cold tile. A searing throb resonated from his ass up his back and down his legs.

“This must be what it feels like when you’re shot.” His nerves continued screaming, and parts of his body twitched like he’d been shocked. “Maybe this is what it felt like to be electrocuted?” Shot and zapped. Two for the price of one…who said a Catholic education was a bad investment? You get two for the price of one.

Slowly, Marco rose to his knees, taught himself to walk again, and slowly he moved up the stairs. The pain was brutal. As before, the gym was empty, and as Marco loped across the floor, through the shadows of the darkened gym, he saw the clock on the opposite wall. It was 11:36. Marco began to reconstruct the morning in his mind, like you do the day after a big ripper, when the fog of alcohol makes the night before seem like a bad dream. Bits and pieces come back to you, and you never like what you remember. Marco spoke aloud to no one.

“Let’s see…homeroom, 8:30-9:00, Religion, 9:05-9:50, World Cultures, 9:55…Maybe I did pass out? Biology now…screw that, I’m not going. Lunch in 20 minutes.” Marco didn’t know where the Coach and the Priest disappeared to, but he had no desire to see either of them again today. He was going to lay low till lunch. He made his way out the double doors of the gym into the bright sunlight. The reflection blinded him for a moment, his body oblivious now to the cold, and slowly, he crossed the path back to school and headed for his locker.

As the freshman class bounced into the lunchroom, Marco leaned against the back wall in the corner, behind a table, eating his sandwich, trying to practice his cooliosis. Someone shouted.
“Holy Christ! It’s Marco!

There was a mad mob rush. Word had spread around school during his absence and rumors abounded. Trying to figure out how he would handle this situation, he realized, at that exact moment in life that he could create his own legend…rock star status style. Quickly, wide-eyed freshmen, including wide-eyed freshmen girls, surrounded Marco. Yes, wide-eyed freshmen girls looking at Marco with their dreamy wide-eyed freshman eyes.
Classmates began firing questions in a roar. Reverently, he put down his egg salad sandwich, and raised his hand. The crowd hushed, and Marco commenced to telling his tale of the face off with the two-headed, fire-breathing dragon.

At the end of that day, in the soft afterglow of reflection, Marco Manfredi realized he’d learned a few important lessons. First off, it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, Life really isn’t fair, and even if you’re innocent, you can still be found guilty. When it comes right down to it, except for your real friends, you can’t trust anybody, especially the Church. That, and, as you travel through life, you will cross paths with people who are just plain mean. Mean. There’s no explanation for it, there’s no rhyme or reason to it, it’s just the way they are, and that sucks for the rest of us who are not. Yeah, life wasn’t fair, but it is made up of the stuff that makes for a good story, and a good story can take you far in life. Marco embraced the moment.

“So, the Coach takes the paddle…he stands up slowly…and bangs it against the wall three times, like a giant, and he says…Manfredi! Assume the position…”