GOD DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE

GOD DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE

Status: Finished

Genre: Memoir

Details

Status: Finished

Genre: Memoir

Summary

Childhood memories painted in sunshine anecdotes are eclipsed by a dark and disturbing incident involving a miscreant priest.

Summary

Childhood memories painted in sunshine anecdotes are eclipsed by a dark and disturbing incident involving a miscreant priest.

Content

Submitted: May 05, 2010

A A A | A A A

Content

Submitted: May 05, 2010

A A A

A A A


9,360 words





GOD DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE

Growing up Catholic in the sixties and early seventies was to leave me with a stigma that I would carry for the rest of my adult life. As much as I will attempt to paint my early catechism experiences with the sunny brushstrokes of humour, I must forewarn you that there is a very dark passage that in the end that will eclipse the aforementioned sunshine. Unfortunately it is a true passage wrought with guilt and seduction and it may prove offensive to those that prefer to see life through rose-coloured lenses and never dare to look beyond their dogmatic beliefs. This is by most accounts a confessional more than it is an attack on the Church. It is my way of dealing with my sins and the church’s malfeasant priests the best way I know how. I suppose I should start at the beginning.

My birth, as was told to me, was a traumatic one. The contractions kept coming strong and hard but nothing progressed. I had reached a certain point in the birth canal and then was stuck. Despite mother’s heroic attempts to push, my neonatal head was caught in a vice-like grip at the narrowest diameter of her pelvis. I was like one of those stubborn corks in a bottleneck that required an extra strong tug on the corkscrew. It is a fact that humans are bipedal, stand erect and have, in relation to the size of the female pelvis, the biggest head of any mammalian species. I imagine the cranial plates comprising my skull shifted like the earth’s continental plates in order for my head to squeeze through the birth canal. My skull was moulded and pressed into an exaggerated egg shape to accommodate passage. Finally the doctor was able to suck and pull at my head with ominous medieval looking inventions, not resembling a corkscrew, but serving a similar function. As the story was recounted to me, I was rescued with the help of a Ventouse vacuum and forceps. I was born Gordon Joseph Murphy, anno Domini 1957 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton Ontario.

Later, I was told that my father was horrified at the sight of my misshapen skull and believed it was some kind of birth defect. At first he was reluctant to claim this monster as his son. Sadly, the yellow knitted baby hat barely stretched over my long pointed cranium. It was said that at birth I resembled a pinkish giant squid with arms and legs dangling limply from a large conical-shaped head. Mother told me that she had called me the little Pope of St. Joseph’s maternity ward.

Once the cranial plates in my skull rounded to normal, I was baptised and as the church teaches, was magnificently bathed in the grace of God. I became a beacon of truth and purity and was without sin. Mother was a staunch Roman Catholic and it is no accident that the fabric of the Catholic Church, both the good and the bad, is woven through this passage from start to finish. Being Catholic was a two-edged sword; it meant that as well as attending a Catholic Church, you were enrolled in the Catholic School Board system.

As a young Catholic, I attended grade one at St. Helens Elementary school that was run by the principle nun. I don’t recall much of my early years and only remember the first part of my life experiences as a Catholic in snippets and snapshots. There is not much that I can recall of my early scholastic achievements in the Catholic school system but I must have learned my ABCs and how to read and write. In our homeroom classes, we would start each school day off singing God Save the Queen. As I said, I remember very little about my early pedagogical lessons. However, there are some classroom shenanigans that I do recall¾like being put in a corner for pulling Mary Claire’s ponytail. Then there was the time I stuck lead pencils into the ceiling tiles. It was unfortunate that one pencil succumbed to gravity and lodged pointy end first into the top of Mary Claire’s noggin. I can still hear her hysterical cries, “Teacher, teacher, Gordon Joseph Murphy stuck a pencil in my head!” Back in those days the nuns, especially the principal nun, would keep a leather strap at her desk. This isn’t hearsay because I had an extra thick layer of skin on my hands thanks to several “palms up” leather strap experiences.

The other classroom social activities that I can best recall are those special sawdust moments. Some poor little tyke (dare it never be you) would lose control of his or her bladder and the resulting puddle under the desk was subject matter for ridicule that I am sure left some poor children with lifelong shame. The taunting usually lasted only for the day, while other children sometimes dished out the ridicule through the entire school year. “Someone call the janitor, Johnny pooh-pooh has done it again!” Or it might be something like, “Poor Peter piddle pants!” But the worst of the calls for the janitor and his bucket of sawdust always came in the flu season. Some unlucky child would toss his or her breakfast onto the desk and it would splatter onto the back of the poor student in front. The magnificent result was two vomit smelling students in one projectile. It was like hitting the proverbial two birds with one stone. That is what I remember most of those romper room years and not so much of the ABC stuff. It must have been sometime after the point where we as young children managed to gain better control of our body fluid excretions, that I learned the three Rs.

There was one particular grade school project on Cuba that has left a lasting impression on me. The assignment was a great opportunity to gain insight into a foreign country. I recall writing about the importance of sugar cane and tobacco as Cuba’s main agricultural crops. Cuban sugar, rum and cigars were the country’s main exports. Of course I wrote about the countries communist leader, Fidel Castro and how he loved to smoke hand-rolled Cuban cigars. I even made a special cover for my project and painstakingly traced a map of the banana shaped island country. I coloured it in with those wonderful Crayola crayons. They were definitely a necessity to have in the young story teller’s toolbox.

The highlight of my Cuban project was a very interesting piece of research I did on the favourite sport of Cuban children called cockfighting! According to my encyclopaedia, cockfights were very popular in Cuba. But a problem arose when I had to make an oral presentation of my Cuban project to the class. My vocabulary was somewhat limited at that age. Somehow, it seemed my street education preceded my formal education of the birds and the bees and I was unaware that a cock was a rooster and that it was roosters fighting and not children pulling each other’s cocks as I had interpreted and subsequently reported in front of the class. Later I was to learn about the birds and the bees; that a male turkey was a tom, a male duck a drake, and a male rooster a cock. A male pigeon was a cock and so was a male crow but an owl was a male and his mate a female and a group of owls formed a parliament. It was an honest mistake, and I claimed ignorance to the greater knowledge of the birds and the bees.

The sad thing is that it wasn’t till years later that I figured out my mistake. It came to me one day when I replayed the briefing of my Cuba project in my mind‘s eye. I remembered getting near the end of my presentation when all of a sudden, our teacher, Ms. Spezialli, snorted coffee out through her rather large nose and tears welled up in her doe-like eyes. This was just after the good part of my presentation about the Cuban children enjoying cockfights. As I explained, I thought that cock pulling was something children did in third world countries as a sport. I can only hope you think I am making this up but unfortunately my street education in colloquial smut had gotten the better of me. At the time, I remember it seemed rude that Ms. Spezialli interrupted my presentation. She puked her hot coffee through her flaring nostrils and onto her white ruffled blouse. I couldn’t understand at the time why she had to go see the school nurse. I swear to this day that I saw her doubling over and howling in hysterical laughter as she clomped down the hallway in her platform heels.

On Sunday mornings we went to mass. Mom loved to get my brother and I all gussied up in our suits and dress shoes. Our hair was always short and the part was always straight. We cleaned up pretty well for a couple of project kids. Then off we would go to St. Eugene Church. It was the church where my younger brother and I were baptised and where we received the sacrament of Holy Communion for the first time. It was the church where I served as Altar boy but that was for such a short period of time that I don’t remember much of the whole cassock experience.

Back in those days they still said the mass in Latin and waved smoke from burning incense. The priest would come down the church isle in a procession with the alter boys carrying the cross, holy book, candle and incense burner. The only thing missing, in reflection, was the mirrors. The boy’s choir always left an eerie impression on me. The pre-pubescent treble chants of the male choir seemed to enhance the spiritual celebration of the liturgy but somehow it always seemed to leave me with a strange uneasy feeling. The biblical floods, burning bushes, fallen angels, and resurrected zombies of our catechism was as scary to me as Grimm’s fairy tales and the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. I recalled that as a youth, Catholicism with all its mysticism just down right scared the hell out of me. The Sacred Heart always reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Telltale Heart as I suppose they both beat into you the premise that confession eases a guilty conscience.

At the age of seven, I received the next sacrament of the Church: The Catholic Rite of first Holy Communion. The nuns prepared us by teaching us the act of contrition or penance, and then a parish priest heard our confessions. First Communion was a formal celebration, at least the small bits that I remember of it. The vestal virgins all wore white dresses with matching veils, shoes and gloves. The boys were all attired in suits and bow ties, and our hair was neatly groomed and slicked with Brylcream. We only had the one line or word to say. We would kneel at the step of the altar while the priest retrieved an unleavened host from the gold chalice and recited, “Corpus Christi-the body of Christ”. We would respond, “Amen”. The alter boy held a shiny gold plate under our chins as the priest offered us our first wafer of Holy Communion.

In order for Catholics to receive the “Body of Christ”, every Sunday, it was necessary to be in a state of grace. Ergo, we sinners became very familiar with the healing sacrament of confession and reconciliation to return us to a state of grace after a week full of sinning. “Penance! Penance! Penance!” Unfortunately, the Church confessionals got the better of me one time. I went in to tell my sins and I guess the priest was in the middle phone booth and listening to someone on the other side of him. It was so damn dark in there that I didn’t notice the little confessional window was closed and I began to recite my declaration.
“Bless me father for I have sinned, my last confession was …”
I didn’t hear a response so I started again. “Bless me Father…”
This time I was a little louder and very frustrated. I think it was the third go at it that I realized the priest wasn’t taking my confession; however, the people sitting in the last two pews were hearing it quite well. I am sure that the almighty heard me because I was hell bent that someone was going to answer. Besides, I had a serious matter to confess to and I wanted this sin to be erased before any more retribution came my way. Then my mother came and dragged me out of God’s phone booth by the arm in front of the congregation and that was embarrassing.

Sunday was not only a day of mass but also the day mother would host a family culinary tradition. The Sunday repast or dinner was most usually Pot Roast with mashed potatoes, gravy and vegetables. Other courses would include tomato juice, mixed salad, fresh baked dinner rolls and usually apple pie with ice cream for dessert. We always looked forward to that special meal of the week. It was even better than meatloaf Mondays, spaghetti Tuesdays or fish stick Fridays. Sunday evenings were awesome. After the huge feast, we would retire to the living room to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Our evening of television was usually topped off with the Wonderful World of Disney starting with a monologue from Walt himself. Then it was off to bed. Aside from mass, Sundays was the most favourite day of my childhood.

I think it was around the age of eight (grade 3) that I started having these horrible re-occurring dreams. I would be sitting down with the family to Sunday dinner and ready to dig in. Then my beef and potatoes would start moving on my plate! It was horrible, it made me gag and want to vomit. It took several of these reoccurring dreams before I was able to determine what was causing the food on my plate to move. Finally, one night I was able to vision in my dream what had been crawling under my dinner. In my dream that night, as it replayed like so many nights before, the beef and mashed potatoes with gravy started to move. This time I could see something moving under them. There were flipper like legs and a head protruding under my dinner. It was not one, but two Painted turtles! The turtles were buried under the mounds of mash potatoes, peas and beef. As they started to move, the food piled on their backs would move with them. Much like the myriad of other nights past, I felt terribly ill to my stomach. It was the sickliest feeling that I have ever experienced. I still remember those dreams today and I have long since analysed the underlying psychology.

The Sunday dinners represented the security and happiness of our family unit. My brother and I looked forward to that meal every week. Sunday was also the day we praised the Lord and went to celebrate his mass in our Sunday best. Our parents always made sure we were fed well, dressed neatly and were well-behaved Catholics. The turtles¾well they came into the story by way of St. Helens Elementary and require some further explanation.

One of my teachers in grade three had a turtle in a clear plastic aquarium with a plastic brown and green palm tree sticking up from an island. There was blue-coloured gravel in the bottom of the kidney-shaped aquarium. One day I impulsively decided to snatch the turtle and carry him home with me. I have no idea to this day why I kidnapped the turtle and took him captive. To my surprise, my parents let me keep the turtle after I must have made up some cockamamie story as to how I acquired this armoured reptilian. Dad went to the pet store and got another turtle to keep it company and he even bought me a turtle aquarium. We used to feed the little painted turtles lettuce and shave little chunks of red meat off these big bovine knucklebones that dad had brought home from the butcher shop for our hound to gnaw on.

Again, it wasn’t till years after Myrtle and Chucky turtle were long gone that I was able to analyse the cause of the reoccurring dreams. The nightmares that had made me violently ill to my stomach and break out in a cold sweat were the result of pure unadulterated guilt for stealing Myrtle from the classroom at St. Helens. Funny how the guilt had manifested itself into the most secure memory of those first eight Norman Rockwellian years of my life! Sunday family dinners were the warmest happiest memories of those early years and stealing the turtle was the worst offence that I had committed as a Roman Catholic. Thou shall not steal! I had broken one of the Ten Commandments and I was a sinner.

The dreams of guilt marked the end of my innocence. I had now reached the age of discretion and was morally capable of understanding right from wrong and therefore, of committing sin. Somehow, my conscious recognition of guilt had worked its way into my subconscious dreams and tormented me for many, many nights. As I eventually grew bigger from eating those wholesome Sunday Pot Roast dinners, so did my sins. As for the damn reoccurring turtle dream--it eventually vanished and I was much relieved about that.

After several years living in the housing project, Dad found a better job opportunity at a large steel company and soon after we moved into our own house in the northeast industrial area of Hamilton. That is to say it was north of Barton Street and east of the Centre Mall. Our first house was in an established Italian neighbourhood in a not so prestigious sector of the steel city. There were several Italian families living on our street and we often referred to our area as Little Italy. Two of the Italian households on our street were relations and all of the cousins were girls. As Italians were most likely to be Roman Catholics, there were a substantial number of Catholic schools and Italian churches in the area.

There was one summer I believed the neighbourhood Italian girls decided to get back at me for tormenting them about eating pigeons. I was delivering newspapers and a friend came riding up on his bike to my paper route and told me that I had to get back home and right away! Apparently, there was a police officer looking for me and he was at one of the Italian houses down the street from ours. Of course my dad was also looking for me and I had the feeling that this situation was going to get ugly. I had no idea what I had done or why a police officer and my dad were waiting for me, and I began to get very nervous. My heart was racing and I could feel the adrenaline pumping. My knees were shaking and I felt the strength leave my legs. I was a total wreck as I tried to imagine what I could have possibly done.

As I approached Rosanna’s house and the scene of the crime, I could see my father standing next to the police officer. I noticed a great look of consternation and disdain in my father’s face. The Italian girl Rosanna and her cousins the pigeon-eater sisters, Gina, Tina and Rosa, were sitting on Rosanna’s front porch. They each had had their turn testifying as eye witnesses to the crime that I had allegedly committed. They sat quietly together on the front porch steps watching the charade unfold as the police officer conducted his investigation. My father had heard the testimony of the Italian girls and he seemed eager to get to the bottom of this. He must have wondered how the son he raised could commit such a crime. I am sure my father must have thought I was guilty as I looked over at the four Italian girls sitting on the porch steps, each one looking like a little Madonna. Hell, one look at those Italian girls and I was even convinced that I was guilty. Besides, my telltale heart was pounding so hard that I thought it was going to make me confess before it jumped out of my chest.

Then out of the confusion, it suddenly became clear to me what this was all about. Someone had scratched the family car and the girls had watched me do it. Family cars were parked up and down both sides of our street, usually at the curb in front of their respective houses. I went up to investigate the extent of the damage and looked over the red Ford. On the dash was mounted a plastic statue of the blessed virgin and rosary beads were draped over the rear-view mirror. There were about a dozen or more scratches completely circling the whole car as if someone had run around it several times with a nail in their hand. The girls claimed I did it right in broad daylight in front of them earlier that day. Of course I protested that only a total moron would do such a thing. Surely the girls wouldn’t lie about something so serious! I supposed they were caught up in their own hysteria and that if one of them had claimed a visitation from the Virgin Mary, the others would claim the same. And the gathering crowd of nosy parkers would probably have believed them.

Then I recalled that my friend Billy and I had walked to the corner store earlier that day. Having noticed the girls sitting on the porch just as they were now, we stopped for a moment behind the car. Of course we didn’t scratch the car. We were just flirting with Rosanna. But the girls must have associated my presence at the car with guilt and swore that they had seen me scratch the car. They were eyewitnesses and I could hear the guilty gavel coming down. I knew that the girls didn’t see me scratch the car because I didn’t do it. An image flashed through my mind of all of them sitting on the porch steps wearing thick heavy glasses. No doubt the girls had gotten some pleasure in watching me squirm. This, I thought was God getting back at me for all the times I raided their backyard gardens and called them pigeon eaters.

Even dad was pretty disappointed with me. It certainly wasn’t looking good for the home team. A large crowd had gathered around the spectacle and I felt like I was the freak at a three-ring circus. Just when I thought things had sunk about as low as they could get, there was a stroke of luck in my favour. The neighbour man directly across the street from Rosanna’s house opened his front door and offered testimony to the police officer.
“My car was keyed around two a.m. this morning!” He said.
“Wow, sweet mother of vindication!” I thought.
The officer went over to take the man’s statement. I stormed away immediately and would have nothing to do with any of them. Obviously, the thugs keyed Rosanna’s car at the same time they vandalized the blue Chrysler across the street. These were not two random acts. It would be ludicrous to believe that vandals keyed the one car in the cloak of darkness and another moron keyed the car across from it in broad daylight in front of witnesses. That was a pretty traumatic day in my life. Having witnesses that swear they saw me commit a crime that I really didn’t commit! There are some other stories that come to mind about the Italian girls but I think for now that I will stop peeling that cipolla at this layer. Fuggedaboudit.
***
St. Anthony’s was a massive almost cathedral size church with Italian marble floors, stained glass windows and towering arches. Up and down each side of the church under individual arches, were life size Stations of the Cross. A huge bigger than life marble statue of a crucified Jesus Christ hung on the east wall behind the Altar. At the west wall of the church were the phone booths, dark brown carved oak confessionals with black curtains drawn across them. At the opposite corner of the west end of the church there was a large copper stand holding numerous short, fat red candles. Mother would always have us drop coins in a tin box and light a prayer candle for the dead. I never could understand why we had to light a candle for someone in heaven. “Pray for the souls in purgatory,” she would say.

I remember being confirmed around age twelve or thirteen and that, I supposed to be my welcoming into the church as a full-fledged member. Confirmation was another of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. It was meant to strengthen our union with God as we welcomed the Holy Spirit inside us. The boys all wore suits on confirmation day. The girls were all in white dresses with veils, and shiny white shoes, with white knee-high socks. They were all vestal virgins at twelve and thirteen in those days, so I suppose it was okay for them to wear white. Except for Marry-Anne Forrester! She had gigantic knockers for a thirteen year old and I even think she had a boyfriend that went to high school. I remember trying to cop a feel of Mary-Anne’s gigantic blossoms in the cloakroom at the back of the class. She said she was very surprised that someone well behaved like me would try that. She didn’t seem to mind the least bit, just a little bit shocked that I was interested in touching her breasts. Hell, every other guy in the class had bragged about touching them and I didn’t want to be thought of as a goody-two-shoes. After all, I had committed the great turtle heist and was almost taken to jail for keying a car.

As the priest bestowed the blessed sacrament of confirmation on us, I remember looking across at the other side of the church and watching Mary-Anne’s breasts heave as her lungs sucked in air. Most of the other Madonna-wannabes were lucky to fill their training bras, but that Mary-Anne was something else. Seeing her dressed in white, with her radiating smile showing behind her beaded white veil. I suppose I was filled with something that day, but I don’t believe it was the Holy Spirit. The church and the Catholic catechism was a pretty mystic place for my young developing mind and the female body was another vessel of mystery that began to stir my restless soul. The Catholic Church and the Catholic Separate School Board system had possession of my soul and my mind, but I was much more interested in the physical mysteries of pubescent girls.

Our new school in the northeast sector was called Holy Name of Jesus, and it went from kindergarten up to grade eight. I guess there was a time before I terrorized the neighbourhood and the pigeon-eater sisters, that I was better behaved. To my credit, I wasn’t a total loss in my youth. The teachers at Holy Name of Jesus picked me from the grade eight class to be the master of ceremonies for the school Christmas pageant. I did pretty well as I recall. There were an awful lot of penguins in the front two rows of the audience. Nuns and priests were coming out of the woodwork to see our Christmas pageant, or so it seemed. One of my teachers, Mrs. Krazwick wanted me to tell a joke to entertain the priests, nuns and parents. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was the corniest joke in the world and I wasn’t about to embarrass myself. After all would you tell the joke about a student who was doing a religious painting and his teacher approached him, “Very good Johnny, I see Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, and the Archangel.
Little Johnny smiled. The teacher looking a bit puzzled, pointed to the corner of Johnny’s painting. “But what is this big black spot in the bottom corner of the painting?”
“Well, it’s a Flea.” Johnny replied.
“A Flea?” The teacher asked.
“Well, yes, the Archangel told Joseph to take Mary and the Baby Jesus and Flea to Egypt.” Johnny explained.
I mean come on ‘flee to Egypt’. She ran me for both nights of the pageant trying to get me to tell that dumb homophone joke but I didn’t cave. I had my reputation to keep. But I was damned for not telling that joke and it has haunted me all these years. I felt as if I had crushed Ms. Krazwick’s heart. I have often wondered if my refusal to tell the joke was symptomatic of my colloquial misunderstanding of the word cockfight. Maybe I should have told them all the story about the boy who thought a Cuban cockfight was a game that children played.

By grade eight, Rosanna was really starting to blossom and we had exchanged a few pleasantries in the schoolyard. It was at the ripe age of thirteen that I really began to notice the changes in girls my age and the affect their changes had on me. There was just something about the female breasts that bubbled my blood and stirred in me desires that I didn’t know how to deal with. In the past, Rosanna and I had exchanged experimental kisses and petting as the opportunity presented itself. The one thing that did stand out in my memory was the fact that her breath was much more pungent than other girls that I had kissed--not that I had kissed very many. Her hot breath, I deduced, was on account of the strongly spiced salamis, pepperoni and other garlic pork sausages that I believed Italians loved to eat. Aside from the spicy breath, Rosanna had really grown two very large breasts or tette enormi, that I was sure would be fun to fondle. It was during one of our schoolyard chat sessions that Rosanna and I had conspired to take our petting experiment to the next level.

And so on that chosen Saturday, I rode my bike up to the front lawn of her house at the other end of our street and bravely went up those steep narrow stairs to the bathroom where she was waiting for me. Rosanna’s cousin Gina was over visiting at the house and she would not leave, so Rosanna took her young pigeon-eating cousin to the bedroom and swore her to secrecy. I closed the bathroom door behind us and we just stood there and looked at each other. It was very awkward and I hadn’t yet read the manual on sex. We finally warmed up with some harmless kissing and petting. I put my hand on her breasts and there was no resistance. Then I dropped my jeans to my ankles and waited for Rosanna to start taking off her blouse.

Just as my sexual excitement began to peak, there was this horrendous scream of terror. Little Gina pigeon-eater had been totally freaked out because Rosanna and I were exploring each other in the bathroom. Although she didn’t know exactly what was going on, something must have really spooked her. Little Gina pigeon-eater seemed out of her mind and was screaming like a banshee. I am not really sure what a banshee scream is like, but I am sure Gina was screaming louder than any old banshee could. Rosanna ran out of the bathroom to see what was happening and I just stood there dumbfounded with my pants down around my ankles. Gina was crying hysterically in the bedroom but I couldn’t figure out why, as she was much too young to understand anything about sex. Then again, at the ripe age of thirteen, I wasn’t much of an expert myself! But at least I wasn’t screaming. It sounded like Rosanna had finally gotten Gina settled down from her fit of hysteria. I was still shaking and bent over to pull up my jeans over my knocking knees.

There I was at the top of the stairs in the bathroom doorway when Rosanna’s Nonna came charging up the steep narrow stairs. At first I thought about running back into the bathroom and locking the door, but then I would have been trapped. Time was running out as she had almost made her way to the top of the stairway. She kept one hand on the rail and in the other she was waving some kind of weapon. She got so close to me that I could smell the odour from her armpit. I stood there frozen as Nonna came charging at me. Well I shouldn’t exactly say charging, as she was a short heavy grandma with grey steel wool hair and very fat ankles. Nevertheless, she had blocked my escape route at the top of the stairs and I was panic struck.

Then there was another loud scream, but this time it wasn’t Gina! Maybe it was more like a pig squealing, but it seemed to be coming from my vocal cords. La Nonna was getting closer and closer to where I could see the big hairy wart on her chin and I could smell her terrible body odour. I had nowhere to go! Nonna got to the top of the stairs and I had no option but to squeeze past her smelly armpit and the wall to make my escape. She took a few frantic swings with the long wooden spoon and caught me once on the noggin. I almost laughed as I could hear the echo from the wooden spoon cracking across my coconut. I felt something wet run down my face. Oh my God I was bleeding, she had cut my skull open! Then I realized it wasn’t blood. Nonna could have at least wiped the spaghetti sauce off of the spoon.

I flew down those steps so fast that I think I left my shadow standing still like on a cartoon and almost tumbled head over heels down the steep stairwell. The last thing I remember was turning back to look at those stairs after I made it out the front door and onto the porch. I saw La Nonna put her index finger on her cheek pulling open her right eye so that I could see the red orbital muscles underneath her eyeball. She said a few words in Italian that I couldn’t make out and then she spat as I picked up my bike off the front lawn and rode off.

To this day I swear that old woman put some kind of curse on me. I never did get the chance to make out with Rosanna again. There were times I went by that house on the way to the store or to Sunday mass, and old La Nonna would be sitting on the porch. She would raise her finger to her eye as if to remind me that she was watching me.
***
There was a bunch of us kids that used to run together; Billy and his cousin Dino, Albert and his younger brother Donnie, Tony, the two Scallachi brothers, and of course my little brother and I. Albert was the largest of us all and he and I butted heads for the leadership role of our little pack on many occasions. We would often duke it out like two prizefighters going toe to toe. I had to adopt a kind of hit and run boxing tactic as Albert outweighed me by about 60 pounds. Albert was big and sluggish, but if he caught me flat-footed, I usually ended up stopping his fist with my face.

One time we were all goofing around and Donnie got around behind my brother Georgie and went down on all fours as Albert pushed Georgie backwards. Poor Georgie went ass over teakettle. And poor Albert Ramsbutt was picking up his front tooth out of the dirt after I dislodged it with one blow. I didn’t like anyone picking on my little brother. This was our neighbourhood gang. We had our disagreements but we were generally just active kids sewing our seeds. It wasn’t until a little later that we started to get into any serious mischief.

There was a local corner store that caught fire and burned up pretty good. The store was all boarded up pending an insurance investigation. One night, we planned an incursion requiring military stealth and organisation. Our target was that same variety store two blocks away that had recently caught fire and was now sealed up with plywood. Our gang decided we would wait until the curtain of darkness veiled our neighbourhood, and then, dressed in dark clothing and armed with flashlights, we would investigate the contents of the store. We used a crowbar to pry off the board that covered the back door entry. As we entered, there was still a strong presence of smoke and the walls were mostly charred from the fire. The store counter shelf had survived the brunt of the fire and it was still stacked with several cartons and packages of cigarettes. None of us really smoked, but we grabbed as many packages of cigarettes as we could carry. We joked that the cigarettes were probably going into an insurance smoke sale anyways. With the stealth of ninjas, we hastened out of the store with our loot and put the plywood board back in place. One of the guys had access to a little garden shed that we used as our clubhouse, and we stashed our cigarettes and loot there.

We had our own little cache of cigarettes and thought we had a good thing going until dad found cigarette burns on my brother Georgie’s jacket. There was hell to pay and my brother and I were both summoned to the toilet bowl to smoke fat Castro Cuban cigars. Dad watched over us as we hung our heads over the toilet. He was doing his best to make sure that we inhaled. Of course I faked it. Even faked the green gills and teary red eyes. I couldn’t puke though. That would have been the Oscar winning performance if I could have pulled that off. There was one more part to the punishment and I had almost forgot to mention it. We had to put some money from our paper routes into the collection plate at Sunday mass. It wasn’t too often that mother got involved in the discipline as that was father’s job, but this time she insisted that we confess our sins in God’s phone booth. The final tally for the cigarette caper was one stogie, 50 cents, ten Hail Mary’s and five Our Fathers. Then our sins were forgiven, provided we were truly contrite in our act of penitence.

On one adventurous summer occasion, our gang planned a much more congenial group outing. We decided to take a long trek down the Red Hill Valley. The valley was the drainage path scribed by a creek as it made its way down the escarpment and emptied into Lake Ontario. Albert and his brother Donnie, Dino and his cousin Billy, Tony and the Scallachi brothers came along with Georgie and I to hike the Red Hill Creek. It was a beautiful trail of water flanked on both sides by greenery. The area had once been protected from urban development, but there were city plans awaiting approval to develop a parkway. It was a gorgeous summer day and to us the creek was an oasis amongst the brick and mortar of the sprawling city that it dissected. That day, it was our own little escape from the noise and bustle of the city.

The creek was pretty wide and at places it ran a few feet deep. The bottom was mostly soft clay and we were able to take our shoes off to navigate it while keeping cool in the summer heat. A couple of us brought old army surplus rucksacks to carry our lunches in. I wouldn’t go anywhere without a pack of cigarettes and a couple of bottles of cola with me. It was a beautiful hot summer day and the green space was like our own little paradise hidden away from the concrete slabs of city streets, paved lots and high rise apartments.

Dino, the small quiet one in our group, had pulled out a large green bottle of homemade Italian vino that he had pilfered from his father’s cellar stash. We passed around the purple drink of Jesus and celebrated the wonders of being young and free. Most of us were smoking the stolen cigarettes that we kept stashed in our little clubhouse. Life was good for the moment, and we soaked it up. We seemed to be united in our little adventure, the sun, the wine and the nicotine.

The green patch drowned out any signs of the urban bustle, and we listened to the birds as they broke the silence of the valley. Everything was going swell on the hike until one of the guys let a wail out of him that chilled us all to the bone. It was Donnie. At first we thought a snapping turtle or something bit him. Donnie came hopping out of the creek on one leg screaming like a banshee. As I admitted before, I am not exactly sure what a banshee screams like, but I think it is pretty safe to say that Donnie was screaming louder than Little Gina pigeon-eater did the time La Nonna caught me in the bathroom with Rossana.
“Damn,” I said. “What’s the matter Donnie?”
His brother Albert came running to his side with a look of concern. The rest of the guys beached out of the creek to see what had happened to Donnie. And then it became quite apparent to me.
“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” I said.
I took a deep pull from my cigarette and made the end light up like an amber coal. I blew a few smoke donuts in the air and made the sign of the cross with my cigarette. “Nominee Padre, Son and Holy Ghost. I butted the end of my cigarette into an enormous leech that had been sucking blood from Donnie’s leg. It shrivelled and fell off leaving a trickle of blood run down Donnie’s ankle. I looked over at Georgie who had turned a ghastly pale colour from the exorcism and had to sit down. The others started to frantically check their feet and ankles and rolled their pants up just a little higher to make sure that no bloodsuckers had crawled up their legs. Needless to say we put our socks and shoes back on and walked the shore trail back home. On the way back, Albert was scratching his crotch and I called out to him in front of the others,
“Hey Albert you got one of those bloodsuckers in your crotch?”
“Ha ha, very funny.” He said.
I remember laughing to myself as I spied his uvula through the hole where his front tooth used to be. Billy decided to join in the canter.
“Yea Donnie, you came hopping out of there like a one legged man running away from an ass kicking contest.”
Tony chastised Billy for his unoriginal joke,
“Hey Billy, what do you call a man with no arms and no legs floating in the creek?” Tony asked.
Nobody spoiled his fun.
“Bob!” Tony answered. “What do you call a man with no arms and no legs water skiing?” Tony asked.
“Skip.” He answered.
We were all laughing despite that fact that we all knew the punch lines, but the whole ordeal with Donnie and the warm sunshine and purple wine had us all in good spirits.
Tony continued with his onslaught as we were literally rolling over in childish laughter.
“What do you call a man with no arms and no legs hanging on a wall?” Tony asked.
“Art!” He answered.
“What do you call a man with no arms and no legs in the trunk of your Car?”
“Jack!” He said.
“Okay, Tony enough already.” Georgie laughed.
I think all of us remembered that day as kind of a spiritual bonding between boyhood friends. At least for me it is a story I recount with a smile on my face and a warm and fuzzy feeling.

In the summer days of my 14th year I was introduced to the so called devil’s music. The opportunity presented itself when an older teenager moved into the stucco house across the road from us and next to Albert and Donnie Ramsbutt’s brick house. He had a turntable, record collection and a continuous stash of pot. Those were the magic party ingredients paving the way to a wrong turn in the road. Our new longhaired neighbour would sneak us into his basement and we would listen to Black Sabbath. Those were truly sessions of discovery as he passed on to us the torch of heavy metal rock, pot and long hair. I came close to smoking my first marijuana cigarette in that basement with Billy and his cousin Dino. I turned down the offer having remembered the recent death of Dino’s sister Annette. She was only a year older than us and she died that year from an overdose of prescription meds that she had stolen from her dad’s medicine cabinet. They said her head swelled right up like a balloon ready to explode. Annette’s friend Dawn use to come down to longhair’s basement and listen to Black Sabbath with the rest of us. Dawn had beautiful long hair and wore stylish round rose-coloured glasses. She wore elephant flared pants that fit tight around her pert ass and she would often go barefoot. I had the biggest crush on her.

It was at this time that dad had bought a house in the country on the shores of another Great lake called Erie and he decided it was worth the commute to work. The small town only had one public high school. There was one Catholic church, St. Michaels, and our family became part of the flock.

The following school year, I was exposed to the precarious subculture of underage drinking. I began to frequent house parties and school dances. My grades had dropped significantly and I had dropped a lot of classes. I was a handful for the school and my parents didn’t know what to do with me. I remember the parish priest, Father O’Reilly, had come over for a chat with our parents and for a few shots of whiskey. He was an Irishman and he had a strong fondness for whiskey. He offered to drive me to Toronto on a respite to help take my mind off things. Maybe he could help talk me through some of my alcohol problems. It didn’t take Father long to sell my parents on the idea. Once he knew he had my parents on the hook, he turned to me.
“What do you think, we can drive to Toronto, see a movie and getaway for a night?”
I really didn’t think much of it and I had only been to Toronto a couple of times. I shrugged my shoulders and kind of said I didn’t care either way. I didn’t think too much of it at the time.
I recalled a time when we lived in Hamilton, a parish priest from St. Anthony’s took about a half dozen of our catholic league kids to visit Niagara Falls. It was kind of a fun day and we went into the Wax Museum and checked out the Horseshoe Falls. The priest was a pretty cool guy. We learned later that he left the priesthood to get married. I remember thinking that he was a pretty young guy to be a priest. I didn’t realize at that time that priests were human with human desires! So I didn’t think much of it when Father O’Reilly offered to take me to Toronto.

Father O’Reilly was a welcomed guest in many of the parishioner’s homes. I would often see him at Christmas parties or weddings, sipping his whiskey and being the life of the party. He was great at telling those old jokes with his Irish accent and his congenial laugh. The next weekend he came to pick me up. He wasn’t wearing his clergy neckband shirt. Instead he was wearing a beige car jacket and black dress pants with a dark grey cotton shirt. I never imagined that priests ever took off their clergy collars unless they were wearing their bed clothes. He came to pick me up in his big silver mercury marquis. He was kind of a diminutive old fella and he looked a little funny driving behind the wheel of that big boat of a car. It was almost a two-hour drive to Toronto.

Father O’Reilly stopped at a motel somewhere in the greater downtown area. He had me sit in the car while he went in and got us a room for the night. I just remember sitting in the car and seeing some flashing neon light with the letter T in motel burned out. A homeless person was packing his belongings in a shopping buggy. I noticed he had pissed himself and was drinking blue Aqua Velva aftershave from the bottle. Nothing but the best, I thought. Then Father climbed back in the vehicle and we went to a local bar. I was under the drinking age that was 18 at the time but Father assured the barkeep that I was legal. We drank some beers and shot some pool. Then off we went to the movie.

It was Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein. Pretty funny movie really. I loved Mel Brooks, but I didn’t realize how much this black and white parody on the Frankenstein monster was going to haunt me later. After the movie Father O‘Reilly picked up a small case of beer. I was all for Father O’Reilly’s concept of alcohol counselling. It was almost as good as dad’s cigar remedy to cigarette smoking. We took the six-pack of Michelob and went back to the room.

What a fucking seedy f--g pit! There was only one bed and I was sure that giant cockroaches were hiding under it. I looked at Father in disgust. I grabbed a Michelob and popped it open using the bottle opener that was mounted on the bathroom vanity. There was a small black and white TV in the room. I sucked back a beer and then another, and another. I decided to take a shower to be alone with my thoughts, and grabbed another beer to take with me. After a long shower, I towelled off and returned to the room.

I turned on the TV. Godfather I was on and I watched it from the bed sipping beer. I started to dose off. I remember hearing Father O’Reilly head off to the bathroom and then I fell asleep. I awoke as he propped himself on the bed. I felt like I was trapped and there was only one bed in the room. I was lying on my side as close to the left side of the bed as I could get. I felt him lean over me and pull my briefs down under my scrotum. I froze and pretended I was asleep. He started tugging my penis. I couldn’t fucking believe it. I didn’t move. Why didn’t I get up and smash his fucking head in? He wiped my cock with the sheets and then rolled over. I didn’t move a muscle for the rest of the night. I couldn’t believe it and I replayed it over and over in my head that I had just let a Roman Catholic Priest masturbate me.

Sometime that morning, I fell asleep. Sometime earlier that night I fell from grace. I should have seen this coming. He was a pro and I am sure he had done this many times before. That night I dreamt that I was Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein monster with a misshapen pointed squid head. Father O’Reilly was Dr. Frankenstein. He made me the monster I was. He destroyed my innocence. He injected in me a cynicism against the Catholic Church and all of human kind. He took away my chastity and robbed me of my manhood. I could never step in a Catholic Church again.

The ride home was pretty quiet and tense. Neither of us spoke. The am-fm radio was on and we listened. It was raining hard and I almost hoped we would slide off the road and smash into an overpass. The constant swish-swash of the wipers was numbing me back to sleep. I felt deathly sick from the beers and rolled down the window to vomit. Some of it hit the side of the car door and I laughed to myself. Clean that shit up you mother fucker. The rain felt good as it hit my face but it couldn’t cleanse my sins or the foul taste of vomit in my mouth. I rolled the window back up. I felt unholy like I was the fallen angel Milton described in Paradise Lost, “Satan was ‘brighter once amidst the host of Angels, than that star the stars among.”
My thoughts flashed back to the past and all my ecumenical experiences replayed before me: baptism, first communion, confirmation and even my brief apprenticeship as an alter boy. Everything about the Catholic Church that was holy and sanctimonious was crushed. I could hear the boy Soprano with the angelic voice chanting in my head. Catholics would come from other parishes just to hear him sing in St. Anthony’s choir. One day the boy came of age and could no longer sing the upper ranges.

I recalled the Meadowlark that I had been listening to as a boy, struck down from the trees with a slingshot while in mid song …Charlton Heston holding the Ten Commandments flashed before my eyes, but I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t anything on the tablets that commanded -Thou shall not masturbate your flock.

O’Reilly dropped me off at the lake house and I don’t remember much after that. Just that the experience had left me numb. Now I had something to hide; a dark unholy secret. I think that was the worst of it. This was a shameful act and the guilt that I had to keep locked inside that inner sanctum where evil thoughts and horrible deeds were hidden away. God didn’t live there anymore.



© Copyright 2019 Gordon J. All rights reserved.

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