NEVER HUG A NUN


spring

~ chapter one ~

THE NUN FIRED A WARNING GLANCE around the first-grade classroom. “Listen up,” she said as she clicked on the projector and her doughy face floated in the light slicing up through the top of the slide carousel. “Today you’re going to learn how God made the universe and everyone here out of utter nothingness.” The children got quiet. The nun took a deep breath. It was a lot of work, creation, and this was her twenty-ninth year restaging the event.

Click. Click. The nun advanced the slides. “You’re about to see what everything looked like before God created anything,” she said.

Students leaned forward to learn this hidden truth. The only sound was the whirr of the projector’s cooling fan. Eyes widened. Toes tensed inside tasseled shoes and penny loafers. Click. Click. The first slide was supposed to show a dim slate of unending nothingness. But over Christmas break, a wool fiber from a nun’s holiday scarf had drifted in there. It trembled in the fan breeze like a serpent. Outraged, the nun jabbed a number two pencil in the slide carousel to dislodge it. Students watched the battle play out on the screen as the fiber wriggled out of reach, defying the nun’s swordsmanship. She stopped and looked at the screen, as if defeated, then launched a second, even more lethal attack, huffing and puffing around the projector, attempting to outflank the fiber from the left. She jabbed the pencil with the zeal of an archangel. But it was no use. The fiber refused to surrender. The nun sighed, put down her pencil, and clicked ahead to the next slide.

“And the Lord said, ‘Let there be light,’” she intoned.

Sitting in the second row, third seat from the window, Patrick Cantwell wasn’t paying any attention. He had discovered something far more interesting than creation, something he was feeling for the very first time. It was a feeling that made him wonder what was happening to him. It was an all new thing. On the surface, he looked incapable of the new thing. Too young, too much like his classmates—locked in lines of khaki, plaid and pine. But in the darkness of the slide show, his mind—and his heart—wandered.

He looked at the girl.

The nun saw him looking at the girl. She cleared her throat and Patrick looked back at the slide show. He tried to pay attention, but this production was worse than a Japanese monster movie. It was fake and impractical. For one thing, why would Adam take a nap half-naked in the mud, covered with only a few leaves here and there, which could be poison ivy, and, on top of that, risk waking up with ants and spiders crawling up his nose? If he’d had any sense, he would’ve made a hammock like they had on Gilligan’s Island and not slept on the ground.

“And the Lord God built the rib which he took from Adam into a woman,” the nun explained.

Patrick looked back at the girl.

Ebby Hamilton was sitting in the desk next to his, writing her name on a piece of paper—in cursive. Wow. He and the other first-graders only knew how to print. But it was not her penmanship that made him shiver as if he had just swallowed cough syrup. Maybe it was her black hair streaked with light brown, her smart eyes intent on her cursive letters, her no-good-for-sports stick arms, her plaid jumper and green socks in brown tassel shoes. Despite the way he usually felt like burping around girls, his mind ran away with her to the golf course. He was with her on the fairway by the railroad tracks, holding her fingertips, dancing with her in big, wide circles. It was the new thing, and it was breathtaking.

“And the Lord saw that it was good,” the nun said. “Tomorrow we’ll have the fall of Adam and Eve.”

The final bell rang. It was three o’clock. The fluorescent ceiling lights flickered on with an institutional hum, and children sprang up row by row to get their windbreakers and metal lunch boxes from the cloakroom. Patrick tried to sit still and wait his turn, but he was fidgety and worried. Was she really going to do it? Would she really do that?

Patrick had been studying her. In the lunchroom, on the playground and in class, he had overheard and observed much about her without being noticed. Once, they even drank from the double drinking fountain together. Their faces, just inches apart, were red from an April recess, when suddenly a slender loop of her hair swooped near his mouth. He gulped the water and wondered what to say when they came up for air. But she wiped her mouth and walked away. Nothing came of it.
Today was different. He had to gather the courage to talk to her. Otherwise … well, there was no otherwise. Her plan was just too dangerous. He had to stop her.

“Don’t forget to practice printing Q, R, S, T, U, V,” the nun said. “And I want to see a difference between your U’s and V’s. No sagging bottoms.”

Girls chattered out the door, then down the steps and out into the sunshine. Finally, his turn came, and he headed for the door, but ended up stuck in a logjam of slow boys in ratty blue sweaters. He grabbed his metal Wonderful World of Disney lunch box, pushed his way through the crowd and ran down the steps outside.

“Hey, no running!” yelled a crew-cut Webelo patrol guard. Patrick ignored him and sped down the sidewalk.

Something changed in the solar system at three o’clock. Everyone was liberated, happier than they’d been just two minutes earlier. Hundreds of girls in green plaid, boys in khaki and white, streamed away from the school. They screamed and laughed as they ran. Papers flew. Schwinns with baseball cards flapping on the spokes rolled by. An orange school bus hunched and squeaked, kids bouncing on its seats. The science teacher who was not a nun tried to start her Volkswagen Beetle while the cafeteria lady lugged out another sack of milk pennies to deposit at the bank. Everyone fled. Everyone felt the change. Everyone except the piano students who marched like lifers to the nun’s stone house to practice their scales.

Patrick hopped over some Vatican-style bushes and ran past the church rummage sale sign toward Ebby, who was already flying across the front steps of the church. Her path crossed the afternoon shadow cast from the giant gold-plated statue of Mary on the church roof. She ran past the janitor who, in anticipation of the coming Easter festivities, dripped gasoline from a red can onto the spring’s first sidewalk weeds. Then she ducked her head and disappeared through the arching hedge line that marked the end of the church property.

The janitor kept pouring gasoline as he watched Patrick run after the girl. He shook his head and offered up a Hail Mary. Shooting through the hedge, Patrick saw her flying down the sidewalk toward the train bridge. He ran faster. Pepsi cans, dead leaves, and decayed school papers blurred underfoot, and as he ran, he could hear it—the afternoon freight train. The engine sounded serious. He could see it approaching, spewing out blue-black smoke, leaning forward toward the bridge as if racing the girl to the finish line. Patrick caught up with her, and their shoes slapped the sidewalk—clap clop, clap clop, clap clop—like the horses in Ben Hur.

“Don’t do it,” he yelled. “My dad says you can get killed up there.”

“Have to! She’s having it today,” she yelled back.

At the bottom of the embankment leading up to the bridge, he stopped. She ran ahead of him, scrambling up the gravel path toward the top. He looked to the left. The train was nearing the far side of the bridge. His dad had told him to never ever ever go up there on the tracks. The train thundered onto the bridge. It would be a sin, his dad warned, a sin against the commandment to Honor Your Father and Mother. He watched the girl climb with her skinny legs. His heart went after her, and his legs followed.

Dropping his lunchbox on the sidewalk, he ran up the hill. Gravel slipped under his penny loafers. Afraid and panting, he grabbed onto the weeds to pull himself higher. The engines shook the bridge. The horn blasted. She was at the top, flexing her knees. She looked back at him.

“C’mon,” she yelled. He caught up and reached out for her just as she jumped. Her pleated uniform skirt filled with air as she leaped across the tracks. He closed his eyes and jumped after her. He was airborne, like he was jumping the Grand Canyon. Faced with certain death, he wondered what his Mom was cooking for dinner. Would it be good? Maybe pizza or hamburgers? Or would it be gross? Like the beef stew he and his brothers called beef poo?

The engine missed him by sixteen inches. A violent pocket of air threw him to the side, and he landed, sprawling in the rocks beside the girl. The horn stopped, but the blast still rang in his ears.

“I wished for a sister!” she yelled. She jumped up, shook her fist at the train and laughed.

The engineer stuck his head out the side window and looked back at them. His cap blew off. Patrick and the girl waved to him, but the engineer shook his fist back at them and opened his monkey-wrench jaw to curse them. They couldn’t hear him over the engines, and besides, they didn’t care what he had to say. They had done it. They had jumped the tracks and survived.

But the anger of the train made the ground quake and the skin on their faces vibrate. Rushing air tore through the tall grass and blew back their hair. Coal cars raged forward, yellow and gritty, wheels thumping and slicing along the rails. The wooden ties dipped up and down in the rock roadbed. It was a huge train, a half-mile column of rolling death and they had mocked it.

“We shouldn’t have done it,” he yelled.

“I hope I get my wish,” she shouted.

“What do you mean, get your wish?”

She cupped her hands to his ears. They were warm and her voice was soft like maple syrup.

“I can’t have another brother,” she said. “I hate my brother. He hit me for breaking his stupid model car, and when he got grounded, I told him I wished he was dead and wished for a sister to take over his stupid room. He told me I’d never get a sister, because the only way to get a wish for sure is to jump in front of a train at the exact same time you say your wish.”

She backed away from him and shook her fist again at the train. “Hah. I did it. He’ll see. When it’s a girl, he’ll see.”

Together they watched the coal cars and caught their breath in the warm, train air. He turned to study her, the way her brown eyes squinted as the wind blew her hair in swirls around her head. Her hair tangled in her tapered fingers as she tried to move it off her face. He wanted to hold her hand.

“What do you wish for?” she said.

He knew it was a lie, that she had been deceived. You couldn’t get a wish by jumping in front of a train, especially since it was a sin to even be on the tracks. But he couldn’t tell her that. He glanced at his pants and noticed they were filthy. He thought of his Mom, and was ashamed. She was the one who made everyone in the family try to be good and wear clean underwear.

“C’mon, tell me, what you wish for.”

“I guess, I just want to go to heaven someday,” he said.

A defective coal car rattled by. “You have to wish for something real, like a bike,” she shouted. She stood up and jabbed her hands toward the wheels to tease the train. The train couldn’t reach her, so she laughed. “I’ve got to go and find out if it’s a girl!” He lay in the grass and watched her leave. She slid down the other side of the embankment through the weeds. She skipped down the sidewalk, not looking both ways as she crossed the street. Her hair bounced and she got smaller as she disappeared down Main Street.

Patrick looked back at the train. It was going faster. Coal cars rocked from side to side. They smelled oily, like the trashcans from a hundred gas stations. He knew the caboose would be coming, so he covered himself in the tall weeds. His Dad had warned him about how caboose men shoot rifles with rock salt at boys they see on the tracks. The caboose passed. The after-wind tugged at the trees and shook the leaves as it whooshed around the curve and sucked all the noise with it. He stood up.

He ran and picked up the engineer’s cap and put it on. He stood there in his cap and looked at the forbidden bridge. The word SHIT was spray-painted on the inside walls. He read it for the first time. His tongue touched the roof of his mouth as he said it, twice. SHIT. SHIT. It meant nothing. His eyes ran over the purple weeds and the scrub brush that grew up along the tracks as far as he could see. In the distance, he could see the golf course fairway where he had imagined dancing with her. He took a deep breath and felt the new thing. But then he looked again at his dirty pants and grass-stained white shirt. He realized he would have to sneak in the house, that he’d have to get his pants past Mom.

He hid the engineer’s cap in some weeds, and went down the hill to get his lunch box. But it was dented and scratched and reminded him of what he had done wrong. He threw it in the bushes and ran home.