I'm not exactly certain how long it was
before we all heard about it --- it
couldn't have been all that long.
He was still alive, at least he was
still clinically alive, I can tell you that,
because the nuns in the front office
who got the word sent a shrill,
frantic plea for prayer ringing feedback
through the school's P.A. system.
Immediate, and in heavy volume.
We dropped to the floor by our Lilliputian
desks in that first grade classroom
just as quick as we did for our
weekly atomic attack drills.
But instead of covering our heads
with our hands crouched under our
desktops so conquering trashmongering Sovvies
would find perfect rows of
charred and smashed little kiddle corpses
when Nikita let the other shoe drop,
we stayed there on our knees mumbling
host upon host
of Hail Marys
and Our Fathers
and Apostles' Creeds
in a wild blurting
paroxysm of prayer.
Kennedy was dying.
The next day,
Sister Mary Selestine led us
in an echoey hushed novena
for JFK's eternal soul.
In our spartan classroom,
with only a list detailing
an ancient windup Regulator clock
and a crucifix
to break the monotony of the yellowy,
water-damaged plaster-and-lathe walls.
She took a deep, halting breath,
overcame her betraying emotion ---
and regaining her usual persona,
cast steely eyes over the 39 six-year-olds
comprising her captive ideological constituency.
"Has anyone in our class lost a family member?
"Has anyone in here had a family member die?"
The pendulum of the Regulator
swung back and forth, back and forth,
in sync with the sweeping burn of
Selestine's scanning eyes,
which cut a scorching swath of fear
back and forth, back and forth,
through the very souls of each one of us
in that long-ago classroom.
Finally, I raised my hand.
"Yes," she pointed at me with the
wooden 12-inch ruler, which she used to
compulsively rap her left palm day-in and day-out
like Queeg's silver ball bearings,
"...yes, Mr. F____."
I stood up at the side of my desk,
hands at my sides,
all quite in conformity with
the posted list of expected behavior.
"Trixie died," I said, "she died last month."
I could feel my eyes welling up
just from saying the words,
and I felt that
choking feeling seizing the base of my throat.
"...all of us in my family, we really miss her."
"Who was Trixie, Mr. F____? Your sister? An aunt?"
"Our dog," I sobbed,
"Trixie was our dog, and I miss her so much,
"but I know I'll see her again ---
"I'll see her again in Heaven."
Selestine snaked her way toward me
through the endless maze of little desks.
"Animals CANNOT enter the Kingdom of Heaven!"
"Dogs and cats and other animals DO NOT have souls!
"God does NOT allow them into Heaven!"
I looked up at her placidly,
locked gazes with her,
and after a tick or two of
the Regulator, said,
"If dogs aren't allowed in Heaven,
"then I don't want to go there either."
The ruler came down hard on my wrist ---
Then it came down again on the other one.
The sting was so penetrating,
the pain so pervasive,
that I was mute with surprise and agony.
I crumpled back into my little desk,
and biting down hard on my lower lip,
I let my forehead come to rest
on the cool cool wooden desktop
as I clenched both red, throbbing wrists to my chest.
"Animals HAVE-NO-SOULS!" Selestine repeated,
punctuating each malevolent syllable
by smashing the wooden ruler onto her own desk,
I flicked on the blondewood black-and-white
that Saturday, but the cartoons were all gone.
I angrily flipped to the other two stations,
but all that was there was death,
and a horse-drawn bier and a saluting boy
around my brother's age whose dad was dead.
The newsguy said our lives were forever changed.
The sixties wore on in a strange, smudgy blur ---
specific memories more tied to the release
of Beatle records than the actual calendar year.
My grandparents died the year "Rubber Soul"
was released, for example.
They had just given me money,
against my parents wishes,
so I could run out and buy it immediately.
I nearly chopped off a finger with a hatchet
in an ill-fated school project
when "Sgt. Pepper" hit the stores ---
I started noticing girls with the release
of the "White Album," and by the time of
"Abbey Road," I'd already secretly
huffed down of few of me mum's half-smoked cigs
left smouldering in the glass ashtray.
When the Beatles broke up and
the Seventies kicked in, everything changed.
The years were each of them more and
more like a lit movie marquee ---
each year playing successively more
bombastic teenage attractions.
At the start of it, Kent State happened,
and I kissed a girl for the first time.
The newsmen said our lives were forever changed.
The decade blasted by, and just before its end,
we found ourselves married.
Got a replica Regulator wall clock at a shower, we did.
Looks purdy old, but the newfangled thang runs on batt'ries.
It was the first thing we hung on the wall.
The 80's came screaming in.
Lennon was dying.
This time I was the newsguy.
I scrambled throughout the day, cutting
into network programming with news updates
about Chapman's arrest while juggling phone calls
from angry housewives who complained bitterly
that we were destroying "One Life to Live" and the rest
of their soaps with "this Beatle crap."
Reagan was next, and I cut right back into the soaps,
racking up new video of that big Italian
guy jumping on Hinckley and bringing him down.
Turns out that Italian guy, Antenucci,
was from my hometown --- not far from dadsville.
He was hailed as a hero when he came back home.
He died and they named a street after him in our town.
It was the street that led to the new highway
they cut right through the middle of
our ticky-tacky industrial suburb ---
that highway divided our emotions,
sliced our community in two, and ultimately
began a decay so pervasive,
that I could not remember
exactly which house was the one I'd grown up in
when I tried to show it to my own children.
Somehow, I have nearly reached the
end of the millennium and
somehow I have just turned 40.
How did this happen,
and how is it that it happened so quickly?
Even though I'm in monster denial
and I tell 'em gruffly to forget the whole damn day,
my young 'uns come to me with
badly wrapped presents anyway,
and a cake they've made themselves
with too much chocolate frosting and
too many egg shell bits and sing
and hug me and kiss me and run on to
their friend's First Holy Communion party
where one of their little buds had
run away for a half a day
behind the neighbor's garage
because he'd ripped
his church pants
and he figured his life was about to change forever.
I sat there at home by myself,
all 40 and all ---
I took a swipe through the
cake and licked my finger ---
it was sweet and crunchy, just as you might
imagine chocolate eggshells would be.
I went to get a spoon.
The TV was on --- it was Saturday,
and this time the cartoons were there.
Bugs had once again kept Marvin the Martian
from annihilating the world,
The Regulator tick, tick ticked.
I glanced out the back window into the yard
where our dog Parvo leapt into
the Spring sky, cutting idiot triple axels
in a vain attempt to catch his mud-caked tail.
"If he ain't allowed,"
I thought to myself,
"...if he ain't allowed in Heaven,
"then I don't wanna go there either."