Low Grade Reputation
She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, and he was sick in love with her. As sick in love as any third-grader who’d ever lived. Curtis Bright and Pamela Schwank. Every time he said it to himself seemed like the first time, like it was the first lick of his first Dreamsicle. They belonged together like hot and chocolate, like Yogi and Boo Boo, like Batman and Robin. He thought his heart would burst when she handed him a slip of paper weeks into the school year on which she’d written, ‘Roses are red, Thorns can hurt us, Violets are blue, I Love Curtis.’ If he had died on the spot, he would have lived a full and rewarding life, just for having loved her.
Sister Evangeline had seen their blooming flirtation on the playground one day at recess, and had made it her business to assign Curtis the desk directly behind Pamela’s in her classroom. She in the first row. He in the second. Sister Evangeline had seen infatuated third graders before, but she’d never seen a puppy as lovestruck as this Bright boy. If she hadn’t known what was going on with him, there are days when she would’ve sent him to the school nurse, or cautioned his parents about over-doing it with the cough syrup. But no, it was none of that. The boy was under the Schwank girl’s spell. It was a wonder he got any of his schoolwork done.
Naturally, these two were Sister Evangeline’s choices to star as Joseph and Mary in the third grade Christmas play. It pleased her no end to see her young lovebirds have a little baby Jesus. Gave her a feeling of accomplishment. Sister was doing her bit to breathe new life into the old stories.
Curtis does not remember what he wore in the Christmas play. Does not remember what happened before or after the play, or what he ate that day. He remembers a brief chat miniutes before the show with Binkley, who was playing one of the Wise Men, about a big gob of wax in Binkley’s ear. It would be unacceptable to have a waxy Wise Man in the presence of the Blessed Virgin Pamela. He felt wise, himself, in calling it out.
He remembers that Sister Evangeline blew a fuse when Janie Bickwermer, who was to supply the doll that would play Baby Jesus, showed up with a doll that had real hair. The play called for Joseph to baptize baby Jesus, and Sister believed pouring water onto a doll with real hair would ruin the hair. She, Sister, would not be held responsible ruining any Baby Jesus hair.
You were supposed to bring a doll with rubber hair! Sister snarled at Janie, who walked away to the Girls Room in tears.
Curtis couldn’t remember a Nativity story that involved baptizing Baby Jesus. He thought John The Baptist baptized Jesus and then had his head cut off by Romans. That is not something you forget. It is bad luck to baptize Jesus, that was the lesson of that, and here he was, cast by Sister — as the completely wrong character from the Bible — to baptize Baby Jesus on the same night Baby Jesus is born. The scene didn’t make any sense to him, catechismically speaking. It seemed to invite bad luck, or worse.
Sister Evangeline was not a literalist. Her classroom featured poster art of Saints Slaying Fire-Breathing Dragons, and Angels Flying Faster Than Jet Planes. She was not going to let a doll’s real hair get in the way of her production. The show had to go on. She improvised by having Curtis pour a cup full of chalk sticks she’d taken from her classroom blackboard onto the real hair of the Baby Jesus doll. Not a real baptism, Curtis thought, relieved. No water, no sacrament. Waive it off. I’m safe. No beheading for me.
He remembers the color blue of Pamela’s Blessed Virgin costume, and its radiant white, the color of the sky on the best day ever. He remembers how she smiles at him when he finds them a stable where she can have God’s baby. There are no words to describe what he is feeling. She is supposed to be acting, but her smile is real .His entire being is electrified by the most pleasant shock ever. He is transported by her vibrant light into another dimension. He is floating. There is no gravity here. No life outside this experience. It is the experience, he knows, of love, eternal.
The crowd in the Knights of Columbus Hall laughs as the chalk sticks he pours onto Baby Jesus’ head clatter into a plastic bucket Sister has placed on the floor between him and Pamela, who is holding Baby Jesus in her outstretched arms to be baptized. As the chalk rattles around in the bucket and the crowd laughs, Curtis is overwhelmed by the feeling that it’s all a big joke. And that he’s in on it. And it feels good.
Curtis was having a fantastic year in dodgeball games the third graders played during recess and he attributed it all to Her. His Virgin. His Valentine. His Love. It made him dodge harder, knowing she would be watching from over where the girls were playing London Bridges or Skip to the Lou. Sometimes, when he was dodging balls in an effort to be her hero, he could see into the future. He would know where a ball was going before it left the tosser’s hand, and he would simply stand still, or move mere inches to dodge it. He changed the game of dodgeball at St. Minor’s School. The older boys, noting Curtis’s minimalist style, began imitating it, and calling him ‘Little Caine,’ after David Carradine’s character in the TV series, Kung Fu.
One day at afternoon recess — the recess that counted most, because you’d carry whatever reputation came out of it all the way until the next day — he was the last man standing on a dodgeball team of third graders who were taking on the fourth graders. If he could survive without getting hit until the bell rang to signal the end of recess, the third graders would claim a huge upset, their first victory ever over the fourth graders. Curtis would be a hero. But now Dean Lorai was winding up to take a shot at him. Lorai, a fourth grader who’d flunked two grades, so technically a sixth grader, was a deadly dodgeball tosser. He had once hit poor Teddy Doody in the side of the head so hard with a dodgeball that Teddy had to be be laid out by the nuns on a table in the cafeteria like the corpse of a giant Ohio River catfish, with an ice pack on his face for the rest of the day. And now Dean Lorai was taking dead aim at Curtis. There were seconds remaining in recess. The bell was about to ring —
Time slowed down. Curtis loved wearing his black loafers with white socks like the high school boys did. He was wearing them that day in the dodgeball game. I look good out here playing dodgeball wearing white socks and black loafers like a high school boy, he thought. He looked for Pamela and didn’t see her, but knew she was watching. And here was the dreaded Dean Lorai, taking aim, winding up for a throw to knock him out of the game, wanting to ruin everything —
Time froze. And in that frozen instant, the ball fell out of Dean Lorai’s hand as if a flying angel had tipped it away with with a sweep of her wing. Dean Lorai dropped the goddamn ball! Curtis didn’t even have to move, which was of course his famous Kung Fu move. And before Dean Lorai could re-load, the bell rang. Third grade wins! Third grade wins! Third grade wins! The third grade boys swept him up and carried him on their shoulders off the playground, back to the school building, cheering Caine! Caine! Caine! He liked the way his black loafers and white socks caught the afternoon sunlight as his classmates carried him. That’s when he saw her. She smiled proudly. He was her high school boy. She was his angel.
Later, he would wonder what caused the ball to fall from Dean Lorai’s hand before he could launch one of his deadly throws. The only possibility Curtis could imagine was that it was more proof of the power of his love for Pamela Schwank. It was supernatural. Unearthly. Angelic. There was no stand-alone explanation. It was simply another part of God’s perfect plan for the two of them.
He made it a habit to be the first to raise his hand to answer questions Sister Evangeline asked in class. Whenever Pam answered a question, he competed to be the next student called upon, because this meant the two of them were fated to be a pair. He won spelling bees. Was the first to solve math problems. First to read the assignments. She was the reason for all of it.
Seeing her during the day was his motivation for getting out of bed in the morning, and she was the last thought he had before falling to sleep at night. He would stand on the rim of the bathtub in their family’s only bathroom every morning, looking at himself in the medicine chest mirror while the other children pounded on the door to be let in, making sure he looked his best for her. Checked to see that his pants were leveled so that his white socks were just visible over his black loafers. That his hair was perfectly parted. That his fingernails were clean and trim, because it might be one of those days where he managed to touch her hand. He had gotten his first pair of boxer shorts for Christmas. Powder blue. They made him feel like a man. He wore them as often as hygiene allowed. His mind was hard at work devising a clever way to let his girl know he was a boxers man now. Pam. Pam. Pam. Her name was the sound of his beating heart.
Since first grade, he had been telling the grown-ups he was going to be a priest when he grew up, because he’d noticed it produced favorable outcomes. Special treatment. Adults would pat him on the head or touch him lightly on his shoulder blade and say things like, Very good! And, Tell Sister Edward what you said to me. And after he had told Sister Edward what he’d said, about wanting to be a priest, Sister Edward leaned in conspiratorially close to him, slipped him a piece of bubble gum, and whispered, You know, Curtis, when a young man becomes a priest, his parents automatically get into Heaven. He felt good about punching his parents’ heavenly ticket like that. And he got bubble gum.
One of his favorite pastimes, when he wasn’t shooting hoops, was celebrating make-believe Mass in his family’s living room. Their boxer dog, Princess, would serve as the Altar Boy, and his brothers and sisters played Churchgoers who took communion made of Bunny Bread he’d cut into circles with a bottle cap and consecrated in a beer schooner. He was an expert at speaking in gibberish that sounded like the prayers in the Catholic Latin Mass. ‘Commedial dayole ollypolentay, siffigicando alamoo-la-la…amayen…’ His Churchgoers bought his act. He could even get them to give him money from their piggybanks as his Sunday collection, and would later use his status as a priest as his excuse for keeping it. His parents gave thanks to Almighty God for their good fortune at having such a son. They’d heard from Sister Edward, too. Free passes to Heaven? Count them in. Put them on the list!
When a boy has a calling, Sister Edward had said, benefits accrue to those who see him through.
A couple of months ago, if that — Curtis had no normal grasp of time, his days and nights were measured in Pamelas — his parents took him ‘backstage’ after Sunday Mass, to get a blessing from Father Durcholz in the church’s Sacristy, and give their son an up-close look at the profession he’d chosen that would get them on the comp list for Heaven. Father Durcholz was in the white robe he wore under his sacramental vestment. At hello, Curtis got very shy. He opened his missal and pretended to be studying it. He’s just a regular man, thought Curtis. Followed immediately by another thought. If he’s a regular man —
As the adults chatted and two altar boys scurried around the Sacristy putting candles and cruets and the other props back in their pre-Mass positions, Curtis got carried away by his thoughts, one connecting fast to another, until he could look into the future the way he did in dodgeball, only now a lot farther into the future, to the day when he would be a priest. Through the cloud of time, he heard his mother ask him something. What was it? His mind sped back to the present.
‘What?’ he said, looking up suddenly from his prayer book.
‘Do you have anything you’d like to ask Father?’ his mother said again.
Curtis asked his question before she was finished repeating herself, blurting it so forthrightly — with the urgency of a game show host asking the Final Question — that the grown-ups jumped, and one of the altar boys dropped a glass cruet that bounced off the Sacristy’s marble floor without breaking and jangled like the bell at the end of recess:
How come priests can’t get married?
His parents looked in unison to Father Durcholz, who hesitated and laughed nervously. Wellll…something about God and vocation and being married to the Pope or the Church or the Parishioners. Or something. Curtis had quit listening when the priest hesitated and laughed. Curtis had grown up around animals. He knew when an animal was nervous, and Father Durcholz, here, was a nervous animal. Curtis knew that when an animal is nervous, you back off, and in that instant, Curtis began backing away from the priesthood like he would from a skittish horse he had no intention of riding. There was, he knew, no satisfactory answer to his question. Any story that could not include Pamela Schwank was of no interest to him. It was settled, then. He would be a professional basketball player. He never celebrated another make-believe Mass. His folks would have to make their own arrangements to get into Heaven.
Before they left, the priest blessed them by sprinkling holy water on them with his aspergillum. It’s just water, thought Curtis.
Now free to love Pamela as he had once vowed to love God, his body tingled in her presence every day at school. She was mere inches from the tip of his nose when he rested his chin on his arms and pretended to read a book flattened across his desk. All he wanted out of life was to stare at the back of her neck and wait for her to turn around.
She wore a delicate gold necklace with a miniature clasp. The most delicate construction of any object Curtis had ever seen. The curve of her neck was perfection, and he would trace its lines with eyes like two dancers rehearsing. Her short wedge haircut tapering in the nape of her neck was like an arrow pointing to his heart. It was March. She wore sweaters. He had them memorized. Grey. Red. White. Grey Number Two. He enjoyed shrinking his existence so that his entire universe consisted of Pamela’s delicate golden chain, her perfect neck, her beautiful brown hair that smelled like cotton candy, and a soft grey sweater holding it all on a pedestal. He basked in the anticipation that she would turn and whisper something sweet to him, or turn around to pass out a test, or a graded homework with his inevitable ‘A’ on it. It didn’t matter what it the reason was. The turn, and her blessed attention, would, he knew, eventually come his way. It was his anticipation of the turn that animated his days.
The precipitating event came so unexpectedly, and from such an odd angle, no one ever could have predicted it, or that it would destroy their love.
Things began going bad that day at 11:25 AM, when Rickilane Ware raised his hand and asked Sister Evangeline if he could use the restroom.
Curtis barely noticed, nor did anyone in the class. Rickilane was always asking to go to the restroom. This was not news. The news was that this time, Sister did not approve his request automatically.
Do you really have to use the restroom? she asked Rickilane.
Yes, Sister, he said.
You had to use the restroom only an hour ago, and now you’re telling me you have to use it again? Already?’
Yes, Sister, said Rickilane meekly.
Whether he has to go or not, he sure is good at pretending he does, thought Curtis, now paying attention to the exchange like the rest of the class. This was good non-routine stuff.
Are you taking cough syrup before you come to school? Sister asked Rickilane. Her prime suspect in any crime was cough syrup.
No, Sister, he said.
Okay, then, she said gruffly. You can go to the restroom. It’s your last time today.
Rickilane walked out. And just when the class thought it was over, Sister had a wicked afterthought. Eugene Hope, come here, she barked.
Yes, Sister, said Eugene Hope, the class tattler. He reported to Sister on everything and everyone. She was his power base and his protection, and gave him ultimate invulnerability on the playground. He approached her desk. The class was riveted.
Follow him, and come back here and tell me what he does in there, Sister instructed in a stage whisper loud enough for enough of her class to hear that she knew all would eventually hear.
Yes, Sister, Eugene said, and quickly left the room to put the tail on Rickilane.
Oooooooohhhhhhhhh! thought Curtis. This is going to be incredible! He could feel his stomach twisting with the story. Why didn’t Pamela turn around to share it with him? Couldn’t she see what a juicy situation this was? How filled with possibilities? She did not turn around. He and Binkley exchange a smile. Binkley knows what’s up.
Here’s Rickilane now. Sauntering back into the room carefree as can be, as if nothing is going to happen. So innocent. So unaware that he has been spied upon, and will soon get ratted out. This is amazing, thought Curtis. He has no idea.
And here is Eugene Hope, the spy, reporting to his handler.
Better than any game show, thought Curtis, squirming in his seat at what was about to unfold.
Sister got right to the point. Eugene, did Rickilane Ware use the restroom? she asked.
No, Sister, said Eugene.
Oooohhhhhh! Bad! Sister glared fiercely at Rickilane, who stared down at the floor. By now, Curtis was sitting sideways at his desk, following the action.
What did he do? Sister asked Eugene.
He went into the restroom and stood on the radiator and looked out the window, said Eugene.
That’s it? asked Sister.
That’s it, said Eugene.
That’s it! said Sister, smacking both palms on her desk. Rickilane Ware, no recess for the rest of the week! And then she has another wicked afterthought: And if anyone else asks to use the bathroom today, they’re missing recess for the rest of the week, too!
Wow, horrible, thought Curtis. He’d hate to miss recess, especially at the height of his dodgeball hot streak. Then he had a realization that was way more horrible that what had happened to Rickilane Ware: Curtis really had to go. All that drama had accelerated his body functions, and what would be normally be happening in an hour, over lunchtime, was happening now. He really, really, really had to use the restroom. He looked at the classroom clock. 11:30. Still half a goddamn hour until lunch. Could he hold out? What he knew for sure is that he could not ask for permission to use the restroom. That was out. He was not going to be the baby who gave up and gave in. He was not going to miss recess when his dodgeball rep was at an all-time high. What would Little Caine do? Curtis knew that fore sure, Little Caine would not ask for permission to use the restroom and miss recess.
After getting terrorized at the age of five by the Wicked Witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he’d been a bedwetter through second grade, and had only dried out completely as a third grader. He had, during his wet period, developed many strategies for how not to pee, and he used every one of them now, burning through his repertoire like a clown in a one-ring circus. Legs crossed, ankles apart. Legs crossed, ankles together. Knees apart, ankles together. Legs together straight. Legs together sitting. Legs to the right. Legs to the left. Right hand clench. Left hand clench. Both hands clench. Upward double-handed massage. Reverse milking. Crotch lifting. Lifted butt clench. Pressed butt clench. Think about Kung Fu. Do the math tables. Tighten belt. Loosen belt. Hose clamp variations. Think about pinball. Think about Wilt Chamberlain. Imagine you don’t have to go. He knew he was in real trouble when he tried to focus on the back of Pamela Schwank’s neck and could not. He looked up at the clock. 11:32. Still 28 goddamned minutes until lunch break. With a level of anxiety that made bladders burst, he racked his brain for a new strategy.
And then he had it. The new strategy would be to let out a little bit of pee to ease the pressure enough that he could hold out until noon. Releasing water is what they do when dams are about to burst, right? he thought, in desperate confirmation of his plan. He might have to hide a small wet spot, but it would be manageable. He could explain it away as a lunchtime water spill —
As you can imagine, the new strategy was not a success. There was no easing. The dam burst immediately and irreparably, flooding the floor beneath his seat. For the longest 30 seconds in the history of time, he was powerless to stop it. The horror was hot and it was wet and it was out of control. He began crying. It was at this, the least opportune of all times in the history of time, that his true love turned to whisper something sweet and saw him bawling.
What‘s wrong? she asked.
I peed myself, he cried.
Her hand shot up, and she didn’t wait for Sister Evangeline to acknowledge her to deliver the news — Sister, Curtis Bright peed himself! Pam said quietly. Clinically. And from the way she said it, Curtis knew he’d lost her.
Over at his desk, Rickilane Ware smiled.
A chastened Sister Evangeline cleaned the flood damage with a mop, a gym towel and disinfectant. She borrowed a pair of pants and jockey briefs the first grade teacher kept in her classroom for just such scenarios. Forgive me, Lord, she thought as she helped a still-crying Curtis out of his wet boxers and pants, I did a horrible, horrible, horrible thing. What is my sin? Does it even have a name? How shall I confess?
Sister Evangeline had to move Curtis away from the desk behind Pamela for the day, and away from her he would stay for the rest of the school year. She moved the docile, even-tempered Bess Fleck into the desk behind Pamela’s. There’d be no more romance for this class.
She rinsed his pants and his prized powder blue boxer shorts in the sink in the Boys Restroom, and laid them and to dry across the radiator where Rickilane Ware had stood to look out the window, on display for every boy in the school to see. Nearly every boy did see them. As the story spread through the school, the pants and boxer shorts on the Boys Room radiator became a shrine of sorts for the rest of the day, to which all boys were expected to make a pilgrimage, so as to later make legitimate fun of Curtis Bright on the playground.
In less than a day, Curtis had gone from Little Caine, The Dodgeball Legend to the Third Grader Who Pissed His Pants (You Can See His Underwear On The Boys Room Radiator).
He did play dodgeball at recess that day. Feeling surprisingly liberated in first grade pants and jockey underwear, he stayed within himself, and had a good day of dodging, without using his trademark Kung Fu move even one time. This was not a day for standing still. He had to be quick. Move. At one point during lunchtime recess, Eugene Hope and a couple his deputies approached Curtis to tell him he wasn’t supposed to be at recess, and he snapped back at them with such savage conviction — I didn’t ask to go!!! — that they quickly dropped their case.
Curtis and Pamela became one of those couples who shared an experience so mortifying that they had no words, no language to heal themselves from its trauma. He hid from her, ashamed. She avoided him by blending into the shunning crowd of their classmates.
They would go to the same school through the eighth grade. He would see her have other boyfriends in the next five years — Kenny, Duane, Greg, Binkley! — and every time she got with a new beau, his heart would break all over again. He never had another girlfriend at St. Minor. His allegiance was to her. His love had been so deep, and so complete, that it would take all five years and him going to a different high school for him to find a new romance. He would not know for many more years that to find forgiveness and earn his boxers, a man has to go back down a path he’s already traveled. He did not know how to go back to her and ask her forgiveness for how he had humiliated both of them that day.
The only person who ever brought it up again was Binkley. In seventh and eighth grade, when playground competitions by the boys had turned primal and fights were frequent, Binkley would taunt Curtis by calling out loud enough for the other boys to hear, Curt Bright peed his pants in third grade!
Curtis denied it. And denied it. Until Curtis and Binkley would be rolling around on the ground, punching and pulling and twisting for the advantage that would shut the other up, while Eugene Hope ran off to alert the nearest teacher. As much as he denied it, Curtis knew it was true. And he already knew he’d have to move away from here one day, to a place where no one would remember that he’d pissed his pants in third grade.
Reputation, like love itself, such a delicate thing. It doesn’t take much to destroy it. What destroys it can come from the most unexpected place. All it takes is one wrong move to lose control of it. And if you manage to earn another one, it won’t be the one you had before. God’s plan for us is never the same as our own.