Recently I was asked to read a selection of my writing at the Prose Cafe in San Miguel de Allende.
In better times, Prose Cafe is a gathering of writers and others (mostly other writers, I think) in the beautiful Belles Artes. Three or four writers would each read something and take questions. I always found the cafe sessions inspirational. I imagined myself — some day, not right away — being just like them, having something of worth to share with other writers.
These days, Prose Cafe and its sister gathering, Poetry Cafe, are ZOOM affairs. They are both the offspring of the San Miguel Literary Sala whose wonderful Writers Conference is currently underway — on ZOOM, of course.
I shared the ZOOM space on Thursday, Dec. 3 with two accomplished authors, Molly Giles and Fredrika Sprengle. Both have published works — award-winning books, short stories. I have nearly four decades of newspaper clippings. A good mix, as it turned out. We all leaven our prose (and pain?) with humor.
What follows is the story that I read. As I told the ZOOM audience, this is a work of fiction, except for the parts that are true. (You figure it out).
It is one of a number of short stories in the file marked “Seminary Life” that may yet grow into a full-sized novel.
Declaring war on … well, everybody
It was the beginning of the end — the end of my days as a Catholic seminarian. It came the moment I picked up that heavy metal bucket full of dirty water and heaved it out the third floor window. Sending a loud and long string of curses cascading after it.
Two things occurred to me in the moment.
One, that the car of some priest was probably parked directly under that window.
And two: That directly behind me was the open door to the balcony overlooking the chapel … in which at least a dozen brothers and nuns were holding their mid-day prayers. And no-longer silent meditations.
Well. There was a car.
A black Mercedes. And it stopped the bucket from actually hitting the ground. Which may or may not have been a good thing. Not so good from where I stood. As for the car? If it didn’t need a new windshield before, it did now.
I knew that car. Everybody knew that car. The Mercedes belonged to the abbot, our religious order’s director of ALL the Western Hemisphere and head of our little seminary.
It couldn’t have been one of the black Cadillacs, or black Fords, or black Buicks or black Chryslers. God, how those guys love black.
But, it was the good brothers and nuns for whom I felt bad.
Only minutes before my outburst I had been comforted by the sing-song drone of their worship as I swept and mopped the stairwell. That steady murmuring Medieval Latin chant had lulled the angry beast inside me.
And then, along comes Benny.
Benny, the diminutive, overweight, overly-groomed, power-mad junior from Pittsburgh. A city boy. Foil to my Pennsylvania hillbilliness.
Like a little mafia don, Benny was a power player within the walls of Divine Word Seminary.
He controlled daily work assignments and chores. Be in with Benny, and you got a sweet deal when it came to chores. His closest pals got no work assignments at all.
But, Benny? Benny was out to break me.
Why? Because I refused to give him a haircut.
Seriously. A haircut.
Let me bring all this up to speed.
I am a seminarian.
Or rather, I was a seminarian.
In a missionary order, The Divine Word, one with harsh and humorless Teutonic roots, dedicated to lifting up the souls of heathens, mostly on gorgeous tropical islands in the Caribbean and South Pacific.
Do not mix us up with the helicopter Christians who drop into the field in matching t-shirts for two weeks of “loving Jesus on the locals” through volleyball and soccer games, craft sessions, and guitar-fueled singalongs before returning to their all-inclusive resort.
Ours were old-school missionaries. All men. They were ordained priests. They carried hellfire and salvation to wherever they were assigned and often stayed for years. They lived simply. Among the people. Without TV, wifi, Uber, take-out, or, sometimes, even a decent bed.
Some, like Father Jovenus — Benny’s co-conspirator and my soon-to-be nemesis — begrudgingly returned to civilization after their ulcers (or drinking) grew too intense. They settled — begrudgingly — into teaching at the seminary.
Their new — self-assigned — mission was to drive the love and passion for missionary work right out of the skulls of impressionable young boys.
These field-hardened priests believed that the best training a prospective missionary could have was a life of deprivation. A tough sell to a kid.
Seminary life was therefore built on rules. So many rules: Late to bed, early to rise. Silence, always silence. You may talk in class, during one meal a day, and on the occasional break.
The rest of your life was silence.
No contact with family but one brief Sunday afternoon a month. No other outside contact, save for the occasional highly censored letter.
In short, seminary life was mostly study, work, pray, exercise, silence — and repeat.
It took me one year as a seminarian– and one hot summer, in which I discovered the existence of girls — to realize that I had no business and no interest in carrying water for Jesus on some tropical island.
Still, I came back for my sophomore year. Mainly, because I was afraid to tell my father that I no longer had a calling. He was not the kind of guy you admitted failure to, and quitting the seminary would be seen as failure. Big time failure. Every Irish Catholic family dreams of having a priest in the clan. I was our clan’s one shot.
It was not like I was returning to some form of B-movie, boarding school hell. Seminary life could be tolerable. My friends were cool. The food, cooked by German nuns, was spectacular. School work was challenging in a good way. And I had snagged one of the sweetest jobs a kid could hope for.
I was assigned to the student-run barbershop and quickly discovered that I had an aptitude for this kind of work. It was easy. You cut a few heads of hair every day after lunch while other guys — in silence — are sweeping and mopping floors, doing dishes, raking leaves, cleaning toilets.
Like all barber shops, ours was filled with chatter, sports talk, banter, gossip.
The barber shop rules were but one: Make every haircut last at least a month. Only the U.S. Marines expected a haircut to last longer than that.
Life would have just loped along — while I mustered the guts to tell my dad that I wanted out, if Beatlemania hadn’t exploded across the United States. That was the other thing that happened between my freshman and sophomore years.
Suddenly, my friends — teenage greaseballs from Pittsburgh, Erie, Buffalo, and Cleveland — wanted to grow out their hair. So, I quickly learned how to cut hair longer.
That was an innovation. Not an oxymoron.
At the start of the year, my own hair was a gloriously complicated Brylcreem-enabled thing — a cresting surfer’s wave in the front that swooped back on both sides into a razor-sharp ducktail.
With a little degreasing though, I became Paul McCartney. That’s what all my friends wanted, too.
Among seminarians who cared about their hair, I was becoming a celebrity.
It was Benny, at the urging of Father Jovenus — who doubled as dean of discipline and science teacher — who started sending back kids with too much hair over their ears and collars.
They would return to the barbershop looking so sad, their Beatles days over before they’d begun. So, I would snip and buzz in the air and fake a trim, then tell them, firmly, “Stay out of Benny’s way.”
If only I could have heeded my own advice.
Even Benny took notice of my skills. He started scheduling himself for a haircut every week. Every week! Benny was vain, for a seminarian. And I think the power was going to his head.
Plus, he had a head full of tiny, tight, micro-curls — like pubic hairs — that barely grew from week to week. He gave me nothing to work with and meanwhile, some freshman with a shaggy head was catching flak from Father Jovenus because Benny had bumped him down the list … again.
It just didn’t sit right.
The next time Benny bumped himself up the barber list, I made myself disappear. I snuck across the street to the seminary’s farm and swiped some fresh-picked apples headed for the cider mill.
When Father Jovenus called me in, I explained the situation.
Not too well, apparently, because the next day, Benny had placed himself back on the haircut list.
I went for more apples.
The following day was Thursday, the first Thursday of the month.
Here’s the thing: On the first Thursday of the month was freedom. You could actually walk into the nearby village to go shopping, go bowling, see a movie, prowl the record store, try out the new place — called Kentucky Fried Chicken — as long as you were back on campus before the local kids were let out of school.
Thursday was also a major work day. After breakfast, seminarians would be assigned jobs — stuff that usually lasted several hours — groundskeeping, farming, major school cleanup.
And you couldn’t leave seminary grounds until Benny said your chores were finished.
On this particular Thursday, right after breakfast, Benny began reading off assignments. It kind of sucked that he hadn’t assigned me to the barber shop, but I almost expected it.
Benny’s list reached the stairwells.
There were seven of them in this grim four-story brick tribute to early-depression architecture. Five stories, if you count steps to the basement which contained the kitchen, dining room, swimming pool, and basketball court.
Thursdays meant dusting, mopping and waxing the stairs and landings and polishing the railings. On Thursdays, there was usually a sizable crew for each of those tasks. It was a big job.
So, Benny called out my name. He paused. Then curled his lips into a nasty little smirk. And then moved on. So. It was me — all five floors and seven stairwells. Alone. On the first Thursday of the month.
A sympathetic buzz hovered over the room — but no offers to help sweep or mop. There would be no Colonel Sanders for me that day.
Still, I made good time. I figured — if I hustled — I could get in at least one hour of freedom — time enough to buy some candy and smuggle it back into my locker before prayers.
Benny and his flunkies caught up with me at stairwell No. 3, the one behind the chapel.
“We just inspected Stairwells 1 and 2,” said Benny, holding his clipboard between us like a shield.
“Yeah?” said I.
“Yeah,” said Benny. His flunkies nodded grimly behind him.
“So?” said I.
“Not good,” said Benny. “We found dust.”
“You’re going to have to start all over again,” said Benny, no even trying to suppress that grin. “We’re going into town but when we come back, I’m going to check every single stairwell. They better be clean.”
I just stood there. I exhaled like I’d been punched in the gut.
Some time lapsed. I have no idea how much.
You know, there is an amazing feeling that comes with knowing that you have crossed a line — and can never go back.
Like when you set out on a long journey. Like, when you step on a stage in front of a live audience. Like, when you sign off on your first home mortgage. Like, when you move to a foreign country.
Like, when you throw a bucket out a window and it lands on the windshield of a powerful priest’s car and then you scream a string of bloody curses that send Christian brothers and nuns cowering to their knees to beg God’s mercy.
Now that is liberating.
I walked straight out the side door, across the sprawling green campus, through the stand of pine trees that marked the edge of our universe, and straight into town. Where I bought a Halloween-sized bag of Snickers and another of candy corn. I stopped into the record store to pick up the latest list of the DJ Top 100. I ate some fried chicken at the new place. — and then slowly walked back to the seminary and whatever fate awaited me.
Man! I was AWOL! And it was exhilarating.
Oddly enough. I wasn’t expelled. Not that day.
Maybe somebody decided the punishment had exceeded my original crime. Maybe nobody had the skills to deal with my brand of insolence — I did become the first seminarian in the history of the school to flunk conduct. That was an actual grade back then.
Or maybe, maybe they thought I was just crazy.
When the next Thursday came around, I was sent across the street to the farm to shovel cow manure, help birth piglets, and pick apples. That lasted a few weeks. Word got out that I really liked the farm and I was quickly switched back to domestic chores.
For a while, I was tasked with delivering the bundle of heavily censored mail from the desk of Father Jovenus to the post office. Somebody must have figured out that I was running a side scam, collecting and mailing uncensored letters from students. They couldn’t prove it — but that job ended quickly and quietly.
I never did get to cut hair again.
Benny quit after his senior year. As so many did. He was only in it for the excellent but cheap boarding school education. I hear he went to college, joined the Army, and became a logistics officer in Vietnam. I’m told he was arrested for shipping heroin back to the U.S. — in coffins.
I’d like to think that was true.
The next time my parents came to visit, on a Sunday afternoon, I told my father I wanted to leave.
He convinced me to stay until mid-term. “It will be easier to get you into the public school,” he said.
At mid-term, he suggested I stay until the end of the year. “It will be easier for you to start fresh, at the beginning of a school year,” he said.
I saw through it.
My future flashed before my eyes. This would go on until I was ordained a priest, living in a leaky hut on some desolate tropical island, drinking too much rum, and carrying water for Jesus.
I panicked. I started planning my own demise.
If I couldn’t leave under my own power, I was going to get myself kicked out.
This war had just begun.