A State of (Mary) Grace

Once, I was bad. Very, very bad indeed. It was a well known fact and I recall being told this by more than one person on numerous occasions. It was 1965 and I was ten. Rebellion was my natural state of being; degeneracy was my obvious fate. I really wanted to be good, though, and I meant to be good just like Shirley Temple or St. Bernadette or Cinderella but then again, we all know what paves the road to hell....

It all started on the bus ride home for summer break from The Immaculate Conception Parochial School. Everyone was happily spastic and I was miserable. Bridget Tarello and Cathy Ann Donahue were cramped next to me furiously Miss-Mary-Macking each other, forcing me to keep inching away from them. I was now pinned between Cathy Ann's backside and the inside wall of the bus, all personal space forfeited. Furthermore, on each slide over, my legs stuck to the green leatherette seat creating red marks begging to be mistaken for giant hickeys as soon as I stood up. (We all had recently been educated about hickeys because Eugenia Pazlowski came into school after Memorial Day Weekend wearing a turtleneck and, then, showed us why.)

I felt hurt nobody had asked me to play that day and I still remember the sting of restraining my tears from leaping onto my cheeks. But, I guess it was no surprise. These were really nice girls, the ones who got to clean the erasers after class, and they had just been witness to me talking wise to a nun -- a most heinous sin -- and getting into big trouble. The evidence of which, a detention slip for the first day of school next semester, was currently wedged inside my bookbag awaiting my mother's discovery.

The demerits had been issued by Sister Alberta, next year's fifth grade homeroom teacher. In the commotion of the bus yard, Sister had stopped me abruptly by grabbing the fleshy part of my arm (a little bit of baby fat that hadn't quite burned off yet) and asked something which had sounded to me like 'Come here. Are you Gina Maria Houlihan; is Mike your brother?'.

Honestly, I was surprised. I thought Sister knew who I was. When I replied, "No Sister, my last name is Conlan", Sister's face had bloated red and her wimple dug so deeply into her forehead she reminded me of when my brother Timmy had put on my pink rubber swimcap and couldn't get it off. As it turned out Sister's question actually was, "Next year are you going to be a hooligan just like your brother?"

That was quickly clarified for me as I was whisked away into the principal's office while the bus waited an extra five minutes for me to return. When I got on the bus, my head down and my arm tattooed with five reverential fingerprints, no one said a word.

Now as I sat there quietly, my infamous sibling, Timothy Thomas, and his best friend, John Feeney were right across the aisle from me loudly arguing over Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. I never understood why my brother and he were friends; they always fought. About stupid things. Loudly. No matter where you were, you could hear them. And just right then, I wished they'd both put a cork in it.

So, I pressed my forehead against the cool glass of the half-open window and watched as the blurs of green, brown, black and white whirred by. It made me dizzy. I stared at where the gravel met the crew-cut green lawns of the neighborhood and saw, out of the corner of my eye, someone bicycling down the oncoming side of the road. It was Charcoal Charlie.

Charcoal Charlie lived in a shack with no bathroom, made a little money cleaning furnaces when he was ambitious and was usually covered in soot so thick, if given a good slap, he'd surely explode in a poof of black dust (back then, a few of the older homes in our town still used coal). It was also common knowledge that, now and again, Sheriff Palmer would put him in jail overnight to be sure he showered and ate a proper meal. Charcoal was also known to pedal his rickety old bike around town selling odd bits he'd discovered in the dump. There was talk he'd once been normal but it must have been a long time ago because, now, he was nothing but a poor soul.

All of a sudden, with a jolt, my window watching was interrupted. Timmy and John Feeney had also caught sight of Charcoal Charlie. John Feeney jumped across the aisle followed by Timmy, climbed over Bridget, Cathy Ann and me and leaned out my window, his knee jutting into my thigh. "Hey Charcoal," he shouted, "on the way to the dump to get some dinner? Mmm, mmm good!"

Charcoal Charlie either didn't hear John Feeney or didn't care. Even though in Church on Sundays he often stayed to himself and was just the saddest sight, today he slowed to a coast, gave everyone an energetic wave, a big, wide smile and then continued on his ride. For one brief moment there was silence. Then, John Feeney and Timmy both burst into fits of laughter along with a few other kids on the bus. Charcoal was missing a tooth right in front and there was a big gaping hole. John Feeney and Timmy waved mockingly after him.

I still don't remember what came over me, I'd never been what you would call feisty, but I pushed John Feeney off me and away from my window. He stumbled over Cathy Ann, which bumped my brother out of our seat and into the aisle. Timmy fell on his butt and the kids around him stopped laughing at Charcoal Charlie and giggled at my brother instead. Then I stood up squarely and shouted into John Feeney's face.

"That was really mean John Feeney."

"What?" He stared at me, surprised his best friend's little sister would challenge him.

"I said," crossing my arms against my plaid school uniform, "that was mean. You don't know he eats food from the dump. And," I added keenly, "you're not supposed to make fun of the poor."

"For your information, Mary Grace," he said backing away from me, climbing over Cathy Ann and Bridget's legs and safely returning to his own seat where my brother was waiting for him, "he's not poor, he's crazy. So," he added, "go suck an egg!" And with that he began making the universally recognized cuckoo face at me complete with spinning the air around his ears in circles, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue. Of course, my brother joined him.

Well, that was it. I plunged across the aisle and over to where the two stupidheads sat, snatched John Feeney's New York Yankees cap off his head and flung it out the nearest open window. We all watched as it flew onto the McGough's front yard where their German shepherd, Millicent, tore it to shreds. John Feeney was practically traumatized. But Mr. Schmidt, our busdriver was calm when he yelled at my reflection in the rearview mirror, "Mary Grace Conlan, there's no tomfoolery on my bus. Stop your nonsense, get back to your seat and when you get home, tell your parents to expect a phone call from me."

As I slunk to my seat, the Towlinski twins pointed at the back of my legs and laughed.

- - -

The next day Bridget Tarello came over to my house since I was grounded for the next two weeks except for Church. We sat in the backyard under the awning of my parent's new patio table listening to Cousin Brucie on my portable transistor while we worked on our "All-American-Beatles-Medal" entries. The winner of which would get tickets to see the them at Shea Stadium in August.

Bridget's medal was huge layered with lots of sparkles, glitter and so much other stuff that it resembled a sagging hammock when you picked it up. Mine consisted of four smaller medals shaped like a puzzle so each Beatle got their own individual medal within the big medal for the group. I thought it would be easier to share that way. Bridget sang as she pasted red, white and blue confetti around the borders of hers, (Bridget was well-brought up, her mother having enrolled her in junior voice lessons) but interrupted her 'Downtown' duet with Petula Clark to ask if I had gotten any other punishment than the grounding.

"Mind your own P's & Q's," I replied.

"It's just a question, Mary Grace. There's no reason to be rude about it."

"Fine," I huffed. "Well, I was grounded for disrespecting a nun; at the end of the two weeks I have to write a report for my mother on why that was wrong. Then for John Feeney, I had to call last night to apologize, I can't watch Walt Disney for two weeks and I have to buy him a new baseball cap out of my allowance money."

Those were the punishments jointly devised after the hour I spent explaining my actions of that afternoon to my father once he returned home from work. My dad was an engineer. He liked to analyze and fix things. So, we listed everything that happened and we evaluated the potential substitute behaviors for each item on the list, or in plain English -- what I could have done instead. We came up with a bunch of ideas for the next time such as counting to ten, getting the busdriver, or ignoring the person who was bothering me. Obviously, the opportunities for goodness were limitless. But most importantly, my dad had expounded, I should keep my hands to myself. I have to say, after an hour with my father, I regretted not having done just that.

"Wow," she replied. "You know, Mary Grace, you really shouldn't be fresh to the nuns."

"But I wasn't, I told you. I just didn't hear her."

"Still." She paused to add some stars. "And why'd you get so upset about Charcoal Charlie? That was so weird."

"I'm not sure," I admitted.

Bridget went back to singing with the radio. Then she held up her gargantuan medal.

"Mine's looking really neat," she said. "If I win, I'm going to bring you and Cathy Ann to the concert -- and my Dad, 'cause he'll have to drive. What are you going to do if you win?"

"I don't know." I thought for a moment and decided I'd prove I was well-brought up too, "Maybe I'll give them to the needy or somebody poor."

Bridget looked at me stiffly and started to pack up her stuff.

"You know Mary Grace, I'm starting to wonder if you're a nice person at all."

- - -

Bridget didn't come over to play the following day when I called her and she didn't come over the day after either. When I telephoned again, Bridget's mother answered and asked to speak with my mom. My mom, wearing her summer midriff and capris -- she was very careful about her diet -- and recently mobile due to the purchase of a new extra long phone cord, chatted with Mrs. Tarello as she tidied the kitchen counters. I eavesdropped in and heard a lot of 'uh-huh's and 'mm-hmm's and one 'I'm-sure-it-wasn't-meant-that-way' which translated as Bridget wasn't coming over to play for quite awhile.

"Mary Grace, did you tell Bridget you wouldn't invite her to see The Beatles if you won those concert tickets?" asked my mother.

"Well, in a way, I guess," I replied.

"Honestly, Mary Grace, I don't know what's come over you lately."

- - -

That Sunday, I was determined to reprieve myself from all my past wrongdoings. I wouldn't dawdle, I wouldn't be a slowpoke in the bathroom, and no one would have to track me down to get in the car. I'd be silent as a monk during Mass. I'd iron my dress, hankie, gloves and even my socks. I'd polish my mary janes and I'd bring my own money for the collection tray. I'd be perfect and everyone would realize (with the appropriate awe) I wasn't the delinquent child they all mistook me for.

On the way to Church, I let my brother 'call' the front seat of the Rambler without a fuss (Dad didn't always go to Mass) and sat primly in the back. I replied politely to all his taunts and said 'that would be nice' an awful lot. Timmy was dumfounded and stopped pestering me after a while. It was very peaceful. You could tell my mother was pleased; she was humming. When we exited the car and walked in unison to the church, she looked so proud but as we entered the back vestibule and she turned to let me pick the pew, the smile from her face disappeared.

"Mary Grace, where's your hat?" she asked.

Panicked, I touched the top of my head. Nothing was there.

"Honestly, Mary Grace," my mother said in a disappointed whisper. "Tcch, tcch, tcch. Well don't just stand there like you don't know what to do- - get out your hankie."

So I removed from my purse my nicely creased handkerchief, a gift from my grandmother, unfolded it and placed it on my head. As we exited the vestibule into the church, my brother snickered.

"Timothy," my mother said.

I was oblivious to most of Mass, wondering how I messed up what I had so carefully planned. How could I have forgotten my hat of all things? I knelt and stood and sat and knelt again, all the while my stomach in a knot. Who was I becoming? I clenched my teeth in fear for my immortal soul. I was turning into the girl who talked back to nuns, got demerits, treated their friends miserably and didn't wear hats to Church. What was next, would I start smoking? Would I be sitting with Eugenia Pazlowski on the school bus next year?

When I went up to receive the Eucharist, I lowered my head in riteful observance (or, I'll be honest now, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with Bridget or Cathy Ann). As I turned from the altar after receiving Communion and proceeded down the center aisle, I glanced up briefly and noticed Charcoal Charlie sitting at the end of one of the back pews. It was unusual to see him sitting in a pew, he normally stood in back. No one was sitting near him and, as I came nearer, I saw slight tears dotting his cheeks. I wanted to say something but I couldn't; the wafer was glued to the roof of my mouth. Without thinking, I handed him the handkerchief from on top of my head.

He took it. In one graceful move, he accepted the hankie and blotted the area around his eyes. I'll never forget how rough his fingertips felt when they brushed my hand but how softly his eyes looked into mine. It occurred in less than a second but the memory is just as vivid all these years later.

My brother's voice wafted from behind me (I can't prove this but I'd swear Timmy always chewed the wafer and you weren't supposed to), "You're gonna get it now."

When I returned to the pew, Timothy silently guided my mother's gaze to my uncovered head and my mother asked where my hankie was. When I told her, she handed me a pink tissue and I put it on my head but only to her dismay. "No," she hardly whispered, "give that to Charcoal Charlie and get your hankie back. That was from your grandmother."

After Mass finished, I retrieved my hankie from Charcoal and handed him the tissue instead. He seemed just as grateful. Back in the car, my mother examined it and 'tsked' and 'tcchhed' at all the dirt and grime now on it. She was pretty certain no detergent would clean the stains from this delicate piece of linen. The car ride home was very quiet and my brother sat in the front like before but my mother didn't hum this time.

At home, I was sent to my room until I was ready to 'face the music' as my mother used to say and for a while I was afraid to do or touch anything. Downstairs, I could hear my parents discussing me. They were in a quandary: why I was causing so much trouble, how had they not noticed, was it just a phase, a pre-teen rebellious phase? Timothy was one thing but me! He was just rough but I was displaying disrespect of the Church.

As I listened to them, I foresaw spending another hour with my dad analyzing my actions. In my mind I could hear my father's voice calmly asking me what I could have done differently. What could have prevented this distress from happening?

I went through the list. I could have minded my P's and Q's (I never did discover the cause of Charcoal's sadness) and, certainly, I should have remembered my hat. Again, I should have kept my hands to myself. But, then, I stopped and thought hard. If, on the way back from Communion, I'd had my hat on with my grandmother's handkerchief in my purse where it belonged, would I have passed Charcoal Charlie and done nothing while he sat with his tears alone at the end of the pew? Would I really have walked by him?

I didn't know.

I didn't. Maybe I would have just returned to my pew. Maybe someone else would have supplied him a tissue or a hankie. Or maybe keeping your hands to yourself isn't always a good thing. I wasn't sure. But I was certain, even if I had landed myself in trouble again and despite recent reprimands, I had done the right thing.

I remember I removed my stained handkerchief from my purse and placed it in the hamper. I would handwash it later. I would gently scrub all the dirt and grime, and perhaps it wouldn't be as crisp and clean as before but it would be fine. Then I went downstairs. It would be a long afternoon of questions and explanations.

About the author:

Patti Weisgerber is a novice writer living in Massachusetts despite her aversion to Boston Baked Beans. Her fiction has appeared in Small Pond Magazine, The Harrow, the-phone-book.com, LiteLit, Expressions and is forthcoming in the Insolent Rudder and Whistling Shade.