by David La Guardia
“I think we killed him.”
Joe Fahey stood in a circle of fifteen seventh graders on the playground at St. Monica’s elementary school in the South Hills section of Pittsburgh. It was noon recess.
Hundreds of other children, first to eighth graders, scrambled and screamed around them, absorbed in urgent games. Eight Divine Providence nuns, one for each grade, scattered themselves strategically amid the chaos. Dressed in black from veils to shoes, pinched, smiling faces bobbing to children who loved and hated each of them with balanced intensity, their job was to educate, to keep these babes safe for God, shielded from devil, broken teeth, jabbed eyes, conked heads, all the risks of recess mayhem.
“Is he breathin,’ Joe?”
Herky Hellstern squinted through coke-bottle lenses as he leaned over the body of Tom Milton. Tom was stretched out peacefully on the warm asphalt, mouth agape, in the middle of this ring of boys who surrounded him, as if in protection, when he went down. He looked like he was faking sleep. Herky was visibly agitated. Ever the mother hen in the seventh-grade boys group–first to laugh, first to worry, first to run to one of the nuns when something loomed out of sorts, he searched for a source of comfort. This was his typical first state of response. Panic would come next.
“Don’t touch him, Herk,” Joe consoled. “And don’t lean down. Pretend you’re laughing. Act stupid. If Charlotte sees us gatherin’ round or gettin’ quiet, she’ll know something’s up.” “Charlotte” was Sr. Charlotte, school principal, eighth grade teacher, loudest, meanest of the nun police, the one they listened to. “We have to get him outta here ‘til he comes to.” Somehow, Joe had become ringleader. Up to now his role in this adventure had been merely to watch a silly process unravel. When needed, he had pushed it along, but he didn’t expect this shocking result.
The process began simply enough. Bernie MacArdle came to school that day with a delicious nugget. He had learned from his older brother, George, that if someone did ten deep knee bends then held his breath to the count of twenty, and then, while he kept holding it, if someone else came up behind him, wrapped arms around and squeezed his chest tightly to another count of ten, the guy would faint dead away, drop like a rock.
When they heard this story, everybody laughed and mocked. They knew of girls, never boys, who fainted in church pews during Mass. But they didn’t believe you could cause it to happen out of the blue. They could barely wait ‘til recess to try it out. The question was, who would volunteer to be the victim?
“But what if we killed him? He ain’t moving. Is he breathin’? His eyes’re rolled completely back. He looks dead. Is he dead, Joe?”
“Herk. Calm down! He just looks dead. He’s goin’ to be ok, but we gotta get him to a safe spot.”
Trying to fake normal, the others fidgeted. Some panted. They were brave enough to try the trick. But this corpse-like result tested their courage. MacArdle shifted from hero to goat. This was his big idea.
Tom Milton had taken on the dare casually enough. “Yeah. I’ll do it,” he said. “It won’t work anyways.” Tom was the lanky, quiet observer among them. They called him Socrates, admired him for seeming somehow older, wiser than the rest of them. He was certainly taller, by a good six inches. Once they reached the top of the playground, without a pause he started doing knee bends. “One, two, three…” Everyone shouted the count in unison. Milton grinned. This beat Christmas! This beat hitting a soft ball over the clapboard fence in center field. When he reached twenty to a crescendo of jeers and cheers, Tom took a deep breath, held it, then mocked a good-bye wave at his friends before weaving ten fingers tightly over his large, freckled nose. According to plan, big Bill Sniegocki, next to Tom the tallest in the group, came up behind him, wrapped his arms around his chest, and squeezed. “One, two, three…”
He got to six. Suddenly Tom’s hands dropped from his nose, his eyes rolled back, and he folded backward, limp, into Sniegocki’s grasp. Bill slithered him slowly to the ground. The boys laughed and applauded. “He burped,” shouted Chalmers. “Did you hear him burp?” They thought Tom was kidding, leading them down another Socratic path. When seconds passed and he didn’t budge, they weren’t so sure. They stared at him lying still on the asphalt, one leg bent awkwardly beneath the other, mouth hung half open, tongue quivering, shining like a pig’s wet nose in the noonday sun. Bravado deflated to nervousness. Even Socrates couldn’t act this good.
Desperation breeds lies. Backing away from what resembled at least a felony, Stevie Zuravitch whined, as though to his father but really to no one. He sounded like he was rehearsing: “We didn’t do nuthin’. He’s the one who wanted to do this. All we did was follow Bernie’s directions. We didn’t do nuthin’.” Ron Smoker chimed in: “This was all Bernie’s stupid idea. He’s the one who started this. How do we know this isn’t a way to kill somebody. Nice going, Bernie. You killed Tommy.” Confused, Bernie tried to regain stature, but his voice could only form sounds. “Uh, but, kee, Tom, uh, nuh.” Fahey used the gap to grab control again. “Pipe it down everyone. We just need to get him off the field before Charlotte comes over here. We don’t want her to call Donnermeyer. Then we’ve really had it.”
The crotchety German pastor of St. Monica’s loomed in their imaginations like some troll who emerged from under his bridge whenever they were most guilty of something or other and needed an injection of saints, ghosts or goblins. Rev. Leo J. Donnermeyer had big sagging jowls that formed creases down each side of his mouth, from corner of lips to chin. Down these creases oozed a perpetual stream of saliva that the bulky priest dabbed at all day with a balled-up, more-grey-than-white soggy handkerchief. He had a special way of peering with dead-fish eyes from an inch above his root-beer colored glass frames. He did it especially when he distributed report cards and spied D’s or F’s. He did it when George Uhl got hit above the eye with a Louisville Slugger bat: he tipped his bloody face back, glared at us, and asked the whole seventh-grade group who was the swinger. Everybody was too scared to lie, so they said Billy Homberg did it. Homberg cried because he knew the troll was going to get him now. And did.
They would do anything to avoid having to face Donnermeyer.
“Alright, now listen up.” Fahey took charge. “I want one guy on each arm, one guy at each knee and one at each foot. Chalmers and Harding, take the middle. We’re going to raise him a little bit off the ground and inch back toward the wall in front of the fence. We’ll lift him over the wall and drop him in that gulley between the wall and where the grass comes down to meet it. He’ll be out of sight. Then we can get some water and splash it on him and he’ll come out of it. Everybody understand?”
“I ain’t gonna touch him,” Herky bawled. “He’s dead. I know he’s dead. We’re all going to hell.”
“Cool it, Herk. Look at his stomach. It’s movin’. He’s breathin’.” Fahey wasn’t sure he saw movement, but he tried to sound more confident than he felt. It was working. “I want four guys to stand as decoys in front of us while we’re lifting and walking. Try to look like you’re telling jokes and laughing.. Push and slap at each other. Look normal, you guys.” “But what if we drop him?” Puny Stutz Gallagher was thinking too much again. “What if his head drags on the asphalt? We’re not strong enough to keep his butt off the ground. If we drag him, we’ll wear a hole in his pants.” Though Stutz was often right, even his parents usually ignored him, as everyone did now. Meanwhile, murderer Bernie McArdle had found his voice: “I’ll help with the middle, you guys. We can hold him up long enough to get to the wall. Let’s do this.”
“Take your positions everybody. Decoys. You ready?” Never before in their lives had this group of boys done something this important. Joe Fahey couldn’t help thinking of the war movie he saw over the week-end at the Melrose Theater. “Retreat Hell!” “On the count of three, LIFT.” Starring Frank Lovejoy. Soldiers running into bullets. Hero in command. Grand, but nerve-wracking.
From a distance of fifty yards, Sr. Charlotte was not sure what she was looking at in the upper ball field. All looked normal. Yet something seemed whacky. Four seventh graders, unlikely ones at that, were overplaying their daily drama: louder-than-usual laughter; harder than normal slaps and pushes. But what was most odd was that, as they fronted forward and played as if for an audience (that was not unusual), they were in fact edging backwards toward the wall at the end of the ballfield. Charlotte could see bits and pieces of other boys through the front line of legs, and they were all, apparently, back-peddling. Despite the badgering slapstick, she couldn’t help thinking for the moment of something coordinated, practiced, a procession, a prayer. There was solemnity to it. These boys didn’t move this slowly, ever, she thought. Then the squealing girls surrounding her black skirts brought her attention to the moment, and she remembered not to worry about anything coordinated coming from frazzled, pre-adolescent urchins in the seventh grade. Brats and rascals they were, but they never surprised her. Over the years, she’d seen it all.
“I can see the whites of his eyes!” Herky was recalling cemetery movies. “But the rest of his eyes are gone. I know he’s dead.” This time Joe ignored him; he was working too hard to respond. Tom’s head flopped left to right and back again with each step the boys took. His shirt had pulled out of his pants and his back and belly were revealed to them, his skin above his belt an odd color of waxy white. His lead weight was too much for them, so they had to stop and rest every three feet, allowing the body to splay awkwardly back onto the asphalt. They were all breathing heavily. Viewed from above, the scene resembled a holy card each of the boys had been given one Good Friday by Sr. Charlotte, a view downward, as if from a cross, of three haloed apostles dragging a bloodied Christ away from the scene of recent sacrifice. The parallel never occurred to Herky whose imagination now only had police and jails in it.
The peculiar procession finally arrived at the three-foot high concrete block wall, the boundary at the end of the playing field. Behind the wall, a small hill sloped upward for about four feet until it reached a white plank fence anyone could easily crawl through, and often did, to chase home-run soft balls smashed into the ornery neighbor’s yard beyond the fence.
“Ok,” said Joe, in his lowest command voice. “Let’s take a rest. Let him down slowly. You guys in front, start singing ‘Take me out to the ball game.’ Keep acting like jerks. This next stage will be the hardest part.”
Tommy Milton’s hair was matted in the dust on the smooth asphalt. His face was turned to the side, left cheek pressing into a large piece of gravel that dented his skin and looked uncomfortable. Everyone noticed it and stared at it. But no one was going to touch Tom’s head. No one was going to remove that stone. The rest of his body folded into itself when they set him down, one knee right, the other left, one hand palm upward, the other oddly fisted as if it forgot where the fight was. A thin line of blue boxer shorts was visible above his belt, something they would mock, whistle and laugh at in happier times. But not now.
“OK, here’s what we gotta do. We need to lift him high enough to get him over this wall and onto the grass part. If we can get him to that space where the grass hits the back of the wall, no one’ll be able to see him from the playground unless they come and stand right here. We need two guys on each foot, two on each arm, and four along his body ‘cause his butt’s the heaviest part. Ok?” Herky erupted. “No! We need to tell Charlotte! I’m going to tell Charlotte!!” “No you’re not, Herk. We’ve come this far. Now just be quiet and help or we’ll have to put you behind the wall too! Now, everybody. Take positions! You guys in front, keep singing as loud as you can. Don’t stop until I tell ya. And keep your eyes on Herky.”
Their first attempt was a miserable failure. The head and feet groups managed to get Tom’s body high enough, to the level of the top of the wall, but the butt group barely raised him a foot from the ground. How could a body be this heavy? Herky was still a stage short of panic. “He’s dead weight! This is what dead weight means! I told ya. Tommy’s gone.! We’ve gotta confess!” The others were sweating and huffing too much to pay Herky more attention. Arms aching with strain, they suddenly dropped Tom with an audible clunk onto the asphalt. Meanwhile, the band of front-liners continued to mime silliness to distract attention from what was happening behind them. Willy Homberg got the bright idea to start the “Star Spangled Banner,” which the others, standing in mock attention, picked up and sang slowly, horribly off key. In the far distance, Sr. Charlotte, hearing the shrill chorus, looked up and shook her head as the group slid awkwardly into “My Country Tis of Thee.” Predictable idiocy gave her no pause.
Joe Fahey had a better plan. “Ok, you guys. We need a bridge. Here’s what we’re gonna do. Uhl, Sniegocki and Harding—you’re the tallest. Lie face down on the asphalt in a straight line at the base of the wall. We’re gonna roll Tommy on top of you.” Gil Harding’s eyes popped in fear. “What are you talkin’ about! I’m not doing that!” “Yes you are. Now listen.” Joe used his most convincing take-charge voice, and the others began to obey. Once Georgie Uhl and Bill Sniegocki stretched out at the wall’s base, Gil had little choice but to go along. He would not be called “chicken!” by anyone. “When we roll Tommy onto you, he’ll be lying flat along your bodies. All you need to do then is raise yourselves into a hands and knees position. He won’t be as heavy ‘cause you’ll all be sharing his weight. Then, he’ll be half way up the wall. After that, take a minute’s rest, then raise your backs higher, slowly, as if you were a camel standin’ up in the desert, and we’ll take care of the rest.” Just make sure you don’t drop him. He can’t be allowed to roll off of your backs.”
Joe’s plan was so outlandish, it sounded like it might work. Meanwhile, the entertainers, happier by the moment with their role, shifted into a raucous version of “Yankee Doodle.” Joe, Bernie and Stutz, taking care to protect his nose from stubbing into the asphalt, rolled Tommy over once, toward the wall’s base, where George, Bill and Gil were stretched head-to-toe, ready to assume their burden. By this time, parts of decayed leaves and small twigs were embedded in Tom’s arms and lower legs, and red ants were ferreting through his hair and on parts of his bare tummy. A sheen of white dust covered the right side of his face and forehead, which no one considered brushing away, nor did anyone dare to chase after the little red ants, one disappearing under his belt, another settling, as if to drink, at the edge of his belly-button. After a few false starts, amid grunts, groans and delicate manipulation, Tom’s body soon lay nose down upon the bodies of his three classmates whose faces bore the expressions of trapped, submissive dogs. They were too busy to hear the boisterous chorus of their singing peers: “…stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni!”
Then the bell rang.
The first recess bell required all students to “freeze in place, no matter what you are doing.” In one split second, the schoolyard shifted from a chaos of motion to eerie stillness. Boys balanced on one leg, pitchers stopped mid-windup, batters became statues, laughing girls, standing in circles, turned to stone. And four odd choristers at the top of the schoolyard stopped with mouths wide open, wry music halted by the raucous clanging of a simple copper bell.
This was Sr. Charlotte’s proudest moment, when three-hundred children under her command responded as one to the rote command of parochial discipline. God in his heaven would be pleased. In her self-satisfied instant before she signaled the second bell, the Principal failed to notice today’s tiny aberration from her rules. But other children, facing the upper field in their fixed stillness, surely saw the subtle movement behind the frozen choristers. The triple-humped shadow of a beast lifted its burden, inch by inch, above the far back wall, tilted its humps awkwardly toward the grass, and dumped a dead weight, whatever it was, over the top of the wall even as a body on a ship might be dropped into an ocean.
When the second bell rang, order was restored to the St. Monica universe. Commanded by ritual of the second ring to “walk quickly to your grade lines,” three-hundred innocents crisscrossed themselves in silent cadence to the bottom of the school yard, forming long double-lines for each grade, one to eight, an arm’s length distant from the person in front of and beside them. Eight mothering nuns, rigid sergeants, headed one for each of the eight lines while, behind them, Sr. Charlotte, avenging general, paced in power before her disciplined troops.
At the farthest end of the seventh-grade line, a group of boys, fidgeting from one foot to the other, exchanged significant looks. Joe Fahey, last in line and seeming to stare forward, whistled to all through a forced smile: “Calm, be calm! Everything’s ok. Act normal!” Seeming to be saved from capture and punishment, Bernie MacArdle, far from feeling “normal” but willing to try, hummed to himself a quiet reprise of “Yankee Doodle.” Bill Sniegocki attempted without much success to smother his giggles. On the verge of hysteria, Herky Hellstern wiped his nose with a sweaty shirt-sleeve and turned his blood-shot eyes to the back playground wall, his lungs heaving in hitched breaths he could not control.
When Sr. Charlotte clapped once with force, the first grade line marched mechanically through the open double doors and into the St. Monica school building. Seven more loud claps and seven more long lines snaked out of sight, followed finally by Sr. Charlotte herself, who pulled the double doors closed behind her, as if in triumph, and left the playground empty, silent.
Twenty minutes passed. Then twenty more. Standing at the back windowsill of his seventh grade classroom, Joe Fahey sharpened his second pencil to a nub, his excuse to glimpse the brick wall far in the distant corner of the empty playing field. He was about to return to his seat, nervous and defeated, when Joe spied movement along the edge of the wall at the foot of the fence. He smiled a wide grin as a boy named Socrates slowly rose onto his elbows from deep in the grass. Tom Milton shifted his tall frame to a sitting position on the block wall, dangling his feet in the warm sun as though waking to a new day, a new life. Fahey gulped his glee and twirled the handle of the sharpener as a signal of success. In unison, eight young boys, peppered in seats across the room behind him, mysteriously laughed out loud. A ninth, adjusting his coke bottle lenses, nearly toppled from his seat.
Joe lingered at the window to watch Tom scratch under his shirt, fuss with his tousled hair, stare at the closed doors to the school building for one long moment, then, with his best Charlie Chaplin imitation, saunter off in the opposite direction.