by John L. Stanizzi
St. Mary’s was a tiny, predominantly Irish-Catholic school – first through eighth grade. There were thirty-one kids in my graduating class — 1962. There was Armstrong. Flaherty. McGowan. Lynch. O’Connor. There was Father Shanley. Monsigneur Drennen. And there were the nuns who may or may not have been Irish. Who knows? They all changed their names. Sister Mary Bernardo. Sister Maria Richard. Sister Grace Mary. So who knows?
And then there was me – Johnnie Stanizzi. I’m not Irish.
One time, for a reason that really does remain a mystery, someone decided that it would be a good idea to allow Greg and me to take care of “Milk Duty.” It was a short stint, and during that very, very short stint on milk duty I took part in a miracle. Figures, right? Catholic school, and all.
I guess I sort of understand what they were thinking, but how could they have been that naïve. Greg and me? On milk duty? The two absolute worst kids in the school. It was unbelievable. I remember thinking, This is unbelievable! But I think I understand how it happened. The nuns were with us every day, so they got the full force of our obstinance. Daily. But Father Shanley only got the stories, from the Sisters’ point of view. I really think he underestimated how much disruption we caused because on more than one occasion he’d intervene and dole out the punishment, and it was never as bad as what the sisters would give us. They’d keep us after school writing a thousand times I will not take the Lord’s name in vain. Or I will not talk in class. Or I will not bother Teresa. But Father Shanley would do things like make us go the rectory after school and vacuum or dust or something. And he’d always be there, joking and talking like a normal human being, things the nuns never did, ever.That’s why I think the “milk duty” idea was his. It had to be. There was no way the nuns would ever let Greg and me go anywhere alone, unsupervised. That was guaranteed trouble. Guaranteed. And the milk duty fiasco was typical proof.
There was no cafeteria at St. Mary’s. Everyone brought their lunches to school in small brown, grease-stained bags. Everything wrapped in useless waxed paper. Soggy sandwiches. Bruised apples. A couple of Oreos. We left our lunches in the “cloak room,” which was a long, dark corridor directly behind the classroom. One door opened out to the hallway. The other door opened into the classroom. Mornings, we’d file from the hallway and into the darkened cloak room, toss our lunches on the floor, hang up our “cloaks,” and enter the classroom at the other end.
As the morning wore on, the smells from all those bags would waft out of the cloak room and begin to permeate the air in the class. All those different lunches…peanut butter and jelly, bologna, salami, last night’s leftovers – meatloaf, chicken, some kind of “American” macaroni — all those smells hung in the air of the classroom which I swear got up to a hundred degrees by May. And we ate in the classroom at our desks. It was disgusting. I will never, ever forget the smell and foul taste of a wilted lettuce, rancid tomato, hot mayonnaise, bologna sandwich, on soggy white bread. I will never un-see that slick tomato and greasy lettuce dripping from that flattened, wet sandwich. Wonder Bread. Helps build strong bodies twelve ways. Look for the red, yellow, and blue balloons printed on the wrapper. Right.
Also stashed in our greasy brown lunch bags was a nickel. That was for milk, which was delivered to the school at lunch time. The milk guy would drive up to the door at the back of the school which opened to the basement. There was a long corridor that led to a big open area where the church held bingo and spaghetti dinners. The corridor had boys’ and girls’ bathrooms on the right side, and a couple of storage rooms on the left. The storage rooms held the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigade uniforms, props for the Christmas Minstrel, reams of papers, folding tables…things like that.
It had to be somebody’s job to go down and meet the milk truck. It was always one of the “good” kids, someone Sister deemed “trustworthy.” But this one time, after Greg and I had gotten into some trouble – I don’t remember what exactly — Father Shanley must have made the decision to give that job to Greg and me. I know. Right. Don’t ask me! This was 6th grade. We had already been in every kind of trouble you can imagine, though as I think of it, the infractions that made our reputations legendary were so innocuous, so silly, that all the drama that swirled around me all the time was entirely unnecessary and a creation of the nuns and their own cockeyed view of how to treat kids. The nuns and my parents; what a team! There wasn’t an ounce of patience or understanding among them, and their preconceived notions about us traveled with us and grew from grade to grade. But what had we actually done wrong in the first place to derail this train? Talk back? Probably. Not do our work? Yeah, I guess. Pick on kids at recess? I suppose so, but not too much. Vandalize the school? Yup. Once. But, man, the way they treated us, the way they explained it to our parents, we were like wild animals, careless hoodlums who terrorized the school, in the classrooms and on the playground. I never really thought of myself as a bad kid. Not at first, anyway. But you know, if someone keeps telling you you’re bad long enough, you not only start to believe it, but you start to act on it. Anyway, for whatever reason, Father Shanley thought it might be a good idea to put the two biggest gangsters in the school on milk duty.
Here’s how that went.
The milk guy brought all the milk down to a little room off the hallway in the basement. It was very remote. No classrooms. No people, except maybe our janitor, Frenchie, whose real name was Mr. Thibodeau, naturally. There was nothing else down there. Just the smell of sawdust and Pine-Sol, and a whole lot of emptiness…a long, empty corridor…a few empty rooms. And that’s where the milk man rolled his hand truck…down that hallway, and into a room where we were waiting. He tossed the plastic milk crates onto the table and left.
And there we were. Milk duty. Oh geez.
It was our job to divvy up the milk. Fourteen milks for Sister Anthony Mary’s class. Nine white. Five chocolate. Sixteen for Sister Maria Richard….and so on. Then we’d traipse all over the school, delivering the milk to each classroom. Totally unsupervised. It was amazing to me. An absolute invitation for trouble. I just couldn’t grasp being so completely unsupervised. I also couldn’t handle it.
On our last day of milk duty – the second day — I discovered that if you aimed one of those cardboard milk containers at someone, and squeezed it firmly, quickly, the milk would spray out in a nice, hard, thin stream. I don’t remember exactly how I figured it out. But I do remember saying, Hey, Greg. And when he looked up from milk-divvying, I shot him. Squirrrrt!!! Chocolate milk right off the chin.
“You fucker! What the fuc…..”
But before he could get the words out, I shot him again.
Instantly. I mean instantly, Greg picked up a carton and shot me.
And that was it.
We were off. Unloading milk at each other with complete abandon. Consequences? Whatever! Squirt!! Squirt!!
When we were both drenched in luke-warm milk, Greg had had enough, ran out of the room, cackling, and headed for the exit door at the end of the hall, maybe twenty yards away. I have no idea where he thought he was going. That door opened to the parking of the apartment house next to the school. What was he going to do out there? But I started to follow him out, chocolate weapon in hand.
And that’s when the miracle happened.
Greg made it to the exit door. Pushed it open with all his might. And screamed with laughter, anticipating being hit. In fact, he not only made it to the door, he made it out the door!
That’s when I let my chocolate grenade fly. I threw the container the length of the hallway, as hard as I could. And when the airborne carton reached the door, Greg was all but vanishing out to the safety of the parking lot. The door was nearly completely closed. Greg was safe. But somehow that little eight-ounce milk container passed through the five-inch crack of the closing door, smacked Greg directly in the back of his escaping head with an audible SPLAT! OW!! and exploded in a glorious spume of utterly slow-motion chocolate milk. This remains one of the single most amazing, impossible, remarkable, startling things I have ever seen in my life. It was an impossible throw. Incomprehensible. Not doable. But it happened.
OK. Count. One-one thousand. Two-one thousand.
That’s how long it took for Greg to open the door and come back in, soaking wet, out of breath, hands on his hips. That’s also how long it took for the two of us to realize what we had done. And what would come next.
And it would not be good. About the Author:John L. Stanizzi is author of the collections – Ecstasy Among Ghosts, Sleepwalking, Dance Against the Wall, After the Bell, Hallelujah Time!, High Tide – Ebb Tide, Four Bits, and Chants. His newest collection, Sundowning, will be out this year with Main Street Rag. John’s poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, American Life in Poetry, The New York Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, Blue Mountain Review, The Cortland Review, Rattle, Tar River Poetry, Rust & Moth, Connecticut River Review, Hawk & Handsaw, and many others. His work has been translated into Italian and appeared in many journals in Italy. His translator is Angela D’Ambra. John has read and venues all over New England, including the Mystic Arts Café, the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, Hartford Stage, and many others. For many years, John coordinated the Fresh Voices Poetry Competition for Young Poets at Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT. He is also a teaching artist for the national recitation contest, Poetry Out Loud. A former New England Poet of the Year, John teaches literature at Manchester Community College in Manchester, CT and he lives with his wife, Carol, in Coventry.