Adelaide Literary Magazine


ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  








By Steven McBrearty





There was a sub that day in freshman Latin class at St. Aloysius High in suburban San Antonio, Texas, so all hell had broken loose.  Spitballs were flying, there were arm wrestling matches on desks, a trash can basketball game had broken out in a corner.  Desks were rearranged for impromptu conference groups.  The sub was a painfully-thin, prematurely-balding man who lost control of the class immediately.  His protruding Adam’s Apple bobbed up and down spasmodically.  The underarms of his starched white discount store dress shirt were soaked in perspiration, his shiny black polyester slacks were hiked up high over white sports socks and brown tasseled loafers.  His name was Mr. Waldo, the name itself the inspiration for put-downs and derision.  I felt sorry for Mr. Waldo.  I pitied him.  I identified with him.  He was somebody who was never going to command respect or command an audience.  He had a wife and young child, he had told us, and I felt sorry for them, too.  You could only hope they would be blinded to what a dufus their husband and father was.

I sat rigidly at my desk, letting my thoughts wander.  It was all I could do.  It was like a Zen exercise, walling myself off from the chaos surrounding me.  I didn’t like chaos.  I didn’t want disorder.  Maybe there was something wrong with the adolescent me, but I didn’t want to spend the day feeling as though I had accomplished nothing.  Time was limited, after all.  Life was short.  Besides, disorder provided ample opportunities for my classmates to zero in on criticism of my personality, my character, my fragile ego, my looks.  Classmates swarmed around me as in the climactic scene from Little Big Men, but I remained stationed at my desk, pretending to be absorbed in the fascinating world of Latin parts of speech.

St. Al’s was an all-boy’s Catholic high school located in Castle Hills, a ritzy new suburb outside the “Loop” in far north San Antonio, a zip code laden heavily with doctors and lawyers and split-level ranch styles with three- and four-car garages, small houses themselves.  (My dad being an accountant, we lived seven or eight miles away in a less glamorous subdivision, with only one level and a two-car garage, driving in each morning through a hectic freeway rush hour).  The school was a brand spanking new facility, designed in a clean-line, cheerful 1960s contemporary style, a sort of space program/Southern California amalgam motif, with a glassed-in entrance and dark reflective windows all around like some cool character wearing sunglasses.  A slender, representational, unmanned cross adorned the entranceway, high up.  Two-story ceilings on the inner corridor and a glass wall around the library provided an airy, hi-tech feel, almost as if the library were a command center for NASA, with students and librarians striding around inside like programmers and scientists working to keep the mission on course.  Classroom walls were painted vibrant, life-affirming colors.  The desks were table arms, with space beneath for storage.  The school was staffed by Christian Brothers—they’re the ones who make the wine—with lay teachers filling in the gaps.  There was a companion girl’s school, St. Agatha’s Academy, but it was separated by a half-mile of uphill no-man’s land, wooded hills and jutting rocks and cactus.   At the end of the school day, students from St. Al’s trekked through this thicket to visit St. Agatha’s girls on the other side.  It was like a journey to Valhalla.  Unfortunately, I had been unable to go there recently, due to football practice.

Mr. Waldo stood facing the white, dry-erase writing board, conjugating Latin verbs in a low monotone and with a printed scrawl.  One large spitball, then another, hit the board beside him.  Then a volley of spitballs came, with one striking him on the back of the head.  He whirled, marker in hand, face contorted in anger and surprise.

“Who threw that?” Mr. Waldo demanded.  Nobody came forward.  He stood there, pinching the marker hard between two fingers of his right hand.

“Fire!” somebody yelled.  A paper fire had erupted in a trash bucket in the back corner of the room.
“For heaven’s sake,” Mr. Waldo said, his head shake a sad, sarcastic commentary on our pampered pedigree.  “What kind of families do you kids have?”

“Get some water!” somebody said.

“Use your shoe!” somebody said.

“Use your Latin book!” a third person said.

“Fire!  Fire!  Fire!”  It was like a football chant.

It was at this precise moment that the school principal, Brother Ramsey, entered the classroom—or, rather, materialized in the back doorway of the classroom, like Banquo’s ghost.  Brother Ramsey was a simian-like man, a man we compared to Neanderthal Man, with a prognathous jaw and long, dangling arms and an intimidating, perpetual five o’clock shadow.  He was feared by all, students and faculty alike, for his pugnacious style, his combative approach to the most neutral of interactions.  He entered unobtrusively, unannounced, standing silent in the doorway.  He stood unnoticed for a long while, the madness inside continuing.  Smoke from the now-extinguished trash can fire (somebody had actually used his shoe) drifted around the room, pushed by currents from ceiling-mounted air conditioner vents.  Mr. Waldo tried shouting to restore order.  Order was not restored.  But as eyes turned and word about Brother Ramsey got around, the classroom turned eerily, unnaturally quiet.  It was like the silencing of a crowd at a play when the opening curtain rises.  Somebody coughed.  Somebody sneezed.  Students scurried back to their desks or stood frozen in place, like figures in wax.  Brother Ramsey stood with a commanding posture, grinning diabolically.  There was going to be mayhem.  There was going to be bloodshed.

“So it seems that the children play while the elves are away,” Brother Ramsey said, in his precise, guttural monotone.  Never had that little nursery rhyme seemed so ominous.

Then he moved in, preternaturally quick, picking up one of my classmates by the shoulders and depositing him in an empty desk.  He grabbed another classmate by the ear, dragging him to a desk.  Everyone who wasn’t in a desk went there immediately, as in a deadly serious game of musical chairs.  Brother Ramsey’s eyes roamed the room, searching for miscreants.  His eyes were like destruction rays focusing on victims.  For the remainder of the class period, he sat scrunched-up in a too-small classroom chair, like an elephant in a bubble bath, long arms dangling.  Mr. Waldo’s Latin conjugations were received now by a chorus of eager, responsive students, waving their hands energetically for attention.  There was never such an alert, attentive Latin class in the history of humankind.  As the buzzer ending the class period sounded, everyone filed out in a somber, submissive tone, as in a religious ritual.  You could almost smell incense in the air.

Fortunately for us, Brother Ramsey was an anomaly at our school, a throwback to a dying era of hard-ass, Baltimore catechism, sin-and-confess Catholicism.  We were changing along with the times, with Vatican II, with the counter-culture movement, with new technologies and TV and transportation advances.  We were about as peace and love now as the hippies, as communal as an Israeli kibbutz.  Imbued with the enlightened tenor of the times, most of the teaching brothers were sensitive, forward-thinking, progressive-minded men, earnest in their desire to impart a sense of genuine Christian love to their young charges.

Brother Xavier was the freshman religion teacher at the school.  I’ve never forgotten his first class that September, my very first day as a high school student.  Brother Xavier was a handsome, broad-shouldered man, probably in his mid-30s, with tight golden curls on his head and bulging biceps, an athlete in his own schoolboy days, he had suggested modestly, as a point of orientation.  He wore his plain brown cassock casually, jauntily, even roguishly if that were possible, his knees pushing through as if to establish that he could have been a first-rate lady’s man if he hadn’t dedicated his life to serving God.

As we settled into our desks that first day, Brother Xavier played a popular folk rock song on a portable turntable stationed on his teacher’s desk: “A World of Our Own,” by The Seekers.  The refrain reads as follows:

We'll build a world of our own that no one else can share
All our sorrows we'll leave far behind us there
And I know you will find there'll be peace of mind
When we live in a world of our own

After the song had played several times, Brother Xavier camped down on his desk, right leg swinging.  Throwing the room open for discussion, he requested opinions on the song’s message, did we think this was the ideal, what we should all strive for?  Romantics all, everybody emphatically said yes, we wanted to find somebody to love and to be with that person exclusively—in effect, to build a world of our own.  Brother Xavier’s leg stopped swinging.  He placed his hands beside him on the desk top.  No, he said, God doesn’t want us to wall ourselves off from the world.  He wants us to strive to make the world a better place for others, not just seek selfish pleasure for ourselves.  It was a punch to the jaw, a profound, sobering revelation that I took to heart.

This day—the day of the Latin sub—one of the students asked Brother Xavier for a definition of mortal sin.  A mortal sin was one that condemned the perpetuator to an eternity in hell if not repented (properly) and forgiven.  Mortal sins ran the gamut from murder and grand theft to impure thoughts, with impure thoughts seeming to loom large in the sin hierarchy.  (That’s what the nuns taught us, anyway.)  Considering adolescent boys were assailed constantly by impure thoughts, we lived in constant fear of going to hell.  Brother Xavier fingered the oversized black rosary sashed around his waist like a belt.  He seemed to consider his words carefully before responding.

“Mortal sin?” he said.  “I wouldn’t worry so much about impure thoughts and sexual desires.  I’ll tell you what’s a mortal sin.  I was riding the street car down Canal Street in New Orleans one afternoon.  The street car stopped by a group of black kids playing penny-pitch in the gutter.  Some old white guy leaned out the window and spit, and said, ‘Niggers!’  That’s a mortal sin.”

I understood.  I felt liberated.  A thrill of comprehension ran up my spine.  I felt alive in a different way, an upbeat, optimistic, newly-cognizant way.  Destroying somebody, destroying somebody’s spirit was a mortal sin, not some random, fleeting, natural brain wave of desire.  I left class walking on air.  I wasn’t going to hell, after all.

Buoyed by my free pass, my new lease on life, I decided to make the trek up the hill to St. Agatha’s when the school day ended.  Normally, I was unable to because of football practice, but with a flare-up of an asthmatic condition (and a small bit of play acting), I had a doctor’s excuse to skip that day.  My mother couldn’t pick me up until 4:30, so I had some free time on my hands.  I had told her I would be studying.  The thought of heading up the hill to St. Agatha’s filled me suddenly with optimism and hope.  The path to St. Agatha’s represented hope itself, the rank, ribald possibility of love and acceptance—and maybe more.  I hadn’t been up there since the first days of school back in early September.  And after Brother Xavier’s religion class, I felt that I was doing the Lord’s work; I was doing this to save my soul.

As I crossed over railroad tracks before entering the woods I stood briefly watching the football team toiling away on the practice fields in the distance below.  I could hear the coaches shouting, the piercing bleat of their whistles, the grunts of the players and the thud of their pads as they hit each other or the blocking sleds.  I could see the players flop onto the ground and roll around while the coaches preened over them in their tight white shorts and cleated shoes.  Watching them from this vantage point football seemed meaningless.  I had joined the team because I enjoyed playing sports, but also because I thought it would make me a heroic figure, a popular big man on campus.  But I discovered quickly that there were others who were stronger and faster than me, who cared more than me, who seemed to relish the hustle and the horseplay of the locker room.  I hated the locker room hijinks.  I disbelieved the claims of character-building, that treating players like a piece of wet dog crap somehow created strong-willed, upstanding individuals.  I thought it created a distrust for all authority, a breeding ground for rebellion.

After a fifteen-minute hike I surfaced onto the St. Agatha’s campus, high atop a plateau overlooking a broad swath of northside San Antonio.  You could see cars moving along Loop 410—from this vantage point they appeared to plug along at a slow and stately speed—and the newly-constructed spate of office buildings lining the roadway.   

The school itself was a throwback to an earlier Catholic school style, with a statue of St. Agatha, Martyr, on a pedestal out front and florid paintings of our Holy Father and Jesus and the Apostles on the inside halls.  It was a different world here, a feminine world animated by nuns and permeated by the delightful (if unsettling) sights and sounds of adolescent females.  (The unsettling part was the reason why our two schools were segregated by sex.)   The girls wore plaid uniform skirts and starched white blouses, unintentionally sexy.  After school, those blouses became untucked, hanging loose.  The top buttons were unfastened.  The nuns here were a different breed from the ones who taught me in high school, a bit looser, a bit more hip.  Their habits were less confining, almost like regular clothes.  Their wimple was really just a scarf, allowing wisps of hair to be revealed, humanizing them.  Even the calves of their legs showed, and their shoes were ordinary tennis shoes, not orthodontic-looking clodhoppers.  They stood sleeves rolled up, hands on hips, feet spread, surveying their charges in a relaxed and self-assured manner.  They had a sense of humor.  They had a sense of irony.  Some nuns seemed to have developed a kind of level-headed woman-to-woman relationship with their students, a bluff and bantering back-and-forth with an implied understanding of hormones and adolescent mood swings.  And though they were protective of their girls, they accepted us St. Al’s guys gate-crashing here as a natural, normal course of events.  If they learned your name, they called you “Mister Kevin” or “Mister Steve” or whatever, in a tone that made you feel honored somehow, valued.  There was even one young, pretty-ish nun, Sister Rita, for whom I harbored a romantic fantasy, that she would throw off her habit and renounce her vows and run away with me.  She would have to drive, of course.

“Nice day,” I told Sister Rita, observationally.  Very adult-like, very mature.

“Nice say,” Sister Rita responded.  Smart, snappy conversation!

St. Agatha’s was hopping that day, swarming with St. Al’s students, angled afternoon sunshine interspersed with the long, soft shadows of autumn.  It was a fall festive atmosphere, almost, a zone of laughter and merriment and bonhomie.  The girls in their white blouses, St. Al’s guys in our own uniforms of white pullover shirts and black slacks.  This was where I belonged, I thought.  This was how I could please God, save my soul.  To hell with football practice.  I quit the football team in my mind, right then and there.

After finishing my chat with Sister Rita—I thought there were subtle signs of a future rendezvous there—I took off in pursuit of love, joy, hedonistic pleasures.  Or a smile, at least, from a pretty girl.  I wandered into a crowd of guys teasing some girls.  They laughed in tittered in response to schoolboy jibes, but they were holding their own, firing back jokes and risqué banter.  I tried to think of something smart and clever to say, some way to pitch in, but my brain had gone into shutdown mode.  I couldn’t think of a single thing.  I moved onto another group, standing on the fringe, hoping that a different vibe would give me some kind of entre there.  It didn’t happen.  I felt shut out.

Several failed forays later, I was beginning to feel like an imposter there.  I blundered from group to group, hoping to make an impact.  But it was as if I didn’t know the code.  I had been away too long.  I seemed invisible.  I hadn’t paid club dues.  I hovered on the edge of groups of guys talking and bantering with girls, confident and cocky.  I wished I could be confident and cocky.  I began to wonder if I was even quite human.  People walked by me, oblivious.  I said things nobody responded to.  Girls avoided eye contact.  Even Sister Rita seemed indifferent to my plight, turning her head cruelly when I stopped by for an encouraging remark.

Depressed, defeated, I tried to rationalize my situation as just bad luck.  The wrong crowd there today.  In a different crowd, I would be a star.  But I wasn’t sure who I expected the right crowd to be.  I turned back to the woods for a long, solitary hike back to the St. Al’s parking lot, where my mother would pick me up.  There was nobody to say goodbye to.  Nobody who cared.  My spirits were crushed.  I felt like some sad animal, slinking back to its solitary den.

Then I heard my name called: “Kevin.  Hey.”  I turned to see a girl I had met last summer, Denise Biancardi.  She was standing apart from the other girls, smiling, fingering her crucifix.  Her top button was unbuttoned.  Her shirttail was untucked.  It was as if the afternoon sun were a spotlight shining on her, illuminating her, making her special.  A thrill of expectation shot up my spine. 

“Remember me?” she said.

“Denise!” I said.  “Hi!  What’s going on?”

We had met once back in mid-summer at a barbecue mixer for incoming St. Al’s and St. Agatha students, outside on the infield of the St. Al’s baseball field.  Wearing aprons over their cassocks, and wielding spatulas, the Christian Brothers barbecued hamburgers while St. Agatha’s nuns circulated about in chaperon style.  It was a vastly different vibe from my grade school experience, a promise that life going forward could be something more than simply following rules and confession and five Hail Mary’s afterwards.  Sizzling hamburgers and barbecue smoke afforded a festive air.  At some point, Denise and I bumped into each other in an open area near the first base line and started talking, mainly as two people who weren’t talking to anybody else.  Her hair was straight and very dark brunette, almost black.  Her eyes were dark, too, laughing but impenetrable.  I remember thinking she was pretty, in a wholesome but savvy and smart-girl kind of way.  And there seemed to be a cast of kindness in those dark eyes, some safety there, a guarantee of non-judgment, unlike some of the other girls I had known who seemed to thrive on biting, injurious remarks.  We were shy together at first, but warmed up quickly, relating stories about our parents and families and dogs.  She told me that her father owned an Italian restaurant on Broadway, one of the main strips into downtown, and that her entire family worked there, five kids and uncles and aunts included.  It made me admire her even more, that she was a working girl.  I could see that in her—or thought I could, anyway.  I told her that my father was an accountant and a cheapskate, so cheap that we had only one telephone, centrally located so that everybody in the house could eavesdrop on you talking.  She was the oldest child in the family.  I was, too.  She liked to play tennis.  I did, too!  “Let’s play sometime,” she said.  “That sounds like fun!” I said.  It sounded like a romantic adventure, just me and her out on a court together.  As afternoon morphed into night, the semi-darkness and the surrounding cacophony of voices seemed to create a kind of shroud of intimacy around us.  We could do and say things we had never said or done before.  Sitting on the grass, half-eaten hamburgers on paper plates beside us, we touched each other off and on, experimentally, on the arm, the shoulder, the face, the foot.  It was as if a kind of spell had come over us, a witching hour where anything goes.  As darkness descended, we entered a skit contest with the subject matter: “Students Entering High School.”  Our entry was received with laughter and applause.  But in the confusion afterwards, she slipped away and I never got a chance to get her number or tell her goodbye.  I hadn’t seen her again until this day.

“How are you doing?” she said now.

“OK,” I said.  “How about you?”

“I’m doing OK,” she said.  “I haven’t seen you up here before.”

“I always have football practice,” I said.  I shrugged.  “I’m kind of sick today so I couldn’t go.”

“I hope not too sick,” she said.

“No,” I said.  “It’s just some allergies or something that I always get.  Sometimes I get asthma.  The doctor said I shouldn’t run today.”

“Well, glad you’re here, then,” she said.

“I’m glad I’m here,” I said.  I stood still, facing her, feet planted.  I wasn’t going anywhere now.  She fingered the crucifix around her neck.  We seemed to be treading on new ground here, a paradigm for a different kind of relationship.

“I had fun talking to you at that mixer last summer,” she said.

“You did?  I had fun, too.”

“I thought our skit was pretty good.  I thought it was the best one, really.”

“I thought so, too!”

We had edged closer to each other, facing each other tentatively, uncertainly.  She held her hair behind her head with one hand.  I stood staring into her eyes, eyes that seemed to confirm my own feelings, feelings of longing and affection.  Desire rose up in me like an unstoppable force.  For just this little while, everything seemed right.  Neither of us was moving.  Neither of us wanted to move.  Neither of us seemed uncomfortable.  It was a sweet, unexpected feeling, not being uncomfortable with somebody.  I was uncomfortable with everybody.

Without really thinking then, I lunged forward, aiming for something I had heretofore only dreamed about—a kiss on the lips with a girl.  She came forward to meet me.  Our lips puckered and touched.  I pulled back, then went in for a more comprehensive follow-up kiss.  It put a charge in me.  It was like a jolt of electricity, a surge of emotion, maybe a foretaste of heaven itself.  It was something I felt through my entire body, in my chest and my lungs and my heart.  I felt alive in a way I had never known before.  We moved back, staring at each other, staring in wonderment and delight.  We lingered briefly, wanting more—at least I wanted more—but fearing that a nun would intervene and then we would be put through an interrogation that would no doubt rival those at the height of the Spanish Inquisition.

Then I saw the watch on her arm.  I returned to reality. 

“What time is it?” I said.

“It’s 4:30,” she said.

“Oh, crap,” I said.  “My mom’s picking me up back at the St. Al’s parking lot.  I better go.”

“You better go,” she said.

I grasped her fingertips briefly before tearing out for the woods.  We had made no plans for the future, no proposal for another meeting, nothing.  It didn’t really matter.  I didn’t need anything else just the.  I was totally happy.  My life was pretty much complete.  I scrambled through the trees and brush downhill to the St. Al’s campus in a state of near-ecstasy, senses alive to a new dimension, a new world, a world where I was actually a respected and respectable human being.  As I emerged, crossing back over the railroad tracks, I saw our car, our white Pontiac Bonneville station wagon, 400 cubic inches of unbridled 1960s-era horsepower, parked in the side lot by the gym.  I saw my mother in the driver’s seat, waiting.  Her window was rolled down part way.  Like everybody back then, she was smoking, exhaling out the open window.  She was a typical mother of the times, I suppose, hair cut rather short on the sides and back and permed into an impenetrable hive glued together by industrial strength hair spray.  She was over-reactive and over-protective, perpetually worried, a bit of a nut.  I considered her as a kind of amateur Erma Bombeck, firing off one-liners on issues of topical importance.  I don’t think she really had much of a life outside our house.  I don’t know what kind of a life of the mind she had.  It all seemed fine to me.  I was too young to question her life-style.  I had no idea what adults went through.  I guess I thought they had most problems solved.

I slowed down when I was within view, combing my hair, tucking in my shirt, wiping perspiration from my face with a handkerchief from my pocket.  I entered through the passenger-side door of the car without greeting my mother.  She craned her head around to see me.  She held her cigarette loosely, precariously, with a long ash, at an angle that threatened to ignite the interior car fabric.

Her face had taken on a concerned and suspicious appearance that made me raise my hackles against any release of data.  It was like she was peering into my soul and finding everything bad and nefarious there.

There you are!” she said.  “Where have you been?”

“I just took a short walk,” I said.  “Coach thought it would be good.”

“You’re not supposed to be running.”

“I wasn’t running.  It was just a walk.”

“You’re bleeding,” she said.

I glanced down at my arm.  Blood was trickling down from a scratch on my wrist where I must have caught it on a thorn or bush.  I hadn’t noticed in my ecstatic state.  I pushed down on it with my fingers.

“I brushed against something,” I said.

“You’ll need to clean it up.”

“I will,” I said.  “I’ll clean it up.”  I frowned, as if to display concern for my own carelessness and slipshod approach to my health.

“Well, how are you?” she said.  “How did it go today.”

“Fine,” I said.  “OK.  There was a sub in Latin class.”

“How was that?” she said.

I shrugged.

“OK,” I said.  “I don’t like it when there’s a sub.”  She nodded, but in a way that seemed design to ferret out additional information.  I didn’t want to give her any.

“I never did, either,” she said.  “Is that it?”

“That’s about it,” I said.

Nodding not too certainly, she started the car and began to back out slowly.  With a car that size, and my mother at the controls, the backing out procedure seemed to require immense quantities of time and concentration.  I slumped back in the back seat, separating myself from her, scanning the freewayscape as it flew by.  My life was good now.  I was ready to go out into the world and save souls.




About the Author:


Steven McBrearty has published more than 35 short stories, humor pieces, and non-fiction articles and has received several honors. His story collection, “Christ-mas Day on a City Bus,” was published in 2011 by McKinney Press. Most recently, “Christmas Eve” was published in the April 2016 edition of 34th Parallel literary journal and “Pray Hard, Kick Ass Hard” was published in the April 2016 edition of the Paragon Review. “East of Paris, West of Berlin” is listed in the “Editor's Selections—Best of Potpourri” on the web pages of the magazine. “The Sacker,” which appeared in Short Story Writer’s Showcase, was selected by a high school student for a statewide Texas University Scholastic League reading contest entry. “Skipper and Kevin Visit Barbie’s Pad” was selected as a finalist in an Austin Chronicle short story contest, and published. "Turning Blue" was published in the May 2007 edition of Chick Lit Review. *62” was published in the January/February 2008 edition of Chick Lit Review. “Kingston: The Lizard, The Man,” was accepted for publication and recording by Stories That Lift. “The Shorthorn No. 3” was published in Flatman Crooked magazine. “Christmas Day on a City Bus” and “A Situation Comedy” appeared in Disappearing City literary magazine. “Christmas Day on a City Bus” was honored as “Featured Prose” in the January 1, 2009 issue of Disappearing City. “Thanksgiving for Sex” was published in the April quarterly edition of Freight Train magazine. “Jane Fountain” received an Honorable Mention in the Coq and Bull literary magazine contest and published in the June 2009 edition of the magazine. “Night of Hope” was published in the inaugural issue of Concisely magazine. “Roadside Restroom” received a Finalist/Honorable Mention in the April 2009 Glimmer Train Family Matters contest; “Roadside Restroom” was also published in the May 2011 edition of a Straylight literary magazine. Other stories have appeared in The Prose Menagerie; Slugfest, ltd.; Short Stories Bi-Monthly; Words of Wisdom; Nocturne Horizons; Balcones magazine; and Carve magazine.













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