Official Substitute – Peter E. Murphy

I am lying on the floor. I want to get up, but I can’t get up. There is a rug, but I am on the wooden part. Light from a window makes the floor in front of me shiny. I bet they polish it every week. I see the legs to a desk. Skinny legs like mine. And there is a couch or a chair. He is pressing my head down, so I can only see the bottom flap of cloth with red and green flowers on it. I see another wooden leg to something. There is a lot of wood in this room. I feel like wood. They must’ve used a lot of trees. Marie said that money doesn’t grow on trees, but I never said it did. She said if I want money I should get a job. But you have to be twelve years old to get a job and I am only ten.

He moves back and forth on top of me and makes noises like an engine and mushes my face against the wooden floor. He calls it wrestling. I am not a good wrestler, and he is bigger than me.

Before Marie, when I lived with Aunt Kate and Uncle Pete, he said I had a smart mouth. I thought that was good. I was in second grade, and I was trying to be smart. But he slapped me when he said it, so a smart mouth is not good. “See this hand,” he said. “This is the hand that’s going to hit you.” Then he smacked my face with the other one. Sometimes he hit me and said “That’s for nothing. Now, you can do something.”

“Daddy hits harder than you do,” I yelled trying not to cry, so he hit me again, harder. He hit Paul harder too, and that made Paul angry so he hit me too. And when daddy visited us on the weekend and hit us for all the bad things we did when he wasn’t there, he heard there was a contest so he hit us with a belt. And after he married Marie she hit us with a barber strap. She hit Paul so hard it broke and she got very angry. She couldn’t hit hard without it. But she could yell, and sometimes that is worse.

When we lived with daddy and mommy I went to first grade at St. Francis Xavier School in Manhattan. Paul was in fourth grade and wanted to be an altar boy. He went to practice on Saturday mornings and after memorizing his Latin, he played dodge ball on the roof of the school. I wanted to play dodge ball too, so mommy made him take me with him. I loved Paul. We slept in the same bed. I wanted to be with him all day long. I was sick a lot and mommy kept me home. I waited for Paul to play with me. Most of the time he just gave me my homework and told me to leave him alone. At altar boy class I didn’t mind memorizing Latin, Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. I didn’t know what it meant—To God, the joy of my youth—but it was fun to say and I liked dodge ball. But Paul and I moved away and never went back, so I never memorized what came after that.

First we went to Camp St. Joseph in New Jersey where we were supposed to go swimming and ride horses, but I never saw a horse the entire summer. Then we went to St. Johns Villa Academy on Staten Island. It was a boarding school so we slept there. Daddy gave the nuns extra money to let us sleep in the same dormitory which is a very large bedroom with lots of kids in it, and we did. But I didn’t know how to make my bed so the nuns told me to take off my clothes and hit me and then made me sleep in the little kid’s dormitory. The nuns hit me a lot. I know they were supposed to hit me because I was bad, but they made me take my clothes off when they did it and that’s why I cried.

I wanted somebody to talk to when Paul was with the big kids so I prayed to Mary and Jesus and all the saints. I am named after Saint Peter, and Paul is named after Saint Paul. I don’t know which saint daddy is named after. Is there a Saint Eddie? And I don’t think there is a Saint Thelma, but mommy wasn’t Catholic when she was born in Wales. She became Catholic when she married daddy and moved to New York. I learned to say the Hail Mary, “…blessed is the fruit of Dida and Jesus.” Mommy’s sister was named Dida. I didn’t know why she was in the Hail Mary instead of mommy because Dida wasn’t Catholic which means she is going to go to hell, and even though Mommy is happy all the time in heaven, she probably misses her. Paul called me stupid and told me that part goes, “…blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” I don’t know what that means.

The nuns taught us that sin makes God angry which is why he made hell. I don’t want to make God angry so I try not to sin. We had to eat sweet potatoes. I never had them before and didn’t like them. The nuns stood behind me and told me to eat them. I tried, but they were making me sick. The nuns yelled, “Eat them!” and hit me on my back. I ate more and started to cry and the nuns hit me again because I was going too slow and I ate more and they hit me again and I threw up all over my plate and the nuns were very angry and yelled at me and hit me harder and made me eat all the sweet potatoes and all my throw up.

Daddy and mommy got dressed up and took us to Kenney’s Bar and Grill every Saturday and Sunday. Daddy put on his coat and tie and mommy wore one of her fancy dresses and jewelry and high-heels. “When I get big I am going to buy you a mink coat,” I told her. I also promised to buy a mink coat for Flossie. She was a pretty woman who lived in the apartment next door, but she died too so I stopped promising to buy women mink coats.

He smells like flowers. It can’t be perfume because that’s for girls. I like flowers, but it’s hard to breathe with him on top of me so I don’t like them now.

Kenney’s was on the next block. The big people sat at the bar and the kids ran around playing. There was a box with pictures of pretty women who wanted to be Miss Rheingold. It had little papers stapled to it and a pencil tied to a string. I looked at the pictures and voted for the prettiest blonde-haired woman. I wanted to kiss her. I put a check next to her name and wrote my name and address on the lines on the paper and put it in the box. Then I did it on another paper and another and till all the paper was gone. I don’t know if she got to be Miss Rheingold. The nuns said that I would die if God stopped thinking about me for one second. I was afraid that if God saw a pretty blonde-haired woman with a permanent wave and wanted to kiss her I would die.

I kissed a pretty, little blonde-haired girl who lived in my building. I kissed her and ran away and she chased me. A few days later we were playing in the stairway and she said she wanted to see my thing. She said she would show me hers and then I had to show her mine. She pulled down her pants and her underpants and said, “Look. I don’t have one. See.”

I stared at her thing-less thing wondering how she went to the bathroom. There was a split there. I wanted to touch it, but she pulled up her underpants and pants and said, “Now, you.”

I was afraid to show her my thing because I knew it was a sin.

“Show me!” she said. I turned and ran up the steps…first floor… second floor…third floor…fourth floor…fifth floor…sixth floor and turned the knob to the big, gray door and opened it and ran inside and slammed it and locked it and stood with my back against it, afraid that the little blonde-haired girl would break it down and come in and make me show her my thing. She pounded on the door yelling, “Come out! Come out!”

She woke mommy up. Mommy slept a lot, but she got out of bed to hit me when I was bad. I tried to cut a tomato to make a lettuce and tomato sandwich and I stabbed myself with a knife and I cried and mommy woke up and she hit me. I liked waffles, but we did not have a waffle machine or waffle stuff, so I mixed milk and water in a cup and poured it into the toaster and pushed the button down and it exploded and mommy woke up and mommy was very angry and hit me and yelled at me and hit me and told me I was bad. The blonde-haired girl told mommy what I didn’t do and mommy yelled at me and hit me and told me I was bad and hit me and hit me and hit me.

When we first started to wrestle, he let me win and it was fun. Now he doesn’t pretend I am winning. He puts me in a bear hug and wrestles me to the floor and gets on top of me and I can’t move and it’s hard to breathe and he puts his hand in my pants and rubs my behind and moves the hand under me and touches my thing and I look down at the wood and I do not cry. I cried the first time he wrestled dirty, but I have not cried any of the times since.

All the Miss Rheingold women had permanent waves. I didn’t know what permanent meant. I asked daddy and he said it meant forever, but I didn’t know what forever meant. The nuns said that when you went to hell, you lived there forever, so I knew it was a very long time. There is a church named Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The nuns said perpetual means the same thing as forever, but it doesn’t. I heard daddy say that when you buy perpetual care for the grave where they bury your mommy, you have to pay more money in a few years. Daddy visited us at the boarding school every Saturday, but mommy only came one time. I told her, “Goodbye forever in case I don’t see you again.” I was only making a joke, but I never saw her again. Now I know what forever means.

I practiced First Holy Communion which was a thin piece of bread called a host. But it wasn’t really bread, it was really the body and blood of Jesus Christ. I walked slowly down the aisle of the church with my hands folded together pointing to heaven. I tried to make them look like angel wings. When I got to the altar I knelt down and closed my eyes. The nuns pretended to be priests and put a candy wafer on my tongue. I wasn’t allowed to chew it to touch it or pick it up in my fingers because they were not pure and it was a mortal sin and I would go straight to hell. I could move it around with my tongue while waiting for it to melt. The nuns said there was a boy who took the communion host out of his mouth and hid it in his handkerchief. When he got home, he locked his bedroom door, took it out of his handkerchief and ripped the host in half to see if it was really the body and blood of Jesus. It started bleeding so fast, it filled his room before he could unlock the door and he drowned in the blood.

I also practiced confession. The nuns sat in the dark part of the booth where the priest was supposed to sit and slid open the little door and said through the screen, “Yes, my child,” and I said, “Bless me father, for I have sinned.” The nuns asked how long it was since my last confession, and I said, “Forever.”

The nuns said, “No, not forever.” I had never made a real confession, so I asked, “How long should I say it hadn’t been?” The nuns were quiet, then told me to say ten Hail Mary’s for my penance and called for the next kid.

The nuns asked if anyone had any questions, so I asked, “If I don’t die right away after going to confession, how long does it take before it wears off and the sins come back and I go to hell?” The nuns said it doesn’t wear off, unless I sin again. I was hoping I would die on a Saturday afternoon after going to confession so I wouldn’t go to hell.

Now that I go to confession for real, I do not want people to know how bad I am, so I hurry up and say my sins as fast as I can. I count how long it takes for girls I like to say their sins. The one I like the most takes the most time which I don’t understand. She is very pretty and very nice. How could she have so many sins? I don’t think I should like her as much as I do. It’s hard enough worrying about my own sins without worrying about hers too.

If Adam and Eve hadn’t listened to the snake and eaten the apple, then they could have stayed in the Garden of Eden with all their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, and everyone else from then on including me. We would live in paradise with no worries and no crying or suffering or sin and no one would have to work and no one would have to die, especially your mother, and I would not be lying on this floor and he would not be on top of me.

When Aunt Kate and Uncle Pete let us live with them in Howard Beach, I thought it was the country because it had grass and trees. Uncle Pete told me there was a park two blocks away, I walked past two driveways and couldn’t find it. Paul told me I was stupid, not knowing the difference between a driveway and a block, and thinking because a house had a little lawn that it was the country.

I went to public school for the rest of second grade and all of third grade. I didn’t know what Public meant. We sang “My Country, Tis of Thee.” We said the “Pledge of Allegiance” to the flag. We said prayers. I thought Public was a religion and that Aunt Kate and Uncle Pete changed me from a Catholic to a Public. The Publics didn’t talk about God or sin or heaven. I knew most of the sins not to do to stay out of Catholic hell because the nuns talked about it all the time. But the Publics never talked about hell and I was afraid I would go there by accident.

In the front of the classroom was a large wooden paddle with “Board of Education” printed on it, but the teachers were nice. No one yelled at me or hit me. I liked being Public, but when there was room in the Catholic School I went there and was Catholic again. There were too many kids in fourth grade, so they put me in fifth grade twice, last year and this year, because I had to wait for the kids my age to catch up. And that’s when I met Father Smith, at Catholic school.

Everyone likes Father Smith. He is the youngest priest at Our Lady of Grace. He is handsome and smells good. He is taller than the other priests, Father Davis, Father Merkel and Farther Hardy who has a dog named Mickey that sleeps on the altar when he says mass. Father Hardy is very old which is why he is the pastor. I don’t like him. But I like Father Smith. He wears a long black robe like the other priests, but when he walks it waves in the wind like a sail. He plays with all the kids. He started a baseball league. Each team has a different colored hat. Last year I was too small to be on a team so I didn’t get a hat. But I went to all the games and if someone didn’t show up and they needed another kid, they would let me play. Father Smith said I was his official substitute. I played right field where nobody hit the ball and when it was my turn to bat I struck out.

This year I am big enough to be on a team and I have a purple hat. Every month, there is a paper drive and all the kids collect newspapers and bring them to the school yard and put them in a big truck and somehow Father Smith makes enough money to buy everyone colored hats.

I asked Father Smith if I could sell The Tablet newspaper outside of mass on Sunday like the older boys do. He said no, but I could deliver it to people who are too sick to go to church and buy it themselves. I started with three customers and made three cents on each one plus sometimes a tip. Now I have seven customers but I have to walk far to deliver them and it takes a long time.

Every Saturday morning I go to the rectory and ask the housekeeper for Father Smith. She is somebody’s mother or grandmother. She isn’t nice but she gets him and he gives me the key to the box in the back of the church where The Tablets are kept. They have to be locked up so kids don’t steal them. When Father Smith isn’t there, she gives me the key. I used to not like that, but now I want her to give me the key so I don’t have to wrestle with him. One time she opened the door when we were wrestling. I couldn’t see her, but I heard her say something to him. She closed the door and he got off me and gave me the key and I got my Tablets and delivered them.

Father Smith stops moving and takes his hand away from my thing and gets off of me. I want to get up, but I am sleepy. I have to get my Tablets and deliver them and then I have a game later. I hope I get a hit. I have not gotten a hit yet, but I have said a lot of prayers so I might get one today. If I don’t get a hit today, I will say even more prayers and maybe I will get a hit next Saturday. I hope Father Smith will come to the park to watch me. I hope I don’t strike out.

Peter E. Murphy
was born in Wales and grew up in New York City where he operated heavy equipment, managed a night club and drove a cab. Recent essays and poems appear or are forthcoming in The Journal of Bahá’í Studies, The Lindenwood Review, Mead, Passager, Rattle, Rhino, Sleet Magazine and Tiferet. He is the founder of Murphy Writing of Stockton University which sponsors the annual Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway and other programs for poets, writers and teachers in the U.S. and abroad.