The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/features/2000-09-29/78748/

Sterling's Creed

Forth Place Short Story Contest Winner

By Steven M. Salzman, September 29, 2000, Features

In 1971, it was unusual to hear a six year old use the "F" word. Especially in the context in which Sterling had used it. First graders simply aren't supposed to say that word to, or about, nuns. Previously, his worst offense had been "Beeswax," as in "None of yours," to which his mother insisted that everything he did was her beeswax, young man.

The new word provoked a much stronger response. He was dragged by the arm to the rectory with such force and supersonic speed, he was certain his shoulder had been dislocated. Denise D'Amico had suffered a dislocated shoulder playing "airplane" with her father. That incident had put an end to "airplane" playing throughout the post-war suburb of Greenway Meadows -- and to the possibility of sustaining exotic childhood injury, until now. This thought excited and frightened Sterling as he waited outside Monsignor Volkers' office. His next stop would likely be the nurse's office.

Volkers' door swung opened. The rage and wrath in the priest's eyes startled the child. Sterling felt as if he were staring into the eyes of everlasting judgement. Surely no other six year old had ever had such a religious experience immediately following recess.

"Did you think the Lord wouldn't hear you?" Volkers queried.

Sterling was speechless.

"Answer me young man. And try to use language that doesn't offend God."

Sterling's face quivered uncontrollably, and then tears caught up with his situation.

With a flourish of his cassock, the monsignor swept behind his desk and picked up the telephone.

"What you've done is cause for expulsion." The arthritic fingers, which Sterling washed at Sunday mass, dialed rapidly.

The scent of fresh roses still lingered in his nostrils. He knew he had offended, though not how, or why. He reviewed his journey from the sunny, muggy convent garden to this; Expulsion, Excommunication, it was the same to him. Sterling grew strangely calm as he realized the gravity of the situation. He was condemned and his parents must be told.

The day before, Sterling and his classmates had filed neatly out of their classroom, lined up in the hallway holding their partners' hands, and were led from the shelter of Holy Innocence School across the crumbly asphalt parking lot. They waited obediently as Sister Elaine took her post in the middle of the street and then motioned for the children to proceed. Two by two, the first grade bravely sallied forth into the public park.

The H.I.S. playground was under renovation. Rains had delayed completion of the project and even Protestants weren't allowed to make up time on Easter weekend. Since recess options were limited, the decision was made to permit the children access to the public park. A schedule had been worked out with the nearby Lutheran School, presumably to prevent overcrowding, but actually to limit interdenominational mingling.

The public park held many dangers. Frogs, turtles and crawdads lured curious children towards the bayou along the park's edge. There were also trees, rocks, mud, occasional beer bottles, and of course, there was the public.

Luckily, Sister Elaine had the common sense and divine instruction to restrict the children only to the paved play area. ("Playscape" was yet to be added to the urban lexicon.) Concrete turtles, lions, and something resembling cheese, were mounted on a large slab of cement, which provided protection against the possibility of soiling uniforms.

Sterling had been appointed "Safety Monitor" for the eighth time, an arrangement that protected him from being picked last for kickball. He kept watch for hair pulling, unnecessary pushing or any other act that might lead to breaking commandments. As Sterling stood guardian, a black crow perched in a nearby tree.

While other boys four-squared, Sterling, ever vigilant, watched the girls' plaid uniform skirts swirl as they hopscotched. During an expert hopscotch maneuver, Mary Alice's necklace became unlatched. It swung off her neck and landed in the dirt. A glint of sunlight on the chain attracted the crow's attention and it swooped. Out of the corner of his eye, Sterling saw the theft. The chain dangled from the bird's beak as it flew clumsily to a tree.

"My crucifix!" shouted Mary Alice, and Sterling leapt into action.

"Careful, Sterling," shouted Sister Elaine, although the crow probably posed limited danger.

The soles of Sterling's dress shoes were quite slick. In his pursuit, he slipped several times on the grass. The crow cawed in ridicule. Having successfully led the child astray, it abandoned its quarry and flew off. The crucifix dangled from a small branch. Sterling kicked off his shoes and, with surprising gymnastic ability, scaled the tree and to the delight of the Catholic School Girls, rescued the crucifix. Before his descent, Sterling paused and enjoyed his new perspective. That's when he saw it. In the bark of that magnificent Oak, someone had carved the word.

Back in class, Sterling consulted the dictionary: "...fry, fryer, fuchsia, fuddle, fudge..." By the time the afternoon bell dismissed classes, Sterling's curiosity had peaked. He sought counsel at the first opportunity.

At the mention of the word, Sterling's brother Benedict skidded his bike to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk. To avoid it, Sterling took a sharp left and drove his Schwinn into a chain-link fence. As he lay on the ground, pain was overcome by pride at having executed such an evasive maneuver. Had he scratched Ben's Psychedelic Huffy, he would have endured much greater pain.

"Where did you hear that?" Benedict was awestruck. As Sterling's Elder (by two years, five months and eleven days), it was his birthright to curse before this young upstart. He was entitled. If anyone was to develop an adult and sophisticated command of the English language, it was supposed to be Ben.

Judging from Ben's reaction, Sterling realized he had made an unfortunate choice in a confidant. He picked up his bike and placed it between them, just in case Ben's disapproving look led to yet another physical confrontation.

"You're not supposed to say that."

"Why not?"

"Because I said so, twerp, that's why." Ben had learned well from his parents.

"So, whazzit it mean?"

"I'm not gonna tell you. Why don't you ask Dad."

Ben actually had no idea what it meant. He'd heard it in Scouts and had wondered about it since. Now his little brother offered a shield. Not only could Ben expand his vocabulary, this opportunity provided the best of all possible worlds; either their parents would offer an explanation or Sterling would get in serious trouble. And if Ben was lucky, both.

However, Ben underestimated what the twerp had learned from experience.

"You're trying to get me in trouble."

"You're paranoid, Sterling."

"What's paranoid mean?"

"It means you're chicken."

Ben dug in the pocket of Sterling's future hand-me-down pants and withdrew a shiny quarter. With a flick of his thumb he tossed it high in the air.

"See this? Ask Dad and it's yours."

Sterling was cautious. The money was tempting, but with temptation usually came consequences, especially where his brother was concerned. He mounted the Schwinn.

"Hey twerp, do we have a deal?"

Sterling shouted over his shoulder.

"I'll tell you after dinner." And he peddled home.

Sterling was about ready to forget the entire issue. But he didn't count on Ben's tenacity. While Sterling performed dish duty, Ben drew in an ally, a secret weapon; Anna, the baby sister. By telling her the word it was almost assured that it would be repeated, eventually to the parents. An investigation would reveal Sterling as the original source.

Sterling was trapped. And he was rather anxious to put an end to the whole affair. A deal was struck. He would act alone, and relay details to his siblings. Whether or not the definition was uncovered, his bravery would earn him the quarter.

Resolutely, Sterling proceeded into the den. The Vietnam War raged on the evening news. The gurgling dishwasher nearly drowned out the volume. The smell of Hamburger Helper permeated the air.

Mother watched from the couch. In his matching recliner, Father sipped his whiskey sour and read the paper. Sterling stood silently before his parents. Finally, they noticed him.

"Yes?" said mother.

"I have a question. I saw a word that I don't understand." Sterling could see the tops of Ben and Anna's heads around the corner of the hall as they strained to hear.

"Dad..."

Father lowered his paper.

"What does the word 'F-U-C-K' mean?"

Father and Mother exchanged a glance. Their own parents had never discussed the birds and the bees with them, but now the damn feminists were trying to force it into the schools for God's sake. They knew eventually this moment would come, and they were prepared. Mother nodded her head.

Father leaned forward. "Well, son. It's the way ... the method by which ... the father ... plants the seed for the mother to have the baby. Do you understand that?"

Mother blushed. Father was serious. Sterling was confused. His brain struggled to apply grammar rules to the definition. Noun. Verb. Adverb. Plant. Seed. It had all been laid out so simply, he didn't want to appear ignorant. Nor to give the impression that he hadn't been paying attention.

"Yes, Sir. I understand."

Father continued. "It's a slang term -- an adult word -- and I doubt you'll have much opportunity to use it any time soon." He leaned back and raised his newspaper. The matter was settled.

Amazed by his success, Sterling walked silently out of the room and down the hall. The word couldn't be that bad, for he had received no reprimand. And, he was about to become twenty-five cents richer. He resolved to add it to the collection plate. He knew about heavenly rewards and buying indulgences and had invested heavily in his own moral savings account.

Once he entered his bedroom, Ben and Anna raced in behind him and slammed the door.

"What'd he say? What'd he say?"

Sterling had been learning about capitalism and laws of supply and demand. And he had certainly learned the value of a quarter. Calmly, he extended his open palm. He had a product, and Ben would have to pay him for it. Ben had lost. Reluctantly, he placed the coin in Sterling's hand.

Sterling answered honestly. "I don't know. Something to do with agriculture."

The day of the fateful offense, Sterling spent recess in the courtyard of the convent, where statues of saints kept silent vigil. He knew the biography of every one, including the date of their canonization. He had been sent to deliver a message to Mother Superior and upon his return, he found Sister Cecily tending the roses, her wimple pulled tight around her face and soaked with perspiration.

Sterling enjoyed her company. She didn't drill him on multiplication tables or spelling. Long ago she had taught music and art, but now her lessons were about nature, the Blue Jay, the bumblebee, and all things green.

Her habit did little to hide her age. The skin on her face was like tissue paper. She looked too frail to labor, yet she was an inspired and tireless gardener. Her roses were the pride of the parish. Sterling assumed it had something to do with divine intervention.

He often helped her on Saturdays. While other children were hypnotized by the warping influences of "The Archies" or the "Banana Splits," Sterling would assist Cecily until duty called him to serve mass at a wedding or a funeral.

This day, she transplanted, and eagerly, Sterling offered to help. He hoisted pruned bushes and lugged them to waiting muddy holes. Cecily sang as they worked. She thanked God for this child's delight in nature and service to the convent. Should he receive the calling, he would make a good priest. She must remember to mention that to his mother.

"You're a good gardener. Perhaps someday you'll sow different seeds, in God's garden."

Pride rose in Sterling's chest. He had pleased this cloaked and holy woman.

"Can I stay and help until afternoon mass?"

Sister Cecily had lost track of time. She was used to seeing the boy on Saturdays. He was wearing his uniform, an odd choice of dress for a weekend. Then her internal calendar reset itself.

"Oh, heavens. I've kept you half the morning. No, dear boy. Run along. You'll miss your lessons."

As he entered the classroom doorway, Sister Elaine was almost frightened by his appearance. He was sweaty and flushed. Dirt bespotted his uniform and deep underneath his fingernails.

She assumed he had been tempted once again by the park. He had probably joined the third grade recess. This was unacceptable. As a prelude to punishment, she would make an example out of him.

"Well, Mr. Arnold, so glad you could join us. Would you care to explain to the class where you've been."

And then it came to him, flowed over him like manna from heaven. Two times two is four. A lever is a simple tool. Sterling was divinely inspired to share his knowledge and chose this moment to show off his new vocabulary. "F-U-C-K," a verb, used in a sentence:

"I've been fucking with Sister Cecily."

That both his parents were summoned was a testament to the seriousness of the offense and Sterling received the most severe punishment ever handed out at Holy Innocence School.

He would apologize to his class with a fifty-word essay. He would apologize personally to Sister Cecily. He would be suspended for the remainder of the session and promoted only if he satisfactorily completed first-grade course work. He would make a formal Confession (which seemed redundant, since Msr. would be the priest administering the sacrament), and as penance, he would recite five rosaries, and be prohibited from serving as altar boy until second grade.

On the way home, Sterling tried to explain. His parents listened and then burst into laughter. He would understand someday, they told him.

Sterling was not prepared for the consequences. He had lost his identity. Stripped of altar boy and safety-monitor status, he was shamed. He'd bespotted his permanent record.

His parents hired a tutor. He saw his classmates in church, and he fumed as Ben gloated from the altar.

He returned to H.I.S. in the fall. One week into the second grade, Sterling realized something had changed. He was the "bad boy." People were often surprised when he knew the answer or turned in his homework.

He expected the other children to shun him like the plagues of Egypt. But during recess, a black crow perched atop the steeple and watched as the boys chose Sterling as team captain. Mary Alice asked Sterling to meet her in the cloakroom. Denise asked him if he knew other nasty words.

And that was just the beginning. end story

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