Authors: William Peter Blatty
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Humorous
For Julie and Paul
Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interest upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance.
Memories, Dreams, Reflections
Hell is the inability to love.
The Brothers Karamazov
Where do I begin? The seventh grade at St. Stephen’s on East 28th Street in 1941, I suppose, because that’s where and when I first met Jane, back before we grew up and she started disappearing and then reappearing in someplace like Tibet or Trucial Oman from where she’d send me picture postcards with tiny scrawled messages in different-colored inks such as, “Thinking of you sometimes in the morning” or “Angkor Wat really smells. Joey, don’t ever come here for a vacation,” but there’d be only a day between the postmarked dates and sometimes no difference at all between them, and then all of a sudden she’d reappear again looking years younger, which is nothing, I suppose, when compared to that time when supposedly she levitated six feet off the ground when she thought they were running out of Peter Paul Mounds candy bars at the refreshment counter of the old Superior movie house on 30th Street and Third Avenue back when there were el trains rumbling overhead and a nickel got you two or three feature films, plus a Buck Jones Western chapter, four cartoons, bingo and an onstage paddleball contest, when supposedly a theater usher approached her and told her, “Hey, come on, kid, get down, you can’t be doing that crazy stuff in here!” and right away she wobbled down to the seedy lobby carpet, gave the usher the arm and yelled, “That’s the same kind of crap they gave Tinkerbell!” but then I know you have no interest in any of these matters, so fine, let’s by all means move on and go back to the beginning.
Which comes at the end.
It’s December 24, 2010, and I’m sitting by a window in a tenth-floor Bellevue Hospital recovery room staring down at a tugboat churning up a foaming white
at its prow in the East River’s death-dark suicide waters and looking like it’s hugging itself against the cold. “Hi ya, kiddo!” The pudgy and diminutive Nurse Bloor breezily waddles into my room, a hypodermic syringe upraised in her pudgy little staph-infested fingers. She stops by my chair and I look down at her feet and I stare. I’ve never seen a nurse in stiletto heels. She glances over at something I sculpted a couple of days before and says, “Hey, now, what’s that?” and I tell her that it’s Father Perrault’s wooden leg from
, but she doesn’t pursue it, nor does she react to my laptop computer: she has read
Archy and Mehitabel
and knows that sometimes even a rat can type.
“Okay, a teensy little stick,” she says.
I yelp, “Ouch!”
“Oh, come on, now, don’t tell me that hurt!”
Well, it didn’t, but I want to puncture her starched-white pride and maddening air of self-assurance. She scowls, slaps a Band-Aid on the puncture and leaves. Sometimes growth of the soul needs pain, which is something I have always been on the spot to give.
The pneumatic door closes with a sigh. I turn my glance to my desk and the gift from Bloor that’s sitting on top of it, a foot-tall artificial Christmas tree with different-colored Band-Aids hanging from its branches. For a moment I stare at it dully, and then I shift my gaze to the dry and abandoned public pool down on the corner of First Avenue and 23rd where I almost drowned when Paulie Farragher and Jimmy Connelly kept shoving me back into the pool’s deep end every time I tried to climb up and out for air and I swore any number of choking, coughing blood oaths that if God let me live I would track them to Brazil or to China or the Yucatan, anyplace at all where I could offer them death without the comfort of the sacraments. Yes. I remember all of that. I do. I remember even though I’m eighty-two years old.
“Are you Joey El Bueno?”
I was packing up my book bag after class when I looked up and saw this really pretty girl with reddish hair that she wore in pigtails with green-and-yellow smiley-face barrettes at the ends.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said. “Why?”
the one!” she exclaimed.
The girl’s jade green eyes were slowly tracing all over my face with a look of awe, if not loony adoration.
I said, “I’m the one what?”
She said, “The Mask!”
Instantly I knew that this girl was crazy.
“The Mask” referred to something I had done in fifth grade. We had this new teacher, Miss Comiskey, a pretty nineteen-year-old who had never before taught a course in anything unless it was absolute futility, and who seemed thoroughly convinced that our only path to knowledge was in reciting some fact at least one hundred times, such as “Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America.” Bad enough, but even worse when our tall, wrinkled, thin-lipped principal, old gaunt-faced Sister Veronica, walked in like some animated withered leaf for a check on how Comiskey was getting along and the boys in the class couldn’t make it through the word “Titicaca” without totally losing it, which of course was pretty much a big nothing when compared to the quiet, ever-overhanging terror all the boys in the class had to live with the following year when our teacher was a nun and she’d ask us questions and we’d have to stand up to give the answer at a time in our lives when almost anything—the swish of a dress, hearing someone in the street saying “Tondelayo,” which was the name of Hedy Lamarr’s character in
—might produce an instantaneous and irrepressible outward sign of our interest, such as happened quite often with the hot-blooded Johnny Baloqui, the tall and dramatic-looking Spaniard among us, and I can still see him standing there, his eyes wide with panic, and yet always with his chin held proudly high in some awesomely courageous but doomed attempt at projecting matador haughtiness and cool while he stood there like a stork with his right leg lifted high and bent inward toward his crotch in this ludicrous Marx Brothers effort at concealment, while at the same time assuring the nun in charge in quiet tones that “General Wolfe defeated General Montcalm in the Battle of Quebec in 1759.” Once he’d looked off pensively and frowned as he added in a murmur, “At least I
that’s the date.”
This last was Baloqui’s attempt at
So now, “The Mask,” I echoed dully.
Driven stark raving mad by the endless recitations in Comiskey’s class, I played the hook for a week, smashing open a piggy bank with a leftover, rock-hard, four-day-old frozen tamale that Pop had concocted for Sunday dinner and then going to Times Square to see first-run movies like
, which wouldn’t get to the Superior for six more years, but not having the instincts of Jean Valjean I got caught red-handed when my father, in a break from habit, decided to pick me up from school for no rational reason that I could divine, unless it was to vault me to the head of the list of “Top Ten Stupidest Grammar School Criminals.” So it was back to Miss Comiskey and her “Give Me the Boy and I’ll Give You Back His Remains” school of learning, which was doubtless the inspiration for future North Korean interrogation techniques. Well, I took it for another two weeks until one rainy Monday morning when I took my seat in the back of the room, folded my hands on top of my desk and sat silent and motionless and looking straight ahead while ignoring the excited whoops and giggles and chatter all around me. I was wearing a frighteningly realistic wraparound mask of Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man.” In fourth grade Sister Joseph had made us study his picture to show us how freaking well-off we all were and to quit complaining about the piled-on homework, and so after much practice making masks of Dick Tracy, Barney Google and Maggie and Jiggs out of cutouts provided by the
my hands had fairly leapt to the Merrick Challenge and I waited now, silent and unmoving, for Comiskey to come into the room, which she soon enough did, and I’ve got to say the first reviews were a rave: first the “Eeek!” and the electrified raised hair just like Little Orphan Annie in the comics, then the shouts and the orders and hysterical threats of what would happen unless I took off the mask
But I didn’t. I just sat there like a statue, still looking straight ahead with my hands clasped and resting on the top of my desk. Sister Louise would by now have been whacking my knuckles with a ruler until I’d clearly grasped the limits of innovation, but my silence and statue-like, eerie lack of motion—not to mention the mask—unnerved Comiskey to the point that her hands were shaking. She bolted from the room and came back with Sister Veronica, who after taking one look at me dismissed the class and sent down for Miss Doyle, her office assistant, because Doyle had studied psychology in school. Just a little under four feet tall, Doyle had worn the same ratty pink cardigan sweater every day for all the years that I’d been at St. Stephen’s, plus this foot-long, huge wooden cross that dangled from a metal chain of thorns around her neck. There was also the matter of her dyed-green hair. She gimped into the room, took me in with a glance, and then, folding her arms across her chest, turned to Sister Veronica and said, “Why am I here?”
I took off the mask. It was an act of reverence.
Smiling thinly, the nun turned to Comiskey. “You see?”
The second time this happened in the future-past, right after I’d taken off the mask I blew the three women’s minds by intoning, “He who offers no resistance is irresistible,” a quote from Siddhartha Gautama I’d seen framed on a local public library wall. At the words, Sister Veronica clutched at her beads, no doubt thinking of calling in a priest, while Miss Doyle took a prudent half step backward. Miss Comiskey said, “What in shit is this?” one hundred times.
“What made you do it?” this Jane girl was asking me now.
Because I didn’t want to go through all the stuff about Comiskey, I looked away, gave a shrug and said, “I learn from the sky.”
“Oh, my God, you
‘the one’!” I heard her breathing out ecstatically as if she’d just found her long-lost lucky rock. I turned and saw that goofy look of adoration again and I could see that she hadn’t meant “the one.” She meant “The
” I asked just to be sure.
“The one who’s going to help me find the Secret Christmas Gift.”
“Never mind. It’s not important right now. What’s important is some advice I need to give you. It might even save your life.”
I said, “Listen, who are you, okay? You want to tell me?”
“Call me Jane,” she said. “Jane Bent. I’m an eighth-grade transfer from Our Lady of Sorrows. You don’t remember me with Farragher that day? I saw you watching.”
I put my fingers to my chin.
“Oh, yeah, right. So that was you?”
I’d seen her in the school yard approaching Paulie Farragher and shaking his hand. Wearing his trademark dark blue winter overcoat that was so oversized you couldn’t ever see his hands, he’d just been in a fight with a big eighth-grader in which he had mounted his usual revolutionary defensive technique of wildly flailing his arms back and forth in a furious windmilling motion so that any opponent couldn’t possibly penetrate it, and most times didn’t even want to, stepping back to stare at Farragher with disawe, which is a mixture of awe and disbelief, and deciding he was probably mentally unbalanced. When I’d asked what Jane had said to him, he’d shrugged and said, “Nothing. Nothing really. She just shook my hand and said, ‘Nice.’”
“And so what is it?” I was asking Jane now. “What’s this advice?”
“You know those super-deadly bombs going off in your class?” she said in this portentous but quiet, even tone.
“Yeah, I do. How do
know about them?”
“I just know. They’re coming from Rosemary Pagliarello. She sits near you in the back of the room. Change your seat. Sit up front. Her bombs are deadly and I need you for the Christmas Quest!” At that I had to quickly look around for this nutty girl’s keepers: you know, great big guys in white coats with huge butterfly nets at the ready, always smiling and happy to be chloroforming some kid. Then my eyes settled back on Bent. Something told me right then that I ought to walk away. But I didn’t. There was something so magnetic about her. Something deep.
“And since when can inner sanctum weapons kill?” I asked her, trying hard to look studiously interested and not like I was talking to a borderline psycho, which was actually what I was thinking.
“Since Rosemary got taken over.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s one of
“One of who?”
I didn’t dare take a big step backward, which, I swear, is what I desperately wanted to do, but I was scared it might trigger some kind of attack, like by some wounded and dope-crazed Chihuahua, so I just stood there sort of stroking my chin in an effort to look thoughtful and even handed. I said, “Yes, Jane, I see it now. ‘Them.’ Rosemary’s bombs. It’s all adding up. I mean, there’s something really spooky about her output, a ‘not of this world’ kind of thing,” I observed. “And yet I haven’t seen anyone in class fall over dead. That’s the strange thing about it. Don’t you think?”
Exasperated, Jane shook her head and then leaned in, her face about an inch from mine as she throatily whispered, “Joey, haven’t you been listening? You’re
Rosemary’s bombs are all ‘smart bombs.’ They’re programmed to target only
Yeah, well sure, they can miss by a yard or two, maybe, and then some nun’s going to get it. Too bad. Now will you quit it with these rationalizations? I mean, come on, Joey! Don’t be so naïve!”
She was getting worked up a bit, her green eyes wider and her cheeks turning pink, and this whole conversation, if that’s what you call it, was of course reinforcing my original suspicion that she might be two incense censers short of a Benediction. “Okay, then, prove that I’m wrong,” she demanded, “and, oh please, wipe that smirk off your face, would you, Joey? That was always so creepy and unattractive.”
“What did you say?”
“It’s so creepy and unattractive!”
No. She said
I let it go and said, “I can’t.”
“You can’t what? Prove I’m wrong or get rid of the smirk?”
I said, “Both.” And then suddenly her face brightened up with a smile like the rising of the moon as she appraised me proudly and warmly and said, “Nice. It was a test of trust and you passed. All that stuff about Rosemary’s bombs was baloney. I made it up. But you believed me, Joey. You
Want to go for a Coke?”
I felt three things all at once, the first being shame that in fact I hadn’t
ever fully trusted anyone, while another was a curious disappointment that this girl wasn’t actually nuttier than a truckload of filberts, as I guess I was perverse enough to find a little lunacy incredibly attractive. But the third thing, the bad thing that I felt, was flummoxed panic. Everybody knew back then the boy paid, while “going Dutch” meant wearing stupid wooden shoes; but I had no cash, not even the quarter a day that Pop gave me for my lunches, enough to buy me five small fresh-baked rolls and a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder at Fiorenza’s Bakery at the corner of Third and 28th. Because my father pushed a hot dog cart in the winter and an ice cream cart in the summer, you could say that we were more or less comfortably destitute, so that while fun was available in lots of different ways, not one of them required filthy lucre, the most carefree and breeziest time of my life up to then being fourth grade when it was always good for a rush to tap on the all-glass front of the Chinese laundry on the corner of Lexington and 29th, and then hold up a hand with all your fingers splayed out while with the other you made this quick, slicing motion across your throat, which the almond-eyed guys with the puzzled stare and the pigtails and the red-hot flatirons gripped in their hands were supposed to understand was code for “Chinese eat rats on Friday!” which Farragher, for one, didn’t learn wasn’t factually correct until graduate school at CCNY, which is neither here nor there, I suppose, so getting back now to the subject of cost-free fun, hitching rides on the backs of American Express trucks was also a ragingly popular choice. Still another was to have one of my pals come up behind me as I walked downhill on 34th Street toward Lexington Avenue and first pretend to steal my wallet, then viciously club me over the head with a piece of lead pipe, whereupon I would crumple to the sidewalk like a boiled noodle while my buddy ran away. Then,
“No! No police!”
I would hysterically yell when I supposedly came to, my eyes wide and bulging out in terror as if I were an escapee from a criminal youth farm, and I’d quickly leap up and tear away uphill to Park Avenue, disappearing around the corner with an ululating, heart rending shriek of
which gave an even bigger rush than finding the words “Lucky Stick” on the slim wooden handle of your five-cent Popsicle, which got you another one for free. There were also the summers when my best friend Tommy Foley and I would play handball in the blazing sun for endless hours at the public park on East 37th, right after which, exhausted and dripping sweat, we would stumble on up to the Kips Bay Boys Club where we’d strip down naked—those were the rules—and from the deep-end diving board we’d let ourselves limply fall into the pool, and when our overheated bodies slipped into those velvety icy-cool waters we would feel an intense and all-enveloping bodily pleasure as well as something deeper and indescribable but which felt very much like justice, and for these few fleeting moments of immersive contact with the Great and All-powerful Oz, we would more than gladly torture ourselves on the handball court for hours most days of the summer. It was all for that first deep dive.