First Person / Collecting words
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One day a neighbor came to my mother and asked if I could come to Bible lessons at her house after school. My mother knew I could never get enough school, so she shrugged and said OK.
We were Eastern Orthodox. Our Mass was in Arabic, our choir sang in minor keys; the whole experience was of incense and vibrations. I didn't understand any of it, but I loved it (and still do).
I also loved words, though, and The Good News Club had words for things. "Travail." That was a good word.
One day I entered my neighbor's house a bit distressed. It was report card day and I had bruises on my chin and both knees.
"How did this happen?" my neighbor asked.
"Brian Petuchick beat me up," I told the group.
My neighbor got a warm washcloth and began to clean up my wounds. The other children gathered around to see what they could see.
"But why did he beat you up?" my neighbor asked. From the pleased look she wore, I saw there was something in it for me.
"He asked me what I got on my report card." I reached into my coat pocket and found the report card, still there, safe. "He always asks me things like that. At first I didn't answer, but Brian kept after me. He hit me once on the jaw, once on the shoulder. He kept saying, 'If you won't show me, just tell me, how many A's, how many A's.' So finally I answered him. And then ... he beat me up."
"So, how many?" one of the other kids asked.
"All," I said.
The other kids groaned and rolled their eyes.
"Aha," said my neighbor. "So you see, children, how sometimes innocence is punished. For some reason, this young man -- what was his name again?"
"Brian feels diminished by Kathleen's accomplishments."
She bandaged my knees while everyone watched. "May I have your report card?"
"No! I mean, I need to take it home."
The report card was my ticket to the rewards of success. My father gave me a dollar for every A -- this time nine bucks! -- and I got to ask for my favorite dinner of pork chops, French fries and chocolate cake with chocolate icing.
"Just to pin it up on the board for the meeting," my neighbor continued. I handed it over.
Then we got words. My neighbor told the others that goodness and excellence were often punished. (I couldn't help liking being compared, even in a small way, with Christ.) Her prayer was for Brian, though.
"Let him find happiness in his own accomplishments, work toward a new understanding with him ... forgive the person though repudiate the act. ..."
They sure had words in that house.
I went home after the meeting. "Hi, darling," my father said. He was lying back in his recliner, just inside the front door, to the left, as he usually did before supper, listening to the radio and smoking a cigarette.
I let the report card hang like a holy scroll from my slightly outstretched hand.
"Is it report card day?"
I limped a little. "Yes."
"Are you all right?"
I handed him the card in an envelope, and he put his cigarette into the ashtray. "I had an experience today, an experience that helped me to be reborn -- yet another time."
He'd taken the card out of its envelope, but he wasn't looking at it. "You've been what?"
"Reborn. I live in Christ."
"Good God! Kay!" he called. "Kay!" He pressed on the recliner arms and brought himself and the chair forward to an abrupt stop.
My mother ran into the living room and took the report card out of his hand. "Wonderful," she said. "Wonderful. We'll go poor and broke keeping up with you."
"Does she always talk like that? 'Living in Christ' and all?"
"Christ lives in me, too," I said, reciting lessons.
"Where does she get that?"
"It's those Bible school meetings," my mother said. "They talk like that there, don't they?"
"That's it! I don't want you going to any more of those meetings," my father said.
"I think they're harmless," my mother said tentatively.
"I don't like it. We don't talk that way in this house."
They both looked at me with disappointment.
I was a mess of confusions. "Do I still get a dollar for every A and a special dinner?" I asked miserably.
"What do you smell?" my mother asked.
Pork chops and French fries and cake. How had I missed it?
"I knew you would do well," she said. Your dinner is already made!"
They were going to forgive me for being almost Protestant.
My father reached into his pocket and handed over a 10-dollar bill. "There's extra for good luck."
I took the money and put it on top of my books, which sat in a pile on the floor. "Thanks."
And then I took off my coat and moved into the circle of lamp-light, where I lifted my skirt a little to show my wounds, pulled my hair back to show the scratch on my face. "Look what Brian Petuchick did to me," I said.
Plucking what I could from my religious life of an hour before, I said, "He thought that my accomplishments diminished him."
Those were words my parents never would have used. They looked at me in awe as if I spoke in tongues.
First Published September 8, 2012 12:00 am