by Terri Campion
spring water and orange juice
Sister Rose Virginia wore her habit like moisturizer. It was absolutely form-fitting, accentuating her hour glass figure with its big boobs. She loved flaunting her holy package, shaking her rosary like a maraca. She especially loved parading it all in front of Mr. McCullen, the janitor. She’d deliberately knock a thermostat knob off the wall, a window shade down or a door off its’ hinges, anything to get Mr. McCullen into her room. Once the poor guy was there, she’d stretch her vertebrae up to its’ full five foot four, nudge her habit off her face, releasing a sprig of copper hair, and shove her bib to one side where one full, round, firm, C cup was begging to be noticed under that thick sheath of black nylon. She was a woman underneath all those black robes, goddamn it! And she had urges. That was certainly obvious to us, the forty three eighth grade girls under her tutelage at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow grade school in Cloverdale, Pennsylvania.
When Sister Rose wasn’t flaunting her repressed sexuality in front of Mr. McCullen, she picked her nose. She’d give us huge writing assignments, forcing our focus downwards, while she sat at her desk and dug away with glee. She could have had a ‘G’ spot up one of those crannies.
It was a real challenge, to catch her picking, without her catching you catch her. If she did catch you catch her, you were in for a fall. God help you. She’d squint up her tiny pea green eyes, tighten her dry, thin lipped mouth and give you a look that said: ‘Just...you...wait...’
I was really good at catching her. By the middle of the school year she was almost as good at catching me catch her, but not quite. By June we were knocking heads. One day she caught me and gave me a look that haunted me for many years. Her freckles turned a Jack O’ Lantern orange and her breasts seemed to engorge, causing her bib to rise up almost parallel to her desk. She didn’t even take her finger out of her nose. She kept staring right at me with a weird smile on her face. Every ounce of blood in my body rushed to my face and my heart began to pound so hard, my body was vibrating. Embarrassment for Boogers, (her nickname) had somehow become embarrassment for me.
Later that week she summoned Mr. McCullen into the classroom to fix a clothes bar in the cloak closet, which she had knocked down. It was June. No one was wearing a cloak. Mr. McCullen arrived, tool box in hand. Boogers pushed her habit back, lifted her chest and strutted across the front of the room with outstretched arms as if she were welcoming him onto a cruise ship, or into a brothel.
‘Mr. McCullen, I don’t know how it happened! It just fell down!’
The fallen close bar lay motionless at their feet. We could almost believe that it had unhitched itself from the wall and took a nosedive onto the classroom floor in an attempt to escape the boredom of a desolate cloak closet.
Mr. McCullen gave it a little tap with his boot, as he removed the toothpick from his teeth. ‘It’s a clothes bar Sister.’
‘Why, yes it is Mr. McCullen!’ She replied with the enthusiasm of a game show contestant.
Mr. McCullen held his toothpick between his fingers like a cigar, which I knew he smoked before Christmas and summer vacations. It was as if his fingers were rehearsing and really craving that moment when they’d be holding the real thing which was just days away.
‘There are much more urgent matters to attend to, Sister! Didja know that there was a urinal overflowin’ on da first floor?’
‘No! I did not know that!’ Boogers was curling a short thin strand of orangey hair with her fingers. Both parties’ hands were wishing they were holding or doing something else.
Mr. McCullen continued, pointing with the toothpick for emphasis. ‘So consequently, all the water fountains are sprouting hot water.’
‘Really?’ Boogers’s body was twisted in all four directions – upper body east; hips and stomach south; thighs west; calves north. The air in the room began to feel dirty and thick with sin. I didn’t know who to feel more mortified for. Mr. McCullen may have heard my thoughts as he kept his eyes above her nose where her brain might be.
‘It’s eighty two degrees!’ he shouted. ‘Do you want the children to dehydrate?’ As he marched towards the door fuming, we caught each other’s eye. He nodded his head and called to me, ‘How ya doin’ Missy Cassie?’ and without waiting for an answer he exited the room. Mr. McCullen was my parents ‘go to’ person for all things plumbing and had become a friend to our family. Sister Rose did not know this. As much as this acknowledgement warmed my heart, I almost wished he hadn’t. Boogers and I caught each other’s eye. War was declared. She would get me back big time.
That afternoon Boogers decided to distribute our school portraits, which had been taken in January and sitting on her desk for two weeks. She was giving each one a silent critique with her animated Irish face before placing an identity onto them.
‘Kathleen Donato? I almost didn’t recognize you under all those eyebrows, Kathleen.’ We held our breath as Kathleen slumped back to her desk in shame, her free hand covering her forehead, her picture clutched against her chest as Boogers continued her emotional execution.
Linda responded as if to an actual question. ‘Yes Sister?’
Boogers held up her picture in lieu of saying outright: ‘Your picture Stupid!’
‘Oh!’ Linda giggled and lumbered on up to the front of the room with her perpetual smile on her face.
‘Braces, Linda, braces. Or stop smiling. The choice is yours.’ The nun’s words had no effect on Linda as she made her way down the aisle, displaying her picture with pride.
Boogers went on to her next victim, wailing as if in pain, ‘Maureen Crosby!’ She was shaking her head ‘no’ in slow motion as she handed Maureen her picture. ‘Maureen, Maureen. Well, you’ve got brains. Thank the Lord for that.’
Maureen gave a roll of her eyes and mouthed something to the equivalent of ‘mother fucker’ to the class. We all laughed into our hands. I was getting nervous, expecting the worst of pictures and feedback from this monster woman who was now smiling with joy at one photo.
‘Angela Andreoli!’ Angela had grown into herself and gone from a skinny, pointy, metallic screechy girl into a tall voluptuous brunette with a straight white smile in a matter of weeks. It was unsettling.
‘Congratulations Angela!’ Boogers was confusing good looks with good grades. I was pretending to write while I was watching her as she picked up one portrait, stared at it a moment and smiled to herself. It was a scary smile that exposed her yellow eye teeth and bugged out her pea-green eyes. She set it aside on her desk, next to a box of tissues. For the next twenty three minutes she continued to hand out the photos until the pile was depleted, except for that one lone picture next to the tissues, which I knew was mine. I was sure of it as soon as I saw those yellow eye teeth emerge.
The fact was I rarely took a good picture because I refused to smile. I didn’t realize it then, but I was on my way to becoming an existentialist. What did I care about a stupid picture? It was what was inside a person that was important. Wasn’t that part of the Catholic doctrine? Wasn’t vanity a sin?
I was giving ‘ol Boogers a game face as I walked up to her desk. She was filing her nails with a butter knife.
‘Is that my picture?’
‘I’m not sure who this person is.’ She snipped back.
‘Well, it’s probably me, since I’m the only one who didn’t get their picture back.’ She stopped filing and slipped the knife under the desk blotter.
‘You tell me,’ Boogers held up the picture like a dirty diaper, ‘Is this sour looking girl, you?’
Sour? I hated how adults used that word in the sixties and seventies to describe unhappy children. It was not a good picture. The guy must have had a magnifying glass on his lens. There were things on my face not visible to the human eye. To make matters worse, my mother had insisted on setting my hair the night before with Dippity-Do and Spoolies. It looked like I had a spare tire incubating on my head. But all that was going through my mind at that very moment was: Is this how the world sees me?
Tears were running down my face. Boogers was silently chuckling to herself. What was God thinking about all this? He couldn’t be too happy with this kind of behavior in one of his ‘Brides of Christ’. I could hear whispers and giggles behind me. Whose side were they on?
‘Your nose is running.’ Boogers was holding out a tissue to me. I took it and began to sop up the fluids that were pouring from my face. One tissue was not enough. Boogers saw this and violently yanked another out of the box. I continued to dry my eyes, blow my nose. My face was still damp, but this time I had to appeal to her for another.
‘Still not finished? Would you like another?’
‘Yes please.’ I was about to break into sobs.
She slowly, seductively, drew the tissue from the box, as if she were pulling a sheet off a lover, gently waking him. The scenario had now become about tissues.
‘Tsk, tsk, tsk , such a messy girl.’
Okay, that was way below the belt to be legal. Game over! I was going for the kill. ‘Sister Rose, if you have this big box of Kleenexes on your desk, why don’t you use them instead of your fingers?’
A sheath of ice encompassed the room. Everything froze. Time. Space. Dust bunnies. She looked like she was going to implode. There was nothing else she could do to me. Vatican II was in session ─ corporal punishment was no longer an acceptable outlet for sexual frustration among the celibate clergy.
Mr. McCullen rapped on the door and entered at the same time, practically taking the door with him as he rushed over to the desk and picked up my picture. ‘Why, you got the map of Ireland on your face. A lovely Colleen you are Missy Cassie with your beautiful green eyes.’
My eyes? I hadn’t even looked at my eyes in the picture. But Mr. McCullen had. This man had radar. He was my superhero. I wanted a Monkee’s song to play now. I wanted to be lifted up by several handsome men like Mickey Dolenz and Mr. McCullen and carried along the sands of California.
‘Mr. McCullen?’ Boogers called.
Damn! Boogers’ nasty, higher than usual pitched voice brought me back to Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow and the east coast.
‘Mr. McCullen?!’ Boogers, now in the role of jilted lover, her well of flirtations run dry, there was nothing left to fix or break.
‘Why are you here?’ Not only jilted lover - a superior being grasping to maintain an ounce of dignity.
‘Oh. Didn’t I leave me tool box here?’ Mr. McCullen answered.
‘No you did not.’ Boogers responded steely through her clenched jaw.
‘Oh well then, I’ll be off. As soon as I see Missy Cassie here give us a smile. Ya been cryin’ I see. Maybe ya need a cold drink. The blasted fountains aren’t workin’ properly, so why don’t I take ye down to the cafeteria and get ye some orange juice?’
We were out the door before Boogers could object. The grades were in. We were just biding time in that stuffy classroom, heeding to the state’s regulations. Although I was grateful for Mr. McCullen’s interception, I’m still curious as to what Boogers would have done. I think Mr. McCullen’s rescue was meant more for her than for me. I think he was saving her from herself.