You never knew who might come out of that place because it didn’t have any windows in its brick walls. Me and Jaggerbush practiced our Kung Fu Fighting on the square of grass out front. Thick green hedges surrounded the grass like boxing-ring ropes. People driving by on Perrysville Avenue blew their horns and yelled, “Break his face!” and “Knee him in the balls!”
We took off our Pro-Keds and tube socks and put on winter gloves. We tried not to punch each other in the face with all our might, but sometimes you couldn’t help it. My little brother always connected a lot because his skinny arms and legs were way longer than mine even though I was a whole year older than him. But if I got close to him, I could knock him on his butt with a body shot to one of those pointy ribs of his, since I was the super-strongest sixth-grader on the North Side of Pittsburgh. That’s if he didn’t cheat and bite my neck in the clinch.
“I said, time out, damn it!” Father Morgan the Organ blew two blasts of smoke out of his flat, dented nose like a fire-breathing dragon.
Jaggerbush kept swinging at me until I told him to step on the brakes.
“Here’s the situation,” Morgan the Organ said. “You boys are going to work at the Fish Fry tomorrow night.”
They used to only do the Fish Fry on Fridays during Lent, but ever since Ronald Reagan became President this year, Father Morgan said it was good for people to fast every Friday. Even though he wasn’t any older than Dad, he was the Pastor at Saint Augie’s, so what he said went.
“What’s the bounty?” Jaggerbush said.
“Your reward will be in Heaven.”
“Sister Kelly’s always telling us we’re headed in the other direction, you know, H-E-L-L,” I said.
“True, there’s little hope for your brother,” Father Morgan sucked his cigarette like he was trying to slurp up the bottom of an Eat-N-Park milkshake. I looked across our green fighting ring at Jaggerbush. He wasn’t even listening, he was too busy throwing roundhouse kicks at the heads of the bushes. Ten years old and already doomed to Hell. It didn’t seem fair.
“But you might have an outside shot, Ringer. After a long layover in Purgatory, of course.”
“We’re sticking together,” I said. I didn’t want to go to Hell or Purgatory or Limbo or any other of these damn places if I died in a nuclear war with the Russians. But I wasn’t about to leave Jaggerbush behind to fight off all those devils and demons and dead commies all by himself.
“Sister Kelly seems to believe the two of you are impervious to negative consequences, so let’s see how a little more carrot and less stick works.”
“I hate carrots,” Jaggerbush said.
“I’m not talking about real carrots, maniac. You know what I’m trying to say, Ringer?”
“Does it have something to do with the horses at the racetrack?”
He stuck his cigarette back in his mouth. The tip burned red-hot like a little bitty sun threatening to go super nova.
“I’ll make you a deal. If you work the Fish Fry, without incident, then I’ll allow you to retrieve one item from that hope chest of Sister Kelly’s, the one where she keeps all the illegal objects she’s confiscated from you over the years.”
Wow, she had my glow-in-the-dark yo-yo, boomerang, Han Solo action figure, invisible ink pen, mini parachute, die cast metal flying saucer, Green Lantern power ring, loaded dice, stickers, football cards, comic books, and a whole mess of other stuff. I really wanted that yo-yo back. But Jaggerbush would never go for it. He never, ever, ever cut deals with adults. Ever.
“You got yourself a deal,” Jaggerbush said from across our green boxing ring.
“What?” I stared at him.
“As long as we get to pick what we want from Sister Kelly’s booty,” Jaggerbush said, throwing a spinning donkey kick at the hedges.
“Fine,” Father Morgan said. “But, Jaggerbush has to work in the kitchen. We don’t want a repeat of that God damn fiasco last Easter.”
They were the ones dumb enough to make Jaggerbush work as a busboy. They should’ve known better. A table full of hefty ladies were pigging out like the end of the world was coming and ordered Jaggerbush to bring them more dinner rolls. He told them to join Weight Watchers. You ever notice fat ladies can scream really loud? Especially when they want to be fed.
“You can count on us,” Jaggerbush said.
Morgan the Organ flicked his cigarette over our heads. It flew more than ten yards and landed all the way in Perrysville Avenue.
“Don’t forget to wash your filthy mitts before you show up to work. And use your jab more, and quit kicking each other like a couple of Asiatics,” he pushed open the Triple Deuce’s red door and went back inside.
I never saw Jaggerbush agree with anyone without a fight. There must have been something inside Sister Kelly’s secret box that he really wanted.
“Ding Ding,” I said, and we put our dukes back up.
“Hi-yaa!” Jaggerbush yelled, and jumped with both feet out in front of him to dropkick me. I sidestepped him, and he landed so deep in the hedges that he got stuck. He tried to wiggle out, but the thick branches wouldn’t let him go. I punched him once in the gut just for good measure, then I yanked him out and rung the bell and we went back at it.
After lunch, the teachers herded us all over to church because it was some kind of holy day. Sometimes it seemed like they just made up these holy days when they got fed up with teaching. I mean, how many God damn saints were there?
Jaggerbush stood in Saint Augie’s vestibule with his thick brown hair sticking up and pointing in a million different directions. He stared up at the two big blackboards on wheels parked against the back wall. They each had a giant football-poll grid drawn on them in yellow chalk. Last week’s Steelers game was on one, the winner’s names were circled in red chalk. The other blackboard had a grid for this week’s game. The dads paid the ushers and picked a block and wrote their names inside. Every Sunday after twelve o’clock mass, Father Morgan the Organ added the numbers along the top and one side of the grid just in time for the coin toss at the beginning of the game. If your numbers matched the score at the end of one of the quarters, you won. There were two polls because you couldn’t collect your winnings until the Sunday after the game. Father Morgan said it had something to do with teaching patience. Kids weren’t allowed to play, but Dad always asked Jaggerbush which block to pick. Jaggerbush didn’t know the difference between football and long division, but Dad won more than anybody.
“Jaggerbush!” Sister Kelly said. “Get away from those blackboards and get your rear-end in a pew and pray to God for forgiveness.”
Mass kicked off with that rumbling sound of everyone standing up at the same time. Father Morgan the Organ and three altar boys marched down the center aisle in their long white dresses while everybody sang. Fantastic Freddie led the pack, carrying the tall skinny golden cross, the one the lead altar boy held out in front of himself like a first-down marker. They always walked so damn slow, like they were heading to the principal’s office or something.
Jaggerbush stood alongside the aisle a few rows ahead of me with the rest of the fifth-graders. He knelt down, but he wasn’t genuflecting. That boy was always retying his Pro-Keds no matter how many times he triple-knotted them.
“Ahhhhhh!” Fantastic Freddie screamed, and did a belly flopper right on his big blubbery stomach. His golden cross sailed at the altar like a gladiator spear.
Somebody yelled, “Fumble!”
The cross bounced off the marble steps in front of the altar. The little statue of Jesus popped off and ricocheted under the front-row pews. The first-graders sitting there jumped up on top of their pews and screamed like Jesus was a mouse.
I don’t know when Jaggerbush tied that tripwire across the center aisle, but it was one of his best booby traps in the history of the universe.
Sister Kelly snatched him by his skinny arm and dragged him toward the back of the church. She had a hard time because Jaggerbush let his feet drag like some of the men who got hauled out of the Triple Deuce for falling asleep at the bar. Jaggerbush yelled, “How do you expect me to get inside this Heaven joint if you keep kicking me out of church?”
They held the Fish Fry in the school cafeteria in the church basement. Watching all those grown-ups sitting at the same tables where we ate lunch every day and stuffing their faces like an army of Godzillas eating Tokyo was weird.
My job was to bus tables. It was easy since there wasn’t much to carry except empty plates and silverware. The hungry hungry hippos hogged down more fried fish and French Fries and coleslaw than I could eat in a week, and according to Mom, I could eat you out of house and home. This fasting-on-Fridays thing didn’t make any sense to me. It didn’t look like there was a whole lot of sacrificing going on.
I lugged my square plastic tub of dirty dishes into the kitchen. It was like the engine room of a deep-space battle cruiser with all the steam blowing and oil sizzling and water gushing out of faucets and pots and pans clanging on the stove. It stunk worse than the fish market down on the Strip District where the guy behind the counter always gave me and Jaggerbush free smelts while he whispered to Dad.
When it came to church stuff, Fantastic Freddie was the biggest brown-noser in the galaxy, so he had the funnest job. He got to help cook the fish. If only the adults knew about all the stuff he light-fingered out of the church and how he went around performing illegal sacraments. One time, last winter when we were playing football, I sacked Antonio and made him spit up blood. I didn’t even hit him that hard, but the snow looked like cherry Italian Ice when he was done spitting-up all over it. Fantastic Freddie whipped out a vial of holy oil he swiped from the sacristy and read him last rites. But it was a big fat waste of time since Antonio didn’t die.
Fantastic Freddie stood on a stepladder in front of the silver deep fryer. He pulled frozen slabs of breaded fish out of a cardboard box with a pair of long steel tongs.
He asked each fish, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?” and then held it to his ear like he was trying to hear what it was saying.
“No? Then into the boiling oil with you, heathen!” he dropped it into the deep fryer.
Antonio wore a tall white chef’s hat that made his Afro stick out around the bottom of it like a clown haircut. He stirred a giant bowl of coleslaw with the biggest wooden spoon I’d even seen. I wouldn’t want to be paddled with that thing.
“Hey Ringer,” Antonio said. “What’s wrong with your brother?”
I walked into the dishwashing room in the back of the kitchen. It was dark and damp and stunk like a wet dumpster. Jaggerbush was standing on a plastic milk crate talking to himself in cartoon voices while he scrubbed a dish in the big steel sink with a sponge made out of chain-mail armor. Nothing was on fire, nothing was broken, the room wasn’t flooded, the backdoor was closed. The clean white dishes looked like pillars in ancient Rome they were piled up in such nice neat stacks.
“You feeling okay?” I said.
“Yeah, this is fun.”
Mom would’ve fainted if she saw Jaggerbush washing and drying all those dishes. She had to scream her head off just to get him to wash his face. Maybe he was planning on pulling a Sampson move and knocking down all the dishes once he was finished.
For the rest of the night, Jaggerbush worked like he was mining for gold. He took out the garbage, put all the silverware back in the drawers, and swept and mopped the floor. He did everything he was told. One of the cafeteria ladies even called him “a good little worker.” I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe he got replaced by an alien life-form. Or maybe I finally punched him in the head too hard and gave him brain damage like Mom was always warning me about. Or was Father Morgan the Organ right about his carrot stick prophecy?
After the Fish Fry was over, the cafeteria ladies must have given us a good report.
“It appears that you two malcontents aren’t completely incorrigible after all,” Father Morgan said. “I’ll tell Sister Kelly to give you your just deserts tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” I said.
“We’ll come tomorrow,” Jaggerbush said.
“I don’t blame you,” Morgan the Organ said. “You put in the work, and you deserve what’s coming to you.”
“Yeah, Sister Kelly can be forgetful,” I said.
“She can, can’t she? Tomorrow then, boys.”
Me and Jaggerbush caught up with Antonio outside. It was getting dark. Antonio was still wearing his chef’s hat. He was eating handfuls of after-dinner mints out of a brown paper bag.
“Wait here,” Jaggerbush opened the back door to the cafeteria’s kitchen. A little hunk of cardboard fell from between the doorknob and doorframe. He must’ve propped it open when he took the trash out.
“You can’t break into a church,” Antonio said with his mouth full of mushy sugar
“It’s not like anybody lives here,” Jaggerbush said.
“God does,” Antonio said.
“Then he should buy a watchdog,” Jaggerbush said, and ducked inside.
Antonio had ants in his pants the whole time Jaggerbush was gone. I had to threaten to gag him with his chef hat just to shut him up. He could be such a baby sometimes.
Jaggerbush came out slapping his Toughskins leaving yellow handprints on his thighs. He stuck both his powdery hands inside Antonio’s brown paper bag and mashed a bunch of after-dinner mints into his mouth with one hand and filled his pocket with the other.
“Don’t be greedy,” Antonio said.
“Shut up, unless you want busted on.”
“For being an accomplice.”
“That’s crazy. You’d get yourself in trouble, too.”
“I’m never not in trouble,” Jaggerbush said, and stuck his hand back inside Antonio’s bag of mints.
We followed Sister Kelly. Our footsteps echoed all the way down the hall. The school was quiet, creepy quiet, like we weren’t supposed to be there, and it smelled like ammonia.
“I want you two to know, I am against this entire enterprise,” Sister Kelly said. “How in God’s holy name am I supposed to maintain any sense of order as principal of this school if that man keeps undermining my authority? And on a Saturday, no less.”
“Why don’t you start a mutiny and take over the school yourself?” I said. “We can help you make him walk the plank.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“Is it because what’s-his-face likes Morgan the Organ better than you?” Jaggerbush said.
“What’s-his-who?” Sister Kelly said.
“The long-haired guy with the beard who does the magic tricks.”
“He means Jesus, Sister,” I said.
“Don’t be ridiculous! The Son of God doesn’t play favorites. Or perform magic tricks!”
“Then how come Dad is always praying that the traitor Tony Dorsett breaks both his knees when he’s running the ball?” I said.
“Holy Mother, give me strength.” Her round glasses started to get foggy.
We followed her down the stone steps into the school basement. Her big ring of keys jangled like a witch doctor charm.
“Where’re you taking us?” I said.
“The book room.”
It took her a while to find the right key, but she finally got the door open. Inside, there were rows and rows of metal shelves so tall I couldn’t reach the top if I jumped as high as I could. It was like an A&P for schoolbooks, but dark and dusty and without shopping carts.
“Why are these new books buried down here in this dungeon?” I said.
“They’re out of date.”
“They look brand new. What’re you going to do with them?”
“None of your business. Let’s get this miscarriage of justice over with.”
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Jaggerbush said. “You should be proud of us.”
She took a bunch of deep breaths like she was about to dive into the deep end of a pool.
“Let’s just select your thirty pieces of silver and put an end to this.”
She hunched over her giant footlocker and spun the dial on the combination lock. It was so big, me and Jaggerbush could both fit inside at the same time. He knelt down beside her and retied his Pro-Keds. The lock popped, and the lid squeaked open.
It looked like the back of Santa’s sleigh. It was full of squirt guns, Mattel basketball games, X-Ray glasses, rocks, every kind of Nerf ball, a wedding veil, Star Trek Phasers, radios, hats, a lady’s black high-heeled shoe. Jaggerbush dug around in the treasure chest. He pulled out a half-eaten pack of grape Bubble Yum.
“After all that work, all that self-control, you’re choosing a pack of old gum?” She shook her head.
“I want to blow some bubbles.”
“Give it here!” she said. “What’s hidden inside?”
She tore the pack open and took it apart like he was trying to smuggle top-secrets to the Russians. She handed the pieces of unwrapped gum back to him. He shoved them into his pocket.
“You’ve made your choice. Don’t dare let me catch you chewing any of it on school property.”
I pointed at a bookshelf. “Can I have one of these out-of-date books with Saint George and the Dragon on the cover, instead?”
“Absolutely not. A deal’s a deal, even a deal with the Devil.”
I couldn’t find my glow-in-the-dark yo-yo in the trunk, so I grabbed my silver Matchbox car with the demon face on the roof and the flames on the doors that Sister Kelly stole from me four years ago back in the second grade.
“Can you two see your way out without vandalizing anything?”
“Yes, Sister,” I said.
We walked down the hall kicking our feet so the bottom of our Pro-Keds skimmed across the stone floor and made loud skid noises. Jaggerbush shoved a piece of Bubble Yum in his mouth and handed me a piece.
“It’s kind of stale,” I said.
“Left 13, right 42, left 23.”
“Are you talking in secret code again?”
“It’s the combination to her lock.”
“How do we get into the book room without a key?”
“There’s other ways to open doors.”
We snuck out of Sunday Mass right after communion and met Ding Dong outside so we could pitch pennies against the church steps.
“Jaggerbush! You have to throw real coins. Nobody wants your bottle caps,” Ding Dong said.
Jaggerbush dug in his pocket and threw something shiny and silver that dinged against the steps.
“Bolts don’t count either!” Ding Dong said.
All of a sudden, you could hear men screaming and hollering so loud inside that you would’ve thought the statues were bleeding or something. Saint Augie’s wooden fortress doors burst open. Men were shoving each other and pulling their jackets over each other’s heads like they were in a bench-clearing hockey fight. They were cursing something fierce.
A few of them fell down the steps and landed on our pennies. Father Morgan the Organ stood in the doorway. He swung Fantastic Freddie’s big cross back and forth like a Samurai warrior. The men scattered.
“You!” he yelled at Jaggerbush, his flat face was redder than cherry juice.
“I should at least get my choice of weapon,” Jaggerbush said, flipping a piece of yellow chalk in the air with his thumb and catching it like a coin.
Morgan the Organ shoved the cross into Ding Dong’s chest like he wanted him to hold it and walked toward Jaggerbush real slow.
“You better run,” Ding Dong said.
Jaggerbush didn’t budge. Morgan the Organ snatched the piece of chalk out of the air and laid his hands on my brother’s shoulders.
“Please, please explain to me what on Earth you could possibly get out of pulling a stunt like this?”
“Nothing,” Jaggerbush said. “I told you, I hate carrots.”
He blew a giant purple bubble until it exploded with a crack and splattered all over his face. He just left it there, staring at Morgan the Organ over the grape glob covering his nose like a bandito mask.
“I warned you. That child can’t be reasoned with,” Sister Kelly yelled from the church doorway.
Morgan the Organ gave her a look that would send you running. Then he looked at me and said, “Do me a favor, son. Take your brother home before I murder him.”
I pulled Jaggerbush across the street by his wrist. The men picked themselves up off the church steps and straightened out their jackets while Ding Dong snatched all our pennies off the ground. Some apologized and shook hands, but some still looked like they wanted to roughhouse some more. Father Morgan promised them a refund and walked back inside the church with his head down.
“What did you do?” Ding Dong said.
“Follow me,” Jaggerbush said.
The three of us doubled back to the cafeteria’s kitchen door. The hunk of cardboard was still in place. We followed Jaggerbush inside. He led us through the dark cafeteria and up the steps to the church vestibule. It was empty and the big wooden doors were closed. Jaggerbush pulled another piece of yellow chalk out of his pocket and pointed it at the blackboard with last week’s football poll on it, and said, “And the winners are…”
The names inside the winning squares were circled in red chalk, Zulu Warrior, Pontius Pilate, Hong Kong Phooey, and The Bee Gees.
Robert Roman grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, where he sold newspapers to cars from a concrete island. He worked as a mail carrier, busboy, bartender, and laborer while earning a degree in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh. He taught at a juvenile detention facility, Baltimore City, and Howard County Public Schools. He studied writing at Johns Hopkins and UCLA. He lives in L.A., where he writes fiction and America’s favorite Hangman puzzles.