The Incident at Our Lady

"Writing to Father," by Eastman Johson, 1863. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I.

Phil had Sheila on the mind when he walked into one of the BOYS bathrooms at Our Lady of Peace Elementary in West Russelsburg. He’d started his shift as Second Security Officer at 6:00am, about an hour before most teachers get there, and about an hour and a half before the earliest kids get dropped off for the Before School Fitness Club, which was really just thirty minutes of kids running in circles on the field while one of the coaches watched, thirty minutes of free daycare and an earlier arrival at the office for the parents who didn’t care if they made their poor kids show up sweaty for the 8:00am Daily General Assembly.

Phil had Sheila on the mind when, at about 9:00am, the school was quiet except in the classrooms and he’d walked down the quiet hallway in the main classroom building and walked into one of the BOYS bathrooms. He’d been thinking about her all morning, as usual, and he’d been thinking about their seventh date—set to happen that night—and the fact that he was now going by Phil instead of Phillip, all because on their first date, three weeks ago, she said in a nervous fast-talking first-date kind of jitters voice, Phillip? Phil? Is that you? Of course it is. You look just like your pictures. And I’m sure you go by Phil, don’t you? Since you’re so tall and strong. Should I call you Phil?

So of course Phillip was Phil now after that, wanting to be thought of as tall and strong, which he pretty much was no matter what you called him, but Phillip seemed to connote something else entirely to her, something other than tall and strong, and he really liked her and wanted to be perceived in a positive light, so now he was Phil, and now Phil was standing in front of the mirror in one of the BOYS bathrooms, looking at himself in the mirror, saying, “Phil. Phil. Phil,” as he did each night and each morning and so often through the day to help the name stick—to help his name stick, he reminded himself—a name that sounded so foreign but probably shouldn’t, he guessed.

Phil liked his job as Second Security Officer at Our Lady. He liked the quietness of it, the way people looked up to him, the kids and even the parents and teachers. And he liked the simplicity of West Russelsburg, and he thought he deserved this calm town and job even though his two tours were pretty uneventful—uneventful, that is, when he stacked them beside the stories he’d heard some of the guys in his company tell, and also the ones he hears every Wednesday night when he hangs out with the old timers at the Veterans Center. But people at the school looked at him like he was a hero, and Sheila did, and when he’d see her tonight she would again, and Phil was grateful for all this good attention even though he didn’t think he deserved it.

In the BOYS bathroom, Phil stepped away from the mirror and went into one of the stalls to use the facilities. He was allowed to use the bathrooms there on the main campus instead of having to walk all the way down the hill to use the bathroom in the Security Check-Point Building. But the rule was that he always had to go into a stall even if he just had to pee. That way no parents could complain that their little boy caught an eye-full more than he should have. But Phil had a nervous stomach because he had Sheila on the mind, Sheila on the mind more than usual, and he sensed something special about tonight even though he had no ring yet or plans to say anything yet, but still, he thought, there was something about the way Sheila lingered a little longer than usual after date six, lingered a little longer after the hug and kiss as if to suggest, Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be parting quite yet Mr. Tall and Strong Phil, and the possibility of them being together sent Phillip into all kinds of joy and his stomach into all kinds of nervousness, and so he was there needing the facilities, and he locked the stall door behind himself, and he pulled out his gun from its holster, and he set it on top of the toilet’s water tank since once, some months back when he was a new hire, the gun in the holster clanged to the ground when he let his belt fall to the floor so he could relieve himself, and he didn’t like the clang of the holstered gun on the floor, didn’t even like seeing it lying on the floor, even though holstered, since some kid could be staring at it by his feet from outside the stall door. And so he set his gun on the water tank as he always did, and he sat on the toilet, sat and took his time, and he thought about Sheila, and he kept thinking about Sheila, and when he was done, he stood and wiped and pulled up his pants and belt, and he tucked in his shirt and latched his belt, and he opened the stall door and washed his hands, and then he exited the bathroom to walk his scheduled rounds at the fences bordering the athletic field.

 

II.

In Ms. Rivera’s 1st grade class, students glued their grasshoppers’ large back legs to their precut abdomens for the second craft of Insect Week. After positioning the insect legs just below where he’d glued the abdomen to the thorax, Liam patted and smoothed the points of connection and then raised his hand high and straight because he had to go to the bathroom. Ms. Rivera assigned Aiden to be his bathroom buddy.

In the hallway, Liam and Aiden talked about how their grasshoppers were coming along, saying to each other that they had done good work, that they each liked the other’s grasshopper so far even though they had been working at different craft tables. They also agreed that Insect Week had been the best week so far. The walk from Ms. Rivera’s classroom to the BOYS bathroom was practically the whole length of the hallway. Only Mrs. Delen’s room was farther.

At last they’d made the journey to the door of the BOYS room. Liam pushed it open, the boys passed through, and then Aiden asked, “You need to go Number One or Number Two?”

“Number Two,” said Liam.

“That’s cool. I’ll tell everyone you just went Number One.”

“Thanks.”

“Sure,” said Aiden. “So I’ll just be right here. We don’t have to talk or anything until you’re done.”

“Okay,” said Liam, and he opened the door to a stall and went in.

Aiden leaned on the counter with the sinks, practicing some math on his fingers while Liam used the facilities. Twice Aiden stepped away from the counter and took a few steps this way, then that way, marching like a soldier with straight arms and legs, and then stopped and leaned back against the counter to keep waiting.

Then the toilet flushed and Liam opened the door and said, “Uh, Aiden. Uh, Aiden, you need to come see this.”

“Uh, no way, man,” said Aiden. “Wash up. Let’s go. I want to finish putting my antennas on before lunch.”

Liam exited the stall and started washing hands, squirting three pumps from the soap dispenser, then rubbing rubbing rubbing his hands together until they had doubled in size with bubbles. Rinsing his hands down to size, he said, “No. You need to see this. We have to talk about something.” And he looked over at the stall he was just in.

And Aiden answered, “Gross,” exaggerating the ss until he too looked into the stall and saw something black on top of the toilet’s water tank. “What is it?”

“A gun.”

“No.”

“It is.”

“And you just sat there.”

“I really had to go. I saw it. And I thought, I should tell Aiden. But I was about to go. So I thought, I’ll just go. Then I’ll tell Aiden after.”

“Okay.” Aiden walked closer to the stall and peered in.

“Sorry about the smell.”

“It’s cool.”

“So what do we do?”

“We need to tell Ms. Rivera.”

“That’s true,” agreed Liam. “We need to tell Ms. Rivera. Guns are dangerous.”

“Guns are dangerous. That’s right. So let’s go tell her it’s here.”

“Ok,” said Liam. And the boys neared the exit, and Liam shoved a forearm into the large door, but then Liam stopped pushing the door and let it close on them and said, “Wait. What about Wyatt?”

“Huh?” said Aiden.

“What about Wyatt? Wyatt would play with it.”

“Wyatt would play with it.”

“We can’t leave it here,” said Liam.

“No, we can’t leave it here. That’s true. Wyatt would play with it. We can’t leave it here. Unless his bathroom buddy told him not to touch it.”

“But someone else might while we’re getting Ms. Rivera.”

“Okay. Okay. So you stay, and I’ll go tell her.”

“I don’t want to stay with it.”

“But you were already in there with it.”

“I know. But you were here. Right there. And I don’t want to be alone with it again. I kind of wanted to touch it when I first saw it.”

“I kind of wanted to touch it too.”

“But I don’t want to touch it now.”

“Me neither,” said Aiden. “Guns are dangerous.”

The boys thought.

“So are you staying here while I tell her?” said Aiden.

“No. Remember? I don’t want to be alone with it. Besides, bathroom buddies stick together.”

“That’s true. Bathroom buddies stick together.”

“Always together,” said Liam. “That’s the point. To stick together.”

The boys thought.

Then Liam said, “Someone might play with it if we leave it.”

“Like Wyatt.”

“Like Wyatt. And we need to stick together. Because that’s the point. In case something happens. Like what’s happening. So we need to bring it to Ms. Rivera.”

“Okay,” said Aiden. “That sounds right.”

“It’s what we need to do. So no one gets hurt.”

“So we’ll have to touch it.”

“We’ll have to touch it. But we’ll be gentle.”

“Okay,” said Aiden. “Gentle sounds good.”

“Should we hold it together?”

“Let’s hold it together. Gentle. Like it’s a grasshopper. Or like it’s a rabbit.”

“Or Fuzzkins.”

“Yeah Fuzzkins. Gentle so he doesn’t bite.”

The boys entered the stall together and stood on either side of the toilet tank. The gun lay on its side with the barrel pointing at the wall.

“That’s the handle,” said Liam.

“I know. But yeah, you’re right. That’s the handle.”

“And that’s the dangerous part down there. Don’t touch that end.”

“Okay.”

“Okay. One of us can hold the handle, and one can hold the middle part.”

“Two hands?”

“I think so. I think it’s going to be heavy. Metal is heavy.”

“You choose,” said Aiden. “You can choose.”

“Do you want the handle?”

“I’ll take the handle.”

“Okay,” Liam said. “That’s fine. That’s good. You pick it up by the handle. I’ll pick it up by the middle.”

The boys looked at each other and nodded. They breathed heavily in their thin torsos. They each picked up their part with two hands. The gun rose. The gun emphasized the smallness of their hands, the softness of their skin.

“It is heavy,” Aiden said.

“And it’s cold,” said Liam. “That’s good. We’re doing good.”

The boys backed up out of the stall.

“Easy does it.”

“We should turn.”

“Let’s turn now.”

The boys faced the exit.

“We need to push the door.”

“I’ll use my shoulder.”

Aiden leaned into the door, and his shoulder nudged the door open a space; then his left leg and foot joined in the pushing and then his hip. And the door inched open with each hip, leg, and shoulder nudge, and at last the boys and the gun sidestepped out into the empty hallway.

They stared down the hallway. Liam said, “Don’t look to the side. If someone looks out of a door, just keep looking ahead. If a class looks out the door window, just keep going.”

“Okay. All the way down to Ms. Rivera.”

“We’ll walk all the way down. And she’ll take this.”

“Okay.”

The duo began their shuffle down the hallway, whispering to each other, “Good, good, good,” and “Easy, easy, easy,” as they took small and concentrated steps, small and concentrated steps that got them past one door and then another while Ms. Rivera’s door awaited them at the end of the hall. The duo paced their steps—Aiden on the left, his palms pressing awkwardly against the gun’s handle—Liam on the right, his fingertips perched on the barrel, little claws gripping what they could, holding up as much weight as they could to assist the tiring hands beneath them.

From the back the duo looked to be sheltering something, shoulder-to-shoulder, hunched inward, a pair of altar boys guarding their candle’s flame as they pressed forward, feeling eyes to their sides while looking only ahead, feeling the growing weight as they neared and neared their threshold.

Eventually they will reach their destination, and they will open the door somehow, and they will walk into their classroom, advancing to the story-time rug, then stopping there in the center of the circle as soon as Ms. Rivera sees what the class is shouting about, as soon as Ms. Rivera raises her hand for them to stop, as soon as she says to Liam and to Aiden as calmly and as clearly as she can, “Wait right there, good boys,” and rises from her seat, trying not to stumble or panic, saying as she’s nearing them, “Wait right there, dear boys, and let me take that from you.”

 

 

Derek Updegraff is the author of the fiction collection The Butcher's Tale and Other Stories and the forthcoming poetry collection Paintings That Look Like Things. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Carolina Quarterly, CutBank, Bayou Magazine, and other places.
 
tags: Christianity, Culture, Spirituality   
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