Lost and Found
“Someday Sister Kelly is going to come to her senses and kick you out of this school,” the playground monitor screamed in my face.
“I pray she does so before you kill one of these innocent children.”
People were always saying stuff like that to me and my little brother, Jaggerbush. Mom would murder us in ice-cold blood if we got expelled. Our Catholic education was important to her. I marched myself straight to the principal’s office, like I did almost every day.
From out in the hallway I could hear Sister Kelly having one of her discussions with Jaggerbush. She’d been trying to trick him into taking the blame for something – anything – since he was in kindergarten. But he wasn’t the fessing-up type. Back in the second grade, in the middle of his first Holy Confession, Father Morgan the Organ pulled back the little curtain inside the wooden confessional booth and told him he wouldn’t receive absolution unless he confessed his sins.
Jaggerbush said, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
Father Morgan dragged him all the way out to the vestibule by his cowlick then wound up to kick him but missed and fell right on his butt.
Jaggerbush was in the fifth grade now, one grade behind me, and the nuns and priests at Saint Augie’s were still batting zero against him in the confession game. I knocked on Sister Kelly’s open door. She saw me and shook her head. Jaggerbush was sitting in a wooden chair across from her with his skinny arms laced around the armrests like tree roots. He was staring at Sister Kelly’s fish tank.
“Why aren’t you at recess, Ringer?” she asked me.
Those round glasses of hers were already fogging up from her getting overheated.
“There was an incident,” I said.
She started her breathing exercises. They were supposed to keep her from losing her temper. When she got good and worked-up it sounded like she was trying to have a baby.
“How badly is the other child injured?” she said.
“Nurse Hatcher’s trying to stop the bleeding.”
Ten minutes ago on the playground I hit one of the Dixon twins smack in the face with a dodge ball. I didn’t know which one, I could never tell them apart with those blonde crew cuts of theirs. It wasn’t my fault either. He ducked into it. I’d been aiming for people’s livers ever since I heard about the kid who got creamed so hard with a dodge ball that his appendix ruptured. How cool would it be to give someone livercitus with a dodge ball?
“Have a seat, Ringer. I’ll deal with you momentarily,” she said. “Your younger brother was just about to take the high road and admit his guilt.”
Jaggerbush busted out laughing so hard Sister Kelly jumped in her black leather chair. I laughed too. Sister’s face shriveled up like a Shrinky Dink you left in the oven too long.
“You find this funny, Ringer? Maybe you can tell me who’s responsible for the pornography in the boys’ lavatory.”
“I don’t know anything about any graffiti,” I said, which was the truth.
“Pornography! Not graffiti. Pay attention.”
“Is that one of our vocabulary words?”
“You know full well what I’m talking about. The cartoon images of that wavy-haired, brawny, green woman. Her body is barely concealed by the tattered rags she wears.”
“She-Hulk?” I said.
Jaggerbush had glue-sticked pictures of She-Hulk inside every missile and hymnal in church a few weeks ago and nobody said a word, until now.
“It’s not her fault she’s green,” Jaggerbush said, without looking away from the fish tank.
“Regardless of her race, scantily clad women with bulging, rippling muscles are simply,” she did a few breathing exercises. “Inappropriate. This is your final opportunity to tell me what you know.”
“She’s cousins with the Incredible Hulk,” I said.
“You leave me no choice,” she said. “This won’t be the first school rule I’ve had to enact because of you two. From this day forward, no more comic books on school property. Congratulations.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Jaggerbush said, leaning his face closer to the fish tank so his nose almost touched the glass.
“Are you threatening me?” she said.
“Not me. It’s the She-Hulk Fan Club I’d watch out for if I were you.”
“They make Franco’s Italian Army look like a pack of sissies,” I said.
“Who’s Italian what?” she said.
“Franco Harris, the Steelers running back.”
“Isn’t he the one who committed the Immaculate Conception?” Jaggerbush said.
Sister Kelly made a sound like she was coming down with a case of the croup. “Franco Harris is not God.”
“Tell that to our dad,” Jaggerbush said.
“He meant the Immaculate Reception, Sister.”
“I know what he meant!”
I don’t know why she got all huffy and puffy. Jaggerbush was the only kid in Pittsburgh who wasn’t a Steelers fan. He didn’t care about the Virgin Mother either, so I could see how he could mix up those two miracles. He unlaced his bruised-up arms from the armrests and stuck his hands in his pockets like he was getting bored and faced Sister Kelly.
“I don’t know who conceived who, but I’d leave She-Hulk out of it. Especially with Christmas coming.”
“Or what? Santa Claus is going to incur the wrath of this imaginary She-Hulk cult?”
“Don’t be silly,” he said. “They’ll go after Jesus.”
She started hooting and hollering about blasphemy and our imperiled souls and roasting in Hell and all the other stuff she was always yapping about. Jaggerbush stared at her and smiled.
I looked into the fish tank. There was a mini sunken vessel with cannonball holes in its hull, a treasure chest overflowing with gold pieces, and other little statues. My favorite was the deep-sea diver wearing the cast-iron helmet. I thought about marching around on the bottom of the ocean in those heavy boots and battling giant squids and octopuses and other sea creatures unknown to man. Now, that would be fun.
I spotted a statue of Jesus standing beside the coral. His head was missing. But he wasn’t decapitated, there was a Darth Vader helmet where his head should’ve been. Could Darth Vader breathe under water? Sister Kelly stopped hyperventilating, gave us detention, and kicked us out of her office.
After detention let out, me and Jaggerbush sat on our front porch watching cars zoom by on Perrysville Avenue. It wasn’t really a porch like some houses had, it was just three concrete steps, but we called it our porch. There was some sort of strange heat wave happening. Jaggerbush unbuttoned the yellow windbreaker he never returned after they kicked him off the safety patrol.
“Maybe the Apocalypse is finally coming,” I said. “Wacky weather is supposed to be one the signs.”
“I can’t wait until the end of the world,” Jaggerbush said.
“But everyone will be dead.”
“Not everybody. The survivors will live in the trees like on Planet of the Apes. Then we’ll finally be able to do whatever we want without the adults spoiling everything.”
“What about Mom and Dad?”
“Old people won’t survive the radiation,” he said.
“I don’t want the world to end.”
“We’ll be able to stay up all night and never go to bed.”
All this Armageddon stuff made me upset.
“I wish it would snow. I’m in the mood to light these cars up with snowballs,” I said.
The thump-thump-thump of multiple direct hits and skidding tires always cheered me up. There was nothing funnier than people’s faces when their cars came under aerial attack. Sometimes they’d chase us, but our house was way up on a terrace, eighteen cement steps up from the sidewalk. They didn’t stand a chance of catching us.
“You got any more snowballs hidden in the freezer?” I said.
“No. Mom boiled them.”
He pulled a handful of candy out of the pocket of his windbreaker and offered me some. He had broken pieces of candy canes and squashed caramel cubes and Lemonheads with scuff marks on them. None of it was in wrappers. I snagged a mashed-up Bull’s Eye. I liked how they took a long time to chew. Jaggerbush popped the rest into his mouth with one shot. His cheeks ballooned out while he chewed it all up.
“We don’t need snow,” he said.
“I’m not throwing mud balls. Remember what happened last time?”
“We don’t need mud either. Watch this.”
A car came driving by. Jaggerbush cupped his scarred hands around his mouth. He waited until the car’s open window was straight across from us.
It was real loud, the way griffins or hippogriffs sounded before they became extinct. The lady driving yelped like somebody goosed her. I made a bullhorn my hands and tried it on the next car.
The guy driving spun his head around like a wild pterodactyl landed in his backseat. His car swerved. Jaggerbush was right, we didn’t need any snow. We took turns cawing at cars. Some people ducked, others jammed on their brakes, one lady shrieked in pure terror. A guy in an old pick-up truck cawed back at us like he was answering a mating call. Some sort of rice rocket pulled over and the driver jumped out. We didn’t run because it was just a skinny lady in tight blue jeans. She had some mouth on her. She knew curse words I never heard a woman say before. Jaggerbush kept cawing at her like he was raised in the woods and crow was the only language he spoke. The skinny lady cursed worse and worse. I couldn’t stop laughing. Who knew people would go so looney tunes over a birdcall?
A souped-up Nova with a loud muffler and a sparkly purple paint job came speeding down the avenue. We both let him have it at the same time.
The purple Nova skidded. A man in a black leather jacket jumped out with his engine still running and came tearing up our front steps. We burned rubber out of there.
We cut between the houses and ran through our backyard for the Red Brick Alley where we’d be safe. The purple Nova was already there! And it was headed right for us. I grabbed Jaggerbush by his skinny arm and yanked him behind a rusty green Herbie that was up on blocks. The Nova barely missed us. It roared down to the far end of the alley and hung a three-point turn. Jaggerbush tore off his windbreaker and threw it at me.
“Bullfight him!” he said, and ran toward Old Lady Tully’s house.
I was the greatest traffic-dodger around. I’d never even been hit by a car, but still, I didn’t like standing there in the middle of the alley with nothing but a yellow windbreaker.
Jaggerbush yelled, “Andale! Andale!” like Speedy Gonzales while he dug around in the dirt of Old Lady Tully’s giant flowerpots. My little brother had secret hiding places all over the North Side of Pittsburgh filled with enough weapons and supplies to survive World War III with the Russians.
The man floored his purple Nova right at me. I got a look at his face through the windshield. He was old, like in his thirties, and his big eyeballs were blacker than his leather jacket. He was screaming something, but his loud muffler drowned it out. I wanted to, but no way was I car-bullfighting that guy. The windbreaker wasn’t even red.
I sprinted for Old Lady Tully’s yard. The Nova’s engine revved even louder. Jaggerbush skipped down the sidewalk like a girl playing Ring Around the Rosie. He had three removable telephone-pole rungs in his hand, the ones that latched onto those steel bottle-opener-looking notches near the bottom of the poles.
My feet hit the sidewalk. It was a photo finish. I could feel the Nova’s front fender slice the air right behind my butt. I cut back and ran in the opposite direction the Nova was heading. Splitting up was a good strategy when you were getting chased. I looked over my shoulder to see if Jaggerbush was safe.
He clamped a removable rung to the telephone pole that marked our goal line when we played football and he started climbing. No one would claim Jaggerbush was the best climber around, but he was the most fearless, and that made him the best faller you’ve ever seen. But I couldn’t figure out why he went to all the trouble with the removable rungs. There wasn’t a single kid from the Red Brick Alley who couldn’t shimmy up to the first permanent rung on that pole without using removable rungs, it was only like ten feet up. Except for Fantastic Freddie because he was way too chubby.
The Nova fishtailed into our end zone, screeching across the bricks, then it gunned straight ahead.
Its front tires plowed into the curb. The whole purple body bounced forward. Its chrome bumper was shy of the pole by a foot. The man in the black leather jacket jumped out and chased Jaggerbush up the pole. I turned around and sprinted back toward them. I wasn’t about to let my brother take a butt-whipping all by himself.
They climbed high enough that if they fell, they probably wouldn’t die, but they’d be walking like one of Jerry’s kids. I stood underneath them. Jaggerbush was too big for me to really catch, but I could break his fall some. The man in the black leather jacket reached up and grabbed the bottom of Jaggerbush’s Toughskins. He looped his foot around the man’s wrist and kicked it against the pole until he let go. Wow, his mouth was almost as bad as the skinny lady who cursed us out earlier. Maybe they were related.
Next thing you know, Jaggerbush jumped off the pole like Jimmy Superfly Snuka leaping off the top rope. It seemed like he was in the air for a long time.
His butt landed dead center on the Nova’s hood. That had to hurt. But he jumped right up. He left a gargantuan dent.
“My car!” the man yelled from up the pole.
I tried to hand him his windbreaker so we could get out of there, but Jaggerbush wasn’t finished. He climbed right back up the pole. What the Hell was he thinking? He’d get his head kicked in for sure.
He reached the third removable rung and unhooked it right before the guy could put his foot on it. It was funny watching his black boot wave around in the air looking for that rung. Jaggerbush climbed back down, unhooking the other two rungs along the way.
“Hey, put those back!” the man yelled.
The man’s black eyes aimed down at his smashed Nova like he might try to jump. I scanned the gutters of the Red Brick Alley for rocks to throw at him. The Nova drifted backwards like it was possessed. But there was no devil. Jaggerbush was at the wheel!
“No!” the man screamed.
Jaggerbush honked the horn, waved out the window, and drove down the alley toward the avenue.
Where did he learn how to drive a real car? He was only ten. The man threw a conniption fit. He shook himself back and forth like he was trying to tip the telephone pole over. I told him to shut up or I’d light that pole on fire and burn him at the stake. He was the one who started it with his attempted vehicular homicide. He screamed for help, the big baby.
I took off before anybody heard him.
The next day, me and Jaggerbush got called to Sister Kelly’s office right after Morning Prayers.
“We’re not leaving this office until you take responsibility for this unconscionable act of vandalism,” she said.
“Visogothism?” I said.
“Vandalism! Vandalism!” she said. “What sort of deranged minds would conceive of desecrating a Nativity scene, for Heaven’s sake?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t know what she was talking about. Jaggerbush scratched his rat’s-nest hair with one finger like he was pretending to think.
“You two sat in those exact chairs, not twenty-four hours ago, threatening to sabotage Christmas, and now, the most beautiful life-sized manger in the entire Diocese of Pittsburgh is absent its Christ Child.”
“You keep him stashed under the hay until Christmas morning,” I said. “You sure he’s not hiding behind Joseph’s jackass?”
Jaggerbush gave me a look, and I knew not to say anything else. We could do that sometimes, communicate without talking. It wasn’t like we had ESP or anything, but we could tell what the other one was thinking. Then again, there were times when I had no idea what was going on inside that brain of his.
“I warned you about messing with the She-Hulk Fan Club,” Jaggerbush said.
“Oh, no. Not her again,” Sister Kelly’s breathing exercises kicked in. “I’ll have you know, I’ve already spoken with Father Morgan, and he’s approved expulsion for both of you unless you confess.”
“This ain’t right,” I said. “We’re always getting blamed for stuff we didn’t do.”
For the first time, Sister Kelly smiled. “I’m sure you won’t have that to worry about at your new school.”
“But we didn’t do it!” I said.
“You’ve done plenty.”
“What if I knew where to find the little tyke?” Jaggerbush said.
“You admit it! Finally, after all these years, a confession.”
Jaggerbush shook his head. “Afraid not. I heard the whole plan being hatched on my CB radio. The kidnappers said if their demands weren’t met, they’d crucify him again, and there wasn’t going to be any resuscitation this time around.”
Sister Kelly started wheezing like she was having an asthma attack.
“Do you want Ringer to give you mouth-to-mouth resurrection?” Jaggerbush said.
"No thanks," I said.
“I most certainly do not,” she said, wiping her round glasses with the white hanky she kept up her sleeve. Her smile disappeared.
“The kidnappers said the bouncing baby Jesus is being held inside the trunk of a purple Chevy Nova.”
“You expect me to believe that nonsense? A purple Nova, indeed.”
“On the CB they said it was parked behind the big construction dumpster at the top of Norwood Avenue. We saw it when we walked to school this morning.”
She closed her eyes and moved her lips like she was saying the rosary.
Jaggerbush stared back at the fish tank. “Who’re you talking to?”
“I’m praying for your immortal souls,” she said without opening her eyes.
I’d seen her do that before. She wasn’t praying, she was plotting her next move. Jaggerbush dug into his pocket and pulled out a little statue of the Virgin Mother wearing a steel mask exactly like Doctor Doom’s.
Sister Kelly’s eyes popped open behind her round glasses.
“What was that?”
“I hiccupped,” I said.
The Virgin Victor von Doom sank to the bottom of the fish tank and landed right next to Darth Jesus.
Jaggerbush laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “Jesus needs you, Sister.”
She gave him the evil eye with all four eyes. She dialed her phone and asked for Father Morgan then kicked us out of her office.
Out in the hallway, I stuck my ear against her door so I could find out if we were really goners from Saint Augie’s. Jaggerbush whipped a handful of Super Balls against the lockers and then ducked and jumped and slid and cartwheeled in the crossfire while they ricocheted a hundred miles an hour all over the place.
“Jaggerbush! I can’t hear.”
“When else am I supposed to practice my cluster-bomb dodging?”
At recess, I sat on the wall by myself watching everyone run around playing kickball and football and having fun. I didn’t feel like playing anything, I didn’t even feel like taking a shot at the other Dixon twin’s liver with a dodge ball. Maybe Jaggerbush was right, if the world ended I wouldn’t have to worry all the time about Mom killing us for getting kicked out of school.
Fantastic Freddie came running up to me with his fat white stomach sticking out from under the bottom of his blue school shirt.
“Did you hear what happened?” he said. “Sister Kelly found Jesus buried under a pile of She-Hulk comic books inside the trunk of a purple Chevy Nova.”
Maybe we wouldn’t get expelled after all. Not yet anyway.
"Lost and Found" was published in issue #1 of Six Three Whiskey.
"Rob Roman spins a yarn about Catholic school, the Incredible Hulk's female cousin, and a Chevy Nova.... @ Six Three Whiskey magazine party" - by Six Three Whiskey magazine's facebook.