well over one hundred years the Jesuit school has been regarded
by its students, administrators and staff as a powerful beacon of
uncompromisingly high moral standards, a revered symbol of Catholic
piety in a once picturesque quarter of the city, an area that has
since gone to seed, a forlorn place overrun by liquor stores and
abandoned warehouses and diners crowded with drag queens who squabble
over the price of a cup of coffee, the old neighborhood as it is
sometimes called, "old" because the houses all around the school
are in various states of decomposition, their foundations crumbling,
their rooftops sagging, "old" because no developer has come along
to tear those houses down to make room for parking lots and shopping
centers and all of the other conveniences of modern life.
Each afternoon, out in the light of
day, a boisterous battalion of whores walks the streets past the
school. The brooding elderly priests, draped in heavy ecclesiastical
attire, glare at the streetwalkers and shake their heads. Long orderly
lines of submissive students trail behind the priests like lost
dogs, and they disappear one by one into a dark chapel where they
light candles and pretend to pray. The whores laugh at the orderliness
of it all even though they have very few reasons to laugh at anything.
They take no heed in the high-strung prep school boys because the
boys have no money. A few boys, perhaps a handful of them, have
cash in their pockets, the sons of trial lawyers and surgeons and
real estate tycoons and entrepreneurs, but most are idealistic,
as teenagers are apt to be, and are either determined to wait for
a beautiful woman to come along and deflower them or are convinced
that true love really exists in the world and that destiny has a
serious romance in store for them.
One brave boy, Colm Ferguson, has
gone to a prostitute named Veronica. In fact, he visits Veronica
almost every Friday afternoon after class lets out for the day.
Veronica has dark hair and wears less makeup than the other whores.
Colm likes this about her, likes her long legs and full red lips
as well, and although he readily concedes that he has nothing to
compare it to, he believes that her body is spectacular despite
all of the bruises. The girls he knows, uptight prim donnas from
an eastside boarding school, refuse to do the things he wants them
to do, and Colm believes Veronica is a kind of saint. She is generous
with her body. Colm and Veronica have become friends, and he sometimes
takes her to the diner on Fulton Avenue where they have soup and
salad together and split a slice of chocolate cheesecake. Afterwards,
she leads him by the hand up to the little apartment he secretly
rents for weekend parties, a two bedroom flat in a Depression Era
brownstone. There he humps her vigorously for a few minutes at a
time and then collapses in exhaustion on top of the greasy sheets.
Still panting from these carnal exertions, Colm is suddenly inspired.
He decides to invite Veronica to a party with the intention of getting
a good friend laid. She agrees with a shrug of her shoulders and
then fondles his schoolboy hard-on, encouraging him to do it again,
again, again. He's only too happy to comply.
residents once shared a gleeful contempt for the school but now
they tremble at the sight of the immense bell tower rising above
the treetops. Suddenly, inexplicably, after a slumber of one hundred
years, the Jesuits are purchasing houses, entire city blocks, row
upon row of claptrap shanties. Some residents are only too happy
to accept the fair market price offered them. Others are less cooperative.
Many of the houses are historic, they claim, architecturally significant,
and they try to stop the Jesuits from tearing them down. Though
the Jesuits are outraged by this insolence, they are not overly
concerned. They have the law on their side. The school is blessed
to have so many alumni who now practice law, men who have distinguished
themselves by successfully arguing cases before juries, and these
attorneys are far too clever for arguments like "historic landmarks." Papers are drawn up and the necessary legal documents are signed
in triplicate by commissioners and judges, most of whom are graduates
of the school as well, and soon the wrecking ball arrives. A tiny
group of men and women stands in the rain holding signs and banners
of protest, but no one puts up a fight for very long and the houses
are quickly razed.
This conquest of the neighborhood
continues until there is enough space for a new football stadium,
an enormous concrete bowl for gladiatorial games, a modern facility
that glitters in the night and draws riotous spectators who spend
cash on t-shirts and pennants and refreshments and parking. The
Jesuit school has recently earned a reputation as being a football
powerhouse, and as a result of this singular distinction, enrollment
has soared and donations have doubled. Impressed by the team's unparalleled
success, philanthropists and anonymous donors help to finance other
projects-a new science building, a new chapel, a new fitness center
for the football team. Now there is pressure to win a state championship.
The coach recruits heavily. This is an illegal practice, but should
someone be foolish enough to raise an objection, the priests can
always call on those excellent attorneys.
Frank Coogan is the star quarterback
this season, a strapping seventeen-year old boy. People watch him
on the field and whisper, "Notre Dame" and "NFL" and "lucrative
endorsements." College scouts phone him on a daily basis. Things
are going well for him, everyone says so, but Frank is having doubts,
doubts about everything in life. Seventeen-year old boys are sometimes
prone to this sort of thing. A big game is scheduled for Saturday
night, a rivalry that has come to be known as the Holy War, a must
win situation, and Frank can feel the pressure. He has trouble sleeping
and has lost his appetite.
The team won its first four games
of the season, routing its opponents with ease, but during the fifth
game some of his offensive linemen were badly injured. The right
guard's leg snapped during a routine play. Frank has never heard
anyone scream like that before, a high-pitched shriek that still
resounds in his head late at night. During the fourth quarter, the
left tackle's arm was crushed under a pile of bodies. More screams.
Frank was sacked half a dozen times and the team lost by three points.
The next game was a total catastrophe. Without an adequate offensive
line to protect him against a blitzing defense, Frank was consistently
clobbered. Stranded under a writhing heap of stinking defensive
linemen, Frank felt a powerful hand clamp onto his balls and tighten
like a vice. He squirmed on the ground for five minutes afterward.
The trainers fanned him and splashed cold water on his face. The
team lost that game as well, and now there is a real danger that
the school won't be represented in the playoffs.
As class begins on the Friday before
the big game, the principal makes an announcement over the public
address system: "Men, as you know, we have a great challenge tomorrow
night, and I'd like us all to take a moment and pray. Pray for the
team. Pray for our quarterback. He is perhaps the most blessed athlete
this school has ever produced. In order to set the proper mood for
the game, I ask you to keep an all night vigil. Remain absolutely
silent. Speak to no one. Save it for the game. I want the other
team to hear your energy and enthusiasm. I want them to hear every
last one of you erupt with school spirit at kickoff time. Calm before
the storm, gentlemen, calm before the storm. Let us begin our vigil
by saying;our Father Who art in Heaven hallowed be Thy name;"
At noon, Frank hides behind his locker,
avoids the stares and smiles and slaps on the back. Colm Ferguson
comes along and whispers, "Hey, pal." Frank jumps. Only Colm would
dare defy the Jesuit's sanction against the spoken word. Colm says,
"Are you up for a little soiree tonight?" Frank, who is an adequate
student at best, does not possess a formidable vocabulary and is
confused by Colm's use of the word "soiree." Colm is forever talking
in code. The two boys have been friends since their freshman year
but they couldn't be more different. Colm's father is the owner
of a large company that manufactures scales, scales of all types
and sizes, scales to weigh fruits and vegetables, scales to weigh
tractor trailers, scales to weigh newborn babies, scales to weigh
portly middle-class men and women who look down at the fluctuating
numbers and moan in misery. Colm's father donates scales to the
football team. Frank himself has weighed in at 195 pounds on one
such scale. Colm's family is wealthy. Frank, on the other hand,
is the son of working-class parents. His father is a boilermaker
who toils in the steel mills for ten and twelve hours a day. Without
an athletic scholarship Frank would be attending public school.
His distinction as a football star has given him access to the "social
ladder" as Frank's dad calls it, and he is expected to climb that
ladder to its very top rungs.
Colm puts his arm around Frank's shoulder.
"Look, it's obvious," he says. "You're cracking. The stress has
gotten to you. Well, don't worry. I'll take care of that problem.
You're the guest of honor at a party tonight. I expect you to be
Frank laughs. "Aw, but I can't. The
big game's tomorrow."
Colm shakes his head. "Just stop by
the apartment for an hour. You won't regret it."
Frank's been to the infamous apartment
on a number of occasions and knows that Colm keeps several kegs
on ice for a select group of "cool dudes." Colm also owns a surround
sound music system and a large aquarium filled with coral and tropical
fish. Frank smiles a very sheepish smile as Colm struts off to his
lives only five blocks away from the school in one of those claptrap
frame houses destined for demolition as the Jesuits continue their
relentless expansion. They intend to build a new basketball arena
within the next two years, and the lawyers and the wrecking ball
will soon make another appearance in the neighborhood.
As he steps through the back door,
Frank sees his father sitting at the kitchen table. "Son! Hello.
How was school? Those priests weren't too tough on you today, were
they? Is there anything I can do for you? Anything I can get you?"
Frank shrugs his shoulders and cringes
at the smell of whiskey on his father's breath. "No, Dad. You're
home a little early, aren't you?"
His father grunts. "A man just called.
Newspaper man. Says he's putting a big story together for the Sunday
Plain Dealer. Wants to know if he can ask you a few questions, take
Frank's mother walks into the kitchen
and pulls a tray of cookies from the oven. "Fresh baked," she says,
placing the hot tray on the table. His mother is better at this
charade than his father.
"Take those away," says his father.
"Our boy shouldn't eat junk food before a big game." He shoves the
tray away with more force than is necessary.
"He can have a few cookies if he
wants," says his mother.
His father pushes his chair back from
the table and stands up.
What would life be without scenes
like this? Frank is thinking of it now, thinking of life without
this repetitious drama of working-class domesticity. Before something
horrible erupts, he scoops a handful of cookies off the tray and
hurries off to his room. He sits on his bed and stares out the window
into the fading light beyond and thinks about Colm Ferguson's party.
It only takes him a few minutes to
make a critical decision.
He emerges from his room and says,
"I'm going to a friend's house to study the playbook."
"Hmmm? Oh! Good thinking!" says his
father. "You study your ass off, son. I'm counting on you." Now
this is something new-Frank's father is counting on him.
His mother presses a plate of cookies
into his arms. "Here, dear, take these with you."
"Goddamn it, he doesn't need that
crap in his system!"
Frank arrives at Colm Ferguson's apartment
with the plate of cookies, and he is not surprised to find a dozen
or so teenagers crowding around the keg. Many of the faces he knows,
many he does not. Colm Ferguson pushes a pint of beer into his hand
and proclaims, "Drink up, my friend. For tomorrow we die." Eager
to catch a buzz, Frank pours the beer down his throat, and just
like that it's gone. He drinks another and then another and then
makes his way through the horde of boys and girls. Like a politician,
he shakes hands and gives high fives and tells jokes and listens
to jokes and makes snide comments about teachers and mothers and
ex-girlfriends. Everyone is eager to see him "kick some ass tomorrow
night! Yeah, man! Let's kill someone tomorrow! Yeah!" To the delight
of his inebriated peers, Frank does his infamous "animal act." Everyone
cheers him on as he stomps his feet and snorts like a bull and careens
from one corner of the apartment to the next, looking for something,
anything, to smash. With the exception of some folding chairs, a
table, a lamp, a sofa decorated with ragged cushions, and the slimy
aquarium percolating with green water, there is no furniture in
the place, nothing worthy of destruction. Drooling, panting, turning
red with exasperation, Frank bangs his head against the wall. Chunks
of plaster cascade down his shirt. Everyone applauds this show of
animal savagery. They start the rhythmic chant: "We're number one,
we're number one!"
Colm Ferguson takes Frank by the arm
and leads him to a closet where the crooked stalk of a marijuana
plant creeps toward a black light. "Nothing like home grown," Colm
jokes and hands Frank "a big fatty" from buds he has just harvested.
Frank inhales deeply. The stuff tastes vaguely like fertilizer and
smells like horseshit and makes the world instantly dreamy. Colm
tips his glass toward Frank. "Fuck my old man," he grumbles. "And
fuck your old man, too, right?" Frank is not sure what Colm means
by this, but he nods his head in agreement.
Football is forgotten and Frank follows
the freaky permutations of his mind. The thread of each thought
becomes tangled in the next. He's left with a big unruly ball of
yarn in his brain. He leaves the room and tries to talk to people,
says, "I'm spinning yarn." They don't get it and after a moment
neither does he. It is almost eight o'clock.
By midnight Frank is incoherent. His
shirt is off and a gaggle of tipsy girls line up to feel his pecs.
They run their fingers over his bruises and scars. "How'd you get
this one?" they ask. "How'd you get that one?" He snarls, "You think
this is bad? You should see my mom. Lady looks like a goddamn prize
fighter." The girls inch away from him, and it's the same old story-he
grapples with them, tries to pull them into one of the empty bedrooms.
They squeal, push him away, call him a dog, a disgusting drunk.
Other girls mother him, call him "dear" and "sweetie," pat his head,
lead him over to a chair. "You need to sit down, dear," they insist.
He shoves these girls rudely aside and demands another beer. Colm
is only too happy to accommodate him.
"But first," Colm tells Frank, "I
have a little surprise waiting for you. This way, Frankie baby,
Frank nods his head, feels a familiar
Friday night blackness closing in around him, gathering between
his ears like a swarm of black bugs. He's had enough, knows he's
had enough, but Colm has a surprise, and Frank is not in a position
to refuse a gift. "Entre vous, dude," says Colm and waves Frank
inside a bedroom where a woman is stretched out on a mattress on
the floor. A thin white sheet conceals her nakedness, and Frank
can clearly see her erect nipples. He is aroused even before he
can register an impure thought, a venial sin. "He's all yours,"
Colm says to the woman, closing the door behind him. The woman lowers
the sheet, gets on her hands and knees, and whispers in a way that
Frank believes to be alluring but is in fact rather disinterested
and flat: "Come over here, you dirty boy." Frank doesn't need to
be told twice. In the darkness of the room and with the fragile
bulb in his brain dimming to a primitive wattage, the woman unzips
his pants. She's a real beauty, too, gorgeous and willing. He doesn't
notice the jagged scars on her arms, the sores on her shoulders,
the welts on her back, the folds of flesh gathered around her belly.
She, too, is a kind of gladiator. Frank grunts, snorts, stamps his
feet. Oh, he's really gonna fuck this bitch. Oh, yes, he is. All
night long. An all night vigil.
following morning brings misery. Frank is paralyzed with pain and
wonders if his skull has been split open with a rusty railroad spike.
Each fold of his neo-cortex is a fault line, and each tiny shift
of his head brings on tremors and quakes. His moans record seismic
activity. His bladder is bursting, and he staggers off to the bathroom,
naked, hunched over, ape-like. Bodies are strewn about the apartment,
curled up like vulnerable fetuses. No one notices him. Frank pisses
and it burns. He splatters the toilet seat, feels close to vomiting.
He thinks about the game and mutters to himself, "What have I done,
what have I done." He returns to the bedroom and collects his crumpled
clothes off the floor. The woman is gone, has been gone for many
hours now, but he has no recollection of her anyway. He puts on
his pants, wondering why he is naked, cringes with embarrassment
at what he may have done-streaked through the apartment?-and heads
toward the door. Colm sits in a folding chair, smokes a cigarette,
sips a beer, smiles. "Hey, sunshine," he says. "How'd things go
last night?" Frank believes his buddy is speaking in code again,
making an obscure joke, and he leaves the apartment in a state of
No one is awake yet at his house,
and Frank tiptoes through the back door and heads straight to bed
where he sleeps until noon. His mother finds him buried under the
cozy down comforter and asks, "Frank, dear, are you okay?" Frank
manages to whisper, "Sick. Gotta rest up for the game." He falls
back asleep. At six o'clock his father shakes him awake. "What in
God's name! Frank! You're late! Kickoff is in one hour. The coach
just called. He's frantic, he's out of his mind;"
When Frank arrives at the stadium
his teammates are stretching, doing drills, warming up, and the
coach is visibly sweating through his shirt, pacing back and forth,
massaging his shiny bald head with stubby fingers. "Get your goddamn
ass out there, you irresponsible sonofabitch!" the coach shouts.
Frank blinks because he has never seen such rage and because the
voice rips through his brain, another railroad spike pounded into
his right frontal lobe. As he suits up, he almost loses his balance,
can taste beer in the back of his mouth, can smell cigarette smoke
in his greasy mop of hair. He goes to the tunnel and listens to
the crowd chanting, cheering, clapping, pounding, drumming, whistling.
He runs onto the field and believes he is being led to his death.
A hellish yellow light burns his eyes. His teammates trot up and
down the field unaware of his agony.
The game begins. Frank throws for
less than fifty yards and gets his offense past midfield only once.
The coach is livid. At halftime he takes Frank by the facemask and
slams his head against the lockers. Again and again he does this.
During the second half, Frank can barely think anymore. He forgets
the count, confuses the plays, scrambles like a lame duck, stumbles,
trips, runs into his own linemen. He is sacked five times. He fumbles
the ball. While buried under a pile, someone kicks him in the back.
He suspects one of his own teammates. The crowd actually boos him,
their hero, and when the final whistle blows they hiss and spit
at him. The team is routed, 21-3, and the season is lost. His knees
are battered and useless and he staggers into the tunnel. A woman
pours hot coffee on his head. He limps to a toilet stall, dry heaves,
but there is nothing in his stomach. In the showers no one speaks
to him. The coach does not make an appearance. His teammates leave
the locker room one by one, stunned, misty-eyed, lower lips trembling.
Frank sits alone on a bench and broods.
The silence is kind to him. He closes his eye and sees the coach,
the principal, his teachers, the wealthy philanthropists, and in
the back of his brain he hears a voice, soft, kind, gentle, just
Christ-like enough to lend irony to this diabolical display of commerce:
"Parking fees, concessions, seat licenses, television revenues,
book deals, donations, increased enrollment;" To Frank these words
amount to little more than gibberish. Secretly he is glad that he
has done this terrible thing, glad that he has brought this machine
to a grinding halt, but he also knows that he won't get away with
it. There are consequences in this life and in the next, or so he
has been told, and when he leaves the locker room he half expects
to see an angry mob waiting for him under a streetlight, but no
one is there, not Colm, not even his father, and as he walks home
through the labyrinth of streets and listens to the brittle leaves
scatter along the pavement, he can feel the great bell tower of
the school following him, never letting him out of its sight.