THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
My mother’s side of my family had been dancers for two generations at least, and dancers, by the nature of their art, are athletes. In order to do what they do they must have balance, and rhythm, and reflexes, and timing; the very same qualifications as any good athlete. Hang time was as important for Fred Astaire as it was for Michael Jordan. My father, on the other hand, danced with the grace of a cinder block. In the great genetic crap shoot, even though I longed for the life of an athlete; to wear a uniform, to score the winning run, to enjoy the camaraderie and admiration of my team mates, to be accepted as a boy of achievement on my own terms, I sadly wound up with the grace and élan of a cinder block. So when the athletic opportunities at The Community House presented themselves, I pounced. Basketball, baseball, swimming, boxing, lacrosse, field hockey, badminton; I tried them all. My strategy was to find a sport at which I could excel, somehow compensating for my physical shortcomings. I tried sport after sport with disappointing results. I couldn’t hit, I couldn’t throw, I couldn’t rebound, I couldn’t dribble, I couldn’t punch but, but for a reason known only in heaven, God decided to cut me some slack. I could shoot a basketball.
I wasn’t Jerry West, but I wasn’t embarrassing either, so I worked on it. Day after day, week after week, I practiced shooting basketballs. When the three o’clock bell rang at school, I would race over to The Community House, hoping to be the first one in the gym. So one afternoon, out of breath from running the five blocks from school carrying all my schoolbooks, I arrived at the empty Community House. It seemed like I had achieved my goal of being the first to arrive, but something made me stop outside the front door. Whoever opened the building for the afternoon session had left the keys in the door. There were maybe thirty keys on a huge metal ring, probably the keys to every door inside the building. Without a moment’s hesitation, looking both ways to make sure no one saw me do it, I snatched the keys from the front door and slipped them into my pocket. I had no idea what I would do with them, but something told me that having these keys was to my benefit.
The Community House was open from 3 to 5 in the afternoons, and 7 to 9 in the evenings. From 5 to 7, with Mr. Wonderly, who was the manager, and the colored custodian both out having dinner, the building would be empty, and available for solitary exploration. I hung around in the park across the street, and saw Mr. Wonderly and the custodian make their meal-time exits. It was now or never, so I slipped the key into the front door, and entered the empty building. One by one I began opening all the inside doors using my new set of keys: the office, the equipment room which was filled with basketballs, baseball bats, catcher’s masks, badminton racquets, and every imaginable form of sports apparatus, the trophy cabinet, the storage room, the boxing gym, the swimming pool, and finally the locker rooms. I hesitated outside the girl’s locker room, wondering whether this act was a matter for the confessional, and rationalized to myself that I was not a sinner, I was an explorer. So I opened the door. It was pretty much the same as the boy’s locker room. There were lockers, benches, a bathroom, a shower room, and the same combined odors of disinfectant, and chlorine from the pool. Above one row of lockers were six casement windows, each about three feet wide and six feet high, and covered with many layers of paint to insure privacy. I wondered where these windows were relative to the outside of the building, so I slipped out the back door and reconnoitered. There was a kind of drainage or ventilation pit with cement walls about six feet deep along the side of the building and inside this pit were all six windows, painted over and ignored. It occurred to me that an enterprising young man who scraped tiny viewing holes in the paint on the inside of the windows might gain visual access to the entire girl’s locker room from the privacy of this drainage pit. Yikes.
So back inside, I climbed up on the row of lockers and did just that. Using the borrowed keys I scraped small slits, maybe an inch by a quarter inch in each one of the windows. There were now six viewing stations from which a commensurate number of anatomically curious young men could hopefully view the naked bodies of the girl’s swimming team. By the time I got home I was ten feet tall. I had just successfully completed a monumental achievement, and would be known from here on as a boy with guts and vision; a boy with the entrepreneurial foresight to use an opportunity to its greatest advantage. If there were a category of Nobel Prize for felonious mischief, King Gustav himself would be handing me the trophy, and shaking my hand. Maybe I should write him a letter explaining my triumph. My next step would be to select five friends who could keep a secret.
The next day I gathered together a carefully selected group and explained the situation. Jimmy, Chipps Page, Billy Beggs, and the Bullock twins, (Stephen and Stuart) seemed the likeliest candidates so, after discussing strategy, we agreed to meet in the drainage pit at 7pm. There was to be no verbal communication in the pit. Absolute quiet was necessary for success. All discussion was to done by hand signals. At the appointed hour, like little ninjas on a mission, the six of us silently dropped down into the drainage pit, and slowly approached the tiny holes in the paint. And there they were. To our almost uncontrollable joy, the entire girls swimming team was walking around in varying degrees of undress. Diane Montgomery, Betty Welsh, Joan Roberts, Peggy Wainwright, all naked and, since the six of us were hidden in our subterranean vantage point, we could look at them as long as we wanted. And I did this. This remarkable achievement was all mine. I would be a king among boys. I could feel the tension in the great hall in Stockholm, as King Gustav opened the envelope. “And for achievement in felonious mischief, this year’s award goes to……”, the room is hushed. “…..Shaun Costello, the young man from Forest Hills, whose keen interest in anatomy, and willingness to share his discoveries with his peers has changed the outlook of the young men of his community”. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Before going home, the six of us swore an oath of absolute secrecy. If word were to get out, it would be the end of the greatest opportunity any of us had experienced. No one could know what we did tonight. We agreed to meet the next night at the same time, and went home.
A little before seven, the next evening, I noticed Jimmy and Billy Beggs sitting on the Community House Lawn, under a tree. They seemed sad and disoriented, and wouldn’t respond when I asked them what was wrong, so I slipped through the bushes and approached our sacred viewing site. About fifty feet from the pit I noticed a huge cloud of blue/gray smoke, and as I came closer I could hear the giggling and guffawing of a crowd of boys, and to my absolute horror, there in our blessed pit, where the tender nakedness of our female neighbors had been so generously revealed only 24 hours before, were about twenty of the teenage jerks who hung out at the Sutton Hall Pharmacy; Howie Clary, Brian McKenna, Bill Conroy, and some kids I had never seen before. The same morons who beat each other up for amusement, not to mention laying the whup on kids they referred to as kike mother fuckers because they couldn’t think of anything else to do with themselves. And here they were, defiling this hallowed ground, where I had experienced my greatest achievement as a human being; moaning and laughing and smoking Lucky’s and making way too much noise to go undetected for very long. I was shattered. In my short time on earth I had never experienced such disappointment. What about King Gustav? What about my Nobel Prize? What about our oath of secrecy? Somebody had obviously squealed. Chipps Page was always sucking up to the older guys, but I couldn’t accuse him because I had no proof. So I got out of there before the situation turned to disaster and, as I turned the corner onto Greenway North, I could see the flashing red lights from the approaching police cars. Six or seven of the teenage morons were apprehended and returned by the police to the welcoming arms of their angry parents for familial disposition, which I suppose was some small compensation for my loss. But for that one fateful night I was a King among my peers. I had achieved something never thought possible. For the first time in my childhood I had experienced success beyond my wildest dream, followed by crushing disappointment.
© 2007 Shaun Costello