PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from Shaun Costello’s childhood memoir:
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the Time of ‘Duck and Cover’
My friend Mickey Nolan had parents with a different last name than his, which, considering the divorce rate in the Forest Hills Gardens, was not that unusual. His mom had married a Greek man named Karras, who owned a Greek Restaurant somewhere in Brooklyn. Mrs. Karras was quiet, blond, and very attractive. Mr. Karras was very friendly, always trying to get local kids to try food from his restaurant. It seemed to give him great pleasure to get someone like me to try spinach pie, or lamb kebabs, or bacclavah for the first time, and made him truly ecstatic if you enjoyed it. These were tastes I had never experienced before, and I really liked them. My mother’s cuisine consisted of burned meat and frozen vegetables, so anything new was welcome. Mrs. Karras was a painter who did pastoral water colors and occasionally had exhibitions of her work at their house. On one particular Saturday I went looking for Mickey to play some stick ball and there was a sign outside his house that read, “EXHIBITION TODAY”.
There were lots of people, all dressed up, and Eddie’s mom told me that he was up in his room. Eddie was standing at the top of the stairs, frantically waving me up. He told me that he found something in his parent’s closet – something so cool that he was certain that I had never seen anything like it before. We went into his room, and he locked his door. He took a shoebox from under his bed, opened it, and took out a stack of black and white photographs. They were pictures of naked adults doing strange things to each other. When I looked closer I realized that they were pictures of Mickey’s mom, Mr. Karras, and several men, all naked, and involved in kissing, and touching, and caressing each other. Mickey was right. I had never seen anything like this before. I could not even have imagined it. They were mostly of Mickey’s mom being caressed by the men, who all had swollen dicks. So this must be what a boner looks like. Some of the pictures showed Mrs Karras fondling the boners of the naked men. Some even showed her even putting them in her mouth. I was horrified and fascinated simultaneously. With puberty still a year away, the activities graphically displayed in the pictures were a mystery to me. I was only ten years old, but somehow I sensed that what I was seeing was important, a seminal moment in my little life. I mentioned something to Mickey about his mom looking great in the pictures. I really didn’t know what I was supposed to say. He told me, “What, are you crazy? That’s not my mom. She just has the same color hair, that’s all”. The woman in the pictures was definitely Mickey’s mom, no matter how elaborate his denials. What I wondered was why he was showing them to me.
On the way out Mrs. Karras was shaking hands with people who were leaving her exhibition, some of whom were carrying framed water colors they had just purchased. “Bye Shaun”, she said. “You behave yourself now”. It seemed that each day something happened to me that made me different than I was the day before. This was one of those days.
© 2015 Shaun Costello
IN SHERMAN’S GARAGE
She Looked So Peaceful
By Shaun Costello
Excerpted from the manuscript of my childhood memoir:
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
The Kew Forest School was located right on the border between the Forest Hills Gardens, and Kew Gardens, the next community to the East. Their student body was made up of a pretty even smattering of Protestants and Jews, with a few recovering Catholics thrown in for good measure. It was a small, secular, private school, attended by students from all over the borough of Queens. My friend Jimmy went there, and the Bullock twins, the Baxter brothers, Jeff McGann, Frank Sperandeo, and several other kids I knew from the Gardens. It was the kind of institution that was completely outside my experience. There was no hitting, no statues with internal organs showing, no threats, no Sousa marches, no praying, no music room/punishment chamber, and no promise of the eternal agony of roasting in the fires of hell for the egregious crime of talking on line. I don’t think they even had a line. A very mysterious place.
Knowing their route home from school, I would sometimes intercept Stuart and Stephen Bullock, and the three of us would cruise the Gardens on our bikes for a while before winding up at their house for a snack. I liked the Bullocks. They were my size, had the same coloring, were totally unchallenging, and were even worse at sports than I was. Sometimes it was comforting to wallow in the company of compatible mediocrity. My friend Jimmy, on the other hand, who was a constant mental challenge, was good at everything. He was the best natural athlete I had ever seen, the best tennis player his age in the borough. The first time he ever picked up a basketball in his life I saw him make six shots in a row from the foul line. Six shots. It took me a year of daily practice before I even came close to that. He was just better than I was at everything, and probably always would be. He was my best friend, but sometimes I needed a short respite from constantly coming in second, and the Bullock twins were just what the Doctor ordered. The boys were funny, their parents were welcoming and friendly, and the whole after school experience at their house was pretty positive. When it was time for me to return home, we said our good-byes, and made plans for a repeat performance the next day.
It was about a five-minute bike ride from their house to mine, and riding a bicycle around the Gardens was one of the best things about living there. There was very little traffic, and after a while you got to know most of the residents, so that people would wave to you as you cruised by. After collecting waves from Mrs. Watson, and Doctor Kauer, I passed by Sherman Becker’s house, and there was old Sherm, sitting on a bench next to his garage. The word on Sherman Becker was that he was some kind of genius. He went to a special school in Manhattan for kids with extremely high IQ’s and, although a bit strange, he was a nice enough kid to be around. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence Sherman would drift off to some place far away, and just stare at nothing that was visible to anyone else. I never saw it, but kids told me than Sherman had seizures, where his whole body would shake, and he would fall on the floor and try to swallow his tongue. He had an illness called Epilepsy, and had to take medication that sometimes made him moody. “Hey Sherm”, I yelled, as I cruised by, but he didn’t seem to notice me, and I continued on down the street. After a few blocks I stopped. Something was wrong. Sherman looked like he was doing one of his, “staring into oblivion” routines, and if his parents weren’t home maybe it was dangerous, so I turned abound and headed back to his house.
He was sitting on the bench next to his garage, and just staring into space. I had seen him do this many times and, sooner or later, he would just snap out of it. I tried talking with him, but got no response. Sherman was somewhere far away, and I’m sure he had no idea that I was even there. It was at this point that I became aware of a noise. A humming, mechanical sound, like a car motor, but very quiet, like it was far away. But it wasn’t far away. It was in Sherm’s garage, and with the doors closed you could hardly hear it. The Sisters had shown us safety films at school about the dangers of running a car inside a garage. There was some kind of gas that put you to sleep, and you never woke up. So the logical thing seemed to be for me to open the garage doors and somehow turn the car off. I opened both of the large front doors, and the smoke inside was a silvery color, and had a gasoline smell. There was a small back door to the building so I ran around and opened it, thinking that the breeze would blow the poisonous fumes from the garage.
I stood there, waiting for the fumes to clear so that I could somehow shut the car off, when I saw it. There was something or someone in the car, behind the steering wheel. I froze. As the breeze blew the silver smoke past me I could see that it was a person. All I knew was that I had to turn the car off, so I covered my nose and mouth and ran for the front door on the driver’s side. I opened the door to reach for the keys when I came face to face with Mrs. Becker. I gasped and flew backwards, crashing into the garage wall. My lungs were expanding and contracting with such force that I could hear my breath over the din of the motor, and I could barely see through the tears. I was violently crying, not from sadness, but from shock and fear. I had to turn that car off, no matter what, so I opened the door again and reached across Mrs. Becker’s lap and fumbled with key, which was on the right of the steering column. Doing this bought my face inches from hers, and my whole body was trembling so violently that I couldn’t seem to turn the key. But then I did, and the motor stopped, and I was still only inches from Mrs. Becker, and I could hear myself gasping for air. I wanted to say something to her. Maybe she was only asleep. She looked so peaceful. But my mouth wouldn’t move. The words wouldn’t come. Maybe she would open her eyes, and stretch her arms the way people do when they wake up, and look down at me and invite me to dinner. But she didn’t. She didn’t move. I realized that Sherm was still outside so I backed slowly out of the garage, never taking my eyes off Mrs. Becker.
Sherm hadn’t moved a muscle. His mind was occupying another world altogether, either because be was steeped in the denial of this horrible event, or because that’s just what his mind sometimes did. There was no 911 back in the fifties. Emergencies were reported to the telephone operator, who then forwarded the information to the appropriate authorities, so I dialed “O”. When she answered I said that my name was Sherman Becker, told her the address, and that there had been a terrible accident, and I hung up. Outside I tried to communicate with Sherm, but had no success. He had no idea that I was there. I had done what I could do. I had tuned off the motor, and reported the tragedy, and the best thing for me to do was to get out of there before the police came. No one would ever know that I had been there. They would simply assume that Sherman turned off the car motor, called the operator, and then flipped out, which was pretty understandable under the circumstances. I just didn’t want to be involved in this.
I raced toward home as fast my legs could peddle, but after a while I came to a stop, dropped my bike, sat down on the curb and started sobbing, completely overwhelmed by the events of the past few minutes. Or was it longer? I had lost track of time. My lungs seemed near exploding, my breath gushing in and out, wheezing like an asthmatic gasping for air. I had seen dead people before on Wayne Baxter’s cadaver tour, but this was different. I knew Mrs. Becker. She had always been nice to me, and now she was dead. She wanted to be dead so she closed her garage doors, slid behind the wheel, turned on the motor, fell asleep, and then died, just like in the safety film we saw in school. But she didn’t look dead. Not like the translucent cadavers at the Fox Funeral Home. She looked like she was asleep. She looked so peaceful.
© 2009 Shaun Costello
Drowning Satan with Holy Water-boarding
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from the manuscript of my childhood memoir;
“The Last Time I Saw Jesus”
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
Children, like sharks with blood in the water, or wild dogs who smell fear, can spot weakness a mile away, and will bide their time until the moment is right to pounce. Sister Lenore showed up one day at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, and became our teacher. She replaced Sister Saint Gerald, who was ill and had to be sent to convalesce wherever nuns went to do that sort of thing. Nuns never talked about themselves so, other than being our teachers, having incredibly clean fingernails, wearing rimless spectacles, enjoying hitting children with inanimate objects, and seldom smiling, we knew little about them. We knew that their order, The Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, came from Scranton Pennsylvania, but that’s all. I’m not even sure how we knew that, but somehow we did. So when Sister Lenore showed up that morning, the occasion was ripe for supposition.
Maybe she had been a missionary in darkest Africa, and was laid low with jungle fever, to be sent back to the States as a teacher. Maybe she toiled for many years in a convent dedicated to the glory of cleaning the toilets of the poor, and as a reward for always producing the cleanest bowl she was sent to our wonderful Parish. Maybe she worked as the personal assistant to the Pope himself, right there in Rome, but was caught with her fingers in the poor box, and was sent to teach at our school as punishment for her sins. We’d never really know for sure, but it was fun to pretend.
Anyway, here she was, so we’d just have to make the best of it. She seemed nice enough. Certainly nicer than that cranky Sister Saint Gerald, who was always coughing into a handkerchief, and swatting kids on the hands with rulers. She seemed friendly, eager to please, even helpful, but something was wrong. It was hard to put your finger on just what, but something was wrong with Sister Lenore.
The exorcisms began when, one morning, we found a Holy Water Fountain just inside the door to our classroom. Sister instructed us to dip our fingers in the sacred waters and cross ourselves before entering the classroom, a common practice when entering or leaving a church. She told us that little children have tiny demons inside them that cause bad behavior, and demons just could not abide the sacred, soul-cleansing waters. This level of demon control lasted for only a few weeks, before she began sprinkling Holy Water directly from a bottle onto the heads of the unruly little perps, whose behavioral irregularities were obviously a direct result of Satanic possession.
During playground conversations over the next few weeks among the core group of class troublemakers, of which I was certainly a part, we came to the conclusion that the woman was a fruitcake, and if pushed far enough, she was bound to crack. Since we knew that she was the only nun in the school who sprinkled water on misbehaving kids rather than swatting them with yardsticks, we figured it was safe to go on the attack.
So it began. Spitball wars, paper plane dog fights, strange messages from Satan that somehow wound up on the blackboard, demonic drawings left in her desk drawers, and the odd behavior of Jim Freeny, the class arch-criminal, whose whole body sometimes shook as a direct result of Satanic possession. For our new teacher, this was the beginning of the end. Sister would walk up and down the aisles spraying her students with Holy Water chanting, “You’re possessed, possessed by devils, possessed by Satan, possessed, possessed. It started as a muffled giggle, but Jim Freeny started laughing and couldn’t seem to stop. The more he laughed, the wetter he became, as sister had singled him out as Satan’s host. She kept dousing him with the sacred fluids, and the wetter he got the louder he laughed, and the more she kept screaming at the devil to leave this child, until finally, frustrated to a point of holy rage, she cold-cocked Freeny with the Holy Water bottle.
So, Sister Lenore stood above Jim Freeny’s unconscious form, now lying in the aisle next to his desk, as fifty-nine little mouths silently hung open, stunned at what they had just witnessed, and wondering what would happen next, and she began to scream. She screamed out the classroom door, and screamed down the stairwell, and screamed all the way back to the convent, intensely watched by fifty nine sets of little eyes pressed against the classroom windows. Freeny was taken to the hospital with a concussion, and never admitted whether he was really unconscious, or just pretending, a subject of discussion for years afterward. The next day someone saw Sister Lenore, suitcase in hand, being helped into a sedan with Pennsylvania license plates. She was never seen again. Maybe she should have stayed in Africa. Accidentally wondering into a pride of lions had to be safer than teaching fourth grade at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
© 2009 Shaun Costello