WAR BETWEEN THE STATES
By Michael Conniff
Copyright © 2018
All Rights Reserved
All that Clay and me had asked for was justice for all, but there was no justice in the suburbs, not out where we lived anyhow. We were just Harrieta’s slaves, Clay and me: hunted, trapped, made to pay a high price for just being alive. Hard to believe, but Harrieta back then had our father’s carte blanche to whip the fight right out of us, to lash us with a whippy switch that she lashed around her hips like a gunslinger—like she was sheriff, instead of maid. In our house, Harrieta had the right—ratified, on appeal, by our own mother—to beat Clay and me across our backs like she owned us. Harrieta had the right to whip us with her whippy switch until we fell, whimpering, onto our knees, and we pulled at the stiff white hem of Harrieta’s white maid uniform, begging for her to please stop.
We were in a sorry state, Clay and me.
We were scared.
Worse: we were spooked.
But the law of the land was of a different nature for our kid sister Vivian. Vivian was Harrieta’s little princess—the first lady of this here manor, in Harrieta’s broken way of saying. Vivian had it all, thanks to Harrieta. She was a meaty girl even then, plump and satisfied, and she was usually filling her face up with Oreos, or finger-sucking Hershey bars nuts, or loading up on boxloads of ’Nilla Wafers hand-plucked for her by her Harrieta.
And get a load of this. On Saturdays, her afternoons off, Harrieta bought Vivian clothes, usually belts or bracelets, or she brought her on the bus to what we used to call the colored park, on what they still call the bad side of town. Long summer nights, hot or cool, the two of them sat on the porch as long as the long summer day lasted: Vivian, switching between her coloring books and her Lego blocks, and Harrieta, with her stitching, shooting soft sweet looks Vivian’s way, stitching a frill or a ruffle to some frilly new Vivian underthing.
Clay and me, trapped out there in the suburbs—we were lucky in this one small way: we lived off State Street, a big state road that shot dead center all the way up through to the next town. Off of State, maybe a mile uphill from our house—up in the sky it seemed that long ago—there was the Christian Brothers Institute, CBI we all called it, where we both went to school.
The luck of it was that we lived close enough to CBI to run away from home every school morning, to sneak away out from under Harrieta’s plantation before we half-ate our burnt-black toast. We lived close enough to stay late at CBI too, after practice, shagging fungos or tossing a football around. Both of us always stayed late at CBI, until we ran out of light, or excuses, and we had to hoof it home for more of Harrieta’s switching justice, and her just plain rotten food.
But you could say that our luck was mixed. You could say that. The Christian Brothers did not cotton to democracy, but they had a heavenly faith in pain. In all of their classrooms, hanging like stick-out tongues to one side of the blackboards, the Christian Brothers kept long hard black rubber barber strops—for shots—that’s what the Christian Brothers called them. If we talked out of turn, or if we made any kind of trouble, we had to stand, alone and sinful, at the front of the classroom—our palms upraised, shivering with shame—while the Christian Brother whipped his long hard black rubber barber strop, straight like a shot, down on our white, upturned hands.
Those shots were pure hell—hell, I tell you—worse even than the plain murder of Harrieta’s whippiest switches, much worse even, because everyone you knew was watching you bawl after Brother Douglas or Brother John or Brother Martin had butchered your hand into a piece of bloody white meat.
Only Clay never cried at CBI—never—I was proud of Clay for that, more proud of Clay than I can ever tell you.
Clay had a mouth on him like a rifle, and he liked to shoot it off at school at all the wrong times, and that meant Clay was practically begging for pain big-time from the Christian Brothers, especially from Brother Martin. Brother Martin was a man with a bull neck and a buzz cut and the soft fuzz of an eighth grader’s face, and he taught us American history and he coached us in football. I was a back-up center and long snapper on the CBI team that year—a nobody—but Clay was our star halfback and our only kicker. As far as Brother Martin was concerned, Clay could do no wrong during football season—thank God for that—and we were about to play Holy Family for the division title.
We may have been Harrieta’s slaves out there in the suburbs, but Clay and me were uppity slaves, razor-mouthed, plotting our rebellion in the fields behind our house, out where we played keep-a-way on the weekends. At night, we whispered about our sorry plight—Clay, being older, holding court in the top bunk, me down below. We plotted our flight to freedom: we mapped out our escape route as far away from Harrieta as we could get, going underground if we had to, running all the way up State even, past CBI to the train station or the bus stop, and then all the way down that long road to freedom.
But if we could not escape, if we could not change the world, then we wanted to kill Harrieta at least. It was that simple.
We had all of the malice aforethought you could want. We wanted to tell Harrieta to run for her life up State, and then, from the top-floor den, we wanted to shoot Harrieta dead in the back of her head, shoot her dead with three shots in no time flat from a bolt-action sharp-shooter rifle—
Crack! Crack! Crack!
Three clean shots—two from Clay, one from me—three bull’s-eyes, and Harrieta would be history.
For all of our battles with Harrieta, Clay and me did not hate our sister Vivian, though I suppose that maybe we did have just cause to hate her at that.
When Vivian got to stay up late in Harrieta’s room, watching Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights, we blamed Harrieta—and not Vivian—for the injustice of it all. When Harrieta gave Vivian that extra slice of chocolate cake for dessert, a Betty Crocker, Clay and me saw Vivian as a kind of a plump victim of her own circumstances.
Even so, even with all of her chocolaty treats and her frilly comforts, Clay and me did not hate Vivian back then, not even when she squealed to Harrieta after the night of the Oreos—though maybe we should have hated Vivian for good after that.
It was as if we were both living in a state where Vivian was born lily-pure, at liberty to do whatever she wanted, but where Clay and me were both born bad, dirt-poor—and desperate.
That week, the week right before Thanksgiving break—believe me, that was the best week of the year at CBI, when the Christian Brothers gave us Christian Brother talks and showed us Christian Brother movies, instead of going through with classes and giving us shots. That week, instead of pop quizzes and barber strops, every talk and every movie was pretty much the same Christian Brother holy talk about having a calling—that’s what the Christian Brothers called it, a calling.
All of that holiness aside, there was travel involved when you were a Christian Brother, according to the movies, plenty of good missionary work to be done among the suffering natives of Africa, or the poor savages in other foreign lands. On top of that, they took care of you—the Order did—and you could coach football like Brother Martin if you wanted to coach, and you never had to worry about money ever again, or about buying any new clothes. That was all taken care of—cigarettes too, Clay and me supposed.
Both of us were starting to figure that it would be a pretty great thing to be, this being a Christian Brother.
Besides, being a Christian Brother was not all rosary beads and good deeds—Clay and me knew that too, even then. Clay and me could tell that the Christian Brothers were not shot-through holy, not like the red-faced priests at Holy Family seemed to be. Sure, the Christian Brothers had the same long black habits as the Holy Family priests, with the same small patches of white Church collar rubbing up against their throats, the same way a barber’s white collar could rub a circle into your neck if you had to sit still for a butch. Sure, the Christian Brothers chain-smoked Lucky Strikes, just like the Holy Family priests did, and they smelled of the same hair-creamy Brylcreem in their combed-back hair, the same mediciney mouthwash hiding tobacco and whatever else they had put in their mouths.
To Clay and to me, it seemed like the priests at Holy Family could do no wrong, but the Christian Brothers just might if you gave them half a chance. The Christian Brothers just might commit a sin. There was that possibility of hellfire and damnation and we figured that maybe that was not half-bad. In fact, looking back, I can confess to you now that Clay and me were all for the possibility of sin in a Christian Brother. Maybe that was part of the appeal, part of the deal. If you were a Christian Brother, you could be holy, without being a total pain about it.
Those Oreos were high stakes but Clay and me were starving that night. Harrieta’s roast pork at dinner had tasted like defrosted pigskin—or maybe broiled rubber—Harrieta’s roasts always came out tasting like a dead animal. Her boiled potatoes were no better—they fought off your fork—and Harrieta’s peas went down like bee-bees, hard enough to crack your teeth in two.
We knew all about Harrieta’s hidey-hole for Vivian—and Harrieta knew that we knew—and we knew that she knew that we knew.
It was like a game we played with Harrieta, like capture the flag. Before that night of the Oreos, we had always played it safe, Clay and me, stealing one Hershey bar and splitting it, leaving four or five behind for Vivian—or tops, taking away two handfuls of ’Nilla Wafers, so that evidence of our crime against humanity was nil, a venial sin, if that.
Maybe we were just plain boy-hungry that night. Maybe we were just plain crazy, with a pain that we could not name. Maybe we had just cracked open a little boy bit, and maybe we had to keep right on cracking until we could see what was inside. I don’t have an answer, not even still. But when I climbed up all the way up onto Clay’s halfback shoulders that night, and when I saw the chocolaty lids and the white stuffing in the hidey-hole’s half-light, I knew that those Oreos were history.
Without a word, I back-handed them down to Clay like a Statue of Liberty play, and then Clay and me attacked those two trays of Oreos like the two wide-eyed slaves that we had surely become. Clay and me split off the chocolate lids from each Oreo from the white stuffing first, and then we scraped off that sugary white stuffing with our top two front teeth—and then we switched to washing down the two chocolate lids, and what was left of all of the white frosting, sloshing all of that down together with two big glass jugs of milk the milkman had left behind. With the tips of our fingernails, and the tips of our tongues, we finished freeing up the chocolate lids and the white stuffing from the cracks between our teeth.
From Harrieta’s room on the top floor, we could hear Vivian’s TV squeals shooting down the stairs, the giggly Vivian sound of it mixed up with the crackling applause from some new animal act on Ed Sullivan.
Clay and me looked at each other then in the crack of light from the open ice box door.
We both knew, without saying a word to each other, that we had crossed over some line in our lives that we had barely known was even there before. It was like justice would have to be done, and we would be paying for our crime for the rest of our lives.
Hope and holiness were in the air at CBI that week, like punts and passes—or smoke and Lucky Strikes, if you happened to be around Brother Martin.
After a few more movies and a few more talks, after missing a few more classes, Clay and me, we were both starting to have some very nice warm feelings about becoming a Christian Brother, about devoting our lives to Our One Lord Jesus Christ, Our One True And Only Savior. All of that Christian Brother holy talk about Christ dying on the Cross, about honoring Blessed Mary Ever Virgin—that holy talk kind of snuck up on Clay, and on me too.
The whole Christian Brother idea was starting to sound pretty damn good, to Clay and to me, after a few nights with take-home holy thoughts, instead of homework, when even Brother Martin had put away the strop and tried the old Christian Brother soft sell.
Brother Martin had taken on a glow as the week had gone on, a fine holy glow that seemed to give the fuzz on his cheeks its own buzz. Brother Martin must have been feeling the spirit of God as the week had gone on, because he was starting to mix up some Holy Family football strategy into his talks about being a Christian Brother. Brother Martin was starting to weave these two themes together—being a Christian Brother, beating Holy Family—stitching the two together until everyone on our team had begun to look at the game as a kind of a holy crusade. According to Brother Martin, if you were a Christian Brother, or if you were taught by Christian Brothers, then you had a God-given right to whip the beejeezus out of Holy Family in football every single year.
It was one of the mysteries of The Church, according to Brother Martin, this order from Heaven to beat the stuffing out of Holy Family on Thanksgiving morning every year.
It was more than just winning the division title, Brother Martin told us, it had to do with our calling—that word again—our calling as football players at CBI. The day before the game, Brother Martin said that it was like Jesus was a football coach, even greater than The Rock at Notre Dame, and that He—Jesus, not The Rock—was calling on us to bring justice into this world, to whip Holy Family and to bring the division title back to Christian Brothers Institute, back to CBI, where he—Brother Martin, not Jesus—said it rightfully belonged.
Clay and me were so full up with the spirit of CBI—becoming a Christian Brother, worshipping Christ, whipping Holy Family in football—we had forgotten all about those two trays of Oreos that we had sent on to their heavenly rest. Instead of running for cover, we just shot right in through the back door of our house after our last football practice of the season, right into the kitchen like we always did.
Harrieta was there, laying for us that day—you bet your life Harrieta was there. Harrieta was waiting for us with a fresh-cut whippy switch of wood already lashed to her hips, with her hard dark Harrieta glare cold enough to turn us both into rock.
It was too late for us to run for our lives, or even to beg for mercy. Vivian was there in the kitchen behind the counter, of course, trying not very hard to hide.
Clay hunched over the kitchen table first, without being told to, without saying a word. He was smiling—or maybe smirking. Only Clay knew which.
I watched the whippy switch of wood fly back and forth like a bullwhip. Clay, being the braver one, had not made a sound while Harrieta tried to whip the fight right out of him, but I was crying already—for Clay, and for me.
Vivian was screaming then, a war cry from out of nowhere, something that Vivian had never done for us before, and she jumped Harrieta from behind, her Vivian belly jiggling like Jell-O up against Harrieta’s dark boney legs and her stiff white maid’s uniform.
But Harrieta was not about to be beaten. She kicked Vivian off of her legs and onto the kitchen floor like Vivian was a beetle or a black fly or some kind of crop-killer bug. Harrieta pushed Clay aside next, away from the kitchen table, and then her hard dark face turned to face me.
You can guess most of the rest.
Harrieta whipped me and whipped me good, of course—but Harrieta had lost something—some of the hard whippiness had gone out of her whipping. It still hurt like hell, and I was still crying like there was no tomorrow, but Harrieta’s whipping that day was nowhere near as bad as her worst with that whippy switch—or Brother Martin’s best with that long hard black barber strop.
You okay? Brother Martin said to Clay next day, game day. Because this is it, you know, Clay, Brother Martin said. This is our shot.
Clay said that sure, he was okay, but that was a lie—a big lie—because Clay was hurting worse than me, and I was hurting so bad that I was praying I would not have to bend all the way over to snap for punts. Harrieta without all of her zip was still Harrieta, and Harrieta’s switch still hurt me like all getout. But poor Clay had to do it all for CBI against Holy Family—punt, pass, kick, run, catch passes, run back kicks, return punts—and I did not see any way on God’s green turf that Clay could even get down into a three-point stance, not after what Harrieta had done.
You okay? I said to Clay.
Lookit, Clay said. We’re joining up. You and me.
What? I said.
We’re going to beat the living hell out of Holy Family, Clay said, and then we’ll tell Brother Martin after the game. We’re Christian Brothers now.
We would do whatever we had to to get in, Clay said. We would lie about our ages if we had to. We would fake the eye test, Clay said, if they had a Christian Brother eye test. We were going to become Christian Brothers, Clay said to me. There was just going to be no stopping us.
I knew Clay and me were both too young to sign up for the Christian Brothers—Clay knew that too—but I also knew there was going to be no stopping my brother Clay that day, no stopping Clay on the field against Holy Family, and no stopping Clay when it came to becoming a Christian Brother.
After one last Christian Brother movie about not touching any girls at all—not forever—we headed for the locker room with the rest of the team. Clay’s black jersey, number 22, must have felt like white-hot coals against his back. I could see him wince twice while he wiggled it on over the shoulder pads. But Clay was ready for anything Holy Family could dish out, I could see that too. I could see the pain from Harrieta’s whipping was only going to make Clay play that much harder against Holy Family.
I was starting to actually pity Holy Family when Brother Martin came into the locker room for his pep talk before the game. We all knew what he was going to say—that this was it, our shot at whipping Holy Family, at making them pay for what they had done to us in the past.
But Brother Martin did not look like he was in the mood for a pep talk when he came into the locker room. Something was wrong with Brother Martin—we could all see that—something was way wrong, like Brother Martin’s butch had lost its bristles, like the peach-fuzz glow of his calling was gone for good.
The President has been shot, Brother Martin said.
What about the game? Clay said from the bench beside me.
The President is dead, Brother Martin said. The President is dead. The President’s dead. The President is dead. They shot him.
What about the game? Clay said again.
I want a moment of silence now in this locker room, Brother Martin said. He was a Catholic, Brother Martin said. He was our President, the first one. I want you all to pray for the soul of our President.
We all said nothing for a minute, but then Clay had to bust out and say it again. Maybe somebody had to say it, and maybe it had to be Clay.
What about the game, Brother Martin? Clay said. What about Holy Family?
Come over here, young man, Brother Martin said to Clay.
Oh Jesus, I said to myself.
I knew Brother Martin had the barber strop with him—I could feel it before I saw it. When Brother Martin had the strop under his long black robe you could always feel it, not because of any black bulge or bump, but because of the way Brother Martin started to move, like a killer carrying a loaded gun.
Our President’s dead, Brother Martin said to Clay, and you’re worried about a game?
Clay put out his hand, without being told to, and we all knew if Brother Martin gave Clay a shot that there would be no game against Holy Family, there would be no division title this year, because Brother Martin would never give shots to Clay on a game day—never.
Clay cried when Brother Martin gave him the shots, cried like a baby every time that hard black rubber barber strop came whipping down on his white, upturned hand. Clay cried even harder in between shots, while Brother Martin wound up again and again for the next shot and the next and the next.
I lost count. I gave a wild scream, like I was some kind of a wild animal set free at last.
I ran across the locker room, and I threw the best and last cross-body block of my CBI career at Brother Martin—he went down like he had been clipped—and then Clay and me were running for our lives. We were running past the CBI trophy case and the CBI football field, past the Holy Family bus was just pulling out to go back on home. We ran and we ran, our shoulder pads jiggling up against our shoulders, our black CBI jerseys scraping against the rough raw scabs of our Harrieta-whipped backs.
We ran until we came to a bus stop on State with a bus that was stopped.
We did not have any money, not a penny. Clay and me never carried any money in the suburbs, but the colored bus driver let us get on anyway, as long as we promised to ride in the back of the bus, and not to bother anyone who had actually paid.
The bus driver had a transistor radio going, and we could hear from the back of the bus that it was all about the President—of course it had to be—and Clay and me both knew they were going to find whoever had shot the President, and to bring him to justice on the way to eternal damnation.
We felt a kind of a freedom at last in the back of the bus that day, even though we were going nowhere, just circling and circling back onto State.
Without discussing our options, Clay and me got off the bus when it finally got dark.
We had taken off our shoulder pads and our black CBI jerseys, and we carried them looped through our arms back up toward our house. We snuck in the front door this time, snuck in without a sound, just to make sure. The only sound that we could hear in the whole house was the TV coming down from Harrieta’s room on the top floor.
We went into the kitchen first, to find some food. Sitting there on a plate was a big high pile of ’Nilla Wafers and two big glasses of chocolate milk. We wolfed down the ’Nillas and washed them down with that milk. Nothing had ever tasted so good in my life.
Then I followed Clay upstairs. Harrieta’s door was open, and she was sitting up on her old thrown-out fold-down couch with Vivian out cold on her lap. Harrieta pointed to the two seats on the couch next to her. We came over, and Vivian woke up rubbing her eyes, and we all four of us watched TV together on that thrown-out couch for the first time ever.
We were still watching with Vivian and Harrieta that weekend when that man shot the man who shot the President. That was just the way it had to be, Clay and me figured. There had to be some justice in the world, if you just knew where to find it.