A Story in The Human Calculus



Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

A Shade of Beige


The school had been built around 1900 to function as the high school, but as the city grew it was supplemented and eventually replaced by a series of large buildings across the street, and the old high school building became a junior high.


The locker rooms were actually part of the high school football stadium, itself over sixty years old, and were located under the concrete stadium bleachers, windowless behind steel doors.


There was no truly hot water in the shower, though the water wasn’t freezing, just room temperature most of the time. The old pipes leaked, the showers probably had little slime or mold but the aged concrete and wall and tile, the deferred maintenance of decades, the dim light weakly cast from wire-covered bulbs hanging forlorn from the high cement ceilings; put a dank, dark, almost smutty edge to everything.


This locker room at this junior high was as strange a place as strange could be to a boy who had never, never ever, seen naked people.


In his home, Barry knew, no one would ever be seen without clothing. It was a sin. You would get a beating for that. If you wanted to take off your clothes, you took a bath, you did it in the bathroom with the door locked, and you got dressed again, right away.


He didn’t ever feel comfortable taking off his clothes in the locker room; and he didn’t know who he could tell about it. No one at home, that was for sure.


It wouldn’t have been such a shock to him, perhaps, had he started the year with all the other kids, just another seventh grade boy, finding his way like all the others. But his first day was in February, and the lake was still frozen thick, the air frigid, his breath crusted ice on his scarf; and the bus ride even longer than for St. Mark’s and he knew nothing of how things worked, he was ever in foreign lands. Everything about this was strange, everything took him by surprise, kept him off balance. And that one thing more than anything else, and that was this locker room.


He could not go to the same Junior High his brothers and sisters and the kids he’d known at St. Mark’s had. Last year Jack joined the Army so that he could get GI Bill money for college, Jerry followed a month after. So they had moved, because Mom said there was no need for a three-bedroom apartment with only seven of them. His sisters had one room, the boys the other, and Mom slept on the couch, which made him feel queasy though he couldn’t say why. But Pat was going to move out soon and then Mom and Kate would share the bedroom, though it meant losing her income; but Kate would be sixteen soon and would have to start working after school so it would even out. Barry always liked it when things evened out.


But these days it seemed things could not be even, he could not be even, he could not round the sharp edges of his life, much less of those around him no matter how he tried. He knew something was wrong, that things were out of control, spinning, profoundly out of control.


He was out of control.


He had started the year different, off balance, unlike his brothers and sister before him, at St. Mark’s. Later he realized that St. Mark’s didn’t waive tuition for poor seventh and eighth graders as they did for first through sixth graders who could not pay; but because of his aunt and because it was only one child in the family there now, an exception had been made for him.


Not that he had asked, not that he had wanted an exception, not that he wanted charity, to be reminded of their poverty. There was nothing in Barry that made him want to stand out or be any kind of an exception. Barry wanted nothing more than to blend in, to hide, to become a part of the background, to fade to a shade of beige. Beige was safe. And that just was not possible.


Aunt Mary, a nun for nearly forty years, had become the principal at St. Mark’s; he could not really imagine anything worse than having Aunt Mary as principal. It meant a special kind of torture from other kids and no sympathy or leeway from the nuns, and even less from his aunt who could not be seen to play favorites for her nephew. Not that Aunt Mary would do that; not that she displayed – or held – any affection for him.


It was not that her hands could sting; all the nuns were like that except Sister Anne, his first grade teacher. It was not merely her hands that stung, but her tongue. He could never say it, never find the words to articulate it until much later, but he knew her for a bitch.


He remembered the morning Aunt Mary was visiting and took a broom and swept the stoop at their old apartment, complaining to all and sundry “this place is as filthy as a nigger house!” He did not understand, his mother would beat him had he ever dared use such language, and she said, did, nothing! From that day he knew more than he wanted about his aunt.


So he was at St. Marks, but he was not happy about it, held there against tradition, against common sense, against rightness, against his will. He felt shamed.

*  *  *  *

Other things happened that year to Barry.


Whirling deep and dark inside him, a, smoky thread of pain pulsing under his surface, inaccessible, threatening, ominous wordless pain he could not even grasp much less control, had risen unbidden, finally for once had made his mother pay attention, led her to do what he wanted: take him from St. Mark’s, let him find a natural balance, where each of his five brothers had been before him, in the place he belonged.


He hated sharing a room with Tad, Dennis, and Bill, they were teenagers and they bothered him constantly. They stank, and so did the room.


He could never explain afterward what had set it off, it just happened, but why his brother Tad’s teasing, so common, so relentless, had struck him that day in that way he did not know.


What he did know is, he wanted to be alone and no one would leave him alone, no one would not hurt him, not harass him, not cause him pain. And he had finally hidden like a cornered animal, crawling under the bunk bed, hiding in the dark as he so often did, to lick his wounds and recover, but Tad had crossed even that boundary, had pursued him relentlessly, had stuck his head under the bunk and continued his taunting.


And his brother Jack was gone, into the Army a year before, the only one he could go to for protection or understanding or relief; then suddenly it was there, without even a preparatory rumble, a volcano of rage-hot lava spewing out of him. And he hit Tad, hit him so hard and fast and unexpectedly and repeated the blows with all his strength, jumping out, jumping up, jumping off the floor to reach his face so that even twenty-one year old Tad, was intimidated, fled the small bedroom he and Barry and Dennis and Bill now shared. And Barry in his rage had demolished the room, flailing with whatever was at hand, smashing the mirror, denting the walls, throwing everything in the closets out, turning over the dressers, though they merely tilted in that overcrowded room.


And, finally spent, he locked the door shut and crawled under the bed, shaking, moaning, sweating, too exhausted to move, he slept.


There had been hell to pay of course. He didn’t like to think of that, of the crack of the leather against his legs and back as his mother vented her fury once again.


But for once that wasn’t the worst. The worst was his own fear of the minutes he spent so out of control; more than the strap that stung him; and he saw it frightened everyone around him too, his brothers and his sisters. And even mother. In some ways the wariness on his harried mother’s usually angry face was his real punishment.


And so, amazingly, she told him, as if it were a punishment, that he was to leave St. Mark’s and go to Junior High.

*  *  *  *

The first day there, it smelled so different, and it was mid-year, mid-semester, and his first day had been so overwhelming. He walked up the steep main stairs to the beige building and for a minute it held his rapture, the promise of balance, in its very color; a background, a place where his natural camouflage would allow him to blend in unseen, safe.


It was swarming with kids, all of them bigger than he was, all of them knew what they were doing and where they were going and he didn’t know anything.


He spent the entire morning filling out papers, card after card with information and he didn’t know what to put on them and he had to ask them if they had his address and that was embarrassing to not even know where you live and to have to tell everyone. Of course his mother did not come with him, she wouldn’t take time out for that.


Then they gave him his class schedule but this place was so big and he didn’t even know where the classrooms were or about the up and down stairways and rules and lockers and so many, many students. So he was yelled at, yelled at a lot.


But mostly it was indifference, no one really cared, no one really paid attention, no one spoke to him. He had no friends, not one. He hadn’t wanted to be that unnoticed! And he felt lost in this big building.


He had no idea what they were doing in his classes. It was like they were speaking a different language, and he had always thought he was smart but maybe these kids were much smarter.


The only time he didn’t feel dumb when was Mrs. Casca told one of the boys to write “four squared” on the board in math class the third day and Barry had no clue what that meant, thought again he was stupid, but the boy went up to the board and it seemed he didn’t know what to do then finally wrote a four and then drew a square around it, and then she told him it was wrong, and then Barry realized no one at all knew what four squared was and it came to him that Mrs. Casca was an asshole, always out to hurt someone, to hassle them.


When he finally got his first test it was fractions, complex fractions, but he knew how to do those, he could do them in his head because he had learned how to balance things, spent much of his life in an intense study of how to cancel out bad things with good ones, he was a fractional genius in that way, and he did and she marked them all wrong because he didn’t show his work. And then she said he couldn’t have done them in his head and called him a liar.

*  *  *  *

Later he would think the building was beautiful, when he looked at it like a piece of art, it was all Spanish styled stucco, with terra cotta tiles and polished woodwork and brass inside. And it was much nicer, really, than St. Mark’s. It had a cafeteria where they sold food, but of course he had no money and brought no lunch. There were no morning breakfasts, no Friday masses, nothing like that.


Just a year before he had become an altar boy, he got to wear the cassock and the surplice, and he served his first Mass, he was so proud but he was shaking in fear that he would make a mistake. He carried the cruets, the little bottles with the water and the wine, but he was never sure how much to pour. Father Brendan got impatient with him sometimes, and would yell after Mass, in the Sacristy, the little room behind the altar where they dressed.


Father Roy never did, he was always patient and would wink at him sometimes in service, and that made him feel funny inside. Then the other boys told him to not be alone in the Sacristy with Father Roy, and he wondered why and asked, but they just snickered and said maybe he should try it after all.


And then he found out what they meant.


He was embarrassed and he didn’t know what he was supposed to do when it came time to get ready for Mass one morning and there was no other boy to go in the Sacristy with him to put on their vestments together.


It was a Sunday morning, he was serving seven a.m. Mass and Tom Castell, an 8th grader was supposed to serve that day too but he called in sick and Father Roy told him, said to him, “I can count on you, Barry, you can do it for me, we’ll manage with just one today.”


And Barry felt strange, wondered, thought about what the other boys had said, but he did his duty, he went into the Sacristy and it was brightly lighted and smelled of the sweet, rich incense, and the white beeswax candles. One wall was lined with drawers, big, golden oak drawers and cupboards from floor to ceiling, and he knew they were filled with linens, altar cloths, candles, unconsecrated hosts, and many other of the little pieces and bits that it took to say every kind of Mass there could be in a liturgical year.


On the other wall, opposite, was lined closet after closet, each with rows of hangars, filled with vestments of every color, adornment, size you could imagine, and they all smelled good, too, like mothballs and linen and jewels; the rich greens for days when no other color ruled, the reds for martyred Saints days, purple for Lent and Advent, the golden and silver piping and fancy laces, for all the different kinds of days and Masses. Black for funerals and memorial masses. White and gold for the highest Masses, the happiest days. These the priests would wear.


And at one end, in the corner where the closets met the back wall, the wall with the single door that led to the altar, for the room was narrow, was the closet that held the smaller black cassocks that reached to the floor and the white waist-length surplices to fit over them, nearly transparent, that the altar boys wore; and he, unthinking, skirted past Father Roy and opened it and rummaged along them, looking for one in his size, boys’ 12.


And then it happened.


He was intent, leaning forward, and he sensed the warmth behind him, smelled the faint odor of tobacco and cologne and then Father Roy touched him and he felt the warm breath on the back of his neck, then in his ear and Father spoke, quietly, urgently, softly right into his ear. “I can count on you, Barry, can’t I?”


And Barry was so hard but he didn’t know it, not until he felt the touch of hand on his shoulder, light, tentative, burning, electric. And he jerked, forward, away, panicked, confused, and grabbed the cassock and the first surplice that came to hand, and twisted away, hurried around Father, desperate to hide his confusion. And his erection.


He rushed the cassock on over his head and then the surplice, as if it were chain mail, and stepped back, to the one blank wall, pretending to adjust it in the full-length mirror there, hiding, hiding, hiding, striving for beige, striving for invisible, striving.


And Father Roy pretended that nothing had happened, and well, nothing had happened, but all the same he knew and Barry knew that something had happened.


And then they both were dressed and Father had the chalice with it’s covering in fabric to match the vestments but Barry’s mind was blank he couldn’t remember what that was called; and waited as Barry stood in front of him and opened the door to the altar and the procession began and Father said Mass as Barry, knees weak, stumbled his way through the motions. And they went back in to the Sacristy but it was time for 8 a. m. Mass and there were already two altar boys there for Father Brendan, and so he stored away his vestments and bolted, not looking at Father Roy again.


But after, ever after, he wondered, wondered what would have happened, wondered what had made him so hard. And he thought, sometimes, what would happen if he walked into the Sacristy alone again, offered to serve Mass alone again, Father Roy would know if he did that. He wondered; sometimes he thought he did want to go in there and find out what would happen next.


But mostly he was afraid of his sin.

*  *  *  *

At the Junior High he had to go across the street to the stadium and have PE class, but it wasn’t like any PE class he had before, it was not as scary, really, and they didn’t play sports, which always embarrassed him, they did calisthenics and sometimes they ran laps inside the gym on these cold bitter days, but he didn’t have to show how awkward he was and how he knew nothing about sports, not even the names of most of them.


The locker rooms and the showers were the warmest things, and they were not warm at all. They felt like that spinning out of control sick at his stomach feeling.


Since he didn’t have PE gear or a towel he didn’t have to dress out that first day.


He got the gear but he never had a towel, he couldn’t just bring one from home like the other boys did, he knew his mother would not let him do that, and he could never, never ever tell her what happened in that room anyway, why he needed the towel. They got naked, completely naked, and took showers. Together. He had no idea until the first day he went over there what was to happen, no one took their clothes off at St. Mark’s and there were no showers. And he was sure that was a sin, that was something you only did alone, locked in the bathroom at home. And if she knew, he was sure she would pull him out of Junior High too, and then where would he go? So he came but he never had a towel.


There was a boy there and he had the locker next to his, his name was Aaron; and Barry thought Aaron was a nice name, a beautiful one, in fact, and Aaron was naked and made him spin inside too, made his stomach lurch and feel strange, at least at first, when he looked and he could see, well, he could see everything and his gaze was torn from Aaron’s gray blue eyes that were so fascinating, to Aaron’s…well, to the rest of him.


And then one day he stood there, the slamming of the lockers in the row as boys opened and closed, and he had just returned to the lockers, Aaron was there, toweling his back, and slowed and stopped a moment, standing with his legs spread, just a little bit, facing fully toward Barry, and suddenly Barry realized that Aaron knew he was looking at him and was posing for him, standing still in a way that actually let him see those forbidden things.


Aaron had realized Barry had no towel and once he did he always shared his own towel, it was damp and smelled like Aaron and he handed it over every day without a word, knowing that Barry had no towel, taking it back without comment as Barry handed it over his shoulder, his back turned to Aaron as he hurriedly pulled his underwear back on. And really, what could Barry say? And when he dried himself with the towel it was not as if he were wiping away the water, it was somehow as if he was wiping Aaron onto himself.


And finally after that day Barry knew he had to let Aaron look, and he did, and never a word passed between them but every day after it happened and it was – delicious, frightening, free, out of control, in that dank, dim, wet, room, posing nakedly for each other.


There were many boys there, including the 8th graders who were down at the other end. Most of them seemed to be Mexican kids, well Chicanos, of whom he was sure Aunt Mary had nothing nice to say, and he learned that they were different, they were strangely ugly when they took off their clothes, they had hair on them in those places, and he thought it remarkably ugly, he had never seen anything like this, and he wondered what it was about being Mexican that made them hairy.


He and Aaron did not discuss this, nor what transpired between the two of them; never discussed this terrible sin. Barry had no one he could discuss anything with for months. He knew only two kids there, the Keiler twins had come over to this school too, and for a while he had latched on to them, but then Craig got mean and said mean things to him, and then he knew he couldn’t talk to them anymore, but he did not understand why Craig had done that, had driven him away.


They had been talking after lunch at the side of the building, and he had come to like the Keilers, they liked the same books and stories and TV shows. Craig was the leader, Clark the quiet, the unassertive twin. And one day Craig picked something Barry said, something meaningless, and accused him of making fun of them, of the twins. But it wasn’t so, and Barry couldn’t even imagine what he had said that could be interpreted this way, these were the only people he knew in this place, except Aaron who never really spoke, but Craig did it, he said “you don’t really like us, do you?” And Barry denied this, denied it weakly, confused, not really knowing what to say to this strange twist of his words.


But Craig pursued relentlessly, a little like Tad and kept saying angry things to him and try as he could Barry could find nothing to use to balance it, to even it out, to blunt the sharp edge Craig was aiming at him, to turn Craig aside, until he had finally to walk away, afraid the volcano might come again, afraid Craig knew something about him that he didn't know. He never again spoke to them, not understanding what he had done to deserve this, why it had happened.

*  *  *  *

And finally a day came when he knew he could not get out of bed and go once more to this beige place that he could not melt into. And even when Mom threatened him with the strap he refused to get up, to explain, to dress.


After five days she rode the bus with him and took him there, he looking all the way at his feet, shamed, red faced, not able to understand for himself why he wouldn’t go, what made this such a terrible, foreign place, and unable to tell anyone else of his feelings or the events that had shaped them. And when he looked from the corners of his eyes he could see his mother’s shame and fear.


And how could he tell anyone that something was so wrong, that he was becoming, like the Mexicans? That he was now growing hair in that place he was not ever supposed to touch or look at, or show? And what would Aaron think when it became, as it was so obviously going to, easy to see from a few feet away?


Every other week he would be called from some class to meet with Mr. Springer, his counselor. They did not have counselors at St. Mark’s. He had never had a counselor and he was sure he did not want one. He sat on the edge of the chair in this room, looking across the desk at the big, gentle man, but could never volunteer anything except once he told him about Mrs. Casca, and everything else was an answer to a question and he had to carefully, so carefully pick his way through the questions, like a soldier in a mine field, step gently, watch carefully to see if it looked like he had triggered the explosion, been ensnared in the trap, backing away from every indication of a misstep. It was like when he was sick at school and the nurse asked him what he had for breakfast and he had to let the nurse answer the question, just agreeing when she suggested a menu. Yes, that’s what I had, exactly. Don’t let her think we’re too poor to have a good breakfast. It was almost more than he could bear; thankfully Mr. Springer stopped asking so many questions that so obviously could not be answered and instead he talked.


After a few times Mr. Springer talked almost the entire hour, and that was dangerous too, it was just the two of them there, in that room, and you could not blend in or hide, and you could not even out the danger of the questions without questions; there was nothing in there to cancel out. But it was safer than having to answer questions. It was hard to get in trouble by listening, though you had to guess whether it was ever safe to nod your head.


And he did not often understand what the man was saying to him, which was unusual, usually he understood adults very well but couldn’t make any sense of other kids, but the man was saying things for which he had no referent, was assuming he knew something that he did not, yet he could not ask him what the hell he was talking about. That was even more dangerous than having to answer questions, you could slip around a question but – how on earth could you ask questions without revealing something?


But slowly by osmotic action perhaps a little of it became apparent to him, and then there was a question, again he did not understand what this meant, this wet dream thing, but he knew he didn’t have to clean up anything, he never wet the bed anymore, so he made his cautious answer, “no, that didn’t happen.” And the response was stored away for later thought, “Well, it will soon, and it’s nothing to worry about.”


That was a new idea: something that didn’t need to be worried about.


It was exhausting, being in these meetings, his nerves were electric, senses constantly on edge every minute yet he found a strange thing. When he left, it was usually the end of the day, and he would go to his locker to get his books and his jacket and then he would find himself whistling.


As if things were somehow balanced again. As if he might somehow not be so different.