A Story in The Human Calculus



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


The Friday Feeling



His mother yelled at him to get up, it was 7:15 and still dark outside. 


Barry wondered if there was snow.  He hoped not, it would mean a cold wait for the bus, and being wet and uncomfortable when he got to school.  His snow boots were OK, but he didn’t have a warm enough jacket or snowsuit to wear.


Shivering, he slipped from the warmth of his bed into the icy room, dressed only in his pajama bottoms because there were no tops, one of his brothers had lost or ruined them long before they were handed down.  He grabbed a t-shirt off the floor and slipped it over his head, then started hunting for his plaid flannel robe.  That was the best, he got it for Christmas, one of his two gifts.


He saw his brothers’ beds were empty.  It was Friday so Jack had left early for his community college class, it started at seven, and Tad left for work by 5:30 ever since he started the railroad job Uncle Walter got him.  He missed them, especially Jack. Most days they were gone when he got up and he was asleep by the time Jack got home, and usually Tad took a nap after work and didn’t get up until Barry went to bed. Jack worked on the railroad and went to school, but Tad just had the railroad job. 


He found his robe hanging on the chair, under some of Jack’s dirty clothes; and wrapped it around him, luxuriating in the soft warmth of the flannel. And he was happy, this was going to be a good day, he thought, because he was warm and dry, and so was the bed.



The one little lamp in the living room held back the gloomy predawn light coming in the windows with something golden warm, and he smelled what he hoped he would. Oatmeal.  The other kids hated oatmeal but he liked it, it was warm and it made him feel full.  And it meant Mom had to cook.  He liked it when Mom cooked.  That made him feel warm and full, too.


On a morning when he could wear his flannel robe, the light was on in the living room, and Mom made oatmeal, well on a morning like that he could feel warm all over.


He was first to the table and for breakfast you didn’t have to sit in your regular place, so he got to choose where he wanted to sit but he knew it wouldn’t be long before the others got there.  The skinny boy sat huddled, brown hair falling into his eyes, shivering still, watching his pretty mother’s back as she stood at the stove, stirring the pot with the oatmeal.  Maybe they’d get some raisins in it.  That didn’t happen a lot but it made for special oatmeal.


“Crap! Oatmeal Mom? Again!?”


She turned on Dennis, her face not pretty now, hard and angry. “You shut your mouth Dennis Anthony Holmes, you’ll eat what I put on the table and be grateful!  And if you use language like that again, I’ll wash your mouth out!”


Dennis was a jerk, he was thirteen, and Barry already knew anyone who was thirteen was a jerk. He’d seen it happen in turn to Jack, Tad, Pat, Jerry, then Bill and now Dennis and he knew it wouldn’t be long before it happened to Kate.  Only Jack had emerged as a human afterwards, the rest were still jerks, but Dennis was new at it and somehow better, and he made her mad just by being there and sitting at the table, then he had to open his jerkmouth.


Why did he have to make the morning bad? It was off to such a nice start, then he had to make her mad.  She was almost always mad anyway, it isn’t like he needed to bring it on in one of those few minutes when it was quiet and warm.  And the kitchen was the warmest place of all.  Jerk.


“I like oatmeal, Mom,” he said quietly, almost to himself.  Hoping it might help soften the morning somehow. 


Sometimes he thought that was his job, to soften things, round the hard edges everyone kept running into, and especially Mom’s hard edges.  What he couldn’t figure is why no one else cared, why  the others seemed to want to sharpen the edges.


His Mom ignored the comment, went back to stirring the pot, and he poured a glass of milk, hearing  the footsteps and voices, soon it would be crowded, he counted silently to himself , one, two, …  and when he reached four, all of the rest were there, and all the seats, even the one that was rickety and that he had to sit on at dinner, when it didn’t matter who was first you had to sit in your place, were full. Being the youngest sucked, but at breakfast he could be first and sit where he wanted and it was all in his control.


More bitching about the oatmeal.  His sisters were not speaking to each other, that helped now but it meant Kate would pick on him later, take it out on him.  Pat wouldn’t do that, she didn’t get the chance to, she was a Senior and above it all.  Mom got over being mad and told them if they didn’t like oatmeal she’d be happy not to bother feeding them at all then they shut up since they were as hungry as he was.


The best thing about breakfast table was when his siblings started to leave. 


Pat and Jerry left first, for the high school, they both would walk, it was only three blocks down Ivanhoe Road.  Dennis, and Bill went to the Junior High, and he and Kate went to St. Mark’s, but she was in sixth grade and would go to Junior High next year. St. Mark’s was a parochial school and they didn’t have a school bus, and the Junior High didn’t send school buses either, so they all had to catch the city bus on the corner.


Fortunately his brothers usually went earlier and caught the bus before he and Kate did, but some days they all rode together and that wasn’t much fun. At nine, only your siblings beat you up, but he was starting to realize that in the next year or two that would change and other kids would start to do it, and then he hoped his brothers would protect him.  He didn’t really expect it, but it was what he would do if he was a big brother, it was definitely what Jack would do if he could be on the bus with him, no one would pick on him when Jack was around.


Barry was an optimist.


It had snowed, but the older boys caught the 7:45 bus and he and his sister caught the 8:05, so it all evened out.  No pain or taunting from his jerk-aged brothers, but snow, cold, and waiting at the stop with his twelve-year-old sister and two other neighborhood kids that went to St. Mark’s to balance things out. 


That was a lot of his Barryosophy, he always looked for ways to balance things out, to soften the blows his life or his family were always ready to dish out.  If things couldn’t be good at least they didn’t have to be bad, and they could just even out, balance out sometimes.  Some good, some bad, and they canceled out like the tops and bottoms of fractions.


It was Friday, and that was especially good, because they’d have Friday morning Mass, the whole school did, and Kate and he would cheat and take communion even though they had eaten and weren’t supposed to take communion if they’d eaten after midnight. He didn’t think it mattered, he thought it was all crap but he wouldn’t ever say that ‘cause you don’t get in trouble for keeping your mouth shut, something he thought Dennis should remember. 


But afterward, they’d have cereal and milk at their desks, and Mom had given him the fifty cents so he wouldn’t have to pretend he’d forgotten and have Sister Marie write his name in the book, knowing as he and she both did that he would never bring the fifty cents, not even the last day of school when all debts were paid.  He hated the days when she wrote his name in the book, it was so embarrassing, and the other kids mostly didn’t realize he never paid for any of the times it was there, but he knew, and he thought some of them were figuring it out.


He knew Sister knew he couldn’t pay, because every month he took home the tuition bill, and the next morning his mother would hand it back to him, now all sealed up in the thick manila envelope.  He could feel the envelope even if he couldn’t open it and he knew there was no money in there, and he handed the envelope to Sister and he always kept his head down and never looked at her face when he did.  Not after that first time when he saw it in her eyes, saw she knew they were poor.  That’s when he knew that she’d never say anything about the money he owed, or what she wrote in her book and his face burned red when he realized it.


He loved Fridays if he had the fifty cents.  He could be cold and wet but the church was warm and the classroom was warmer and the cereal was good because he didn’t have much in his lunch box but with cereal he wouldn’t be hungry this afternoon.


And church was something he was very good at. 


He wasn’t like the other boys, he didn’t fidget and misbehave, he wasn’t like Jim Miller or Randy McQuown or Rory Conran or the Petalezwski kid who all had to sit next to Sister because they could always be counted on to do something bad – laughing or telling jokes, or playing with stuff they had snuck in, or harassing one of the girls. 


Once he’d seen them sticking things in the backs of each other’s pants, pencils and erasers and he didn’t know what all, and they started tussling and giggling and got in trouble, Sister whacked one of them on the head and he knew for sure the others would be dealt with afterwards; and he for some reason couldn’t take his eyes off their horseplay, he felt a little empty, a little jealous that day, he didn’t know just why. He got hard watching, which could have been a clue but he never paid much attention to that part of his body, he wasn’t allowed to think about that part, it was a sin, so he didn’t really want to know.  He had a lot of sins, he didn’t need more.


But he was always good, and he had learned all the responses so he knew when he was eleven he could become an altar boy, just two years now, and then he would get the respect of his family.  Religion was important, his Aunt Mary was in the convent, she’d been there since forever; and the nuns and priests always were telling Mom he probably had a vocation, and Jack had spent a year in the seminary before he quit, but that was what made him decide to try to take some college classes so even that was a good thing.  And the church was warm and the incense, and the priest with the Gregorian chant, the kids in the choir singing and the beautiful flowers and golden glowing candles were so nice, and it was warm, and he figured in the winters that any time he was warm was a good time.  And there was a second breakfast to come.


If the church felt like heaven, the classroom felt pretty good, though he was real clear on the difference.  Church was heaven, school was purgatory, where they punished you for your sins but didn’t send you to hell.  He knew he was going to find out where hell was one day soon, knew it in his bones, but couldn’t say why.  Just knew it was coming.


The room was long and old with wooden floors and real black boards, wrapped in oak frames, not the green kind, and it was full of Friday feeling.  


Friday felt like the round globes of the bright overhead lights hanging down on their long thin brass stalks and lit on a day like this; and the wet, soft smell of the snow seeping around the windows; and the damp coats hanging in the cloak room; and the smell of the pencil sharpener.  That smell was almost as good as incense.  It felt like the chalk dust and musty, crisp, faded orange or green or red construction paper on the bulletin boards.  It felt like the old cast iron, peeling radiators, so warm you couldn’t really touch them, the black paint flaking off them, he was glad he sat near one.  It felt like the creak of his old desk as the butt of his shiny gray school uniform pants slid on the even more worn wooden seat, the varnish on the thin veneer having disappeared a generation or more past.  And all these things felt good, familiar, safe.


There was nothing that would perk up a morning more than breakfast in the classroom, fifty cents to pay for cereal and a pint of chocolate milk, and a freshly sharpened pencil, and today he had two pencils in his desk, one he’d found on the bus yesterday, just laying there, forgotten, almost new.


So he sat at his desk and Tommy and Rory carried the blue metal milk crate up and down the aisles so each kid could take his milk, and Judy Beth collected the money and checked the list to make sure that only people who had signed up for chocolate milk took it and everyone paid.  No one laughed or seemed surprised when he handed his money over, but Rory deliberately dropped the pint container, yellow and brown for chocolate milk, not red and white like the cartons with white milk, onto his lap instead of his desk and smirked at him before they moved on. The little bits of condensation and flakes of ice from the carton left a mark on his lap but he knew they’d evaporate quickly and he didn’t mind.


He always had chocolate milk, but some of the kids weren’t allowed.  Today was a very good day overall, he was getting almost everything he liked, much less balancing to do than usual.


Then two boys, Clark and Craig, the Kieler twins, came by with the  little cereal boxes in another milk crate and he was lucky they still had some Sugar Pops, so he could drink all his milk and just snack on the cereal, he wouldn’t have to use his milk on it like he would if it was Corn Flakes or something.


So he carefully pried open the flaps on his milk carton, and spread the spout open precisely so! And he sat and munched on the Sugar Pops, careful to keep the box low on his desk so Sister Marie couldn’t see, because once she made him put his milk on the cereal and eat it with a plastic spoon even though he didn’t want to; and was surrounded by the gloomy light from the window, and warm golden light from the globes, and the cedar smell of the pencil shavings and the chocolate milk flowing up the thin red straw, so rich and thick and sweet and cold in his mouth, and the sounds of the others eating and for these few minutes the whole world was too busy for anything bad to happen.


So he held on to the smells, the tastes, and most of all the peace; storing it all up for balancing a bad day he knew would come.


Monday was a bad day.  That was Bus Ticket Day and he made a bad mistake.


He used his last ticket that morning, and gave the two dollars Mom had given him to Sister Marie because you couldn’t get them without money, they wouldn’t just write it in the book, and she handed him the cardboard sheet, with the glossy yellow and white school kid tickets, ten of them, one for each trip of the week. That was the last year they used the tickets, the next year they got bus passes, but this year it was the little cardboard tickets. They were all strung out in a line, each one neatly perforated from its neighbor and he stuck it in his back pocket instead of his pencil case, not thinking what could happen, how fragile such a thing could be on the school yard. 


It got wet and slipped out a little and he didn’t notice it as, one by one, the little pasteboard tickets pulled loose and fell off, all through the day.  It wasn’t until three o’clock when the third grade was let out to go home and he reached into his pocket that he realized all he had was the stub, and he didn’t know what to do then.  His sister would get out in thirty minutes but he didn’t want to tell her, he didn’t want to ask her and endure her taunts and recriminations and let her go yelling to Mom.  He could tell Sister, but he didn’t want to get hit, not by one of the nuns, in front of everyone for being careless.  And they’d tell his aunt and there’d be hell to pay for that, if he embarrassed her to the other nuns.


Besides, Barry was a very responsible boy, and he figured it was his fault so he would have to walk – all week if necessary, even though he had never walked before.  He was sure he knew how to do it, where he would go, but it was a new thing.


Monday afternoon worked out fine, it took him nearly forty-five minutes though and he knew he couldn’t do that in the morning, he’d be late for school, so he went with his sister Tuesday morning and when he got on the bus he pretended he had forgotten his ticket and she gave him one of hers after she hit him for being stupid, and he knew he would have to come up with a ticket for her before the week was out.  Plus he didn’t know what he could do on Wednesday morning.


It was not so cold going home Tuesday, but it was wet; the snow and ice had melted to slush and the sidewalks were all wet and cold, and then it rained and sleeted a little bit and he was very cold then, and very wet.  The wind was blowing and it cut through his clothes, sharp and cold against his damp skin, and he could not walk very fast, and then he slipped on an icy spot, fell on his butt and he couldn’t help it, he started to cry.


That was when the lady in the car stopped and she talked to him a little but he wouldn’t get in the car with her, because he knew there were a lot of perverts out there, though he didn’t really know what a pervert was, but his Mom and his brothers had said so.  So he told her he couldn’t get in her car and she had him walk along side while she drove very slowly to her house while his teeth chattered. 


His mother had never said anything about not going into a house, so he did and the lady took off his pants and his socks, which made him embarrassed but she gave him hot chocolate and wrapped him in a blanket and he was warm then and sleepy. He’d never seen a house like this, not from the inside, it was so big and warm, and everything in it looked soft, and pretty, and expensive. She put his pants and jacket and socks up by the radiator in the living room to dry, and then the police came and they wanted to know why he was walking and where he lived.  


He knew he was in trouble, but he was not a narc and he did not want to tell them his name. That was stupid because he had his pack with him and his books were in it so they knew he went to St. Mark’s and his name was pencilled in his best cursive in his arithmetic book that he brought with him for his homework, lightly pencilled so he could erase it when he turned his book back at the end of the year without getting yelled at.  So he told them his name and where he lived, and he knew it was gonna be bad.  Because  Jerry got brought home by the cops one day and there was hell to pay.


So it all came out that night and his Mom strapped him with the belt, like she did before, only this time she lost her temper and she flailed at his legs and hit him many times, he was all curled up in a ball trying to scoot under the chair in the living room, but she just kept hitting him and he started to shriek and finally Tad woke up from his after work nap and rushed out and stopped her.


“Jeez. Ma, don’t hit him no more!” 


He was surprised because Tad usually didn’t care about him, didn’t hate him or pick on him but didn’t like him either.


Barry was sobbing and hiccuping, but as soon as Kate tried to get him up he did and then he ran into his room and he hid under his bed, and no one bothered him there for a long time.  He fell asleep under there and didn’t come out for dinner; but Jack pulled him out when he got home and he was so cold then, shivering from sleeping on the gray painted floor, because the room was an old converted porch that had been closed in and not too well-insulated and it had no heat unless they left the door open or turned on the kerosene heater.  And the kerosene heater could kill you, they told him that.


Jack made him take off his pants, then he saw the marks and he got mad and Barry had to tell him the whole story and beg Jack not to get mad at Mom, because it could only be bad if that happened.


“Please, no Jack, she just got mad because I was bad, I deserved it, really! It didn’t hurt that much, honest! I deserved it, I shamed the family!”  He was frantic because God only knew what would happen if the whole thing started again, and most of all he didn’t want trouble for Jack.  He loved Jack more than anyone.


So Jack had him sleep in Jack’s bed for a while, but then made him get up and go to the bathroom and then sleep in his own because Barry still did wet the bed pretty often. But he liked the smell and the feeling while he was in Jack’s bed, it was the warmest he could ever remember.


He’d be in trouble for not doing his homework, he thought, and he held himself then, because he learned it felt good to do that, even though it meant he would go to hell. And he never thought about what he was doing so he wouldn’t be quite so bad.  But what difference did that make, he was going to hell anyway; he committed a lot of sins.


He drifted off to sleep, finally, holding the pain in, looking for that Friday feeling, so he could use it to erase all the hurt: to lay the Friday on top of the strap; and the smell of the pencils and the classroom on the smell of the leather; and the peace over the crack! and flame  as it seared his legs; and the smells and sounds and tastes and feel of Friday helped, erased, cancelled out the bad stuff.  He tasted chocolate milk.


Everything balanced out.