Crazy, p.1William Peter Blatty
For Julie and Paul
Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interest upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance.
Memories, Dreams, Reflections
Hell is the inability to love.
The Brothers Karamazov
A Special Tribute
Where do I begin? The seventh grade at St. Stephen’s on East 28th Street in 1941, I suppose, because that’s where and when I first met Jane, back before we grew up and she started disappearing and then reappearing in someplace like Tibet or Trucial Oman from where she’d send me picture postcards with tiny scrawled messages in different-colored inks such as, “Thinking of you sometimes in the morning” or “Angkor Wat really smells. Joey, don’t ever come here for a vacation,” but there’d be only a day between the postmarked dates and sometimes no difference at all between them, and then all of a sudden she’d reappear again looking years younger, which is nothing, I suppose, when compared to that time when supposedly she levitated six feet off the ground when she thought they were running out of Peter Paul Mounds candy bars at the refreshment counter of the old Superior movie house on 30th Street and Third Avenue back when there were el trains rumbling overhead and a nickel got you two or three feature films, plus a Buck Jones Western chapter, four cartoons, bingo and an onstage paddleball contest, when supposedly a theater usher approached her and told her, “Hey, come on, kid, get down, you can’t be doing that crazy stuff in here!” and right away she wobbled down to the seedy lobby carpet, gave the usher the arm and yelled, “That’s the same kind of crap they gave Tinkerbell!” but then I know you have no interest in any of these matters, so fine, let’s by all means move on and go back to the beginning.
Which comes at the end.
It’s December 24, 2010, and I’m sitting by a window in a tenth-floor Bellevue Hospital recovery room staring down at a tugboat churning up a foaming white V at its prow in the East River’s death-dark suicide waters and looking like it’s hugging itself against the cold. “Hi ya, kiddo!” The pudgy and diminutive Nurse Bloor breezily waddles into my room, a hypodermic syringe upraised in her pudgy little staph-infested fingers. She stops by my chair and I look down at her feet and I stare. I’ve never seen a nurse in stiletto heels. She glances over at something I sculpted a couple of days before and says, “Hey, now, what’s that?” and I tell her that it’s Father Perrault’s wooden leg from Lost Horizon, but she doesn’t pursue it, nor does she react to my laptop computer: she has read Archy and Mehitabel and knows that sometimes even a rat can type.
“Okay, a teensy little stick,” she says.
I yelp, “Ouch!”
“Oh, come on, now, don’t tell me that hurt!”
Well, it didn’t, but I want to puncture her starched-white pride and maddening air of self-assurance. She scowls, slaps a Band-Aid on the puncture and leaves. Sometimes growth of the soul needs pain, which is something I have always been on the spot to give.
The pneumatic door closes with a sigh. I turn my glance to my desk and the gift from Bloor that’s sitting on top of it, a foot-tall artificial Christmas tree with different-colored Band-Aids hanging from its branches. For a moment I stare at it dully, and then I shift my gaze to the dry and abandoned public pool down on the corner of First Avenue and 23rd where I almost drowned when Paulie Farragher and Jimmy Connelly kept shoving me back into the pool’s deep end every time I tried to climb up and out for air and I swore any number of choking, coughing blood oaths that if God let me live I would track them to Brazil or to China or the Yucatan, anyplace at all where I could offer them death without the comfort of the sacraments. Yes. I remember all of that. I do. I remember even though I’m eighty-two years old.
“Are you Joey El Bueno?”
I was packing up my book bag after class when I looked up and saw this really pretty girl with reddish hair that she wore in pigtails with green-and-yellow smiley-face barrettes at the ends.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said. “Why?”
“So you’re the one!” she exclaimed.
The girl’s jade green eyes were slowly tracing all over my face with a look of awe, if not loony adoration.
I said, “I’m the one what?”
She said, “The Mask!”
Instantly I knew that this girl was crazy.
“The Mask” referred to something I had done in fifth grade. We had this new teacher, Miss Comiskey, a pretty nineteen-year-old who had never before taught a course in anything unless it was absolute futility, and who seemed thoroughly convinced that our only path to knowledge was in reciting some fact at least one hundred times, such as “Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America.” Bad enough, but even worse when our tall, wrinkled, thin-lipped principal, old gaunt-faced Sister Veronica, walked in like some animated withered leaf for a check on how Comiskey was getting along and the boys in the class couldn’t make it through the word “Titicaca” without totally losing it, which of course was pretty much a big nothing when compared to the quiet, ever-overhanging terror all the boys in the class had to live with the following year when our teacher was a nun and she’d ask us questions and we’d have to stand up to give the answer at a time in our lives when almost anything—the swish of a dress, hearing someone in the street saying “Tondelayo,” which was the name of Hedy Lamarr’s character in White Cargo—might produce an instantaneous and irrepressible outward sign of our interest, such as happened quite often with the hot-blooded Johnny Baloqui, the tall and dramatic-looking Spaniard among us, and I can still see him standing there, his eyes wide with panic, and yet always with his chin held proudly high in some awesomely courageous but doomed attempt at projecting matador haughtiness and cool while he stood there like a stork with his right leg lifted high and bent inward toward his crotch in this ludicrous Marx Brothers effort at concealment, while at the same time assuring the nun in charge in quiet tones that “General Wolfe defeated General Montcalm in the Battle of Quebec in 1759.” Once he’d looked off pensively and frowned as he added in a murmur, “At least I think that’s the date.”
This last was Baloqui’s attempt at Gaslight.
So now, “The Mask,” I echoed dully.
Driven stark raving mad by the endless recitations in Comiskey’s class, I played the hook for a week, smashing open a piggy bank with a leftover, rock-hard, four-day-old frozen tamale that Pop had concocted for Sunday dinner and then going to Times Square to see first-run movies like Gulliver’s Travels, which wouldn’t get to the Superior for six more years, but not having the instincts of Jean Valjean I got caught red-handed when my father, in a break from habit, decided to pick me up from school for no rational reason that I could divine, unless it was to vault me to the head of the list of “Top Ten Stupidest Grammar School Criminals.” So it was back to Miss Comiskey and her “Give Me the Boy and I’ll Give You Back His Remains” school of learning, which was doubtless the inspiration for future North Korean interrogation techniques. Well, I too
I took off the mask. It was an act of reverence.
Smiling thinly, the nun turned to Comiskey. “You see?”
The second time this happened in the future-past, right after I’d taken off the mask I blew the three women’s minds by intoning, “He who offers no resistance is irresistible,” a quote from Siddhartha Gautama I’d seen framed on a local public library wall. At the words, Sister Veronica clutched at her beads, no doubt thinking of calling in a priest, while Miss Doyle took a prudent half step backward. Miss Comiskey said, “What in shit is this?” one hundred times.
“What made you do it?” this Jane girl was asking me now.
Because I didn’t want to go through all the stuff about Comiskey, I looked away, gave a shrug and said, “I learn from the sky.”
“Oh, my God, you are ‘the one’!” I heard her breathing out ecstatically as if she’d just found her long-lost lucky rock. I turned and saw that goofy look of adoration again and I could see that she hadn’t meant “the one.” She meant “The One!”
“The one what?” I asked just to be sure.
“The one who’s going to help me find the Secret Christmas Gift.”
“Find the what?”
“Never mind. It’s not important right now. What’s important is some advice I need to give you. It might even save your life.”
I said, “Listen, who are you, okay? You want to tell me?”
“Call me Jane,” she said. “Jane Bent. I’m an eighth-grade transfer from Our Lady of Sorrows. You don’t remember me with Farragher that day? I saw you watching.”
I put my fingers to my chin.
“Oh, yeah, right. So that was you?”
I’d seen her in the school yard approaching Paulie Farragher and shaking his hand. Wearing his trademark dark blue winter overcoat that was so oversized you couldn’t ever see his hands, he’d just been in a fight with a big eighth-grader in which he had mounted his usual revolutionary defensive technique of wildly flailing his arms back and forth in a furious windmilling motion so that any opponent couldn’t possibly penetrate it, and most times didn’t even want to, stepping back to stare at Farragher with disawe, which is a mixture of awe and disbelief, and deciding he was probably mentally unbalanced. When I’d asked what Jane had said to him, he’d shrugged and said, “Nothing. Nothing really. She just shook my hand and said, ‘Nice.’”
“And so what is it?” I was asking Jane now. “What’s this advice?”
“You know those super-deadly bombs going off in your class?” she said in this portentous but quiet, even tone.
“Yeah, I do. How do you know about them?”
“I just know. They’re coming from Rosemary Pagliarello. She sits near you in the back of the room. Change your seat. Sit up front. Her bombs are deadly and I need you for the Christmas Quest!” At that I had to quickly look around for this nutty girl’s keepers: you know, great big guys in white coats with huge butterfly nets at the ready, always smiling and happy to be chloroforming some kid. Then my eyes settled back on Bent. Something told me right then that I ought to walk away. But I didn’t. There was something so magnetic about her. Something deep.
“And since when can inner sanctum weapons kill?” I asked her, trying hard to look studiously interested and not like I was talking to a borderline psycho, which was actually what I was thinking.
“Since Rosemary got taken over.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s one of them now.”
“One of who?”
I didn’t dare take a big step backward, which, I swear, is what I desperately wanted to do, but I was scared it might trigger some kind of attack, like by some wounded and dope-crazed Chihuahua, so I just stood there sort of stroking my chin in an effort to look thoughtful and even handed. I said, “Yes, Jane, I see it now. ‘Them.’ Rosemary’s bombs. It’s all adding up. I mean, there’s something really spooky about her output, a ‘not of this world’ kind of thing,” I observed. “And yet I haven’t seen anyone in class fall over dead. That’s the strange thing about it. Don’t you think?”
Exasperated, Jane shook her head and then leaned in, her face about an inch from mine as she throatily whispered, “Joey, haven’t you been listening? You’re The One! Rosemary’s bombs are all ‘smart bombs.’ They’re programmed to target only you! Yeah, well sure, they can miss by a yard or two, maybe, and then some nun’s going to get it. Too bad. Now will you quit it with these rationalizations? I mean, come on, Joey! Don’t be so naïve!”
She was getting worked up a bit, her green eyes wider and her cheeks turning pink, and this whole conversation, if that’s what you call it, was of course reinforcing my original suspicion that she might be two incense censers short of a Benediction. “Okay, then, prove that I’m wrong,” she demanded, “and, oh please, wipe that smirk off your face, would you, Joey? That was always so creepy and unattractive.”
“What did you say?”
“It’s so creepy and unattractive!”
No. She said “was.”
I let it go and said, “I can’t.”
“You can’t what? Prove I’m wrong or get rid of the smirk?”
I said, “Both.” And then suddenly her face brightened up with a smile like the rising of the moon as she appraised me proudly and warmly and said, “Nice. It was a test of trust and you passed. All that stuff about Rosemary’s bombs was baloney. I made it up. But you believed me, Joey. You trusted. Want to go for a Coke?”
I felt three things all at once, the first being shame that in fact I hadn’t really ever fully trusted anyone, while another was a curious disappointment that this girl wasn’t actually nuttier than a truckload of filberts, as I guess I was perverse enough to find a little lunacy incredibly attractive. But the third thing, the bad thing that I felt, was flummoxed panic. Everybody knew back then the boy paid, while “going Dutch” meant wearing stupid wooden shoes; but I had no cash, not even the quarter a day that Pop gave me for my lunches, enough to buy me five small fresh-baked rolls and a bowl of Manhattan clam
Crazy by William Peter Blatty / Fantasy / Humor / Mystery & Detective have rating 2.6 out of 5 / Based on13 votes