Wally Lamb typically writes sprawling works that deal with difficult subjects but his new book is a breezy novella that's perfect for the holiday season. "Wishin' and Hopin: A Christmas Story" is set in a Connecticut parochial school in 1964 and the main event is a Christmas pageant that goes hilariously wrong. You can read an excerpt below.
The year I was a fifth grade student at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School, our teacher, Sister Dymphna, had a nervous breakdown in front of our class. To this day I can hear Sister’s screams and see her flailing attempts to shoo away the circling Prince of Darkness. I am, today, what most people would consider a responsible citizen. I have an advanced degree in Film Studies, a tenured professorship, and an eco-friendly Prius. I vote, volunteer at the soup kitchen, compost, floss. A divorced dad, I remain on good terms with my ex-wife and have a close and loving relationship with our 26 year old daughter. That said, my conscience and I have unfinished business. What follows is both my confession and my act of contrition. Forgive me, reader, for I have sinned. It was I who, on that long-ago day, triggered Sister’s meltdown. For this and all the sins of my past life, I am heartily sorry.
Lyndon Johnson was president back then, Cassius Clay was the heavyweight champ, and John, Paul, George and Ringo were newly famous. Our family had a claim to fame, too. Well, two claims, actually. No, three. My mother had recently been notified that her recipe, “Shepherd’s Pie Italiano,” had catapulted her into the finals of that year’s Pillsbury Bake-off in the “main meal” category and she was going to be on television. I was going to be on TV, too—a guest, along with my fellow Junior Midshipman, on a local program, Channel Three’s The Randy Andy Show. So there were those two things, plus the fact that our third cousin on my father’s side was a celebrity.
At the lunch counter, we displayed three posters of our famous relative that if, say, you were a customer enjoying your jelly doughnut or your baked Virginia ham on rye, you could, by swiveling your stool from left to right, follow the arc of our cousin’s career. The black and white poster on the wall behind the cash register showed her in mouse ears and a short-sleeved sweater, the letters A-N-N-E-T-T-E spelled out across her flat front. In the poster taped to the front of the Frigidaire, she’d acquired secondary sex characteristics and moved on from TV to the movies, specifically Walt Disney’s The Shaggy Dog, in which she had third billing behind Fred MacMurray and a half-human, half-canine Tommy Kirk. Poster number three, positioned over the Fry-o-lator and polka-dotted with grease spots, depicted our cousin in living color. Transistor radio to her ear, she wore a tower of teased hair and a white two-piece bathing suit, the top of which played peek-a-boo with what our dishwasher and part-time grill cook, Chino Molinaro, referred to as her “bodacious bazoom-booms.” Alongside Frankie Avalon, Annette had by then become the lead actress of such films as Beach Blanket Bingo and How To Stuff a Wild Bikini, her celluloid star having ascended as her bra cup size worked its way through the alphabet. That’s something that is much clearer to me today than it was when I was in fifth grade. Still, even back then, poster number three had already begun to set something atwitch in me, south of my navel and north of my knees.
I’m not making excuses here, but Sister Dymphna’s emotional state was already fragile before that October afternoon, a scant six or seven weeks into the 1964-65 school year. My older sisters, Simone and Frances, had both survived tours of duty with “Dymphie,” who, faculty-wise, was widely recognized as St. Aloysius G’s weakest link. In Simone’s year, she had yanked a kid’s glasses off his face and snapped them in half. In Frances’s year, she had turned her chair from her students to the blackboard and, elbows against the chalk tray, indulged in a crying jag that lasted all the way to the three o’clock bell. (Frances, who would later become a teacher, took it upon herself to stand and announce to her peers, “Class dismissed!”) Sister Dymphna was thought of as moody rather than mentally ill--“high-strung” during her manic episodes, “down in the dumps” during her depressive ones. The latter mood swing was the preferred one, my sisters had assured me. When Dymphie got riled up, a heavy dictionary or a hooked blackboard pointer could become a dangerous weapon. But when she was depressed, she’d wheel the projector down from the office, thread it, and show movies while she sat slack-jawed and slumped at her desk, oblivious to bad behavior.
On the day Sister went crazy in front of us, she’d been mopey since morning prayers. We were therefore watching a double feature: before lunch, The Bells of St. Mary’s with Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby in nun’s habit and priest’s cassock, and after lunch, The Miracle of Marcellino, a film about a pious homeless boy who is adopted by a community of monks. Lonny Flood and I hatched our plan in the cafeteria during what I guess you could call intermission.
Not unlike radio’s Kasey Kasem, Sister Dymphna rated my classmates and me each week from first to last based on our grades. She published a list at the far left of the blackboard and seated us accordingly, her smartest pupils in the first row from left to right, the academically middling students in the middle, and the slowest kids stuck in the back by the clanging radiators. Rosalie Twerski and I were, respectively and perennially, numbers one and two. Lonny Flood usually found himself in the back row, often next to Franz Duzio. Lonny was both the tallest kid in our class and the oldest: a twelve-year-old double detainee whose sideburns and chin fuzz would become, by Easter vacation, shaveworthy. Conversely, I was the shortest and scrawniest fifth grader, counting boys and girls—a ten year old who, to my mortification, could have passed for seven. To make matters worse, with my big black eyes, up-slanting eyebrows, and mop of dark, curly hair, I bore a striking resemblance to Dondi, the adorable little Italian war orphan in the comic strips. On numerous occasions when I was down at the lunch counter, some new arrival would enter the bus depot, sit at a stool, and stare at me for a few seconds. We all knew what was coming next. “Say, you know who that kid kind of looks like?”
“Dondi!” Pop, Ma, Chino, and whichever of my sisters had drawn waitress duty that day would say it simultaneously.
Looking like a lovable little cartoon character was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it made me vulnerable to my sisters’ ridicule. On the other hand, my resemblance to Dondi—hey, even I had to concede that I was adorable—would frequently afford me the presumption of innocence when, more often than not, I was guilty. If, for example, Lonny Flood and I had stood shoulder to shoulder in some junior police lineup, I would most likely be the first suspect eliminated and Lonny the one fingered. “It’s him!” the eyewitness might announce, pointing at Lonny, who kept a foil-wrapped Trojan hidden in the change pocket of his Man from U.N.C.L.E wallet and who claimed to know the dirty words of the song “Louie, Louie.”
And who, in fact, had brought the pocketful of B-Bs to school that day. Lonny and I conspired over half-pints of fruit punch and the lunchroom’s “turkey à la king with savory buttered rice.” That said, neither of us had targeted the winged vermin that, an hour later, would cause such havoc and send Sister Dymphna on a temporary trip to “the funny farm.” No, our intended victim, whose guts Lonny and I both hated, was the aforementioned Rosalie Twerski.
Rosalie was pig-tailed, hairy-legged, and insufferably obsequious—the kind of kid who, two minutes before the dismissal bell, might raise her hand and ask, should the teacher have miraculously forgotten to assign a page of arithmetic problems or a dozen Can You Answer These? questions from our social studies book, “Do we have any homework tonight, Sister?” As I’ve mentioned, Rosalie’s position at the top of the academic heap was a virtual lock, but nevertheless she was forever foraging for extra credit points she didn’t really need. Her family was rich, or, as my mother used to put it, “la di da.” The Twerskis’ house on White Birch Boulevard had columns in front and a trampoline and a Shetland pony out back. Instead of clomping off the bus or hoofing it like the rest of us, Rosalie arrived at school mornings in her mother’s maroon Chrysler Newport. Each year, she returned from Christmas vacation a week later than the rest of us, with a Florida tan and a bucket of stinky show-and-tell seashells which we had to pass from person to person during science. Her father owned a printing company, Twerski Impressions, which made Rosalie the recipient of an endless supply of the cardboard she was forever converting into the extra credit posters and placards with which our classroom was festooned. Suck-up that she was, she specialized in visual aids that lent themselves to the nuns’ two favorite subjects, grammar and religion. In one such poster, the parts of speech were anthropomorphized: the active verb did push-ups, the passive verb sat and snoozed, the interjection slapped its hands against its cheeks, exclaiming, “Oh!” In another poster, cartoon letters “A” and “I” held hands like best friends or boyfriend and girlfriend. Said letter “A,” “When two vowels go a-walking, the first one usually does the talking.” “That’s true,” letter “I” agreed. “But remember, it’s I before E, except after C!!”
On our first day in Sister Dymphna’s class, Rosalie had arrived locked and loaded with a poster titled Mortal Sinners: Burning in Hell or Headed There! Below the Magic-Markered headline, she had scissored and glued magazine pictures of the damned and, beneath their images, had identified the transgressions that had cast them into Satan’s lair: Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby (murder), Marilyn Monroe (suicide), Nikita Khruschev (Communist), Rudy Gernreich (invented the topless bathing suit). Sister Dymphna loved Rosalie immediately and installed her as line leader, office courier, and our class’s ambassador to the diocese-wide United Nations Day. So you couldn’t really blame Lonny and me for putting B-Bs in our mouths and straws between our lips that afternoon as Sister, engulfed by a melancholy so profound that, as The Miracle of Marcellino unspooled, she did not even register that Pauline Papelbon was eating State Line potato chips right out of the bag, or that Monte Montoya and Susan Ekizian were playing Hangman instead of watching the movie, or that I had surreptitiously moved my seat to the back of the room for better positioning. By a prior agreement, Lonny and I had agreed to aim for the back of Rosalie’s neck.
“Ow! “Who did that?” she shouted when Lonny’s very first B-B hit its target dead-on. Heads swiveled from Marcellino to Rosalie, and then to Sister Dymphna, who seemed not to have heard a thing. Lonny fired again, but this B-B flew past Rosalie’s left shoulder and ricocheted against the blackboard. His next one whizzed over her head and hit the movie screen. I somehow managed to inhale my first B-B rather than propelling it forward, but coughed it right back up again—luckily, since the Heimlich maneuver had yet to be invented. On the screen, saintly little Marcellino was weeping for the poor. With my tongue, I repositioned the regurgitated B-B, took a deep intake of breath, and raised my straw in preparation of a forward thrust. That’s when it caught my eye: the little black blob nestled against the left side of the public address box.
Unsure of what I was aiming at, I fired and missed. Fired again and hit it. It moved. When my third B-B also hit its mark, it emitted a high-pitched pinging sound. A wing unfolded. My fourth try was a miss, but my fifth was bull’s-eye accurate. The bat skidded several inches along the wall, flapped its wings twice, and took flight. It soared from one side of the classroom to the other and then began circling the perimeter. It dipped and swooped between the projector and the screen, its shadow bisecting Marcellino’s face in close-up. Alarmed, my classmates sprang from their seats, screaming, running for the door and the cloak room. Arthur Coté raised the top of his desk, stuck his head inside, and let the top bang back down. Rosalie Twerski ripped one of her posters off the wall and curled it over her head like a tent.
The commotion awakened Sister Dymphna from her funk just as the bat zoomed across her field of vision, did a U-turn, and landed on her desk. The two faced off for a second or two. Then the bat opened its mouth, hissed menacingly, and took flight once more. That was when Sister began screaming about the devil. I was momentarily taken aback by this. I’d known that Bela Lugosi, Grandpa Munster, and other vampires could transform themselves into bats, but I’d not been aware that the Prince of Darkness could perform that particular parlor trick, too. Then I remembered that Sister Dymphna was crazy and that the bat was probably just a bat.
Her shrieks were high-pitched and cringe-inducing, and I watched in horror as her flailing arms sent her statue of the Blessed Virgin teetering back and forth on its pedestal, then crashing to the floor where its head and torso parted company. “Satan, I rebuke you! Merciful Jesus, save these poor children!” To save herself, Sister dropped to the floor and crawled beneath her desk in an approximation of the duck-and-cover exercise we had practiced in the event that those evil atheists, the Soviets, ever dropped the bomb on the Submarine Base in nearby Groton—a despicable act of which, we were assured, Khrushchev was fully capable.
When Sister Dymphna’s duck-and-cover defense dislodged her headgear, our class emitted a communal gasp. I had snuck back to my assigned seat by then and, from my vantage point (second desk, first row—the parochial school equivalent of a pricey orchestra seat), I had a better look than most at what was beneath. For years, Simone and Frances had had a running argument about what, exactly, the veils and wimples of nuns concealed. Simone swore “on a stack of Bibles” that these Brides of Christ shaved their heads as smooth and shiny as Yul Brynner’s. Frances, the family skeptic, insisted just as adamantly that nunly baldness was nothing but a myth. Now I saw that both sisters had been half-right and half-wrong. De-wimpled, Sister Dymphna sported a stubbly salt-and-pepper buzz cut, the kind I got every first day of summer vacation.
It was the reliably pragmatic Kubiak twins, Ronald and Roland, who restored reason to room fourteen. The sons of a dairy farmer, they had both practical natures and experience with the multitude of bats that flew in and out of their barn on Bride Lake Road. While Roland threw open the classroom windows, Ronald walked calmly and purposefully to the supply closet, retrieved the broom, and began shooing. Grateful to be directed, I suppose, the frightened bat complied. It took a sharp right by the filing cabinet, sailed through the open window, and disappeared into the day. Everyone except Sister Dymphna took note that the crisis was over.
It took Mother Filomina, the principal, Mrs. Tewksbury, the office secretary, and Mr. Dombrowski, the school janitor, to coax Sister Dymphna out from under her desk and back onto her feet, all the while shushing her as she babbled a stream-of-consciousness cataloguing of her sins: she had coveted Sister Fabian’s lavender soaps and pilfered all the butter creams out of Sister Scholastica’s Whitman’s Sampler; she had knowingly eaten half of a liverwurst sandwich on Friday and imagined what Father Hanrahan might look like naked. Mother Filomina, Mrs. Tewksbury, and Mr. Dombrowski closed ranks around Dymphie so as to protect her from us thirty-four incredulous eyewitnesses. Order was restored to Sister’s habit and she was hurried out the door, down the stairs, and back over to the convent.
For the remainder of that afternoon, our class was demoted back to fourth grade where we doubled up with Sister Lucinda’s class. “My students will practice their multiplication tables and Sister Dymphna’s class will work on vocabulary,” Sister Lucinda (a.k.a. “Juicy Lips Lu-Lu”) decreed. “Who would like to go next door and get the workbooks?” Two hands shot into the air, mine and Rosalie Twerski’s. “All right, Felix, you may go,” Sister said. This was a small but rare victory; I was almost never chosen over the bane of my existence and chief competitor.
Standing at the threshhold of our evacuated classroom, I surveyed the chaos I had unleashed: spilled books and book bags, an overturned chair, the cock-eyed angle of Pope Paul’s framed portrait, the decapitated Blessed Virgin. Up front on the pull-up portable movie screen, The Miracle of Marcellino played on. From the looks of it, the film had reached its climax. Marcellino’s humble little bed was empty; the tearful monks, hands clasped in prayer, were looking skyward; and no lesser a deity than God the Father Himself was explaining (in voice-over) why He had decided to croak the saintly waif and recall him back to Heaven. I looked from the screen back to the empty corridor and, verifying that the coast was clear, entered our room. I turned on the lights, yanked the projector’s electrical cord, and tiptoed over to my desk where I stuffed my pockets with incriminating evidence: B-Bs, cafeteria straws, the one-word note that Lonny Flood had passed me: “Now!” Then I gathered up the workbooks and walked back down the hall.
Sister Dymphna was absent for the rest of that week, and our substitute was Sister Mary Agrippina, a nasty all-purpose permanent substitute/enforcer nun who suffered neither fools nor funny business and maintained discipline by pinching the skin of a transgressor between her thumb and index finger, then twisting it. I should know; I had the black and blue marks to prove it. I’d been twistered twice, once for talking to my neighbor during silent reading and once for sticking a pencil stub between my nose and upper lip and pretending I was Hitler while Sister Mary Agrippina was talking about World War II. I was philosophical about my bruises, though, figuring that Sister Mary Agrippina was my penance for having awakened the bat. Still, I was relieved when, at ten minutes to three on Friday afternoon, Mother Filomina came into our classroom to tell us that the following Monday we would meet our long-term sub--not a nun this time, but a lay teacher. “And Sister Dymphna will rejoin you all after Christmas vacation.”
“Lay teacher,” Lonny mused as we walked home together. “I guess that means all us boys are gonna get laid.” I didn’t know what that meant, exactly, but I could tell from the sound of Lonny’s snicker that it was dirty.
“Yeah,” I snickered back. “That’ll be cool. Right?”
“Yeah. Hey, knock knock.”
“Marmalade me. Who laid you?”
I dirty-snickered some more. “You’re a pig,” I said, hypothesizing that he’d just said something piggish.
Not long before this conversation, I had accompanied my pop during the morning doughnut run—we had a standing order for six-dozen assorted from the Mama Mia Bakery, which we picked up each morning at 5:00 a.m. before opening the lunch counter. “Hey, Pop, what’s all this stuff I about ‘the birds and the bees,’ ” I’d asked, as nonchalantly as possible. He’d swallowed hard and taken a long time to respond, and when he finally did, he said, “Well, Felix, let’s see now. I guess the first thing you oughta know is that, whenever you get a drink of water from a drinking fountain, you should never let you lip touch the metal. Because there are these diseases you can get, see?”
I didn’t see, but by then we had pulled up to the bakery. “Be right back,” Pop said and popped out of the car faster than a jack-in-the-box. Five minutes later, he was back with the six boxes, a chocolate doughnut for me, and a cruller for himself “Here you go,” he said. “Let’s you and me stuff our faces.” Halfway back to the bus depot, I figured out that stuffed faces couldn’t ask or answer any more embarrassing questions. Pop’s warning about drinking fountains would be both the beginning and the end of his sex education tutorial.
“A pig? Yeah?” Lonny said. “I know you are, but what am I?”
“A f***head,” I said. Down at the lunch counter, Chino Molinaro was always calling someone a fuckhead when my mother wasn’t around.
Lonny laughed. “I know you are, but what am I? Hey, by the way, Ding Dong, I bet you can’t say this five times fast: I slit a sheet, a sheet I slit; upon a slitted sheet I sit.”
“I can so.”
“Yeah? Okay, let’s hear you.”
Had my mother heard my attempt, she would have whacked me a good one, the way she had when she overheard me, in imitation of Chino Molinaro, refer to Giants’ quarterback Y.A. Tittle as “Y.A. Tittie.”
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