First, if I may, a preliminary bit of shameless self-promotion:
On May 15th, Open Road Media and Mysterious Press will allow me to join fellow Murderateros Gar Anthony Haywood and Ken Bruen as a Brother in Backlist as they re-publish in ebook format my first two novels, THE DEVIL’S REDHEAD and DONE FOR A DIME, plus an all-new collection of stories, KILLING MYSELF TO SURVIVE.
I’ll have more info when I post on May 14th (I’m trading days that week with Pari), but for now here’s a personal profile the folks at Open Road prepared for the launch. Hope you enjoy it:
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The author, age three or so. Note the evil.
This is a story about unspeakable sin and ultimate redemption.
Whose sin, whose redemption? You tell me.
At the age of six I entered first grade at Our Lady of Peace Elementary in Columbus, Ohio. Nothing, nothing about the public school where I attended kindergarten the year before could have prepared me for what I was about to encounter.
The first bit of strangeness involved the women in whose care my parents abandoned me.
Penguins, the older kids called them.
I’d never seen nuns up close before. And not just any nuns. Dominicans. Daughters of the Inquisition.
They had antiquated names linked to obscure saints—Sister Malcolm (there’s a St. Malcolm? Who knew?) Sister Sabina. Sister Norita. Sister Euthenasia (Okay, I made that one up.)
The habits they wore, which I would later refer to as Medieval Madonna Drag, had a black-veiled wimple with a flat mortarboard top. It looked like a nice place to park a cup of coffee if there wasn’t room on your desk. I was secretly hoping one of them might pull a stunt like that—you know, for laughs. But you don’t take vows of lifelong obedience, chastity and poverty if what you’re looking for is a chuckle.
But it wasn’t just the habit. The truly weird part about their get-up was that each of them had tied around her waist a long chain of black beads:
At the end of that chain was the figure of a dying man, naked except for a loincloth, nailed to a cross, a gaping wound in his side and a bird’s nest of thorns jammed down onto his head.
They referred to this man as their spiritual husband.
All of which explained, I suppose, their generally unpleasant demeanor. What a pack of sourpusses. Scowls outnumbered smiles ten-to-one, and a few were just mean as weasels. They glared at you through their rimless spectacles with an expression that said: There’s a chair in hell waiting for you, my pretty.
But as strange and menacing as these women were, they were nothing compared to Father Foley, the parish pastor. Kids would literally turn white and tremble at the sound of his name—partly because the nuns said it the same way your babysitter talked about the guy with a hook for a hand out on lover’s lane. The constant, inescapable message was: Beware! Beware of the Wrath of Father George Foley!
Central Casting’s Image of Fater Foley
He was a huge bucket-headed Irishman, 6’2, 250 pounds. He ran the only “legal” bingo operation in all of Franklin County and believe me, there were a LOT of greased palms involved. He’d been a boxer before he went into the seminary and his first stint as a priest was at the boy’s industrial school, as they called it. Reform school.
But none of this — NONE of this — could prepare you for your first face-to-face encounter with the man himself.
To borrow a line from The Twilight Zone: Imagine if you will … You’re six years old. Six years old. You’re still in a state of childlike awe over so many of life’s mysteries, things like dragonflies and waffles and questions like: If I have a right shoe and a left shoe, does that mean I have a right sock and a left sock? (You wouldn’t believe how long I puzzled over that sucker.) Innocent, okay? That’s what I’m talking about. You’re innocent.
But you’re also Catholic. Which kinda nullifies the innocent.
Then one day, as you’re sitting quietly at your desk while Sr. Sabina teaches you the Hail Mary or the Our Father or the ever-so-important, never-to-be-forgotten Act of Contrition (“O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins…”), suddenly downstairs the door to the school SLAMS open.
I mean, LAPD’s SWAT Team would love to kick in a door like this.
And then you hear it. The voice. The voice you will never forget.
BAAAAAHHHH!!!!!! LITTLE MONSTERS.
You hear his steps on the stair — did I mention he had elephantiasis in one leg, so he was crippled and in constant pain. There’s a mood enhancer. But despite all that he dragged himself up the stairs to the second floor where the classrooms were, his steps an eerie and ominous:
Silence as he reached the top of the stairs. Every kid in my class is shaking. Then the classroom door BLOWS back. He’s there in the doorway, immense, fire-eyed—he’s John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, he’s Ahab harpooning Moby Dick. He’s the God of the Old Testament. And he’s come — here to YOUR classroom — to pass out report cards.
The first thing he says, still in the doorway, is: STAND UP!
Confused, wobbly and weak-kneed like baby goats, we clamber up as best we can from our still somewhat puzzling desks — but that’s not good enough:
When sister or I enter the room, you don’t just stand up. You leap up. LEAP!
For the next five minutes, we had leaping drills. He’d tell us to sit. Then he’d bellow: LEAP. We’d shoot up from our chairs like bottle rockets. Okay, he’d say. Sit down. Pause. Then: LEAP. Up we’d shoot again. Over and over, until he decided we’d finally gotten the message.
Then he passed out report cards.
“Have they been good, sister?”
“Well, for the most part, father. Some better than others.”
To say Father Foley believed in discipline is kinda like saying the Vikings were fond of sailing. And it wasn’t like you could run home for sympathy. My mother — my mother — told me: Don’t come running to me complaining that Father Foley hit you because if you do I’ll just swat you again.
If you got a C in conduct Father Foley would BLISTER you with a harangue that would make a Marine drill sergeant weep. His voice could knock out fillings — and if it didn’t, he’d use his hand, or his cane — no joke. For a C in Conduct. It was like you’d robbed a bank or strangled your kid sister or raped the school mascot. Then you had to come down for the next 6 Saturdays and help Mr. Johnson, the janitor, clean the school.
Father Foley called it: The Rock Pile.
I never had to go on the Rock Pile. My crime would be far more serious than that.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First grade went by reasonably quick and without memorable incident. I habitually got straight A’s and was thought of as a decent kid and a good student.
Things would change.
In second grade I had Sister Alphonsa, who truly, madly, deeply … HATED me. Even before I did the terrible thing.
One day I was working quietly at my desk like all my fellow second-graders when suddenly I heard this swoosh swoosh swoosh and the rattle of beads.
I glanced up: Sister Alphonsa was charging toward me, her habit and rosary swaying from her momentum, a look on her face as though, given half a chance, she would eat me whole and pick her teeth with my bones.
She grabbed my hair, pinched my cheek hard, slapped my face, and said: Look what you did!
She slammed a piece of paper down on my desk. I’d misspelled the word “school” on my spelling test.
Call it the curse of being a good student, I suppose. I got the message — I was supposed to be perfect.
Maybe that’s why I did it. The terrible thing.
What was it?
I signed my own report card.
Now, let me remind you, we’re talking straight A’s, across the board, even for Conduct and Effort. I’d show my grades to my parents and they were so blasé about it like: Oh, Christ, this again? Yawn.
So I thought: What’s the big deal?
Now, in second grade we were just learning how to write script, and we hadn’t gotten around to “a” yet, which made writing my mother’s name somewhat challenging, since it was Mary. I thought, Oh well, I’ll just use an “e.” Like Merry Christmas, except it was Merry Elizabeth Corbett. And Merry only had one “r.”
But the misspelling was hardly the giveaway. My mother had the most beautiful handwriting. Her signature belonged on the Declaration of Independence, or the Magna Carta. When I signed her name beneath her previous signatures, it looked like this woman with the beautiful script had lost her hand to a wolf, and was writing with the stump.
But arch fiend criminal genius that I was, I thought: Eh. Who’s gonna notice? Nobody looks at these things.
Several weeks went by. Then Sister Alphonsa appeared beside me once again. She didn’t come flying down the aisle this time. She came slowly, methodically, as though pacing herself to a dirge only she could hear. When she reached my desk, she stopped, glared down at me with every drop of contempt and disgust she could muster and said:
“You … are an evil boy.”
She told me to go out into the hallway. Sister Macaria wanted to speak with me.
Sister Macaria—named for St. Macarius, of which there are in fact three: Macarius the Elder, Macarius the Younger, and Macarius the Wonder Worker—Sister Macaria was, as it turned out, pretty much the opposite of Sister Alphonsa. The kids liked Sister Macaria, the boys especially. She played softball with the eighth graders, had a mean underhand and when she was at the plate and the wood met the leather that little sucker was outta heah.
She also wore her wimple cocked a little to the side with a kind of — how shall I put this — devil-may-care jauntiness.
Sister Macaria had my report card. She looked at it. Looked at me. Looked at it. Back at me. Said finally:
Huh. You signed your own report card.
I dunno. Sister.
She sighed voluminously. Well, go inside and get back to your schoolwork.
I’m thinking: That’s it? One minute I’m evil, the next it’s: Go back to your desk and try not to puke on your shoes.
I’m thinking: Wow. This is sin? Count me in.
A few more weeks go by, then early one morning: SLAM.
Boom. Thud. Boom. Thud…
The classroom door blows opens: We all leap up.
Good morning, Father Foley.
Oh yes. We’d learned our lesson only too well. We were God’s little children. Obsequious, oleaginous, obedient little drones.
The weird thing. Father Foley was in an incredibly chipper mood. He didn’t bellow, didn’t threaten, he even cracked a few jokes with the nun.
But I knew what was on my report card, and I’m thinking: You know, this may not end well.
But then I think: Oh come one. He loves my mom—she made an incredible apple pie, and when she baked one for bingo he’d sneak down to the school basement, scoop it up before the crowd arrived and take it back to the rectory all for himself. And my brother Jim, the sanctimonious suck-up, was his favorite altar boy.
I had juice, is what I’m saying. How bad could it get?
Father Foley goes through the A’s: Jimmy Adamski. Marie Anthony. Terry Archibald.
Then the B’s: Mike Bernardo. Kathy Brennan. Debbie Bucci.
Finally the C’s: Jack Cardi. Nancy Callahan. David Corbett.
He looks at my report card — again, such a good mood.
He says: Okay, Corbett, let’s see what we’ve got. A in reading, good. A in arithmetic, good. A in conduct, A in effort.
He turns it over, looks at the back.
YOU. SIGNED. YOUR OWN. REPORT CARD!!!
I shot out of my chair like a moon launch and stood there shaking. I was so terrified I don’t even remember what he said but he made me stand there for what felt like eternity, going on with the other report cards but returning his attention to me every few minutes to scold me, browbeat me, humiliate me.
The other kids, I knew, hated this. Hated me. I’d turned the sunshine into gloom. For everybody.
I was an evil boy.
Finally Father Foley wrapped up with Brian Zimmerman. No more distractions. But instead of handing down my sentence, he got up and started to leave. He shot me one last withering, malevolent glare, then said: Corbett? What you did is so bad I have to go home and think about what I’m going to do to you.
Thus began my year in hell. I knew, as only a seven-year-old can, that Father Foley was spending every waking minute of every day trying to come up with the most hideous, shameful, pitiless punishment he could dream of — for me.
If he came within sight I’d duck behind somebody else and shrink up like a sponge, trying to become invisible. For whatever reason he didn’t hand out report cards any more that year, Sister Macaria did, but I knew that just meant he hadn’t come up with an appropriate punishment yet. He was still thinking. And what he was thinking was just getting worse and worse and worse the more the days rolled by.
Finally summer break came, I forgot about it for a while, though I knew he hadn’t forgotten. How could he? What I’d done was so bad …
Next year, third grade, we’re preparing for Confirmation, the sacrament that would make us Soldiers of Christ.
We had to memorize the catechism
because we’d be questioned by the bishop and if we flubbed an answer, we wouldn’t be confirmed, our families would be shamed — we’d be a public disgrace not just to our confirmation class but the entire parish.
And so we learned:
The three conditions for a mortal sin.
The four kinds of sanctifying grace.
The three Evangelical Counsels.
The four cardinal virtues.
The seven chief works of corporal mercy.
The two types of judgment.
The three kinds of lies.
The eight beatitudes and:
The seven gifts of the Holy Ghost (which are, by the way: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord—some things you never forget.)
Father Foley conducted the confirmation classes. I still expected him any minute to finally say: Okay, Corbett. I figured out what I’m gonna do to you.
Me: still trembling scared. Terrified.
One day, as he’s running us through our paces, trying to explain the difference between mortal sin and venial sin, he says to Molly Medaglia: Medaglia, say you push good old Corbett there down the stairs …
I didn’t even hear the rest of the question. It didn’t even register that, at least hypothetically, he’d just pushed me down the stairs.
I thought: He called me Good Old Corbett.
Good. Old. Corbett.
Inside, it’s like the Bells of St. Mary’s are ringing in my chest. Doves are flying off toward sunlit towers. Raindrops on roses and blah blah blah blah.
From somewhere deep inside, a voice rose up: Free at last! Free At Last. Thank God Almighty I am free at last!
I was an evil boy. But I never spent a minute on the rock pile.
But I’m still Catholic, and I know how this works. No one gets off Scot free.
Somewhere in hell. There’s a chair. With my name on it. In my mother’s handwriting.
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So, Murderateros: What incidents of childhood fear, dread, sacrilege or shame formed you indelibly as the hopeless wretch— ahem, soulful writer — you are today?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: Speaking of an evil boy: Moodvideo’s revisualization of Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” (oh yeah):