Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from our favorite emerging writers
My cards positioned themselves like tattoos on the Buddha’s arms.
After Sunday Mass at St. Teresa’s, a stately old woman wearing a beret with a long antenna of a feather in it was standing by a holy water font. Her fingers were long and elegant. I imagined them on a keyboard or dealing poker in a famous Vegas casino. She gave me what I thought was a prayer card but it was of the playing kind, not a king or jack but an eight with the wrestler Bo-Bo Brazil on it and coconuts in place of clubs. The two worshipers on either side of her dressed in white gave her temporary wings or I was seeing things. I’d seen Bo-Bo on TV broadcasts from the Boston Garden some Saturday mornings. I’d been to Jack Witschi’s Arena in Attleboro Massachusetts a few times where I saw Killer Kowalski, Yukon Eric and Haystacks Calhoun, but not Bo. Some time ago, that woman did give me a prayer card, St. Maurice, the first Black Catholic saint and a Roman general. That very same month, Boston had finally signed a Black player, Pumpsie Green. I’d traded a Ralph Terry to the only Yankee fan I knew for the Pumpsie Topps issue. I now had one unique trio of cards, wrestler, saint and ballplayer. Okay, some would argue that Bo-Bo wasn’t the first Black wrestler or that he wasn’t the first Black grappler to hold a title but first on an eight of coconuts so lump that disbelievers. Aha, the eight connection; he must have fought in some 8-Man Battle Royals. I cherished that threesome, had a clear plastic case just the right size; showed them off to kids at school. Most of them thought I was loco. Janie Troop told me I was guilty of blasphemy when I announced they were my Trinity. Bo-Bo’s major move was the Co-Co Butt, used his head to drop an opponent into oblivion; Maurice swung a fancy sword probably of Excalibur proportions. Pumpsie was no Willie Mays but he did have a sweet, graceful pivot turning a double play; he’ll live on no doubt in Cooperstown historical baseball annuls. I kept my cards under my pillow. One morning, I awoke to find my head higher than when I went to sleep. The cards had multiplied. The case tripled in size. I considered a dollar bill test. I put aside ten of each to take with me on the class trip to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and hid the rest in my bureau. On the bus to Providence, I sat next to Joyce Scott one of the smartest in our class. I never succeeded in sitting close to her at Mass, two people away once. Her hair was black as a brand new Goodyear tire and curly short, eyes as dark as dark could be, ears were decorated with grey pyramid studs. Her father was always with her, a tall, slim man who ran an insurance agency. I heard her mother died giving birth to her. Joyce showed me a paperback great art book. She opened it to a seascape, “On the Lee Shore” by Winslow Homer, view of a ship in distress from a rocky shore.
“Say Tom, I bet you didn’t know we’ll be seeing this today, did you?”
“You are right.”
“Figures,” she said. I sure felt small. She had perfect teeth through which I wished some words of respect or admiration would slip by but for what? I took out my art and offered Maurice, Bo-Bo and Pumpsie. She softened, looked at me as if I was something, at least a friend. “I’m impressed,” she said.
“They are yours,” I said as if I were giving her priceless Van Goghs. She smiled. There was no mention of the three men. My lips are thin hers full. Would they ever meet for exact measuring? I closed my eyes and imagined that and more. I owed a ton of thanks to the antenna-hatted woman. Sister Mary Consolata herded us into the museum and turned us over to a guide, a man with horned rimmed glasses who must have wished he’d worn a regular necktie instead of a bow because a button was missing from his shirt. He knew every speck of paint on every hanging. When we got to Winslow Homer’s “On the Lee Shore” Bo-Bo, Maurice and Pumpsie started taking over the canvases for seconds at a time. I slipped Trinity Cards into a pamphlet in wall racks when entering rooms. Maurice transformed himself into a wide necktie that spun through the air before replacing the bowtie. My pals stayed off Whistler’s “Annie Seated” long enough for Joyce’s face to claim the girl’s mug. Bo-Bo wrestled and bonked men to ground, Pumpsie hit homers over every wall; Maurice downed trees, entire forests with his sword. In a painting of Santa Claus and sleigh airborne, he was dropping a stream of my cards down a chimney. The last stop was upstairs in a room that housed a tall wooden Buddha. Joyce cozied up to me and held my baby finger, a fifth of affection. My cards positioned themselves like tattoos on the Buddha’s arms.
My cards positioned themselves like tattoos on the Buddha’s arms.
We ate our bagged lunches at Prospect Park where a Roger Williams statue overlooked the city. Joyce sat on the grass with a kid who was a pony league all-star shortstop, Hugh Jackson. She must have shown him Pumpsie’s card. They laughed. He glanced at me as if I was one of those jumbled Picasso jobs. I wished I had the will and the muscle to make him swallow his hoots. I squeezed my set of my cards. I’d thought twice about giving them all to the museum. I closed my eyes, saw Hugh Jackass smote, head-butted and spiked sliding into second. Joyce didn’t take the conversation as meaningful enough to change seats.
“What should I do with these,” she asked.
“Put them under your pillow.”
“Are you being a wise guy?”
“No, they’re magic, wishes come true.”
“Watch this” she said and pulled Maurice from behind her ear. “Here’s magic for you,“ she said. A flick of her wrist and it was gone. Opening the book, she pulled out four cards, two of the saint and then she changed the subject as if the extra card was nothing special. “Did you see me in any of those paintings?” she asked.
“Yes, a Whistler.” She didn’t ask which one. “It was really a drawing.”
“Are you going to ask if I saw you?”
“Okay. Did you?”
“I saw us at a fishing hole, by the same artist who painted “Lee Shore.” I couldn’t find words happy enough. She added another two fingers to her squeeze. “Two weeks ago I saw you on your bike carrying a fishing pole, a couple of other times too,” she said. “I was on my way to the trestle.”
“If they hadn’t kept us away from the nude painting, you would have seen a lot more of me,” she said, shocking me.
A week later, I found a note in my back pocket from her. I had no idea how it got there. “Meet me at the trestle, Saturday evening at six, bring your pole.” My parents would be on the way to a dance at the Steelworker’s Club so I didn’t have to tell any lies about going out so late with my fishing gear. Joyce was standing by a pine tree about twenty feet away from the river. I’d never seen her out of the St. Teresa’s uniform a green jumper and white shirt, ribbon tie or Sunday church clothes. She was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, high top sneakers. She hugged me and said, “Show me how you fish.” She had no problem with the worms, baited my hook. I added a moist ball of Wonder Bread. Of course, I couldn’t catch a damned thing. Joyce took over, pulled in two horned pout that she chose to call catfish. She held them top prong between index and middle finger, tips around the side horns. She strung them for travel. She held up an outstretched palm and told me to lick. I did. Dusk was setting in. She led me to a place under the pines that was soft and slippery.
“I’m fourteen and a half, I think it’s time. You’re a Project kid so it’s probably already happened for you.”
“I’m not cool enough, don’t fit in.” She laughed, pulled a Trojan from behind her ear. We took off just enough of our clothes. Our lips worked just fine. Her tongue furiously whipped around in my mouth as if searching for a lost wisecrack. She pulled up sweatshirt and bra and I licked and sucked her breasts that were the size of ice cream scoops. She took my hand and slowly traced circles around her belly as if signaling a delicious meal before our twined paws zigzagged down like poky lightning and she guided me in every way to our finish. There was blood. She rubbed some in a slow spiral on my palm.
“We’re like the cards, Tom, firsts together with a sacred stew of bread, worms, fish, blood, and wonderful. We’ll do the wine at another time.”
“On the Lee Shore,” I said. “I re-Joyce.”
“I’ll let that slide,” she said softly flicking my arm with a finger as if she’d spotted a mosquito on it. I hung the string of fish off the handlebars. I hid my fishing gear. Joyce sat on the crossbar and directed me to a small bungalow just over the line in Seekonk. Two apple trees that a full moon could make a many-eyed monster greeted us on one side of the small front yard. At a glowing picnic table, a shiny silver man holding a cigarette sat across from a golden woman hoisting a drink. The porch floor was transparent and lit up, an image of a pinball machine below, flippers, bumpers and sensors. The stained glass scallop shell on the door pulsated. The door opened on its own. “Who lives here,” I asked Joyce.
“My maternal Gram,” she said. “My dad’s ashamed of her. She’s a Bohemian artist, uninhibited and very cool.” Joyce held my entire hand. “Put the fish in the sink.” A tabby cat lounging on the breadbox meowed. There was a small piano in the parlor. We walked into a room to the left. “This is her studio,” whispered Joyce, hitting a switch that produced blinding light. The church hat was hanging on a peg. Its antenna feather was flashing as if it were receiving or transmitting signals. I felt like I was in church. I made half a sign of the cross. Before us was a wooden statue of St. Maurice that was life size and expertly painted. I half expected him to come at me with sword raised to behead or knight me. Next to him were two chunks of wood just heads completed, Bo and Pumpsie.
We agreed they’d make great mates for the Buddha paint or not. A white kitten walked out from behind Maurice that Joyce scooped up to the sound of a mellow voice.
“Joyce, is that you giving tours again?”
“Yes, it’s me all right. This is my twentieth amazing visit.” Joyce’s Gram was dressed in a black evening dress, long string of pearls. She’d be playing piano at the Biltmore. “Your daddy’s still in the dark?”
“He doesn’t own a hint.”
“Keep him there please. Well, this is the first time you’ve brought a boy.” “Yup, he’s my first.” God, was she going to blab?
“Tom, meet my Gram.” She shook my anointed hand.
“Ah yes, you are the only parishioner to accept Maurice and Bo.”
When we were leaving, walking over the pinball porch floor, we heard a symphony of bells whistles and pops as if we’d just broken a scoring record.
It was a dangerous ride with Kitty and I sharing Joyce kisses. Her father was standing in the driveway when I pulled in. She patted me on the shoulder. I didn’t expect even that with the warden, arms crossed, watching.
The last we heard of the card men was very strange in my mind but Joyce took it as routine. A shelf stocker at the A&P reported my famous first trio pulling off another first by replacing Olympic swimmer and movie star Esther Williams’s image on a shipment of Wheaties that lasted a day before fading back to Esther. The footprint sawdust when examined in a police lab drew no conclusions. Joyce’s Gram changed churches, St. Peter and Paul Cathedral downtown Providence, worshiped with a lawyer who admired her piano playing. I received a piece of mail that was light as a Kleenex, felt empty. I knew the sender was Gram by the stamp, St. Maurice. When I opened it, I found another card, featuring a Black woman. A note identified her as a pioneering tennis champion, appropriately on an ace of hearts. I figured a statue was in the works and an appearance on a Breakfast of Champions box planned.
I attend Mass some Sundays with Joyce and her father. The kitten she’d named Dove too, hidden in a bag decorated with “The Lee Shore,” a gift from Gram. Dove whose white fur had turned as grey as the clouds in the painting was due for a re-christening. Joyce’s dad often looks at me as if I were also a fugitive from Bohemia. My mother is happy that I’m mingling with the upper crust.
Thomas M. McDade is a resident of Fredericksburg, VA, previously CT, & RI. He is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT.McDade is twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Virginia Beach, VA and at sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE / FF-1091). His short fiction has most recently appeared in The Bosphorus Review, Oddville Press and Writer's Egg, poetry in The Beliveau Review and Dress Blues.