I wanted to write but was having a blank moment. I needed a word prompt. A two word prompt, I decided. I reached for my dictionary, opened it and pointed - avaricious. Okay. I turned a thick clump of pages to the B's and there was benign. Avaricious and benign. I had my beginning. I started to type. When I thought I was done with my first draft, I went back and typed my title. A few days of edits later, plus a reading for critique at my writers' group, my short story was complete. I share it with you here.
by Kathy Coogan
Aunt Belle declared Courtney an avaricious child and me benign. She called us into her sitting room two weeks to the day after we arrived still numb from our arrangement. We would be starting school today, Courtney in fifth grade, me in second. We wore uniforms now to attend this new school, St. Michael’s, in this new city, in this new state.
One at a time, she made us stand before her and look into her eyes, a difficult task since hers were dark and deep set. Courtney went first, the older brother. I stood in a juvenile version of parade rest, hands gripped behind my back, sweaty and entwined in the skirt of my stiff jumper. Aunt Belle said, “Look up, young man.” Courtney did, his eyes peering up through his brows as his chin still hovered near his chest. “Hold your head up, child.” She demanded. Courtney did, his Adam’s apple now exposed as he tried to swallow, his mouth dry, his eyes moist. I watched knowing that it was my turn next.
“I believe that you are an avaricious child,” Aunt Belle said to Courtney. “We’ll have to change that. Hand me the pocket watch.” Courtney gave a small shake of his head but reached into his pocket and pulled out our father’s watch. Aunt Belle held out her hand, steady and cold. Courtney placed the watch there and we saw her fingers trap it in her fist. Courtney bravely said, “When can I have it back?” “As your guardian, that’s for me to decide. Step back,” Aunt Belle said.
She turned those eyes to me and said, “You.” I licked my lips and said, “Yes, Aunt Belle?” “You are a benign and passive child, like your mother. Pretty is as pretty does. Remember that.” I nodded though I had no idea what that meant. “Remove those ribbons,” she said and held out her empty hand. Anxious to please, I fumbled the bows from my braids, without untying them. I placed them on her palm where they lay limp as dying butterflies.
She opened both her hands like a magician might and held them out to us, but I knew that she was not offering us the pocket watch or bows. “Do you want these back?” she asked. Courtney, too eager, stepped forward and said, “Please, Ma’am.” I leaned out and touched his arm before he could reach for the watch. “Then you’ll do nothing to ruin my good name. Now go and wait for the school bus.”
As Courtney and I walked down the driveway, I said, “What’s avaricious?”
“I dunno.” Courtney said. “I’ll look it up when I get to school, if there’s a dictionary.”
“You could use the big one on the stand in her sitting room.”
“I wouldn’t touch her books.”
“You could be avaricious if it means serious or smart. That’d be nice, right?”
“That’s not what she meant,” he said staring hard at the ground as we walked. “I said I’d look it up.”
“Don’t get mad at me,” I said. “She said I was behind. Why did she say that? I’m not behind. Last year was first grade. This year is second grade. I’m not behind.”
“She said benign and don’t ask me what that means either, cause I don’t know.”
“At least she said I was pretty. That was nice.”
“She didn’t mean it in a nice way though.”
“She said I was like Mom…”
“Shut up about Mom. I can’t explain it to you. But don’t do anything bad, okay? Just go along with everything she says.” The suddenness of our loss and his grief had made him careful and guarded. He had overnight grown a shell that stiffened his spine and narrowed his eyes. I, on the other hand, till that day, still expected our life to be mended, to be returned to the time when “being” meant “being loved.”
I look back to those years and to what I’ve become. Every day I went to school, without my ribbons. I noticed that other little girls had bows and barrettes and wondered why I couldn’t wear them, too. When I remembered sitting on Mommy’s lap to have my ribbons tied I felt a pop of joy then a flutter of sadness. In the first days I thought that Aunt Belle might invite me to her lap but her lap proved insurmountable. So the sadness prevailed and I drifted on it.
Maybe that’s what Aunt Belle meant by benign. Courtney did look it up and said it meant not having cancer but also that something that was okay, not bad. I was glad I didn’t have cancer. but I didn’t always feel okay and I began to do very bad things.
I was mad when Courtney told me avaricious meant greedy, like you wanted everything all to yourself. How could she say that about him after only knowing him for two weeks? Besides Mom and Daddy alive again, all he wanted was Daddy’s pocket- watch. That’s neither greedy or avaricious..
I became the avaricious child, perhaps to prove Aunt Belle wrong. Benign? Good-natured? A wiser adult might have called me devious if they could look into my soul. That morning in Aunt Belle’s parlor became the instant when I made my move towards cynicism and disbelief. Loss can do that, though I do not try to justify my choices. They began as baby steps but baby steps take you as far away as giant leaps if you take enough of them.
I became a thief by second grade, but my conscience was still intact then, so I trusted that my first confession would erase my sin. I had stolen a pencil case off the desk of Brendan Barry on the second day at my new school. I wanted that pencil case so much that I just took it. It felt like mine.
I can still see it: dark brown fake snakeskin with a zipper across the top and a small snapped change purse on the outside for lunch money. In it were three yellow #2 pencils, their perfect tips made by a real rotary pencil sharpener not by a paring knife. There were two brand new erasers, one a pink boat-shaped thing and the other, a soft gummy square still wrapped in tissue that could smooth away, like the sacrament if Penance, the slightest mar.
When poor Brendan Barry complained, crying to Miss Skolski, that I had his brand new pencil case, the poor woman, in her first frazzled year of teaching, and the only lay teacher in the school full of nuns, believed me not him. He was a cry-baby with blotchy skin and flyaway hair so was never destined to be a teacher’s pet.
I, on the other hand, was a pretty, black- headed Irish girl, blue-eyed; a child who was learning at Aunt Belle’s to tell straight-faced lies. Of course Miss Skolski believed me. Thinking about it now, with the brazen sin still on my immortal soul, I feel pretty bad and wonder what Brendan’s parents thought when he came home unbelieved and without his pencil case. Maybe they didn’t like him either.
Though I looked forward to it, my first confession, like all the fraudulent ones to follow, was a total failure. You can’t lie, even by omission, to the priest in the confessional and expect absolution. But there was no way that I could trust Father Duncan after what I heard. Father Duncan was what was known as a cool priest. There were a few even before Vatican II, as this was; many more after it, when sin became less absolute and worldliness was encouraged in the spirit of agiornomento. “Father D,” we called him.
He always wore a long black cassock which roiled around his long legs as he went flying around St. Michael’s. He often joined the boys on the playground tossing balls or turned jump-rope for the girls. He had the grace of a natural athlete and while not handsome, turned heads. His hands were gnarly with black hair on the knuckles, powerful hands that dwarfed the Host inappropriately as he held it up at Mass. His adam’s apple bulged the priest-collar that he faithfully wore.
Churches were never locked in those days. Vandals wouldn’t dare enter the house of God, a Guy not to be fooled with back then. I had decided that I needed a run-through for my first confession, which would be next Saturday. I wanted an additional try-out in the box. I needed for this to go well; needed to tell my sin, to get it off my chest and my soul. We had each gone in the box once for practice, after standing in line dramatically examining our consciences. We had each entered, knelt, made the sign of the cross, got up, swished aside the curtain and let the next kid in.
On this day after school I told Courtney to go home without me and I entered St. Michael’s, dipped my hand in the holy water which was always as murky as a stagnant pond, and stepped into the confessional to get the feel of it without being rushed. The cubicle muffled sound as it was meant to, the heavy drapery a buffer against curious ears. But not completely. I heard voices outside the confessional. I had not pulled the curtain completely closed and through the small opening I could see Father D.
He was speaking to someone whom I could not see. I heard him say, “Yeah, next Saturday, right after I hear the knuckleheads’ first confessions.”
“Better you than me, my boy,” said the voice that I recognized as Monsignor Balmer. “’Talked back to my mother five times, argued with my sister six times, disobeyed Sister Agatha one time. Three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys.’ Good Lord, it would drive a saint to drink.”
Even my young ears recognized the mimicry in his cigarette and bourbon-scruffy voice.
“Not a good mortal sin among’em,” Father D. said and chuckled as they walked toward the sacristy. I peeked out and saw that Father D. genuflected at the communion rail, while Monsignor merely dipped his head.
I sat back on my heels. There were no seats on our side of the confession box. I wondered if stealing a pencil case was a good mortal sin. If I told it, would I still be a knucklehead? Some inner voice, maybe the devil that Sister Agatha said perched on our left shoulder, whispered that Father D. was not entitled to my sin. I’d take my chances with God himself.
I decided that my self-imposed penance for my sin would be to give the pencil case back to Brendan Barry. I would tell him that I found it on the playground. Only he would know that I was lying. But I kept the tissue-wrapped eraser. I never used it, saving it for some major mistake. It seemed too good for math homework or sentence diagramming. It became the talisman that I needed, carried in my book bag throughout grade school, even as it dried out and crumbled.
At daily Mass with my classmates, I heard the prayer, “Harden not your heart,” but I knew that it was too late for me. One day I realized that the eraser was gone, and I never knew when I had lost it - unlike my faith and my soul.