Phillip Madeira was the kid that made me believe in God. The nuns at St. Joes couldn’t do it. Choir boy, first communion, confirmation—the holy shebang. None of it stuck until this neighborhood kid, Phil Madeira from across the street, christened me in God-fearing guilt and solitude. Mad Madeira we called him, called from outside rock-throwing range. He was the local tantrum kid, a splay-footed wailer of menacing oaths, a crier of elephant tears, a brash tattletale, snitch, rat, squealer, shunned and reviled in our neighborhood, and we—myself and younger brother Butch—did all we could to incite Phil’s notorious temper, safely, from, see above, outside rock-throwing range. One summer day, we miscalculated.
Butch and I crouched in the grass behind our mom’s rose bushes hugging the picket fence that ran along the road in front of our house, a common two-story New England colonial with attached garage, nearly identical to every other house in the neighborhood, all set on quarter-acre lots of Sears-fertilized lawns mowed by Sears-loving dads on Saturday mornings. This was suburbia in the sixties. No sidewalks or traffic except our dads coming and going from work, and in the summer afternoons the ice cream truck, and at dusk the town mosquito sprayer. We rode bikes, played whiffleball, street hockey, and violent games sprung from popular TV shows. Hiding behind the roses, we waited for Phillip Madeira to come out of his house across the street.
It was late summer. Nestled in the grass next to us were two overripe tomatoes filched from Mrs. Sartelli’s garden. Mrs. Sartelli lived next door and regularly gave us five bucks for mowing her lawn, raking leaves, shoveling snow. Across the street, next to the hated Madeira lived Jon Johansson who once suffered a concussion at the hands of Madeira, actually the head. The head of Madeira was hard and heavy like a medicine ball, and so big he had gaps between his teeth like a jack-o-lantern. His older brother, David, told us Phil was forced to wear a football helmet until age 5 because when he threw a tantrum he’d pound the house with his head. The floors, walls, furniture, appliances, the family car, all had dings and dents from Phil’s plummeting head. He’d caught me with a few glancing blows, but I was slippery, sneaky, and secretly scared of Mad Madeira.
The tomatoes were the perfect throwing size of baseballs. We palmed them gingerly because they were full and bloated with seeds and juice. Soft enough to splat! on contact, but also implode in our hands if we were clumsy and didn’t let them fly precisely, with velocity but also sufficient arc so that they didn’t spin apart in midair before landing on target, the target being Phil Madeira. Ideally, we pictured tomato bombs dropping from the sky and landing squarely atop Madeira’s fat head, like a message from God—Madeira, you suck. Madeira was attuned to messages from God because his father was a Protestant minister.
The Madeira’s were the only Protestants we’d ever known. We didn’t have them in South Boston where we lived until I was six, and Butch five. The day we moved to this new neighborhood mom told us the Madeira’s went to a different church. There was a different church? Who knew? Phillip and his older brother David attended public school while Butch and I suffered the nuns at St. Joe’s. The nuns made it sound as if Protestants were akin to Nazis. Jews even. But wait a minute, wasn’t Jesus a Jew? When he said love your neighbor did he mean all our neighbors? Even fat head Madeira, the Protestant? It was puzzling.
I don’t recall our first encounter with Phil, but one day, soon after we’d moved into the neighborhood 3 or 4 years ago, I stood in our yard fondling a new 1960 penny and watching my mom plant the rose bushes delivered by Sears with burlap-wrapped roots. Mom wore flowered gardening gloves and had a shovel. Butch carried a whiffleball and a bat. We were trying to get a game up without including Phil Madeira who was lusting after my shiny new penny. He said he wanted it because he was a coin collector—Madeira claimed to be everything. Said he had every year but the current one.
“Every year?” I said. “Since the beginning of time?”
“Since 1909,” Phil said. “The first year they made pennies.”
Madeira always said things as if they were indisputable facts but often we found out he was full of crap.
“Is that true Mom?” I asked my mother.
“I really don’t know, honey.”
“It’s true,” Madeira said. “Before 1909 they had Indian-heads.”
Madeira’s dog was named Penny, which may have had something to do with this, but I suspected he wanted my new coin simply because he didn’t have it and I did, and he was a vindictive Protestant who coveted his neighbor’s goods, which I assumed might be okay since I thought the Ten Commandments were exclusively for Catholics. The fact that Mr. Madeira, Phil’s father, was a minister, that their spiritual sages had wives and kids and dogs and lived in neighborhoods among normal people stressed to me their deficient salvation system.
The three of us stood watching Mom dig holes for her roses. I planned to buy Madeira out of our yard with the penny, because I really didn’t care about it, I just wanted to play whiffleball. Butch knew what I was thinking, but we also knew that if Madeira thought we were trying to ditch him he’d fly into a rage and start roaring and wagging his giant head. Then the Johansson’s cat came rocketing across the yard pursued by three feverish dogs and, running-to-keep-up, Jon Johansson shouting, “No! No!”
Jon was not allowed near Phil, in fact, no one was allowed near Phil, which was why we needed to ditch him to play ball. The cat wedged herself into a defensive spot between two thorny rose bushes while the dogs, clumsy and in their own way, growled and tore up the ground. Madeira hopped up and down shouting, “Sic’em, Penny! Sic’em!”
Nothing in our neighborhood sparked more competition than our dogs. Bikes, sports, our parents—these were important but our dogs defined us. My dog Ginger was tawny and thin like a greyhound. In terms of flat-out speed Gin was supreme. Johansson dog, Rex, was the only male, neutered, but still a boy. Madeira’s dog, Penny, was a common border collie. But Phil insisted his animal was faster, tougher, smarter, and so on. He’d bring his thunderous head down on anyone who said different.
Like her owner, Penny flew irrational in frenzied situations. With the cat hissing and spitting, Penny snarled and snapped at the other dogs. Mom calmly went about her business. The cat fired claws from her rosebush fortress and caught Penny on the nose drawing blood. Blood always raised the stakes. Madeira screamed that he’d sue Jon Johansson. Phil often threatened to sue people—I wasn’t sure what suing was but Mom said Phil got that from his parents. At the sight of Penny’s bloody nose Phil charged into the fray, trying to stomp the cat. The dogs dodged and lunged. When Ginger got in Phil’s way he drew back his foot and kicked her in the ribs. A solid thump. Another weird thing about Madeira, he didn’t go barefoot in the summer like we did, he wore leather brogans, school shoes, with baggy shorts and no socks. And those shoes packed a wallop in Ginger’s ribs. That was a mistake.
My little brother was what anyone would call “laid back”. At ten years old Butch was stocky and blonde and nearly as tall as me. The nuns said the name Butch didn’t suit him because he wasn’t a tough guy or a bully. His real name was Roland; no one called him that except the nuns if he was in trouble. But Butch was rarely in trouble. He was a teacher’s pet. He clapped the erasers, washed the blackboard, was granted bathroom passes without question and, unlike me, was never commanded to the coatroom for daydreaming. When President Kennedy got after us to become physically fit, Butch could punt, pass & kick, further-faster-bigger-better than kids two years older. In Little League he was star shortstop and home run king. In Cub Scouts, Butch tied all the knots before anyone. He made fire with flint and dry leaves, knew which berries to eat, which ivy vines to avoid, how to chop with an ax, catch a fish, tie a tourniquet. Butch earned the tiger-wolf-bear badges pronto, and shot the Arrow of Light into full-blown Boy Scouts while I languished in Weebelos. Butch was known to react honestly and fearlessly to any situation.
When Phil Madeira kicked our dog Ginger in the ribs Butch dropped the bat and ball and launched himself broad-jump style onto Madeira’s back and locked both arms around Phil’s head. Madeira roared and whirled, swinging the head like an Olympic hammer thrower, like ball on chain, trying to shake off Butch who twisted the thrashing head back and forth as if to wrench it from its roots. Mom looked up and said, “Boys, boys…” She wasn’t upset; she merely wanted to plant her roses. The cat hissed, the dogs growled, Madeira roared, Rex humped Phil’s leg, bloody-nose Penny ran barking in circles. Butch grimly tried to tear Phil’s head off while Phil wailed so loud his mother came out of their house and started across the street which made my mom take a deep breath and speak more firmly. “Boys, stop it now!”
Phil’s mother always wore a dress and had her hair sculptured and sprayed as if she just came from church. As she bore down on us, Butch let go of Phil and sailed free, landing on his feet well out of head-wagging range while Phil stumbled to the ground shedding elephant tears of frustration, his shirt was torn and he had grass stains on his knees. We’d seen this a million times, his mother showed up when Phil was crying and blaming everyone but himself. “It was them. They did it. Jon’s cat scratched Penny.” It amazed us that his mother always seemed to accept that Phil was innocent and harmless. She took him in her arms and soothed him out of our yard giving a slight, not particularly favorable, nod to my mom.
When they were gone, Mom let out a breath. “Something is wrong with that kid,” she said. “Stay away from him.”
We did. We avoided Phil as a general rule. But, when we were bored, when the summer dog days dragged on so long we forgot how much we longed for them in June, when we misplaced the idea of ever wearing shoes again, when we forgot that the nuns lay in wait for us after Labor Day, we lay in wait for Phil, with tomatoes.
The rose bushes had thrived and thickened since Mom planted them, and provided cover for us crouching in the grass across from Madeira’s house. Hunkered down behind them we watched Phil’s brother David play basketball in his driveway with two friends. We knew Phil would come out the side door of his house into the driveway and the basketball players would tell him to get lost, and then he’d cross his front yard.
All summer he’d been parading up and down the street with a marching-band drum, driving everyone nuts. We didn’t know what a marching band was; St. Joe’s didn’t have one, but if Phil was involved we didn’t like it.
Soon enough he came out of the house wearing the drum and a tricorn hat. We rose to our knees, tomatoes in hand. Phil started across his front yard beating the drum. Butch and I were ballplayers, we knew how to throw and judge fly balls. Right away when we hurled the tomatoes we saw Butch’s throw was higher than mine. His tomato bomb would drop from the sky close to our target; mine had too much velocity and would hit the house. We also saw, to our horror, too late to take anything back, Phil’s mother open the front door of their house and step outside. She wore a white dress.
It was not yet high noon. The sun illuminating the front of Madeira’s house seemed to increase the brilliance and clarity of everything including the passage of time. I’m certain I wasn’t breathing at that point. Next to me, my little brother was likewise suspended in that fearful moment while we watched the tomatoes sail over the road. It seemed as if, at the very second Phil’s mother appeared on her front doorstep, God cranked the sun up a notch. As if, He not only saw all, as the nuns insisted, but paid attention to some things more than others.
Butch’s tomato dropped from the sky, nicked the front point of Phil’s tricorn hat, and banged down hard onto the head of his drum. It was a sound unlike any heard in our neighborhood, a soft ripe tomato bursting on a marching-band drum. My tomato, zinging in too fast, made a predicable thud hitting Mrs. Madeira square in the chest and splattering between her breasts on the snow-white dress. From our vantage point it appeared she’d been shot with a shotgun. Both Phil and his mother opened their mouths but the only sound was the basketball pounding the driveway. It is shocking how calm and slowed-down time seems at the instant catastrophic things happen. And we knew this was catastrophic. The only thing worse than hitting someone’s mother with a tomato would be a blasphemous church-related sacrilege for which we would burn everlasting in hell.
We ran. Crouching behind the roses we hauled ass along the fence until we reached the end of our yard. We ran blindly into the road, figuring if we ran fast enough and didn’t look back we’d be invisible and the whole fiasco would disappear. But we weren’t invisible, and we did look back, at least Butch did. He was a stride ahead of me, we could hear Phil roaring behind us, and I saw Butch’s wide-eyed face turn and look back over his shoulder.
Phil was an aforementioned rock thrower. Something our parents told us never to do, right up there with talking to strangers, playing with matches, and sticking our heads in plastic bags. Each year some kid was snatched on the way to school, burned in a fire, smothered in a trash bag, or blinded for life by a flying stone, at least that is what they told us. And Phil, of course, was no ballplayer, he couldn’t throw at all. Which is why later, when I considered the timing of the thing—Butch running before me and turning his head at the very instant the rock Phil threw, over an immense distance and with pinpoint accuracy, hit—I knew the venture had to have been, like the moment Lot’s wife looked back, orchestrated from above.
I didn’t see the golf-ball size stone hit my brother’s head. I heard a hollow knock like knuckles on wood and saw the stone bounce to the road. What I saw when I looked at Butch, was a smooth coating of shiny red as if someone was making a candied apple of my brother’s blonde head. He made no sound. He stopped running. He held his hands out in front of him like a blind man and said, “I can’t see, I can’t see.” I thought, well there it is, he’s blinded like we’d been warned. Phil didn’t come running but it seemed as if every mother on the block did, including our mom and Mrs. Madeira in her ruined white dress. Butch kept waving his arms around in the road and saying, “I can’t see, I can’t see.”
None of our moms drove. After our dads went to work there was only one car in the neighborhood, a beautiful lime-green Edsel sitting pristine in Mrs. Sartelli’s garage. From somewhere a towel was produced and wrapped around Butch’s head like a turban. There was an immense amount of blood and it seemed as if everything else was white: the towel, Mrs. Madeira’s dress, Butch’s t-shirt, and as he was loaded into the car, the white leather interior of Mrs. Sartelli’s Edsel. My mom, before joining Butch on his trip to the hospital, looked at me grimly, and pointed a bloodied finger toward our house.
I knew when Dad came home I’d get the strap. Punishment was all physical in those days, beatings in the basement, I wasn’t afraid of that. What scared me was confession. Come Saturday I would have to confess this sin to Father O’Gara. Everything we did concluded on Saturday mornings with O’Gara.
It wasn’t until the next day that I saw Mom and heard about Butch. I was grounded and couldn’t leave my room. Mom came in and sat on the bed. She’d been up all night at the hospital and looked it. She cried easily and often when we misbehaved so that was no surprise. The brain tumor was.
“What’s a brain tumor?” I said.
“Very serious,” she said quietly.
Throughout the previous 24 hours the plethora of “very serious” situations had piled up. Hitting Mrs. Madeira with the tomato, Phil’s miraculous rock, my father’s fury—You’re going to pay for that goddamn dress!—what I was likely to face from Father O’Gara on Saturday, not to mention the wrath of God I was sure to suffer on judgment day. And now, this mysterious growth in my brother’s brain, a sausage-size shadow showing up on the skull X-ray. The astonished doctor’s saying very serious to my parents, saying surgery now, no going home, straight to the OR, and no guarantees. Butch may never come home.
In confession to Father O’Gara, I stressed the word Protestant. “I wasn’t trying to hit her,” I told him, “I was trying to hit this kid. This Protestant kid.”
“God made all things,” he said. “You throw tomatoes you hurt God. Don’t you see that?”
But I didn’t see. Weren’t Protestants the enemy? Didn’t they go to a different church? I had no clue they were Christians like us.
“Did you apologize to your neighbor?”
“You need to apologize to God.”
“Three Hail Mary’s and an Our Father.”
I retreated to the prayer rail and fake prayed until I figured he wasn’t watching and I got out of there.
School had started by the time Butch returned from the hospital, his hair shaved, an amazing six-inch scar up the backside of his head. The doctors said if the tumor had gone undetected Butch would not have seen teenage years. The stoning by, of all things, a vindictive protestant, had saved my brother’s life. “By the grace of God,” the nuns said. We didn’t even know what grace was. Was it the same grace we said before meals? If Butch was a teacher’s pet before that summer debacle, he was a miracle child after, a candidate for sainthood, a chosen one. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” the nuns said. At times it seemed as if the nuns were actually praising Phillip Madeira. When by extension of their logic I attempted to point out that if we hadn’t thrown the tomatoes, Phil wouldn’t have thrown the rock and… About there I’d be cut off with stern looks and admonishments such as “Two wrongs don’t make a right, mister.” It was puzzling.
In time, Butch’s hair grew out and things went back to normal. We hated Phil Madeira more now that, to our intense chagrin, he claimed hero status in the neighborhood, claimed Butch owed him for saving his life; claimed rock throwing wasn’t always bad, thereby casting doubt on all our parental fears and directives. The very existence of God seemed suspect when faced with the reality of Phillip Madeira.
If our faith in God was strained by the tomato/rock/tumor incident, it was restored the day Madeira went to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox. Everyone’s dad took them to Fenway at some point, but when Phil announced they had tickets it was as if they’d been invited to play in the game. We heard about it for weeks. Phil went everywhere wearing his glove and bragging about how he’d catch a foul ball or even a homer at Fenway. He named our most revered heroes: Carl Yastrzemski, Rico Petrocelli, Tony Conigliaro—they’d hit the ball and Phil would catch it.
Baseball was huge in our neighborhood. I was an average all-around player. Butch was MVP four consecutive years in Little League. Phil, was a total buffoon. He was top heavy with his fat head and his brogan-clad feet. He ran like a girl and couldn’t catch a gently tossed beach ball. We did our best to ignore his bigheaded boasting, a test we figured, a chance to earn brownie points in heaven, but we were young boys, and we loved baseball and the Red Sox and trips to Fenway and we hated Phillip Madeira.
Finally, game day came and Mr. Madeira drove off with Phil and his older brother. We got up a whiffleball team and put the irritation behind us. It was summer again so the days were long and it was not yet dark when we saw the Madeira’s station wagon come back down the street. That wasn’t right. Fenway Park was 30 minutes away and the game was a night game. They should not have been back this early. Butch and I charged up to Madeira’s house and saw Phil hauled out of the car by his dad and brother, one on each side. “Keep your head back,” they said to him. “Breathe through your nose.”
Phil dragged his feet like a dead person, stared at the sky, and made wet moaning sounds. His open mouth was full of blood and black broken-off teeth. There was blood all over his Red Sox shirt. We knew what happened even before his brother blurted it out. “He got hit in the mouth with a ball.”
“Ahaaaaa,” Phil said.
“Where’s the ball?” I said.
The dad gave me an evil look. “You boys go home.”
They dragged Phil into the house. Butch and I looked at each other in wonder. There is a God! We could have chalked the incident up to bad luck but the brother told us that it happened in the first inning. They’d settled into their seats, hadn’t even ordered the peanuts and crackerjacks. Phil was jumping around, smacking his glove, and mouthing off to anyone within earshot about catching a foul when there was a sharp crack and—holy shit—here comes one. Everyone stood. Arms in the air. The brother said a big guy behind them had a clean shot at the ball but passed it up, telling Phil: “You got it kid, it’s all yours, catch it!” And Phil standing there wide-eyed with his glove up over his head and his big fat mouth open, showing all his gappy teeth—Whap! The ball never even grazed his glove. Phil’s mouth was plugged with the very thing that opened it. We didn’t know the word irony but we still appreciated it.
If our faith in God was restored by the foul-ball-in-the-mouth incident, it was an untested faith, until the camping episode put it to the fire.
In Cub Scouts we prized our sleeping bags, canteens, jackknives, folding entrenchment tools. But a tent was huge. A tent was the foundation of real camping, surviving in the wild, living off the land, or at least sleeping out in the backyard. Madeira was first to get a tent from Sears. We grudgingly decided to be his friend that day so we could get some tent know-how, maybe even an invitation to sleep out in the elements. None of us knew how to set up a tent. There were poles and stakes and tie-down cords and no adults to help us. Phil was feverish with excitement and conceit. We knew to stretch out the canvas and pound the plastic stakes into the ground through the corner rope loops. Phil was on one side pulling and pounding his stakes, Butch and me on the other. I pulled my corner to stake it down just as Phil pulled on his side. Butch stood there watching. Doing nothing. I was his older brother; he left it to me. No one noticed when I pulled my rope loop too hard and the cheap thing came off in my hand. Instinctively I dropped it and moved to the next corner.
“Butch,” I said quickly, not to distract Phil, “you do that corner.” I nudged him toward the destroyed loop.
Butch innocently went to the corner I’d wrecked, picked up the torn-off loop and said: “What’s this?”
There is no way to put a positive spin on this. I knew Phil’s reaction would be explosive and violent. I was afraid of Phil. I’d never have the nerve to broad-jump onto his back.
“You broke it!” he screamed and pounced on Butch who was squatting awkwardly with the rope loop in his hands. Phil knocked Butch back onto the grass, pinned his shoulders to the ground and brought his cannonball forehead down on Butch’s face. Repeatedly the head rose and fell like a hammer while I stood there, doing nothing.
The nuns said God doesn’t distinguish between sins of passivity and deliberate acts. My sin was both. It was not hard to expect God’s wrath watching my younger brother’s face pounded into the dirt by Mad Madeira’s head from hell.
When it was over, Madeira ran wailing to his mother. He would tell. Butch would get in trouble. My little brother rose without a word and started home. His back was to me. I ran to catch up. Only when he turned to look at me did he begin to cry. His disappointed face, dirt-streaked and bruised, blood oozing from his nose, reflected the bright white clarity of God’s illumination knob cranked up all the way.
My brother and I always walked to confession together on Saturday morning. He’d go in, I’d go in. We’d run through the rigmarole with O’Gara, fake pray our penance, and be home playing in whiffleball in an hour. But this sin I didn’t know how to dispose of, how to admit, how to avoid. I told Father O’Gara I’d fought with my brother. I hurt him, broke his nose. I often lied in confession, an ironic compounding of wrongdoing and subsequent damnation that was lost on me at the time. O’Gara gave me three Hail Mary’s and an Our Father, standard O’Gara penance. I went to the prayer rail and said them. For real. Then on my own I said an Act of Contrition. Then another. I didn’t know what the word contrition meant, but I couldn’t move, as if my knees were wedded to the wooden rail. I knelt there while Butch waited outside, wondering why I was taking so long. I heard the heavy church door creak open and bang closed, Butch checking on me, puzzled, seeing me on my knees with clasped hands. Finally the door stayed still. I didn’t move. All Saturday afternoon I knelt there reciting Acts of Contrition over and over, fifty, maybe a hundred times. More prayers than I’d ever said in my life. They were nowhere near enough.