“Nigger trumps faggot,” Andre told Frankie, spitting blood with the words, a twist of handkerchief stuffed into his left nostril, a line of red between the white cloth and the brown of Andre’s nose. They sat with their backs to the graveyard wall, looking out at the Cunningham family tombstone and the lesser stones of James, Meredith, Frederick and Eleanor in a horizontal line below it, the dates obscured by the uncut grass. Andre used the toe of his black school shoe to pry free a small stone, tossing it at Meredith.
“Every time,” Frankie whispered into his knees as he hugged them to his chest. Then, louder, he said “Sorry,” stretching out the word in a whiney singsong voice that made everything sound like a question, a voice he already knew Andre hated. Andre was small and weak, but quick of voice, cutting off just enough breath for each word, as if there was not time for dwelling on what was said. It had been that voice, muttering “Asshole” into Frankie’s ear, that had drawn him to Andre just an hour after Brother Clark had introduced Andre to the room, Brother’s own soft, voice barely above silence, as if unaware that he was introducing the first black kid into Bishop Keenan High School.
That had been just two weeks after Frankie had transferred from public school to become the focus of every Keenan 9th grader’s rage. That rage made manifest an hour after Andre’s introduction in the form of Marco Corre shoving Frankie’s giant world history text off Frankie’s desk, the fat book slamming to the floor just behind Corre’s fat ass squeezing up the aisle, the noise reminding the boys in Brother Clark’s class to laugh at everything associated with Frankie Agosta. And everyone laughed but this new black kid whose voice bit off insults aimed at Frankie’s tormenters directly into Frankie’s ear.
Andre’s staccato voice was so opposite the slow drawl of self-pity sliding through Frankie’s head at that moment that Frankie Agosta fell a little bit in love with Andre Green. That afternoon, as they waited at the same bus stop for two different buses to travel home in two different directions, Frankie felt he owed it to Andre to point out that once the shock of his existence wore off, Andre would replace Frankie as the student most likely to get punched after school.
“You mean nigger trumps faggot?” Andre had asked with a smile that dared Frankie to return it.
“Every time,” Frankie smiled.
Andre laughed, a quick spitting sound, and shook his head. “I guess I owe you for the few days of peace then, faggot,” and Frankie smiled to hear the word in simple jest.
“What’s that?” Andre used his chin to point at the small crowd of boys heading down MacDonald Avenue under the elevated tracks.
Frankie turned away as if casually looking for his bus. “That’s Connor Pierce and his crew,” Frankie tried to say each word quickly and distinctly, but the long vowels slid together and it seemed to him he was talking too much. “Heading for Perpetual Grace.”
“The cemetery.” Frankie pointed at the high, brownstone wall randomly spotted black with soot, just beyond the el. “They meet girls there. From Sorrow.” Frankie shifted his pointing finger to the yellow brick building beyond the cemetery, about as far north of Perpetual Grace as Keenan was south. Our Lady of the Sorrows: Bishop Keenan’s Sister School.
“Girls? In the cemetery?”
“That’s what I hear. It’s all big kids, seniors. We can’t go.”
“Why can’t we go?” Andre laughed, putting his arm around Frankie’s neck, drawing him towards MacDonald Avenue. “You look kind of dead.”
“If Connor Pierce sees us,” Frankie said, just slightly less afraid than he was thrilled, “we’ll both be dead,”
Andre skipped ahead and Frankie had to walk slowly to force Andre to stay back until the lanky upperclassmen, their ties undone and their blazers stuffed into their book bags climbed over the brownstone wall. Andre waited on the sidewalk, Frankie stood in the shadow the wall threw that afternoon and watched as the long arms and legs scrambled up the brown stone, with Connor Pierce pausing atop the wall, beating his chest like a gorilla and shouting out a girl’s name, “Nicolette!” The sight of Connor – who was in Frankie’s gym class and liked to punch people at random – always made Frankie short of breath.
Andre convinced Frankie to climb the wall and jump down from the six feet of brown stone to the weedy patch of grass where their bravado wore off. Just ahead, past the Cunningham plot, past the D’Andrea’s guardian angel, there was small hill and beyond that there were girls. Juniors, seniors and a few bold younger termers. The quiet hills and clean grass of the cemetery brought boys in white polyester shirts and blue ties and girls in heather gray skirts and tight blue pull-up socks, to circle and flirt and occasionally pair off.
Or so Frankie and Andre imagined. Though from that day on they went almost every day, they never ventured past the Cunningham plot and spent most of their time sitting in the weeds against that wall, the brown dust of the stones rubbing into their white shirts as they wondered both aloud and silently what might be happening on the other side of that hill. Andre spoke mostly of Sondra Washington, a tall, bony, brown-skinned girl, almost a foot taller than Andre, but with his same quick laugh and nervous, skipping walk. She was Andre’s counterpart, the first black girl at The Sorrows. Frankie did not think of any particular girl, but of girls as a category, an abstract threat hovering in his future. He thought of his mother walking back and forth through the house, her heels clicking with various timbers on the linoleum, wood and carpeted floors so that everyone always knew what room she was worrying in. He held his breath and imagined that beyond the hill the boys and girls were breathing freely, laughing, loosely relaxed in a way he had never been with anyone, moving among each other without fear.
Taking off your jacket and tie before you got home, trespassing in the cemetery, being seen with Sorrow girls, were all against the rules, but the only person who might be interested in such a crime was Father Brennan, the Principal of Bishop Keenan who sometimes reached out to kids with no friends, kids that got picked on, the wimps and geeks and faggots. He would often come up behind such boys as they sat alone in the cafeteria, put his hands on their shoulders and say something loud about God’s grace and the lonely life of those who follow Christ.
“He’s a pasty-faced faggot himself,” Andre said. “He was in the meeting with my mom when they let me in this fucking school.” Andre tossed a stone at Meredith Cunningham’s grave. “He slid his chair right up so our knees were touching and said all this shit about turning the other cheek,” Andre spoke with palpable disgust. “He kept bringing up Martin Luther King and touching my wrist. His breath smelled like wine and fish. Before we left he made us all hold hands and pray.” Andre shuddered. “I thought my father was going to punch the guy.”
Frankie’s father, Mr. Agosta, also disliked Father B. One Sunday, Frankie and his dad rode in Mr. Agosta’s Oldsmobile to get a quart of lemon ice on New Utrecht Avenue. Mr. Zackaria, who owned the store, but spent all day on the sidewalk talking up the passerby while a Puerto Rican kid ran the counter and bussed the tables, always greeted Mr. Agosta, with a kiss on the cheek, then pretended to punch Frankie in the stomach. They got the ices and The Daily News and Mr. Agosta got cigarettes. Frankie got gum, to hide the smell of the cigarettes he would steal from his father later. Returning home, they had the usual trouble finding parking, and had to squeeze in next to a bus stop on 65th Street. When Frankie opened the passenger door, Mr. Agosta put an arm out and held him in his seat.
“We need to talk.”
Frankie thought his father had learned that he was failing gym and dreaded the hours at the basketball courts his father would prescribe, heaving the ball up at the rim in the fading light while his father shouted instructions and encouragement and his mother waited dinner, looking out the window at the dusk, ringing her hands.
Mr. Agosta coughed, covering his mouth with a loose fist.
“Your mother thinks we should talk about sex.”
“You don’t have any questions, do you?”
Frankie paused for a moment, then muttered dryly, “No.”
“You know it was her idea. To put you in that school. Catholic school. You know that wasn’t my idea.”
“I respect your mother’s beliefs. She has a right to believe.” Mr. Agosta ran a hand down his face, pulling his cheeks out of line with his mouth. “But you have to admit. Those priests. Father Brennan. It’s an odd life.” He stared out the window at the traffic on 65th Street. “I’m not fully comfortable with him being the one. To teach. So if you have any questions. Girls. Anything.”
Frankie waited as his father stared out at the traffic.
“You come to me. It’s natural for a father and son. To talk.” And Mr. Agosta reached over and tousled Frankie’s hair as he had done when Frankie was a boy, then got out of the car and gestured towards the back seat.
“Frankie, grab those packages.”
The day after Connor pulled Frankie’s shorts down on the basketball court during gym, sneaking up behind him while Frankie was guarding Mike Dwyer, getting hold of Frankie’s gym shorts and his Fruit of the Looms in one swift pull so that Frankie bounced up and down for all to see, nearly falling over as he tripped about, trying to pull up his shorts and stop Dwyer who drove past him for an easy layup, Father B called Frankie into the office.
First, Father B came to Brother Clark’s class. Usually, he came bursting in, moving Brother out of the way and writing “L-O-V-E” or “P-E-A-C-E” in giant letters across the board while boys sniggered, then asking the class what that meant with the correct answer usually being “God” or “Jesus” but sometimes “The Holy Spirit.” This time he opened the door quietly, scanning the room and letting his gaze rest on Connor, then looking at Frankie and smiling.
“Francis Martin Agosta, please come to my office.”
When Frankie got out into the hallway, Father B was gone, so Frankie walked very slowly to his office and knocked very softly. Inside there was a desk and a picture of the Pope and a bookshelf loaded down with papers and folded up banners. There were two chairs in front of the desk Father B sat behind, but one had a pile of papers on it so Frankie sat in the other and coughed into his tightly clenched fist.
After another few moments of studying the calendar on his desk, turning the pages back and forth and counting, Father B put the calendar away in a drawer and looked up.
“How are you, Francis?”
“Have you recovered from yesterday?”
Then Frankie knew why he was there.
“Yesterday? You mean the Global History quiz? I did OK on that.”
Father B frowned, pursing his lips as if Frankie had cursed.
After a moment of silence, Father B continued. “You know Francis, being singled out for attention is not a bad thing, even if the particular form of attention has negative qualities.”
“Yes, Father.” Frankie’s eyes wandered down to the papers on the chair next to him.
“Even negative, unwanted attention like getting picked on or bullied can have its own sort of grace.”
“Yes, Father.” Frankie noticed that the papers were last week’s religion exam on the sacraments, already graded. The top paper belonged to George Carroll. He had gotten an 83. There was a long pause here as Father B sat looking at Frankie and Frankie sat looking at George Carroll’s test paper. Both had their hands in their laps. After a long silence, Frankie repeated,
“When Connor pulled your shorts down in gym,” the words rushed from Father B as if he were himself embarrassed by them, “There is a grace even in that. Do you know what that grace is?”
“Forgiveness,” Father B tapped lightly on the surface of his desk with the flat of his hand, bringing the hand down softly and then letting it hover over the surface as he continued. “When you forgave those boys for laughing, when you turned the other cheek-“
Frank looked up at Father B, thinking that he was being laughed at again, but Father B was looking back softly, the acceptance and caring in his eyes appeared genuine.
“You, Francis Martin Agosta, achieved a kind of grace.”
Frank wondered about telling Father B that he had not forgiven Connor or Dwyer or Coach Calender, who ran his class as if the very point of gym was for jocks to torment faggots. He glanced back down at George Carroll’s paper. George had gotten Extreme Unction wrong on the multiple choice. Frankie thought he, too, had put ‘B: Epiphany.’
“People who can forgive those who trespass against them,” Father B came out from behind his desk and sat on its front edge, one foot up on the seat of Frankie’s chair, between Frankie’s knees. “They are already doing God’s work.”
Frankie sat up straighter, moving his face and chest further from that leg, pressing his shoulders against the straight chair back.
There was a long awkward moment of silence and Father B kept looking at Frankie and Frankie nervously searched the room for something to look at. Pope Paul was looking down at him and George Carroll’s B- was looking up at him and Father B’s knee was directly in front of him. Frankie stared at the desk beyond Father Brennan’s knee, noticing that light lines of grain stood out against the dark wood. The lines were waving in an almost parallel pattern across the surface. After a long moment, Frankie repeated “Yes, Father,” and Father B smiled.
“Back to class,” he said, but before Frankie could slide out of the narrow space Father B put his hand on Frankie’s shoulder and whispered dramatically “I want you to think about that grace, Francis. What does it mean in your life?”
“Do you ever move any faster?” Andre said, skipping ahead and turning to walk backwards and plead for Frankie to hurry up. Frankie walked no faster, but turned around to see if anyone was behind them.
Once at the cemetery wall, they waited, sharing a cigarette Frankie had stolen from his father. Andre pushed off the wall and looked towards New Utrecht from time to time, while Frankie stayed in the shadow, keeping an eye out for the older boys on 14th Avenue.
“Maybe she’s not coming,” Frankie said.
“Of course she’s coming,” Andre laughed. “There’s only two of us in the whole neighborhood – we might as well enjoy each other’s company.”
“That is so racist,” Frankie said.
“Shut up, faggot,” Andre laughed and pushed Frankie against the wall, just as Sondra came around one corner and Connor and Marco came around the other.
“You gonna let this nigger call you faggot?” Connor flicked a finger at Frankie’s eyebrow, snapping him on the bone of his eye socket. Frankie flinched, partly in pain, and partly in fear of the loud snap, of the hand coming up at his face. “Huh?” Connor said, standing close enough that Frankie could taste him in the air, a mix of sweat and Brut in the back of his throat. Connor flicked his finger again, hitting the red mark made the first time, stinging Frankie’s eye and making his vision go blurry. “You really must be a faggot. Visiting with Father B?” Connor sang in a high-pitched whine that mimicked Frankie’s own. “Did you offer each other a sign of peace?”
Connor flicked a third time and Frankie thought his eye would pop out of its socket, and he wrenched his shoulder free of Connor’s grasp and turned to the wall to hide his shame and tears. Connor and Marco walked past, shoving Andre aside, and approached Sondra who was waiting, pretending not to watch, chatting with a short busty girl.
Faggot had nothing to do with sex, Frankie told himself, seeing Connor lean his arm against the wall of the cemetery, his face close to Sondra’s as Marco and the short busty girl stood ignoring each other. Sondra laughed, but ducked under Connor’s arm to continue walking. Connor reached out to touch her and she shrugged him off, turning and putting her hand up like a traffic cop, palming him into place, Connor’s arms out at either side, like he was pleading with her, but Sondra laughed again, shaking her head and turning to walk back around New Utrecht out of sight. The short busty girl smiled at Marco, shrugged her shoulders and followed Sondra.
Frankie shrank back against the wall, but Andre stood on the sidewalk, smiling as Connor and Marco walked back past.
“Fuck you, nigger,” Connor spat, punching Andre with a short, sharp right fist. Andre’s nose burst bloody and he slumped against the wall. Frankie froze as if at attention as the two older boys walked away. Then he pulled a wad of wrinkled handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to Andre. Sondra and her friend appeared again from New Utrecht walking towards them.
“Fuck me,” Andre muttered, and boosted himself up, his black leather shoes scuffling over the stones as the two boys scrambled over the wall and onto the grass at the foot of the Cunningham family.
“You got flicked on the cheek,” Andre complained, wiping at the blood on his white shirt. “I got a bloody nose.”
“Sorry,” Frankie moaned.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” Andre said, folding Frankie’s handkerchief, now white with streaks of rusty bloodstains, and returning it to him, “You need to stay away from Father B.”
“I know,” Frankie muttered, speaking into his knees, which were folded up at his chin, then, even quieter, whispering another apology. He slipped the handkerchief into his blazer pocket and felt Andre’s shoulder touching his as they leaned against the wall. Faggot, he told himself, had nothing to do with sex.
“We got enough trouble without his help,” Andre warned.
Frankie knew that Andre was right, but could think of no alternative when, on Thursday, Father B asked Frankie back into the office. This time the test papers were gone and Father B sat next to Frankie.
“Francis, God’s mystery is difficult to unfold. Some would say it is impossible, and for too many people, I fear that is true.” Father B put a hand on the back of Frankie’s chair. “We should think with kindness of those who will live outside of God’s grace, outside looking in.”
Frankie did not look at Father Brennan, but studied the grain of wood on his desk, following the lines that started off parallel and then mixed and merged as they made their way across the wood. Frankie studied the wood but kept his mind focused on Father B.’s hands. One was resting on Father’s knee, which was poking Frankie because Father B was twisted around in his chair to face Frankie. Frankie wondered how he would react if Father B touched him. He was aware of the door beyond Father B and all the boys in the hallway beyond that door. He knew those boys were ready to laugh at him, to pull his jockstrap down over his face or throw milk cartons at him in the cafeteria, or who knew what else if they saw him here in this office with this man’s soft, cool voice and a hand on the back of his chair and a bit of talcum powder at the edge of his collar.
“It’s not unusual for those called to Jesus’ service to know the call very young. I knew when I was your age, and I was guided by men who saw that grace in me and nurtured it.”
On the word “nurtured,” Father B put his palm gently on Frankie’s knee, touching him for a brief second, then letting the hand hover above Frankie’s chinos. Frankie closed his eyes.
“Do you know when I saw that grace in you, Francis?”
“In the gym last week?” Frankie felt his face getting hot, felt the shame return. He thought he might throw up.
“No, that was when I realized that the flame in you, that spark, needed help or it would flicker and die.” The palm of Father B’s hand came down for another gentle second on Frankie’s knee. Frankie closed his eyes tighter.
“I first saw that flickering light of God’s grace in you when Andre Green came to Bishop Keenan. All of us were challenged to accept this Negro boy as a child of God and, as you know, some of us have failed. Even among the faculty, some have had a hard time opening our hearts to the boy.”
Frankie opened his eyes now and saw the grain of Father B’s desk, swirling together again.
“Among the students … well, you have seen better than I.”
Frankie saw the lines gather themselves into a knot at the corner.
“Yet you have reached out to him. You have offered him the hand of friendship. You have offered him sanctuary.”
Frankie imagined the knot dissolving, on the other side of the desk, where he couldn’t see it, the grains becoming individual lines again. Frankie stood up and Father B followed, putting both hands on Frankie’s shoulders.
“Your willingness to befriend the weakest among us shows you have a special ability to love. And here in this office, I am offering you the same sanctuary you have offered little Andre Green.”
Frankie moved a hand into his blazer pocket and felt the soft cloth of his bloody handkerchief. He remembered the cold air of the gym on his crotch and thighs, the sting of Connor’s fingers against his cheekbone and the heat of his tears. He squeezed past Father B, slipping under the hands on his shoulders and opening the door. He could see boys leaning against lockers, boys rushing towards the gym, boys just standing in the halls between classes. Connor and Marco came out of Brother Dunleavy’s math class; Andre was right behind them. All three looked first at Frankie and then at Father B, smiling in the door behind him, his hand on Frankie’s shoulder again.
“Anytime,” Father B said, in a voice loud enough to be heard by every boy in the hall. “Come see me anytime.”
“Sanctuary,” Frank mumbled as he crossed the hall. Connor did not dare flick at his ear or smack the back of his head or pull his pants up until his crotch hurt while Father B was watching, so Frank was able to slip past Connor and step right up to Andre.
Andre said “Hey,” but raised one eyebrow and leaned his head back so that his chin pointed through Frankie’s chest and on towards Father B still standing in his office door, as if to silently ask, “What gives?”
In answer, Frank made a fist and punched Andre quick and sharp, feeling his knuckles crush Andre’s thick lips against his healthy white teeth, following through so that Andre’s head snapped backwards and he stumbled back into math class, knocking over a desk as he fell to the floor.
Frank turned and walked away. He could hear Connor and Marco laughing, but he could no longer hear Father B calling his name, suddenly, in anger.