Morty, El Morto
Morty Langly awoke to find the December chill edging against his blanket. In the dawning light a heavy snow fell, the first snow of the season. He peered out the window to the cars parked along the eerily quiet street. The snowdrifts bunched up against the tires, a sight that surely meant reprieves were to come: Sister Deuteronomy’s religion test postponed and Sister Agatha’s obnoxious crooning of The Canterbury Tales ceased for a time, thank Jesus. For the past three days, the old nun had waddled to the front of the class, cleared her throat, and in a voice that belied her heft, begun, “Wan that Aprill with his shoures soote”; she then proceeded, as Aggie Tuft remarked, to massacre Middle English until the dismissal bell sounded. Aggie was what the boys in the eighth-grade class referred to as a brainiac, and so Morty supposed she was right about Sister Agatha’s pronunciation, though each day he didn’t think about the nun’s language so much as what Sister Agatha must look like naked—her blubbery skin, her torpedo breasts.
Ice pinged against the glass. Morty writhed down, under the covers. He envisioned the Wife of Bath, her depiction brought to life in his textbook—her dress hiked up along her gartered thighs, her bosom thrust forward. Even the mole on her cheek was enough to give half the boys at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (aka Our Lady of Perpetual Misery) an erection, particularly those without access to Playboys or those with parental locks on Internet porn. In gym, even Eric Brumble had recently confessed to working up quite a sweat over the lusty babe, though the boys also suspected that Sister Agatha had no intention of ever reading the Wife’s tale, because at the end of each class she would inform them all that they would begin again tomorrow, and everyone soon discovered this only meant starting over at the prologue, with Wan that Aprill . . . , the Wife’s tale forever out of the boys’ collective grasp.
The snow swirled and whipped around, and Morty’s thoughts flitted about. He wanted to jiggle off. The act (THE act) seemed to necessitate blankets. It was difficult to be chaste at 6:37 in the morning, he realized, though he also reminded himself that if his mother could see him now, she’d surely be disappointed. Thinking this, he turned his attention to the image of the Virgin Mary taped up on his wall. She appeared in miniature, her face serene, her arms outstretched, as if to hold him. He might have said a prayer—there was a time he loved to pray; there was a time he loved to wonder about God and heaven—but instead he imagined the silk falling from the Virgin’s shoulders, her fair skin and perfect, holy nipples. His hands fidgeted then and instead of folding them in supplication, Morty spit into his right palm and cupped his hand over his flesh. He hoped, in a vain, desperate way, that God was a late riser on snowy days, such as this, though he secretly feared it was possible that God and all the saints and mothers in heaven saw every small and large sin committed on earth. Jiggling off to the Virgin, he reasoned, was surely blasphemy of the highest order. And yet.
Ashamed, he closed his eyes and moved his hand, faster, faster, faster, until the friction heightened and guilt and pleasure tangled in complicated ways. His breath quickened. On the day of Judgment he’d be cast down to hell for all this, he just knew it, and there he’d suffer through fires, and there in hell would be countless nude virgins lying supine, legs spread, and every time Morty would look in any direction, some demon would thrust a poker into his side. Or worse! He moved faster and faster, aware of his breaths, aware of the cold and icy snow and the otherwise consuming silence. Faster and faster and . . .
He opened his eyes and waited for God to level His wrath, but ten minutes passed and Morty yawned, waiting. The alarm sounded, and he decided that, on that note, it was time to get out of bed.
“The gig is canceled,” Morty’s father announced when, with cereal in hand, Morty sat down at the kitchen table. Morty Sr. was a big, hulking man, a man who because of his height tended toward a lumbering, awkward appearance even on those rare occasions when he wore a suit. Today he was dressed in jeans and a long-worn and faded flannel, which were his more typical attire. At the table, he brooded over his coffee cup as if it demanded considerable contemplation. He glanced up briefly. “I’m glad the gig is off,” he said. “Aren’t you? They’re saying we’re in for a blizzard.”
“Heck, yes, I’m glad,” Morty said. “Test today. Never a better time for the gig to be called off.”
Morty Sr. nodded and sipped his coffee. The gig was a leftover phrase from when his father drove eighteen-wheelers across country, in those days when his father wore a perpetual smug grin for being the driver with the most miles under his belt. That was before Morty and his mother were in the car accident last winter, before his mother was killed, and before Morty stopped speaking for a month. After all that occurred, Morty Sr. quit his job so that he could work closer to home. “In case you need me,” he had told Morty. Increasingly, neither spoke of Morty’s mother and often the boy had difficulty remembering the simplest things: his mother’s face when she told a story, or the sound of her voice at night when she’d crack open the door and ask Morty if he’d said his prayers. Memories reduced to fragments; even Morty sensed it. And it was the things you took for granted that often became the things you missed most.
These days both Morty and his father were under the auspices and good graces of the nuns at Our Lady of Perpetual Misery and of Father Bastian, especially, who had seen fit to give Morty’s father a job at school and also waive Morty’s tuition for a time. Both developments left Morty embarrassed beyond words, a humiliation that only intensified when his father was actually seen in the halls, sweeping or emptying trash, or when—on the two occasions his father was persuaded to receive penance, even though he had refused since the funeral to step foot in church—Father Bastian walked over to school and crammed himself into the janitorial closet, both men sitting on overturned buckets, Morty Sr.’s crying heard from behind the closed door.
Now he and his father sat in silence while Morty ate his cereal. It was the boy who finally spoke again.
“Yep,” he said, and he drummed his fingers on the table. “A test.”
Morty Sr. took another swig of coffee. “So what test didn’t you study for, anyway?”
Morty shrugged. “Just religion.”
“How do you test that?”
“The usual. You know, like the choirs of angels—seraphim and cherubim and thrones and stuff like that. If it’s in the Bible, it’s fair game. That’s what Sister Deuteronomy says, ‘Fact, not fiction, my little chickens.’”
His father rolled his eyes. “Great,” he said. “A flipping fundamentalist.” He looked at Morty for a moment too long, and Morty wondered what his father was thinking about. Still, Morty sensed that the conversation, such as it was, was over, even though generally speaking, the lucid hours of morning were the best time to talk to his father at all. Lately, trying to have any conversation with his father proved as difficult as trying to talk to heaven: full of impossible silences. He missed the days when his father would crack jokes about priests and rabbis and monks screwing in lightbulbs and his mother would slap him playfully and tell him to stop, or days when his mother would cook a large breakfast and they’d eat so much that she’d hold her belly. “Well,” she’d say when she finally got up from the table. “I guess I’ll try and stand for Jesus.” And Morty’s father would joke that she’d stand or fall, for sure. “All depends on what you believe,” he’d say.
In Morty’s house, a well-kept two-story duplex on the east side of town, there had often been, over the years, dissenting opinions regarding issues of faith and fate. His mother had come from a long line of God-fearing souls, those who attended mass not only every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation but also the occasional Wednesday, hump-day, service. If his mother would have had her way, had it not caused the first fight of her and Morty Sr.’s marriage so long ago, she would have wanted her boy to be named Matthew or John, men who were in God’s grace and names that ensured, in her Irish way of thinking, that young Morty would not only be blessed but also lucky. Morty’s father, however, believed a person made his own fate. He’d descended from a long line of miners, those who worked the bowels of the earth and who were born with nothing and died with nothing. Morty Sr. often said he’d eluded that particular sentence by choosing to drive across the country. It was a job that, for him, was proof a man made his own fortune. Anyway, such disparate views collided in the birth of young Morty, to the point where the boy remained nameless for three days and even the nurses had privately waged bets on the outcome. Morty was finally given a name that was seen as a compromise by his parents, but one that proved to be a curse of grade school, ensuring that he’d spend years being dubbed Morty the Morbid; Morty the Mortician; Hey, Morty, El Morto; and for those with a less developed sense of word play, just Mort-y, said with a face. It was Aggie Tuft who first started the name-calling years before on the playground—smart-ass Aggie, whom Morty did not have a crush on and whom he only once imagined naked. It was a brief fantasy that triggered a sneezing fit during fourth-period algebra class.
Later, they shoveled the steps and front walk and Morty watched as his father, red-faced, dug into the ice-crusted snow. When he stopped to rest, his father squinted blindly up at the sky and cursed under his breath. “Snow, Morty,” he said. “Unlike your religion, you can test snow, test the roads, the tread on tires. I don’t know what your mother was thinking taking you out that day.”
“I know,” Morty answered. He wiped his brow. He scraped the last of the snow from the bottom porch step, but a moment later it was dusted again. His jeans were soaked. The wind bit into him, and he pulled his skullcap over his ears.
His father waved him off. “I got the rest,” he said. “No worries.”
Morty nodded to his father before climbing the drifts in the yard. With every step his feet sunk deep into the snow. He walked unsteadily to the back of the house and retrieved his sled from the shed. He dragged it past the duplexes where dogs had already yellowed the snow around the shrubs and trees, past the brick houses that sprung up a few bocks later, and past the tree-lined streets that led to Main, where the large houses each had antique lamplights and wreaths hung on the doors. A plow drove by, scraping snow and ice and spewing salt out its back end. Morty smelled exhaust. Beyond that, the streets were still empty, the sidewalks slick in places, despite being salted.
“Morty, El Morto!”
He turned. Of course it was Aggie Tuft. She sprinted down the front steps of her house. Her plastic sled bounced behind her. Her checkered coat flipped open, and, under a red beret, her dark hair fluttered about. Before this moment, Morty was concentrating on the snow, how the cold hurt his lungs when he breathed, how the snow filled the sky, and how, each time he looked up, everything was so white it blinded him. Before this moment, he was trying to remember what his mother had worn the day of the accident; he was trying to remember what errand they had to run that seemed so pressing. But now as Aggie neared him, she blinked back snowflakes, and he thought only of how dark her lashes were, and how they made her blue irises more pronounced. Morty suddenly felt underdressed without Our Lady of Perpetual Misery’s standard slacks and shirt. He pushed a piece of polyester fill back into the tear at his elbow and hoped Aggie wouldn’t notice.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“What do you think?”
She didn’t answer. She ran from him instead. Her boots scrunched the snow, her own grip on the ground noticeably shaky. “Can’t catch me, El Morto,” she taunted, glancing back.
“Smartass!” But despite himself, Morty ran after her. He pulled his sled harder, ran faster. Sweat formed under his coat. The wind stung his face. When, a half-block later, he finally passed Aggie, he tapped her shoulder and grinned feverishly, revealing the gap between his teeth. He stopped at the intersection, even though the sign read WALK.
“Loser,” he said, when, breathless, Aggie caught up to him. He looked away, determined to ignore her.
“I never said it was a race, El Morto.”
“It never is when you lose it.” He turned toward her then and noticed how her cheeks, which were pale even in the springtime, had bloomed berry splotches. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He tried to think of something to say, but what? “No religion test,” he declared finally, though he seldom studied and still did well. “No Sister Agatha today, either.”
“God, I wish she’d just die,” Aggie moaned. “‘A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man . . .’ She’s like an assault on my brain.”
Morty didn’t believe Aggie’s Middle English sounded any better than Sister Agatha’s, really, but he let the point slide. When the light turned, they walked.
“That’s just about the oldest wooden sled I’ve ever seen. In. My. Life,” Aggie said. She brushed a strand of wet hair from her cheek. “My sled is brand new, ‘state-of-the-art engineering,’ my dad says. The circular shape decreases drag and makes it go faster, the plastic keeps it light and aerodynamic. My dad would know, of course, because he’s an engineer.”
It was this facetiousness that made Morty hate Aggie, and why last week, in Sister Biology’s class, he’d thrown a frog at Aggie and then watched as its rubbery body landed directly in her lap, causing her to scream and making the class bubble up with laughter. Did he regret that action? Did he regret her tears, her yelling that it wasn’t funny? When he heard her brag like this, he didn’t regret any cruelty inflicted on Aggie Tuft, at all. This was true despite the fact that Sister Biology had chastised him, reminding Morty that every creature, large and small, was a creature of God, and she added that each frog cost the school four dollars and that was four dollars he wasn’t paying.
“An engineer. So?” Morty hocked a loogie into the snow. He grinned, happy with both its speed and distance.
“Oh, really juvenile,” Aggie said. “If I spit like that my dad would have an absolute conniption.”
“You couldn’t spit like that if you tried,” Morty said. “And like your dad would care. Isn’t he away all the time? I bet he never talks to you about velocity and aerodynamics. I bet you don’t understand what any of that actually means.”
Aggie shot him a look that was very similar to the one issued after the frog incident—indignant, the start of tears visible. Her face grew redder. “My dad works for NASA, I’ll have you know. He does very important and highly classified experiments, ones that you and your dad couldn’t even comprehend.”
“Really? Well, you know what they say about engineers, don’t you?”
“No, what do they say about engineers, Mort-y?” She made a face.
Morty had absolutely no idea what people said about engineers. He wanted to crack a joke about how they couldn’t even change a lightbulb, but all he could think of was what his mother had said after meeting the Tufts at a school function: That Aggie’s mother seemed like the type of woman who put up with a lot of shenanigans, and Aggie’s father seemed exactly like the type of man who slept around a lot. “A nice man, but all that polish,” she told Morty Sr., speaking not only of Mr. Tuft’s hair but also of his demeanor. “Ssss-lick.”
“I figured you wouldn’t have a comeback,” Aggie said. “You with your half wit.”
“Oh, I do,” Morty assured her. “Engineers are slick.”
“Slick? Slick? What does that even mean?”
“Oh, I’d tell you. But I don’t want to make you cry.”
“Right, like your father does,” Aggie said smugly.
Morty resisted the urge to punch her then. He would have tackled her if she were a boy, but he refrained. If she weren’t a lady, he thought. Not that Aggie Tuft was a lady, mind you, by any stretch, but still. He reached down, scooped up snow, and packed it into a ball. He threw it at Aggie but she dodged it.
They crossed the street. At the school Aggie continued: “You know, even if I’d wait a year for you, you wouldn’t have a good comeback. So typical of boys, really. If you’d spend more time thinking and less time playing with yourselves, your brains wouldn’t freeze up on you all the time.”
“Right,” Morty said. “You don’t know what you’re even talking about.”
Aggie raised her eyebrows. “Really? Oh, p-lease, like we all can’t hear you. If any of you boys knew how to whisper in gym class it would be a miracle.” They were approaching the church now, with its old stone exterior and wide steps, its large, beveled window that formed the image of the Virgin, etched in pink and blue glass. “A MIRACLE!” Aggie exclaimed. She held both arms up in the air.
“Indeed!” Father Bastian said when he stepped outside from the church’s vestibule. He looked to Morty like an old Irish immigrant bundled up in his black coat, a fur derby hiding most of his thick white hair and bushy eyebrows. “It is beautiful,” Father Bastian agreed. “And it makes me so proud that the students of Our Lady of Perpetual Help like to discuss miracles, even on their day off from school.”
Aggie stopped long enough to tsk this. She brushed snow from her coat sleeves. “Not the kind of miracles that Jesus likes, that’s for sure.”
“Is that so?” Father Bastian asked.
“Trust me,” Aggie said. She squinted at Morty and smiled. He shot her a dirty look. “Anyway, we were just saying . . . we were just talking about . . . Morty was just saying how he wishes school would be canceled tomorrow, too, so we could have a long weekend. I was telling him, Father, that I’d hate to miss Sister Agatha’s English class.”
Father Bastian nodded. He rocked back and forth slightly, as if he were considering the merits of Aggie’s statement. He ran a gloved hand over his face. “And does Sister Agatha inspire you to such adoration, Morty?”
“I guess,” Morty said. “In her own way.”
“Well, I love the snow days, myself,” Father Bastian replied, looking around in an amused, thoughtful way. “As for school tomorrow, I’ll put in a word upstairs. But the nuns hold a lot of sway up there, too, and if Sister Agatha has it in mind to read from The Canterbury Tales tomorrow, I doubt even the heavens could stop her.”
When they arrived at what the students at Our Lady of Perpetual Misery referred to as Camel Toe Hill, with its dimpled impression at the peak, Aggie didn’t want to be bothered with Morty at all. She ran off when she saw her two best friends, the two Marias. They stood by the cemetery wall, talking. Both were blond and stocky, though one Maria now had breasts that Morty fantasized about grabbing whenever she walked by him. “Brand new,” Morty heard Aggie say, and he caught the gist again of state-of-the-art engineering.
The snow pounded down, obliterating the line between the earth and sky. Morty climbed the hill. He headed toward the long line of trees that stretched over the hillcrest, interrupting the monotonous whiteness. He could barely make out the blurred shapes of other students as they ran in the distance. He heard muffled shouts, taunts, laughter. There were at least twenty students from Our Lady who hurtled down the hill, screaming as they whizzed by and veered off in various directions, toward the right, where the hill leveled out in a benign way, or toward the left, where the slope was steeper and the path longer, the walk back up the hill backbreaking and where, on the way down, you’d have to maneuver over several moguls before stalling out at the cemetery wall that rose between the convent and the rectory.
When he reached the summit, Morty wiped blinked hard. He studied the terrain, trying to figure out how to best execute his run. Eric Brumble and John Warner called to him from the woods. When Morty turned, he saw them marching out of the brush. They were both flushed. Eric wore a peacoat and high boots. He punched at the air in a playful, defiant way. John followed, his face so obscured by a scarf that only his glasses were visible. Both grabbed the sleds they had abandoned under the tree. “I got bets on getting down first,” Eric yelled, and he hopped on his racer. John followed suit, as did Morty. He cut a new path. The cold punched Morty as he picked up speed. The wind tunneled through his coat. He lowered his head to shield his face from the ice. Halfway down the hill he veered left, toward the cemetery wall. He hit one good bump, and two, and three. The sled lifted in the air, came down hard. He veered left again, toward the grassy area where icy yellow stalks pushed through the snow and cushioned his sled’s speed. Victorious, Eric was already waiting at the bottom. John followed behind both boys. “I knew I’d win!” Eric exclaimed. “Beat your asses.”
“Head start,” Morty said. “Rematch!” Breathless, they ran up the hill and then raced down again. After more than an hour passed, Eric, bored and exhausted from the climb, started a snowball fight that sent all three boys scattering into the woods. They pummeled one another’s backs and legs. They hit tree trunks. The wind loosened the snow from the branches and sent it swirling down around them.
Finally, Eric said, “Come on, Morty. There’s more to do than this. I’ve got something for you to see.”
“Show him, Eric,” John said.
“I’ll show him,” Eric said, motioning. He led the way along a trail already thick with footprints. He snapped low twigs and branches. When they reached a dense area of brush, Eric pulled out a Playboy that he had stuffed inside his jacket. The pages were damp and wrinkled from the snow. John pushed his glasses higher on his nose and smacked his mittened hands together. Eric paged through the magazine, while Morty and John huddled close, staring at photographs of naked women. “Holy shit!” John mused. “I’d do that one.”
“Hell, yeah,” Eric agreed. He pointed out those women he thought had perfect bodies, and Morty, his heart racing, his cheeks flushed in an embarrassed way, agreed. The boys discussed melons and puckers and fun bags, bare pussies and hairy monsters. “I can’t wait to do it,” Eric said, though Morty sensed it would be a long time coming. He shivered, balled his fingers together for warmth. He noticed the snow, dirtied from his boots.
“Look at that one!” John exclaimed, stopping Eric’s paging. “Oh yeah, I’d do that.”
“Me, too,” Morty said, though he was beginning to feel ashamed, dirty, even, like he did in gym class when all the boys measured themselves to see whose pecker was the longest. There were some things that were best left to the privacy of one’s bedroom, he thought, and he wondered if, when he returned home, he should say a rosary or pray to the statue of the Holy Family that he had stored in the closet after his mother’s funeral. His mother would be so disappointed in him if she could see him now, gawking over these women. Once, last year, when his jiggling off had begun in all its complicated rigor, she’d found some nude photographs that Morty had printed off the Web. “Morty,” she’d said disappointedly. His mother was a modest woman, all in all, and she was sensitive about things pertaining to sex. She sat down on the edge of his bed and held the pages he’d printed. To his embarrassment, she leafed through them, and then she looked out the window for a long time and was silent. “I’ll have to talk to your father about this when he gets back from his trip,” she said finally. But before such a discussion could occur, she and Morty were in the accident—the icy roads, the metal guardrail. Thinking about this and studying the Playboy, something came over Morty unexpectedly, something confusing and sad.
“How about her, Morty?” Eric asked. He licked his lips suggestively.
“Ah, they aren’t that great,” Morty told him. “I’ve seen better.”
“Sure you have,” Eric said.
“Sure,” John chimed in. “Whatever, Mort-y.”
“I’d whack off to this brunette,” Eric added. “Hey, bet I could get off faster than either of you could, to this hot tamale right here.”
“I’d get off faster,” John says. “My pecker is bigger than yours.”
“The hell it is,” Eric replied.
“Well, I’m not freezing my pecker off,” Morty said. He wanted to leave. “My hands are numb. I’m heading home.”
“Suit yourself,” John told him.
“Wuss,” Eric called.
Morty flipped them the bird and walked through the woods. He was thinking about the photographs, of course, and desperately wishing his erection away. When he reached the clearing and grabbed his sled, Aggie Tuft was there, standing, surveying the hill. The two Marias were gone. Morty called to her and she turned and waved him on.
“I was wondering where you were,” she said. She pushed away hair that whipped in her face and hopped onto her sled. She sat, cross-legged, before catapulting herself forward. “Can’t catch me, Morty!”
Morty ran after her, set his sled down, and leapt onto his racer. The waxed blades caught in the icy snow at first but quickly gained speed. He propelled himself toward Aggie. He thought, fleetingly, that her sled wasn’t so fast, not as fast as his old wooden one. There was something about it all that thrilled him—the snow whipping about, the cold air, the knowledge that somewhere ahead of him Aggie was there, at first a blur against the whiteness but then gradually sharper in his line of vision as he neared, her red beret, her checkered coat.
Morty felt, at this point, not a terrible tension in his arms and legs but only the cold wind, the blades atop the ice. He gained more speed and approached Aggie’s right. She turned. A flash of nervous, excited energy came across her face. He thought, I’ve got you now, and Aggie yelled to her own sled, “Faster, faster, faster.” He reached out and pushed her, hard, as he might push Eric or John when they roughhoused. Her sled wobbled, and, off balance, she hit a mogul hard before she veered left again, not toward the grassy area at all. Her sled seemed to fly in the air and Aggie moved faster and faster, until it was obvious to Morty that she wouldn’t be able to steer away from the cemetery wall, and he imagined the unevenness of the wall and the unyielding quality of it, and how he couldn’t do anything to save Aggie from hitting the wall, hitting it hard, slamming into it and catapulting forward. Aggie was blurry again by now, lost in the whiteness, her dark hair whipping around her. Her red beret flew from her head as she disappeared over a bumpy crest, and then Morty heard her scream. He raced past the beret, and he swore for a moment it was a puddle of blood, blood and not wool, and that if he touched it, it wouldn’t be soft, but warm and tacky. His muscles tensed. He felt as if his heart might explode in his chest. His eyes welled up, though Morty was a boy who seldom cried.
When he reached the bottom of the hill, he crawled to a stop. He dismounted and ran, breathless, to where Aggie was lying on the ground. Snow dusted her dark hair, making her appear suddenly older. A few feet away, her sled had smashed into the wall and now was upright, pushed against it. The remaining children from Our Lady were off at some distance—he could hear them somewhere in the swirls of whiteness, but when he went to call out for help, his mouth was too dry for him to yell. He fell to his knees. He pushed Aggie’s shoulder. “Get up,” he said, softly, lifting her arm, but it was heavy and fell as soon as he released it. He waited and felt his jaw tighten, and then he yelled again, “Get up!”
For a moment, everything seemed muted by the snow, except for his heart, which thumped wildly. He was aware of his shallow breath. His hand rested on Aggie. Her eyes suddenly flew open. She turned her head and laughed. She moved her legs in an amused way, writhing on the ground. “What a ride!” she yipped. She held her stomach. “Holy! I wiped out. I wiped out hard. I’ve never wiped out!”
Morty got up and spit on the ground. “That wasn’t funny,” he yelled. He clenched his fists.
Still laughing, but less so now, Aggie sat up. “Oh, Morty,” she said. “But it was fun! I’ve never gone so fast. I beat you down the hill! I won!”
“You did that on purpose,” he said. “To make me think—”
“Me? You almost killed me, pushing me like that!” She paused suddenly when Morty began to cry. She stood up and bit her bottom lip. “Morty?”
Morty was too flabbergasted to respond. He spit on the ground again. He wiped his face with his sleeve. His entire body was shaking.
Aggie brushed snow from her jeans and coat before coming closer to him. She looked around, but there was only whiteness, and children somewhere off in the distance, laughing, unaware of what had happened. She stared at Morty in an earnest way. “No one saw,” she said. Then, before he realized what was about to happen, before he could think to say anything, Aggie stepped so close to him he could smell her strawberry shampoo. She kissed him on the mouth. Her lips were cold and soft and she kept them pressed to his. His heart swelled, and it was as if everything in that moment were perfect, every fear soothed, every hurt alleviated, every burden lifted. He felt light, deliriously happy. He wanted the kiss to last forever.
When Aggie stepped back, she smiled shyly, and Morty put his sleeve to his mouth. He watched as Aggie retrieved her sled and then ran to find her hat. She glanced back. “I’m sorry, Morty,” she said. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Morty walked home, mindful of cars that moved slowly along the icy streets. There was so much he wanted to say, so much he wanted to talk about. How foolish he felt now, thinking of accidents and seeing blood. It wasn’t like that day with his mother, the day Morty had cracked a joke and she’d turned her head at the wrong moment. It wasn’t like that day at all. Nothing bad had happened. Aggie kissed him, and the kiss was wonderful. Was God behind that, too?
At the house, he took off his boots and left them next to his father’s on the porch. Inside, he hung up his coat. In the living room, he found his father sleeping upright on the couch. Generally, after Morty Sr. had said his own personal contrition and after half the bottle of Jack was gone, he fell blissfully asleep each night. Morty pried the bottle from his father’s hand and replaced the cap before returning it to the kitchen cupboard, next to the glasses. “Dad,” he said, going back, nudging his father. He sat down next to him. “Are you okay?”
His father opened his eyes slightly and yawned. “Oh, Morty,” he said. “You’re such a good kid.”
“Because of the snow? Because of Mom?”
“Not now, Morty,” his father said. He patted Morty’s thigh.
“Dad,” he said finally, “can we talk?”
“Tomorrow,” his father said, drifting more. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Morty thought his father might say more but there was nothing else, just the dinging sound from the television game show on television.
He found the hoagie his father had made for him in the refrigerator, along with pop and chips, but he felt too sick to eat, and too confused to jiggle off again. He envisioned Aggie lying in the snow and then opening her eyes to look at him. He thought of the kiss again, and his chest tightened. After a while, Morty slipped on his coat and went back outside.
It was dark now, and colder, though the snow had stopped and the sky appeared clear and black, the moon low and full. Morty walked the ten blocks back toward the school, taking the same streets he did before, passing the duplexes and homes with lanterns and lit windows, the silhouettes of people sometimes visible through the curtains. He wondered about each house, what each was like inside. At Aggie Tuft’s house, he stopped and looked for movement inside. One room to the side of the house was lit, and he imagined Aggie and her mother were having a late dinner—possibly her father was there, too, possibly Aggie was talking about the day. Would Aggie mention the kiss? Or was she sitting there, quietly, thinking about Morty, keeping the thrill of the secret close? Was it her first kiss? he wondered. After she pulled her lips from his, after she stepped back, she appeared prettier than Morty ever had imagined, and it was like his mother once said about love—that love can make everything seem perfect.
He breathed in the cold until it hurt. A car drove slowly by. He resumed walking until he reached the church, where he stopped to look up at the image of the Virgin Mary, but she looked down, blankly, at him, and he couldn’t think of one single prayer to utter. He slipped past the gate and entered the cemetery, past the first and second rows of stones and the maple tree and the sitting bench. In the distance, the lights of the rectory turned off, one by one, and he crouched down and wiped the heavy snow from his mother’s headstone. He sat down in front of it, waiting for a sign; he didn’t know what the sign would be, exactly, but he was certain when it came he would recognize it. Still, even as he wished this, it occurred to him that maybe God didn’t see anything, not his jiggling off or looking at Playboys, not an accident or a first kiss. Maybe heaven didn’t care and God and all the angels were blind; maybe heaven and God didn’t exist at all. Maybe his father was right, that Morty’s mother just died, and that was it.
He pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them to keep warm. His lips were numb, and his hands tingled with cold. Eventually, he heard a cough in the distance and glanced around to see Father Bastian walking toward him. The priest’s gait was unmistakable, the careful way he placed his feet, as if he was worried he’d fall. When he neared, Morty said, “Hello, Father.”
“Morty!” Father Bastian cried. He pressed his hand to his chest. In the moonlight his face appeared ghostly. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack, boy?”
“No,” Morty said. “I was just sitting here.”
Father Bastian exhaled and waited a moment, still feeling his chest. Then he said, “Well, if it hasn’t happened yet, I guess I’m good for another day.” He tucked his hands in his pockets and looked around. “Quiet night,” he said. “You come here often?”
“Nothing to be ashamed of,” Father Bastian said. “I come here a lot, too. It’s peaceful among the faithfully departed, and a good place to think.”
“I guess,” Morty replied.
Father Bastian regarded Morty in a sad way. “Something on your mind, Morty?”
“Never,” Morty said. He pulled his legs closer, blew into his hands to warm them.
“I see.” Father Bastian nodded at the gravestone. “Now, your mother was one of the faithful. She had a lot of faith. In people. In the world. The whole kit and caboodle, really.”
“The world lost a good soul when your mother passed.”
“Sometimes things just happen, you know, like accidents, and it’s no one’s fault. You do know that, don’t you?”
“I guess.” He rubbed his hands together again and shoved them in his pockets.
Father Bastian sighed. “Okay,” he said. “If this is the way the conversation is going to go, then I need a smoke.” He removed a pack of cigarettes from his inside coat pocket and then took out a piece of tin foil, which he formed into a cup. “Instant ashtray,” he explained. “I don’t like to leave a mess.”
Morty looked around at the other headstones and he nodded. “Makes sense.”
The priest rocked back and forth gently. “It’s a deplorable habit, really, and I don’t recommend smoking at all. I’d also ask that you don’t mention it to the nuns at Our Lady of Misery. If they found out they’d pitch a collective fit. They really would.”
“They do have tempers,” Morty agreed.
“You don’t know the half of it. I’ll tell you, those nuns don’t leave a man at peace. They want you to shovel their sidewalks in winter, and they want you to rake leaves in fall and clean the church van in summer and plant their gardens in spring. I’m sixty-five, Morty. Do I look like I can do all that anymore? When I die, and if the nuns from Our Lady are there—and they surely will be, with possibly the exception of Sister Agatha—I’m going to ask for a condo outside of heaven, because the nuns will probably see fit to find all sorts of jobs for me, even there. I got into this business to be a servant to God, not to clean out gutters.”
“I didn’t know,” Morty said. He didn’t want to be rude, but his teeth were chattering and he still hadn’t received the sign he was looking for. He held his arms tighter and looked up at the old priest, wishing Father Bastian would leave, but the old man only stamped his cigarette out.
“So now that I’ve told you all my problems, anything you want to talk about? Because, you know, there’s nothing I haven’t heard before.”
“I know,” Morty said, though it was clear from his tone he didn’t.
“So is it girl problems, then?” Father Bastian ventured.
“I saw you and Aggie Tuft were talking it up quite a bit today.”
“Women,” Morty said.
“Don’t you know it.” Father Bastian pulled his coat collar tighter and looked around again, and Morty could tell the old priest was tired. “It’s cold as anything,” he said. “I think I have some hot chocolate, if you want, at the rectory. You could keep me company while I have a cup.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Nothing on your mind?”
“Most days my brain is pretty empty.”
“I doubt your brain is empty. I doubt that very much. Like I said, I could use the company myself, so the door’s open if you change your mind. I’m like the Motel 6: I’ll leave the light on.”
“All right then. Goodnight.” With that, Father Bastian turned and walked carefully, making his way back across the cemetery grounds. Eventually he disappeared into the darkness, and then, later, a few lights went on in the rectory, one by one. In the distance the building looked warm and inviting. Morty drew his legs closer, for warmth. He was soaked through—his jeans and coat still damp from the day. He shivered. Something small did come to him, looking off into the distance. It seemed to him there were two choices, at least, that he could make in that moment. He could sit there, freezing to death in the process, or he could get up and get a cup of cocoa, which was certain to make him feel better. The world might be large, and God and fate might both be unknowable, but at least there was in that moment a simple clarity. The thought of being inside and warm consoled him, so much that Morty stood up and ran after the priest. He ran so fast he surprised himself with his desire. He ran so fast he felt as though he might fall, toward the rectory and lights.
Sandra Novack's first novel, Precious, was heralded by Booklist as one of the ten best debut novels of 2009. In Everyone But You, her new book of short stories, Novack explores the dramatic relationships among wives, children, husbands, and friends all struggling to connect to one another. Novack's fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, and Mississippi Review. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times and is the recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Grant for outstanding fiction, as well as an Illinois Artist's Grant. Novack lives in Chicago with her husband, Phil, and many pets.