One thing about eight year olds: They live in a steady state of astonishment. They’re not infants any more, but they’re far from adolescents. They watch the world with their heads on swivels, uncertain of everything but their own nebulous identity — too old to be cute, too young to be surly.
It was in this shadowland that I found myself negotiating second grade at St. Mary’s School in Dumont, New Jersey.
In First Grade, Sister Roseaire, a perky young Sister Betrille kind of nun, had helpfully described Hell for us:
“You burn, and you burn and you burn,” she’d said darkly, as if telling a campfire story. “Above you is a giant clock with no hands on it. And the pendulum swings slowly, back and forth, saying “Forever…Never…Forever…Never.”
I had burst into tears. The little girl next to me wet herself.
More than a year later, Sister Roseaire’s vision of Hades still fueled my ever-expanding sense of general dread. I was with some friends, cowering behind the eight-foot concrete statue of the Blessed Mother that loomed over the schoolyard, when I first heard about the spanking machine.
“It’s behind the door in Sister Mary Joseph’s classroom,” hissed John Reagan. He was half horrified, half thrilled. “She pulls down your pants and straps you in and it spanks you and spanks you and spanks you.”
We stood there with our mouths hanging open, like a lineup of eight-year-old gargoyles.
“What’s it look like?” croaked Terrance O’Mara. Terrance was always nervous anyway, but now his brow was deeply furrowed, like Prune Face on Dick Tracy.
John Reagan narrowed already beady eyes. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “But I heard about it from a sixth grader.” We all nodded solemnly.
I, for one, had no doubt what Sister Mary Joseph’s spanking machine looked like: It was a complex Medieval contraption with large wooden gears and a crank. At its business end was a pinwheel of massive wood hands, all wearing large white gloves that, when spun into action, whacked a victim’s behind in a blurred frenzy.
Sister Mary Joseph was not my regular teacher, but we had to file into her classroom each afternoon for Catechism class. The day I learned about the spanking machine, my eyes kept drifting to the mysterious door.
“Mr. Newcott!” Sister Mary Joseph snipped. “Don’t daydream. Daydreams are the Devil’s movie theater.”
“Um…I was just thinking,” I stammered
Sister Mary Joseph wasn’t mean. She already thought I was a strange little boy, ever since the day when I decided to tighten the elastic of my school necktie around my neck, just to see what would happen. First I felt a little dizzy, then the room began to dim. Sister Mary Joseph had been writing Catechism questions on the board when she turned around and saw this child, his hands neatly folded on his desk, his face turning the color of an enormous blueberry.
She’d dropped her chalk, but was otherwise cool, and that is probably why on this fateful afternoon I somehow managed to utter what came next.
“Sister,” I blurted. “Is there a spanking machine in there?”
Her mouth dropped open slightly.
“What a silly thing to ask,” she said dismissively. “Of course there’s no spanking machine in there. Whoever heard of a spanking machine? Really!”
With that, Sister Mary Joseph swirled back to the blackboard, her veil flying.
She was lying. My sources were good, and she had every reason to lie.
I became obsessed with the spanking machine. I knew it was behind that door. I just knew it. After a week or so Sister Mary Joseph was still snapping her fingers at me whenever my eyes drifted off to that cursed portal.
“I’ve got to get in there,” I told Terrance O’Mara, whose eyes brimmed with anxiety whenever I brought it up. “I’ve got to see the spanking machine.”
My schoolwork suffered. In reading class I couldn’t focus on the adventures of John and Jean — the Catholic variation on those Protestant heathen Dick and Jane.
It all came to a head on a sweltering May Day — the Virgin Mary’s special day. The entire second grade was gathered in the yard, singing hymns to the concrete Blessed Mother. Terrance O’Mara and I were minding our own business, belting out “Hail Holy Queen Enthroned Above,” when I felt a hand on my shoulder. My eyes followed the attached arm and discovered the face of Sister Mary Joseph.
“Mister Newcott,” she said, “I left the bundle of children’s petitions to the Blessed Mother on my desk. Would you and Mr. O’Mara please go down and fetch it so we can burn them as an offering to Our Lady? But don’t run.”
I nodded. Terrance O’Mara looked physically pained.
We trudged down the empty hallway, our rubber soles squeaking on the waxed floor. The bundle of letters was on Sister Mary Joseph’s desk. We had all written requests of the Blessed Virgin. I’d asked for appendicitis. Bernadette Kelly had appendicitis in February, and everyone made a fuss over her. It looked like fun.
As Terrance O’Mara grabbed the letters, I headed for the door and reached for the doorknob. He squeaked like a mouse.
“You can’t do that!” he squealed. “It’s the spanking machine room!”
“I know that!” I said. “I’ve got to see it. I’ve got to see the spanking machine!”
“Don’t do it!” begged Terrance O’Mara.
It was too late. I pushed the door open and stepped into the inky blackness. Slowly, my eyes adjusted. I sensed the quivering form of Terrance O’Mara slipping in behind me. I could make out a dim, curved shape, and some lettering: “St. Mary’s Marching Band.” It was a base drum. The sliver of light from the open door reflected off some shiny horns and a hanging glockenspiel.
Terrance O’Mara gasped. “They’re turning children into instruments!”
Suddenly the light dimmed. We swung around. Silhouetted in the doorway, black as the depths of Hell itself, was the towering figure of Sister Mary Joseph.
I sought out her face, but could discern only a featureless skull, framed by a black habit. Terrance O’Mara had collapsed in a heap. He was sobbing gently.
“Where is it?” I whispered. “Where is the spanking machine?”
The cowled head tipped slowly to one side.
“It’s being repaired,” came the disembodied voice. “I broke it. I broke it on a bad little boy.”
Four months later my appendix burst.