Denny McDaniel rested his now slender arms on the window sill and gazed out at the street below. It was winter, bleak and grimy, a smattering of dirty snow still covering the sidewalks of Jersey City. The phantom pain where his right leg had been was electrifying, jolting him up rigid, before he collapsed against the back rest of the wheelchair.
Full circle, he grimaced. Denny had risen from the streets of Jersey City to become a successful merchandiser in the garment industry in Manhattan, until he became too rapacious, cut too many corners and the inevitable first indictment came.
Looking back out the window, he stroked the chin of his grizzled, round face, still boyish despite the rough living of his sixty-three years. Neglected diabetes, he had mistakenly thought the resulting twinges were from gout, and then the horrifying shock came when they were forced to amputate his leg above the knee two years ago. And now, he sat, perched at his window, sitting and remembering, wondering if it could have been different.
The school girls were waltzing down the street, talking and laughing. Denny noted that the plaid, uniform skirts were shorter, you could see more flesh, but they were the same as when he was in eighth grade. Eighth grade at St. John’s Grammar School, he must have been twelve, and that’s when he first saw Maria Conigliaro. An unfamiliar squeamish ripple gushed through his stomach everyday when he came to class and stared at Maria who sat two seats away, in the front row of Sister Eugene’s class, just like him.
Maria was beautiful, he couldn’t stop thinking about her, imagining her with him, not so much doing anything specific, but just being there, always. Dark hair, green eyes, a Roman nose, she looked like a little Mediterranean goddess in the parochial halls of their current existence.
Denny was never there in the morning, but his thoughts were, once Maria had awakened his inner feelings and yearnings. He didn’t arrive in class until early afternoon because he was down at St. Michael’s serving funeral masses. He joked to Maria, making her laugh, when he said that he never learned to read properly because he was always at Holy Mother the Church performing the sacred rituals during English class.
What really got him nuts was the night Maria showed up at the first basketball game of the season. There she was, walking across the gymnasium floor and Denny still remembered what she was wearing. Form fitting Levis, hugging her figure, black boots with high heels, and a cashmere sweater. She was the same age as Denny but she had the body of an eighteen-year-old.
Summoning up his courage, Denny began talking to her in class. He used humor to cover his anxiety, and it seemed to be working, his humor invariably made Maria laugh, which, in turn, further encouraged him. What he never counted on was Mary Flynn. That Mary Flynn, a skinny, bratty girl with braces and stringy hair would be jealous, and worse, that her jealousy would prompt her to not only rat Denny out to the nuns, but to lie about his supposed transgressions.
Clomp, clomp, clomp, the sound of his steps ring in his ears. He walks on, continuing down the bleak, empty corridor by the rows of lockers toward the head nun’s office. Mouth dry, nowhere to escape, Denny hesitates at the door, the door he knows Sister Roberta is waiting behind. He wonders what it’s about. He has no idea, it could be anything. He takes a deep breath and knocks once lightly, then a second time, and hears the harsh voice commanding him to enter.
She sits high up behind the desk, an ominous, imposing figure, her habit enclosing all but the severe profile of her face, a face with glasses on a misshapen nose peeking out of the shroud encasing her head. God, she’s ugly, Denny thinks. But this ugly personage also causes terror, and Denny’s legs twitch, the fear of preordained guilt pulsating through his body.
“You,” is all he hears coming out of Sister Roberta’s surly, twisted mouth. He’s thinking frantically, groping for an explanation, a lie to counter a lie, a defense against Mary’s false accusation that he has been talking dirty to Maria Conigliaro.
Tears arise, then stream down his cheeks. He musters every ounce of acting ability. He must survive. Not just for himself, but for Maria. He has done nothing wrong, but he knows it doesn’t matter. The inquisition is on, preservation is the goal.
“I guess I can never pursue my vocation,” he lies with angelic innocence.
“What’s that?” Sister Roberta is caught off guard by Denny’s reference to becoming a priest.
“Maybe I can still be a brother,” he sobs.
“We had no idea.” Sister Roberta’s pale, cracked lip quivers, her equivalent of a smile.
He has won, a triumph for the oppressed, his deception plays on Sister Roberta’s vanity and she ultimately gives him a pass. No punishment, no contrition, he has a calling, he is with them in spirit. But he knows that to perpetuate his temporal salvation in eighth grade that he must back off of Maria. Only for the moment, though, he decides, as he walks out feeling free, till the heat is off.
Denny continued looking out the window, remembering that day so clearly, a vivid picture of Maria still in his mind. Another choice with consequences, he thought. The irrevocable consequences of negating what might have been.
He bitterly recalled how his cousin Angela was at the hospital visiting a friend and she ran into Maria, who was in her early twenties and had just given birth to her first child, a son.
The two women began talking.
“Did you used to live near St. John’s?” Angela asked.
“Not far,” Maria replied. “I went to St. John’s.”
“You look about the same age, did you know my cousin Dennis McDaniel?”
“I had such a crush on him,” Maria said. “I always wondered why nothing happened between us.”
Denny never really knew that Maria felt that way at the time. If he had, maybe things would have been different. But, then again, if he’d done a lot of things different, taken different turns, he might still have a business, his wife, and yes, quite possibly, even his leg.