Word Count 499
By Terry Rainey
Sister Mary Xavier, Sisters of the SPC (St. Peter in Chains), commanded us to open our science books to chapter 7, Friction. My book had lost its cover and was held together by brown construction paper, softened with frequent handling. It had been in OLPS parochial school longer than I had. The front page of the book had a list of years and students with familiar last names, running from P. Mitchell 1958-59 to my scribbled name 1968-69.
Some of the notes in the margins were doodles from kids in my older brothers’ classes. The science books, with their lessons on gravity and matter and reproduction, were a constant presence in OLPS. But the larger constant was Sister X, who cleared her voice in her rumbling manner and began to teach us friction.
I was the fourth in my family to have Sister Mary Xavier. Behind her back, she was Sister Mary X, Sister X, or just X. The name we used depended on our proximity to her. She was most certainly Sister Mary Xavier in person. One classmate, whose father was a Colonel stationed at the Pentagon, once even blurted out “Sister Mary Xavier, Sir!”
Sister X droned on about Friction. After a few minutes, she sensed that very few of us were interested in acquiring knowledge. She paused. Stonily, she challenged us to supply real life examples of friction. Everyone hunched, focused on the book. No one wanted to make eye contact when Sister was staring.
I noticed Herman, stooped in the desk next to me, leafing through his book, way past Chapter 7, toward the Index. Herman was always looking at the class dictionary, appearing smart, but I knew he only looked up words he considered dirty, like posterior and orgies and buxom.
Knowing his weakness, I enjoyed titillating Herman with racy-sounding phrases. I was relentless, especially when I found expressions that he aggrandized into flabbergasting scenes involving knowledgeable, experienced, skillful women. At recess today, I’d casually mentioned the words Simultaneous Organism.
Herman’s finger ran down the Index page, hand holding the book so firmly that I could only make out the large, bold page headings. The page started with Rhizomes and ended with Terrarium. I smiled. I’d gotten him again.
It occurred to me — in a moment of joyful scientific discovery — that Herman’s face, as he searched for the elusive simultaneous organism, was a perfect example of someone whose mind was experiencing friction, the conflict between what he hoped for and what he found, between unbridled curiosity and cold, hard facts, between impulse and reality.
The class was silent as a church mouse. I crooked my eye toward the front, thankful that X was not looking at me. Her square shoulders, black and implacable, slightly heaved. I sensed a hint of exasperation, perhaps an indication of friction between Sister Mary Xavier, SPC, and all of us in Science class this afternoon, and all those who had come before us, forever and ever. Amen.