Word Count 500
By Terry Rainey
Friday after lunch, Sister Xavier, SPC, cleared her throat, and called us to attention. “History books. Chapter 12. 1865-1893. America after the Civil War. Mark Twain called it The Gilded Age.” SisterX slightly bowed to Twain’s portrait on the wall.
She was the only nun at OLPS who wore all black, without a white coif framing her face, and her eyes were dark and inscrutable and made us quiver. She was square — five feet two tall and five feet two wide. Her legs went straight into her feet…no ankles! She was one solid block of Pittsburgh muscle. We dared not root against the Steelers or the Pirates, her hometown teams.
Sister famously had dozens of sayings, ones that fit almost any occasion, most of which indicated her sharp displeasure. She called us old-fashioned words like imp, urchin, and twit. Words that packed real sting.
SisterX proceeded to tell us about the 1880s, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies. She paused, a sign that she was going to ask a question. Tired of the hand-raising zealots, sometimes she threw out easy queries and called someone randomly.
I held my breath as she sized up John Bernard. He started OLPS in fifth grade. Like most 1960s Catholic Johns, he was called Jack. Because there was already another Jack in class, John Bernard became JackBee. He was eternally good natured and we’d all grown to love him, especially because his father had a terrible temper. Sometimes Jack B had welts on his back.
We’d discovered during a Boy Scout trip to Shenandoah Valley that JackBee also had an enviable talent: he could sleep with his eyes open. A bit of drool on his lower lip was the only indication.
Sister asked “Mr. Bernard, who first used the term Gilded Age? …..Mr. Bernard? John Bernard?” It was never a good sign when SisterX used full names. The classroom fell into an agonizing silence. Jack’s father would be harsh if X reported a problem.
Someone whispered “JackBee! JackBee!” Sister X stopped, annoyed by the interruption. She imitated “JackBee? JackBee?” He didn’t stir. Drool glistened. The clock ticked. Twain’s hair and mustache loomed above Sister’s head like a cloud. Sister was not known for patience.
The tension rose. Then Nathan Berryman raised his hand! Nathan, like his favorite TV show, had been Lost in Space for three years, and never spoke in class.
Now three balls were up in the air. Jack B hadn’t answered. Someone had interrupted. Nathan had raised his hand. Sister X waved her arm and repeated “JACKBEE?”
With Sister’s wave of the arm, Nathan thought he’d been called on and said “Nimble?”
Sister X burst out laughing. She rocked back and forth on her black soles, guffawing. Her body heaved. Everyone was astonished. Happily, exuberantly, we all joined in.
JackBee was safe, thanks to Nathan, who never got the joke. Sister Mary Xavier laughed. It was after Lent, a Friday, one day closer to graduation from OLPS, truly our gilded age.