It’s a short walk to school. I take the walk everyday for eight years. My eyes memorize the pavement because that’s mostly where I look. Most of the sidewalks are uneven. They are chunks of grey slate bumping up against each other. From the looks of the sidewalk and the pothole-filled roads you would think we have earthquakes here in Scranton. But we don’t. Mom says the roads freeze and break because of the snow and the cold. It’s cold for most of the year here. And grey. Most of the houses are grey, too. People don’t really take care of their houses. The girl Amy who lives down the street from me, her roof is held up by 2X4’s. She’s the same age as me. We have more money than she does so we celebrate birthdays at my house. Mom gets a magician and balloons and a cake. Amy seems happy. Amy’s mom works at McDonalds. We always see her when we go through the drive-thru.
I know that we are getting close to school when the sidewalks change. The sidewalks around the school and church sparkle with little silver flecks of light. I think that these are the sidewalks that they have in heaven and that’s why we have them in front of the church – to remind us of heaven. I feel like the world changes when I walk on those sidewalks. I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I feel like I am stepping into a world that is clean and good and safe. It’s nice to be off the grey, uneven sidewalk. The uneven sidewalk makes me nervous. The kids say things like ‘step on a crack, break your mother’s back.’ That makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to break anything.
Sometimes when I get really angry I can’t control myself and I break something. This heat wave comes over my body. It starts at my feet and rushes up my legs. It’s like a force, like a fire hose. It comes up my legs, fills my body and rushes down my arms. Then my arms and chest become tight. I just have to kick or punch something or I’ll explode. One time I punched the window in my bedroom and it smashed. I just stood there looking at the window. I couldn’t believe I broke it. I wasn’t even scared of what mom and dad would say. I was kind of shocked by the whole thing. After I punched the window in a cool feeling came over my body, like a cool breeze or a summer swimming pool, and the heat gathered in my stomach like a simmering fire – reminding me it was there but I didn’t need to do anything about it. It was just hot in my belly while the rest of me was cool.
The nuns say that hell is hot. They say it’s hot like fire and people are burning there. I know how these people feel. I think of hell as a cavern under my basement, a red and orange cave with a river of lava. I imagine people like slaves in the cave. They are hungry, tired and dirty. They are covered in black ash like my grandfather who worked in the coal mines. The nuns say that we will go to hell if we are bad, that I will go to hell if I do bad things. There are so many bad things that I’m not supposed to do. I ‘m not supposed to talk back, to curse, to get bad grades, to kiss boys, to wear anything other than my blue and white uniform. I’m not supposed to chew gum, cheat on tests, think bad thoughts or tell lies. I do my best to follow all the rules, reminding myself about the dark place I will end up if I make a mistake. When I step off of the sparkling sidewalks, I step onto a large black parking lot and into my school. The school building is a big brick building and the church is even bigger. In between the church and school is a rectory for the priests and a convent for the nuns. The rectory and the convent seem like magical, mystical places to me. I’ve never seen inside of them. I imagine that the priests and nuns learn all their secret magical things in there – how to turn wine into blood and bread into body, how to communicate with God and tell God which ones of us are being bad and which ones are being good, how to read the chants from the bible and tell us what they mean. Sometimes I wonder if God and Mary and other saints appear in the convent or rectory to talk to the nuns and priests.
The nuns are much scarier than the priests at my school. The priests are kind of laid back and funny. The nuns are very strict and scold me all the time. Sister Mary is the principal. She is tall and skinny and wears glasses. It terrifies me to be called to her office. I’ll do just about anything to avoid it. I mostly get sent to the office for dress code violations. I just can’t stand to wear the same thing every day and try to sneak in with other clothes sometimes. I always get caught. I feel the same fire in my legs and arms and belly when I get scolded by Mister Mary that I do at home sometimes when I fight with mom. I wouldn’t dare smash a window at school though. I’m certain that a trap door would open up in the floor and I would slide right down into hell if I did that.
Sitting all day in the little seats makes my butt numb and gives me a headache. There are metal radiators that hiss and rattle in the winter. The room is very hot in the winter. Spring is better because we can open the windows. Breathing the outside air makes me feel like I am alive. I feel like I could die when I’m stuck in the hot stuffy room with the windows closed. I don’t know how the other kids stand it.
At the end of the day, we step back out onto the black pavement, then the sparkly sidewalk, then the uneven sidewalk again. I don’t even have to look up as we approach my house, the Victorian beast on the corner of Oak and Wayne. I can feel her. I can feel her sitting there waiting for me to come back. Stepping into her is like stepping into the belly of an animal. I enter reluctantly, looking forward to the following day when I can take the short walk again to school, looking forward to the few minutes between the brick building and the beast when I get to be outside on the sidewalk in the fresh air, with my feet on the ground.