Saturday, March 5, 2016

THE CLOSET OF LOST THINGS by Peter Nolan Smith

The Nuns of Our Lady of the Foothills taught their students math, English, religion, history, geography, and a scattering of other basic subjects. Their educational technique depended heavily on rote memorization and harsh discipline. Left-handers were considered possible satanists. The nun expected everyone to be right-handed. Any laggers were beaten into submission and laziness on small ts earned the offender to Palmer Penmanship a wrap on the knuckles.

The mysteries of adding, subtracting, multiplication, and division were boiled down to tables.

7 X 7 = 63.

How didn’t matter as long the charts were in our heads.

1 + 1 always equaled 2.

The flow of history was divided into dates important to the Holy Roman Church and America; 5 BC the Birth of Jesus Christ, 1215 the Magna Carta, 1492 Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, 1776 the American Declaration of Independence, 1914 the Start of the Great War, and the 2nd Vatican Council in 1961.

Questioning why the Birth of Jesus Christ came five years before Anno Domino or why Christmas was only four months later than the Immaculate Conception were grounds for a visit to the Principal, who corrected adolescence heresy with a yardstick and Sister Mary Eucharist ruled the nuns of her convent with the same iron hand.

The mysteries of faith were solved by the memorization of the Baltimore Catechism; God made the world, God is the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things, Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made in the image and likeness of God and God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven. God reigned over man with capital letters.

There was no detour from these tenets, until my 6th Grade teacher Sister Mary Osmond ignored the the strict curriculum of her mother superior. The ancient nun had taught in Egypt and entertained her pupils with tales of Africa.

“We lived by the Nile. After the harvest the children ran barefoot over the sharp stalks without slicing their feet.”

Closing my eyes I envisioned her students gliding over the fields of razors. Sister Mary Osmond opened our minds to worlds beyond Boston and we followed her new approach to learning like sheep.

Sister Mary Eucharist hated her.

“Fear. That’s how the Church rules the faithful. Fear.”

Sister Mary Osmond offered the course of love and we reciprocated by scoring the highest test scores in the Boston Diocese. Her knowledge flooded our senses and she had an answer for everything.

Not all of it was true.

One afternoon Connie Botari cried in the back of the class.

Sister Mary Eucharist would have ignored the silent sobs.

Sister Mary Osmond put down her chalk and approached Connie’s desk.

“What’s wrong?”

“I lost my headband.” Connie had looked very cute this morning with it on her head. She was pretty, although not a pretty as Kyla Rota. Neither girl knew that I lived and breathed on the same planet.

I wore glasses and sat in the front of the class.

“Is that all?” Sister Mary Osmond tenderly touched the young girl’s head. “Don’t you worry about that and do you know why?"

“If you lose something than it wasn’t yours to begin with.”

"Who taught you that?"

"My mother," answered the thin brunette.

As had mine.

"And you pray to St. Anthony to help you find something."

"Yes, sister, he has the power to find things."

"And does anyone else know the prayer?"

"Yes, sister," answered the entire class and we recited as one, “St. Anthony, St. Anthony, Please help me. Something is lost and can’t be found.”

While I had rejected the belief in God after the drowning of my best friend, but I had remained true to the powers of the saints, since most of them had pagan roots and St. Anthony of Padua had at one time lived in Morocco, which rendered his faith questionable in my eyes.

"Anyone find Connie's head band?"

We looked about the class and after a few seconds shook our heads, saying, "No, sister."

"But don't be disappointed in St. Anthony, besides in heaven there is a closet with everything you ever lost waiting for you," Sister Mary Osmond explained to Connie,

“Really?” The cute brunette sniffed behind the swipe of her wrist.

“The closet has your name on it in gold letters. Nothing is truly gone. It remains in your memory, so you will enjoy seeing it again in heaven.” Sister Mary Osmond gave Connie a handkerchief with her initials embroidered in a corner.

“You keep it. All possessions are transitory on this Earth. The only thing you need is a pure soul to get you in heaven and purity is the key to the closet with all lost things.”

I was on the verge of pubescence. So many impure thoughts bounced in my brain, that I was certain of damnation to Hell, where Lucifer had a closet loaded with the things that I never wanted in the first place.

I lowered my head into my hands. My toy boat and teddy bear would remain trapped in their heavenly closet, but then I remembered what Sister Mary Osmond had said about lost things. They remained forever in your head and I smiled, because forever will be a long time in Hell without a teddy bear.

As I got older the number of lost things grew with my travels around the world. My possessions were scattered across two houses in Thailand, a mountaintop cabin north of Santa Cruz, two farms in upstate New York, my apartment in Fort Greene, and my sister’s house outside of Boston.

Upon my return to the States from Thailand in 2008 I emptied my storage space in the East Village.

I was missing paintings, first editions, color slides as well as my cowboy boots and collection of nightclub memorabilia or at least that was what I thought until visiting a good friend out in Easthampton in the summer of 2009.

After dinner Billy announced, “I have several boxes of your stuff in my cellar."

“You do?”

“Yes, you left them here after you gave up your apartment to live in Thailand.”

“That was in 2002.” The rental management had offered $10,000 for my vacating the tiny apartment on East 10th Street. "Remember what you said?"

"No."

"You said that now I was just another guy from Boston who once lived in New York."

"Twenty-nine years in the city don't make you a native New Yorkers."

"Harsh words."

"But true."

"If you say so, but I thought I put everything in storage.”

“Wrong, boyo. We drove a truck out here.”

"We did?"

"A van."

“Damn." I had no recollection of that ride.

“You want to go check on them?” Both of us were recovering from last evening remake of LEAVING LAS VEGAS.

“No, let’s go for a swim in the ocean first.”

"You boys be careful," his wife shouted from the pool. Sara came from the UK and liked her ocean calm, especially since two people had drowned the previous week.

“We’ll follow the buddy system.” The ocean was unforgiving to fools.

Amagansett Beach was ten minutes from Billy’s house via the back roads. His I-pod played John Lennon’s WORKING CLASS HERO, as we broke through the barricade of slow-moving SUVs and Porsche Reich sedans on Route 27. Billy was a local and locals knew the back roads.

At the beach a parking space opened up next to the reserved handicapped spot. Billy grabbed it before an up-island vacationer could steer his Mercedes GL 405 between the white lines.

“Nice, huh?” Billy had a healthy disdain for the summer people, while recognizing his high-end real estate job survived on their largesse. He smiled to the irate driver of the luxury SUV and shrugged like he was sorry. It was a good act.

We walked onto the beach with towels over our shoulders.

Two men in their 50s wearing sun glasses.

The strand was crowded with weekenders enjoying themselves in the sun. Their blankets were surrounded by coolers. The sea air was tainted by a miasma of melting sun lotion.

A distant hurricane was churning giant waves along the offshore sand bars.

Few people were venturing farther than their knees into the sucking froth.

"No one's in the ocean."

"One surfer." Billy pointed to a single figure bobbing on the waves beyond the nasty shore break

“I didn't come here to watch him."

"Me neither."

"Thens it's straight into the water.” Billy was a good swimmer. He did laps at Guerneys three times a week.

“The only thing to do.” I ran into the sea and Billy followed close behind.

The cold current grabbed our bodies like the Atlantic wanted us to see Iceland.

We ducked under the close-outs and stroked through the sets of double waves to the calm of the outer break. I couldn’t touch the bottom.

The lifeguard looked in our direction.

I waved that we were fine.

He nodded to say ‘be careful’.

Billy and I rode a few waves. One crunched my body into the sandy bottom, then tumbled me in an eddy of foam. My head broke the surface. Billy was a few feet from me. We shared a glance and let the turbulent surge carry us to safety.

“I think I’m ready to look at those boxes now.” I was out of breath and exhilarated by the swim.

"Me too."

We returned to Billy’s house, listening to John Lennon’s IMAGINE.

I had never been much of a Beatles fan, but these two songs revealed the genius of John, although Billy and I had to both ask, “Why Yoko?”

"Some things are not to be known."

Back at his house Billy, Sara, and I went downstairs. There were thirteen boxes. One was covered in mould. A small carpet had rotted in the damp. I opened the boxes one after another. There was no damage to the art work; cartoon series by Gaetano Liberatore, an oil painting from the Steaming Musselman Philippe Waty, two of Ellen Von Unwerth’s first photo or a suede jacket in a plastic bag.

“It still fits after all those years.”

“A little tight around the waist.” Billy’s wife said it in such a way that the truth didn’t hurt. The English are a polite people.

The next box was loaded with slides and photos from my travels around the world. Bali, Tibet, Laos, Peru, France, Ireland, China, Thailand, plus love letters dating back to 1976, the first year I moved to New York.

I read a few aloud.

“Sweet.” Billy’s wife was very sentimental.

The third box was a set of Wedgwood china from Bowdoin College which had belonged to my Grandfather. He had graduated from the Maine College in 1912. I had served countless dinners on the plates at my old apartment on East 10th Street. The large serving bowl still bore the stains of a sauce. I guessed that it was tomato sauce for pasta.

The last box contained books; first editions of FRANNY AND ZOOEY, CATCHER IN THE RYE, MOONRAKER, and about twenty other classics. They would have been worth a fortune if signed or still in good condition.

“Thanks, Billy.” He could have thrown these out years ago.

“Well, we still have to discuss the storage fees.”

“Oh, Billy.” Sara was British. They had a different sense of humor from the Irish. “You can’t charge him anything.”

“I was just kidding.”

I wasn't so sure, since the Irish can be mean.

I told them about the closet of lost things.

“It was supposed to be in heaven, but there was one right here on Earth and it was in your basement.”

“Proving there is heaven on earth.” Billy O examined the copy of JUNKIE.

“And it’s where we find the things we love.”

Now if I could only find my lost teddy bear, my life would be complete, because I am a simple man.

The water temperature was in the 70s. The salt air and danger of riptides had natural curative powers more important than a reunion with long-lost relics of the past.

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