Angelo’s Roman nose was a monument on an otherwise slim, narrow face. In the third grade he defended it against the taunts I hurled at him by pushing me and running away. I threw a rock blindly, but was alarmed when the unintended victory struck the back of his head. so I followed his tears home where I subjected myself to his parents’ reproach, and to their threat to tell my mom and dad. Soon after, he and I became friends and together navigated the shoals and reefs of Catholic school.
Angelino was his baptismal name – a diminutive bestowed upon him by a mother who thought he was an angel – but we just called him Ange. Both of us were skinny Italian kids, which no amount of pasta or homemade bread could fatten. Our calories were rapidly burned in the rainforests of our parents’ adopted country, and we didn’t care if our supper was spoiled by the wild harvest of berries we found there. We pulsed with energy and were curious about everything; we were feral chldren – dirty and gloriously alive.
Ange came to every one of my birthday parties with his accordion and played songs for us kids as we goofed around like puppies. We were innocents who had not yet awakened to the snake in the garden – and in the third grade it bit Ange hard. We were in Miss Night’s class, learning how to write cursive letters from the MacLean Method of Handwriting. I’d already been nipped by this woman once and froze when she held up a sheet of foolscap to the class, mocking someone’s attempt at an assignment.
I remember her walking directly to Ange, taking him sternly by the arm and making him sit on a high-stool, facing a corner. With a safety pin she attached the offence to his grey knit shirt – the one with the little black Indians woven into it – and publicly invited everyone to look at his transgression. When I thought it was safe I walked up behind Ange but couldn’t identify the source of MIss Night’s mean spiritedness. I heard him crying silently, his thin suspenders tracing the stoop of his shoulders, while his hand tried to staunch the drip of his noble Roman nose.
He wasn’t in the playground at recess, and when I saw hm the next day we never talked about it because we were not mature enough to understand the necessity of grieving. We just went on – even when Miss Night, in the fourth grade, called a troublemaker to her desk and slapped his face fiercely with the belting that was supposed to be used only for hands and buttocks. We just went on – trading comics, building forts and playing Cops and Robbers – our fear growing, like a serpent in the belly.
When my parents moved to another city Ange and I lost track of one another. But years later a chance meeting with a boyhood friend told me that Ange still lived in our hometown, and that his great mark of distinction had become a vacuuum for cocaine. He’d lost his business, had undergone therapy and was struggling. Because of the gulf which time had torn between us I made no effort to contact him until a family vacation brought me back to his parents’ home. Ange was out of town; but there, in the kitchen where his parents had threatened to disclose my misdeed, it all came back: the rock blindly thrown, Ange in the corner, his accordion, our romps in the wilderness – and Miss Night.
As I drove back along the highway, my young son played in the back while images of straps, belts, pointers and missiles paraded themselves in memory. I felt a stirring in my belly and wondered if Ange had calmed his with coke. In the rear view mirror my eight year old quietly read comics, and I asked myself: What in God’s name did Miss Night, and the others, think they were doing!