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Short Story: Beatrice & Goliath

by Ross Vander Meulen

The short stories "Profane Words" and "Beatrice & Goliath," grouped under the general title "Other Exiles," were read to the Caxton Club at Knox in October 1991. While the stories and the characters are wholly fictional, the school and the neighborhood of the 1940's do reflect the South Side of Chicago that I knew and grew up in. The influence of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer I readily confess. Given the troubles in our schools in the past few years, the stories can perhaps offer now, even more than when they were written, a refreshing look back to a more innocent time in public schools. -- RVM, 2001

Beatrice and Goliath

She was called Beatrice . . . . She appeared to me almost in the beginning of her ninth year, and I first saw her near the end of my ninth year. -- Dante, Vita Nuova.

By seventh grade some of the boys were beginning to pay closer attention to some of the girls. By eighth grade almost all of the boys were paying closer attention to some of the girls. These girls, alas, were paying attention to the boys at Balonby High School. That's the way it goes in the affairs of young hearts.

I had been paying attention to the girls since third grade. In this one respect it might even be said I was precocious. Third grade girls, of course, are not interested in boys, so my attentions went largely unnoticed. But that in no way diminished the thrill of it all.

My first girlfriend was Beatrice Canti. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say my first friendship with a girl, since that is what it was, a special friendship, different from friendships with boys, uncomplicated by notions of competition -- or by the complexities of later boy-girl relationships. Beatrice was slightly small for her age, had straight black hair cut just below the ears, and flashing dark eyes. Beatrice was quick -- quick of foot. Until the end of third grade she could run faster than any one in our class except Bruno Bokasch, who was, after all, a full year older than the rest of us. Beatrice was also quick of mind. She was always the first one done with schoolwork and she rarely made mistakes. This gave her lots of time to think about and do other things.

Beatrice's father was a cabinetmaker and worked for Pullman Company. Her mother was a seamstress and worked in the North Pullman Knitting Mills, where all the Balonby students bought their custom-made high school sweaters. The Canti family lived on 102nd and Lafayette. It was a large family, all boys except for Beatrice. Her oldest Brother, Giovanni, was already halfway through high school when we were starting first grade. After him came Guido, Anthony, Vincent, Victor, then Beatrice, followed by younger brothers Thomas, George, and John. It was a close family, with wholesome disagreements, lots of give-and-take, fierce loyalty to each other. From her family situation Beatrice learned how to live. She combined natural affability and spontaneous generosity with fearless candor and disarming pluck. Beatrice always shot from the hip. She never missed her mark. Anyone who got hit knew he deserved it.

The first time I saw Beatrice in action was third grade. It was morning recess in early September. Her second-grade brother Thomas came out on the playground wearing a White Sox cap, a gift from Giovanni. Thomas was showing it around proudly when Joe Rigoni came up behind him and snatched it off his head. There followed the usual teasing and testing, Thomas doing his utmost to get the cap back, Joe Rigoni holding it out, pulling it back, cuffing the smaller and younger Thomas on the top of the head, then on the ears, and finally in the face. When this game had gone on for several minutes, Beatrice, far across the playground, caught sight of it. In an instant she was moving toward us, sweeping swiftly over the distance from the girls' side to the boys'. By now Thomas, in frustration, fatigue and tears, had given up. Joe Rigoni saw Beatrice approaching and thought he might prolong the pleasure of his play in her direction. He held out the cap toward her until she got very close; then he snapped the cap and both his hands behind his back. Without breaking stride, using all her 53 pounds to full advantage, Beatrice slammed her left fist into Joe Rigoni's flabby, unguarded gut. As always, Beatrice hit her mark squarely. Joe Rigoni hit the ground limply, where he sat gasping for breath and grimacing in pained disbelief. At once Beatrice got right up to his face, which was now down to her level and which Joe Rigoni, fearing she was about to strike again, instinctively covered with both arms, the prized cap still clutched in one hand. Beatrice snatched the cap away and handed it back to Thomas, who put it back on his head, where it belonged. Beatrice turned and glided swiftly back to the girls' side. We boys moved away slowly, chuckling quietly as we went. In front of us Dudley Dodson was hopping around giggling gleefully. The bell rang ending recess. Joe Rigoni was still sitting on the ground panting and coughing as we filed back into the building.

The following year, in fourth grade, Beatrice sat across the aisle from me. We got along well. She helped me with my schoolwork, especially with long division, where I certainly needed help. Then one day in November when I returned from morning recess I found a neatly folded note on my desk. On the outside, in the delicate, elegant hand I recognized at once as Beatrice's, was written: "To Dan." I opened it in some excitement, and found the following: "Dear Dan, I think you're nice and I like you. Do you like me?" And it was signed, "Love, Beatrice." Now that was the kind of directness a nine-year-old really appreciated! Beatrice, who everyone respected, everyone admired, everyone looked up to, liked me, Dan Allgary, who no one looked up to, no one noticed, no one knew! I trembled as I scribbled a clumsy "yes!" and passed it back to Beatrice.

That is how my friendship with Beatrice began, a friendship sustained in the weeks to come by countless clandestine notes. Beatrice also wrote me a number of poems, the most ambitious of which was in a large folding heart she made me for Valentine's Day. At the time I needed her help understanding some of the poems. She was always patient and clear in her explanations. It was in these sessions that I first began to struggle with English and with words, and Beatrice was an excellent guide in this struggle.

Beatrice could be a guide in deed as well as in word. Beatrice had been places no one else had been, had done things no one else had done. By the time we reached fourth grade Crefnole School had yielded its secrets to the adventurous spirit of Beatrice. Beatrice had gone through a window into the office of Miss Flannigan, the principal, and recaptured a sack of confiscated bubble gum for us. Beatrice had discovered a way into the forbidden area from outside the building; some claimed that somewhere down in that infernal nether world below Crefnole School she had found an emergency alarm box, and that that's why on a pleasant day in the spring we had enjoyed an unscheduled fire drill. Beatrice had gotten up onto the roof of Crefnole School, first by going through an access hatch in the ceiling of a third floor maintenance closet, then later by climbing up on the outside of the building, on the south-west corner, where the brickwork allowed this sort of adventure. I watched with tightly closed eyes as she made her ascent, then cheered when I heard her call down from far above.

Yet there was one place Beatrice still had not been -- the boys' room. And Beatrice felt a keen curiosity about those unknown quarters. The keenness of her curiosity was whetted by casual comments from her brothers, who allowed that the plumbing in the boys' room was different from anything Beatrice could see anywhere else. Just how different was this plumbing she asked me one day on the way home from school. "Well," I began, trying to be as accurate as possible, "there are sort of bathtubs in there."

"Bathtubs!" Beatrice interrupted, "Bathtubs? Do you climb into them?"

"No, no," I answered, "they are kind of standing on end, up against the wall. They sort of are the wall. We stand in front of them."

"You stand?" Beatrice asked.

"Yup, we stand in front of them and do number one into them."

"Number one? What if you have to do number two?"

"Oh, we have toilets for that," I said knowledgeably.

"Toilets? You mean you have different toilets for number one and number two?"

"No, no, these others aren't toilets at all. They're, they're . . . ." My voice trailed off into welcome silence. It was clear to me as well as to Beatrice that my explanations weren't explaining anything.

Beatrice took my hand as we walked along. "I want to go in there and see," she said. "Dan, you can be my guide." We had now reached 103rd and Wentworth. We went into Van's Drug Store and bought two nickel ice-cream cones.

"But how can we do that?" I asked, taking my first lick of ice cream. "There are always boys in there."

"Not right after recess," Beatrice replied.

"But then we'll have to get permission to leave, and Miss James never lets two
of us leave at once."

"You get permission, I'll be there," Beatrice assured me.

"When can we do it?" I asked.

"Tomorrow," she answered.

The next morning I went through the motions of arithmetic and reading as my mind dwelled on what was in store for me. Several times before recess I asked Beatrice whether she really wanted to go into the boys' room, whether this was really the best day for such an adventure, whether it might not be better to wait until after school. Beatrice assured me this was the day and right after recess was the time. One of these short, hushed exchanges was interrupted by the cutting voice of Miss James. "Dan," she said, "that is the second time this morning I have seen you disturbing Beatrice. Leave her alone and tend to your own work." After recess I went through the litany of questions once more. Was this really the best time to do it, I asked again. Before Beatrice had a chance to answer, I heard the voice of Miss James. "Dan. Are you still disturbing Beatrice? That won't do. I want you to move over here." She pointed to a seat all the way across the room, nearer to her and far from Beatrice. "I want you to do it now." Sentence had been passed. There was no appeal. I moved slowly over to the assigned seat, sat down glumly, opened my reader mechanically, dared to steal one glance over the edge of the book toward Beatrice. She was looking my way, and in her dark eyes I could read sympathy as well as a compelling urgency about the business at hand. But as luck would have it, as Beatrice turned back to her book my gaze met that of Dora Fritsma, who was now seated between Beatrice and me, and who mistakenly thought I was looking at her. She smiled; I smiled back. She grinned; I grinned back. She stuck out her tongue at me; I responded in kind. "Dan!" Suddenly I heard the piercing voice of Miss James again. I looked up and met her sternest expression, fixed first on me, then on Dora Fritsma, then back to me again. I expressed a tacit apology, turned back with all due contrition to my open reader, where I now kept my eyes glued for several minutes while I went over my desperate situation. I had promised Beatrice I would serve as her guide into the boys' room. I had gotten into bad odor with Miss James, and the innocent subterfuge with Dora Fritsma had only made matters worse. I would have to use all my wits, would have to think like Beatrice. The one thing I could count on was that Miss James would be watching me. I continued looking at my book for several more minutes. Then I began to squirm around in my seat, fidgeting nervously from side to side. With my eyes still fixed on my reader in mock study, I began to wiggle my legs and feet back and forth, first slowly, then more rapidly. As this performance was reaching a jittery crescendo, I peeked over my book toward Miss James. Sure enough. Her expression revealed unmistakable concern. I got up in awkward haste, walked stiffly toward her desk. She continued to watch me. As I approached her desk, I squinted and wrinkled up my nose, just the way Dudley Dodson had right before the puddle appeared at his feet. Miss James's face now betrayed genuine alarm. "Yes, you may go to the washroom," she said even before I asked, "but do not dawdle. We will be starting spelling very soon." I assured her I would not want to miss spelling and made my way toward the door, trying hard to keep up my act as I made my exit. Beatrice, who always managed to sit close to the door, seemed completely absorbed in her reader. But when I had almost reached the door she popped up, was in front of me and through it before I had it half open.

I closed the door carefully. We darted down the deserted hall. In a few seconds we were standing before the massive portals to the boys' room. I went in first to check it over. "It's O.K.," I said returning to Beatrice, "there's no one in there now."

We went through the large, heavy outer double doors, then through the inner doors. As soon as we were inside, Beatrice saw what she had come to see. She skipped right over to it. And there she stood, tiny Beatrice, poised on the threshold of that cavernous first urinal in the second floor boys' room of Crefnole School. Beatrice, who with all those brothers had a clear and complete picture of the male landscape, pointed one slender finger into the gaping concavity before her and said: "Boy oh boy! That is the biggest waste of space I have ever seen!" Beatrice had hit her mark once again.

We made our way back to Room 207. Beatrice slipped in as she had slipped out, quickly, silently, unnoticed. By the time I closed the door she was already poring over her reader. As I returned to my desk Miss James looked up and smiled with understanding.

The foray into the boys' room remained our secret. Beatrice assured me it had been a true revelation. A few days later Beatrice wrote a poem about it telling how I had been her guide and describing the scene in stunning detail. The trip itself, and perhaps even more the poem that immortalized it, strengthened our young friendship.

Beatrice continued to be a loyal friend and patient tutor even after she went on to sixth grade while I remained in fifth. And years later, at Balonby High School, Beatrice sat across the aisle from me once again. But that is another story.


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