THE FIRST PERIOD in the afternoon is religion. Brother
McCann takes attendance, gets up from behind his desk,
shakes chalk dust from his soutane and struts to the middle of
the classroom. As he walks, his right shoulder sags. His huge
head tilts permanently to the right as if he's listening to his
shoulder, and his left ear juts straight out so it looks like it
came off and he glued it back on wrong. As usual, specks of
greenish white saliva cling to the corners of his mouth. A few
wisps of reddish hair dance on his bald head and look like
they'd waltz away on a windy day. He's an odd duck with the
worst temper of all the brothers at the Mount. When he
speaks, he sprays spit. The boys in the front row shield their
faces with their hands. Oberstein calls McCann's classroom
When Brother McCann moves to the middle of the room,
we know what's up. He's about to launch into one of his sessions.
Monologues and Dialogues he calls them. Ten to fifteen minutes of ranting and raving. We painfully participate "for the sole
purpose of the salvation of souls." His raving makes no sense.
"Monologues and Dialogues is like a game of fish," he says. "You
all have playing cards. I see all the Mount Kildare boys playing
fish in the halls. You play fish in the halls, don't you, Spencers?"
His hazel eyes stare hungrily from beneath bushy brows.
He has the odd habit of always adding an s to a boy's name:
Murphys, Ryans, Kavanaghs, Obersteins. And if a boy's name
ends in s,
he drops it: Hyne, Roger, Jone, Brooke.
"Murphys, you play fish?"
"And you, Ryans?"
"And are you good at it, Murphys?"
"Yes, pretty good, Brother."
"Well, Monologues and Dialogues is like the card game fish.
During the monologue, you, the class, are dealt the cards,
information, and during a dialogue you are to match the
with the information, cards,
given out during
the monologue. Is that clear, Kavanaghs?"
"Yes, Brother McCann." I watch him remove the large ivory
crucifix from above the blackboard.
"Quite clear, Mr. Burn?"
"Oh yes, Brother, quite clear."
"Yes, Brother McCann."
None of us has a clue what the hell he's talking about. But you
don't dare disagree with Brother McCann unless you want a
knuckle sandwich. His game is very simple. There is no dialogue,
just monologues where Brother McCann tries to stump you
with a question and you answer as best you can, hoping to avoid
the strap. Each monologue has a theme, and he announces the
theme by reading from a book or a magazine. There are always
props, as he calls them, to help get the point across. Today's props
are the huge ivory crucifix, a copy of the Nazareth Foreign Missions
and a National Geographic
photograph of a monkey. He
raises each prop slowly and places each item on his desk.
The classes are always crazy, and most days somebody
gets a bad strapping. Usually drowsy Rowsell or bucktoothed
O'Grady. They're the slowpokes in the class. Blackie thinks
Brother McCann is crazy. He says that Monologues and
Dialogues is all the proof you need to put Brother McCann in
a rubber room at the Mental and throw away the key.
"Today's theme is Christ, the Evangelist. Are you paying
attention, boys?" A thread of spittle hangs between his lips.
"Yes, Brother," we chant. The air in the classroom is very hot,
and I can feel the sweat soaking the back of my shirt.
"And do you know what an evangelist is, Kellys?"
"Well then, pay very close attention and you shall find out,
"Bradburys, are you paying attention?"
"Pardon me, Bradburys?" McCann's eyes narrow as he speaks.
"Yes, Brother McCann."
"That's better, Bradburys. Now, I know many of you boys
abbreviate the word 'Brother.' In fact, you use this abbreviated
form in other classes. But not in my class, boys. There will be
no lapses in my class. You will not say Brrr or Burr or Bruh or
Bro in my class. Is that clear, boys?"
"Yes, Brother McCann."
"Yes, Brother McCann."
"Some of the other brothers may permit you to say Burr and
Bruh and Bro. But not this brother. This brother does not permit such speech. With this brother, it will always be Brother
and nothing else. Never forget that, class. Brother and nothing
else. Repeat that now."
"Brother and nothing else, Brother."
He looks at us dully before reading from the Nazareth Foreign
the corners of his mouth wet with saliva.
After reading for a few minutes, he stops short, rolls the magazine into his fist and begins his raving.
"We are being accused of buying souls. Buying souls, boys.
Trading in salvation. Us, boys. You. And me. And not just
Mount Kildare Orphanage. All Romans around the world."
Romans is his word for Roman Catholics.
"We are the majority, boys. The largest single denomination
on God's earth is being accused of buying the souls of the poor.
How? How, boys? Why, with money and jobs. That's how.
That's the accusation. That's the allegation. Money and jobs,
boys. As if Romans need to stoop so low."
A fly lands on Tracey's desk. Brother McCann eyes it cautiously. "Don't move Traceys," he whispers, and whacks at it
with the rolled magazine. It buzzes away. "I told you not to
"I didn't, Brother."
He whacks Tracey on the side of the head with the magazine.
"Don't talk back, boy. Money and jobs," he continues. "Can
you imagine? They are accusing us of buying souls?" He
pauses, snickers and strolls to the other side of the room. "Of
what is our Church being accused, boys?"
"Buying souls, Brother."
"Very good, class. And what do we say to this accusation? Is
it true, class?"
"No, Brother," we chant.
"Well done, class. Well done." He breathes a deep sigh, raises
his eyebrows and unrolls the magazine. "Pay close attention,
boys, as I read the pack of lies being propagated against Holy
Mother Church. Against all Romans worldwide. Listen carefully now to what I read. And remember our theme. Christ the
Evangelist. Ready now. This is the monologue. Pay close attention. The dialogue will follow." He sighs deeply and reads:
Little Pundhu Ghanga, seven years old, shudders as he
recalls the Hindu radicals who came to his dirt poor village and dragged him to a river to be scrubbed clean of
"You heard right, class. That's what the text says: 'to be
scrubbed clean of Christ, scrubbed with the bark of trees and
with jagged rocks.' Now listen to this, boys. Listen: ‘When the
cleansing was complete, little Pundhu was forced ...' That's
what it says, boys -- forced
-- 'to worship a picture of Hanuman.'
That's right, class. You all heard correctly. Your ears did not
deceive you. Little Pundhu was forced to worship a picture of
Hanuman. And do you know who Hanuman is, class?"
"Hanuman is a monkey, class. That's right, boys. A monkey.
But Hanuman is no ordinary monkey, boys. Oh nooooo."
Bug Bradbury puckers his lips and points toward Brookes,
who has a monkey face. Bug can be as bold as brass.
"No ordinary monkey, this . . . this Hanuman. And do you
know why, boys? Do you know, Murphys?
"No. Of course not. How would you? Then I shall tell you,
class. Make good note of it. Your souls depend on such knowledge. Hanuman is none other than the Hindu Monkey God."
Brother McCann shakes his head and looks up at the ceiling.
His mouth is wide open, and the boys in the front rows can see
his crooked yellow teeth. "The Hindu Monkey God. And little
Pundhu, baptized in the blood of our Lord and Savior is forced
to worship Hanuman, to bow down to a monkey. Little
Pundhu is forced
to ignore this -- this
He swirls around and grabs the ivory crucifix from his desk,
raises it high above his head. "This,
" he screams, spraying spit
everywhere. "Jesus, his Savior. Can you imagine it? He must
ignore the blood of Christ and worship this
." He swirls again
and grabs the National Geographic
picture of the monkey, and
with his free hand raises it above his head. "This? Or this
he shouts, the veins in his neck standing out. "This is little
Pundhu's choice. Can you imagine it, boys? Can you?
Hanuman or Jesus?" He shakes his head, opens his mouth wide
and gapes again at the ceiling, gasping for breath. "A monkey,
for God's sakes. Or . . . or Jesus our Savior? A monkey? Or God?
Some choice, class. Some choice, boys. But little Pundhu's
choice. Little Pundhu Ghanga. That little Roman's choice.
Much younger than most of you, boys. Half your age in fact.
And that little Roman made the right choice. A little martyr in
the making. Little Pundhu chose the Son of Man, who died on
the cross for our vile sins."
Silence. Rapid breathing. He does not look at us but seems
to gaze on some faraway scene. A line of blue spruce trees outside the classroom window splinters the sunlight.
"And who would you choose, boys?"
"Jesus our Savior, Brother."
"Mr. Spencers, Jesus or Hanuman?"
"Wait for the complete dialogue, Kellys."
"Hanuman or Jesus?"
"Ryans, choose ye this day whom ye shall serve. Jesus or
He goes around the room questioning everyone, and we all
answer Jesus. Except for Smokin' Joe. That's Rowsell's nickname.
But most of the time we just call him Rowsell. He smokes like
a Labrador tilt, every finger is yellow. He always carries a Zippo
lighter. Every time someone takes out a cigarette, Rowsell's
there clicking open his Zippo. He's large-eyed, with a big moon
face that turns beet red whenever he has a cigarette. Rowsell's
not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and when his turn comes
to answer, Brother McCann slightly changes the question.
"Rowsells? Jesus, human and divine, named by God. Or a
monkey, named by . . . God knows who. A monkey! Who, Mr.
Rowsell thinks he is being asked to name the Hindu monkey god.
"Hanuman," Rowsell says.
What happens next takes place at lightning speed. Brother
McCann bolts toward Rowsell's desk.
"Jesus, I mean Jesus, not Hanuman. God,
not the monkey
Too late. Brother McCann's strap is out.
"Up, Mr. Rowsells. Get them up. Higher. Higher
. Hanuman over
Jesus, is it, Rowsells?" Specks of spit splash on desks and school
clothes. "A monkey? An animal over our Savior, is it? Well, let's see
if you can endure some of the pain for your monkey god that little Pundhu endured for Jesus, our Lord and Savior."
"Jesus, I meant Jesus,
Brother." Rowsell is crying. "Not
Hanuman. Please. Jesus
. I don't know what got into me."
"Oh, I know very well what got into you, Rowsells. Very well.
The devil got into you, sir. The very devil I'm about to exorcise."
McCann's spit is flying everywhere. "The very devil the Little
Missionary Brothers must fight each day in the battle for souls
that rages in the jungles of Africa and India." The strap strikes at
bullet speed, and with each blow Brother McCann shouts a letter. His voice is high and hysterical: "H-A-N-U-M-A-N." He
returns to the front of the classroom. "Now, is there anyone else
who would like to worship Hanuman, the monkey god?" He's
spitting like crazy and breathing so hard it sounds like he's having a heart attack. "Any more worshippers of Hanuman?"
"Very good, class. Very wise."