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Imprudent Zeal
by Alec Clayton

Chapter One
The Mohawk Gang
Albany, New York, 1946

Smoke hung head high in the auditorium. Chair legs grated the hardwood floor. Men coughed, laughed, shouted across the room at friends. They fidgeted in their seats and crushed cigar and cigarette butts underfoot. As if attached by wires, every head turned when a door in back opened and Scully McDonald stepped out and jogged down the aisle to the boxing ring. Father O’Day followed close behind, his hands kneading Scully’s shoulders, man and boy bobbing like marionettes.
Scully heard shouts of encouragement but could not make out the words. He felt hands reach out to pat him on the back. He scurried up the three steps to the ring, bent through the ropes and stepped in. He grabbed the top rope and did two quick knee bends. Deep breaths, loud on the exhale. He dropped to one knee and crossed himself, closed his eyes tight and whispered, “Our Father who art in heaven, forgive me, Lord. I know this is just a sporting event and you have more important things on your mind, but please please be with me now. Your will be done, amen.”

He stood up and thrust out his hands to Father O’Day, who shoved the old gloves on his big hands and laced them tight and slipped the little plastic mouthpiece between his lips. Scully bit down on the cold plastic and turned to face his opponent in the opposite corner, a skinny guy, but much taller than Scully. Scully eyed him as he scissored his feet in a dance step that indicated a quickness that would surely give him fits. He looked out over the audience but could not recognize faces. Somewhere out there on one of those hard slat chairs sat Scully’s father. Somewhere in Scully’s mind his father’s voice was droning, “Don’t come crying to me, boy. You gotta take up for your own self” —saying, “You pitch like a girl” —saying, “Don’t be a cry baby.”

Scully’s father had left for the war in forty-one when Scully was a chubby eleven-year-old, so shy that pulling words from his mouth was like yanking a Band Aid off a hairy arm and as awkward as a colt learning to walk. He hardly knew his father. Now, taller than his father and no longer so shy and clumsy as he had been then, he still felt that he didn’t know the old man, and he knew he didn’t measure up to his expectations. Since coming back from the war in forty-five, his father had hardly ever been at home. He worked long hours at the packing plant, pulling in overtime whenever possible, and spent most of his off time hanging out at Clancy’s Pub. He was almost a stranger to Scully, yet Scully couldn’t help wanting to show him a thing or two. Show him he could hold his own in at least this one manly arena.

He rolled his head and looked out at the spectators, and he felt dizzy. The crowd seemed to be circling him as if they were on a merry-go-round and he was stationary in the middle. Maybe he should have eaten something this afternoon. What else could account for this touch of faintness? Surely not fear. He would not let himself believe he could be afraid. Everything was spinning. It reminded him of a day long ago when a group of boys on bicycles had surrounded him and pedaled round and round in a tightening circle while he turned in place to keep a wary eye on them. It had happened when he was in the seventh grade at St. Bridget’s School. He had stayed late after school for a meeting of the Sock and Buskin Club, planning decorations for the homecoming dance. He had joined the group because Sister Donovan had said everybody had to join some extracurricular activity and Sock and Buskin seemed as good as any. Besides, Annie McCarthy was in the club, the only other seventh grader, and he had had a crush on Annie McCarthy since fourth grade. She was the only friend he had in school. All the other kids made fun of him, calling him Blubber Boy because he was a big, fat crybaby whose pudgy cheeks would begin to quiver before he burst into tears.

Through the mere process of growing up, he had learned to control his tears. But the cruel nickname stuck. The other kids didn’t see him as he was, but as they remembered him, and that was how he saw himself, too. Annie understood how he felt, because she had also been teased throughout most of her early years. She had red hair and freckles, and she wore glasses. The kids called her Freckle Four Eyes. But Annie had a sharp tongue and knew how to take up for herself. The other kids had long since quit teasing Annie, not so much because she was able to defend herself, but because in the sixth grade she blossomed into a beautiful young woman who seemed to have a natural ability to make friends, and in the seventh grade she became the first girl ever elected class president. Her newly gained popularity began to rub off—just a little—on her friend Scully. Scully was beginning to develop a few rudimentary social skills. Gradually. And even a hint of confidence. But he could not completely break the habit of thinking of himself as the friendless fat boy who broke into tears at the drop of an insult.

He was carrying a stack of books and walking as fast as he could, because he knew he’d be in trouble if he didn’t get home soon. It was Wednesday, bridge day, and his mother always expected him to fix dinner on bridge day. He could imagine his old man saying, “Your mama said you didn’t get home till nearly dark. Whaddaya think? You’re some kind of society kid that can run around all hours without even thinking about your poor old mama sick in her bed?” Why? Scully asked himself over and over again. Why does the old man always say she’s sick in bed, even when he knows she’s up and about preparing for her bridge club? The fact was, both Scully and his father thought of her as sickly, even during her better days. She complained of headaches and mysterious female problems, of sweats and nausea, and many days she would not get dressed until late afternoon. Sickly or not, she never failed to complete a seemingly endless list of household chores—washing her men’s clothes and neatly folding each and every item, even handkerchiefs and underwear; scrubbing floors, washing the blinds, pushing her old shopping cart six blocks to the store, and putting a hot dinner on the table every night but Wednesday when it was Scully’s turn to cook the family dinner.

He stepped off the sidewalk and onto a field where boys from the neighborhood often played ball. Crossing the field was a quicker way home. He broke into a run, leaning forward with that awkward gait of his that made him look as if he was going to take a nose dive any moment, which he did all too often. He saw the boys coming on their bikes, three of them cutting across the field toward him in a sweeping arc. They were Carson Culpepper and Ray Goodnight and Rodney Laughlin, local toughs who called themselves the Mohawks. Culpepper was in the lead. He was pedaling hard in a red and white blur on one of those Arnold Schwinn Streamline Aerocycles, steamers flying from the handle bars and bits of cardboard stuck in the spokes going blip-blip-blip-blip-blip like a taunt. Culpepper cut in front of Scully and hit his brakes, going into a skid. Goodnight and Laughlin followed close behind. They might have smashed into Scully if Scully had not tripped and splashed head first to the ground with a scattering of books.

They circled him on their bikes, leaning hard with feet scraping the ground on the turns. Scully pushed himself up and brushed off his pants. There was a bloody scrape on his elbow with dirt ground in. Grass stains on his white shirt. He picked up his books and began to turn in place, looking for a way to break free of the circle of bikes. Nobody said anything. They kept circling and circling. Going slow now and half pushing their bikes with their feet, then speeding up whenever Scully made a move to break free.

It happened that Annie McCarthy was passing by about then on the sidewalk that fronted the field. She saw the Mohawks tormenting Scully, and she cut across the grass, picking up a large stick and wielding it as a weapon as she approached them. She stopped outside the circle for a moment, waiting for an opening to jump inside. Culpepper skidded within inches of her. “Stay out of this, Annie,” he shouted.

She darted behind him and rushed to Scully’s side. “Stay close to me,” she said, “and we’ll get out of here. They wouldn’t dare hurt a girl.”

Culpepper braked to a full stop. Goodnight and Laughlin piled up behind him, a full accordion stop of three boys on bikes. They stood each with one foot on the ground and one foot on a pedal, and they didn’t say anything when Scully and Annie slowly walked between them. They kept a wary eye on her because she was gripping a weapon, and they couldn’t attack her because ... well, because she was a girl. You don’t hit girls. They never meant to hurt Scully either; they just wanted to scare him.

Goodnight stuck out his tongue. Annie held Scully’s right hand with her left and clutched the stick in her other hand, tapping the ground with it as they walked to the sidewalk. Culpepper shouted, “Watch out Blubber Boy! You ain’t gonna always have a girl to hide behind.” Then they remounted their bikes and took off across the field.

Scully said, “Thanks, Annie. I’m OK Now. I think you can let go my hand if you want to.”

“Well I think I might just want to hold on for a while if you don’t mind. It feels kind of nice. Your hand is so warm and soft.”
“Yeah, that’s the problem. Everything about me’s soft. I’m just a big sissy, and those guys won’t ever leave me alone.” He tried to hold back the tears, but without much success.

“Don’t you fret about that,” she said. “I like you just the way you are.”

“Even if I’m a crybaby?”

“It’s OK to cry, even for boys. My daddy said he cried lots during the war, and he was a hero.”
He looked down at her and smiled. He was so much bigger than she was and he felt so clumsy. He didn’t know what to say, but holding her hand felt really nice and he didn’t want to ever let go.

The next day in English class she passed him a note. It said, “I like you.”

He tore a little slip off the bottom edge of notebook paper and scribbled on it, “I like you too.” He held the note folded in his palm until Sister Donovan turned her back to the class to write on the board, and then he tossed it across the aisle to Annie. The note clipped the edge of her desk and fell to the floor. When she leaned over to pick it up, he caught a glimpse of her yellow brassiere. The shape of her budding breasts made him think of two scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Annie straightened up, smiling at him. An electric jolt connected them as their eyes met, and in that moment they each knew exactly what the other was thinking. Annie confirmed it. She unfolded the note, she read it, and she blew him a kiss. Then she passed him another note that said, “Meet me behind the cafeteria at recess.”

The school grounds behind the cafeteria were bordered by a hedge abutting the street, which shielded Annie from view of the rest of the kids on the playground as she waited for Scully. He was slow to get there because he had had to go to the boy’s room. Rushing out of the restroom, he almost ran into Sister Julian. “Whoa there, young man,” she cautioned. “You know running in the halls is not allowed.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He walked out deliberately, then ran across the playground. Breathlessly he rushed to Annie. Impulsively he grabbed both of her hands and held them for a few seconds, and then let go, and they faced each other not knowing what to do or say. At last she asked, “Do you really like me like ... you know, like a girlfriend? Or do you just like me?”

“I really like you like everything,” he said. Scully bobbed on the balls of his feet.

“Does that mean you want to be my boyfriend?” She tilted her head to look up at him, sunlight making semaphore flashes on the lens of her glasses.

“Well, yeah,” he said, “if I could.”

“OK then, you can be my boyfriend. We can go steady.”

“Really?” Scully felt a flush of fire in his face, and he kicked a little at the ground to draw attention away from his blush.
“Yeah. Really,” she said. Then she asked him if he wanted to kiss her.

“Oh, more than anything,” he said. “Can we do it right here? Now?”
“Yes. Nobody will see us.”

He put his arms around her and she stretched up on tip-toes and reached to circle her arms around his neck, and he leaned down and they kissed on the lips, and they held it a long, long time without moving and hardly breathing, and their eyes were closed and they did not part their lips, and he could feel the softness of her breasts pressing against his chest, and then they backed apart and she said, “I’m the happiest girl in New York State.”

Annie and Scully went steady from that moment on through junior high and high school. With her he felt for the first time that he belonged in this world, that the world was not out to get him. Even though he remained shy and clumsy, he began to make a few friends through Annie. Even the Mohawk mob quit teasing him for a while.

They did homework together and went to mass and Sunday School together and always sat together at church outings, and even got to sit together in most of their classes, because the teachers lined the kids up alphabetical by last name. McDonald and McCarthy always fell together.

When school let out for summer vacation, they took long bicycle rides exploring the town and surrounding countryside, finding isolated fields where they could picnic under a tree and near a stream, and where after eating their lunch they could wade in icy water. One afternoon when they were going into tenth grade, they found a stream that was hidden by cottonwoods and scrubby bushes, and Annie said, “If you promise not to look until I get in the water, we can take off our clothes and swim in our under things.”

“OK,” he said, “I won’t look.”

But she knew he would, and he did. She laughed and said, “You promised!” She balled up her shirt and threw it at him, and then she ran to jump into the water. After he joined her in the stream they kissed, and she let him reach his hand inside her bra and cup her breast in his hand, and she said, “You have to promise me you won’t ever do this with another girl as long as you live, and you won’t ever tell anyone.”

“I promise.”

Then they climbed onto the bank and lay down on the hard packed dirt near the water’s edge and let the sun dry their bodies. He clearly saw all of her body through her wet panties and bra, and he wanted so very much to pull those little bits of cloth off and put his hands all over her, but he knew that was not the right thing to do. Can’t she tell that she might as well be stark jaybird naked in front of my own two eyes? Does she know what I’m seeing and what I’m thinking?

He could feel himself getting aroused, his erection so obvious a half-blind person could see it. Oh my God! What do I do? Quick, cover it up with ... what? He glanced quickly side-to-side. He sighed deeply and loudly, hoping to distract Annie’s attention, and turned languorously onto his side, jabbing his hands between his knees to hide the impertinent erection. Too late. Annie had already seen it. A mischievous grin tweaked the corner of her lips. Scully did not notice. He closed his eyes tightly to avoid the tempting sight or her near nakedness, opened them for one last peek, then closed them again and uttered a quick, silent prayer, just in case his lustful thoughts were putting his soul in jeopardy. In the Bible it said something about lusting in your heart being just as bad as committing adultery. But he thought: This can’t be the same as that. Some day we’ll be married, and then it will not be a sin.

As if reading his thoughts, she said, “This is just practice for when we get married, but until then we better watch out and avoid temptation. We probably shouldn’t do this any more.”

“Yes, I think you’re right.”

After that day they often talked about the things they would do when they got married. Mostly that meant they talked about what it would be like when they could make love at last. But those fantasies boiled down to little more than where and when they would do it—in the shower, in a giant double bed at night and in the morning when they woke, and in a boat on a river in the summertime. They didn’t talk about the specifics of lovemaking, because neither of them had enough knowledge to imagine what it might be like. They just knew it was something they very much wanted to do ... someday.

They dreamed of living in a penthouse apartment in New York and holding hands in their own rooftop garden and looking out over the lights of the city at night where a full moon dipped into the distant river. Annie said she was going to be an actress and he would be her manager. He said he was going to be a big time investor on Wall Street and make enough money to support her in style while she struggled to become an actress, “because nobody’s ever going to hire you to be in the movies,” he teased.
Annie had first been bitten by the acting bug back in the seventh grade when she won the part of one of the evil stepsisters in Cinderella, and over the next five years she was in every play put on by the Sock and Buskin Club. Scully was never in any of the plays, but he helped with lighting and building sets. Once he almost got a chance to be in a play. He was offered the role of Annie’s father in a romantic comedy loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, in which Annie had the lead. But Scully’s father would not let him be in it.

“Rehearsals take up way too much time,” he said. “You know your mama’s sick and needs your help at home. You can’t just be gallivanting around all hours after school while your poor mama’s sick at home and I’m out working to put meat on the table.”
Scully never understood what kind of sickness it was his mother had, but it seemed like she never would get well.

“But you told me you wanted me to go out for the football team, and that takes up just as much time,” he complained.

“That’s different. Football is a manly sport. It builds character. ‘Course if you played football you’d still have to do extra work at home to make up for the time, but it’d be worth it for what you’d get out of it. Football will make a man outa ya. But play acting, that’s silly. It’s sissy stuff. It’s a complete waste of your time, and I won’t have it, ya hear?”

“Yes sir.”

Sometimes he downright hated his father. Sometimes he dreamed about telling him off and slamming the door in his face and walking out never to see him again. He didn’t like his coming home drunk all the time, and he didn’t like the way he hollered at his mother, and he didn’t like the way he bragged about how damn tough he was. Yet he still wanted his father’s love. He wanted just once in his life to be able to do something that would make his father say, “I’m proud of you, son.”

So he went out for the football team. He was clumsy and not very quick. Opposing players on the practice field loved to fake to one side and dart to the other, and laugh at Scully when he tripped over his own feet trying to get to them. But he was big enough to plug holes in the offensive line, so if their team was ahead—or so hopelessly behind that it no longer mattered—the coach would sometimes call him off the bench and let him play during the final minutes.

Scully’s father never even came to the games. Never once even asked him, “Hey, kid, how’s football going?”

When the new priest, Father O’Day, started the boxing club, Scully found a sport he could do well in. It was not that he was any less clumsy in the ring than he had been on the football field, but he developed a kind of plodding style that served him well. There were boxers whose dexterity and grace rivaled that of a dancer or a gymnast, and Scully greatly admired them, but he soon discovered you didn’t have to be that kind of boxer to succeed in the ring. He didn’t need fancy footwork or blinding speed. All he needed to do was keep his chin tucked and his hands high, and keep pressing his opponents. Jabbing, jabbing, jabbing, and then a strong right cross when they dropped their gloves.

He was undefeated in his first two years of competition in the local club, but he was not very proud of his accomplishments because he knew the competition was weak. He wanted to fight Golden Gloves. That would be the real challenge. But Father O’Day held him off. “At your weight you’d have to fight guys with too much experience,” he warned. “There’s just not enough heavyweights your age. You’d have to go up against college men, men in their twenties. Wait at least a year. Maybe then we’ll see if you’re ready.”

So he waited, and he finally got his chance. In his senior year he went to the regional Golden Gloves tournament and made it all the way to the finals, which were held in Albany that year.

There was no microphone in the ring, but there was an announcer who hollered pretty well. “In the far corner, wearing blue with white stripes and weighing in at two hundred and nineteen pounds, the defending heavyweight champ from the Bronx, George ‘Lefty’ Blocker. And in the near corner, wearing white and weighing two hundred and twenty-three pounds, from right here in Albany, the pride of St. Bridget’s High School, Scully Bulldog McDonald.”

The clang of the bell sent him shuffling out to the middle of the ring, sliding his feet, gloves held close to his face and chin tucked tight into his chest, ready to circle, watching for an opening to get inside those long arms and pummel the guy’s midsection. Fend off jabs and wait for a right before going inside. Sweat poured from his brow and stung his eyes. The other guy was dancing, bobbing. It looked like he couldn’t make up his mind which way to go. He’s scared, Scully thought. He knows I’m going to take him. The hometown crowd was shouting Scully’s name, shouting that new nickname he wasn’t so sure he liked. “Go get ‘im, Bulldog. Kill that bastid.” He pressed forward. Started to flick a little jab just to test him out. Keep him back on his heels.

Then, Wham! It came out of nowhere, a right jab from the skinny guy right to his cheek. Then another. This one he caught on his glove and deflected, but a hook followed before he could get his glove back up, and it glanced off his chin. The guy was leading with his right, moving the wrong way. Scully was thrown off balance. Nobody had warned him this guy was a southpaw. Scully had never even sparred a lefty. He shuffled his feet crossways, trying to counter the unexpected moves, and got his feet all tangled up. Suddenly he felt himself falling, tripped up by his own damn feet, just like in football, just like when the Mohawks were chasing him on their bikes, just like all the damn time. Flailing with helpless hands in an impossible attempt to regain his balance, he saw the mat coming up to meet him. And a dull punch came chopping down like a hammer blow and caught him on the side of his head as he was going down. Sudden flashes of lightning exploded behind his eyelids. His knee slammed into the canvas, and an elbow hit hard. A sharp pain shot up to his shoulder. His vision blurred. His opponent seemed for a moment to sway like seaweed in a gentle current, out of focus and floating. The crowd burst out with howls. It was like grammar school all over again, everybody hooting at him for being so damn clumsy. He was mad and confused. He shook his head and started to push himself up.

The referee grabbed his shoulder. “Hold it, bud. You gotta wait for an eight count.”
“That wadn’t a knockdown. I just slipped.”

“He hit you going down. That’s a knockdown in my book.”

Someone in the crowd shouted, “Git off your ass, you clumsy oaf!”

“How’s it feel to be graceful?” came another snide voice over the hooting den, and Scully recognized the voice. It was his father.

He was hopping mad. When the eight count ended, he leapt to his feet and came out swinging, off balance and flailing roundhouse blows. The other guy backed up and slipped another punch over Scully’s guard, and Scully found himself punching air, bouncing off the ropes. The bell rang, and he staggered to his corner and sat down. Father O’Day told him to settle down and keep boxing. “Just stick to basics. Keep your guard up and don’t let him fluster ya.”

The next round was even. Neither boxer scored a good, clean hit. In the third round, Scully started living up to his new nickname, pressing his opponent with bulldog tenacity. It wasn’t pretty, but he scored punch after punch. His opponent got in a few, too, but Scully was definitely gaining the upper hand. Until his legs went completely dead. Exhausted, he could barely move. It was all he could do to hold his gloves up. Luckily, the other guy was just as tired. They were a couple of zombies propping each other up. The crowd started booing. Scully waited out the last minute holding his ground. Clinching. Holding on and dragging his feet. Breathing hard. The crowd was getting nasty, and Scully was sure his face was beet red. All he wanted to do was hit the showers and get the hell out of there. Doggedly he held on until the last bell. Through an unenthusiastic round of applause that followed him as he climbed out of the ring and walked the aisle to the back and out of sight, he heard the announcer tell the crowd that the winner was Lefty Blocker from the Bronx.

That night Scully went out and got drunk all alone, knocking down a six-pack of Falstaff on a loading dock behind Schott’s market. He staggered home at three in the morning and climbed in through his bedroom window, so as to not awaken anyone in the house. The next day was a school day. He slept through his alarm, and when his mother tapped on his door and asked what was going on, he told her he was too sick to go to school. For three days he played sick. When Annie came over and tapped on his bedroom window the way she always did, he turned over and pulled the covers over his head and waited her out in silence until she gave up and went away.

How could he go back to school? What could he possibly say? He thought of excuses: Hey, that guy was twenty-four years old. He’s been fighting six years longer than me. I never fought a lefty before. At least he didn’t knock me out. At least I had the guts to get in there with him. Who are you to talk? I didn’t see you out there in the ring. But no matter how he excused it, he knew he’d let the school down. They were counting on him. He’d let his father down. And Father O’Day.

He was afraid people at school would make fun of him. Memories of the years during grammar school when he had been the butt of every joke were still so fresh. He could hardly believe that any of the kids actually liked him. He was sure, in fact, that the only reason they had become more friendly was because he was Annie’s boyfriend a stroke of luck not even God could account forand he knew that now that he had made a fool of himself the teasing would start all over again. But when he finally did go back to school, he was surprised to discover that the other kids were solicitous of his feelings, which, in a way, was even worse than teasing. He could not bring himself to trust their sincerity. Everyone going out of their way to tell him he did all right simply made it more painfully clear what a fool he had made of himself. His classmates said, “Don’t worry about it. You just had a bad night. It could happen to anybody. Next time you’ll get him. We’re proud of you. You got all the way to the finals. Nobody from here’s ever done that.”

Father O’Day said, “We need to get you back in the gym, Slugger. Work on your footwork. See if we can develop a left hook. It’s just like riding a horse. When you get bucked off you gotta get right back in the saddle.”

But Scully said he didn’t think he wanted to fight any more. “Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a fighter.”

“Well, don’t be too hasty. I think you’ve still got what it takes, but I’m not going to push you. Whenever you want to come back, son, just let me know.”

There was to be one last fight for Scully, but not in the ring. It was a thing that had to be. It was inevitable. Carson Culpepper had challenged him to a fight. At least word around school had it that Culpepper had thrown out the challenge. Scully never heard it from Culpepper. All he knew was that the whole damn school expected him to fight. His classmates egged him on until he felt like he either had to give in and get it over with or spend the rest of his life putting up with endless taunting from all the guys. It was one more chance to prove something. But what? He heard his father’s voice saying, “A real man don’t ever pick a fight, but he don’t back down neither, and if he has to get his ass whupped, he takes it like a man.”

Scully didn’t really believe he had to be that kind of man, but he had to be some kind of man, and this fight with Culpepper seemed to be the way. Somehow.

Annie said, “I don’t know why boys always think they have to fight.”

“Sometimes you just have to,” Scully answered.

“Why? What’s so important about proving you’re tough?”

“You just don’t know. You don’t know what they call me.”

“What? What do they call you that’s so terrible you have to fight? Chicken? Yellow belly? Big deal.”

The whole school was there. All but Annie. Whispers and notes passed desk to desk had put the kids on notice. Scully and Culpepper were going to fight behind the field house after school. The mound of dirt where they were to meet had once been covered with grass, but it had long since been packed hard by a generation of kids, and since there hadn’t been a drop of rain since April, it was as dusty as a rodeo ground in a dry summer. About forty boys formed a circle. They parted to let Scully through. He shuffled his feet and looked at the ground. He had made up his mind that when Culpepper got there he was going to call it off. What if they did call him chicken? He knew that Annie would stand by him, as would Father O’Day, who had told him that it took more guts not to fight.

He felt more than saw the crowd of boys flinch in anticipation as Carson Culpepper approached, followed as usual by Goodnight and Laughlin. He was surprised to find that his only thought was: He’s a handsome son of a gun. Gosh, I wish I looked like that. He watched the crowd step aside. Culpepper stepped to within a few feet and stopped. Scully started to speak, but Culpepper beat him to it. He said, “I ain’t gonna fight you, Scully. Shit, I don’t know how this got started, but I got no beef with you, man.”
There was a murmur of disappointment in the crowd, but Culpepper ignored it. He said, “Hell, I seen you in the Golden Gloves. I was proud of you. Proud you come from St. Bridget’s. That guy suckered you at first and got you off balance, but you hung in there. If it had went another round you woulda creamed him.”

Scully laughed. “Are you kidding? I couldn’t have lasted another round. I was dead.”

Culpepper turned to the crowd. He said, “What are you guys standing around here for? Get the hell outa here.”

He slung his arm around Scully’s shoulder. They walked away arm in arm. Some of the boys who had not already left cheered them. By unspoken consent they headed over to the parking lot and stopped next to Culpepper’s car, a black Ford coupe. Culpepper said, “Hop in, man. Let’s go get our heads all tore up. Know what I mean? Let’s tie one on. We can get some fried chicken down at Pat’s and maybe pick up a bottle of hooch. It’s on me. Then, if you don’t have to get home to mama, we can go out on Highway 90 to the Hotsy Club and listen to some hot swing music. What say?”
“You got it, my man. Let’s go.”

The Hotsy Club was like nothing Scully had ever seen. It was an inferno. Everything awash in red light. A black woman wearing a sleek red dress and white apron brought drinks to their table. She didn’t even ask if they were old enough. Culpepper handed her a five-dollar bill and said, “Keep the change.” The band was ripping out with hot tunes like “Avalon” and “Tiger Rag,” and “Harlem Strut,” and Culpepper drummed the tabletop with his hands and laughed loudly. One couple was doing a hot jitterbug, and the man swung his partner in a skirt-flying flip over his head. Such wild dancing Scully had seen only in the movies.

They watched the dancers for about an hour, and Scully downed three glasses of bourbon and Coke, all paid for by Culpepper. When they got up to leave, he could barely feel his legs. Later they met up with Goodnight and Laughlin, and they went out to Caroga Lake and lay on the ground and passed around a bottle and swapped stories.

Culpepper said, “I think we need to initiate McDonald. Make him a Mohawk. Whaddaya think, guys?”

“I don’t know, man. You think he can pass the test?” Goodnight asked.

“Test? What test?”

“The cussing’ test. If you want to be a Mohawk you gotta know how to cuss.”

Scully laughed, “Well that’s goddamn easy enough.” As recently as a few months ago he would have been horrified at himself for taking the Lord’s name in vain, but he had recently come to realize that taking the Lord’s name in vain didn’t mean what people usually thought it meant. And he was proud of himself for figuring it out, pretty much all on his own, with a little help from Father O’Day. He figured it meant calling on the Lord for help in trivial matters, like Lord help me pass this math test. As if the Lord didn’t have more important things to worry about. And cussing was nothing more than a harmless way to have fun with the guys, even if God’s name was named. Even Father O’Day was known to let out an occasional damn or hell. One of his expressions that the boys loved was What the friggin’ tarnation! He said, “To cuss at someone is sinful because it is hurtful, it’s the expression of a hate-filled heart. But God’s not likely to care if you spice up your talk with a colorful word here and there, as long as it’s not directed at someone in a hurtful way.” And then he added, “But you might not want to let your parents know I said that.”

Culpepper said, “OK, here’s the first part of the test: You gotta say as many cuss words as you can in sixty seconds.”
“I already said goddamn. Does that count?”

“No. We ain’t started the clock yet. And you can’t repeat anything, so you can’t say no goddamn goddamns. OK? On your mark. Get set. Go!”

“Shit, hell, damn, damnation, damn it to hell, pussy, shit. Oh, I said shit already. Um, crap, piss, vagina ... um, uh ... queer asshole ... uhm ... hellfire, f-f-f ... son-of-a-bitch.”

“That’s it. Time’s up.”

Scully said, “Did I pass?”

“That part, but there’s one more thing you have to do. You gotta get naked and swim out to that piling and back.” He pointed to the lake, which was about twenty yards away, and to a piling that was silhouetted black in the moonlight another twenty yards out from shore. The night was cool, but at least there was no wind, so Scully figured he could make it out and back without freezing to death. What the hell. He’d never before felt like he belonged to anything so intimate and daring as the Mohawks, and he figured a good, brisk swim would be an easy enough initiation.

“All right. Here I go.” He took off his clothes and dropped them in a pile, and he ran to the water and dove in. The water was freezing. He gulped air, held his breath, and plunged ahead, swimming as hard as he could. Almost to the piling, he turned his head and looked back over his shoulder, and he saw the boys running for Culpper’s car. They had taken his clothes and left him stranded. He had to walk home naked, hiding behind trees and dropping into ditches when cars approached. Oh my god, what have I done? What if Annie’s parents drive by? Or Father O’Day? I’m gonna get caught, I know I am. It’ll be God’s punishment for all that drinking and cussing. Oh, god damn it to hell, forgive me Lord. Thank God it’s four o’clock in the goddamn morning and hardly anybody on the road.

Most of the way home he kept cursing, now directing his curses at Culpepper and Laughlin and Goodnight. “Assholes. Slimebuckets.” He used up all the cuss words he knew and made up about a dozen more. But by the time he got home and climbed through his bedroom window and slid under the covers, still naked, he was laughing at himself. He couldn’t stay mad at them, especially not after he found out later that they had all tricked each other in similar ways. Getting naked, one way or another, seemed to be one of their favorite pastimes. They got a kick out of seeing how close they could come to getting caught. They would take turns sneaking up to someone’s front porch at night—usually the house of some girl they all knew—with their clothes hidden in a nearby bush. Then they would ring the doorbell and rush for cover before someone answered the bell. The thrill was in the chance that Annie or Sue or one of the other girls would open the door before they got out of sight.

They talked sometimes about girls they had done it with, and they talked a lot about who they had seen naked. Peeking through windows where the girls were having spend-the-night parties or standing on each other’s shoulders to peek through the transom into the girl’s dressing room was something they had all done and loved to brag about.

“Betty Simpson wears falsies,” Laughlin said. “I seen ‘em.”

“Yeah,” Culpepper jumped in. “Well I’ll tell you who damn sure don’t wear falsies. Becky Thornton.”

“You never seen Becky’s tits.”

“Did too.”

“How ‘bout you, Scully,” Culpepper challenged, “I bet you never even seen a woman all the way naked.”

“Have too,” Scully said.

“Yeah? Who you seen naked?”

He wanted to tell them about the time he and Annie went swimming in their underwear and how he could see right through her undies when they got wet, and how he’d even touched her breast. He was even tempted to lie and say they had gone all the way. But he couldn’t do that.

“OK,” he said, “I haven’t really. But I know what they look like. I’ve seen pictures. My old man had some books with pictures that showed everything.”

Scully had always thought the Mohawks were bad boys, but he discovered that they never did anything really bad, at least nothing as bad as he had imagined. They liked to get drunk, talk dirty, tease each other, and get naked. They were also none of them virgins, if their tales could be believed. And if there was anything Scully McDonald wanted to be in his senior year in high school it was a not virgin.

Annie and the Mohawks and Father O’Day played tug-of-war with Scully’s emotions throughout his senior year.

“They’re going to drag you down, Scully,” Annie warned. “Keep hanging out with them and you’re going to get in trouble. And what about me? Are you just going to leave me high and dry while you go running around with a bunch of hoodlums? Don’t I mean more to you than them?”

Culpepper said, “You oughta drop that girl. She’s gonna tie you up in her apron strings and beat you down. You’re gonna end up henpecked. And what for? Hell, she don’t even put out for you?”

Sometimes he felt like Annie had him by one arm and the Mohawks had him by the other, and in the middle was the settling influence of Father O’Day, which nevertheless was the most confusing of all. From the moment of his arrival at St. Bridget’s, Father O’Day had been different from the old priest. Not only could he cuss with the best of the boys, he actually seemed to like Culpepper and the Mohawk gang. The old priest had clearly despised them. Father O’Day had a different outlook on religion. For him it wasn’t all ritual and moralizing; it was service. He believed in working with the poor and what he called the disenfranchised. Once a month he drove down to the city to do volunteer work at the Catholic Worker, where they took bums off the street and fed them and clothed them and helped them get back on their feet. A couple of times he had taken Scully with him, and Scully had found the volunteer work to be strangely satisfying. Father O’Day had even dropped hints on numerous occasions that Scully ought to consider going into the priesthood.

Scully wished Father O’Day was his real father, but he didn’t want to follow in his footsteps; that would mean giving up too many worldly pleasures that he was just beginning to discover, thanks to the Mohawks, and which he hoped to someday soon discover with Annie.

Running back and forth between all of them—school nights and Sundays with Annie, occasional outings with Father O’Day, Friday and Saturday nights with the Mohawks, staying up late to finish homework after being out with Culpepper—it all wore him down. He came very close to dropping out of school. Or flunking out. But somehow he muddled through, coming close to losing Annie in the process. They broke up and made up on an almost weekly basis throughout their senior year.
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