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Beware of Dog

By Becky Palapala

Essay

In my intellectual travels, one thing above all others has vexed me.  One thing above all others is likely to send me into a tangential rant about subtleties of meaning and logical correctness.

“That’s cynical.”

or

“You’re a cynic.”

The regular religion teacher at Santa Magdalena Sofía Barat high school was one of those middle-aged, middle-class, chain-smoking Italian men who thoroughly dominate the lower echelons of everyday life in Argentina. Father Cavallo, as everyone called him, was stout and ordinary looking, with sleeves perennially rolled up and a clerical collar that spent more time on his desk or coat hook than about his thick neck. In addition to teaching the religion and philosophy classes at Barat, he was some sort of administrator, so when he announced one morning midway through the first term that he would stop teaching religion, no one much wondered about it. Although he was nominally second in command to the perpetually tipsy Spanish headmaster, everyone understood that Father Cavallo ran the show. If he didn’t feel like teaching religion, who could tell him otherwise?

In any event, religion was low on the list of concerns for the second-year students at Barat. They were, almost without exception, a mediocre bunch, as befitted the mediocre surroundings. Barat was a squat cell block of a building, four inartfully constructed levels of plain, square classrooms huddled around a central courtyard of cracked cement and creeping weeds. It sat just outside the shabby commercial center of Castelar, which was not so much a suburb of Buenos Aires as a suburb of another suburb, the unfortunately named Morón. (Until I arrived from the United States on a year-long exchange program, no one at Barat had apparently met anyone with enough knowledge of English to tell them what “moron” means. It was probably not by accident that this bit of vocabulary never found its way into the English classes.)

It didn’t take me long to take up the nihilistic rituals of the place. For the first couple of months I was in Castelar, I was an exciting novelty: my tongue wrestled comically with the new language as my gangly, fifteen-year-old body struggled with a growth spurt that had taken me from 5’9″ to 6’4″ in less than a year, and I was full of surprising malapropisms and athletic feats. The boys brought me to parties and showed off the colorful swears they’d taught me to say, while the girls preened and flirted, my foreignness seeming to outshine my acne, my faint lisp lost under bad but charming Spanish. But after three months, I talked pretty much like everybody else, peppering my speech with the same curses my peers did and affecting without effort the Italianate gesticulations that make Argentinians an easy target for parody among Latin Americans. And so I regressed from a shining moment of exceptionalism to my own mediocre mean, and fell in easily with the boys in my class.

We passed our weekdays with desultory school attendance in the mornings, desultory work in the afternoons, and aimless wandering, drinking, and fighting in the evenings. On weekends, the boys in my group, all 15 or 16, would gather downtown near the train station, ponder making the 45-minute trip to Buenos Aires for some real action, then determine that at least one of us didn’t have train fare, or that all of us had train fare but not enough money to do anything once we got into the city. With luck, someone would know of a party nearby, or we’d retreat to one of the dingy local bodegas and pool our funds for a few bottles of cheap wine or Quilmes. When we’d drunk enough, we’d go sit outside on the benches near Castelar’s main nightclub and watch the parade of dolled up local girls and too-cool local toughs. Mart ín had developed the custom of standing and applauding in a serious way when an especially good-looking girl walked by, which never ceased to amuse us. Sometimes, as the night wore on, there would be races on the main strip involving unlikely cars like Fiats or Citroens, or wheelie contests pitting mopeds against bicycles. We cheered lustily for these events.

Some Fridays, one or another of the regulars wouldn’t appear by the station, and we’d wait around a while, angrily cursing him for keeping us from whatever fun we hoped to have that evening. Eventually we’d abandon the straggler and do the same routine as always, all of us knowing without saying anything that when we saw him on Monday, we’d craft a fantastic tale of the nocturnal exploits he missed – running from cops, scaling balconies to crash all-girl parties, and other activities at the very edge of plausibility.

The most creative teller of these tales, and the only one of our group who would create his own tall tales when he was the one who didn’t show up, was Marcelo. At Monday recess, he would take the lead, painting a picture of the western suburbs that bore little resemblance to our prosaic reality. He would start off our imagined evenings with trips to neighboring towns, usually by unlikely means like stolen scooters or in the back of a milk truck, then take us through strip joints, private social clubs, and back alleys such as none of us had ever encountered in Castelar. He was fluid with details, utterly convincing, and had a flawless sense of comic timing. In different circumstances he might have made a brilliant novelist or stand-up comic, but I think he ended up taking over his dad’s bicycle repair stand. Still, he was a genius and quick with words, so it was not surprising that he struck the blow that brought about the ruination of our new religion teacher.

The new religion teacher was, like Father Cavallo, a priest, but different in all other respects. Father Moretti was young, probably in his late twenties, and had the large, vulnerable eyes of a frightened animal. In contrast to Father Cavallo, who treated the priesthood as simply a job he’d stumbled into and kept, no different than working in a canning factory or driving a bus, Moretti clearly felt that he had found a calling. While the pedagogy at Barat was strictly old-school, with rote memorization reigning supreme, Moretti was always trying to engage with us as equals, pushing us to ask questions, to reason and explore. He was the sort of teacher I’d want my sons to have now, but back then, we saw him as nothing more than prey: He was too young, too eager, and too inexperienced to pose a real disciplinary threat, and worst of all (for him), he plainly wanted us to like him. Behind his back, we called him “el curita” – the little priest.

Religion class had been light on metaphysical questions and heavy on a lecture plan only the Pope could love. Under the guise of scholarly inquiry into the religions of the world, each unit would give a few, basic facts about a different faith, then gently remind us how backward it was compared to Catholicism. Father Cavallo had never brought any zeal to this business, but he seemed to believe it without need for reflection. “These Hindus,” he would say, pity and disinterest mixing in his voice, “believe in multiple gods,” and he would place just enough emphasis on the word “multiple” to let us know that only a fool would think such a thing.

The little priest could scarcely hide his contempt for this approach. It was evident that he thought questions of personal faith too weighty for the same soulless approach that helped us learn (and promptly forget) the names of the bones in the body or the provinces and their capitals. Where every other teacher at Barat presented facts in long, indigestible monologues, speaking at a pace that made it clear we were meant to copy down every word, the little priest was frenetic, scattershot. He roamed erratically around the classroom, musing wildly with his back turned to us, then wheeled suddenly to meet the eyes of one or another unlucky student and demand, “Why?”

After our initial surprise, we began to warm to his approach. We had not been in the custom of answering unexpected queries from teachers, and at first we were struck dumb. When Florencia, the class overachiever, was presented with the little priest’s first urgent “why?”, she waited a long moment before asking, “Do you want me to answer you, sir?”

“If you want to,” said the little priest, trying to soften his tone.

Florencia pondered a minute more, then finally decided: “No. I don’t want to.”

He turned quickly to Diego, the class clown, who just a day earlier had roused us from our usual torpor with a tremendous trifecta of insouciance: He had addressed our English teacher in Spanish, by her first name, and in the informal tense. “What do you think, Diego?” asked the little priest earnestly.

Diego’s answer, “How the hell should I know?”, was not just his usual aimless rebellion. It was a test, because that’s what Diego did. He projected a facade of unhinged craziness – sometimes, he would turn back to me in the middle of class and say one of the few phrases he knew in English, something learned from a heavy metal song, I think: “Hey, motherfucker! Get the fuck out!” But he was not stupid, and had a knack for sizing people up. So we all looked to see how the little priest would respond. He seemed to understand he was being tested, and paused a moment, drawing out our uncertainty for Diego’s fate and what it would mean about our teacher and the class.

“Good answer,” he said softly. “There’s no reason you should know – no reason any of us should know anything.” He went on about knowledge and the mystery of faith, but it was clear he had passed the test. Diego looked back at me and grinned, but I couldn’t tell if he was congratulating himself for carrying off the day’s impertinence without incident or whether he was actually admitting that he was coming to like this new teacher.

The boys in my class warmed to the little priest, but slowly. There was a long while where each of us knew we liked him, but none would admit it aloud. But he became a less and less frequent object of our casual, after-hours derision, unable to supplant villains of longstanding like the acerbic, booze-soaked headmaster, the accounting teacher with her dinner-plate face, the reed thin police lieutenant with his reputation for cruelty and the rumors that he had been a torturer under the military regime just ten years gone.

Once, on a Saturday afternoon, when a few of us had managed to raise the money to head into Buenos Aires, planning to visit a guitar shop and then get some drinks, we ran into the little priest on the train. He was sitting upright and patient like a well-mannered child, eyes bright, priestly collar and neat slacks under a dark blue workman’s jacket. There was an old camera hanging from his neck.

“What’s with the camera, Moretti?” we asked him jovially.

“I like to take pictures,” he said simply, “Pictures of people.” This was the sort of earnest statement that we would usually subject to a fair bit of mockery, but coming from the little priest it was disarming. We paused, looking at each other.

“Cool,” I said.

“Yeah, cool,” said Santiago. “You should bring some of your pictures to class.”

We all agreed, offering improvised suggestions for how pictures of people might fit into the materials we were studying, although none of us had more than a passing acquaintance with those materials. He said he would see if he had any decent prints around the house, then asked us where we were headed, who of us played guitar, whether we would make other stops in Buenos Aires. He got off at Talleres and I remember watching him through the train window, hoping I’d see him take a picture of someone, but he just walked purposefully toward the end of the platform, one hand in his pocket, one hand resting lightly on the camera around his neck.

That Monday he brought an envelope of black and white prints to class and passed them around, explaining the request a few of us had made on the train. There were a lot of prints, enough for the class to spend some time on, and the deliberation and study we gave each one was unusual for us. They were all simple portraits – children, old people, bus drivers, the vendedores ambulantes who worked their way along sidewalks and trains, hawking newspapers, candy, matchbox cars with sing song sales pitches. The subjects looked straight into the camera, sometimes smiling or laughing, but mostly serious. Some of them looked like the sort of rough characters I might not want to photograph without asking, and some were attractive young women, whom I would have felt equally uncomfortable approaching on the street. It was not hard to imagine Father Moretti doing it though.

Moretti didn’t speak for a long while, but he looked at us in a particular way – not quite plaintively, but with a mixture of forced confidence and creeping vulnerability, the look you give someone when you think she might want to kiss you, but you’re not quite certain enough to move in close and let your eyes go out of focus. Diego was the first to speak, and he said just one word: “Alucinantes.” Literally, it means “hallucinatory,” but we used it to describe something so great as to be eye-opening.

“Really?” asked Moretti. His guard was completely down. It would not surprise me if no student in the history of Barat had ever seen a teacher so emotionally unguarded – even the senior girls of years past who were rumored to have slept with our math teacher.

And we didn’t let him down. “Really!” said mousy Rosi, emerging from her perennial doodling in the back corner of the room. “These are photos are very -” she paused for a moment, “very truthful.” Others chimed in, all honest praise, and then the bell rang and we shuffled off, leaving Moretti glowing.

From then on, Moretti’s class was a little refuge for us, wedged between Señora Pennovi’s brutalist approach to English and Fabián’s amusing but slightly unsettling, pretty-girl-centered take on Algebra. We talked a little about religion but a lot more about morality, crime, and sin. Florencia admitted stealing money from her dad’s wallet, to everyone’s shock. Luciano actually asked the whole class to stop calling him “Pomelo” (Grapefruit), committing one of the greatest sins against adolescent Argentinian pride by revealing that the nickname hurt his feelings. Such was the hold that Moretti had on our thinking that we actually respected Luciano’s request for nearly a week (but his head did look like a grapefruit – it was undeniable).

Toward the end of the school year, the boys started to wonder and discuss whether Moretti was a virgin, virginity being the affliction foremost on our minds those days. This was something we couldn’t ask directly, of course, but one day maybe a week or two before the end of the term, Diego made a good opening salvo: “¿Y vos, Moretti?” – “And you?” he started, using the informal tense as always. “Have you always been a priest? How’d you get into this business?”

“You really want to know?” Moretti asked, eyes shining, and we nodded and leaned forward eagerly. It was hard to tell whether he was just reveling selfishly in our attention, or excited at the possibility of imparting some valuable lesson.  Either way, he took advantage of the spell he had cast, speaking deliberately:

“When I was nineteen, I was living a very different life. I had a job at the airport, money to spend, and no responsibility. I was going out every night, you know, drinking, using cocaine, always with different women -“

“I told you so!” cried Diego. “I knew he wasn’t a virgin!”

Everyone turned, jolted by the interruption, and Diego actually looked embarrassed for the first time in his life. Moretti said nothing, and waited. We turned back to him, and he went on:

“I won’t lie to you. It was a fun life at first.” The story was predictable but well told. His cocaine use started to get out of hand. He got a girl pregnant and she left Buenos Aires to live with family in a distant province. He started doing heroin, then lost his job. We all knew he was heading toward a road-to-Damascus moment – he was a religion teacher at a Catholic school, after all – but we were still dying to know the details (the salacious particulars of decadence are what make redemption stories so engaging, after all). He worked the build-up pretty hard, and I don’t remember all the details, but I can’t forget what it boiled down to: Moretti was coming down from a high, waiting on a train platform alone on a cold night. Suddenly, he heard footsteps behind him, but before he could turn around, he felt something hard poking into his back. A man said, “Don’t move or I’ll burn you.”

Of course, we all knew what “burn” meant in that context – even I, the foreigner, was by then well enough acquainted with street slang – and like all adolescents, we prided ourselves on being conversant with the trappings of criminality. Nevertheless, Moretti wanted us to feel the mortal desperation of that moment, like Saul on his back with his maddened horse rearing above him. He said, “So right then, I knew he had a gun.”

And just then, while the rest of the class tried to imagine confronting death alone, shuddering with cold and withdrawal, Marcelo said, “Or a match.”

Diego snorted. Florencia stifled a giggle. And suddenly, we were all laughing. A lot. It wasn’t the funniest thing I ever heard in my life, but something about the way Marcelo said it, sort of earnest as though he weren’t making a joke so much as suggesting the real possibility that this faceless bandit might have been threatening Moretti with matches, seemed absolutely uproarious at the time.

Moretti tried to pick up the thread, and he went on for another minute about how he’d asked God for help or something, but the mood was broken. Someone else posited that the bandit planned to rub two sticks together to make a fire, we started to riff on that (“maybe he had a stove!”). Soon the bell rang and we went on our way, leaving Moretti crestfallen in his chair.

And then he was gone. Cavallo came back and finished off religion class for the year, marveling at how little progress we seemed to have made. There was never any explanation, and there was no one at the school we would have felt comfortable asking, except Moretti himself. No one saw him in the building or around town.

We didn’t talk about it at the time, of course – vacation was close at hand, and the vigorous indolence of summer was too alluring to leave room for charitable thoughts. But when I recall his face as we bounced out of the room that day, I know we broke him: eyes fixed somewhere between his desk and the first row of chairs, out of focus and absolutely still; shoulders slack, like he’d just put down a heavy box. He was shocked, and his faith was shaken. He threw himself under the hooves of our adolescent cruelty, expecting passion and piety to turn us back. Instead, we trampled him.

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to mention this is my TNB debut. Is it professional? Do I pretend to be part of the furniture?

If I do will someone sit on me?

Babbling—first day nerves.

I was supposed to write this in the morning. That didn’t happen.

When I woke up there was a woman in my room. This was both a novelty and more than a little unexpected. She was the room inspector. They knock on the door and if they don’t get an answer they assume you’re out. I was not out. I was in bed, eyes half shut and body fully naked.

It was like a bad sitcom. I’m surprised no one has made a sitcom set around University life.

Nearly exposing myself to a fifty year old housing manager was bad luck. It’s Friday the 13th. Tomorrow is February 14th; which will bring worse luck.