It astonishes me that the weirdest and creepiest moment I experienced while living on prison grounds had nothing to do with living on prison grounds. It was year two into my ten year exile in the land of desolation (as my pre-adolescent mind perceived it), and I was starting a new school for the second time in two years. Despite my protestations, it was determined that, rather than the local junior high, parochial school would be a better fit for me. So when September of my second year rolled around, I donned my ever so modest and very uncomfortable Catholic school uniform, made the long walk down the hill to the main road where I boarded a bus. During my long morning journey, I rode past prisons and tobacco fields until I reached the “industrial ” side of town where I was deposited at the entrance of a very small school. This was a school that children had attended since kindergarten. It was a polish school, and, as I would soon learn, polish was often spoken, not during instruction but at other times, between teachers, teachers and students, the students themselves. This would have been fine…except for the fact that I am not Polish. Needless to say, the experience was, for lack of a better word, disorienting. My memories of my years at this school come with a soundtrack. Always, not matter what the visual image is, I hear Jim Morrison hauntingly singing “People are strange, when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly…”
Anyway, I was not the only unfortunate to be starting seventh grade at my new school. A couple of kids from the local Montessori , which only ran until sixth grade, were enrolled. Now, those poor souls were completely out of their element. They were and remained separate from everyone else. They were a docile and different species of child that had no hope of assimilation. And then there was the other group of newcomers.
Apparently there had been a group of Catholics from a neighboring town that had been reprimanded by their diocese because of, without getting into sordid details, cult-like activity. Well, the pastor of my new school’s parish, in an act of mercy or forgiveness or whatever, decided to allow former members of the parish in question to enroll their children in his school. Soooooooo….
Let’s just say that it sucks to be the new kid in school, especially when you are eleven years old. And, new kids gravitate to other new kids. So when the new kids from the neighboring town offered me their friendship, I gratefully accepted. Of course, there was always something different about my new friends, although I could never quite put my finger on what it was. They were just so unlike the kids I hung with from back home. My friends and I used to be from similar backgrounds. We went to school and girl scouts together. We were silly and had fun. We used to laugh..a lot…about ridiculous things. We played hide and seek and tag. We played with Care Bears and Smurfs and Cabbage Patch Kids, and I think, for the most part, we were all relatively happy. But these new girls were different. They were dour. But, they offered friendship, something I so needed, so craved, that I would have accepted it from anyone.
After about a month, my new friends began inviting me to their homes for sleepovers. I remember well the long and lonely drive to their houses. We passed prisons and corn fields and tobacco fields and old colonial houses until we finally reached our destination. And their homes were so unlike anything to which I was accustomed. They were large, large enough to accommodate families with eight and nine children. And they were old and, well, from my standpoint as a child and still to this day, creepy. As a matter of fact, one of my friends had informed me that her living room was haunted. And you know what? As an adult looking back almost thirty years later, I believe it. There was a feeling, a flat, sad, heavy, lifeless feeling to her home. Just as my new friend, the house was somber and cheerless. It was as if it existed in a dream and its reality was from a time past. It was eerie. I remember not being able to sleep when I stayed there. Insomnia, true insomnia, which began in my new home on prison grounds, settled in during my stays in that house.
I remember another chilly autumn day, when I packed up my overnight bag and headed over to another one of my new friend’s homes. Again, it was large, large enough to acccomodate my friends’s eight other siblings and her parents. It was the day after Halloween. What’s funny is that I don’t remember what I had done the night prior. Did I go trick-or-treating? Who knows? I can recall every Halloween I ever celebrated, except for that one. Perhaps it’s because the events of the day after overshadowed the festivities of the night before. I remember being hungry and feeling happy when I heard that my friend’s mother was ordering pizza. I remember sitting at the table and hearing her mother say, in a rather serious tone, “Okay. Let’s get the saints.” My friend and a handful of her siblings got up. I followed them from the kitchen into the dining room, where, on the sideboard, was a vast collection of statues of the saints. Now I have to state here that I have never been fond of statues and always found them a bit creepy. So you can imagine my chagrin when I had to carry two eight inch statues and place them on the kitchen table so that they could join us for dinner. Unfortunately, right in front of me, my friend had placed the statue of Saint Michael slaying the devil. Now there is nothing that creeps the shit out of me more than Lucifer. As a child, when other kids were afraid of monsters or robbers, I was afraid of the devil; the one with the tail and horns and pitchfork; the one on the old Red Devil Paint cans. And there he was. In front of me. Being slain. Saint Michael slaying the God damned devil, with his scales and horns and tail right in front of me. During dinner. Of course I wondered what the hell (pardon the pun) was going on. And, of course, my question was answered when my friend’s mother began the prayer and instructed us to bow our heads and thank God that we were all gathered together, celebrating All Saints’ Day with the saints. It was just too much.
If only I had the wherewithal to call my parents and ask them to get me the hell (ooops there it is again) out of there. Instead I stayed. Insomnia kicked in, but I made it to morning. And I think, although I don’t remember, that when my mother arrived to pick me up, I probably enjoyed my ride home, past the old colonial homes, and barren trees, past corn fields and tobacco fields until I was nice and safe, back at home…on prison grounds.