Joseph Bathanti

Taking It Back
September 24, 2020 Bathanti Joseph

Taking It Back


Two weeks past Epiphany,
well into the new semester,
Andrew Hightower transferred in
to Saints Peter and Paul –
more beautiful than any girl in class:
blue eyes, soft wavy hair, skin
the color of late wheat.
The nuns said he was negro,
perhaps Mexican, or Oriental –
a cut above negro, I’d heard it said.
I found his silence haughty:
his utter disdain for approval,
his refusal to acknowledge
anything at all different about him.
Tall, muscled, he’d failed a grade,
flunked, maybe two.
He stumbled when made to read.
His teeth were white as the chalice veil;
and, when he dreamily smiled,
he drifted further from the rest of us –
as if sheer beauty shielded inadequacy.
Yet there was power in his ennui.
Unmoved even by baseball,
he cared for nothing,
and I suppose I hated him for it.
He sat in front of me. All day
I stared at his curls and threadbare shoulders,
wondering what it might be like to fight him.
One day he turned in his seat –
and said Your dad’s bald (which he was).
I called him nigger,
something else I’d heard – in my home
and habitually on the street; though,
again, the nuns schooled us to say negro.
I knew I had done something terrible,
beyond sin, to Andrew –
worse than suckering him or oathing fuck.
He marched to the front of the room and tattled.
It couldn’t have been Sister Thomasine –
too much of an animal to have suggested dialogue,
nor Miss Manso, the pretty lay teacher –
because we all met, that Sunday after High Mass,
at the convent, to discuss what had happened:
my father, I, Andrew, and Sister Anne Francis.
That’s who it must have been:
treacherous Anne Francis.
This would have been difficult for my dad.
He didn’t like to talk about how he felt,
or peer too deeply into things, unless alone,
though he suffered nuns well,
and they idolized him. Church usher,
member of the Holy Name Society,
the will and zeal of a cheery Trappist,
he drove them to visit their aged comrades
at the Mother House in the country,
and built a window box on the fire escape
for our class geraniums.
My mother sewed the satin pillow laced with pearls
upon which Mary’s May crown rested.
Mother hated the nuns: their beastly looks
and savage piety. They hated her too:
she out-savaged them without a whit of piety.
That might explain her leaving that Sunday up to my dad,
or maybe he suggested she stay home,
or she just didn’t want to go to church.
We talked about the bad word I’d let slip out.
Sister said she knew I really hadn’t meant it.
Would I take it back?
My father looked at me.
He wanted to get the hell out
of that dark convent foyer,
its faded inquisitorial stained glass.
I took back the word,
but words can never be taken back.
Then Andrew, all alone, and I shook hands.
I told him I was sorry.
Sister explained there was nothing
at all tragic about being bald.
Priests were: Father Petrogallo; and Saints
Anthony and Francis; friars and monks,
their shaved tonsures symbolizing haloes.
That’s when I began to get sick
and wish my mother were there
to make a scene and put a stop to it all.
Anne Francis: the hubris of Lucifer.
Priest are bald; saints are bald.
What careless things to say to a boy
who knows he’s bad, bound for hell.
I wanted to bash beautiful Andrew’s head in –
because I loved him,
because of what I had called him,
because he smiled, and remained silent.

Joseph Bathanti, former Poet Laureate of North Carolina (2012-14) and recipient of the North Carolina Award in Literature, is author of nineteen books. Bathanti is the McFarlane Family Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Education at Appalachian State University. A new volume of poems, Light at the Seam, was published by LSU Press in 2023.