an excerpt from The Irish Sextet
posted Oct 12, 2010
Brother Clement whirled and threw an eraser. “Burchmore,” he screamed, “Get out!” Burchmore let go of the T-Square he’d hooked over Clark’s shoulder and stood up from his tilted drafting table with outraged innocence. His stool fell over behind him. “What’d I do?” Burchmore said. Brother Clement, already pink, turned crimson and charged down the aisle, the skirt of his cassock and green sash flailing. Burchmore held his ground until Brother Clement was upon him and then fled for the door. The class, led by Clark, laughed and jeered as Brother Clement cuffed at Burchmore, trapped in the doorway. Burchmore clawed at the doorknob until the door opened and he spilled into the hall. Brother Clement stood over him, “See Brother Cyril after school.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Burchmore said, though they both knew he had. Brother Clement closed the door and locked it.
Burchmore sat up. The small war with Clark had followed provocative gum-chewing with loud bubbles, model ball bearings, intended to be measured and drawn but instead rolled to the front of the class—the usual hazing for a substitute teacher. Burchmore felt justified because, besides being a substitute, Brother Clement was a lousy drafting teacher, clearly only a chapter ahead of them. The good teacher, Mr. Roach, had left to teach at a public school, dismayed by Catholic school pay.
Burchmore wouldn’t have cared about drafting even if it had been properly taught. It was St. Patrick’s concession toward shop classes. The school liked to think that all of its graduates would go on to college and couldn’t afford trade workshops anyway. Drafting and a Photography class were all that were offered for the dim or defiant.
Out in the hall Burchmore thought about what to do next. He was out of cigarettes and the roof wasn’t worth risking except to smoke. He had to get out of the hallway. Any priest or brother might catch him loitering and add to his punishment. He peered around the corner. Chris Gonzalez, the school custodian was standing beside an open classroom door, leaning on his push-broom. The tools of his trade, buckets, mops, trash cans, rags and a toolbox were on a rolling flat-bed cart beside him. Chris was cool, he’d caught Burchmore and Clark smoking on the roof and never busted them, just told them to make sure the stair door was locked when they left.
Burchmore decided it was safest to be next to Chris and pretend to help him if anyone official came by. He edged out from the corner and tip-toed up behind Chris. Chris had his head down, his chin resting on the broom, but he seemed intent. Burchmore understood he was listening and as he drew closer he could hear what Chris heard. Brother Cyril was teaching his Senior Spanish class. Burchmore could see Cyril now, pacing before the class, staring at an open book and reciting. Burchmore hadn’t taken Spanish but he knew Brother Cyril well as the School’s Dean of Discipline. In an hour, when the final bell rang, Burchmore would sit in front of him, offer no explanation that Cyril would accept and be offered the usual choice : Two hours of detention or five of the best from Cyril’s limber bamboo cane. Burchmore always chose the whipping. He valued his time.
Chris lifted his head at Burchmore’s approach and held a finger to his lips. “Just listen,” he said. The Spanish was not the Spanish that Burchmore was used to from the neighborhood, this Spanish was slower and sonorous, with a rolling cadence and drama, like distant cannon fire. “I could listen to him all day,” Chris whispered. “That’s the purest Castilian accent you’ll ever hear.”
Brother Cyril stopped and went up on his toes, then settled on the balls of his feet. He rolled his shoulders, bringing them almost up to his ears, a well-known set of mannerisms that always confirmed for Burchmore the school legend that Cyril had been a famous boxer in Ireland. Trim, snub, intent, he looked like a boxer now as he thrust an open book out to arm’s length and held it unwaveringly. “I’ll be reading to you now,” Cyril said, “from one of Spain’s greatest poets, Federico García Lorca. Regrettably murdered by Fascists in 1938, during the Spanish Civil War. This is Lorca’s best known poem, a lament, Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejias. Mejias was a bullfighter, a beloved friend of Lorca’s and the poem was composed just after Mejia’s death in the ring, while Lorca was heart-stricken and grieving.
“Later we will translate the poem, but for now I only want you to listen. The only phrases you might need are La Cogida y la muerte, which is the title of the first section. La Cogida means “The wound,’ in this case very specifically a horn wound, la muerte, is of course, “death’. And then there is the repeated refrain, A las cinco de la tarde. At five o’clock in the afternoon, which was the time Sanchez died. I call it a refrain, it is almost a sob when read by Lorca. Simply listen to the sound of the words and you will learn a good deal about the soul of Spain.”
“Whoop-de-doo,” Burchmore whispered behind the janitor’s back. Chris threw an elbow at him. In the classroom Brother Cyril began to stalk the front row until he was ready to read, the corded muscle of his neck, sloping to his shoulders, seemed to flare. “Uno,” Brother Cyril intoned, “La Cogida y la muerte.”
Burchmore leaned around Chris’ shoulder and gave the finger to a boy in the front row he knew, Timothy Coates, but Timothy was entranced.
Brother Cyril’s voice rolled and troughed like gathering waves and even the Castilian lisp was solemn:
“A las Cinco de la tarde.
Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde
Un nińo trajo la blanco sábana
a las cinco de la tarde
Una espuerta de cal ya prevenida
a las cinco de la tarde
Lo demás era muerte y solo muerte
a las cinco de la tarde...”
Burchmore was about to snicker, but he caught the gleam of moisture in Chris’ eyes and stayed silent. “That’s beautiful,” Chris whispered, “You kids have no idea what you’re being given here. Poetry puro, man.”
Behind them a door slammed open. There was yelling and then Clark reeled into view, black hair spiked up on one side of his head like it had been yanked. “Fucking Clark,” Burchmore whispered. Clark gave him a thumbs-up and then gestured toward the stairway door and pantomimed smoking. “Chris,” Burchmore whispered, “We’re going to hit the roof.” Chris lifted his chin from his broom and gave Burchmore a look. “Baboso,” Chris said, “Tonto. I’m not going to make no excuses for you. You oughta stay here and learn something. Listen to that.”
Cyril had reached the end of the first stanza and was in full cry,
“¡Eran las cinco de en todos los relojes!
¡Eran las cinco en sombra de la tarde!”
Cyril stopped, his head bowed. The class was more than quiet, all extraneous noise had been sucked in and held and they were actively quiet.
“It’s like he’s a poet himself,” Chris whispered.
Burchmore backed away. Clark had the stairway doorway open and was waiting. When Burchmore was out of reach he whispered to Chris, “Oh yeah. Oh Yeah. I’ll try to remember that. When he’s beating my ass. At four o’clock in the afternoon.”
© 2010 Lou Mathews