Sister Mercedes and the Temple of Doom
by Brian C. Petti
Sister Mercedes and the Temple of Doom is a collection of blog posts from playwright and author Brian C. Petti. From the depiction of the author’s upbringing as a fat, shy Catholic school boy to the vagaries of family life to trying to live hand-to-mouth while on disability, Sister Mercedes is a sometimes hysterically funny, sometimes tragic and always human glimpse behind the veil of parenthood, marriage, pop culture and the world in general.
I had a college professor who once said, “Catholicism gives you something infinitely complex to rebel against for the rest of your life.”
Being a rebellious Catholic I said to myself, “What the hell does he know?” Notice I didn’t say it out loud.
But as I look back at my 12 years (!) of Catholic school, I have to say he had a point. No one taught me the true meaning of wretched, bilious hate better than the nuns.
In the 1970s, there were two reasons to become a nun: morbid fear of sex and latent lesbianism. I mean, if you didn’t get laid during the summer of ’69 what chance did you really have thereafter? Oh, I suppose there were some authentic Brides of Christ, but in 12 years I met precious few. Certainly not my principal Sister Mercedes. That was her name, I swear. She hated me.
A little background. I wasn’t a troublemaker. Quite the contrary, I was boringly, stupefyingly good – good grades, never caused trouble, barely spoke, actually. My younger brother, however, was an absolute hellion in gray uniform pants and a maroon sweater. A classmate of his was running full out to line up after recess and my brother casually stuck out his foot and tripped her. Sister Jeanne saw this and responded as any reasonable adult in a position of authority would – she beat the hell out of him. A closed-fist, old school, Mass in Latin massacre.
My mother’s cousin lost a promising high school basketball career in the 50s because a nun broke a yardstick over his calf. He was asked what he had done to provoke the poor woman. But the 70s were a more civilized, groovy decade. Nothing was bad enough to warrant an attack on a mere child (even though the poor girl did go sprawling headlong on the concrete parking lot, and by all reports my brother laughed his ass off while she did).
My father was not going to kowtow to the Catholic hierarchy, especially post Vatican II. He went to Sister Mercedes and demanded that Sister Jeanne apologize to my brother, which she did, tearfully, in front of my brother’s class. Sister Mercedes, like John Gotti or Tony Soprano, never forgot that humiliation and dishonor. She needed a scapegoat, or in more appropriate religious doctrine, a sacrificial lamb.
Enter a fat, sensitive, 7th grader with pants a slightly lighter shade of gray than everyone else (we had to find them in the husky section, often in corduroy). And enter The Hobbit.
I loved The Hobbit. I was one of those nerdy kids who actually enjoyed reading on his own. The Hobbit had it all–dragons, dwarfs, elves, short creatures with hairy feet, a magic ring, no mystical, pseudo-Christian ax to grind (I’m talking to you, Prince of Narnia). The fat kid with the ripped pantcrotch was entranced.
Christmas break ended and we were scheduled to take our Hobbit test. I was actually looking forward to it. The tests were passed out, along with our scan tron answer sheets (an amazing invention that insured that teachers didn’t have to waste their time on anything as menial as grading – unless you counted the time spent hand-feeding the little buggers into the machine). No sooner had I raised my #2 pencil than all the tests were immediately re-collected and we were asked to take out a piece of looseleaf numbered 1-10. We were then given ten short answer questions roughly along the lines of, “What was Bilbo’s second cousin’s dog’s name and on what page did he appear in the standard Penguin edition?” Two of my classmates, apparently, had stolen the answer key out of the teacher’s cabinet and distributed it to every kid in the class except me. Such was my anonymity among my peers. One of the pilferers came from a family of 19 children that had such a squeaky reputation that nuns and priests would frequently genuflect in the presence of their mother. She barely noticed, busy as she was trying to avoid tripping over her uterus.
But I digress. The fuzz had caught on. The nuns had played the old switcheroo game with our tests and waiting in the hallway to extract information from the defendants was Sister Mercedes. She was ruthless. Within minutes she had the kid from the big family awash in tears of guilt and announced to the class that because of his larceny none of us would be having recess for a month … unless we had passed the 10 question sham test (nobody did – I was closest with 6 correct). While we were sitting inside during recess, relegated to whispered conversations, an idea occurred to me that I should have dismissed immediately and without any further internal discussion. The idea was “this is unfair”. I know, right! Stupid, naive fatty.
I tested the idea with my fellow classmates and found 100% agreement. Emboldened, I timidly ventured that someone should bring said unfairness to someone’s attention. This time I was soundly congratulated, not only for my otherworldly perceptive abilities, but also for possessing the courage … nay, the hubris … to attempt such discussion with so formidable an antagonist as Sister Mercedes.
Excuse me, what?
I was volunteered by popular demand. In short work I had become their voice, their hope, their backbone, their unwitting fool. I sucked in my substantial stomach and asked my teacher if I could speak to Sister Mercedes. The dear woman tried to talk me out of it, but I was single-minded in my determination to slit my own wrists.
I marched into the school office, waited courteously behind a mother who was signing her kid out sick while my heart pounded in my chest, and found myself face to face with destiny. In between my stammer and spittle I think I managed to squeak out that I thought group punishment was unfair. I’m sure I meant to back up my argument with like injustices throughout history (WWI pogroms, Native American reservations, letting peers pick sides during flag football), but I never got that far.
Sister Mercedes’ eyes narrowed and, I think, turned red. She cocked her habit at a jaunty angle to her white hair. “And what makes YOU so special, Mr. Petti, that you think you deserve to go outside and play while all your friends stay inside!” No, no, no … there were others … I’m their champion … I’m their hero! … they practically nominated me Pope just now in that classroom! How dare you try to sully so pure a comradeship as I have with my fellow classmates. I was practically carried to this office on the wings of companionship and civic pride!
So, steeled in the adoration of my fellow man, I replied approximately …
I never spoke so eloquently.
“Get back to your classroom immediately. I’ll be up in a minute.” Unluckily for me, she didn’t break an ankle on the way. As soon as she entered the room, she demanded that I stand up.
“Mr. Petti thinks that HIS punishment is unfair. He thinks that HE should be allowed to go out and play while all the rest of you stay here in your classroom. Do any of YOU feel the same way?”
“I thought so. Do you know what that makes you, Mr. Petti? A parasite. Do you know what that means?”
“A person who’s taken a vow of poverty, yet lives quite comfortably on the money squeezed out of her lower-middle-class congregation when the plate is passed every Sunday?”
Is what I should have said. “No” was my actual reply.
“You should look it up, Mr. Petti. It perfectly describes you.”
And here I am years later on disability. I guess she had me nailed. But I learned some important lessons, character building lessons that followed me throughout my life. Lessons like, might is right, power is meant to be exploited, and “fairness” “is” “a” “relative” “concept”. And most importantly, if you plan on taking a stand on moral grounds, don’t look over your shoulder. You’re better off not knowing how few folks are back there.
By Paul Coleman
Brian Petti is a superbly talented playwright and now non-fiction author. Playwrights find a way to display life’s ups and downs in a manner that reaches us on a deep level. Mr. Petti’s newest venture “Sister Mercedes and the Temple of Doom” does the same but in an entirely different format. You can’t read but a paragraph or two without finding something that ties into your own life. He writes about the key fundamentals–family life, love, loss, and the deeper learning that only comes from tackling life’s joys and hardships. He gets very personal about his own ordeals and yet writes of them with a bounce-back optimism that gives every reader a sense of hope, a sense that resilience is possible – a sense that life is wonderful and meaningful even when times are tough.
It’s the perfect book for the browser, the thumb-through-er, or the can’t-put-it-down type of reader. And like most stories of every day happenings that we can all relate to, you will find something new with every re-reading.
Do something nice for yourself today. Get this book. And get ready to smile.
About the Author
Brian C. Petti’s work has appeared in numerous Off-Off Broadway venues and he was the winner of the 1999 Humboldt State University National Play Contest (Next Year in Jerusalem). Masquerade was staged at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York by Ten Grand and a Burger Productions in 2005. He has also had productions in New York by Thespian Productions (The Art of Negotiation), the American Theater of Actors, Inc. (Before the Parade Passes By), Ryan Repertory, The Duplex Cabaret, (Everything’s Coming Up Roses) and The Play’s the Thing Productions (Hindenburg – the Musical). Petti’s plays have enjoyed many regional productions as well: he most recently had Echoes of Ireland and Ten Seconds produced in 2010 in upstate New York.