Bettering Myself

“Dear Principal Kishka,” I wrote. “Thank you for letting me teach at your school. Please throw away the sleeping bag in the cardboard box in the back of my classroom. I have to resign for personal reasons. Just so you know, I’ve been fudging the state exams. Thanks again. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

There was a church attached to the back of the school — a cathedral with great big mosaics of people holding up a finger as though to say, Be quiet. I thought I’d go in there and leave my letter of resignation with one of the priests. Also, I wanted a little tenderness, I think, and I imagined the priest putting his hand on my head and calling me something like “my dear,” or “my sweet,” or “little one.” I don’t know what I was thinking. “My pet.”

I’d been up on bad cocaine and drinking for days. I’d roped a few men back to my apartment and showed them all my belongings, stretched out flesh-colored tights and proposed we take turns hanging each other. Nobody lasted more than a few hours. The letter to Principal Kishka sat on the bedside table. It was time. I checked my reflection in the bathroom mirror before I left the house. I thought I looked pretty normal. That couldn’t be possible. I put the last of the stuff up my nose. I put on a baseball cap. I put on some more ChapStick.

On the way to church I stopped at McDonald’s for a Diet Coke. I hadn’t been around people in weeks. There were whole families sitting down together, sipping on straws, sedate, mulling with their fries like broken horses at hay. A homeless person, man or woman I couldn’t tell, had gotten into the trash by the entrance. At least I wasn’t completely alone, I thought. It was hot out. I wanted that Diet Coke. But the lines to order made no sense. Most people were huddled in random patterns, gazing up at the menu boards, eyes glazed over, touching their chins, pointing, nodding.

“Are you in line?” I kept asking them. Nobody would answer me.

Finally I just approached a young black boy in a visor behind the counter. I ordered my Diet Coke.

“What size?” he asked me.

He pulled out four cups in ascending order of size. The largest size stood about a foot high off the counter.

“I’ll take that one,” I said.

This felt like a great occasion. I can’t explain it. I felt immediately endowed with great power. I plunked my straw in and sucked. It was good. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I thought of ordering another one, for when I’d finished that one. But that would be exploitive, I thought. Better let this one have its day. Okay, I thought. One at a time. One Diet Coke at a time. Now off to the priest.

The last time I’d been in that church was for some Catholic holiday. I’d sat in the back and done my best to kneel, cross myself, move my mouth at the Latin sayings, and so forth. I had no idea what any of it meant, but it had some effect on me. It was cold in there. My nipples stood on end, my hands were swollen, my back hurt. I must have stunk of alcohol. I watched the students in their uniforms line up for the Eucharist. The ones who genuflected at the altar did it so deeply, wholly, they broke my heart. Most of the liturgy was in Ukrainian. I saw Popliasti play with the padded bar you knelt on, lifting it up and letting it slam down. There were beautiful stained-glass windows, a lot of gold.

But when I got there that day with the letter, the church was locked. I sat down on the damp stone steps and finished my Diet Coke. A shirtless bum walked by.

“Pray for rain,” he said.


I went to McSorley’s and ate a bowl of pickled onions. I tore the letter up. The sun shone on.