Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Photograph by: Diane Gaughan


Julie Luongo Novelist

Margaret Ingraham Poet

Taije Silverman Poet

Daniel Nester Author & Poet

Daniel Tobin Poet

Heather Thomas Poet

Jerry Spinelli Young Adult Author


VCCA International Retreat for Visual Artists, Writers, and Composers

Ragdale Retreat for Visual Artists, Writers, and Composers

Oberpfalzer Kunstlerhaus German retreat

Short Story: Offerings

Published in Indiana Review, Vol. 23, No. 1, spring 2001.

Sister Agnes Laurel was my fifth grade teacher and the only nun I ever knew who got giddy at the sight of a magic marker.  Art class was Confirmation, a time to renew our faith in the Lord, and every morning the round old nun sang and swayed as our Crayola felt tips skipped along like fingers in a hymnal.  We gave her what she wanted.  She liked our halos good and yellow and our crosses upright and brown.  She loved doves and veiled Virgins and glowed her brightest when we scribbled “God is Love” against our Jerusalem dunes.  In the cloak closet she kept boxes of strawberry Crazy Cow, and for those who colored under Divine inspiration she bestowed Dixie cups of dry cereal.  Nothing came more easily in a day otherwise filled with long division and Kenneth Grahame.  As long as we kept the sheep and shepherds coming, our fingertips remained sugary sweet until the bell sounded for recess.

While the other kids were content working the bare minimum with their stick Abrahams, I wanted to give the old nun something better.  In a class of 30  I was the only one who regularly fouled out in kickball.  I never did understand why 3/3 and 5/5 should both equal 1, nor could I color code a linking verb to save my life.  Drawing was my thing, and a day hardly went by that I didn't feel a warm flush of pride over my silver trumpets and Towers of Babel, my five-toed Noahs and one-armed lepers.  Sister Agnes Laurel was pretty fond of them too.  Wedging the toy surprise inside my Dixie cup as an extra special treat, she weeble-wobbled around the room and thrust my pictures in the air the way crazed Browns fans waved foam biscuits in the Dog Pound.
“Now this,” she exclaimed, frog eyes winking behind her horn-rimmed glasses.  “This is the work of a young man with the peace of Jesus in his heart.”

The boys and girls dropped their crayons and clapped as Sister Agnes Laurel tacked my pictures above the blackboard.  As autumn wore on they even huddled around my desk mornings, crunching Crazy Cow and exhaling long envious sighs while the Mother of Sorrows’ cheeks went from paper white to rose blush red.  I felt important.

But the more detailed my drawings became, the slower Sister Agnes Laurel was in getting to the blackboard.  She stopped and eyed the pencil lines a long time without appearing to see what she was looking at, scratching her elbow and shifting her weight from one leg to the other as her ankles poured like dough over the rims of her shoes.  The afternoon she had asked what the blue and black squiggles on Mary Magdalene’s left calf were supposed to represent, a peculiar noise fluttered from her lips, part moan, part groan, part gasp -- something sick and unbelieving -- when I explained that they were a combination of tattoos and spider veins.  It was a sound I had heard only once before from the old nun -- on Halloween when I walked in dressed as Gene Simmons with a Kabuki-painted mask rubber-banded over my face, a plastic and bloodied tongue hanging below my chin.  When all was said and done, my pictures went up just the same.  Still I couldn’t help but notice how the kids' conditioned applause brought an embarrassed grimace to my teacher's pale round face more often than an encouraging gleam.

One overcast morning in November Sister Agnes Laurel stopped me on the way to the playground.  The rain had finally let up, a hard, driving, Northeastern Ohio downpour, and outside the window a drop of water kept falling from a choked gutter to the flagstones far below.  I heard and waited for each flute-like plop while the old nun shut the door behind my classmates.

“It’s very sweet your daddy’s teaching you to draw nights,’’ she said and dropped an arm around me.  “But I worry you’re focusing too much on things that just aren’t that important.”

My chest knotted up like a fist.  I liked Sister Agnes Laurel, and I wanted her to like me.  “What do you mean?”

Ankles snapping as she reached above the blackboard, the old nun untacked my latest creation -- an interpretation of the Last Supper.  Little dried clumps of blood stood out on her cuticle-torn fingers as she held the picture up to the light.

“There’s a lot of nice things here,” she went on, “but do we really need this?”  She pointed to my Simon, whom I had seated at the end of the dinner table behind a stack of buttered bread.  Below his eyes I had inserted two parallel lines cupped by a three-leaf clover.

“It’s a nose,” I said quickly.

“I know that,” she said.  “But why did you draw it that way?”

“My dad taught me to.  He says it looks better than a dot.”

Sister Agnes Laurel nodded the way people do to indicate that they’ve heard you without necessarily buying into your point of view.  She cleared her throat and it was the signal for an approaching intimacy.  “I understand,” she smiled, “and that’s great.  Noses and spider veins and whiskers certainly have their place.  But I don’t think they’re needed here.  All these extra things stand out too much.  It distracts from your halos.”

I blinked up at the old nun in the half-timid, hesitating manner I always had with adults.  I wanted to say something, but when I tried I sputtered and stammered and my voice sounded strange and squeaky.  Burying my hands in my coat pockets as I left the room, I made an understanding grunt and padded down the red-carpeted hall to the playground.  The sky had partially cleared and a golden glow lit up the east, and I stood by the fence in the schoolyard with something burning in my side.

A few hours later my father got the full report as he breezed in through the kitchen door, smelling of the outside and newspaper ink.  Kelly was out with her boyfriend and Mom was at work again, which meant pancakes and cantaloupe for supper the third time that week.

“No noses?  No whiskers?” he said and snorted.  “Where the hell does she buy her milk?”

Wiping maple syrup from his mustache, my father wadded his napkin and drummed a pencil against his paper plate.  This, he said, is why I should have gone to McKinzy Elementary. But both he and I knew that wasn’t a possibility.  Mom was frightened of public school.  Anything short of private education looked like Beirut to her, and she worked in Hills’ layaway department evenings so I could follow Toad's adventures without getting gunned down from the monkey bars.  She had gone to St. Joe’s herself as a little girl.  Although she understood that Catholics could get weird — she had been raised by a mother who taped Madonna statuettes to her belly to ward off menstrual cramps — she also knew what the nuns told me to say or do was nothing compared to guerilla warfare.  Crayoned sheep and angels were welcomed any day over broken arms and shiners.

My father, however, loosened his collar at the refrigerator and muttered an “Oh, brother,” every time he found my St. Joe’s pictures pinned beneath a pineapple magnet.  For a man who had passed his high school years under the hood of a Chevy and combing Dippity Do through his gun-metal hair, God and moral discipline were remote concepts.  They were something he may have heard of before sliding into Mom’s booth at Eddie’s Grill that fateful summer night, but they were subjects he never sought to learn more about after they got married. When she went to take Communion Sundays, it was one of those private things Mom did on her own time, an unfortunate yet inescapable side of life better left undiscussed, like dandruff or bowel movements.

Still, there were times when parental duty drove him to put my “temporary bouts of delirium” into check.  The afternoon he had tired of crazy eights and showed me five-card stud, the game quickly degenerated into 52-pick-up when I proclaimed I was as "tricky as Judas" for winning a nickel pot with a pair of threes.  Nor could he sit very long for our school Christmas pageants.  While the other kids paraded on and off stage the previous December with their frankincense and myrrh, my father dug a pen from Mom’s purse and doodled Model Ts on the night’s program.  When I finally made my entrance, Mom elbowed him so he could lean forward in time to make lizard mouths at me as I crawled out wagging my pipe cleaner lamb’s tail.

This business with the noses now had him stirring about once again.  He rose and wandered in and out of the living room, ducking each time as he passed underneath the archway. My father often looked cramped and uncomfortable in our little cape cod in the township.  His eyes flitted about like restless bees — from the windowsills topped with Mom’s antique medicine bottles to the dozens of cast iron candy and muffin pans that plastered the yellow walls — as though he were searching for a place to stretch and think.  Digging a stack of my old drawings from the hutch, he sat back down and flashed them at me as he spoke.  He scrunched his nose up at my golden calves and arks, and I frowned with embarrassment.

“The whole thing's cockamamie," he said and pointed to a portrait of Mount Sinai.  "Take what’s his name here."


“Yeah? Well, Moses here can’t breathe if he has a goddamn dot on his face, can he?  Or does that halo give him special powers?”

“He needs nostrils.”

Of course he needs nostrils,” he shot back.  “But I guess anything goes in Nun La La Land.”  Bowing his head he sketched something of his own in the margins of his notes from work — some desk job in the Star Beacon’s advertising department and his third career change in as many years.  My old man was always drawing.  Around the house I found feather-headed Indian chiefs on Mom’s Kroger’s lists and Rogers Drum sets penciled over his half-finished crossword puzzles.  In our Webster’s Encyclopedia Dictionary he had colored something on every other page, so when you flipped from A through T a tiny green shoot blossomed into a grape hyacinth.

“I’d better do what she says,” I muttered after a long silence.  “She might get sore.”

“Oh, horse shit,” my father exploded, though he seemed more hurt than angry.  “You should be able to draw what you want to draw.” 

While he penciled in the grimace lines on his Marvelous Marvin Hagler, he made a noise like air escaping from a balloon.  “Do you think you’ll ever be happy slapping dots on things when you know you can do a hell of a lot better?”  he went on.  “Those kids don’t clap because you’re just like them.  They clap because you were born with a gift.  Don’t settle for less ’cause some big fat ugly old dyke nun tells you the sky’s orange.”

Outside the wind rose, and the tinfoil streamers snapped and cracked over at Friendly Fred’s used car lot.  I knew my father was right.  But was it worth making a stink over a dot?  I was one of the good kids.  I never lip-farted in church or joined in when the boys spit hockers into Scotty Vidmar’s stocking cap.  In fact there were moments when I felt as though I shared an unspoken understanding with Sister Agnes Laurel.  The September morning the old nun tore apart a children’s picture Bible and gave each of us a chapter to take home, she smiled and winked as she handed me the Burning Bush.  I took this gift as a sign that I was destined for greatness -- a premonition that looked all the more reasonable every time one of my pictures made it to the blackboard.  So Sister Agnes Laurel had a thing against noses and whiskers.  Would it kill me to draw her way a few hours a week?

Tearing a fresh piece of paper from my pad, I quickly went to work on a Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini to complement his Hagler.  My father nodded slowly and chewed his lip as I gave the Youngstown champ a pair of nostrils wide enough to inhale Madison Square Garden, and neither one of us uttered another word about Sister Agnes Laurel that evening.

When I looped my belt and laced my Hush Puppy knock-offs the next morning, the whole mess seemed to be behind me.  It was seven-thirty and drizzling when my father started up the engine.  The sky was dark and the air was cold and sweet with the smell of wet leaves and the rain-soaked earth.  All was quiet inside the Super Sport except for the click-whir of the wipers — though this was nothing out of the ordinary.  My father hardly ever talked on our way to school.  At most he grumbled under his breath as he loosened his collar and necktie, fussed with his JCPenny button-down, as the valve springs clattered and clanged at the traffic lights.  With a toothpick wedged in one corner of his mouth and a stick of Wrigley’s in the other, he was a regular Tom Sawyer, itchy to shed his work clothes for a pair of overalls and a fishing pole.

But my old man’s mind had been working all along.  Whether he saw my lips moving at breakfast or simply knew I was as good at confrontation as he was at genuflecting, something made him blink across the seat and call my bluff.

“Is Agnes Laurel usually busy when I drop you off, ham fat?”

We had just passed the Kent State Ashtabula campus, where my sister was a freshman and my father once had taken a couple art classes before Mom got pregnant with Kelly.  My heart did something funny when he spoke, and I stared at the college’s puddled tennis courts as if I hadn’t heard him.

“Because if she’s not,” he continued, “I think I’ll come in and talk to the old nun.”

I winced and then laughed uneasily.  “Gee, Dad.  Yeah.  That’s funny.”  I remembered the day he had chucked the cards at my Judas remark.  I had to use a pool stick and wad of Hubba Bubba to retrieve the queen of hearts from behind the organ.

“I mean, she ain’t stupid, right?  She’s gotta see it ain’t good to hold you back with this kiddy garbage.  She has to know you’re going places.”  His heavy mouth twisting into a wry grin, he then added, “Just like your old man.”

My father nudged me — his favorite conspiratorial gesture whenever we were about to pull something behind Mom's back.  I broke into a fresh stream of nervous titters.  It was too high-pitched and spluttery to be called laughter.

When we got to school, the second bell had sounded.  Open umbrellas aligned the walls outside the classroom doors, and our feet swished and slurped all the way down the empty main hall where saddle shoe and Buster Brown prints had muddied the carpet and stairs.  We found Sister Agnes Laurel inside the teacher’s lounge.  She was spooning sugar into her coffee, and when she looked up at us I flushed so deeply my skin burned.  For a long moment she didn’t make a sound.  Steam rose from her Garfield mug.  A telephone rang inside the office.  My father’s overcoat was still wet from the rain, and my lip trembled as each drop of water fell to the floor with a soft thump.

"We need to talk," my father said like an explosion.  He seemed to be enjoying himself, rousing the coins in his pants pocket while he shot the old nun a grin that was full of self-righteousness and conceit.  It was the same smile he had come home with the day he got fired from the radio station, when he unpacked the contents of his desk drawer and was "surprised" to find a new stack of 45s had somehow made their way into the box.

Sister Agnes Laurel fingered the loose skin around her neck.  All of a sudden there flashed behind her horn-rims a light, a glint, a quick spark of recognition as she eyed my father.  It was bound to happen.  Who could forget the face of a man who groaned and doodled all the way through his own son’s Christmas pageant?  My throat tightened with shame.  My father’s credibility was shot and now we were both going to get it.  The old nun wasn’t all Sing Alleluia and Peace of Jesus.  When somebody stepped out of line, her whole body changed.  She got bigger.  Her floury neck and face expanded, and a large blue vein branched on her forehead like an ivy stem.  I remembered the day Teddy Perry had tried kissing Angela Palumbo.  Just the sight of them alone together in the cloak closet was enough to get that old vein pumping, and we sat nervous as kittens as she took the two of them by the hair down to Father Jim’s office for an emergency confession.

A similar fate was in store for us now.  So when Sister Agnes Laurel suddenly offered her hand and said how pleased she was to meet my old man, I became red-faced and confused.

“It’s so nice when a student’s mother or father stops in to see us,” she said and returned his smile.  “I wish more parents took the pains to be as involved as you, Mr. Madison.”

My father shifted his toothpick to the other corner of his mouth with a movement of his lips. 

Say again?”

“Oh, don’t be modest.  It’s very good of you, coming down here when you have so many other things you could be doing.”

My father blinked at me.  Already he was at a loss for words, and he gave his toothpick another careful push, as though it was a record needle he was redepositing in hope of replaying his song a second time without any scratches.  “Yeah?  Well.  Like I said.  We need to talk.”

“Of course, of course, whatever you want,” Sister Agnes Laurel said, speaking in the same soft and low tone Mom used whenever I told her I was training to be a Jedi Knight.  The old nun then looked at me.  “Run along, honey.  You’ll catch cold if you don’t get out of that coat.”

I didn’t believe what I was hearing.  I examined Sister Agnes Laurel’s face again and again, certain I had missed something and only needed to look more carefully to see it.

“Go on,” she smiled.

When I went into the classroom and took my seat behind Angela Palumbo, I couldn’t sit still.   An inexpressible gust of relief swelled my lungs as I realized how crazy it was to even think Sister Agnes Laurel would blow up over something as stupid as a nose.  The whole thing had been just one big mix up, and I started to laugh.  At first all that came out were a couple half-choked snorts.  But when Sister Agnes Laurel glided in singing moments later, I covered my mouth and coughed a quick horselaugh into my hands.  Less than a minute earlier I was sure I'd end up with five demerits and a mouth-full of loose teeth; what I got instead was a bright birdlike old nun, all chirp and no squawk, her hands turned light as wings as she fluttered and twittered through two refrains of  Ave Maria.

I was full of triumph.  I felt open and free as I dropped my coat on the chair, and when I palmed my heart for the Pledge of Allegiance, whiskers and tattoos, spider veins and nostrils, all flapped before me in place of the stars and stripes.  My fingers grew itchy for the scratch of a colored pencil.  In my mind my next masterpiece already had taken shape and a confident grin raised my cheeks while I waited for Sister Agnes Laurel to shake the box of Crazy Cow -- our cue to get coloring.  Outlining in ink and shading with dull-ended Crayolas, I slapped down a pair of passed out Roman guards and a tombstone.  A miracle was in order.  Anything less would have betrayed the glory of the moment.

When Sister Agnes Laurel finally came around with the Dixie cups, I was adding the last specks of soil on the legs and feet of my resurrected Jesus.  Kid by kid she worked her way to my desk, and I pushed my crayon in slow, deliberate movements, anxious to show her the amount of care and thought that went into my work.  It was my most detailed drawing yet.  Mary, Mother of James, squeezed a handkerchief in one hand and a jar of perfumed oil in the other.  Chest hair sprouted from a hole in the armor of one of the fallen guards, while a giant cobra pricked the skin on Magdalene's left ankle.  I took pride in what I drew.  It was my eye for detail that separated me from the rest of the class, and I laughed once again as I realized how close I had been to surrendering that distinction for fear of raising a fuss.  While the boys and girls turned and waited for my picture to go in the air, I silently thanked my old man for not caving in.  It was these little moments that made me want to go to school.  It didn’t matter that Scotty Vidmar could spell Zimbabwe or that Bobby Swartout could kick a football over the roof; for fifteen seconds a day, Scotty and Bobby and every other fifth grader wished he were in my seat.

Up and down each row cereal was pushed aside, crayons dropped, as the old nun picked up my picture.  For a long moment she remained silent.  Her breath purred gently, and while she looked it over a muscle in her right cheek twitched so that her ear bobbed.  At last she cleared her throat and smiled with her full lips held together.  I bowed my head and waited.

“Very good, Justin,” she said in a steady, expressionless voice.  "But you'd better hang up your coat if you want it to get dry."

When I blinked up and dropped my jaw at the old nun, she met my gaze and smiled.  She then set the picture down and measured out a cup of Crazy Cow with the air of a woman adding a period at the end of a sentence.

Teddy Perry, all ears and teeth, began clapping as Sister Agnes Laurel turned and wobbled on to the next kid.  After it occurred to him that the Resurrection wasn’t going to the blackboard, his little hands fiddled about on his desk as if he didn’t know what to do with them.

An emptiness welled up, sank down, then hung suspended in my chest.  I glanced at the paper a moment, but my mind was full of other things.

Along Lake Avenue the trees dripped cold water under the ragged clouds.  Cars went by with a hissing sound.  Curling my leg under me, I darkened the bits of soil on Christ’s leg.  A piece of wax broke off and stuck to the paper in a shiny black clump.

Later that evening my father wanted to know how things went.

“Ya see there,  ham fat?”  he beamed and took the picture to the refrigerator.  “Told ya she’d listen to reason.”

Something tightened across my chest as he rolled his tongue in his mouth and flushed with fatherly pride over my two Marys.  A Kroger’s Cost Cutter coupon was underneath the pineapple magnet, and he put the picture up in its place.

“I’m telling you, kid, you’re going places.”

 I didn't answer, and after a long silence my father nudged me as though it was my turn to make a move and I’d missed my cue.

“You betcha,” I said and smiled.

But when he left the kitchen to change his clothes, I reached for the magnet.  Without making a sound, I slid it over and covered that clump of wax.