My Fortress Of Solitude


I’m not one of those people who bemoan the end of summer. When I was a kid, yeah, because it meant going back to school.

I’m also not one of the locals who rejoice because all the obnoxious city people leave town. There are plenty of obnoxious local people here, too, myself included.

The weather doesn’t concern me. I don’t care if it gets cold and snows. To me, every day brings us another day closer to heaven – or hell.

One good thing about the winter is I can hole up inside without feeling guilty. Up until a few years ago, I had a den replete with big screen television, stereo, all my sports stuff, baseball cards, comic books, marbles, and a stash of candy. I felt like I was a teenager again, especially when I developed acne.

My wife Karen suggested the den should be converted into a junior suite because it had a bathroom attached to it. The way she had it planned, we would move all my stuff downstairs to the junior suite and then she would have the master bathroom to herself. It was only after I was officially barred from the big bathroom that I realized he whole “den” thing was merely a ploy.

The truth is, she wants to have her in-laws visit more, and she figured giving them their own suite would encourage them. I encourage them as well. For example, whenever they say they are coming for a weekend, I tell them I’m making liver and onions — they are all vegetarians. Pretty soon they started showing up with bags of grain and black rice and things like that. Then, one of them would cook and we’d sit at the table and Karen would say “Rick, do you want Bulutim with your Krell?”

So that’s when I decided to build my Fortress of Solitude. For those who don’t recall, Superman had a Fortress of Solitude. It was way up in the Arctic and he had to blast through, like, nine miles of ice just to find the damn thing. He had pictures Lois Lane and Lana Lang everywhere, but they never visited him. Superman knew you can’t get yourself in trouble if you are a loner. (Obviously he didn’t know what the internet was!)

We spent a lot of time at St. Francis of Assisi elementary school going over the nuances of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell.

We discussed Limbo as well, but that was more like an elective course; as our bread and butter was the Big Three, and with good reason: Virtually every human who ever lived resides in one of those places.

When we were little kids, our main focus was on Purgatory. A typical nine-year old, after all, is hardly capable of a sin heinous enough to warrant a one-way trip to Hell. I mean, I didn’t know how to “covet a neighbor’s wife,” so even if I did want to do it with Mrs. Buonciello next door, I wouldn’t know where to start.

We would ask, for example, how long in Purgatory for stealing a Milky Way? Sister Anne once told us 1000 years. Ouch! That’s a lot of time. “My Uncle Vito stole five large from the bookie and he only got five years probation,” Louis Gianelli pointed out.

The message was clear, Sister Anne told us: Don’t steal, and you won’t have to worry about going to Purgatory. “So, we’ll go to heaven!” We all cheered and clapped.

Well, no, Sister Anne cautioned, wagging her finger. There was that little matter of cursing and using God’s name in vain. I did a lot of that. To hone my tough guy persona at age 11, I would wear my belt buckle on my hip, comb my hair into a pompadour, carry a comb in my back pocket visible for all to see, and spit freely wherever I went, including the rectory and (God forgive me) the church vestibule.

I also cursed, and being I was destined to be a writer, I had a rich, full, vibrant vocabulary of disgusting verbiage suitable for all occasions. “That’s five years for each curse,” Sister Anne said after hearing one of my schoolyard tirades. The math was so tough I lost count, but it would have been a lot of years for sure.

By the time we were teenagers, we had graduated from petty crime to the big stuff. Put another way, we would have gladly signed on for Purgatory right then and there. It’s kind of like in court when the judge offers you a plea bargain and you accept 20 years because it’s preferable to the electric chair.

Most of my sins (besides Grand Theft Auto) could be traced to those two cursed words: Impure Thoughts. As surely as pot leads to heroin, Impure Thoughts lead to impure deeds and that, ladies and gentlemen, will land you in hell every time. That’s why Superman kept his place empty.

To facilitate this grim fate, the devil comes to Earth to help us along. I’m pretty sure of that, because the devil must have been hiding inside Marybeth Sweeney, who was in the PS 92 schoolyard every time I happened to be passing through at dusk on my way home.

She would whisper temptations. I gave in and coveted her a few times, if the word means what I think it does.

From that moment on, I was the Walking Dead. Should an accident befall me, my body would be whisked directly to Hell. There wouldn’t even be a wake at the Francisco Medaglio funeral parlor. The only way out was to get the confession, and get it quick.

There were at least 12 confessional booths at St. Francis Assisi Church, but they were all darkened every day I went. The only time there was any activity was between 2 and 4 on Saturday afternoon when the light was on like it was an occupied tollbooth on the State Thruway. No one ever saw a priest walk in or leave. Frankie Federico said they come up through the floor and can send us down there if our sins are bad enough.

I blurted out the usual, “lied to my brother three times, took God’s name in vain once, coveted Patti Page once,” and then I blurted out the whole truth.

I could barely make out the whisper but I thought he said, “The Sweeney girl, eh?” He then issued my punishment: Say three Hail Marys. “But I’ll need you to walk over to Nostrand Avenue and pick up the dry cleaning.”

“That’s it?” I nodded and ran all the way. The clerk smiled slightly when I ran into the store, and then whispered, “The Sweeney girl, eh?”

As for Limbo, that’s where you go if you have a spotless soul but don’t qualify for heaven. The nuns would use a newborn baby as an example: if a baby came into the world and then passed on before it was baptized, it would go to Limbo. That didn’t seem very fair. Limbo, we were assured, was just like heaven except you didn’t get to be with God. That’s like going to see The Stones with no Mick Jagger. It’s like the fortress without Lois and Lana.

“What if the infant had impure thoughts?” I asked Sister Anne. She slapped me. I blurted out a curse. I’m not sure, but it was probably good for another 500 years of purgatory.

Superman was onto something. Sometimes dreaming about stuff is safer than doin’ it.

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