The Sphinx

Our Lady of the Angels Grammar School was a brick building without artifice—not a tree or a shrub broke the solid flank it presented to Felton Street. I was walking back to Angels with my two best friends Joyce Wiowski and Rosemarie DeLullo. The school had no cafeteria, so most kids went home for lunch. The walks back and forth were the best part of the day anyway.

We crossed Market Street, walked up Hirst and followed the bend around Arch. Midday clouds had taken away the familiar pattern of sun and shadow. Joyce had an umbrella, which her mother made her carry. I didn’t care about getting wet, but Joyce always had swollen glands, so her mother made her carry an umbrella on cloudy days. We were on the first block of Felton Street between Arch and Race when a pack of boys raced around us. They jostled Rosemarie and tried to make her drop the soap sphinx she was carrying.

“Leave me alone. I’m gonna tell,” she shouted as they ran off. Joyce and I closed in to protect her and began fussing over the awkward package she held in front of her like a take-out pizza.

“It’s all right, Rosemarie. See it’s all right.” I said.

I could see she was starting to cry, but she cried a lot. The sphinx was glued onto heavy cardboard and then wrapped in a cut-up brown bag. With the wrappings all you could see was a flat thing with a lumpy middle. Underneath the paper, though, was a miracle. Twelve bars of Ivory soap had been sculpted and glued into a towering monument to Sister Francis Xavier’s Egypt display. Rosemarie had the most important piece and had special permission to bring it to school after lunch since she couldn’t carry it with her schoolbag. My mother wouldn’t let me make a special project. “A waste of good soap,” she said. She felt the same way about using bed sheets for costumes in the Christmas pageant. “The good sisters, God bless them, don’t know the value of money.”

The boys had moved onto other mischief. Since it was trash day, metal cans lay on the scrubby patches of lawn that lined the curb. Some eighth grade boys were jumping on the lids to flatten the handle against the corrugated metal. Soon, a screen door banged, and a woman with tight hair shouted at the rampaging boys. “Look, what you’ve done. You should be ashamed!” The boys made a defiant line across the street but broke and ran when she marched down the porch steps. Robert DiGiordano lingered behind the other boys. Once in the street, he grabbed a trash can lid, threw it onto the nearest lawn and walked slowly away.

We watched from across the street. Robert DiGiordano was taller than the other boys. He had dark hair combed into a slick pompadour and had enough of a waist to keep his white shirt tucked into his navy blue school pants. His angle-striped tie sat at a cocky slant making him look like an Italian Elvis Presley in a Mercy School uniform.

I thought about Robert a lot. In my room I listened to Elvis singing, “Is your heart filled with pain. Can I come back again?” and thrilled with despair. I would lie on the floor in the dark and moan with unrequited love. I told no one. I knew the odds were against me, and I didn’t want to be teased. In the school yard he would lean against the chain link fence in an insouciant pose which the other boys tried to mimic with their graceless, lanky bodies.

“I think Robert DiGiordano likes you, Rosemarie,” Joyce said.

Rosemarie sniffled a response. She was still shedding tears over the near-demise of the sphinx.

“Did you see him looking at you? And he came over to us at recess. Remember— the other day?”

“So what?” Rosemarie said. “We were all there. Maybe he likes you.”

Rosemarie didn’t like attention from boys. She wanted to go into the convent, to be a Sister of Saint Ann like the nuns at Our Lady of Angels School. All the girls wanted to be nuns at one time or another, but with Rosemarie it had stuck a long time. Boys liked her though. She was tall and skinny. We both were. But Rosemarie was skinny in a better way—she already had breasts and real hips, not so straight up and down like me. She wore her long, black hair in braids. My mother made me get a perm.

“He likes you,” Joyce kept saying.

She was probably right. A hot and bitter jealousy mixed into the boiling cauldron of unrequited love, but I had no choice, I had to join in.

“He does, Rosemarie. Remember he was on Hirst Street when we walked home yesterday. That’s out of his way.”

Joyce kept chanting in the background, “He likes you. He likes you.”

Rosemarie clutched the sphinx tighter. “Stop it, Joyce. Stop saying that.”

“He does. I can tell. Kathleen just said the same thing.” Joyce skipped a little ahead of us, chanting, “He likes you. He likes you.”

“I don’t like boys. I’m not boy-crazy like you, Joyce Wotowski.”

That was a low blow. Joyce was fat. She used to be the tallest girl in class, but we had caught up, and she starting moving outward. Maybe it was her glands. Besides, everyone liked boys, except for Rosemarie.

“That’s a mean thing to say, Rosemarie. Why did you say I’m boy-crazy?”

“I didn’t say it. My mother said you were boy-crazy. She doesn’t want me to act like that.”

We reached the school yard right before the bell rang. I maneuvered myself into the row next to the eighth grade boys. Sometimes Robert DiGiordano was in the very next row, and I could stand just an arm’s length away.

Today, he was there, right ahead of me, so I could look at him all I wanted. He was looking at Rosemarie who was close to the front of the line. She always either led the line or held one of the doors open because she was a safety. The boys around Robert were smacking each other while staring ahead, but he just stood there. No one smacked him.

When we got into the classroom, everyone fussed over Rosemarie as she carried the sphinx-package to the back of the room. Since I was Rosemarie’s best friend, I had to be part of the procession that formed around the sphinx.

“Rosemarie, put it down here on my desk, and I’ll help you take the paper off,” I said. She began moving in my direction.

“Kathleen will help Rosemarie. Everyone else, take your seat,” Sister said.

I got scissors from Sister’s desk and began cutting away the paper.

“Be careful,” Rosemarie said. “Don’t poke it with the scissors.”

“I won’t. I can cut paper.”

“Girls,” Sister’s warning voice. “Work quietly and quickly. Everyone else, take out your arithmetic books.”

Rosemarie looked wounded that Sister had to speak to us, and she gave me a look as if it were my fault. I angled my head in a “so what” gesture. I finished cutting the paper, and we lifted it off together. The sphinx was intact. Rosemarie had coated the soap with sand from the playground, and her mother had hair-sprayed the sand in place. The sand clumped a little around the face, but Rosemarie’s sculpture was a Rodin among the clumsy pyramids and half-hearted obelisks already in the exhibit.

“Oh, Rosemarie, that’s so nice.” Sally Moore said later that afternoon when the class gathered around the Egypt project. “It’s the best thing there.”

“Rosemarie did a good job as she always does,” Sister joined in.

Behind her back, Francis Glennon was mouthing Sister’s words.

Other classes came to visit our Egypt display, but we knew they really came to see Rosemarie’s sphinx. Sister Francis Xavier tried to hide her pride as the other nuns clucked over the good work that her class had done. Sister Rosa Mystica even brought the eighth grade, and they rarely made classroom visits. The eighth grade boys and girls filled all the spaces in our room. We eyed them with envy as they claimed the pride of place that was theirs. Robert DiGiordano was among the final few entering the room. The boys smirked at the exhibit. “Kid’s stuff,” Philip Tibault said. Robert didn’t smirk. He looked right at Rosemarie. He held her eyes in a long stare and then said, “Nice sphinx.” She blushed and looked down.

Three weeks later, the school heat came on, threatening the wax sculptures. On Friday afternoon, we packed up our Egyptian icons for the trip home.

We had to stay in line until we crossed Vine Street. Once we had crossed, the lines broke into disorderly masses of kids. Boys took off their jackets and loosened their ties. Girls clustered into groups. I joined Joyce and Rosemarie as she carried the sphinx home with the same care she had used in bringing it to school.

When we crossed Arch Street, Robert DiGiordano was there with two other boys. They gave him a push, and he walked over to us alone.

“Hi, Rosemarie,” he said.

We all answered, “Hi, Robert.” He ignored me and Joyce.

“Want me to help you carry that home?” He said to Rosemarie.

Rosemarie didn’t answer, and Robert reached for the sphinx. His buddies started to cross the street, and then they broke into a run and jostled Robert as he reached for the sculpture. He lurched forward, and it fell to the ground. The boys stopped in horror.

“Fuck,” one of them said.

“Hey, watch your mouth,” Robert said.

“We didn’t mean to do that,” the other one said. “Sorry, Rosemarie.”

Rosemarie dropped her book bag and fell to her knees. She ripped open the paper and peered inside. The sphinx was in pieces. The delicate head was flattened, and the wings lay in a twisted jumble. Bits of soap clung to the paper wrapping. Rosemarie leaned back on her heels and started to cry.

“We’ll help you,” I said getting down on my knees. “We’ll help you put it together.”

“Leave me alone,” she said. She was really crying now, big lurches in her chest and snot coming out her nose. “Everyone leave me alone.” She used the back of her hand to wipe her nose. Then she grabbed her school bag, stood up and ran. The rest of us stood in a circle around the fallen sphinx.

“Geez, it’s just a few pieces of soap,” one of the boys said.

Robert looked embarrassed. “Yah, no big deal.”

I looked over at Joyce and smiled.

“What should we do with it?” Joyce asked and looked around the circle.

Robert picked up the largest piece of soap and threw it at a lamppost across the street. I grinned and scooped up the head and wings. I tossed them at Robert.

He caught my hand. “Watch it, Kathleen.”

By now the other boys and Joyce were squashing the soap pieces with their feet. Robert and I started laughing and joined them.

On Monday morning, Rosemarie told us that she and her brother Tommy had gone back to rescue the sphinx. They found it broken-up and pieces of soap all over the sidewalk.

“Dogs” I said, and Joyce nodded in agreement.

Marguerite McGlinn is an editor
and writer. Her travel stories have appeared in the New York Times,
the Sun-Sentinel, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los
Angeles Times
. She edited The Trivium: The LiberalArts
of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric
(Paul Dry Books, 2002). Her short
story about an American child and her Irish relatives won second
place in a national competition and was published in English Journal.
Three of her short stories recently won places in “Writing
Aloud,” a program of dramatic readings that matches contemporary
fiction with professional actors. She is an adjunct instructor at
Saint Joseph University in Philadelphia.

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