From the first day of our freshman year we could tell that Leo was different. He wasn’t different in the way of some special education candidate. Oh, he was educationally challenged all right, but not in any way that you could stick a label on. He just wasn’t made for school.
The rest of us tried, or at least made a show of trying. Leo let everyone know from the start that he was just along for the ride.
Now, I should probably qualify here that my clearest and most consistent memories of St. Monica’s High School were of laughing. I know that there must have been learning going on, cause more than a few got into decent colleges. Our class had its share of National Merit Finalists and all of that, but they were on their own wavelength. You might say that they kept the teachers occupied. The rest of us pretty much entertained each other.
We had plenty of raw material. Half of the teachers were pretty funny to begin with. There was Mr. Giordano, who wore the same soiled suit to school every day of the year. There was a Spanish teacher, who was so widely known as “Moonpie” that I have forgotten his true name. The Biology teacher drank. Our Chemistry teacher was known to be very close to a few select boys and the Dean of Students, Brother Ignatius, fondly known as “the Rooster”, had so many idiosyncrasies that he could be broadly imitated in speech or manner. I suppose that every school has its share of odd faculty. Yet few schools knew the likes of Leo.
Leo had the rare talent of bringing out the worst in any faculty member. So complete was his nonchalance about learning, so deep was his subtle disrespect for authority that the wise teachers knew that none of their tricks of intimidation would work. The slower teachers tried, but it wasn’t pretty. I am not saying that Leo was one of those loud, obnoxious class clowns, who had to heckle and comment on everything said in class. He was not that. I never heard him tell a joke. I am not certain that I ever heard him laugh out loud. He certainly was not witty. If he couldn’t recall your name, he’d just call you “fuck face”, a habit that actually had its amusing charm, once we all got used to it.
In fact, Leo was not all that articulate, except when it came to describing female anatomy. His speech was thick and drawled. And he was large, more chiseled in his body than most of us. As I think back, he may have been put back a couple of times in school, but probably became too big to keep flunking. He was definitely not anyone that we wanted to mess with. For, not only was he big, he was crazy. He didn’t have to threaten people. To look at him was to know that he was a dangerous character. His eyes, in their half-open state, seemed to move around in his head. We knew that he was capable of anything and thus he became the stuff of minor legend. The activities of the school whirled around him, but Leo remained unperturbed. He neither answered questions in class, nor asked them. If addressed by a teacher, he would answer with a question of clarification. “What number was that?” Were we supposed to do that one?”
Mostly Leo would sleep in class. Most often and to our entertainment, he slept audibly. He would, as you might guess, take the last seat in the back and tilt the desk onto its back legs to rest his head against the wall. For most teachers, Leo’s loud breathing added a certain rhythm to the class. But Brother Xavier never quite got used to it. Bro. Xavier was what might be called high strung. I suppose anyone might be high-strung trying to teach Latin to thirty to forty fifteen-year-old boys, but Bro. Xavier took high-strung to new levels. As boy after boy failed to answer a question, as each class slowly progressed into chaos, the veins in Bro. Xavier’s forehead would begin to protrude. A redness would begin at his collar and rise into his ears. He was a kind of time-bomb and Leo was his slow burning fuse.
Latin was just after lunch, a sleepy time for any student, but for Leo it was 50 minutes of shuteye. The class was going particularly poorly. Few had done their homework and so we had settled into that unspoken schoolboy code of asking question after question to mask our lack of preparation. A note was passed. A book was dropped; dropped flat in the way that sounds in the room like a rifle shot. Leo tilted farther and farther back in his chair, breathing heavily. Suddenly the back legs of the chair slid on the tiled floor and Leo spilled over backwards. Books flew in the air. Papers scattered. The class broke into pandemonium and Brother Xavier rose from his desk and thundered down the aisle. Still grasping his Latin reader, he began to beat Leo over the head with it as he lay sprawled on the floor. We all knew that this was a bad idea. Leo rose from the floor and towered over the spitting and fuming figure in the black cassock and the room grew suddenly apprehensive. He leveled his gaze. “For two cents I’d kick your ass”, he spoke in his thick tongue, and a hush fell over the room.
It must have been a full ten seconds before we heard the first coins hit the floor. Then there were a few more. And then coins rained from every corner of the room. Even Leo began to sense the magic of the moment and began a slow smile. Bro. Xavier backed slowly to his desk and then bolted from the room. I am sure that there were repercussions. That was our sophomore year and Leo never returned to be a junior. But it was doubtful that he would have finished anyway. The rumor was that Leo’s older brother, Joe, had been arrested for some midnight auto business. Joe was the only family that we ever knew Leo to have. So once Joe was doing time, Leo just gave up doing time at high school and took a job. We seemed to settle into school a bit more as juniors. Not exactly scholars, we did evolve into students and the characters like Leo seemed to disappear to other schools while those of us who were left took on the mantle of upper classmen. It was over a year before I saw Leo again.
The summer after my junior year, my father got me a job in a machine shop. On my first day on the job, I looked up to find Leo smiling back at me from the next machine. We worked next to each other all that summer and I was surprised at the way he put himself into the work. He moved steadily, keeping focused on the various wheels and levers, never quitting early, never goofing off, a better worker than I was by a long shot. My job was to trim the rough seam edges from the injected molds that came from Leo’s machine. Taking a cylinder from a huge pile to my left, I would trim one side then the other. I was the most bored I had ever been. Occasionally looking for entertainment, I would toss something over at Leo or give him some cue that would have got him going a year back. He would just smile and move to the rhythm of his machine.
Then came a day that he was not at his machine and a stunned quiet moved across the shop with the news. In an argument the night before, in a false show of bravado against the large and crazy Leo, his brother, Joe, put a .22 caliber bullet through Leo’s forehead. Joe cried at the trial and swore he did not mean to shoot. They were all each other had. He got eight years and we heard that he shot himself when he got out, but that may well be just street rumor. On one hand, it is sad to think about it; on the other hand Leo always let everyone know from the start that he was only along for the ride.