Sister Mary Proton
by Joseph Cusumano
Have you seen the gargoyles that are plastered all over the Washington National Cathedral? If you haven’t, I recommend a trip to Washington D.C. They’ve got gargoyles of dragons, big cats, an alligator, a giant squid and even the creature from the movie Alien. At present, my favorite is a giant ugly bat, but the one that held my interest as a child was Darth Vader’s head, which was mounted high on the northwest tower. If you go to see it, nobody will bother to mention that it’s a fake. By fake I mean it’s not the original. It’s a replacement. Nobody can tell you what happened to the original except me, and so far nobody’s buying my story. But recently, I came upon a piece of evidence that supports my version of the events.
Fourteen years ago, when I was seven, my parents sent me to a summer reading camp that was held at the cathedral. I’m a good reader now, but back then I was stuck at the SEE DICK RUN level, and it embarrassed me when I had to read out loud in class. On the first day of summer camp, I was amazed when I saw our teacher for the first time: an obese nun with a faint mustache, dressed in a black ankle-length habit. She had a stiff white headband that covered her forehead all the way down to her bushy eyebrows, and she was so round her arms looked stubby. A large black veil was perched above the white headband, leaving only the middle and lower parts of her face uncovered. Even that was partially obscured by wire-rimmed glasses with coke-bottle lenses. These made her eyes look huge. The shoes she wore were something out of the late 1800s, laced all the way from her toes to well above her ankles, and they had thick heels that clacked on a hard surface. I’d never seen a nun dressed that way before, and I still wonder where she got this stuff. Nuns R Us? The nuns at my regular school wore skirts, flat dress shoes, and short simple veils. It wasn’t until my new teacher introduced herself as Sister Mary Patrick that I was confident she was female; her voice was definitely that of a woman.
My best buddy, William Robert O’Hearn II, having reading skills similar to my own, sat right behind me in class. Billy’s the one who came up with the moniker Sister Mary Proton, which I think was inspired by a Saturday morning cartoon show. In spite of all the clowning that Billy and I engaged in, Sister Mary, armed with a thick wood ruler, was able to strengthen our reading skills over the course of that summer and I am forever in her debt. I wish I had the opportunity to thank her. Truth be told, all of us owe her a debt of gratitude.
The whole thing happened on a Friday the 13th afternoon in July. For the most part, July in Washington D.C. is unpleasant and sticky with high temperatures and humidity. But on this particular Friday, the sky was cloudy, and the air was cool. When classes for the day ended, Sister Mary waited outside with me and my classmates alongside the driveway where our parents’ cars lined up. I said goodbye to Billie and my other classmates as each left for home, and eventually Sister Mary and I were left standing alone. My usually prompt mom had lost track of time at work, and I think she’s still angry at herself for being late that particular day. Sister Mary asked me if I’d like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and when I said yes, she led me back inside to the kitchen. She gave me a choice between strawberry and grape jelly, and when I seemed to have trouble deciding between the two, she suggested half and half, the way people sometimes order pizza. I still make my PBJ sandwiches this way in honor of this special woman.
While I ate, she told me that she was pleased with my progress, saying that when regular school started in the fall, I would be reading nearly at grade level. I asked her what grade level meant, but she didn’t answer me and seemed distracted as if listening to some distant sound. She effortlessly raised her mighty bulk from the table and began a quick trot out the doorway and down a hall. A little afraid but intensely curious, I followed Sister Mary at a distance, not wanting her to hear me or see me. I figured she would send me back.
She hauled her formidable bulk through the hallways so quickly I could barely keep up, and I almost lost her. Then Sister Mary barrelled like a freight train through one of those emergency exits and paid no attention to the alarm she triggered. When I finally caught up with her outside, she was about twenty feet away, staring up at the northwest tower of the cathedral for no apparent reason. I followed her gaze but could see nothing unusual. The wind had picked up and it was raining, but Sister Mary wouldn’t take her eyes off that northwest tower. Then a deafening lightning bolt struck the Darth Vader gargoyle, and I staggered back. The lightning wasn’t a brief strike from the sky; it was a sustained funneling of power straight into the gargoyle.
When my eyes could see normally after this blinding display, I looked again at the gargoyle. It was wriggling! And part of its torso had extended from the tower. In moments, its arms and chest were free and hanging down against the side of the tower, the palms of its gloves flat against the stone surface. At that moment, I was frozen in terror. It seemed to be looking straight down at me, but I now realize Vader was probably looking down at Sister Mary. Before Vader became totally free of the wall, Sister Mary began climbing straight up the wall like Spiderman. Or Spider-nun. Just as Vader began to descend the wall face first like a lizard, Sister Mary, who had ascended to the side and above her nemesis, hopped astride his back like she was an old rodeo hand. Vader tried to toss her, but she was just too strong, and in moments, they were plummeting down the side of the tower. At the last possible instant, Proton jumped away from the tower wall and rolled like a paratrooper onto the grass, a veritable beach-ball on steroids. Vader’s landing, not nearly so smooth, ended with him all catawampus like a wooden puppet ejected from a wild amusement park ride. Yet Vader quickly righted himself and stood to his full intimidating height, apparently no worse for wear.
Darth Vader and Sister Mary Proton now approached each other in a classic Mexican standoff, with Vader toward my left and Sister Mary toward my right. Although the gargoyle had been stone gray when mounted on the Northwest tower, Vader’s armor was now all black and shiny, his long cloak trailing from his shoulders. The two dark figures circled like a cobra and a mongoose, sizing up each other, Darth Vader a tall lean irresistible force, Sister Mary Proton an unmovable sumo nun. If only Billy could have seen this!
“You again?” Sister Mary said. “That goofy costume isn’t fooling me!” Vader just stared at her, remaining eerily silent. Then the inevitable happened: Vader drew his light saber. A yard-long, red iridescent column of bristling energy erupted from the weapon, and I knew Sister Mary was in deep holy water. Just for show, Vader swung the saber through several arcs, and that creepy humming noise it made changed pitch depending on which way he swung the saber. I had stopped breathing and instinctively made the sign of the cross. How could Sister Mary survive this inhuman abomination?
Faster than a fart in a hurricane, Sister Mary made her move, surprising both Vader and me. She unleashed the white cotton rope that encircled her black robe and whipped one end of it around Vader’s right ankle. That rope had a life of its own, tightly encircling Vader’s lower leg. One powerful jerk of the rope and Vader was sprawled on his back, and Sister Mary disarmed him by stomping on his wrist with her nun boots. The light saber rolled from Vader’s grip, and I ran to retrieve it. Stupidly thinking I could activate the saber and come to Sister Mary’s aid, I grabbed it and tried to find some kind of flashlight switch. I now realize it responded only to Vader and his control of the dark side of The Force.
When I looked up, Sister Mary had Vader in a headlock so fierce that his head came off. Then Sister Mary and I got another big surprise. There was nothing in the helmet or the rest of Vader’s armor; it was completely hollow. This set both of us back on our heels, giving Vader the chance to reattach his head and snatch his light saber out of my sweaty palms. I was stepping away from him when I went backwards over a ledge, hit my head, and knocked myself out.
When I was released from the hospital a little more than a week later, there was a new teacher for my summer school class and she wasn’t a nun. Just an ordinary substitute for the remaining two weeks. I asked Billy what had happened to Sister Mary, but neither he nor my other classmates had been given an explanation. As you can imagine, Billy wanted to know what had happened to me, and I could barely wait until lunch time to tell him.
At noon, as soon as the class emptied out, I began my story at the point where I was eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich the Friday before last. Billy and I retraced my steps except that we used the nearest non-emergency exit to get to the Northwest tower. I told Billy about the lightning bolt and what it did to the Darth Vader gargoyle, but Billy wasn’t buying it.
“Look,” he said, pointing up the tower. “It’s still there.” And he was right; the Darth Vader gargoyle was exactly where it was supposed to be and looked just as it always had. I told Billy the rest of my story, including how I’d held a genuine light saber in my own hands, and I showed him where I’d fallen backward off a ledge. Though still highly skeptical, Billy finally asked, “So who won? Proton or Darth Vader?” I had to admit that I didn’t know, and that Sister Mary’s disappearance didn’t prove anything. Moreover, I began to wonder if Billy’s explanation was actually correct, that the whole story was something I’d dreamed up when I’d been knocked unconscious and that instead of being vanquished, Sister Mary was simply teaching somewhere else.
* * *
Billy and I stayed best buddies all the way through high school, played on the baseball team together, and eventually went on double dates. We kept in close touch when I went to college and Billy enlisted in the Navy. I’ve just started my senior year at the University of the Potomac, and Billy’s been promoted several times, now holding the rank of petty officer first class.
One day out of the clear blue, I get this large manila envelope in the mail from Billy. He had cut out an article and picture from the San Diego Tribune and had included a handwritten note that said: I thought you’d find this interesting.
You know that crazy fiesta they have in Spain each year where they let the fighting bulls go running through the streets after the young men? Well, the article was about a Catholic nun who not only participated in the run, but at some point jumped a bull and rode it bareback through the streets. Considering that she was a moving target, the photographer had gotten a fairly decent image of the nun on the bull. Could it be? I grabbed a magnifying glass and focused on the nun’s face. Sure enough, she had a mustache.
Sister Mary Proton lives!
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Joseph Cusumano is a physician living in St. Louis. His major hobby, other than writing, is the design and construction of radio controlled airplanes. His piloting skills need a lot of work.