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For his age, Filippo as a liar and schemer was unparalleled. However, what enticed me into hanging around with him — besides the fact he ate half my lunch each day — was the pleasure I received watching him get into trouble. And then, just as quick, how he would get out of it. He was Houdini perched over a canal in a straightjacket each day in class. Call it an art or a science, but Filippo had it perfected by the age of eight.
It was Show-and-Tell day, and Filippo was the only student who had not gone up yet.
“Filippo Matheson,” old Mrs. Crouse called out. The origin of Filippo’s first name was as captivating as his character. It came about as an error made by an Italian cleaning lady filling in at the Registration Office at the hospital the day of his birth. It was a simple enough error to correct with the hospital, and Filippo’s father claimed he would have it cleared up after the playoffs on TV were over, but eight years had passed since then.
I watched eagerly as Filippo strode to the front of the room wearing Eddie Beaton’s shoes, because Filippo was protecting Eddie from Nat so that Eddie wouldn’t have to give his new shoes to Nat.
Filippo took from his back pocket an envelope containing postcards of Niagara Falls. As he passed each postcard around he provided anecdotal information to the class and old Mrs. Crouse about the wonderful time he and his family had in Niagara Falls that past summer. It was amazing to hear him tell all about the extraordinary sites he had visited. He kept everyone on the edge of their seats as he hung over the edge of the Maid of the Mist sightseeing boat. He remembered every exhibit and every museum in detail, from The Fonz in the wax museum to the headless torsos in Uncle Sid’s Nightmares Fear Factory. The girls screeched on cue when he described the two-headed snake at the Freaky Reptilian Pavilion. They were putty in his hands. The class was entranced. But what was most amazing about this entire adventure, which the students and even old Mrs. Crouse lapped up with relish, was that I had spent the entire summer with Filippo and knew, without a doubt, that he couldn’t even point to Niagara Falls on a map. Because he had never been there.
He was a pleasure to watch, a true master of deception. For a moment, even I raised my hand to join the others in asking questions about his trip, but on second thought I brought my arm down and awkwardly scratched my head instead.
After the postcards finished making their rounds and Filippo exhausted the Niagara Falls vacation of its entire worth, he sat down to a round of applause equal only to those heard at La Scala. Even a chant of “Bravo!” was heard from the back of the class, from the Italian foreign exchange student. Mrs. Crouse then retook control of the frenzied class.
“Thank you, Filippo. Now that’s all for today’s class.”
We all rose to our feet and rushed to the door, not questioning the early dismissal.
Old Mrs. Crouse ceremoniously interrupted the sound of our shuffling feet with her parched voice. “Tomorrow, I have a surprise for the entire class,” she smiled. When she smiled like that, we concluded that the surprise was something exceptionally horrible. We hung our heads low as we left class.
I cringed at the thought of a surprise. By age eight I had learned to dislike surprises, unless, of course, I knew what they were. That came as a result of several birthday letdowns in the past — eight to be exact. That evening, I stayed up late and mused the situation over and over in my mind, relentlessly weighing and judging any odd actions of old Mrs. Crouse I could recall over the last few days. I collapsed in bed exhausted at nine-thirty.
Then the answer struck me. Just like Filippo’s slush ball that ricocheted off my forehead next day at recess. Old Mrs. Crouse was going to announce that she was going to retire.