“Do you see that?” Mrs. Jane asks. She’s eyeing a couple of ninth graders near the snack machines, an above it all pair indifferent to the swarm of kids around them. “Watch the way she tilts her head to the right, leans in a little too close, laughs a little too easily at his jokes?”
“Yes,” I say, shifting my backpack from one shoulder to the other, “but teenage girls aren’t know to for hiding their emotions very well.” I give up on the backpack and slide the thirty-five pounds of AP Biology, American Lit. III, Calculus I, and American Government to the asphalt. The effect is instantaneous; I feel light enough to float away. “She’s putting on a show, she wants him to know she’s into him.”
“Does he know?” Mrs. Jane takes a sip of her a peppermint scented brew of Harney & Son’s herbal tea. She’s wanting to see if her week’s worth of lessons are coming through, if I’ll make a good practitioner of the art of people watching, or kinesics as she calls it. They are and I am.
I cock my head to the side and smile, imitating our infatuated example with ease. “Yes, but he doesn’t care. He’s into her friend by the water fountain.” I nod towards the large breasted, pencil thin blonde, her skirt so short it could almost be classified as a tank top, “He hasn’t taken his eyes off of her since they stepped off the bus.”
Mrs. Jane smiles her approval. I continue to smile back knowing that (even if I were a terrible interpreter of crooked gins and subtle glances) she’s appreciated my company regardless. Being assigned the thankless job of Morning Bus Monitor, even if just for a week, can lead any teacher/student counselor to question her chosen career and pursue a life in something more exciting like accounting or medical coding.
Another bus arrives, a late model cheese wagon with slated windows and yellow paint faded nearly white. Mrs. Jane checks her list and waves it to the number seventeen slot where it disgorges it’s pimple faced, pubescent cargo. They, mostly ninth and tenth graders too young for licenses, scatter like ants as soon as they hit the pavement. Others, a few juniors and a handful of seniors (all too poor to have cars and too social inept to hitch rides), mosey around.
“How’s Grace doing?” Mrs. Jane asks. She glances down at her watch, it’s 7:35, “I’m sure she’s never been in detention before.”
“Never, but she’ll survive. I mean, it’s morning detention not life in Sing Sing.” Squeeze out a few drops of irritation, hiding my amusment, “Besides, I’m the one being inconvenienced here. I have to pick all three of them up; Grace, June, and Pen and be here before 6:30 or they’ll be locked out and it’s detection all next week.”
Mrs. Jane looks at me (or should I say through me), smiles and takes another sip of her tea.
Ok, I love picking them up and driving through the late summer dawns, red eyed and groggy, is a joy. I give each one a smile and a Little Debbie Fudge Round as a pick-me-up. June’s put in a request for Monster energy drinks or, at the very least, a 5-Hour energy shot, but budget constraints (my once awesome fifteen-dollar a week allowance hasn’t exactly kept up with inflation) dictate otherwise.
“Do you wish you were part of it?” Mrs. Jane asks.
I shrug and look down at my shoes, a tattered pair of Adidas with frayed laces and one torn tongue. I choke down a laugh. At one time, I would make sure they (along with my Timberlands and several pair of Nikes) were always spotless. Then, on a rainy day, I met June and was born into a bright new world where footwear was about as important as Thanksgiving leftovers.
“Yes, I wish I was with them.” I sigh, “But I took Art in ninth-grade, with Mrs. Davis. She was boring. All she taught me was that Van Gogh shot himself and that my favorite color is called ‘electric red’.”
“‘Electric red’ huh?” Mrs. Jane smiles, “I pegged you more for a ‘forest green’.”
I blush. That means she thinks I’m smart. Go me! If she’d said blue, it would mean I was an introvert and sensitive; orange, fun loving; white, highly organized; yellow, bipolar and probably schizo. I’m sure she keeps an eye out for yellows.
“Yep, electric red.” I say, “And that’s all.”
Guilt, nearly weightless but there, pings me. Actually, Mrs. Davis taught me more than just a few things. She’d helped me through my acrylics project, a stormy seascape I entered in the school’s Art Fair. It came in third place behind a terrible conceptual art piece featuring used mouth guards and a near perfect reproduction of Monet’s Girl in a Boat. It was a surprise to everyone when she quit at the end of the year, still a balmy twenty-seven or eight year old. She said she left for her kids, both still in daycare, but was overheard saying that she just couldn’t stand the ruffians anymore, the ruffians being any and every student at West Greenville. That hurt, it really did. She now owns a failing crafts store in Brannon. “Mrs. House is way cooler. She plays the radio while everyone ‘creates.'”
“Still, she should’ve been more diligent.” Mrs. Jane says, shaking her head, displaying the disgust one professional feels for another who makes an obvious, stupid mistake: a college professor plagiarizing a student’s article on shellfish and submitting it to the Journal of Marine Research, a cop speeding though a church zone and striking a toddler. Those things will get you kicked out to the club. “She should be the one in detention. There’s no excuse.”
This is the consensus of most of the faculty. Mrs. House should have known better than to place Pen, June, and Grace in charge of the Bobcat, a four-foot high paper mache sculpture, West Greenville’s mascot traditionally remade every year by students hand picked by the Art teacher. The resulting creation is painted our school colors, red and black, and presented to the student body during a Friday morning assembly. Past efforts have always been unimpressive. Strange mutant felines with stump tails and disproportioned heads (one slit eye or short, pointed ear is inevitable larger than the other) have become the school standard, and Principle Gamble has become increasingly clever with his efforts to hide these pathetic beasts behind plastic ficus trees and abnormally large flower pots.
“At least it was a lifelike Bobcat.” I say, not having to look hard to find the silver lining. Pen (and it was Pen’s project start to finish, June and Grace were merely bystanders, both having about as much artistic talent as a paper cup) did a magnificent job. It’s a shame that the melancholy creature she molded, nearly perfect and belonging in a natural history museum, was hacked to pieces and thrown unceremoniously into dumpster less than two hours after it’s debut. Beforehand, Mrs. House was tasked with taking pictures as evidence.
“Yes, it was.” Jane admits. She waves another bus through, this one taking the number thirteen slot. “How are your parents?”
We watch as the bus empties. Two freshman girls, an impossibly fat blonde and a stick thin brunette with a beak nose and near avian waddle, are the last off. They pass us slowly, snickering. I redden despite myself, despite all June’s taught me. Do all teenage girls fear they’re are butt of every joke? I think so, I know so.
“The divorce?” Mrs. Jane asks. She fills her mug from a green Stanley thermoses she keeps in her huge carpetbagger purse. Other contents include a mid-size box of tissues, two large Ziploc bags of trail mix, and a dog eared copy of the Tao Te Ching, the James Legge translation, among other things. The essentials of a childless divorcee transplanted from the West coast to the humid and utterly alien South. “It can be hard for almost anyone.”
“I’m OK.” I say. The words must’ve come out a little too easily, a little too I don’t give a crap, because she gives me her prescribed look of concern: held tilted forward, eyebrows inclining, her bottom lip curling down and to the right. “It wasn’t a surprise.” I continue, attempting to sound mature, but failing, my anger seeping through like red dye.
“You’re angry about it.” Mrs. Jane sips her tea, perhaps thinking that anger is preferable to indifference. “That’s natural. Anger towards one’s parents is common during divorce. Do you feel let down by them?”
As cool as she is, Mrs. Jane has a habit of slipping into Freudbot mode whenever she counsels. It can be interesting to watch but aggravating to endure.
“I’m not angry at them.” I say, wanting to clarify things, fighting down a wave of resentment. The thought of this woman, my friend, assuming that I’m as easy to read as any other teenage girl, as a silly ninth-grader with a little crush, makes me nauseous. “It’s the situation. The situation sucks.”
I collect my thoughts, wanting to chose the right metaphor. I must’ve come up with a half-dozen these last few days, some better than others. I take a breath.
“We aren’t a close family. We never were. Sometimes I liked to think so but we weren’t. We all knew it.” I pause for a moment. “Sometimes Dad would try to get us together. He’d plan canoe trips and once we went to Six Flags. But it never took. It was like he wanted to bake a birthday cake and went to the store and bought the candles and icing and even a few balloons, but he forgot the cake mix. Our family never had what was most important.” Then, my thoughts slipping out before I can catch them, “Once, Dad spent an entire year in Montana for the paper mill, he was helping them do something, and we hardly noticed he was gone. I didn’t even miss him. That surprised me.”
I catch my breath, red faced, embarrassed, knowing my words haven’t done anyone justice. Maybe when I’m an adult it’ll be easier to explain these things. But who’ll care then? Is that how life works? Do you only remember the lyrics when there’s no one to hear you sing?
“That’s why you’re upset?” Mrs. Jane asks, her interested peaked, “Your family lacks a foundation.”
“I’m upset because he’s the adult and the parent and I’m just in high school. But it feels like we’re all in high school. Everyone of us. And we never tried hard enough.” I look Jane in the eye, giving her what she calls the full frontal, no sublet glances at the ground or playing with my hair, just naked honesty. “Sometimes we’d give a half-hearted effort but then we’d just give up.”
Mrs. Jane looks at me then takes a sip of tea. “Who do you feel close too in your family?”
“Paw Paw before he died, and Oliver. We hang out sometimes. We were sitting together at the assembly.” I suddenly feel self-conscious, exposed, ashamed. The anger drains out of me and I turn away. Looking at Mrs. Jane now would be like looking into the Sun.
“How about your Mom?” She asks, “Did she ever make efforts?”
My eyes are drawn again to my shoes. They’re still there, still God-awful with the one split tongue mocking me like a spoiled child. Last Spring Mom happened to spot them, freaked, and dragged me to Shoe Carnival. She shoved fifty-dollars into my hand and told me to get some respectable kicks. She actually used the word kicks! I ended up spending twenty on a pair of clearance Reebok’s for Sunny and (being a sneaky b**** as June would later say) pocketed the rest for gas money. The sad part is, the next day Mom didn’t even notice I was wearing the same crap shoes. Actually, she never mention shoes again. Half of me wanted her too, the other half was just glad for the gas money.
“Occasionally.” I say, eyes still down, the torn tongue mesmerizing, “I think that because her own childhood was so terrible she thought everything was just fine with us.” I revisit the last six months, the brief screaming matches followed by days of deafening silence. Giving the cold shoulder seems to be the Nolan family’s preferred method of passive-aggression. “They’ve been fighting, but Dad asking for a divorce was a complete surprise. He could have said he was a Martian and she wouldn’t have been more surprised.” I chuckle, “I was kind of a shocked when I realized the words ‘dysfunctional family’ applied to us.”
I look up and find Mrs. Jane staring at me, her eyes like distant stars. She may not know the lyrics to my song but the tune is common enough. I’m sure she’s sick of hearing it.
I turn away and watch more students, a trio of tenth graders wearing Cardinal caps and football jerseys, swagger by. The only one I know, Trenton Turner with his short blonde hair and pink, cherub cheeks, leads them on. God, I hate his smug expression! I could bury my fist into it!
“It could be worst though.” I say, turning back to Mrs. Jane, suddenly fearful of being seen as just another privleged white girl griping on her ordinary life, “There once was an article on AIDS in Thailand, I read it online. A bunch of Buddhist monks displayed the bodies of AIDS victims in their hospice to raise awareness. There were dozens of them, all naked. People filed past them in long lines.” I shudder at the thought. The dead, kept under glass museum cases, didn’t look human at all but wooded, as if they were carved from a single block of pine, stained with Minwax, and left out to dry. There was even a baby girl, her black hair askew and button nose tipped up. I could’ve fit my thumbs where her eyes had been. “It could be so much worst.” I say again, nodding quickly, “We really don’t have it that bad.”
“You don’t have to do that.” Mrs. Jane’s face is flat, impassive. I try, but who can read a closed book? “You don’t.”
“Nod? Sorry, it’s a nervous habit” My nodding slows as my lips curl into a sheepish smile; smiling being another of my nervous/mourning habits. I need to indulge one or the other for moments like these. I smiled all the way through Paw Paw’s funeral. Everyone thought I was either crazy or was some type of Jesus freak having happy visons of my grandfather in Heaven, walking the streets of gold and all that. They didn’t see the tears that flowed that night or the nights since. I could’ve supplied a small water park.
“You don’t have to apologize.” Mrs. Jane says, a smile spreading across her face. She takes my hand in her’s and squeezes. “You never have to apologize for feeling lonely.”
Warmth rushes over me, burning my cheeks, stinging my eyes. I fight down the urge to hug her and bat away tears. Hell, I beat them back like angry wasps! “Thanks.”
“It’s ok.” She says, suddenly looking beautiful, younger than her forty-odd years, and taller somehow. I look down, and no, she isn’t wearing heels. “Sometimes you just need to talk someone, it’s that simple.”
Rumor has it that Mrs. Jane will be getting her doctorate sometime next year and is planning to move up the educational ladder, away from West Greenville High School to Central Office. I’m too afraid to ask her but with some of the books she carries around (Holt’s Learning Analytics in Higher Education 5th Edition, Ornstein’s Foundations of Education 12th Edition, etc.) I’m sure it’s true. Maybe this is the end of most teachers, those who’s thrill for teaching has waned and who’d rather be left alone during lunch breaks, to eat their low-fat brownies and sip Smart Water in peace.
“Yep.” I slowly release her hand but keep my stupid smile, not caring if we’ve become our own Lifetime movie. I have to keep my promise to talk to her more often.
Another bus, one of the last, pulls up and empties. Soon the Homeroom bell will ring.
“It was good to see Grace stuck with Pen and June.” I say, attempting to steer back to the less personal. “She could have said she didn’t have anything to do with it and gone scot free. Principle Gamble would’ve believed her.”
“How could she have not known what it was?” Mrs. Jane asks, skeptical. Apparently she doesn’t know Grace Laurent very well, and if she did, she’d probably put her in a zoo for observation, thinking that Grace’s kind went extinct sixty years ago, along with penny loafers and bobbed socks.
“I doubt it.” It’s funny to hear members of the faculty dance around the word, as if young people, teenagers, can’t handle the noun penis with any form of maturity. “She saw Pen working on it, but it was uncircumcised. She said she thought it was a burrito or something. June knew but didn’t give two farts. Neither saw the finished product before the assembly. Pen got really secretive near the end.”
“Burrito?” Jane hides a smile behind her mandala painted coffee cup.
The bobcat, brought out on a gurney and hidden under a black sheet until the last moment, was unveiled in a sweltering gym to a mass of eight-hundred bored teenagers. It took a few moments for the sparse applause, begun by Principle Gamble himself, to die away, leaving only near silence. Mrs. House dropped her megaphone and somewhere a girl laughed.
Before us the somber feline sat flat on it’s butt, shoulders slumped and head drooped, it’s green eyes staring at the flaccid, uncircumcised penis between it’s legs. It could have been a burrito for sure.
“Look…” Oliver jabbed me in the ribs and pointed. It was a needless act. Pen, Grace, and June could’ve been center stage at the UN, introducing ET to the world.
Ten seconds passed. From the jock section (and that’s football jock not the more sensible baseball or soccer jock) someone began with the cat calls, something about the limp member needing a little love and affection. Names were suggested. Within moments the gym was an echo chamber of jeers. Grace just stood petrified, mouth open, eyes like tea saucers. June only grinned.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…” The words didn’t seem mine but later, when recalling our reactions for Pen’s amusement, Oliver mimicked me right down to the nervous lisp I’d thought I’d conquered in second-grade. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…”
More cat calls, more names, dark secrets spilled like blood on a wedding dress. Red-faced cheerleader Matty Zeller and tearful Christian Fellowship Club President Zoe Foist shrunk to the size of lima beans.
Pen, sensing her moment, stepped forward and bowed, first to the crowd which roared, then to Principle Gamble and Mrs. House who were struggling with the sheet, ripping it as they tried to cover the sculpture. Someone from the band section threw an empty vodka bottle. It skipped across the hardwood floor like a stone over a calm pond.
“Enough!” Gamble’s voice, a two syllable arrow, shot though the gym. He might as well have turned off the light in a chaotic kindergarten classroom. The Pavlovian response was instantaneous. Hundreds of white middle class teens hushed. He shoved the remnants of the black sheet into the bobcats crotch and grabbed Pen’s arm, pulling her off the basketball court and out the nearest fire exit, setting off the alarm. Her smile was a warm sunrise.
Later, as she sang her own praises, her tongue looming in her mouth like a mad woman’s, Pen recapped the speech Gamble gave her in his office. It was something about a talented girl he once taught dropping out and getting hooked on “the dope.” She’s currently a part-time cashier at the 5th St. Winn-Dixie, doubling as tweaker-in-residence at the Mott’s Motel on McDonald Ave. Oblivious, Pen spent that hour studying the painting on the wall behind his desk. It was of a clear desert night, in the center a man slept, his mandolin a quite lover. A lion sniffs at his shoulder. Is it hungry? Curious? After leaving, her feet and butt numb, Pen decided it was both, but at the moment more curious. Hunger would come later, as the sun rose.
“Move! Move!” Mrs. House attempted to push the bobcat out of sight but couldn’t remember to release the gurney’s wheel locks, and with one last exhausted shove sent the beast crashing to the gym floor. It thuded, spliting like a hollow gourd, and I have expected candy to spill out. It’s now disembodied phallus bounced to a stop in front of Grace who stepped back, appalled. A Vesuian eruption of boos followed. The remaining teachers, some hiding youthful smiles others displaying weary middle-aged scowels, tamed the scene with a cold shower of detention slips. Whatever excitement remained deflated into grumbling.
The episode passed before lunch, with talk devolving from paper mache penises, to Jordan McKenna’s shameful streaking attempt last Homecoming (his member being about the size of a baby carrot), to what type of vodka makes the best Screwdrivers, the consensus being Smirnoff.
“I think the symbolism was lost on everyone.” I say, looking up at the bright morning sky. Clouds, pink in the sun, drift slowly east. I make out Paw Paw’s old Ford truck, a battered ship tossed about on a stormy sea, a lone bobcat looking for her mate. “Don’t you think?”
Mrs. Jane doesn’t answer, she’s looking though her purse.
“Yes, it was.” I say.
Pen originally planned for her sculpture to have a small, stiff willy, but the obvious draw backs (it would’ve only been seen by the first few rows of students) and the more symbolic, and highly visible nature of a huge, limp member made the difference. And, for those who are observant, it was fitting. Not only because of West Greenville’s sub-stellar athletics record last year ( 2-13 football, 3-21 baseball) but because, despite being one of the best public schools around, we seem to lack something. I can’t say what. More art classes maybe?
“Principle Gamble sure loves this place.” I say.
“Everyone loves the place.” Mrs. Jane says, her voice muffled, face still buried in her purse. “Try buying a house around her. Shacks go for a premium. I live forty minutes away.”
“They say we’re one of the best public schools in the state.” My words are carried off by the wind, heard by no one as Mrs. Jane drops her massive purse to the ground and squats, searching for who knows what. I half expect her to climb in. “But that’s not saying much. We’re in the South. Our best is everyone else’s mediocre.”
The first Homeroom bell rings and I pick up my backpack, legs quivering under the strain.
“Maybe I’m just being a ruffian.” I smile, waiting as Mrs. Jane hoists her purse over her shoulder. “It could be worse. I could be going to George Washington with the blacks.”
She looks at me for a moment, unamused, unsure.
“Just joking.” I lie. I’ll have to save those thoughts for the girls. “Maybe we just need more art classes?”
“Defiantly.” Mrs. Jane says. She looks once more at the pair of ninth graders. They haven’t moved. The girl still swooning over they boy, to dim to realize his indifference. Both are flirting with tardy slips. Come to think of it, so am I.
“You going to tell them to get a move on?” I ask.
“No. They’ll figure it out. Most do.”
“We need to talk like this more.” I adjust my backpack straps, hoping to bring the comfort level up from bone cracking too bearable. “No more of this on-again, off-again stuff.”
“You need to talk to your mom.” Mrs. Jane’s look has a kind firmness to it. She’s nervous, not use to telling people what to do. She’s more like the Holy Spirit, a soft wind gently pushing you in the way you should go.
“I will.” I force a hard, uneven smile, contorting my face into a caricature of teen bless. She sees through it as if it were a bad paint job, a thin coat of lunatic yellow splashed over a deep, melancholy blue. I smile harder. “I will.”