close
Prisoner of the Pines by Roger Pincus

Prisoner of the Pines by Roger Pincus

Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011

The clock on the wall of The Pines Elementary School gym could be tricky to read because of the metal cage that enclosed it like a primitive mask, protecting it from errant basketballs. But on a September morning thirty-five years ago I was pretty sure it displayed a time of eight-fifteen, meaning our fifth grade teacher, Miss Van Cleve, was ten minutes late. We stood around, twenty-four kids on the first day of school, the soles of our new sneakers squeaking against the freshly waxed oak floor, marking it with dull white rubber streaks. As other teachers appeared and formed their classes into static double lines (girls to the left, boys to the right), our class kept changing shape like an amoeba, leaderless, none of us even knowing how to recognize our teacher, who was a newcomer to The Pines.

Scott Jensen, my classmate and best friend, shook his head with mock solemnity. “Tardy to her first day of school,” he said, arching one dark, bushy eyebrow, a habit he’d picked up over the summer. “We should have a blast with this one.” He smiled, showing a mouthful of straight white teeth.

Scott was more than a year older than me. When he was in pre-school, he’d had some issues. His parents had taken him to a child psychiatrist after he’d bloodied the noses of a few boys when they paid too much attention to one of his 4-year-old “girlfriends.” The shrink had determined that it would be best to delay his entry to elementary school so that he’d have some time to get past whatever was ailing him. He was tall for his age anyway and as we stood around waiting, he towered over me and everyone else in our class.

A door at the opposite end of the gym opened up, and in walked a long-legged blonde woman who resembled one of those sketch figures you still see in Lord & Taylor newspaper ads, her hair pulled back tightly, tied with a band and descending in a narrow waterfall that ended at the small of her back. Without hurrying, she reached us in no time, taking long graceful strides.

She stood close to six feet tall and it struck me that she was probably the only female teacher in the school taller than Scott. With her fair complexion and blue eyes she looked like some kind of Viking Queen. Before she reached us I whispered this assessment to Scott. “No,” he said. “A Viking Princess. Remember, she’s Miss Van Cleve.”

Instead of apologizing about being late, Miss Van Cleve scolded us. “Every other class in this gymnasium is quiet and orderly,” she said, an arm outstretched demonstratively. Just past her slender, elegant fingers I saw other students and teachers turn to look at us, or maybe just at her. “She’s sexy,” Scott whispered from behind me.

We quickly lined up and followed her as she walked across the gym. But when I saw that we were heading toward the door that led to the dreaded school annex, I stopped, frozen in disappointment as I realized that we would be spending very little time in the school’s main building during the upcoming year. The main building consisted of twenty thousand square feet of open space, a bustling city of teachers and students. In there, school was actually enjoyable. Instead of walls, we had portable room dividers with hinges. Class areas could be reshaped, expanded, or contracted to suit whatever was being studied at a given time. Instead of a roof, the building was crowned by a spectacular yellow geodesic dome that seemed to defy the law of gravity, relying on no posts or beams except for door-high vertical supports around the perimeter. We were proud that it was the first school like it in New Jersey, and when we sang the school song, a paean to Buckminster Fuller, we sang it like we meant it, because we did.

The annex, by contrast, had been slapped together when enrollment grew unexpectedly. It wasn’t even a true annex because it wasn’t attached to the main building. Ugly, conventional, and rectangular, it housed four classrooms, one of which was the music classroom, the second of which was unoccupied, and two others, each populated by unlucky students and their teachers who would spend most of their day surrounded by four walls.

“This sucks,” I said to Scott over my shoulder as we walked down the ramp leading to the annex.

“Not the way I see it,” he said. “It should be nice to have some privacy this year.”

At first, I assumed we had been placed in the annex because Miss Van Cleve was the most junior teacher in the school: not only was she new to The Pines, but this was her first year teaching anywhere. However, as the school year progressed, I became convinced that she had asked for us to be exiled to the school’s version of Siberia so that she could teach us in her way, protected by classroom walls from the constant scrutiny to which she would have been exposed in the main building. Her approach was the opposite of teachers like Ms. Covington, the longest-serving member of the school’s faculty, who sometimes brought in her guitar and taught her class to sing Buffy Sainte-Marie songs. And she was not like Ms. Carson, who encouraged her students to record their feelings in diaries and met with them each week to discuss their innermost thoughts. When a student acted out, Ms. Covington or Ms. Carson would gently warn the offender and that would typically be the end of it. But if any of us in Miss Van Cleve’s class did something disruptive, we would be ordered out of the room and made to sit in the hallway for an hour. She didn’t give warnings, though if she thought the class as a whole was losing focus, she would say: “Eyes to the front of the room.”

But she wasn’t a bad teacher. When she stood at the blackboard and lectured –something she did more often than anyone else at The Pines – we almost always gave her our full attention. She was a virtuoso with a piece of chalk; her cursive easily qualified as calligraphy, with sweeping loops in her “Ls” and “Js.” She expertly drilled us on verb tenses, expelling “brung” and “snuck” from our lexicon. She may have been bereft of a sense of humor or any visible capacity for sensitivity, but she knew her stuff. In addition, on mornings when the sun shone through the window and illuminated her golden hair and flawless magazine cover face, she was a more than adequate substitute for the main building’s magnificent dome. From inside the school, the dome’s panels didn’t look like much anyway: underneath their glamorous exterior, they were a drab dark gray.

Scott immediately became Miss Van Cleve’s star pupil. He and I had been classmates the previous two years and I had never seen him so engaged in school before. For the first half of the year his homework was always on time and he aced every test and quiz. He would sometimes study during recess and rarely showed up for late afternoon football games at the park, where the other guys and I mourned the loss of our franchise player.

Miss Van Cleve recognized Scott’s performance only in a perfunctory way. “Nice job again, Scott,” she would say, unsmiling, as she returned a graded paper to him. I knew he wanted more and on the day before Thanksgiving he seemed to make some headway.

The entire school was preparing for a Thanksgiving celebration – a play to be followed by a feast – scheduled for the big, open space at the center of the main building, underneath the apex of the dome. I was one of the Pilgrims and Scott was an Indian. Not just an Indian, though, but the Chief: Miss Van Cleve allowed him to wear the only full headdress allotted to the class, doubtlessly a reward for his excellent schoolwork.

All the Indians lined up in our classroom so that Miss Van Cleve could apply war paint to their faces. From her chair, which she had moved to the front of her desk, she used a small paintbrush to give each Indian a pair of stripes, one black and the other red, under each eye. She dipped the brush into glass paint jars on her desk and, in two quick strokes, each stripe was finished.

Scott waited at the end of the line. When it was his turn, he removed his headdress and placed it on Miss Van Cleve’s desk. We all stood there waiting to watch him get his stripes.

Even seated in her chair, Miss Van Cleve was taller than any of us – except Scott. To apply the war paint, she had to raise the brush above her own eye level. I suppose it was for this reason that Scott’s first stripe turned out a bit messy. It was no big deal, just slightly jagged in its shape. But Miss Van Cleve frowned.

“This won’t do,” she said, examining the imperfect stripe. She pulled two tissues from the box she kept on her desk, dipped them in water, and carefully cleaned the stripe off of Scott’s face. Then she dipped her still-wet finger into the small round jar of black paint and stroked the skin under Scott’s right eye, gently and slowly, moving gradually outward from a spot near the bridge of his nose. She had used only a little bit of paint, possibly to avoid dripping, so she returned to the jar a second and a third time to finish the stripe. It had turned out longer than those of the other Indians. She repeated this process for his next stripe.

“You’re being very patient,” she told Scott after a few minutes of silence.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, looking down at her. His eyes sparkled. “Take your time.”

“There,” she told him. “You’re done, Chief.” She smiled. She had made a little joke, calling Scott “Chief” and following that with an actual smile. Two precedents as far as I could tell.

“Wait,” said Scott in a hushed voice. “The other Indians have two stripes under each eye. As Chief, shouldn’t I have three?”

Miss Van Cleve stood. “As Chief,” she said, “you get this.” And she fixed the headdress on him with such unceremonious force that the plastic band covered his eyebrows. He pushed the front of the band up, adjusted the headdress, and shrugged. I adjusted my Pilgrim hat at the same time and exhaled. Without realizing it, I had been holding my breath since the moment Scott asked for the extra stripes.

*

From time to time Scott spoke to me about how sexy Miss Van Cleve was. I agreed with him but changed the subject, more comfortable at the age of ten to leave such topics undiscussed. He brought up the war paint incident on our first day back after Thanksgiving break, during lunch.

“Man,” he said. “Did you see the way she put that paint on me?”

“Yeah. I saw.”

“She is so sexy. I mean, I bet she knows how sexy she is.”

“She probably does, I guess.” I twirled my plastic spoon in my chocolate pudding, knocking some of it out of its cardboard compartment and onto my grilled cheese sandwich.

“Who do you suppose that guy in the picture is?” A couple of weeks earlier, a five by seven framed photograph of a dark-eyed young man had appeared near the edge of Miss Van Cleve’s desk, right next to the pencil sharpener attached to the desk’s side. You couldn’t avoid seeing it every time you sharpened your pencil.

“Maybe her boyfriend,” I suggested. The man had dark curly hair on his head and on his chest, which you could see because the top two buttons of his shirt were open. He needed a shave. I was certain that he was short, stupid, and unhygienic, the whole New Jersey stereotype. He doubtlessly drove a Camaro. If Miss Van Cleve was the dome, he was the annex.

“It’s hard to believe,” said Scott, shaking his head unbelievingly. “He looks like a monkey. She can do a lot better. I mean, she’s sosexy.”

“He does look like a monkey,” I said.

“I bet everyone thinks so.”

“It’s obvious.”

Scott took a toothy bite of his ham sandwich. “I’m going to ask around,” he said. “Just to be sure .”

The next morning, Scott, who sat next to me in the fourth row, reported his findings right after roll call. “Everybody agrees. The creep in the picture makes Curious George look like Robert Redford.” I didn’t stop to think about whether our classmates had independently concluded that Miss Van Cleve’s boyfriend resembled a monkey or had quickly assented to Scott’s suggestion. Looking back, I’m not even sure which of the two possibilities applied to me. I was simply struck by the senseless fact that Miss Van Cleve, our immaculate, beautiful, brilliant, merciless teacher, had a simian boyfriend.

After the pledge of allegiance, Miss Van Cleve invited any of us to raise his or her hand if we wanted to describe what we had done over Thanksgiving. Becky Grainger, a sweet pig-tailed girl with freckles, said that she and her family had gotten together at her grandparents’ house for dinner. Scott raised his hand next.

“We had a big turkey dinner, too,” he said after Miss Van Cleve called on him. “And on Saturday night, we went to the movies.”

“Oh,” said Miss Van Cleve. “What did you see?”

Scott kept his composure just long enough to answer: “Planet of the Apes.”

The class roared with laughter. Miss Van Cleve frowned, which was nothing new, but then shook her head quizzically, which was. “I suppose a few days off from school has gotten you all a bit mixed up,” she said. The laughter faded. “We’ll fix that. Open your language arts texts to page sixty-four.”

Each day thereafter, during one break or another in the daily schedule, Scott would make at least one monkey reference, always within earshot of Miss Van Cleve. Once, after a social studies lesson about Ghana, he raised his hand and asked whether the class could take a field trip to the zoo to learn about African wildlife. “Especially the monkeys,” he said. “I really want to study the monkeys.” Out on the playground another day, when it was Miss Van Cleve’s turn to help supervise, he bellowed out a Tarzan yell when she walked near him (naturally, he was hanging from the monkey bars at the time). He feigned difficulty with the pencil sharpener on yet another day, saying he was tired of “monkeying around” with it. He even made some wisecracks about bananas that I thought were really pushing it.

During these incidents, which generally provoked laughs or at least smirks from any student nearby, I watched Miss Van Cleve carefully. I had never seen such uncertainty and confusion on her face. She seemed to have no idea what he was getting at. She knew that whatever it was, she didn’t like it, but she couldn’t find a reason to punish him for the jokes, as he was not being disrespectful in any discernible way. Of course, she could have just asked him why he was making the wisecracks, but it was not in her nature to admit to a lack of understanding.

*

After Christmas break, we all noticed that Miss Van Cleve was uncharacteristically sullen. She didn’t make even a token effort to ask us how we had spent our vacations. She lectured us soullessly about fractions, electrical circuits, Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and a depressing novel about a girl trapped on an island off the California coast. The atmosphere in the classroom mirrored the short, frigid days of winter outside. This was the worst time of the year to be in the annex, which didn’t have a bathroom; we had to bundle ourselves in thick puffy coats and sprint up the ramp to the main building whenever we needed to go. Scott abandoned the monkey jokes and wondered along with the rest of us about what was wrong with our teacher.

About a week after this change began, the class was taking a geometry test. While struggling to remember how to calculate the area of a rhombus, I looked up from my paper and was caught immediately by the sight of Miss Van Cleve’s blue eyes, which seemed large and watery as she sat at her desk with a vacant expression. She dabbed them with a tissue. The unthinkable was happening: in the cold of winter, when our Viking Princess should have been most at ease, she was crying.

A few other students looked up from their desks, and then a few more. Eventually, Scott looked up as well. In every instance, our eyes fixed on Miss Van Cleve and did not return to our tests. We were all aware of her tears and of one another’s astonishment and pity. But Miss Van Cleve did not seem to realize that we were staring at her. Her eyes were open but it was as if she was looking through us rather than at us.

It was Becky Grainger who finally broke the spell. She stood from her desk and walked to the front of the room, quietly, as if not to disturb the other test-takers. She was carrying her pencil and, when she reached the front of the room, placed a hand on the pencil sharpener. “Miss Van Cleve,” she said. “What’s wrong?”

At that moment I saw that the photograph of the hairy man was not propped up next to the pencil sharpener. Instead, it lay flat on Miss Van Cleve’s desk, face-down.

Becky looked at the fallen photograph, too. I imagine we all did. And then Miss Van Cleve answered Becky’s question. “It’s nothing, Becky,” she said quietly. She at last noticed that everyone was looking at her. “It’s nothing, class,” she said, deploying that stage voice schoolteachers use when they’re tense, projecting more than necessary. But this only enhanced how shaky she sounded; it was like listening to a blown stereo speaker with the volume turned up. “You all have ten minutes left to complete your tests,” she said. “So I advise you to –”

And then she broke off, as if overcome by static.

This was all Scott could abide. He stood up at his desk. In the four months since school had begun he had experienced another growth spurt. He looked dangerous.

“It’s that little monkey’s fault, isn’t it?” he said. “I’m going to find him. And when I do, I’m going to smack him upside the head!”

A hush fell over the room. Miss Van Cleve stared at Scott. I thought I saw the pupils in her eyes dilate and then contract until they were almost swallowed in blue. “You,” she said to him. “Mark your test with an F and leave it on your desk.”
Scott swallowed. He looked down at his test and then back at Miss Van Cleve. “And then to the hall, right?” He was trying to sound defiant, affecting a no-big-deal tone, but the knot in his throat gave him away.

“No. To the principal’s office. For the rest of the day.” Miss Van Cleve took a breath. “The rest of you can still have ten minutes. Starting from now.”

*

Despite my urging, Scott refused to complain about the F on the math test. “She had no right to do that,” I said the next day in class just before homeroom started, amidst the din of horseplay and sliding chairs.

“She had every right. She’s the teacher. Besides, I don’t care about grades.”

“You’ve seemed to care a lot about them before this.”

“That was then.”

Miss Van Cleve walked in. She looked radiant, just the way she did that first morning in the gym back in September, the way she always had before winter vacation.

“Eyes to the front of the room,” Scott said, ending our conversation.

A couple of days later I noticed Scott doodling in pencil on his desk in the music classroom. He had written “Miss Van Cleve is SEXY” and next to those words had drawn an exaggerated, hourglass version of a woman’s torso.

The sketch didn’t resemble Miss Van Cleve at all; she was slender, built like a fashion model. But for laughs, I doodled my own version, careful to use all capital letters for “sexy” and to do my best at imitating the cartoony hourglass torso. Scott was happy with my show of solidarity and I was glad to see him behaving more like his old self.

Music class met once a week at the end of the school day. At the beginning of every class, Scott and I inspected the desks to be sure our handiwork had not been removed, then sat at undecorated desks and graffitied them. Soon, we had vandalized about half the desks. I started getting nervous.

“We should cool it with this,” I said as we sat down at two clean desks one afternoon in late February. “We’re going to get caught.” My own handwriting was distinctive: it looked like someone unsuccessfully imitating a typewriter, like a caveman – or even a monkey – holding a pencil in his fist, trying to make letters.

“Oh, come on. No one can prove it’s us. Besides, since when did you become such a worrier?”

“They’ll definitely know it’s you. The entire class knows how crazy you are about her.”

Scott’s face flushed and he glared at me silently.

“I mean, how crazy you were about her. I know you’re over that.”

“I was never ‘crazy about her.’ All I’ve ever said is that she’s sexy, all right? If you’re too scared to finish the desks, I’ll take care of them myself.” And he reached over to my desk and made the usual slogan and drawing before turning to his own.

Scott didn’t sit with me in music class the next several weeks. Three or four times, he sat in the back left corner of the room, the one farthest from the classroom door. The ceiling fixture over there didn’t work, which made the area dark. We still hung out together at lunch and in the main classroom, but he kept a distance. Sometimes he brought in comic books – the X-Men, the Hulk, and Spiderman were his favorites – and read them during between-class breaks, brooding like one of the Marvel Comics heroes, each of whom always seemed to be struggling with an identity crisis. As the weather warmed up, I hoped he would get outside and play some ball.

*

It was early April when he sat down next to me in music class again. “It’s done,” he said.

I looked down at my desk and cringed at the sight of one of my months-old proclamations of Miss Van Cleve’s sexiness. To my left and right were desks displaying Scott’s slogans and drawings.

“I’ve hit every desk,” he said.

“Congratulations,” I told him. “If you think you’re an oversized fifth grader this year, wait till next year when you get to do it again.”

“Very funny,” he said. He laughed, but I didn’t.

Two more weeks passed and I started to think that maybe nothing would come of what we’d done. After all, plenty of more offensive statements and drawings had been scribbled on the desks with no apparent consequence. And the graffiti we’d created paled in comparison to what appeared on the bathroom stalls. But then the fateful day arrived.

“You two,” the music teacher, Mr. Turner, said as class broke up. It was a Friday but our weekend, it seemed, would be off to a delayed start. “Sit back down.” Mr. Turner scratched at his mustache, a tick that manifested itself whenever he was especially serious. “Wait here,” he said and exited the room.

Several minutes passed. Scott and I didn’t say much. At least, I thought, we had done it all in pencil. I hoped that would be some kind of mitigating factor. And then I wondered aloud: “Why did we do them all in pencil anyway?”

“Because,” Scott said with a shrug, “Miss Van Cleve won’t be sexy forever.”

And then she walked into the room. Her very presence seemed a rebuke, both to what Scott had just said and, more generally, to every thought we’d ever had about her, every time either of us had gone to sleep picturing her lovely, line-free face, her long, perfect limbs, or her slender fingers.

She had a bucket with her that she placed on Mr. Turner’s desk. As she set it down, some sudsy water splashed over its side. It wasn’t one of the big, institutional-size buckets the janitors used to mop the floors. It was a bright red bucket, one that I remembered she had brought in to school from home. We had planted lima beans in it earlier in the year.

She removed two kitchen-sized yellow sponges from the bucket and threw one at Scott, the other at me. Scott caught his; mine bounced off my chin and landed with a splash on one of the hourglass-torsos. “Clean them up,” she said evenly. A lock of her hair came loose from the band that had held it in place. She tried to shake it out of her eye but it just dropped back down. “Get every one of them spotlessly clean.” She turned to leave.

“Just wait a minute,” said Scott. He stood. “You can’t keep us here and make us clean desks. It’s against the rules.” He left his sponge on his desk and walked to within one foot of her, and it was as if his gaze rubbed against hers in the small space between them. “This isn’t jail,” he added. “And we’re not your prisoners.”

“Fine,” she said. The lock of hair remained at large, obscuring her right eye, but she didn’t seem to mind at this point. It was a new look for her as far as I was concerned and I couldn’t help but admire it.

“Of course you’re not a prisoner. You’ve got a choice. Spend a couple of hours scrubbing these desks clean. Or spend two weeks in detention, one hour per day, staring at the wall. In accordance with the rules.”

Scott turned silently, walked back to his desk, picked up his sponge, and began scrubbing. “Remember,” Miss Van Cleve said. “Every one of them, spotlessly clean.”

“What should we do when we’re finished?” I asked.

“Wait here,” she said. “I’ll be in my classroom grading papers. I’ll be back later to check on you.”

“What a shame,” Scott said. He looked up from his scrubbing, and shook his head.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Miss Van Cleve stood in front of the doorway.

“Just that the three of us will all be stuck here so late on a Friday,” Scott answered. “You know. I’ve got other places I’d rather be. I’m sure you do too, right?”

“When you’re done,” she told Scott, “wash the blackboard and clean out the trash can.” She glared at me, warned me not to help him with the added tasks, and left the room.

We worked in complete quiet. We both understood our instructions as requiring us to scour every desk until it looked like new, removing not just our own juvenilia but everything else that any other student had ever written or drawn. I moved from desk to desk in a zigzag pattern that I came up with to reduce the boredom, imagining a path like a frog hopping from one lily pad to another. Eventually, the path led me to the rear left corner of the room, the dark corner where Scott had sat by himself.

Scott had finished with the trash can and was cleaning the last bit of chalk dust from the blackboard but turned around after glancing at me over his shoulder. “Hey,” he said. “I’ll get those.” He began walking toward me.

I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter who does which ones, does it? We’ve got to clean them all.” I continued to the next desk.

“Hold it,” Scott said. But his progress toward me was slowed by a traffic jam of desks; the tidy rows had been broken into random clumps as we did our tedious work.

By the time he’d reached me, it was too late. I regarded, with amazement, three desks, each covered by a single sketch that bore no resemblance to the hourglass-torso-cartoons. The sketches were portraits of our teacher. None of the three was accompanied by a caption declaring her sexiness. One was a profile of her left side, another was a profile of her right, and the third, on the desk farthest from the class doorway, showed her entire face. That last drawing reflected every detail that Scott’s memory was able to summon. It was all there: the curvature of the eyebrows, the precise ratio of the almond-shaped eyes to the face, the sinuous lips, the slight cleft of the chin.

And then there was the imagination of the portrait. Miss Van Cleve’s hair was untied. It flowed down around her face, framing and favoring it with a warm glow that invited you to look back into her eyes for as long as you liked.

“Damn,” I said as Scott reached me. “We have to erase this?”

“You heard the lady,” said Scott. “‘Every one of them, spotlessly clean.’”

“I can’t do it,” I said.

“I already said I would.” And without a moment’s hesitation or a hint of regret on his face, Scott scrubbed away his work.

“What a pity,” I said when he finished.

“Don’t feel bad,” he said. “Let me show you something.”

He walked over to the backpack he used to carry his schoolwork and comic books, which he’d left under the chair he had occupied during music class. He pulled a sketch book from it, bound at the top and filled with eight-and-a-half by fourteen inch sheets that he flipped through from the bottom. “Look,” he said.

He held the book open and displayed another picture of Miss Van Cleve, virtually identical to the one erased from the desk. “All right,” I said, by way of congratulations. “You’ve got a backup sketch.”

“More than one.” He offered the book to me and I took it.

I flipped to the next page and the next, moving from one penciled sketch to another, each showing our teacher’s face with a different expression: there was an angry, frowning Miss Van Cleve, a pouting, downcast version, and a full-length drawing showing her in one of her turtleneck sweaters and a skirt, with shading on her legs that represented stockings. Oddly, she wore no shoes.

I looked up at Scott. “Go on,” he said. “Check out the next ones.”

I wasn’t surprised by what I saw next: A drawing of Miss Van Cleve, naked. Scott’s vision had enabled him to see through her sweater, revealing small, exquisitely curved breasts, rounded at the front in a sudden bend, the opposite of the gradually declining roofline of the school’s dome. Miss Van Cleve’s breasts, as Scott conceived them, curved decisively. Her face appeared only indistinctly and Scott had drawn only the faintest hints of hair in the area between her legs. My hands trembled as I held the sketch pad and I was ashamed that they did. My cheeks flushed and I closed my eyes for a few seconds, breathing deeply until my hands steadied.

When I opened my eyes, I reexamined the drawing calmly. I turned the pages of the book twice more, finding one sketch depicting a nude Miss Van Cleve from the left side and another from the right. In each, her unpinned hair obscured her face and one leg appeared slightly ahead of the other, relieving the artist of the need to suggest anything about the vagina.

I returned the sketch pad to Scott. “Nice work,” was all I could think to say.

“You still haven’t seen my masterpiece,” he said, setting down the sketchpad. From another compartment of the backpack, he removed what looked like a scroll, a rolled up paper held in place by a rubber band. Then he began rummaging around Turner’s desk, finally opening a drawer where he found a roll of Scotch tape.

With the tape in hand, he removed the rubber band from the scroll, which partly unraveled, swelling like a snake that had just swallowed its prey. “Take one end,” he told me, and I did. Scott took the other and we each walked backwards until the paper was stretched to its full length of about eight feet. All I could make out from my angle were some long, curved lines. We stood in front of the freshly cleaned blackboard, which still had a few wet spots drying in the afternoon sun streaming through the classroom windows. Scott taped his end of the paper to the metal border that framed the edge of the blackboard. He tossed me the roll of tape and I did the same to my end.

I stepped back to the middle of the classroom, several rows deep, and took a look, figuring nothing could surprise me now. My jaw dropped nonetheless as I realized that the curved lines depicted Miss Van Cleve lying on her back with a man on top of her. Both figures in the picture were unclothed, their legs intertwined. The man’s head was raised above Miss Van Cleve’s and he gazed down at her. It was a bigger-than-life sketch, in pencil like Scott’s other work. As I took a second look at the man’s face, I noticed how bushy his left eyebrow was and how it arched, as if mimicking the angle of his back.

“We should take this down,” I said, battling my dry throat to get the words out.

“No way,” said Scott. “I’m going to find Miss Van C and see what she thinks of it.”

I looked at him like he was nuts. “We did everything she asked,” he said. “The desks. The blackboard. The trash can. This classroom’s never been cleaner.”

He sauntered up to the giant sketch and tapped it with a flicking fingertip. The paper made a smacking, echoing sound. We had stretched it tight. I approached it and flicked it myself, eager to hear that sound again. I imagined myself performing some special ritual, as in the Indian ceremony we’d seen depicted in a documentary earlier in the school year. I was a young brave striking my war drum, just once, producing a decisive thwack.

“I hope you boys have finished by now.” Miss Van Cleve stood at the classroom doorway, her hands on her hips. But as she entered the room, her hands dropped to her sides. Her eyes began squinting. Her smile dissolved. “What in the world – ”

She stood in front of Turner’s desk directly opposite us. While she took in the picture, I sidled away without a sound toward the nearest window, considering whether I should try its handle.

She pointed a trembling finger at Scott. “I’ll have you put away. You don’t belong in this school.” As her face reddened I reversed direction and slipped past Scott. Neither of them looked at me as I quietly left the classroom, then the annex, my sneakers splashing through puddles on the concrete walkway, remnants of a rain shower that had passed through while Scott and I cleaned the music classroom.

*

The Walters Alternative School, where Scott had been “placed,” was a boxy, gray concrete edifice visible from the state highway. It zigzagged through a section of pinelands that had been cleared to accommodate it. The school housed kids from third through eighth grade, most of them diagnosed as “EU” – emotionally unstable. Scott’s school days now lasted into late afternoon. Between that and his grounding, I didn’t get a chance to see him until the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, when The Pines had an early dismissal, a perk that I figured would not be provided at Walters.

The bike ride to Walters was a forty minute journey along the shoulder of the road, where gusts of air from eighteen-wheelers cooled me off on the hot day. The road declined slightly, easing my pedaling burden. I waited on the playground for afternoon recess to begin. Sweating in the steaming muggy air, the blacktop soft beneath my feet, I kept one eye out for Scott and the other on numerous cyclones of swarming gnats. I propped my Schwinn against the side of a bench before sitting down.

Only the occasional cries of birds out in the pines broke the monotony of the muted hum coming from the highway as I waited. Finally, the crackle of walkie-talkies joined the audioscape. Three burly men in white shirts and navy slacks exited the building and took up positions at different corners of the playground. Each wore a thick black belt with a holster that housed a police-style baton.

The Walters students emptied out of the building unevenly. A few laughed and ran, but most walked silently. There was a tremendous variety in height, even more than I’d expected from the broad range of grade levels. I recognized Scott from his familiar casual stride and the blue backpack slung behind him.

He spotted me and came right over, punching me on the shoulder in greeting. His smile had lost none of its confidence and he eased the backpack onto his lap as we both sat down on the bench.

“So what’s it like here?”

“Pretty cool,” he said. I got a better look at the other kids now, spread out on the playground and in the surrounding grass, some sitting, some talking in murmurs, only the youngest ones venturing onto the white vinyl swings or the aluminum slide, which must have been burning from the heat. A boy as big as a high school linebacker stood about twenty feet from us, dressed in torn jeans and a faded black Iron Maiden T-shirt. His hair was long and oily and when I made eye contact with him, he spat on the ground.

“The teachers treat me nice,” Scott continued. “I’m one of the few they don’t think might attack them with a plastic spoon from the cafeteria.” I laughed, though I didn’t think this was funny.

“What are the classes like?”

“Pretty much the same as at The Pines. You know, school is school.”

He opened the largest pouch in his backpack. “There is one difference,” he said. “They’ve got me taking a pretty intense art class.” He took a sketch pad out of the backpack, the same kind he’d used for his drawings of Miss Van Cleve. “Art therapy, they call it.”

The class, he explained, met daily. Most of the kids sketched but others painted and some made sculptures with clay. Usually, the teacher gave them a prompt, like “Create an image that reminds you of something you enjoy,” or, “Show me what your anger looks like.” Other times, the students were allowed to make whatever they wanted. The art teacher, whom Scott described as a big woman in her seventies with a German accent, said that Scott was a gifted artist. Every second Wednesday she took him to a studio in New York, an hour’s drive up the turnpike, where he joined a class of private school students and sketched pictures of live models.

“That’s what I keep in here,” he said, handing me the pad. “My New York portraits. Check them out.”

I flipped through the sketches and was struck by their variety and the particularity of their details. One depicted a young woman with sleepy eyelids and large, round thighs; the next one revealed a slender woman who might be in her forties with short hair and breasts like pancakes; and so on through the collection. The models were white, black, Hispanic, Asian. They were all female; Scott said that the studio had no luck hiring men to pose.

I finished going through the pictures. “So,” I asked, “do they all pose naked?”

He laughed. “No, not completely. But I draw them like I see them.”

I hadn’t expected to find Scott in such good spirits. My parents had told me that Walters was practically a jail. The grim, isolated building, the menacing older students, and the guards all fit that description, but Scott’s attitude did not. And why hadn’t he asked me about Miss Van Cleve yet?

“They’re all so different from each other,” I said, handing the sketch pad back to him.

He shrugged. “Sure. But they’re all sexy.”

I wondered if I’d heard him right. The drawings were excellent but none of the women looked sexy to me. There was nothing sexy about the lady with the bumpy nose and the sagging stomach, or the one with the bony shoulders and the loose flesh at the knees. Had Scott’s banishment to Walters messed with his mind? More than ever I wanted to know how long he would be stuck there.

“When are they going to let you out?”

“Out?” His face knotted into a question, then relaxed with what appeared to be recognition. “I am out.”

“I mean out of here,” I said. “Will they take you out of Walters before next fall?”

“I hope not,” he said.

I stood abruptly from the bench, peeling my sweaty legs off the painted surface. “You like it here?” Several students and one of the guards looked my way. “Don’t you know this is a reform school?”

“Of course I know that,” he said. He stayed on the bench. “I like being reformed. You know. Re-formed.”

A high-pitched alarm pierced through the buzz of conversation among the Walters student body, like the shriek of something primal coming from the pinelands. When it stopped, the students quietly started to file back into the building. Scott stood and clasped me on the shoulder.

“Looks like recess is over,” he said. “Thanks for coming to see me.” He looked down at his backpack, making sure it was zipped up, then slipped it over his shoulder. Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, his face wasn’t even damp. “Take it easy,” he said, “and don’t worry about me. I’ll stop by your house as soon as my grounding is over.”

“Sounds good,” I said. But as I pushed my bike away from the bench, I realized that some kind of invisible barrier, like a thick plexiglass wall, had appeared out of nowhere and lodged itself between Scott and me, an endless partition with no hinges or moveable panels.

I pedaled home, struggling against the highway’s incline, laboring to breathe. The wind had picked up and bore down on me, propelling the bitter black exhaust fumes of cars and trucks into my stinging eyes and burning lungs as the radiating heat from the asphalt threatened to blow out my tires at any moment. I was drenched in sweat and panting an hour later as my front yard came into view, its white azaleas in full bloom.

Once inside, I headed straight for the refrigerator. After downing a glass of lemonade, I lay on the kitchen floor and put my face over the vent register. I waited for the air conditioning to cool me off, but even after it did, I didn’t feel right. There was something haunting me, a feeling that my mind was finally able to distill into words as the remaining sweat on my face evaporated in the vent’s chilly breeze. The feeling was a hope, a desperate, puzzling hope, that when Scott’s grounding ended, he would decide not to pay me a visit after all.

Antonio by R. C. Li

A Formidable Joy by Stephen V. Ramey

Leave a Response