Seventh Period Salvageables
The clock ticked off five minutes while the students awaited an explanation. None of them wished to express curiosity over the situation, just in case he or she was the only student who did not know why they were there. The ambient noise of the fluorescent lights buzzed alarmingly in the silent room, so the students took turns shuffling their feet on the gritty linoleum or coughing dryly in short, deep-chested barks.
At last a slight woman entered the classroom. She might have been twenty-three or she could have been thirty-five. She had boyish hips and hair worn straight and artlessly tucked behind her ears. She walked up to the lectern at the front of the classroom without looking at her surroundings. Behind the lectern was an old-fashioned drafting stool, like a tall piano stool the height of which could be adjusted by spinning the seat on its central wooden screw. The woman experimentally spun the seat, then settled down on it and opened a huge, black, hardcover book. The cover was faded and warped, and the pages were yellowed. Charles sunk lower onto his tailbone and lowered his neck into his army jacket as he imagined the lesson to come.
The woman looked at the students for the first time. Her eyeglasses were so thick that her eyes appeared only as dark, fuzzy caterpillars behind them. She directed her gaze first toward the rows of empty seats and then at the gallery of rogues sprawled insouciantly at the back of the class. Some of the boys were so far back that they were resting their heads against the cork bulletin board on the wall.
"Well, this is an auspicious beginning," she remarked impassively. She opened the book and scanned the table of contents with a nail-bitten index finger.
"My name's Marcy," she stated as she turned to the page she was seeking. Then she cleared her throat and began to read. "The Enormous Radio, by John Cheever."
On Tuesday, the girl sitting next to Charles brought a black felt tip pen and a notebook with her. Her name was Virginia; Charles knew she lived at the other end of his neighborhood, though he had never spoken to her. During Marcy's reading of A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Charles watched as she doodled across the back cover of the notebook. Instead of drawing faces and cubes and stars and trees like most doodlers, she drew a tortuous line across the cover. Next to that line she drew another line which zigged and zagged right next to the first, just millimeters apart. She followed these random curves with studious intensity. The third line followed the same course as the first two, but then 2/3 of the way across the page she allowed it to meander off on its own trajectory. She continued to draw lines across the page this way until the end of study hall, when the notebook cover was nearly covered with eddies and whorls of black ink.
Charles stared pensively at Virginia's drawing while Marcy told the story of Mr. and Mrs. Glass and young Sybil. He did not think much of reading for pleasure, but he found himself enjoying the tale. He liked the way Marcy read. The story was mostly dialogue and she read it the way that Charles imagined the characters would really speak, but not in a way that was too fake. The little girl's voice sounded young, but not like a grown woman imitating baby talk.
After a while Charles noticed that the other students really seemed to be listening, too. At the funny parts, most of them grunted or chuckled. Toward the end of the period, Charles began to eye the clock nervously. He began to worry that Marcy would not reach the conclusion before the bell. Then, with only two minutes to go, Marcy delivered the startling conclusion, bluntly and without emotion. She snapped the book shut.
Virginia stopped doodling. All eyes were on Marcy.
"Go on," said a junior named Bob Lewiston.
"That's it," said Marcy. There was the hint of a smug smile on her face as she gazed myopically back at the students.
"What do you mean, 'that's it'? What happened next?"
"That's for you to think about on your way home."
"Get out! He just ended the story right there? Bang--that's the end?"
"No way! That's messed up."
"That's Salinger," said Marcy.
By Wednesday everyone had an established seat in the classroom. No one would think of sitting in anyone else's seat, just as none of them would set their cafeteria tray down at a table occupied by football players or cheerleaders. There was a subtle change in their manner, though, as was evidenced by increased eye contact, nods of greeting and occasionally a softly murmured "hey" or "hi." When someone sneezed, someone else might say, "Gezundheit." This signified a new level of intimacy that excited Charles. He was still not sure what he was doing in room 228 or why he had been chosen, but he found it to be an improvement over the forty minutes of staring at the framed calligraphic print of the Pledge of Allegiance, which had formerly occupied him at this hour. Charles was still seated next to Virginia, and over the course of the week he had become more acutely aware of her presence. While Marcy read The Lottery, Charles turned casually in his seat and squinted toward the window, as if contemplating the bucolic view. What he really was doing was contemplating Virginia's profile.
Once, the previous year when Charles and his friends were hanging out on his stoop, Virginia walked down the street and Mark suggested that she was pretty "hot." After that, whenever Virginia walked down the street the guys would whistle and razz their friend. "Hey, Marky, here comes your girlfriend!" or "Go get her, Mark!" Both Mark and Virginia were mortified by the gag. The joke passed, but just recently, Charles had noticed that Virginia still walked stiffly with her books clutched to her breastbone as she passed down his street.
Mark was known to have questionable taste in girls, but now, watching Virginia drawing her crazy lines across the page day after day, Charles began to understand the attraction. She wasn't strikingly pretty, but she wasn't especially plain. She wore men's oxford shirts, and Charles liked the way the row of buttons dipped a little between her breasts.
As she doodled, Virginia's lips were parted in concentration. One of her incisors was turned sideways. Suddenly she glanced up and caught Charles looking at her. He smiled sheepishly. She smiled back, a little Mona Lisa of a smile, and Charles noticed that when she did, a tiny corner of her crooked tooth peeped out over her lower lip. He found this inexplicably titillating.
It wasn't until the second Thursday that anyone got up the nerve to ask for an explanation.
Marcy walked in and, as usual, adjusted her seat, settled down, and cleared her throat. "Today I will begin to read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers," she said by way of greeting. "This is a long one, a novella, really, so let's get started."
"Excuse me, Ms--uh--Marcy?" Pete Sobel was raising his hand in an attitude of self-deprecating determination.
"Yes?" Marcy directed her caterpillar lashes at Pete. She had never bothered to learn anyone's name.
"Are you a teacher or what?"
"I guess I fall into the 'or what' category," she replied flatly. She cleared her throat again. "The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill--"
"I mean, what's the deal here?" Pete persisted. He was looking sorry that he had started this line of questioning.
"The deal?" The way she was looking at Pete with her head inclined reminded Charles of Mr. Magoo.
"Why are you here?"
"Well, today I'm here to read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe." She held up the book so that Pete could see the cover, while keeping her place with her index finger.
"Well, I know, but--uh--why are we here? I guess my question is--" A note of desperation was overtaking the bravado in Pete's voice, "Why are we here? Why are we here? Why us? Why us, why you and why this?"
"I don't know why you," she replied, and the way she said it, it sounded truthful. "As for me--let's just call it community service."
"Well, who hired you? I mean, if you're not a teacher, how did you--" He trailed off uncertainly and looked to his classmates. They all had been looking on with interest, but when he turned to them with appeal in his eyes, they abruptly looked down at their hands.
"What is your name?" asked Marcy.
"What does your mother call you?"
"Well, Pete, do you know what a novella is?"
Pete slid down a bit in his seat.
"Does anyone?" she persisted.
Virginia timidly raised her hand.
"It's, um--like a small novel?"
"Right. Longer than your typical short story, right?"
"I guess so."
"Well, then," she said in a tone that indicated that the matter was settled. "The town itself is dreary--"
"Hey, how come you're not in my study hall anymore?" Jeff asked.
"I don't know. They moved me."
"I don't know." He hadn't told anyone about the short stories, and he didn't want to tell now.
"You're still in study hall, just a different one?"
"I guess so, yeah."
"Oh." Jeff sounded offended, as if Charles were in another study hall of his own volition. "Who else is there?"
Charles was scanning the students in the smoking area. Suddenly, he recognized the stooped posture of Virginia Novak approaching.
Jeff reached over and gave him a gentle slap across the temple. "Earth to Chuckles!"
"What?" asked Charles irritably.
"Who else is there? In your study hall?"
"I don't know--kids. Tony Micalizzi--Bob Lewiston--Pete Sobel--Virginia." He lowered his voice, because now she was almost within earshot.
"Oh, I get it. Loser study hall."
"Shut up. Hi, Virginia."
Virginia was walking with one of her friends, a tall, homely girl who regarded Charles with open hostility, but Virginia smiled one of her tooth-sneaking smiles at Charles.
"Whoa," muttered Jeff, after she had passed. "Do I smell smoke?" He made the "zzzt!" sound of a live electrical wire while touching Charles' shoulder with the tip of his index finger.
"Shut up," said Charles. He ducked his head to hide his blush.
"Uh-oh, here comes Mark," said Jeff, with mock concern. "But don't worry--" He clapped a hammy hand on Charles' shoulder. "Your secret is safe with me."
Mrs. Clark, the librarian, did not recognize Charles. It was with good reason; he had only been to the library twice in his three years at the high school. Mrs. Clark did not volunteer to help Charles right away, because in general she was suspicious of the sort of boy who wore army jackets to school. They would wear them in the rain, the snow, or on beautifully mild days and never take them off. Mrs. Clark usually wore bold floral prints without sleeves that allowed her mutton shank arms to hang free. She couldn't stand to imagine wearing a jacket all day.
Charles hesitated just inside the door, and then walked over to the card catalogs. He pulled one of the drawers open at random. He was really just trying to look like he knew what he was doing, until he could get his bearings, but the card catalog gave him away. The drawer was empty.
"It's all in the computer now," Mrs. Clark said from behind him.
Mortified, Charles turned toward her. "Oh. I was just wondering what these were for--now." He gestured weakly at the long bank of card file drawers.
"For holding up the computers." Mrs. Clark looked pleased with her answer.
Mrs. Clark waited for a moment to see if he would state his purpose, but Charles just stood staring at the card file drawers and nodding thoughtfully. It was clear that he was at a loss for how to proceed, so at last, Mrs. Clark yielded to his helplessness. "What were you looking for?"
"Well, now that you mention it, have you ever heard of The Grind Exceeding Small?"
"Let's see." Mrs. Clark stepped up to one of the keyboards and tabbed into the title field. "No, I guess not."
"Oh. Okay." Charles turned to go.
"What kind of a book is it?"
"Well, it's not a book exactly. It's more like a short story."
"Oh! A short story. Okay, that's different. Who wrote it?"
"Okay, well, maybe it's part of a collection. We'll use the series keyword field--See? And type in GRIND--EXCEEDING--SMALL--and--" Mrs. Clark was quickly warming up to Charles. It wasn't often that she got to exhibit her library sleuthing skills.
"No, I guess not," she murmured disappointedly. "Oh, wait! Could it be They? They Grind Exceeding Small? By Ben Ames Williams?"
"Yeah, that sounds right!" Now they were both excited.
As Charles left the library with his short story collection, he passed Virginia in the hall. They both smiled, and Charles thought that would be the extent of their exchange, but when she was nearly past him he impulsively raised his book. "They Grind Exceeding Small!" he said triumphantly.
Virginia paused in her step and her eyes widened. Her response would stay with Charles for many sultry, sleepless nights afterward. "Oh, yes," she murmured, in her breathy voice. "That was a good one."
The term was coming to an end. There were only two more weeks until finals. Spring was blurring at the edges, hinting at summer. At this time the previous year Charles had been looking forward to endless nights of cruising around with Jeff and Mark and Mike, a balmy breeze blowing in his face as they made a perpetual circuit between the beach, the bowling alley and the Duchess drive-in. Now, though, the thought of squandering his evenings in a smoky Corolla hooting at snooty girls made him restless.
Charles tossed and turned as he tried to fall asleep. It was a new moon night, and his twin bed felt like a small, lost ship in the inky darkness. The only light was his digital clock, which burned a disembodied 1:47 across the room, but illuminated nothing.
He thought about working at his uncle's Sunoco. It was the only full-service station left in town. This meant a long, hot summer of waiting on old, rich women in their foreign sedans croaking, "Watch the paint, please," while they applied garish lipstick to their raisin mouths in the rear-view mirror.
Everyone his own age pumped their own gas, if they owned a car.
(He didn't think Virginia had a car.)
He would watch them drive by while he stood there at the tanks, trying to remember not to lean on the cars he was servicing. Once in a while a kid his own age would drive by and some would even honk and wave. It depressed him to think of the long hours of hoping and waiting for someone friendly to acknowledge him while he bided time on the mushy tarmac, heat snakes shimmering across the Post Road.
(Did Virginia even know how to drive? He never saw her in a car.)
It was hard to look cool while you were standing by the pumps. Those big, German gas tanks took a long time to fill. It was an idiot's job. Anyone could push the buttons, raise the lever, top off the tank. You could even teach an idiot to make change and count it back. If you were an idiot, once you mastered it, making change would be the part of the job you really loved.
Charles was good at counting back change, but he did not relish the activity. Charles knew he wasn't a scholar, but he was pretty sure he was not an idiot, either.
He also knew that brooding was not going to do him any good, and it certainly wasn't going to help him fall asleep, so he tried thinking philosophically about the summer. There were certain circumstances that would make the summer one to anticipate. If he were willing to make an effort, he might be able to salvage that time which was not spent at the gas station.
He began to make a mental list of the things he could do with his evenings. Teach Virginia to drive. Take Virginia to a movie. Maybe get a day off and take Virginia to the Bronx for a Yankee game. Then the doubts returned. He didn't even know if Virginia were interested in him. If any of his plans were to pan out, he would first have to make a move.
Virginia's family had a swing on the front porch. Lately Charles had gotten in the habit of taking a walk after supper, and sometimes Virginia would be creaking back and forth on it. He began to wonder what would happen if one night, instead of waving and walking past, he turned up her walk. Would she invite him up onto the porch? Would she slide over and make room for him on the swing? What if he happened to bring a book along, maybe a paperback Welcome to the Monkey House?
"Whatcha got there?" she'd ask.
"Ah--some book I took out of the library." (He made a mental note that he would have to obtain a public library card.)
"Oh, I remember this," Virginia would coo. She would page through it in a prim imitation of Marcy, until she got to the story about the computer that fell in love with a research scientist. And then she would clear her throat and say, in her best "Marcy" voice, "EPICAC," by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
He laughed at himself, at the corniness of the whole idea. Still, he wouldn't mind it if it happened.
"Here comes Smoky the Bear," muttered Charles' father, peering through the front picture window. He was peeved that Jeff didn't even attempt to hide his Marlboro when he came to pick Charles up for school.
"Hey," said Jeff.
Jeff sniffed, and Charles began to sweat.
"Well--" smirked Jeff.
"Who is she?"
"Who is what?"
"Come on. You don't wear cologne."
"Sometimes I do."
"For what? Not for me, I hope." He made a prissy face.
"It's for nobody! It was just sitting in our medicine cabinet, and--oh, shut up."
"It's not for Virginia, is it?"
"No!" Charles realized his protest was a little too vehement.
"Good, because I was going to offer her a ride." He pulled over to the curb. Sure enough, there she was on the opposite sidewalk.
"Hey, Virginia!" he called out the window. "How's about a lift?"
"No, hey, come on--" Charles was now sweating in earnest, and the cologne- scented deodorant made him dizzy.
Virginia shouted something that was lost in the on-coming traffic, and continued to walk along the side of the road.
"Ah, come on!" Jeff persisted. "He won't bite." He jerked his thumb at Charles, who waved lamely. Virginia faltered, and then stopped. Slowly, she walked to the curb and to wait for a break in the morning traffic.
"Bingo," murmured Jeff. "Hey, name the first one after me." He clapped his hand on Charles' knee.
"Okay, okay. But listen, just don't mention--you know."
"What?" Jeff's eyes widened in mock-offense.
"You know." He gestured at his shirt. "The Old Spice."
"Old Spice?" Jeff cackled. His eyes followed Virginia as she jogged across the street and around to the passenger side of the car. "Hey, if you want to go stealing Grandpa's Father's Day presents, what business is it of mine?" he asked as Virginia slid into the back seat behind Charles.
When the second bell rang indicating the beginning of seventh period study hall, hardly anyone noticed. It was another warm, sunny afternoon, and there was a Friday-euphoria in the air, in spite of it being only Wednesday. Tony Micalizzi snatched a book from Bob Lewiston's hands.
"Great American Short Stories," Tony read. "Hey, I didn't know study hall had homework."
"Dude! Give it back!"
"I'd prefer not to," said Tony, and everybody laughed, because yesterday Marcy had read Bartleby the Scrivener.
"Come on, dude. It's not mine. It's from the liberry."
"The liberry? Didn't I see your face on the wall of the library? Oh, no wait, that was the post office."
They continued to exchange insults, but chummily, for the appreciation of the other students. Tony pretended to pass the paperback to Charles, and Charles picked up on the charade and made a forwarding gesture under the desk to Virginia. The entire study hall got into the act, and when Dean Harrigan entered the room, Bob had no idea that Tony had slipped the book back beneath Bob's desk.
"All right then, folks," Dean Harrigan said, rubbing his hands together. "That'll be all then." The room quieted, and those students who were standing took their seats. "You can return to your previous study hall assignments. Don't get lost. I'm going to check the rosters." Dean Harrigan turned to leave the room. The students were still distracted by Bob's search for his book, and Dean Harrigan nearly made it out of the room before anyone reacted.
The girls' muted moans of protest did not register with Dean Harrigan, but it was Tony who stopped him. "Hey!" he shouted.
Dean Harrigan turned, his face darkening under his silvery cloud of hair.
"You can't--you know--you just can't--Where's Marcy?" he finished lamely.
"Marcy? Marcy's done," replied Dean Harrigan.
"Done? Done with what?"
"Done with her--project."
"That's what this whole thing was? A project? We come here--nobody tells us why--we sit here and that's what it was all about? We were a project?"
"You got no right, man!" added Bob. There were exclamations of agreement from the others.
"Now, look," said Dean Harrigan. "I'm glad you enjoyed the readings. But Marcy is done and that's it. I can't do anything about it. She wasn't a paid adjunct." The students glanced around at one another uneasily. Dean Harrigan had stymied them on the word "adjunct," and he took the opportunity to make his departure.
He had gotten as far as the door when Bob's copy of Great American Short Stories struck him squarely on the back of his gray suit jacket. He stopped and turned, but slowly. This was a tactical error, in that it gave the students time to recover from their initial shock. When he faced them, all were staring intently at the ground or their hands, except for the boldest boys, who stared at a point on the wall just beyond Dean Harrigan's head.
"Who did that?" Dean Harrigan's neck was all tendons and pulsing veins. "Who threw this book?"
Silence. Dean Harrigan picked up the book and opened the front cover, but of course it was only the library face plate inside.
Dean Harrigan stared at them for a long moment. "Mr. Lewiston, did you throw this book?"
"Mr. Micalizzi, did you throw this book?"
"Ms. Novak, do you know who threw this book?"
"No, sir." Virginia's use of the formality sounded frightened and sincere. Charles realized with a pang that she was on the verge of tears.
"Mr. Gundersen, did you throw this book?"
Charles cleared his throat. He felt the roots of his hair prickling with perspiration and the smell of Old Spice made him vaguely nauseous.
"We all threw the book, sir," said Charles loudly.
Dean Harrigan's eyes narrowed terribly, which kept Charles from smiling at the grunts and sighs of subdued approbation around him. He did not drop his eyes.
"All right, smart guy. If you're going to be the spokesperson, you can accept the consequences. You'll have to tell your buddies all about it later. Come with me."
Charles slowly rose to go, hoping one of the others would say something to delay the inevitable. They all knew Charles hadn't thrown the book. They also knew that Dean Harrigan was not really interested in knowing who threw the book. Right now, he just needed a scapegoat in order to save face.
"Let's go, Mr. Gundersen," Dean Harrigan was in the door jamb now, determined not to turn around until he was safely out of range. "Go back to your study halls, students. Don't think I won't check."
Charles was up and walking now. With a sinking heart, it occurred to him that he would not be sitting next to Virginia anymore. He would not have the opportunity to stroll out of the room with her and casually suggest that they meet outside of study hall sometime. With gallows desperation, he turned to look at her, one last time.
Virginia was looking at him. She made an odd gesture as he headed toward what was sure to be a three-day-suspension. She crossed her fingers and held them to her lips as if to kiss them. Then she winked.
It was the first time Charles had ever really been in this kind of trouble, but when he turned back to Dean Harrigan, he walked tall. Now he had the fortitude to carry him through whatever trials lay ahead.
Walter Mitty had nothing on him.
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