A high school Show-and-Tell session explodes into a nightmare of evil…
So you understand that when we
increase the number of variables,
the axioms themselves never change.
-Mrs. Jean Underwood
Teacher, teacher, ring the bell,
My lessons all to you I’ll tell,
And when my day at school is through,
I’ll know more than aught I knew.
-Children’s rhyme, c. 1880
The morning I got it on was nice; a nice May morning. What made it nice was that I’d kept my breakfast down, and the squirrel I spotted in Algebra II.
I sat in the row farthest from the door, which is next to the windows, and I spot-ted the squirrel on the lawn. The lawn of Placerville High School is a very good one. It does not fuck around. It comes right up to the building and says howdy. No one, at least in my four years at PHS, has tried to push it away from the building with a bunch of flowerbeds or baby pine trees or any of that happy horseshit. It comes right up to the concrete foundation, and there it grows, like it or not. It is true that two years ago at a town meeting some bag proposed that the town build a pavilion in front of the school, complete with a memorial to honor the guys who went to Placerville High and then got bumped off in one war or another.
My friend Joe McKennedy was there, and he said they gave her nothing but a hard way to go. I wish I had been there. The way Joe told it, it sounded like a real good time. Two years ago. To the best of my recollection, that was about the time I started to lose my mind.
So there was the squirrel, running through the grass at 9:05 in the morning, not ten feet from where I was listening to Mrs. Underwood taking us back to the basics of algebra in the wake of a horrible exam that apparently no one had passed except me and Ted Jones. I was keeping an eye on him, I can tell you.
The squirrel, not Ted.
On the board, Mrs. Underwood wrote this: a = 16. “Miss Cross,” she said, turning back. “Tell us what that equation means, if you please.”
“It means that a is sixteen,” Sandra said. Meanwhile the squirrel ran back and forth in the grass, tail bushed out, black eyes shining bright as buckshot. A nice fat one. Mr. Squirrel had been keeping down more breakfasts than I lately, but this morning’s was riding as light and easy as you please. I had no shakes, no acid stomach. I was riding cool.
“All right,” Mrs. Underwood said. “Not bad. But it’s not the end, is it? No. Would anyone care to elaborate on this fascinating equation?”
I raised my hand, but she called on Billy Sawyer. “Eight plus eight,” he blurted.
“I mean it can be . . . ” Billy fidgeted. He ran his fingers over the graffiti etched into the surface of his desk; SM L DK, HOT SHIT, TOMMY ’73. “See, if you add eight and eight, it means . . . ”
“Shall I lend you my thesaurus?” Mrs. Underwood asked, smiling alertly. My stomach began to hurt a little, my breakfast started to move around a little, so I looked back at the squirrel for a while. Mrs.
Underwood’s smile reminded me of the shark in Jaws.
Carol Granger raised her hand. Mrs. Underwood nodded. “Doesn’t he mean that eight plus eight also fulfills the equation’s need for truth?”
“I don’t know what he means,” Mrs. Underwood said.
A general laugh. “Can you fulfill the equation’s truth in any other ways, Miss Granger?”
Carol began, and that was when the intercom said: “Charles Decker to the of-fice, please. Charles Decker. Thank you.”
I looked at Mrs. Underwood, and she nodded. My stomach had begun to feel shriveled and old. I got up and left the room. When I left, the squirrel was still scampering.
I was halfway down the hall when I thought I heard Mrs. Underwood coming after me, her hands raised into twisted claws, smiling her big shark smile. We don’t need boys of your type around here . . . boys of your type belong in Greenmantle . . . or the reformatory . . . or the state hospital for the criminally insane . . . so get out! Get out! Get out!
I turned around, groping in my back pocket for the pipe wrench that was no longer there, and now my breakfast was a hard hot ball inside my guts. But I wasn’t afraid, not even when she wasn’t there. I’ve read too many books.
I stopped in the bathroom to take a whiz and eat some Ritz crackers. I always carry some Ritz crackers in a Baggie. When your stomach’s bad, a few crackers can do wonders. One hundred thousand pregnant women can’t be wrong. I was thinking about Sandra Cross, whose response in class a few minutes ago had been not bad, but also not the end. I was thinking about how she lost her buttons. She was always losing them-off blouses, off skirts, and the one time I had taken her to a school dance, she had lost the button off the top of her Wranglers and they had almost fallen down. Before she figured out what was happening, the zipper on the front of her jeans had come halfway unzipped, showing a V of flat white panties that was blackly exciting. Those panties were tight, white, and spotless. They were immaculate.
They lay against her lower belly with sweet snugness and made little ripples while she moved her body to the beat . . . until she realized what was going on and dashed for the girls’ room. Leaving me with a memory of the Perfect Pair of Panties. Sandra was a Nice Girl, and if I had never known it before, I sure–God knew it then, because we all know that the Nice Girls wear the white panties. None of that New York shit is going down in Placerville, Maine.
But Mr. Denver kept creeping in, pushing away Sandra and her pristine panties. You can’t stop your mind; the damn thing just keeps right on going. All the same, I felt a great deal of sympathy for Sandy, even though she was never going to figure out just what the quadratic equation was all about. If Mr.
Denver and Mr. Grace decided to send me to Greenmantle, I might never see Sandy again. And that would be too bad.
I got up from the hopper, dusted the cracker crumbs down into the bowl, and flushed it. High-school toilets are all the same; they sound like 747s taking off. I’ve always hated pushing that handle. It makes you sure that the sound is clearly audible in the adjacent classroom and that everybody is thinking: Well, there goes another load. I’ve always thought a man should be alone with what my mother insisted I call lemonade and chocolate when I was a little kid. The bathroom should be a confessional sort of place.
But they foil you. They always foil you. You can’t even blow your nose and keep it a secret. Someone’s always got to know, some-one’s always got to peek. People like Mr. Denver and Mr. Grace even get paid for it.
But by then the bathroom door was wheezing shut behind me and I was in the hall again. I paused, looking around. The only sound was the sleepy hive drone that means it’s Wednesday again, Wednesday morning, ten past nine, everyone caught for another day in the splendid sticky web of Mother Education.
I went back into the bathroom and took out my Flair. I was going to write some-thing witty on the wall like SANDRA CROSS WEARS WHITE UNDERPANTS, and then I caught sight of my face in the mirror. There were bruised half-moons under my eyes, which looked wide and white and stary. The nostrils were half-flared and ugly. The mouth was a white, twisted line.
I Wrote EAT SHIT On the wall until the pen suddenly snapped in my straining fingers. It dropped on the floor and I kicked it.
There was a sound behind me. I didn’t turn around. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly and deeply until I had myself under control. Then I went upstairs.
The administration offices of Placerville High are on the third floor, along with the study hall, the library, and Room 300, which is the typing room. When you push through the door from the stairs, the first thing you hear is that steady click-ety-clack. The only time it lets up is when the bell changes the classes or when Mrs. Green has something to say. I guess she usually doesn’t say much, because the typewriters hardly ever stop. There are thirty of them in there, a battle-scarred platoon of gray Underwoods. They have them marked with numbers so you know which one is yours. The sound never stops, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, from September to June. I’ll always associate that sound with waiting in the outer office of the admin offices for Mr. Denver or Mr. Grace, the original dipso-duo. It got to be a lot like those jungle movies where the hero and his safari are pushing deep into darkest Africa, and the hero says: “Why don’t they stop those blasted drums?” And when the blasted drums stop he regards the shadowy, rustling foliage and says: “I don’t like it. It’s too quiet.”