May reach from hence to depth of darkest hell,
Then let those deep Abysses open riue,
That ye may understand my shrieking yell.
The playground is shiny black, wet, the oblivion of asphalt. Puddles -- full of long worms which the children pull dangling out, throw at each other; stomp on their liquid forms and laugh.
E.ís thin body swims in baggy clothes, feet slop in wet shoes and drag him across the playground, schoolbell ricocheting through to his tympanic membrane, causing permanent buzzing and partial deafness in old age, when his jowl drops and cheeks hang limp and baggy. Forming a line and marching into room six military style, his heels stepped on by Derrick Moss, twelve year old flunky and future party boy. Mr. Yampolsky ushers them in with a thin smile of gravity, eyes surveying his young disciples, running noses, ratty hair -- a mob of tender shoots; grub in the mud.
From a commanding height of five foot eight inches he says little things that stir studentsí spirits, straightens ridiculous comedy tie, a limp cravat, and gestures toward stars and stripes. E.ís hand goes to his heart, all hands go to heart, to stomach, kidneys (uncharred organs) and allegiance is pledged in grim innocence, eyes rolling around in young heads.
E.ís mind is not, was not on the old red white and blue, for spiky brushstrokes on his rump still stang and motherís plum red face and strawberry-in-cream eyes still pendulated before his consciousness. She had warned him about leaving the milk on the edge of the counter like that, Lord knows she had warned him (blasphemy on her hot tongue.) Didnít he know she needed milk for her coffee? Well, the brush sang through the air, and now he would sit, very carefully he would sit.
The old spelling business was writ on the chalkboard, hands raised in the air, answers squeaked out by smart-ass scholars, later to be called pretentious; Toby Orlando sat there, with his fine blue eyes and tragic lined Germanic haircut outlining round brown face Ė he sat there across from E., chewing pencil sat there...he lived in a run-down house by the tracks and his mother reportedly slept with other women, made bagels and wonderful whole wheat bread....
E. was sure that to be Toby Orlando was a very precious thing, to have oneís mother sleep with other women, make bagels and wonderful whole wheat bread. And then when the milk spilled off the counter in the morning his mother probably kissed him told him she loved him and went back to bed, Tobyís blue eyes glistening in his run-down house by the tracks, a sea of milk white on the floor.
But Mr. Yampolsky was now smiling (was always smiling), haunches pressed against his desk, copy of Where The Red Fern Grows efficiently grasped in a prim and bony hand. Students heads collapse, girlsí filthy manes swaying in stale still air, pencils charting new territories in binders, notebooks, over blue lined paper. The voice of Mr. Yampolsky strides out, emotional, powerful, image-invoking (a touch of a lisp); hounds and hunts and sorrows of pets and boyhood and early fire-arm experimentation....
The ceiling was dragons, wicked things, skeletons with axes, swimming in flowers, E.ís head thrown back, mouth idiot open, bell clanging, turmoil of recess had already arrived; Mr. Yampolsky calmly closes Where The Red Fern Grows. On the blacktop, and now the sun has broken through clouds, and for twenty desperate minutes, like twenty shafts shot into a pot of flesh, children screech from fence to fence entangled in a brutal social microcosm -- birds in a tight and ugly cage...Derrick Moss is swinging his fists at a boy from room three and hoots go out as bloodthirsty young eyes circle savagely around. Derrick Moss down, his long, unmanageable limbs spread eagle, pants seat dripping moist from black worm puddle; and now, in the Principalís office for hours together he sits, cheeks salt gauged, eyes blood-darkened -- future plans of brutality etching their in.
Children circle math, worshipping her unalterable rules, her savage truth. For while parents lie in their puerile unreality, their wishfulness, mother math is puncture frank, telling you how in all likelihood you will not live more than one-hundred sixty-five thousand three-hundred and thirty-five days. Yes, E. prays to math, scribbles out his little lessons, his divisions and tables. The frontal lobes of these young brains bubble out; they are computers slashing out facts, shredding worlds to slender fibers; calculations that will cost them dear.
Mr. Yampolsky walks through the rows of desks quiveringly aware of juvenile flesh. His hand is on E.ís shoulder in passing, full and powerful, then like a crab in transit. E. thinks that he would always like to have Mr. Yampolskyís hand comforting his shoulder. Mr. Yampolsky would not hit him with the brush in the morning, he would firmly stretch out his hand, letting it glide over E.ís back, comforting words coming from beneath the soft of his mustache.
Shocked up, out the door like sheep through a break in a fence, lunch bell ringing, young savages, pink lips wet-pressed with hunger. The cafeteria line wriggles along as an insect, trays served with Ethiopian burgers, hemorrhaging side courses; bearded women in plastic hairnets wield spoons of torture, muck-clung. E. purchases a 4 oz. carton of milk. His mother has made him lunch; salami, whitebread, golden diarrhea mustard, fly fruit. Shamefaced he nibbles his nutriment. Toby Orlando produces a carob-soy beverage, a crisp carrot, avocado sandwich, green, bristling with sprouts. The other children fill their sunken cheeks with what lies before them, shouting, masticating in feeble frenzy. But E. eyes the avocado sandwich with jealous intent. It is a love sandwich, a caring sandwich, grossly green, an object worthy of veneration. There is no trading with Toby who says that he is not allowed to eat processed meat, the salami is not free range, not prairie grazed sausage, white bread makes him break out in hives. Yes, in humiliation the skin of the black banana is peeled away, its sugary fermented flesh ingested.
The hour of physical education knells its gut-sick time. E. is not prone to sports, to vacillation of fragile lungs. His skin, blanched by bedroom darkness, melts beneath bright sun and ruptures in contact with twigs, blacktop and natureís abrasive arsenal. Hell is made of boys unleashed, balls crashing against skulls, bludgeoned by fists, a frantic wave of insects, tears held back by shear windswept force. E. is something to be thrown at, Derrick something to dodge, schoolyards are hard and they hurt. Red rubber spheres are jettied across territorial lines, E. lunges ineffectually, trips, gravitates toward suffering and shame, humiliation of years, not mere moments.
For E., P.E. is a crown of thorns, a bed of snakes, razors etching gore on his delicate pelt. But it too marks the near-close of a school day. An hour remains, of gloom studies, silent pain, rack of desk, scratchings with cylinder of torture. Seconds are needles pinning children like beetles, minutes red hot pokers piercing body end to end. Pray to be an hour older, pray for relenting blue shelter, the freedom of streets, the melting of the social cage.
Toby Orlando smiles, and E. cannot help but think that Toby Orlando has every reason to smile, a home to go to where his mother sleeps with other women, probably calls her son Bunny, and, of course, the bagels and wonderful whole wheat bread. E.ís mother, come evening, will drink peppermint schnapps, entertain certain broad-backed males, while E. listens, eyes glistening wide as oil-fried eggs, and if only the morning's spilt milk is forgotten there will be some sliver of consolation. Yet he knows there is fat chance of luck in these dog days.
Then the closing bell rings and misery mutates to pathetic joy, shouts, red, yellow, hurdling sound. E. is jacketed and making his way toward the exit, the colorful door, yet he hears his name called out, huskily, repeated, Mr. Yampolsky calling it out.
The classroom is empty of all true sound and Mr. Yampolsky tells E. that he has something that he has been wanting to talk to him about, to discuss. Never mind that; Mr. Yampolsky is drawing curtains and shut door, click, mustache vibrating like a blown sheaf of wheat. E. feels his hand taken up by that of the other, self pressed, that not-to-be-named stick up against his stomach.
Yes; who dare say humanity progresses.
©2001 by Brendan Connell
Brendan Connell has fiction either forthcoming, or already published, in numerous places, including RE:AL, Tabu, Heist, Penny Dreadful, Fishdrum, The Dream Zone, Darkness Rising 3 (Cosmos Books 2001), Redsine (Cosmos Books 2002), The Best of Devil Blossoms(Asterius Press 2002), and Leviathan 3 (Ministry of Whimsy Press 2002).
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