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An Invisible Sign of My Own


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  The science teacher had moved here from a different state, one with big lakes and factories. He was new at the school too. We were the two new teachers. Apparently science teachers were equally hard to find--he was the son of the boss's college roommate, and he'd assembled all the factory items he could stand, and then drove out of his city in a truck. His name was Mr. Smith, but he didn't look like a Mr. Smith--it was an interesting name for him since his features were un-Smithlike, large and drooping, the features of harsh winters and heavy-duty politics.

He got in trouble right away, because he did an experiment where he split his groups of students and told half the class to talk to their houseplants kindly and the other half to talk to them abusively, cussing and insulting the plant, to see if tone and content made any difference in levels of growth. The kids assigned to cuss were thrilled beyond belief until Mimi Lunelle's mother found her daughter telling the bathroom fern it was a shame on the family's name and to fucking go to bed thirsty. Where did you learn to speak like that?! she demanded, horrified, and Mimi shrugged and then flicked the feathery leaves of the fern hard with her fingernails. Bitch, she said to the roots. She was sent straight to bed. Mrs. Lunelle called up the big boss. The science teacher was talked to, at length--first by boss, then by parents--and the experiment was halted. He was relegated to simpler projects involving salt crystals and build-your-own-atom kits.

I figured he was the school's problem teacher. I myself had had an excellent first week of teaching. I had it down. I was queen and countess. I was turning twenty in a week, and at nineteen, felt I was the winner of the worldwide teaching contest, secretly judged behind closet doors and one-way mirrors.

The beginning of my unravelling started with that science teacher, on a Friday afternoon when I was leaving school later than usual. Earlier in the day had been the first tricky Numbers and Materials we'd had so far, beginning with Elmer Gravlaki who crawled out from under the table right before the bell rang with a 12 made of wood sitting atop the palm of his hand. It was cut perfectly to shape.

When do I go? he'd asked.

End of class, I told him. Hang on.

After drills and workbooks, I called Elmer to the front. He was fidgety, but held his wooden 12 up high, running his hand over the slope of the 2.

My dad is the address maker here, he said. He makes addresses. Elmer brought the 12 down to chest level. Nobody lives at this address, he said.

The class watched. 12 - 0 = 12, he said. 12 - 1 = 11.

Danny shot a rubberband at Elmer.

Stop, Danny, I said.

What? he said, eyes dewey brown at me. Danny had a bigtime pushover mother.

Up front, Elmer's eyes were watering. 12 - 3 = 9, he quivered. Danny threw a button at his head. I was about to put Danny's name up on the board when Elmer, voice wavering like a teakettle, said: Danny, stop. I know where you live.

Danny's forehead raised. You do not, he said. Elmer, clutching his 12, swallowed and came out with 144 Main Street. The wood 12 was tottering in his palm, but Danny, who had a paper clip all set to throw, suddenly put it down, hearing those numbers, apparently the right ones, that marked where he slept every night. I was impressed. This was a fine armor for Elmer.

Well, where do YOU live? asked Ann DiLanno to Elmer.

We're unlisted, he said, rubbing his palm over the 1.

Squirming up at the chalkboard, he did a few more and then sat, standing the number on his desk so it looked like he lived there. I knocked on it when I walked by, and Elmer smiled happily, as if I were knocking on the door to his unlisted house. Little did he know.

His presentation went very fast. Lisa said good job. He blushed, and then Ann DiLanno said she had one too.



Okay, I said, well, I guess we can have two today since Elmer's was so quick.

Ann stood up, smiling kind of meanly, and walked to the chalkboard.

Here, she said, throwing out her hands. A 3.

The class was looking around, at her fingers, at the bookcase, at the floor.

I see no 3, said Lisa.

It's a 3 made of nothing, Ann said.

Oh that doesn't COUNT, said Elmer. I can do more with my 12, he said, suddenly brave now that he was done.

Nothing is a material, Ann said.

Sort of, I said. Try again. You can go next week, Ann. Look around your house for something that looks like a number. Be creative! I said.

I'm going next week, said Mimi Lunelle.

Hey Elmer, said Lisa, where do I live?

Look, Ann said, 3 - 3 = 0. Ta da! It's magic. She twirled her ponytail with her index finger.

Lisa and Danny said, there's nothing there! and Ann was nodding smugly and then they were out of their desks, ready to go feel her 3 of air or break it, and someone shoved someone and it was approaching mayhem and I had to write three names on the board. Waited to put check marks. Two checkmarks meant you would have to sit out at recess, on a bench, for fifteen minutes. Ann sat, and, keeping her voice flat, said it counted, it was a number and a material. She told Lisa to stop staring at her. I'm staring at nothing, Lisa said.

The bell rang and most of the class ran out.

Elmer lovingly packed up his 12. He turned to Lisa. You live at the hospital, he said.

I cleaned up my room during recess and taught my next classes, head full of thoughts about how to get Ann interested in Numbers and Materials. I stayed later than usual, stacking workbooks, and when I stepped out of my classroom to leave, I nearly tripped over John Beeze, in a ball on the hall floor, rolling back and forth and moaning. Ooohh, he said.

John, I said, hey, are you alright?

He made a groaning sound.

I knelt down. What's wrong? I asked. Oh, you don't look too good. Is your mom at the butcher shop? Let me go call her right now.

He groaned again and then whimpered in a reedy voice, No don't, he said, I'm fine, he said.

I put a hand on his forehead; he felt warm. John Beeze was rarely sick and was the kind of kid who fell ten feet from a swinging swing onto cement, stood up after one second, and ran across grass to flip over the slide.

I'm calling your mom, I said.

He clung to my sleeve. Don't, he said. It's scurvy, he said.

I blinked. What?

Scurvy, he whispered again. His eyes were half-shut and his cheeks were reddening.

You don't have scurvy, I said. I took my hand off his forehead. Only sailors get scurvy, I said. Who told you scurvy?

He watched me with big wet eyes and I saw a tear slide sideways down his cheek, cutting a line lighter than his skin tone down to his ear.

I stood. I'll be right back, I said, I'll just get her on the phone and she can take you to the doctor today.

He clung to my leg but I unpicked myself and headed to the kitchen area where the phone was. I'd never seen John like this and was thinking wash your hands, wash your hands, when I tripped over Ann DiLanno.

She was curled up in a ball too, on her side, breathing in shallow gasps.

Epidemic.

Ann, I said, what is going on? Are you okay?

Ms. Gray, she said, Oooohhh.

I felt her forehead too. She, in contrast, felt all too cool.

Stay here, I said, don't move, I'll call your mother too. Go ask the art teacher for some water; drink water. Drink fluids.

I have croup, she said, rasping low.

You're delirious, I said. Don't move.

I wondered now if Ann had done that 3-of-nothing in a fit of fever, feeling bad for criticizing her, and I was almost at the kichen when I spotted two more: Elmer and Danny, flapping their bodies back and forth, heads lolling, necks too loose.

I ran through the door into the kitchen where the phone was and dialed information as fast as I could.

What city please? the operator asked.

It's all the same town, I spat, and you know it.

She coughed. Pardon me, she said. What number please?

I said this needed to be fast and I wanted to be connected right away right now to Mrs. Eudora Beeze, at the butcher shop. Inside the kitchen, the art teacher was washing brushes in the sink from her last art class, and that science teacher with the steady back and speckled arms was stooping down, speaking softly to Ellen, the best-behaved kid in the entire school.

They're all sick, I said, shrill, to the art teacher. Something is catching.

She didn't hear me over the faucet. As the line connected to the butcher shop, I concentrated hard on not touching my face and spreading this thing to myself. The phone rang two times.

Ring.

Ring.

Hello? a voice picked up.

I was thinking hot water, germs, meningitis, and my eyes grazed over the science teacher who was wearing a bright red shirt that made me feel warm but my ears focused and this time I picked up his conversation with Ellen. I'll keep my word, he was saying, and I promise you can do scurvy next week if you do a really good consumption today.

Hello? the voice on the phone said again. Butchery. Anyone there?

I pushed the receiver hard against my cheek. Ellen was nodding. What are my symptoms again? she asked. She leaned on the side of her foot.

He held her hands in his. Fatigue, he said, fatigue and a cough.

Got it? Now... go!

Is anyone there? John's mother asked again, loud, too close to my ear where I was pressing down the plastic.

I hung up.

What is going on? I said mildly, pointing. The words were difficult to pronounce. The art teacher, scrubbing, didn't react. The science teacher was smiling at Ellen who was walking out of the kitchen and smiling back. I walked over and tapped the art teacher on the shoulder.

She turned. Hey Mona, she said. She had green paint on her chin. I repeated my question. My voice was higher than usual.

You didn't know he had a background in theater did you? she asked. She beamed at the science teacher. We're so lucky, she said, that you're so multi-talented.

In the background, outside the kitchen, I could hear Ellen, the notoriously obedient Ellen, begin to cough.

I backed out the door and peered into the hallway. John was still fetal on the ground. Ann was writhing. Ann had no problem going full out for this teacher.

My lips tightened into wires. I faced Mr. Smith.

You. Are. Fired., I said.

Hey, aren't you done for the day? he asked. He raised up from his heels and pushed the hair out of his eyes with his wrist.

The art teacher pointed at me with a wet brush. By the way, she said, I think you guys live on the same block. Isn't this the coolest way to teach science? What's it called again?

Life Acting, he said. It helps them understand the symptoms for our Health segment. It's hands-on. Where do you live again?

He's fired, I said.

You can't do that, he said, laughing, actor, jovial, funny, ha ha, ho ho. You're not the boss. You're as new as me, he said. He scratched the back of his burn-marked hand. I did not smile. He looked me straight in the eye. I'm not fired, he said.

I actually spit on the floor. They stared at me, then at it, my spit, a pearl brooch starting to disintegrate on the tile. The art teacher giggled. I backed out of the room. The taste in my mouth was so bad I wanted to spit until I filled a bucket. A dirty pail, toxic, that would kill people.

In the big room, more kids were now strewn over the floor, like miniature civil war soldiers.

Stand up! I called out, clapping my heads. Now! Science theater stupid class is over! Let's go!

The four I could see jumped to their feet immediately. I could hear the art teacher still giggling in the kitchen.

Ten laps around the floor, I called out. Stick to the wall. Then twenty push-ups.

They groaned.

Ellen is in charge, I said. She will make sure you do TEN laps. Now, GO, I said.

Their velcro-tie sneakers began a steady plod around the circumference of the room.


Danny, stay close to the wall, I called again. John, that's your job. Keep them close to the wall.

Okay Ms. Gray! John piped in, legs moving twice as fast as anyone else's.

I opened the doors of classrooms, looking for extra fetal-balled children. The handwriting teacher, in the middle of a difficult lesson on cursive G, gave me a nasty look, but I ignored her.

I discovered one on the floor of my math room and one wilting against the wall of the spelling room; I assigned both laps. I kept looking, eyes burning, and finally, in the empty science room with Saturn mobiles turning very slowly from the ceiling, bingo, I found Lisa Venus curled in a ball underneath a table.

Uhhh, she groaned. Ow.

I walked over to her.

Get up, Lisa, I said. You are not sick.

Uhhh, she said again.

Now, I said. NOW.

She held herself up limply on her elbows. I can't, she said. I feel awful.

Get up! I yelled it.

She pulled to a sitting position. You're mean, she said.

You're healthy, I said back.

She blinked. At night, she said, I pretend I'm dead.

I bent halfway and stared at her underneath the flesh-toned table. Come on, Lisa, I said. All the way UP. I don't want to have to put your name on the board again.

I have cancer, she said. She dropped back down and curled into an even tighter ball. Uhhh, she said. My side hurts.

I felt like evaporating, poof I'm done. I'm done. Of course she had cancer. Of course.

Did he assign you that? I asked, voice raising again, high. Did he do that?

No no, she said. I asked for it special.

I dropped down on my heels and touched her clump of hair.

My mom has cancer, she said.

I remember, I said, you told me. Eye cancer. That's very hard, I said. I thought you didn't even get colds.

She wears a red wig, Lisa said. It's real hair.

She flopped her hands loose on her wrists, like fish. And I don't get colds, she said. This is acting class.

Lisa. I kept my hand on her small head. Why would you ask for cancer?

She rolled slightly out, so that she was on her back, facing the ceiling. I like it, she said. See, this way later, she said, when we watch TV? I can keep her company, she said.

I sank off my heels and sat down completely. I kept stroking down the bumps of her hair. We could hear the thumping of the kids running laps outside the science classroom door and Ellen's high voice, calling out: No, that's only eight! We have two more! I made a mental note to give Ellen a sticker.

My mom's wig is really red, Lisa said.

I know, I said.

You knew it was a wig? Lisa asked. She pulled in her knees and hugged them high up, heels nearly kicking her stomach.

No, I said. You told me.

It's made of human hair, she said. They had ones that weren't human hair but you could tell. My mom said it's worth the money to get real human hair.

C'mon, I said, Come on, Lisa. Please. Acting class is over.

Hang on, she said. I have a little more cancer to do. She squeezed her eyes shut.

I sat and watched her. She rolled back and forth, scrunching up her eyes, and after two more minutes, sat up.

Okay, she said, I'm done.

She stood and gave me a spontaneous hug.

You know my dad is sick too, I said to her then.

Her face opened with interest, and she hopped from foot to foot.

Does he have eye cancer? Lisa asked, ready to drop down again and roll around some more.

No, I said, not cancer at all.

What does he have? She edged towards the door. Outside, her classmates had stopped running and were laughing about something.

I don't know, I told her. It doesn't have a name.

She nodded before she bolted through the door. Oh yeah, she said. I think I've heard of that.
 
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Excerpted from An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender. Copyright © 2000 by Aimee Bender. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.