We were special and we knew it, the six of us. We’d been selected to participate in a Revolutionary Educational Experiment, one that would put us several steps ahead of our classmates and most importantly, get us out of Gym three days a week. Looking around, it wasn’t hard to figure out why we’d been chosen. The slate of potential candidates was grim. Dewey Vetsch was sucking on his fingers again, cramming them so far into his mouth I knew he was going to make himself puke. I really hoped he didn’t because then Miss Anderson would have to call Mr. Hauser to come clean it up and there’d be a mound of sawdust right in the middle of the reading corner. Plus, Mr. Hauser gave all the girls the creeps. Last week I wore my white boots to school and he winked at me and called out in front of everyone, “Looking real good today, reeeeeal good!” Creep.
I surveyed the rest of the class. Larry Olafsen had a dull expression on his face as he stared at his left thumb, mouth open. I worried that maybe something wasn’t quite right with that one. He spent much of the day drawing tornadoes in violent, spiraling swirls, pressing so hard with his pencil that his paper ripped; but he kept right on swirling, right through to the wooden desk. I sincerely hoped Miss Anderson would make a mental note to call his mother.
Then there was Carla Hogan, poor thing, who bled right through her pad at recess and now was sitting with my jean jacket tied around her waist. She tried to get cleaned up the best she could, but there was no hiding the dark stain on her corduroys. She said her mom was going to kill her, but I doubted it. Carla was the first girl in our grade to get her period and it’s not like she could do anything about that.
Miss Anderson was reading aloud to the class. “To his great surprise the rain stopped. It didn’t stop gradually as rains usually do. It ceased.” She paused here. “Using context clues, raise your hand if you can tell me what the word ceased means.” Several hands went up and I rolled my eyes. Ceased? Was she serious? That was a second grade word, old territory. “Yes…Kim?” Kim Baumgartner lisped badly. “Theased ith when you thtop.” “That’s right!” Miss Anderson beamed. “To cease is to stop, very good, Kim!” Oh, brother. I started to get antsy and looked over at Mike Torgerud, one of the boys who’d be in the special group with me. He rolled his eyes too and shook his head. I checked the clock and counted the minutes until we were taken out of class. One hour to go.
Miss Anderson was still talking. “And now I think it’s a good time for us to cease our story so we can practice our penmanship!” She said this with a big, phony smile, trying to get us as excited as she was, but there was lots of groaning, let me tell you. Miss A. had a thing for proper cursive penmanship, but I hated it. I didn’t tell anyone, but I didn’t want to be that close to the other students if I could help it. At least with reading time I could keep my distance at the back of the group, but with writing practice I had to sit inches away from other kids, smelling all their doggy smells. Honestly, it was like some of these kids didn’t even bother to wash their hair.
I started practicing my loops, making perfect lower case e after perfect lower case e. I was intent on showing Miss Anderson exactly why I had been chosen for the Special Revolutionary Educational Experiment, whatever it was. Kim Boettcher next to me had atrocious handwriting and her e was way too big for the space provided. She kept making the top of her loop go too high and it was secretly driving me crazy. Plus, she smelled like Alpo and shoe polish. No one would ever consider her for anything other than Hall Monitor. Or maybe Color Guard.
Laura Dahlstrom finished her exercises first and was reading a book on astronomy while she waited for everyone else to catch up. Laura with her perfect black braids and straight bangs. It was obvious she was going to be part of the special group, there was no question. Everyone knew she was the smartest because she was half Asian. Her mom was Chinese or Portuguese or something so she had a leg up in the smarts department, but no one held that against her. She was still a Lutheran.
As I finished copying my last sentence, I wondered where the six of us would be meeting. Probably Conference Room B, I thought. That’s where we usually went for things like party planning or after school clubs. One time Brad Schagel snuck in there and wrote Mrs. Berzinski is a butt face on the blackboard and then Principal Riggs made an announcement over the intercom the next morning reminding us that that kind of behavior was not acceptable. But then I thought, maybe the Revolutionary Educational Experiment was too important for Conference Room B. Maybe there would be a special room that we knew nothing about that was saved for special things like this, and special people like us. That seemed more likely.
I tried to get Jeffrey D.’s attention to tell him my idea and see what he thought, but Jeffrey W. was in the way and he didn’t see me waving. Jeffrey D. was one of us too, but he had a habit of chewing on the corner of his Cub scout scarf and his mouth was frequently stained blue. It wasn’t encouraging, to be honest. It was embarrassing to be lumped in with someone like him, a scarf chewer, who probably had a lot in common with Dewey Vetsch. 10 minutes to go.
I spotted Dave across the room and when he saw me he drew a question mark in the air with his finger. I shrugged my shoulders. He’d been chosen too, but I didn’t have any more information than him. Dave. I’d almost forgotten about him. He was easy to forget because he didn’t really talk much anymore since his older brother was killed in a car crash last year. My parents told me I needed to be extra sensitive about Dave’s situation, so I let him copy off my English test last Tuesday. It was tragic and all, but at least he still had one other brother and a baby sister at home, so that was alright. He was sitting next to Marsha, the last of us six.
Marsha was pretty cool, even if her dad was the Vice Principal. She worked harder than anyone, that’s for sure. I was positive her dad must know everything, but Marsha would never spill the beans anyway, even if she did know something. I think she was afraid of her dad. For instance, yesterday we were taking turns throwing sharpened pencils at each other to see who could stay still the longest without flinching, and Heidi Weiss got the tiniest poke under her eye. Marsha got so upset, she kept saying we were all going to be sent to the office and get in big trouble. I mean, Heidi hardly even bled at all and now the lead mark in her cheek just looks like a freckle so it was no big deal. But Marsha was acting like it was the end of the world.
Just then Mr. Delmeister, the Dean of Students, popped his head in the classroom door. Mr. Delmeister had a reputation for being kind of weird and was not well-liked at school. Students called him Mr. Dull-meister behind his back and said that he only had two cream-colored shirts in his closet that he wore in rotation. There were rumors that he still lived with his mother even though he had to be at least 50 years old. “Excuse me, Miss Anderson? May I please have Laura, Mike Torgerud, Karen, Dave, Marsha, and Jeffrey D. come with me? Make sure they bring all their things with them.” Miss Anderson nodded and signaled to us that we should get ready. The six of us looked around at each other. Did this mean we wouldn’t be returning to the classroom? All eyes were on us, the special ones, as we began to pack up our pencil cases. I took a little longer than I needed to to put everything in my backpack, then closed it all up with a big zip. I could see that Mitzi Reynolds was trying her best to seem not to care because she pretended to have something wrong with her chair the whole time. But I knew she really did care. She cared a lot.
I wondered if anyone else was as excited as me. We still didn’t know what we’d be doing, but we didn’t care. We had been chosen, specially selected out of all of our classmates and that was the most important thing. Marsha gets a little chatty when she’s nervous and she called out, “Mr. Delmeister? Mr. Delmeister, where are we going?” Mr. Delmeister just looked back over his shoulder and smiled a little smile as he raised his eyebrows and pantomimed zipping his lips shut. Even for him, that was unsettling. The words Revolutionary Educational Experiment echoed in my head and suddenly my mouth was very dry. The last time I was this anxious was when Sandy Schwabenbauer and I were walking back from Trick-or-Treating and got lost out at Smoker’s Pond after dark. Sandy kept saying, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. It’ll be fine.” People who tell you not to worry when you’re wandering through Smoker’s Pond on Halloween are the worst kind of people.
Mr. Delmeister led us two by two down the hallway and walked us right past Conference Room B. I knew it! Dave and I gave each other a thumbs up as we followed behind Mike and Jeffrey D. Then he marched us past the lunch room, past the Principal’s office and the auditorium. Just after the auditorium there was a door that appeared to be locked. We waited while he took out a bunch of keys on a ring and used one marked with red paint on the end. Now we were in a long hallway in a part of the school we’d never been to before. Maybe it was where the older kids went, but I didn’t see any other students anywhere. Or teachers, for that matter. There wasn’t even any artwork on the walls or anything. It was absolutely quiet.
I was really starting to get a little freaked out and began to doubt this whole Revolutionary Educational Experiment business. Mr. Delmeister was acting so strangely. Mike Torgerud was a natural leader and I was relieved when he broke the silence. “Mr. Delmeister, is this an accredited extracurricular activity?” He actually said that: ‘accredited extracurricular activity,’ and I could’ve kissed him for his bravery. Mr. Delmeister didn’t answer.
I turned to Laura and when I saw the confusion in her eyes it suddenly occurred to me that she didn’t even speak Chinese. And Dave always copied off my tests; not just last Tuesday, and not just English. Mike Torgerud’s penmanship was almost as bad as Kim’s, and he didn’t raise his hand when Miss A. asked who knew what ceased meant. Marsha had to work super hard just to get her homework done by the bell each day. Jeffrey D. was an unapologetic scarf chewer. And I still wasn’t 100% clear on the difference between a numerator and a denominator. My heart began to pound.
We reached another door, the final door, also locked. Mr. Delmeister stopped us there and said, “Alright, everyone. When you go inside just pick any chair, it doesn’t really matter where you sit.” The six of us, the special ones, looked at each other and Marsha gave my hand a quick squeeze. I heard Dave swallow with a tiny click in his throat. We were all breathing a bit faster, our eyes wide in anticipation of whatever lay on the other side of the door. Mr. Delmeister placed the red key in the lock, turned to us and said, “Kids, I’d like you to meet Mr. Fitzpatrick.”
Vernon Fitzpatrick watched Kevin Richter wipe his nose on the sleeve of his jacket for the third time and shook his head in disgust. Vernon couldn’t stand to look at him for one more second and finally got up from his chair, handing Kevin a tissue from the circulation desk. “Where’s your mom, Kevin?” he asked, trying to hide the annoyance in his voice. Kevin looked at him dully, his sandy blonde hair already beginning to lose its summer highlights. He shrugged and went back to his coloring book, never bothering to blow his nose or even acknowledge him, really. Vernon stared at the top of Kevin’s head for a full beat before noticing the mini Hulk action figure sticking out of the top of his backpack. He kept his eyes on Kevin as he deftly reached behind his back into Kevin’s bag and quickly snatched the figure, slipping it under the cuff of his sleeve. Finders keepers, you little shit, he thought.
Back at the front desk, the books were piling up. He logged The Mystery at Lilac Inn and added it to the growing stack of returns. The Nancy Drew Summer Mystery Challenge was always the worst time of year at the library. A prize of $50 was awarded to the kid who managed to read the most books in the series by Labor Day. Not only were the books chronically in short supply because every girl within 10 square miles wanted to get in on the contest, but as luck would have it, the author’s pseudonym, Carolyn Keane, landed her on the bottom shelf alphabetically. That meant Vernon had to kneel on the tile in order to reshelve the books, which ended up being required several times a day. At six feet, two inches, it was murder on his knees. And it was petty, he knew it, but calling it the Nancy Drew Summer Mystery Challenge was flat out stupid and wrong. It should’ve been called the Nancy Drew Mystery Summer Challenge because they were fucking mysteries and it was a fucking summer challenge. Trying to get this library’s board to understand the rules of modifiers and objects was fruitless, like John von Neumann trying to teach game theory to chimpanzees.
In residency at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Vernon had made his bones in short fiction, eventually winning a Pushcart Prize for his satirical take on Pope John Paul II, A Man and His Hat. He’d been called ‘an important voice,’ and ‘someone to watch;’ a ‘promising talent who offers readers a glimpse into the human condition.’ Or was it a peek into the human psyche? He could never remember which. Today he had to unclog the toilet because some kid had used too much toilet paper. I wonder what the prize is for that, he thought. He’d had some other pieces published over the years in important journals, magazines that no one around here had ever heard of. He’d even managed to secure himself a literary agent who’d been pressing him to sit down and knock out a novel or two. “I can do something with that, Vernon,” she’d said. “You could be the next John Grisham if you really wanted to.” Never mind that Grisham wrote courtroom pulp and Vernon was a serious writer, an important writer, someone to watch. Besides, he’d been working on his first full length novel for years. It was consequential work and that couldn’t be rushed.
Vernon was 34 years old and unmarried, and although he could stand to shed a good 10-15 pounds, he hid it reasonably well on his large frame. His summers were spent right here at the local library, which was tolerable, if not preferable. He had the freedom to write when time allowed, and even better, he’d recently developed an educational program that he’d surprisingly convinced the elementary school board to adopt, despite his lack of teaching credentials. Wave around a fancy degree and a few magazine clippings and it was amazing what doors would open. Quite a few, it turned out. After Labor Day he’d be teaching a course three times a week in the school’s Special Ed department. But it wasn’t kids like Kevin he’d be teaching, those vacant-eyed imbeciles with limited futures and snotty noses. His kids would be special. Like him.
Vernon locked the door of the library promptly at 6:00pm. He could see Mrs. Weiss exiting her car in the parking lot, a book in her hand. He rapidly ducked behind the circulation desk to hide and he could hear her tapping on the glass, calling out “Hello? Can I just…hello?” Let her use the after-hours drop box; rules were rules. Eventually she gave up and left, and Vernon slowly peeked his head over the desk, retrieved his briefcase, and readied to leave for the day. He placed the case on the desk and ran his hands across the smooth brown leather, pausing just a moment before he unlocked it in one swift movement. He tossed the Hulk action figure inside where it landed next to a pink rhinestone key ring marked “Denise.” Also contained within the briefcase were a CD of The Allman Brothers still in its plastic wrapper, two pots of unopened Carmex, a soap bubble wand, a cinnamon scented votive candle, a package of black shoelaces, a chrome drawer pull from Ace Hardware, a ladies compact mirror, a shot glass from Wisconsin Dells, a cloth dinner napkin from Giorgio’s, three pairs of eyeglasses, and a small framed photo of a Pekinese named Desdemona.
Vernon’s heart raced as he stared at the objects in the case, these items he’d collected without meaning to. This’ll be the last time, he thought, as he closed the briefcase and grabbed the windbreaker from the back of his chair. Early evenings were already beginning to show hints of the cooler weather to come and Vernon liked to be prepared. On his way back to his apartment, he pulled his car over at the intersection of Wells and 7th. He got out of the car, opened his briefcase, and emptied the entire contents into the waiting garbage can. Vernon peered down into the trash and after a moment, reached inside to retrieve the package of shoe laces. He tossed them on the passenger seat of his car and drove away.
The phone was already ringing when Vernon entered his small apartment. He answered, laying his briefcase on the dining table which had been serving as a makeshift office. “Hello?”
“Yes, hello. Is this Vernon Fitzpatrick?”
“Oh- hey, Mr.-…Vernon. It’s Rudy. Rudy Delmeister from Northern Hills?”
“Of course.” Was that the insufferable one or the one with the cleft lip? “How are you?”
“I’m…reasonably well, thank you.” The insufferable one. “Ahh, I wonder if you have a quick moment? We just received the proposed material for your first session with the students next week-”
“Wonderful!” Vernon interrupted. “I trust the slides’ll be ready by then?”
There was silence on the other end of the line. Then, “Yes. Well. That’s why I’m calling.”
Vernon heard the hesitation in Delmeister’s voice and knew something was amiss. Rudy continued. “I…well, the entire department, actually, we felt that some of the material may not be…suitable for the students.”
And there it was. “Can you be more specific?” Vernon tried to keep his rising agitation under control.
“Of course. If you could take a look at reading sample number one, for example, maybe we could start there?” Delmeister sounded almost apologetic.
“Why not.” Vernon was irritated as he shuffled through the papers on his table and found the packet containing his sample paragraphs with subsequent reading comprehension questions. “Shoot.”
He heard Rudy inhale. “Great. Just take a second and…read that if you don’t mind.”
“Out loud or-”
“No, just to yourself is fine.” Rudy replied. Vernon scanned the paragraph.
On the day Candace was to have had her tubes tied, the lights went out in the city. It was the sign she needed. The messy business with Ted had dragged on for far too long, all her fears of complacency, realized. She lacked the strength to move forward on her own and the universe, in its just mercy, took the reins and led her to the coolest springs while she watched, gratefully, from afar. It was done. There’d be no late night feedings, no cracked nipples or tenderly crafted booties. Those would be trophies for someone else, but not her. And not now.
Please select the most correct response:
1) How do we know Candace will not have children?
a) She’s too selfish.
b) Ted has never wanted to be a father.
c) She had her tubes tied.
d) She fears feeling trapped by motherhood.
The prose was beautifully written. Elegant, even, no problem there. No typos. He read it again just to be sure. Then it dawned on him. “Ah. I think I see the issue.”
Rudy exhaled in a rush, relief in his voice. “Oh, good! I was sure you’d under—”
Vernon cut him off again. “The past conditional tense may be a bit confusing for the students. I can massage that one if you like, use past perfect instead?”
“N-no, that’s not the problem, Mr. Fitzpatrick.”
Vernon dropped the packet on the table with a sigh. “Why don’t you just tell me, Mr. Delmeister, no sense beating around the proverbial bush.”
“Mr. Fitzpatrick, are you aware these students are in the 4th grade?”
“When you proposed a speed reading course for these kids, I’m afraid we expected something entirely different. Does content referring to…to cracked nipples and…getting your tubes tied seem appropriate for 10 year olds?” Vernon didn’t respond. The gall of the man was breathtaking. In a sea of mediocrity the best learn to swim alone, and Vernon was accustomed to following his own path. Delmeister eventually broke the silence, “I guess what I’m trying to say is, maybe we could focus more on…dogs and rainbows or something? And less on…Number 7, for example.”
Delmeister read aloud, “‘Bertrand’s face had grown pale, his hands losing sensation as Dr. Fergus picked bone fragments and bits of tissue from the exit wound.’”
“Anything else?” Vernon asked.
“And Number 4.”
“Indeed. Until Monday, then, Mr. Delmeister.”
Rudy breathed out in a rush of gratitude, “Thank you, Vernon. And please, call me Ru-”
Vernon hung up the phone.
It was 12:50 precisely and Vernon was perusing the spare classroom he’d been assigned, one of the new ones in the annex of the school. There wasn’t much to recommend it, truth be told, but at least it was quiet. The smell of new paint was already giving him a headache as he arranged the chairs. He placed them in two rows of three with the projector in the center of the room. At the front of the classroom, where a chalkboard would ordinarily be found, there was a plain white projection screen. Vernon tested the projector to make sure it was in working order, grimacing at Slide #1, an approved slide, a slide to make the ghost of Dostoevsky weep.
Johnny and his dog, Spot, were playing in the park when it began to rain. Johnny had forgotten his umbrella and didn’t want to get wet. He hid under a tree. Spot liked the rain and ran around barking and digging. His paws got very muddy as he splashed in puddles. Fortunately, it only rained for ten minutes. Then, a beautiful rainbow appeared in the sky and Johnny and Spot played and played all afternoon.
Vernon wanted to vomit. But only after first choking the life out of that pansy Johnny and his wretched dog. Dogs and rainbows, my ass, he thought. If he were Johnny he’d already be looking for the exit. Please select the most correct response: When Johnny loses his middle management job to downsizing will he: A) Leave his wife and kids for the hot, young teller at his bank B) Drown his pain in Jack and benzodiazepine C) Become a Jehovah’s Witness or D) Contemplate walking into the sea. Vernon sat down at his small desk to wait. Five more minutes until the students arrived.
He rifled through his folder containing information on the six students selected for the special speed reading program: Mike, Laura, Jeffrey D., Karen, Dave, and Marsha. He’d asked, and been assured repeatedly, that these kids were special, specifically chosen to participate in this revolutionary program he’d developed; all of them scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized testing. It remained to be seen whether they could keep up, but he had high hopes for the Asian one at least. Within three months they’d be reading 700 words a minutes at 100% comprehension and accuracy. Thanks to him, Vernon Fitzpatrick, winner of the Pushcart Prize, these kids, his kids, would have a shot in this life; a one-way ticket out of here and on to somewhere better. They’d be spared the indignity of ordinary lives. To be merely ordinary; it was unimaginable. He could hear the kids coming down the hall now, escorted by Mr. Delmeister, no doubt. He stood and spotted something on the floor in the far corner of the room. Vernon picked it up. It appeared to be a small religious medallion of some sort, cheap pewter, probably dropped by one of the maintenance staff. He turned it over in his fingers and saw that St. Nicholas was stamped on one side. Patron saint of children. Vernon smiled, slipping the medallion into his pocket as the door began to open.