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Authors: Lois Ruby

Miriam's Well

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Miriam's Well

Lois Ruby

For the people and ideals

of

Inter-Faith Ministries—Wichita

The ancient rabbis tell us of a well

that was created

at the twilight of the first Sabbath.

It was a rock which, when struck,

became a fountain of living water.

The rabbis say that Miriam, the sister of Moses,

was of such merit that only for her did this rock

follow the Israelites from encampment to encampment,

providing water in the treacherous desert.

After nearly forty years of wandering

with the children of Israel,

Miriam died.

The water ceased to flow.

And this miracle was called

MIRIAM'S WELL

CHAPTER ONE

Told by Adam

“Poetry is a bitch,” Mrs. Loomis said that fateful day in October, and I wasn't sure I'd heard her right, since I'd been staring at the pie-faced clock that was groaning its way toward the end of English. But when Diana gasped, I knew I'd heard a word come out of Loomis's mouth that any of us would've been sent to the assistant principal for.

“Adam, how is poetry a bitch?” Mrs. Loomis asked. She had a habit of picking me for the big ones, because in her mind I was the classic underachiever, like my brother Eric who managed to get in to law school anyway. I think all the teachers spent their lunch hour talking about me. My name was probably carved on the oak frame of the couch in the teachers' lounge, so that when I graduate, the Dwight D. Eisenhower High School teachers who never had me in their classes will hear about Adam Bergen, the one whose name is synonymous with wasted potential.

“Well, uh,” I began, sliding my hand through my straight brown hair. My hair flopped right back into place, as I knew it would, because my hair is one of the few things I can count on at least 94 percent of the time.

“Yes, Adam?” Mrs. Loomis's smile looked like it caused her great pain as it cracked the
papier mâché
of her face.

“It's kind of hard to explain.”

“Ah, Adam, how true,” Mrs. Loomis said. “And how imprecise. Take the word
literally
.”

Literally? Bitch? I could think of a few at Eisenhower High. But I knew Loomis was looking for something bigger, something more Shakespearial. I looked around the room for a clue.

“Back to the clock, Adam? It can't possibly advance toward the bell without your watchful eye. We all owe you a debt of gratitude.”

The class snickered, but a quick glance behind me told me that Diana wasn't involved in making me feel like the court fool. She was feverishly writing in her green notebook. Pretty soon her hand shot up; I felt the wind at my back.

“Yes, Diana?”

She cleared her throat and read from the loopy backhand writing I was always trying to decipher whenever she passed me a note in class. “Poetry is a bitch because her face looks sad, but her tail—that's T-A-I-L—tells a different story.”

“Very good, Diana. Anyone else?” Behind her back (which was like the Great Wall of China), we called Loomis the Big Bang, largely because her polyester pants were so dangerously full that we expected an explosion at any time. Wasn't this how the world started? She'd start a whole new universe full of little creatures that instinctively knew the difference between a predicate nominative and an object. What a thing to look forward to.

Mrs. Loomis turned her back and tubbed her way over to the chalkboard. When she walked, the flesh followed a few seconds behind her. “People? Any ideas?” she asked, in that Sandy Duncan voice that couldn't have been her own.

“Where's the ventriloquist?” Diana had asked, that first August day in Loomis's class.

“Gentlemen? Have you anything to contribute?”

The guys in the class were all slumped down in the chairs as if, nearly laid out on the floor, we might not be spotted by Mrs. Loomis's X-ray eyes.

It was a big relief when Cynthia Turner raised her hand and read breathlessly, “Poetry is a bitch because, well, like a dog, she's real loyal, only she's loyal to language, not a master.”

Mrs. Loomis gave Cynthia her cracked smile. Suddenly hands were going up all over the room. Not hands with motor grease under the nails, or with Def Leppard written on the palms like tattoos. No, these were all female hands.

“Yes, Katie?”

“Poetry is a bitch,” Katie said, emphasis on the
itch
part, “because she gives birth to words that feed on her and grow into big, like, sonnets—no, bigger than sonnets, like, epics, like, big dogs, you know, German shepherds?”

“Yes. Well, you get the point, class. Those were some reasonably good examples. I'm still looking for something from you gents.”

We slunk lower. Suddenly my friend Brent's voice shot into the silence. “I know a poem, Miz Loomis. It's the shortest poem in the English language, and it's about Adam.”

Oh, no, here it comes
.

“It's called ‘Fleas.' It goes, ‘Fleas—Adam had 'em.'” Well, Brent brought the house down. Even Loomis laughed, shaking the Jell-O in her polyester and maybe hurrying the dawn of the new universe.

“Thank you for that note of levity, Brent. And now, can we return to our lesson for today? Gentlemen, you can all sit up now, the heat's off. Pay attention. When I say ‘poetry is a bitch' or ‘my heart is a cavern,' what literary device am I using?”

It was metaphor; everybody knew that. Metaphor was whatever compared things but didn't have the words “like” or “as” in it. But I wasn't about to say it out loud. Rulo Número Uno of High School: If you know the answer, never,
never
volunteer it unless your graduation depends on it. This was like the thieves' code of ethics the guys always followed, and why not, since it's worked for generations, and men are still getting elected president and king and all that stuff.

The hand was clicking from one second to the other. Three more sweeps of the clock, and the bell would ring. Only another fifty-four minutes until lunch. The cafeteria had to be serving pizza, because it was Tuesday.

“—into pairs,” I caught Loomis saying.

My mother had packed a huge, juicy pear in my sack. It was a Harry-and-David Fruit-of-the-Month-Club pear, and just thinking about it made my mouth water. A big wedge of cheese pizza, a piece of cake, chocolate milk, celery and carrot sticks (for tossing like wet spears across the lunchroom, into the geek camp), and my yellow pear. Not a bad lunch. I was a man of huge appetites. That's what Diana said. But we're talking lunch here. I could eat and eat and never get fat. To tell the truth, I could have used about ten extra pounds, mostly in the legs and buns. “Buns are everything, Adam,
everything
,” Diana said one night, and since then I'd been trying to figure out how to get my food to settle there, short of plastering pizza to my butt.

Pizza. Maybe I'd have two slices today. At a buck a piece? I tried to remember what was in my wallet. You see? I kept busy during English.

“—though I'm loathe to appear sexist,” Mrs. Loomis said. My eyes snapped away from the clock. Certain words grab your attention. “I am pairing you by gender this time, because the ladies of this particular class seem to have a firmer grasp on poetry than the gentlemen. So, I've made my pairings for the poetry project.”

No problem. She'd pair me with Diana, of course. Everyone knew we were going out together. Diana wouldn't push the poetry business too hard, and when we were parked in the back seat of her car, I can guarantee that poetry wouldn't be the main topic. But, even though one of Mrs. Loomis's favorite lines was “justice, justice shalt thou pursue,” she didn't. I got stuck with Miriam Pelham.

How do I describe Miriam Pelham? The best word to describe her is “no.” No make-up, no jeans, no T-shirts, no sneakers, no jewelry, no shape, no personality. Also, no friends. In the Who's Who of Eisenhower High, Miriam Pelham wasn't actually anybody. If you looked her up in the back of our yearbook, the
Abilene
, you'd probably see only her junior picture, her face and eyes and hair all one faded-out shade of winter gray. In class, you never knew Miriam was there. The only way you could tell she wasn't, was by staring at her empty seat long enough to remember who usually sat there.

Brent looked over at me and gave me the finger-down-the-throat sign. He got Ramona Ruiz as his poetry partner, and Ramona was at least a 42C, which made up for her moustache. Miriam Pelham. How lucky could a guy get?

It was Loomis's way of getting even with me, pairing me with the deadest girl in the class. What did Miriam need with a great extracurricular school like Eisenhower? She might as well have been in a convent. On the day the whole senior class cut school and went to Cheney Lake, Miriam Pelham and about five other social misfits showed up for school. The teachers couldn't wait to tell us the next day. And when we had assemblies, Miriam always asked to go to the library instead. I'm guessing she never went to football games, not that I noticed. At pep rallies, which you had to go to, she sat like a mute while the rest of us exploded with wild cheers like EISENHOWER POWER!!! and WE'RE PSYCHED FOR IKE!!!

Once I asked Diana, who is in charge of the entire Eisenhower world, if Miriam Pelham did anything normal, like sweat or drink carbonated beverages.

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