Authors: Lewis Nordan
Tags: #Historical, #Humour
Also by Lewis Nordan
Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair
The All-Girl Football Team
Music of the Swamp
The Sharpshooter Blues
Sugar Among the Freaks
Boy with Loaded Gun
a novel by
For you, Li
The author wishes to acknowledge indebtedness to The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the MacDowell Colony, which provided residencies during the writing of this book.
started in September, Alice Conroy's fourth graders missed their injured classmate, Glenn Gregg.
Alice had just graduated from the Normal and knew all the latest techniques of modern education. She encouraged the children to talk about Glenn and the accident whenever they wanted to. Alice had come to live with her Uncle Runt and to keep house for him, since her Aunt Fortunata had moved out.
“Don't hold back,” she told the children, her fourth graders. “Ask anything you like.”
So they said, “Is he dead?” and “Is he still on fire?” and “Am I going to die?” and “Are we all alone in the world?”
Her education was already paying off, Alice thought. See how they opened up? See how inquisitive, how willing to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings?
She wished she could call Dr. Dust, her old professor at the Normal, to tell him of her success. Last year, when she cried, naked in his arms, he had told her, “There is great pain in all true love, Alice, but we don't care, do we, because it's worth it.”
He was right, too. Alice knew that. Love was worth anything,
everything, no pain was too great in the service of true love. The problem with calling Dr. Dust, though, was that Mrs. Dust always answered the telephone and called Alice a slut in a loud voice and slammed the receiver in her ear. If Mrs. Dust would only be a little forgiving, Alice thought, they might be friends. They might share many things.
Early in the term, one day during the art lesson, when the children were busy with three-by-five cards and Magic Markers and big safety pins, making name tags for themselves, Alice surprised everyone and made a name tag for Glenn Gregg as well, the child who was injured and had not returned to school.
The minute Glenn's name tag was done, well, somehow, wouldn't you just know it, things brightened up around Alice Conroy's schoolroom. The filthy flaking yellow plaster of the walls seemed to turn to sunlight. The children seemed truly happy for the first time since Glenn stopped coming to school.
Next, Alice looked up Glenn's reading scores from third grade, in the secretary's file, and assigned Glenn to the Bluebirds reading group, just as if he were sitting there among them. She assigned him a desk, too, right on the second row. She put his name tag on it.
And Glenn's name was taped beneath an empty hook in the cloakroom. Glenn had his own “boot bin” for galoshes
on rainy days, his own dental hygiene chart on the bulletin board, just waiting to have Checkup #1 entered on it as soon as he returned.
Then Alice got the idea of making Get Well cards. And what an idea it was! It was the best idea anybody at Arrow Catcher Elementary School had had for a long, long time. Everybody had to agree.
Mr. Archer, the vice principal, came down each day and stood in the doorway of the room while the children bent over their construction paper and scissors and Elmer's glue. He beamed, he glowed! Alice Conroy was working out just fine, he was forever announcing in public places. Alice Conroy was a wonderful new teacher, experienced teachers could learn a few things from Alice Conroy. Mr. Archer had a habit of picking at his scalp and making his head bleed.
Every child in Alice's class poured his or her whole heart into the Get Well cards, and each was an object of art. One card showed a brilliant ball of gold glitter, which represented the gasoline fire at the Greggs' home. The gold ball was connected by a long streak of silver glitter to the tiny stick figure of a little girl. This was the artist trying to put out the fire with a stream from a garden hose. The caption said,
Get Well Soon, Glenn Gregg.
Another child had cut from different colors of construction paper flamelike shapes of red and yellow and orange and black. Behind the flames Glenn's smiling face was
visible. The caption said, “I'm fine,' said Glenn, âbut boy this fire is hot!'”
Other cards carried simple messages of “I miss you, Glenn” and “I hope you feel better” and “Come back to school soon” and even “I love you.” These were decorated with blocky, brick-colored drawings of Arrow Catcher Elementary, and trees and sunshine and fluffy white clouds, and bees that said “Buzz buzz” upon flowers.
At the end of the school day, when the final name had been signed to the final finished greeting card, Alice went down to Mr. Archer's office to use the telephone. She intended to call Mrs. Gregg, though she had been warned by other teachers that Mrs. Gregg was impossible in conversation because of a bad stammer.
Mr. Archer was an athletic man, with a crew cut. He was a family man. He sent out Christmas cards each year with a color photo of himself and Mrs. Archer and their four happy children under the Christmas tree. He had last year's Christmas card blown up to eight-by-ten and framed on his desk. The whole family was happy, you could tell. Alice couldn't help but wish she was one of those children under Mr. Archer's tree, with a big curly-haired doll or a shiny new Western Flyer bicycle for a present.
When Alice came in to use the telephone, Mr. Archer was having a heart-to-heart talk with one of the older children,
a sixth-grade boy named Benjamin, with crossed eyes and Bucky Beaver teeth. You just wanted to squeeze him, he was so cute.
Mr. Archer was trying to make Benjamin confess that he had written “Mr. Crites sucks cocks” on the restroom wall. Mr. Crites was the shop teacher. Mr. Archer kept picking his head and examining the blood under his fingernails and talking to Benjamin.
He was asking Benjamin for a writing sample of the offending phrase, but when he saw Alice, he looked up and smiled and motioned to her to go ahead, go right ahead and use the telephone all you want to, no problem, no need to ask, make yourself at home.
Benjamin carefully wrote “Mr. Crites sucks cocks” on a page of notebook paper for the writing sample.
Mrs. Gregg answered after ten rings.
She had a stammer all right, and it was more serious than even strong warnings had prepared Alice for. Mrs. Gregg was saying, “Hngh, hngh, hngh, hngh, hngh,” trying to say “hello,” but she could not make the word come out of her mouth.
Alice pressed on with her message. The children had made Get Well cards for Glenn today, Alice said, and she wondered whether it would be all right to drop them by Mrs. Gregg's house on the way home from school.
It was no use. Mrs. Gregg was stuttering her fool head off. Now she was saying, “Ynuh, ynuh, ynuh, ynuh.” Maybe she only meant yes. Nobody knows.
Alice told Mrs. Gregg that Glenn was very well liked among his classmates, that she knew from his previous teachers that Glenn was a smart boy, and a hard worker, and kind to others, and courageous and loyal, and had many other fine attributes. She took a wild guess and said that he was popular.
Mrs. Gregg declined further comment. Her breathing was heavy with exertion.
Alice said, “Mrs. Gregg, excuse me. Please. All I really need to know is this. Can I stop by your house in the next half hour or so and drop off these cards? It would mean a whole lot to the children.”
On the other end of the line, nothing.
Alice said, “If you'll just give me some sign, a signal that it's okay, I'll drop the cards off this afternoon.”
Mrs. Gregg continued to breathe hard into the telephone.
Alice said, “If you hang up right now, right this minute, Mrs. Gregg, I will take that for a
Alice waited. Mrs. Gregg did not hang up.
She said, “Okay, good, good. That's real good. I know where you live, from the school's files. Thank you so much.”
house was a clapboard shack in Balance Due, the white-trash ghetto of Arrow Catcher. Scumtown, it was sometimes called. Even Alice's Uncle Runt, whom Alice boarded with, lived a street or two outside of Balance Due.
Filthy, violent men in shirtsleeves sat in doorways. They staggered, they leered, they drank out of sacks, they worked in muddy yards on junker cars with White Knights bumper stickers. Bottle-trees clanked in the breeze. A hundred-year-old voodoo woman wearing a swastika stirred a cauldron above a fire in a yard nearby. A young man tried to convince a woman, a girl really, to let him shoot an apple off her head with a pistol.
The tiny shack of Mrs. Gregg seemed scarcely habitable. The front yard was utterly without grass. A burned-out car sat like the husk of a huge dead insect in the front yard. All the window screens of Mrs. Gregg's shack were rusted and ripped out, and some of the windows themselves were broken. Shards of glass lay on the ground beneath them.
No one answered when Alice knocked. She pulled open the busted-out screened door and stuck the sheaf of colorful pages behind it and propped the door back in place as well as she could.
Her hands shook, and her step was quick as she hurried away.
The Nazi voodoo woman yelled after her, “Are you the Lard Jesus?”
Alice said, “No!” and started to run.
The voodoo woman hollered after her. “Lard Jesus was a white child.”
Alice Conroy hollered right back at her. “And he didn't have tits, either, did he, Miss Smartypants!”
she lay down on the narrow cot in her room in Uncle Runt and Aunt Fortunata's house and thought about her old professor at the Normal, Dr. Dust, and the good college life, and peeled the newspaper off the wall by her bed, strip by strip for a while, and then cried her guts out and buried her face in her pillow and said
I love you I love you I love you
and fell asleep. It was all that she could think to do.
A few days later, Alice received a surprising note in the mail from Mrs. Gregg.
Written in a cramped little white-trash script on coarse, lined paper from a Blue Horse notebook, it was an invitation for Alice to bring the entire class to the Greggs' home to visit their fallen mate, little Glenn.
The message was simple:
Come see Glenn. This Friday morning, I guess. Bring everybody, it don't matter.
This would be the first anyone at all had seen of Glenn since before the accident.
If it were any other teacher on the staff, Mr. Archer declared, he wouldn't allow it, he simply would not. Never on this earth would he allow fifteen nine-year-olds to walk into Balance Due, even in the early morning, no way, not a chance, no siree bobtail. He was making a mistake, he said, he knew it, it was against his better judgment, he shouldn't allow it, he didn't know what was in his mind, he ought to have his head examined.
But he did it. He gave his permission. The class could go and visit Glenn Gregg. “You can go,” Mr. Archer said, “but for God's sake, Miss Alice, be
The visit would be considered a field trip.
On the day of the field trip, Alice called the roll. She assigned a child to erase the chalkboards. She collected the last of the field-trip permission slips and took up milk money and lunch money and workbook money. She announced the winners of the creative writing awards and shushed the children quiet while Mr. Archer made the announcements over the intercom.