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Jeff Parker

Bingo

On my way to work the car tire pops on a small porcupine at the curve where the kids speed and five roadside crosses are maintained. I struggle a bit, flinging the wheelchair from the back seat, and wheeling along the shoulder toward school. A Celica pulls over and a blonde gets out. She approaches me cautiously, cobra-like, swaying side to side. She has what appears to be a dead koala affixed to her back.

"What happened, Professor?" she says.

"Iíve ruptured my tire on a pointed animal."

"If youíd like I can give you a ride to school. If youíd like." She had been to my tree house just recently with two boys. Theyíd made off with the duck family, one of my prizes. The boys carried the mother and two ducklings. This girl picked up the last duckling, and they all scrambled away just before Big Daddy pulled in. Because of this Iím apprehensive. I learned day one on this gig, you never know what these students are up to. Sheís also in my fifth period, gifted.

But sheís helping me into the Celicaís passenger side before Iíve accepted the offer. She folds my chair neatly and tucks it in the trunk, ties it down with black yarn from her koala.

"Iím sorry I canít figure your name offhand?"

"Ever," she says, "Itís actually Evelyn, but Iím from the South where they say it like Everlyn. You always call me Ms. Quick in class."

She cranks the car, expertly drops it into gear, then pauses. Her hands fall into her lap and sheís still, closes her eyes, then grits her teeth like an angry chimp and moans a little.

"Pardon me for a moment," she says, then vibrates.

"Are you okay?" I ask. She holds up one finger and continues with the vibrating.

I adjust the seatbelt, stare straight ahead. I eye her with the peripheralóher hands jumping on her knees, right foot up and down on the brake so we roll then stop, roll then stop, slowly tipping her head back and forth in a nodding motion. I straighten the pleats in my slacks, stroke my beard. I count the reflections of my face in the cracked side view mirror, consider pitching myself out the door when the wheel gets close to the ditch. She shakes herself like after a good pee and apologizes, then steps off the clutch. Without even looking she swerves back onto the asphalt.

She guns it as we race through the bends leading to school. "Again, Iím sorry about that. Itís an odd thing that happens to me, the result of an unfortunate accident."

"No problem," I say.

"Iím a virgin," she says. "I swear it."

I donít say another word. Several more bends and weíre there. She helps me out, unfolds my chair, and apologizes again. I thank her and she roars off to the student parking lot.

***

Iím the first handicapped teacher here ever, and the principal installed these shoddy wooden planks as a wheelchair ramp. I engage the parking brake so as not to roll backwards as I open the door. But thatís not my concern this morning.

Behind his back the teachers call the principal "Big Daddy" because he throws his weight around. I call him Big Daddy to his face as a joke. We watch TV together at my tree house often, discussing our failed lives over World Wrestling Federation, soap opera sports. He hired me on after I busted through an abortion clinic with a personalized Louisville Slugger wedding gift bat, losing my job at the University as professor, losing my legs when the abortion doctor shot me in the base of the spine to protect himself, losing the Wife because of her love for the abortionist and not for me, all unprofessorial behavior apt to cause local controversy. Yet amid local controversy the principal declares me simply the most available qualified candidate to teach gifted high school health, which the state requires for graduation. He adds that I was acquitted anyhow. The abortionist in fact dropped charges he felt so bad for me, which I appreciate. He didnít have to do that. So the school brings me in on one-strike-youíre-out probation.

"Iím going to need your AAA," I say, slamming the office door behind me. "But let me ask you something."

"Shoot," he says. Heís clicking through WWF Divas Online, one of the few pleasures of the sort he allows himself.

"This Evelyn Quick from gifted just gave me a lift. Is she epileptic or something?"

"Epileptic?" he says. "No, nothing that serious. Watch out for that one."

"Watch out?"

"She seized up on you? Shook a little bit, maybe apologized?"

I nod. He hands me the AAA card.

"You want to hear a story, Professor?"

"I always want to hear a story."

"The story with her has to do with a claim. One doctorís assertion that somehow, at randomÖThe right button in her head or something. That was his conclusion. To every second opinion, sheís definitely got some misfiring synapses, but they donít even show up on the EEGs."

"What conclusion?"

"Head trauma, Professor. Now she randomly orgasms."

"Orgasms. Can that be?"

"Itís weird business, I agree, if itís true. Now are we on for SmackDown tonight?"

***

Youíd think the gifted kids would be the best. That this would be the class teachers clamor to get. But they are the terror. This one group caused the early retirement of six teachers in the previous school year, an important reason Big Daddy was able to bring me on.

And they are clever. In the three weeks Iíve been here theyíve managed to fully uncover the circumstances about me and the by default manner in which I came to teach them. They do not approve. They found my acre and have begun disassembling my lawn. I am powerless to stop them. The police, who are all pro-choice, think itís funny. Big Daddy thinks itís just part of what we have to put up with as teachers. The kiddiesí pranks. This is especially cruel of him though. He knows what the lawn decorations mean to me. He knows.

The Wife and Iíd started collecting them early on in the marriage. If she had a bad day, instead of bringing her flowers Iíd show up with a birdbath. When I got the flu sheíd come home with a naked cupid who peed ground water. Thatís how it started. We realized that was getting boring real quick and went for the esoteric, the tacky, the tasteless. Thereís the grinning gargoyle curio shelf, a pair of flashing highway construction barrels, herds of frolicking pink-eared antelopes, lots of dogs, toadstool stools, miniature horses suspended with sturdy wire from decorative pails, the obligatory lawn jockey, and of course the mother duck and her ducklings which seemed just entirely too wholesome for anyone to make off withóalmost all vandalized by my kiddies. All thatís left now is the grinning gargoyle, a single frolicking antelope, and the lawn jockey.

The kiddies methods are predictable by now. They simply smash those without any lifelikeness. The birdbaths are reduced to rubble, the highway barrels sawed into piles of plastic squares. The animal-like ornaments they swipe, replacing with notes written in the voice of the stolen ornaments, describing why they, the ornaments, chose to leave me. The notes are held down with fist-sized rocks.

The lawn is so overgrown with grass and weeds these days, the chair canít make it through. Thereís a path from the driveway to the tree house elevator thatís paved. But I wake up to my missing animal-like lawn ornaments replaced with notes that I canít even retrieve. So I call Big Daddy. Heíll arrive and wade out into the yard, then read them to me.

The duck family note read: Dear Professor, You should know our departure has nothing to do with the weather. You might be telling yourself that perhaps we just went south for the winter. This would be wishful thinking on your part. Our intentions are so not migratory. Our time with you has been most unpleasant. As a mother Iíve been embarrassed to raise children around you. You are a fowl, fowl human being. It is no wonder your wife fled. We are hastily following suit. C-ya, The Ducks.

I ask Big Daddy to put the notes back under the appropriate rocks. Sometimes the rocks get turned over and the notes blow away.

When I arrive at the gifted portable the mother duck is shattered across the makeshift ramp. I recognize the feather patterns in the ceramic chips. I crunch over them as I slowly roll up the flimsy plank into the portable.

Todayís topic is Dimensions of Wellness. The diligent boy, Michael, jots notes tremendously, dabbing sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. None of the others pay attention. Every now and then Ricky Champagne quacks softly. They forge blowguns from cafeteria straws and needles attached to spitballs. A dart barely misses my ear and sinks into a chalkboard eraser. If I maneuver nonchalantly, giving the impression Iím ignoring their attacks, they eventually get bored and turn on each other. When they aim for my head I can scratch my shoulder with my ear or my chin with my chest. But if they aim for the body, I have to be ready. The chair isnít as responsive as Iíd like. So I take some hardy shots, nonchalantly.

Sure enough two of the bigger boys come forwardófor a second I think theyíre coming for me and finger the mace in my breast pocket. But they hook their elbows underneath Michaelís arms, lifting him from his desk and inserting him into the materials cabinet, which they lock. Then one of them chunks the keys at me. I try to dodge nonchalantly and they hang in my spokes. I continue on the Wellness Continuum of Decision Making.

Their aggression is not only physical though. They are masters in psychological warfare. At the moment they are laughing about Michael, scrawling love insignias on notebooks, reaching their grubby hands through the holes in the backs of chairs. I try to regain whatever authority I ever had by describing the four dimensions of wellness: Physical (proper nutrition, exercise, avoiding harmful substances), Intellectual (gathering information, problem solving), Emotional (self control, enthusiasm for life, high self-esteem), and Social (make friends, cooperative, productive member of society). But none of them are listening.

Ricky Champagne shouts out "Leg" and the entire class goes silent. For a second, thrown out there like that, the word disorients them. But their painful, wide-eyed stares drop to my leg, which still gets the twitches even though I donít feel below the waist. Iím confused myself. Itís a part of me I donít consider even. Now I donít consider it even a part of me. But Ricky Champagneís accusatory shout-out to my anatomy causes me, the whole class in fact, to consider it. I look down at the leg, which is ever so slightly pulsing. Then I look up again and theyíre all caught up with it, blank-faced, open-mouthed enchantment. The word hanging in the air like that leaves them no choice.

In back, Ever pulls tacks from the bulletin board and gnaws on them. She vibrates occasionally and looks around to see if anyone noticed.

The rest of them are fixated on my leg, which is pathetically skinny, devoid of muscle. The cuff of my pant leg crooked, revealing a dirty white sock, underneath a bald cream shin peers out. I fix the cuff then animate furiously, turning circles in the chair, trying to divert their attention from it.

But theyíre ready for me. "Hand," another boy shouts when I scrawl wellness charts on the chalkboard. Then they all stare at my hand. A small liver spotómy firstóunderneath the big knuckle. The skin is wrinkled like when you straighten a crumpled sheet of paper. I shake the hand and move it around. Their eyes follow. My hand then trembles a tiny bit. I write to keep it in check, "For tomorrow PP. 120-162, Defense Mechanisms: Repression, Rationalization, Compensation, Projection, Idealization, Daydreaming, Regression, Denial, Sublimation, Displacement, Reaction Formation, Negativism..." My hand jumps, scraggly, incomplete lines. I hold it in front of my face and peer through my fingers at the class, still transfixed, as if my hand was some thing theyíd never seen before.

The bell rings, breaking the spell. The sound of the word "Hand" is replaced with the sound of zippers on backpacks, shuffling papers, sneakers on the tile floor.

"Bye, Professor Crazier Than A Shithouse Rat," Ricky Champagne says.

When him and the bigger boys are gone I let Michael out. He thanks me and copies the assignment off the board, looking back at my leg as he leaves, then at my hand, then at my face.

I wheel myself to the faculty lounge, where the walkways are too narrow for the chair. If I want coffee I have to lunge from the chair and wriggle across the room to the coffee pot, which is empty when I get there. I prop myself against the wall then and read pages 120-162 for tomorrow over and over, watching my hand turn the pages, waiting for someone to come and reach me the coffee filters.

***

The only things worse than the kiddies are the red squirrels. When up in my tree, they stalk me as well. And this tree house isnít your ordinary thing. I built it myself in the oaks right around the time I found out about the Wifeís affair with the abortionist. I slept here when she didnít come home and I could walk. It has outlets, insulation, running water, an electric platform elevator that operates on pulleys, brown carpet, and several pump pellet rifles scattered around. Once I got out of the hospital with the handicap, being alone in the house was intolerable, so I started coming up here again. It was in part a penance. It made life more difficult and kept me in constant jeopardy. Now the electricity is shut off in the main house. The doorways there arenít big enough for the chair and the carpet is impossible to wheel through. Everything there reminds me of her anyway.

We started off with normal gray squirrels. They were almost tame, cute, their numbers slim. Before she left, I bought the Wife the Holy Grail of yard dťcor, interactive yard dťcor at that, a device resembling a little windmill with pegs on the ends to which sheíd attach corncobs smothered in peanut butter. Attach that whole apparatus to a tree and the gray squirrels would tip back on their hind legs respectably, spin the mill until they got hold of a cob, clean the kernels of peanut butter, then drop the rest for the birds. Sometimes they slipped and clung to a rotating cob and me and the Wife would laugh, mauling grapefruits on the back porch. I donít know where the red squirrels came from but they started showing up one day. They kept the gray ones at bay. Theyíre smaller than the gray squirrels with white spots on their chests. These red squirrels took flight from faraway tree limbs and pounced on the corn. They held tight and ate peanut butter, kernel, cob, everything, and the Wife and I admired their determination and vigor.

Yet the red squirrels kept multiplying. Our yard, trees, ornaments, everything overrun with them. They chased away the innocent gray squirrels. They kept the birds out of the birdbaths. They nested in the grinning gargoyle curio shelf. And one day we retired the mill when a red squirrel leapt from an overhead limb and bit the Wife.

But theyíd moved in for good. Now they burrow their way into the wood of the tree house. They store nuts and moss there. They mate and fight on the roof at night. They squeeze in under the windows and deposit squirrel shit in the carpet. The pellet guns are for them, not the kids.

***

Big Daddy and I meet AAA then he follows me to the tree house. Iím relieved. His car in the driveway is enough to keep the kids away. At home my four garage windows are busted and two red squirrels dart in and out in a game of chase. Even though I donít use the place it infuriates me. I lunge for one as it scurries by, forgetting for a moment that I canít walk. The Principal rights me, and we adjourn to the tree house for SmackDown.

"They trespass everything," I blubber, gauging the patter of small feet in the tree. I try to get into the match, but the sound of their ratty feet in the tree just has me going tonight.

"Thank God for this sport," the Principal says.

"Iíll take these rodents from beneath," says I, grabbing a pellet gun and wheeling toward the elevator.

"Iíll keep you posted," the Principal says.

On the ground I take aim at anything red that moves, but my pellets suck dirt. Then I pump the thing up again. After five I can barely do it. Youíd think my arms would have gotten stronger wheeling around all the time. But itís the opposite.

Ever steps out from the trunk like a tree sprite and almost gets shot. She hands me the last duckling, unharmed. She plops to the ground, drawing her knees up close and binding them in her arms. She flicks her earring and taps the koala backpack in her lap. I rest the rifle across my armrests.

"Youíre the only teacher to know, you know," she says. "Whatcha think?"

"I think your situation is unfortunate," I say.

"Thereís lots of things I miss about being normal," she says.

"What are you doing here, Ms. Quick?"

"Itís Ever," she says. "I wanted to apologize."

"For what? You helped me today."

"For when I was here with those boys. They found out where you lived from the auditorís website," she says. She explains that sheís seldom asked to go along on anything.

The Principal hollers: "Annihilate the bastards, Champion! The Rockís in the middle of his speech, and theyíre munching through the wires." Ever looks up.

"You better go now," I say.

"Okay."

"Thanks for returning the duck," I say.

Back upstairs I prop the pellet gun against Big Daddyís recliner. The duckling goes on top of the TV. "Did you hit any of them?" he says.

"Iím a lousy shot," I say, as the electricity flickers, then goes out.

***

Big Daddy is called out of our lunch when another student wrecks at the curve in the road. It interrupts the liverwurst and mustard sandwiches made for us by the secretaries. Gerald and Gerard. Theyíre old men too, but gay and living together. They somehow got in the habit of fixing us lunch every day because we are very old helpless men and they are slightly younger old helpless men. They keep a small radio in the main office constantly tuned to the Christian rock station.

With Big Daddy gone, I filter through the files. Evelyn Marquee Quick. 162 IQ. Family from Sewanee. Never received a grade below A in her entire academic history. But last year, an odd blip. She was absent from school for a solid two months. I can make out "bingo accident" on the doctor notes, but the absentee forms are blotted out, ripped, damaged beyond readability. I hear steps outside the office, stick the file back into place, and roll back to my liverwurst as Gerard pops his head in the door.

"No fatalities reported," he says. "Damn the jaws of life."

Well the accident just served to rile them up. When it comes time for my class they are heaving textbooks at walls, and rolling small nails under my wheels. Iím talking techniques for managing stress: "Visualization. Deliberate daydreaming about pleasant surroundings. A defense mechanism." Ricky Champagneís eyes feast on me. I can see right through to his little brain, pondering my physicality, searching for just the right part to declare focus upon. I glance down at myself as well, practice standard defensive body language, arms folded across the chest.

"Crotch," he announces.

And Ever spits a tack. "Why donít you just shut up, Rick Champagne. Everyone knows youíre nothing but a hyperactive, pre-pubescent, bald-peckered hormone cluster and no oneís all that impressed."

The class goes silent, but now they consider him, emasculated before us all. He tries to come at me again, though by less clever means. "Youíre saying itís healthful to daydream? This is whacked, everyone knows only freaks sit around daydreaming all day. Or those whose lives are so miserable due to their own stupid actions they have no choice but to daydream." He chuckles, implies me, looks around the room for support.

Ever stares him down. She shakes her head slowly then reverts attention to the front. Everyone else follows suit. It is the first time I understand her power, whether the orgasms are real or not. How her peers must be scared of her and in awe of her. How their barely pubescent minds canít comprehend her. How the mystery of the female orgasm must seem so clear to her. How some women go their whole lives without even one and this girl has multiples every day that seize her foundation.

Ricky Champagne straightens up in his chair. Then he bolts, bawling and blubbering like a kindergartner, out the classroom door.

I capitalize quickly and get through like three daysí lessons in one 50-minute period. Itís amazing. I teach again. Health is all of a sudden a magical thing. Their eyes glitter with recognition. Some of them write notes. When the bell rings they wait for me to dismiss them before packing up. I say, "Youíre dismissed." I feel healthy.

Then I ask Ever to stay after class.

"Hold on a minute, Ever," I say.

Michael stops on his way out the door. Heís always the last one to leave class, generally after my releasing him from some sort of container, so he feels uncomfortable. He looks from Ever to me. "Fascinating stuff this Immune Response Mobilization, Professor," he says. "Would you be able to explain to me again the communication between the helper T cell and the B cell?"

"Letís talk about that tomorrow, Michael," I say. He nods, shuffles, then looking back as if betrayed, slides out the door.

"Yes, Professor?" she says.

"Why did you do that?" I say.

"Youíre welcome," she says.

"Well thanks," I say. "I owe you twice."

"Hold on," she says, reaching out and taking both my wrists in her hands. She looks at my face. I look down at her white knuckles. She shakes.

"Ever," I say, "Are you faking these?"

Her eyes are like drops of mud. She tightens her grip. "It starts around the baby thing, then shoots all through me."

***

The electrician explains to me that, indeed, small rodents apparently chewed through the electric wires. Though he doesnít know how they managed that without barbequing themselves. Then we locate a formerly red now charcoal squirrel at the bottom of the tree. "Guess they couldnít," the electrician says, laughing. He goes to his truck and comes back with a Miracle Whip jar filled with powder. A strip of tape across the top reads "Strychnine."

"This prevents recurrences," he says. "And I donít have to honor no guarantee."

I thank him. He patches the wires up and leaves. Then I bring out the wifeís old mill. Attach juicy cobs of sweet corn to it and coat them with extra crunchy peanut butter and a sprinkling of strychnine. This is the difference between the kids and the red squirrels. The kids are way too smart to fall for this. But the red squirrels come right away.

I park the chair on the porch and eat a grapefruit like me and the wife used to. In no time at all they wretch and plunge from the tree. It reminds me of a time when Big Daddy and me were merely acquaintances, former classmates. He was just a friend who answered the phone at the high school when I wanted to go out for beers. I was taller than a lot of tall people.

The squirrels crawl and writhe through the weeds. Their filthy red bodies flip around. They crawl toward the little rocks where the lawn ornaments used to be like theyíre crawling toward their pitiful little tombstones. I chunk the grapefruit rind and hit one on the head. They squirm until I almost canít take the joy anymore. And finally, almost all at once, theyíre still.

 

Jeff Parker has recently published fiction in The Iowa Review, Black Ice and Cutbank. He received an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University. The Ellen Levine Literary Agency is circulating his first novel.

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