Waiting for the Night Music
The halls of Grace Christian Academy are lined at various times of the year with shoebox dioramas: the fifth grade does space, the second grade does dinosaurs, the third grade, for some reason, does San Francisco, and the first grade does miracles. This year you could see G.I. Joe in the lion’s den and Barbie the cured leper, though the official rule said to use handmade items, not toys. The rule was meant to encourage creativity and, at the end of the display period, to make it easier for Eli to sweep the unclaimed shoeboxes with their flaking tempura paint into garbage bags.
Eli’s habitual expression was sometimes compared to Jesus’s, if Jesus had, in the course of staring down from heaven, become slightly sleepy. His eyelids lay like a thick frosting over the top half of his eyes. Chocolate frosting, the kids whispered, when they spoke of Eli’s skin color amongst themselves. Like a Hershey bar, one would venture, a glint in her eye. Or sometimes: like doo doo. But if one of them went that far, there would be an objector, usually a kid whose parents had voted for Mondale. You can’t say that, the kid (it was often Rachael Mathis) would hiss. But even Rachael Mathis had to admit that Eli’s skin color was different than her own, and that it had something to do with why he was a janitor, while they were children at a private school where all the songs about God’s love were sung at top volume.
Miss Toon was the music teacher. She was young and petite, barely taller than the sixth graders, though she dressed like an old lady in yarny cardigans with lots of pockets. Her shoes had a squeaky rubber bottom like a great wedge of cheesecake, so you could hear her coming down the hall. Even with the bumper shoes she did not reach five feet.
The children loved her for that.
Also, they liked her for her holiday productions. She was friends with the art teacher, Miss Rutledge, whose name did not delineate her destiny as clearly as Miss Toon’s, but who had wild hair and turquoise high-tops to recommend her. Together, Miss Toon and Miss Rutledge coordinated Christmas pageants that were a whirl of purple spotlights and fake snow and carols sung so earnestly that all the parents were made teary and grateful.
Then there were the gala holidays entirely conceived by the enrichment teachers: Grandparents’ Day and Balloon Day, Pajama Day and Smilers’ Day (a dental theme). For Tacky Day the children wore mismatched outfits and looped their fathers’ old ties around their heads like Rambo. For Election Day, they sang Lee Greenwood and put ballots into a locked box painted with a sixth-grader’s rendition of Abraham Lincoln.
One morning, Miss Rutledge brought Miss Toon a cup of coffee from her own thermos (not the tire-smelling stuff in the teachers’ lounge) and wondered aloud if it might not be time to organize another holiday.
“I don’t know,” said Miss Toon, “Some of the regular teachers think it takes away from their classroom time. They didn’t like Pajama Day at all.”
“Sticks in the mud,” said Miss Rutledge, pressing the tip of her nose upward like a pig’s.
Miss Toon pressed the giggle from her mouth with her fingertips. She did not like to speak ill of their non-enrichment-teacher colleagues, who were even now churning pale dust putting spelling words on the board, staining themselves purple mimeographing phonics worksheets.
“We’ll talk,” said Miss Rutledge, bouncing from the room. Miss Toon envied that bounce, which was why she made an effort to drink the coffee, though to her all coffee tasted of sarcastic men’s breath.
Eli’s day started like this: before the first teachers arrived to claim the mimeograph, he mopped the bathrooms and stocked the tiny toilets with fresh paper. The boys’ rooms took longer than the girls’ because there was more misdirected pee. Eli wore gloves.
If there was snow, the shoveling and salting came first, but in Nashville there was more often the threat of snow than snow itself. Still, you had to salt if there was the threat of snow. It was up to the teachers to stop the children from picking up the granules, or to make them spit them out. In the kindergarten, it was a popular thing to have a few tiny “diamonds” in your jumper pocket so you could reach into it and roll them between your fingers, so hard they almost cut.
If he was sprinkling salt during school hours, the kids would surround him as if he were scattering jewels. It made it hard to get the job done quickly and back in the warm.
Dr. Bomar had worked late the previous night, and so Eli had not disturbed him to empty his garbage, and was surprised to find the principal’s office occupied again at the early hour. Dr. Bomar expected small talk from all who crossed his path, so after Eli had pardoned his interruption he said, “You’re here early.” He was emptying the little can now. It was about half full with crumpled papers and butterscotch wrappers, a banana peel that was starting to smell. Eli said he was sorry he had not gotten to it the night before.
“How are you?” Dr. Bomar said, looking up from the brochures he was studying.
“Can’t complain,” said Eli. Relining the trashcan was easy, because he kept a folded supply of fresh bags beneath the one containing the current garbage. One of the third grade classes, upon discovering this, had made themselves spaceman costumes by poking out holes for their heads and arms. The teacher had apparently been out of the room.
“We treating you like part of the family?” said Dr. Bomar. No one had told him of the misappropriated trash bags, feeling the incident was beneath his dignity and might anger him. Mrs. Todd was privately terrified, though she was a woman of many private terrors.
“Treating me just fine,” said Eli, mustering a vague smile. He had a pleasing voice. A baritone that put Dr. Bomar in mind of “Old Man River.” Too bad he didn’t sing.
Dr. Bomar smiled at Eli’s departing back until the door was shut, then returned to his brochures. No question the school needed new ones. The original promotions depicted Carter-era kids, their braids half unraveled, their pants plaid. Kids from the era when the school didn’t have a library or an art teacher, when it was just a bunch of refugees from the bussing system who could barely scrape together tuition. He went to seek out that Cynthia Rutledge; she had an art degree and he rather liked the papier mache dragon she and the second grade had made in the upstairs corridor, even though it was a fire hazard and he was going to have to tell her to dismantle it. She was just the person to capture in photograph the new spirit of Grace Christian Academy, a spirit of possibility.
If Dr. Bomar was in the hallways, the kids could scarcely be kept in lines. He was huge! As tall as the ceiling almost! Everyone knew he’d been a basketball player at Vanderbilt before school children were even born. If he wandered past the playground at recess, which he sometimes did (he liked ask the teachers and children if they were being treated like part of the family too) he’d give his signature thumbs up and the kids would plop themselves down on his shoes, one child per foot please, and he could walk like that for several steps. When he was in that mood, he infused the school with a loving energy they all could feel.
If you were really lucky, Dr. Bomar would crouch down Indian-style (though he was still taller than you) and tell a Cletus story. Cletus was an imaginary redneck who didn’t have good sense, good manners, or a true devotion to God. He was always getting into funny scrapes that proved this. Sometimes Dr. Bomar told Cletus stories to the whole school during Friday morning chapel and sometimes he tailored them just to you if you’d been sent to the office for acting up. Even if you were in trouble, a visit to his office usually ended with a butterscotch candy. He kept them in a cookie jar on his desk.
Which was not to say that he wasn’t intimidating. When Tommy Hogan deliberately flushed Whit Albright’s miniature rubber wrestling guys down the toilet, clogging it and causing an overflow, Miss Toon sent him right to the principal’s. The entire class said “ooooh.”
When Tommy returned he smelled of butterscotch, but he’d become the kind of kid who’d pass the paste without using it first. The others whispered that he’d been paddled.
Miss Toon knew better. That was the genius of a leader like Dr. Bomar: he set himself up as stand-in for God. The kids liked him so much that if he showed them displeasure they could only hate themselves. Miss Toon found this quality sexy, though that was not a word she would’ve said out loud.
At the end of music class, the kids were lined up and waiting for their teacher, when Dr. Bomar returned for Tommy.
“Just one more thing, son,” he said, his far away brow as serious as a thunderstorm. He called the boys “son.” He called the girls girl. “Now it’s time you apologized to Eli.”
Miss Toon was not sure if he winked at her on the way out. He was married, of course, but the wife was surprisingly plain: a few years older than him with a bowl of hair like a monk’s.
Miss Rutledge’s art room looked out over the part of the parking lot used for afternoon hook-up. The final bell rang at 3:00, but the station wagons started lining up at two or before. It was very important to these mothers to be first in line, even if that meant the total waiting time would be longer. With the day’s last class fully absorbed in making snake-coil pottery, Miss Rutledge peered out at the gridlock of perms: some of them got out of their cars to talk to each other, some read magazines or filed their nails, some simply stared at their steering wheels in a state of permanent readiness. Miss Rutledge was not sure that she wanted to be a mother, and sometimes wondered what people would think if they knew. Could you be fired for that?
Behind her, a disagreement broke out between two boys who wanted to be the clay-collector at the end of class. “Pause,” said Miss Rutledge, pointing an imaginary remote control at them. From her closet, she brought out two jars of the salty homemade Play-Doh she made in the cafeteria kitchen. She gave each boy a fist-sized lump of yellow and of blue.
“Make green,” said Miss Rutledge. The class gathered around. “Ready, set...”
“GO!” screamed the rest of the class.
The boys began frantically mashing and twisting the lumps. Zach was the first to achieve a uniform shade of green, so he got to be clay collector. He made a ball of his own snake-pot remnants, then skipped about the room, slamming it into others’ scraps so it grew like The Blob.
“Hurry up, Zach. We’ve got to get y’all back to Mrs. Jensen so I can hide from hook-up duty.”
Miss Rutledge really did hide from helping with the hook-up line. She could make blunt statements about her most selfish personal preferences in a way that would make people laugh.
She could say, “We’re not going to paint the snake pots because yesterday I wanted to watch Wheel of Fortune and talk on the phone instead of going to buy the paint” and most of the children would laugh, though some of this laughter was a nervous manifestation of confusion. They had not imagined that teachers had televisions or phones or couches. And their parents never spoke this way.
Miss Toon’s room was on the back of the school, and at 3:00 it was not filled with children listening for their names over the crackly PA system.
“I think it should be Save the Turtles Day,” said Miss Rutledge by way of hello. “Do you have any more Starbursts?”
“The girls took all the reds and pinks,” said Miss Toon, bringing the bowl out of its locked drawer.
“I brought art,” said Miss Rutledge, waving a stack of papers gone stiff and lumpy with watercolor. She took a Starburst. “What do the boys pick?”
“Mostly orange for UT.” Miss Toon allowed her friend to hang overflow art about the room. The anthropomorphized notes and clefs that had previously decorated her walls were unquestionably lame.
Miss Rutledge smacked the waxy candy about her mouth as if air was required to lessen the lemon intensity. “So, turtles?”
“Mrs. Todd thinks that we should cool it till Grandparents’ Day.”
Miss Rutledge sighed. “Well, I didn’t want to tell you this, because it’s the kind of thing that bothers you.”
Miss Toon’s throat visibly wrenched. “Someone’s getting divorced?”
“Worse,” Miss Rutledge took a seat. “It’s Balloon Day. Our Balloon Day.”
On the previous year’s highly successful Balloon Day, the children had been allowed to purchase bunches of balloons, each attached to a stamped postcard. They all stood in the parking lot with their dozens of balloons (even the less wealthy kids at least one or two), and when the visiting fire truck sounded its siren they all released them and sang “Up, Up, and Away” by the Fifth Dimension. The sky was polka-dotted. In subsequent weeks, found balloons were tracked with pushpins in a map that hung in the entryway.
“It turns out that turtles in South America eat loose balloons,” said Miss Rutledge. “I read about it last week, but I was afraid to tell you. The balloons end up in the ocean, and the sea turtles eat them and they get stuck in their throats.”
Miss Toon put a hand to her mouth.
“And so no food can get past. It’s like they have a balloon instead of a stomach. But the balloon can’t digest and they can’t digest it, so they die. And they’re already endangered, of course.”
“Our beautiful balloons,” said Miss Toon, tearing up.
“So sort of as an apology to the universe or whatever, we should do a Save the Turtles Day. I’ve got some art projects in mind and they could sing...I don’t know, ‘So Happy Together’?”
“Can I be alone for a minute?”
“Just think about it, okay?” Miss Rutledge was leaving, but stopped in the doorway. “Spoke to Dr. M this morning. He wants more photo ops. Picture it: I’ll have them all paint their own shells, then we’ll get some green sweatsuits...okay, no, I’m going. But think.”
When Miss Rutledge was gone, Miss Toon went into the instrument closet and cried for the turtles. She was baffled by her sadness; she’d always been sympathetic, always had pangs, but now the sight of the jingle bell sticks filled her with a feeling of being very far from happiness, maybe even from God. She shook the bells, but they sent no shiver of Christmas through her veins.
At night she used to lull herself with the fantasy that she was Sleeping Beauty, that sleep was a pleasant interlude that made the waiting shorter. Lately the fantasy shamed her. As did the dates with the young men at her church. Younger than her, lately, they looked at her like a wrapped candy, knowing very well that she wouldn’t circulate in that dating milieu if she weren’t a virgin. And even though they were good boys who were probably waiting too, she couldn’t forgive them for looking at her that way.
A miracle was needed. Only a miracle could have brought that monk-headed woman a Dr. Bomar. She must have prayed hard. And so Miss Toon prayed hard too, and in a few minutes she was able to return to her desk and begin transposing Amy Grant’s “El Shaddai” into a more singable key.
It was only dimly understood that things were different in public schools. The only emissary of that world was Rachael Mathis, a fifth grader who’d spent the first half of her elementary career in a school whose two main features were the hot reconstituted eggs served every morning and the 80% success rate teaching kindergartners to wash their hands after they used the bathroom.
Rachael’s sentences often began with the shrill refrain “In public school...”
“In public school, they don’t sing Christmas songs.”
“In public school, the pizza is square and the sauce is really ketchup.”
“In public school, you don’t even have to know fractions.”
Teachers were quick to step in and say never mind, she’d made it here now. Students rolled their eyes. Except Miranda Tate, who was not ashamed to share her turn at the class computer with Rachael, even if Rachael was a little bossy about how many pounds of computerized flour they should buy for their computerized old-timey wagon trip to Oregon. This was tantamount to best friendship in fifth grade circles.
It was Miranda Tate who next knocked on Miss Toon’s door. She was staying late, banging erasers for some of the teachers. Did Miss Toon have any erasers that needed banging?
Miss Toon pretended to look around, but she rarely used the board. She didn’t like touching chalk. “I’m sorry, Miranda. Mine are clean.”
She’d done a segment of her student teaching at a middle school, and it was her idea of hell. A group of heavily made up girls sat on a bench by the front door chugging Diet Cokes and yelling lewd things to passing boys, some of their vocabulary so exotic that Miss Toon had to make embarrassing inquiries as to its meaning. The sweetness of elementary school girls like Miranda was real: if Miss Toon wore a ribbon in her hair, they would wear a ribbon in theirs. They bobbed down the hall singing the Christian rock songs she’d taught them. They scrambled up to place their small, warm hands in hers. She was not sure she was giving them the armor they would need against middle school’s sexualized cynicism, but she did not have that armor to give.
This thought almost sent her back to the instrument closet, but Miss Toon determined to master the rising emotion.
Many exciting things were happening at Grace Christian Academy. Mrs. Bart had brought in a Frenchman to visit all the classes and teach them to say hello and goodbye and thank you (amen had also been in the class plan, but it turned out that it was amen in French too). Last week the kids had begun spontaneously clapping and swaying during a slave spiritual Miss Toon was teaching them (“Shut De Do”), and though at first it might have started as a joke by that naughty Tommy Hogan, soon they were all doing it and she could feel the Holy Spirit in the room. And of course there was the possibility of a new holiday, which meant weeks of singing to herself in the shower and the car, trying to get lyrics and arrangements just right so that after the letdown of the actual performance, she had compliments to bolster her. If Dr. Bomar had approved it, there was hardly a higher power than that.
Miranda did not care that her best friend Rachael had messy pigtails and high-water corduroys, or at least she did not care in a way that made her less drawn to Rachael. Quite the opposite, Rachael’s appearance, her shrill insistence on being heard when no on one wanted to listen, her failure to grasp fractions, were all traits that made Rachael “the least of these.” And Jesus had specifically said to befriend the least of these.
Slightly more baffling was Rachael’s insistence on standing up for Walter Mondale, who in the Weekly Reader could clearly be seen to have yellow teeth. While Reagan twinkled at you like he might have a butterscotch in his pocket. And indeed, the post-election issue of Weekly Reader revealed that the president liked jellybeans, justifying his 191 to six win of the school’s mock election.
Being friends with Rachael was what Jesus wanted, and that brought Miranda one step closer to what she wanted. Which was a miracle. She was probably going to public school after Grace Christian Academy; her parents had divorced and her mom’s new condo, though depressing inside and out, was on the fringe of a good school district. Or at least, an acceptable one. She already knew enough Bible stories to drive the family crazy at dinner, so while they felt the money on Grace had not been wasted, they no longer had private-school money. And there were less redundant items that demanded expenditure of the dwindling funds.
Miranda had heard her friend’s horror stories (“In public schools, the bathroom floor is covered with wet paper towels and dirty toilet tissue and no one cleans it up”) and was resigned to her fate. But before she left her happy, godly school, this place where the janitor had once spent an hour going through the cafeteria trash in search of her retainer, where Tommy had stopped teasing her just because Dr. Bomar had asked him to, where “Corinthians” had been a spelling world, she wanted to see a miracle.
Tommy started the rumor that Eli kept little girls prisoner in one of the fenced-off sections of the school basement. He saw the evidence when Dr. Bomar made him go down there to apologize: two crayon drawings of deer frolicking beneath rainbows, plus, Eli’s personal keys (not the ones that clanked from his waistband and opened all the school’s closets) hung on a chain of braided pink yarn, obviously the work of some bored, imprisoned girl child. The rumor was not as sinister as it might have been, but for a few days it did replace the previous rumor that the off-limits basement contained a singular relic: the cut-off ponytail of an angel, a hank of gold hair tied in a ribbon, hidden in the snarl of legless chairs Dr. Bomar refused to throw away.
Miss Toon continued to sit at her desk until the windows, which looked out on the tetherball end of the playground, darkened into mirrors of the room, showing her to be a tiny apparition behind a teacher-sized desk, a child pretending to fill size-eight pumps. So intent was she on the lonely image, that when the door swung suddenly open she screamed, irrationally sure it had happened only in the reflection.
Eli didn’t scream back, but his eyes did look more open than usual. His lips parted slightly, searching for words. The day’s final tasks rarely involved interaction.
“Sorry!” she blurted, a trace of scream still in her voice. She thought of how it used to be in the south, that a black man could be killed for happening upon her as he had. To Kill a Mockingbird was her favorite book.
“I bet I scared you more than you scared me!” she said, hoping with each new exclamation to detract from the original scream.
He nodded, gave his heart a little pat, and began sweeping the brown linoleum with his shaggy T-broom. She wondered desperately what he thought of her. Was she really as slight as her counterpart in the window?
“You’re working late,” he said. His only assessment of her, neutrally voiced.
“Nah,” he said. “I do this most nights.”
“I put some candy wrappers in the trash after you took it.”
She meant this as an apology, but realized it might be taken as an imperious request for extra garbage-emptying when Eli walked over to the desk, leaned down (just next to her lap!) and retrieved the squares of refuse that had recently wrapped Miss Rutledge’s afternoon Starburst fix.
“You have a good night,” he said, sweeping his way back out to the hall. “Don’t work too hard.”
For a long time she sat weighing his words, testing them for warmth, until they were so handled they did give off a tepid heat.
That night at dinner, Miranda Tate thanked God for Grace Christian Academy, for her teacher Mrs. Connelly, for her principal Dr. Bomar, for her art teacher Miss Rutledge, for her P.E. teachers, Miss Dean and Coach Mason, and had not yet gotten as far as her music teacher when her father cleared his throat at her.
“One more thing,” said Miranda. A foolish compromise: now she would have to choose between her music teacher, her best friend’s trouble with fractions, or her miracle. She chose the latter: “And may everyone who really needs a miracle please get one very soon.”
“Amen,” said her father, more to the potatoes than the prayer. Since becoming a bachelor he had learned to make only one meal: baked potatoes topped with canned chili and sour cream.
“Tomorrow we’re going to learn French,” said Miranda, who at ten believed that dinner conversation was small, breath-filled balloon that ought to be kept aloft with merry thrusts. “Maybe someday I’ll visit Paris!”
Her brother began to sing a song disparaging the ladies of France for doing their naked dancing where they could be plainly observed through a hole in the wall. Her father was probing a cold spot in his potato. As she sometimes did at trying moments, Miranda narrowed her eyes until the room became blurry, and she could picture instead the helium-filled balloons of the previous May (one with her name written on it in purple marker), making their way out of the Grace Christian Academy parking lot and into the clear sky like weather in reverse.
Miss Toon stayed late again on Wednesday, even though she and Miss Rutledge had come to no decision about Save the Turtles Day. She pretended to clean out her desk: the third drawer was filled with the tinkling remains of an exploded glockenspiel. Again, the darkness brought with it her slight reflection in the tetherball window. Again, Eli arrived to sweep the floor. If he found her repeated presence remarkable, his face did not register the reaction.
“You’re working late,” he said.
“Don’t let me get in your way,” she said. “Please pretend I’m not here.”
He went about the sweeping: the usual whirls of linty dust, some pencil shavings, a pink zipper pull in the back corner. “You want to save this for lost and found?”
Miss Toon recoiled from the offering. “No, I don’t think so. I doubt it could be reattached.”
Eli pocketed the object. When he started the job back in the 70’s, his pockets were personal space, used only to hold items like his cigarettes. In this decade, however, he did not smoke, and at the end of the day his pockets were full of refuse he’d picked up where no trash can was handy.
As an apology for not accepting the zipper, Miss Toon followed his progress around the room with a large smile that anyone could’ve recognized as a prompt, a plea even, for speech.
“These are second grade?” said Eli, gesturing at the watercolors.
“They’re not very good,” said Miss Toon, surprising herself. “Cindy lets them use too much water. Everything blurs together.”
“My niece likes to paint,” said Eli. It was the most information-laden sentence he had spoken within those concrete-block walls. Something beyond the ordinary was afoot.
“Keisha,” he went on. “She’s got talent. Sings real well too.”
“How old is she?”
“Nine. Goes to Moore.”
There was no need to mention that had the parents of the young watercolorists not ponyed up the tuition for Grace, their children might’ve been in school with Keisha, forty kids to a room, maybe in a trailer rather than the squat brick bunker itself. The specter of those yellow buses, converging from the four corners of Nashville in the name of diversity, rose between them. Eli went about his final rounds. Dazed, Miss Toon swept a few glockenspiel tines into her purse and fled toward the front doors.
She was rattling them, trying to figure out the nighttime lock system, when a figure loomed behind her. “Some help, Miss Toon?”
“I was working late,” Miss Toon told Dr. Bomar breathlessly as he demonstrated the door mechanism, “Miss Rutledge and I have so many ideas for the next holiday, we can scarcely sort them out.”
“That’s the spirit,” said Dr. Bomar, holding the door open. As she passed him, she felt a brief but electric pat between her shoulder blades.
“Thank you,” she whispered, more to God than Dr. Bomar. “Thank you, thank you.”
Whenever Miss Toon was awake, her love shrieked from her like the useless S.O.S. of a lost cosmonaut. The signal was only ever answered by children who, like dogs, were receptive to a broader range of frequencies. But tonight she felt that her feeble vibrations had resonated against the broad chest of Dr. Bomar, had travelled along the thick wooden handle of Eli’s broom. As she drove home she thought of the lights still on at the school and the men still working in that light.
Miss Rutledge spent the afternoon rediscovering the joys of the illicit cigarette in the mossy staircase that would give basement access if the doors at the bottom weren’t chained. A forsaken kickball had settled on a drain, and Miss Rutledge gave it a teasing kick toward Matthieu, the Frenchman who’d given her the cigarette, but it was half-deflated and did not roll.
“Matthieu,” she said through a plume, “Bon soir. Fromage. Billetterie. What words in English do you like to say?”
“I like this ‘mee-maw,’” he said. He was not bored, she thought, by her company. “I spent much time wondering what it meant, this ‘mee-maw.’”
The Frenchman had supposed “mee-maw” to be an American expression of desolation, having overheard it at the kindergarten drop-off point. Every morning, an older woman drove away, and this boy prostrated himself on the asphalt keening, “Mee Maw! Mee Maw!” Only later did Matthieu learn that it was merely a regional pet name for a grandmother.
Miss Rutledge laughed, thinking he’d meant the story to be funny.
Miss Toon did not generally leave her room in the confused half hour before the first bell; it made her nervous to be among the early arrivals who roamed the halls like a bunch of itinerants with purple backpacks. More than once, she had been mistaken for a horsing-around sixth grader by near-sighted Mrs. Baldwin, and even though she was not actually Mrs. Baldwin’s charge, the steel wool in the woman’s voice scoured her confidence.
That morning she risked it. She had invented a holiday.
In Miss Rutledge’s room, construction paper hung from the ceiling in spirals. A collection of spattered dad-shirts on hooks waited to become smocks. Miss Rutledge emerged from the closet with two fistfuls of green pipe cleaners, “Hey there. I was just hiding out, sniffing a little glue to get the day started.”
Miss Toon let the joke, if it was a joke, slip. “I wanted to talk about the new holiday.”
“Bastille Day,” said Miss Rutledge, “We’ll get Jacques Cousteau to teach them a song.”
“I had a different idea.”
“Lighten up! It’s just a nickname.”
Miss Toon took a deep breath. “Eli.”
“Matthieu,” Miss Rutledge corrected.
“I mean that we should celebrate Eli. He has a birthday coming up.”
Miss Rutledge paced, considering. She twisted two pipe cleaners into a limp wand, which she pointed at Miss Toon’s head. “Poof. You’re a genius.” As the idea gained steam, Miss Rutledge twirled around the little tables, conducting with the little green wand: “It’s perfect. We’ll have testimonials. A custom-painted ceremonial mop. Force the little brats to appreciate their privilege for a change.”
Miss Toon frowned. “I’ll go get started on the songs.”
Miss Rutledge tugged at her sleeve as she tried to go, “Hey, hey. I don’t really think they’re brats. Joke. Joking. Best job I ever had.”
When Miss Toon had gone, the art teacher spoke to her construction paper spirals, “She probably thinks I was really sniffing glue too.”
In truth, she had been poking her nose in the paste bucket. The children had been buzzing about a safety video they’d seen: why would anyone would sniff glue, why would anyone accept powder from a stranger or get a shot on purpose? And Miss Rutledge thought: glue sniffing? Is that even possible? She liked to think herself experimental, but the paste bucket yielded only an astringent scent, a degraded cousin of peppermint.
Miranda was a good actress, and that was why she was chosen to tell her retainer story into the microphone at Eli Appreciation Day. Retainers, she would tell them, are very expensive. You have to take them out when you eat and if you accidentally take a few bites of your bologna sandwich before you remember to take it out, it does look sort of gross sitting there in the corner of your tray. And if a girl like Melissa Griffin, who dots her I’s with hearts and who already kind of has boobs, starts making dramatic gagging noises (which only showcase her own braces, which catch far more food than retainers because they never come out), then you might be tempted to cover up your retainer with an unfolded napkin. And when you go to dump your tray, you might think it was just an ordinary napkin like you’d use to cover the little bit of mustard you had to spit out because your dad used the same knife to spread condiments on your sandwich and your brother’s. Because he only has like two knives.
Miranda practiced the story in front of the bathroom mirror. It took a long time to get to the part where Eli is standing in the dumpster and you can’t see the bottom half of his legs and he’s tearing open these bags, spilling out milk cartons and one-bite apples and a slurry of pot-pie filling. Would be rude to take out her retainer for the speech? It made her words a little slushy.
Of course, Miranda knew she was not as pretty as a real actress. She had baby fat. But perhaps that could be the miracle, that the real her, the beauty created in God’s image, would emerge, would finally be visible to everyone who didn’t exist inside her.
The children had committed to the secrecy of the project with unexpected ferocity. One stood lookout at the door while the others rehearsed the Eli song, which was actually just an unlicensed adaptation of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Eli could not be anywhere near when they sang the chorus, which required responsive shouting:
You just call out his name...
And you know wherever he is...
The second shouting of the janitor’s name was not a part of Miss Toon’s libretto, but she felt she ought not suppress spontaneous outpourings.
Of course, Eli knew something was afoot. He had been invited to that Friday’s assembly. He’d been told he could bring his niece. It had been hinted that he might want to wear something less janitorial than usual. But Friday was two days away, two rotations of trash bags, two rounds of sweeping the classrooms, three applications of Windex on the front door’s many hand smirches, and at least one round of pine shavings poured atop a first-grader’s post-fish-stick sick.
There was always a lot of milling around at these fabricated holidays, and milling around made Dr. Bomar irritable. He pulled at his tie and cleared his throat into the microphone, his mighty Adam’s apple squirming. Below him, the children flowed in cross currents and eddies. Miss Rutledge, who really ought to have spent less time showing the kindergartners how to draw a face atop their brown crayon scribbles and more time figuring out the seating arrangement, was running around taking photos with an enormous flash. Dr. Bomar had asked her to, of course, but her movements, her flash added to the chaos. Besides, the new brochure did not need glossy photos of kids milling aimlessly about, particularly not those fourth graders staggering beneath unwieldy paper mache birthday cakes, still slightly wet. Dr. M. did not like surreal imagery.
An additional ripple of disorder emanated from the second graders, who were being introduced to a small black girl. They pressed in close, mesmerized by the hot pink beads in her hair. Keisha bore this with an expression very like her uncle’s, her thousand-yard stare softened by long, curly lashes.
Rachael Mathis had strayed over from the sixth grade, a self-appointed guardian of the visitor.
“She goes to my old school,” said Rachael, finally managing to capture several of Keisha’s resistant fingers in a semblance of hand-holding. “Tell them how nasty the pizza is.”
“Rachael, what grade are you in?” said Mrs. Bart.
“Then I think that’s who you ought to be sitting with.”
Rachael walked as if there were a tightrope on the gym floor no one else could see. Some of her classmates in the sixth grade had begun to practice the brutal sorting instincts they would need in middle school, and Rachael could not be sure who would have her. Her best friend Miranda was up on the stage, practicing her speech to herself, lips moving.
They sang their song: “If the potty’s flowing, and you need a helping hand...” Miranda watched Eli’s face. He was smiling the same way she did when the boys told jokes that she was supposed to understand. When she wasn’t sure if it would be better to pretend to get it. There wasn’t much time to imagine what he might be thinking: in a few more moments she was going to have to adjust the microphone down to her height and speak into it.
For a prolonged moment, Miranda left the stage, the gymnasium, Nashville. Her nerves registered only two nodes of sensation: the cool damp of her palms and the circle of heat atop her left ear where her mother, trying to make her prettier for the performance, had burned her with the curling iron. She dissolved into the request she was sending heavenward: a miracle, a miracle, a miracle. And so she was the last one to notice that a fight had broken out in the second grade.
As Miranda contemplated her speech, the second graders’ inquisitive overtures to Keisha grew bolder. A few of them reached out to touch the hair beads. Suddenly, they wanted a black friend the way they wanted the toys and cereals that filled the gaps between Saturday morning cartoons: passionately, genuinely, briefly. Someone wrapped his hand around a braid and pulled.
Please, said Dr. Bomar, You all are acting like a bunch of Cletus’s. He huffed stormy gusts into the microphone, but there was no regaining control. His mind grasped for a Cletus story but could not find purchase: if he made Cletus a racist, he could never use him again to teach the children about saying thank you to their mothers or hanging their coats in an orderly fashion on the hooks provided. Panicked, Miss Toon began to play “Jesus Loves the Little Children of the World,” and while some of the younger children sang nobly along, they did not know what was meant by “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” In their experience, children were mostly light orange.
Miss Rutledge walked into the midst of the screeching as surely as Shadrach into the fiery furnace. She took Keisha to the playground, where the girl sat on the teachers’ bench and cried. When she had cried herself down to a few wet snuffles, the girl got up and walked over to the jungle gym. Without its usual load of children, it looked taller and more forbidding. Keisha climbed to the highest rung and looped her legs over the top. She hung upside down as still as a piece of fruit, her arms an inverted V, her braids just barely clicking against one another. Miss Rutledge picked up the camera.
By Dr. Bomar’s accounting, that started a sort of miracle. Keisha’s photo appeared in the new brochure. In a few more years, it was the 90s and the school actually had some black students. They were as welcome as anyone else to sit on Dr. Bomar’s shoes and hear Cletus stories. But that was more inevitability than miracle.
For Miss Rutledge, there was something miraculous about finding a place to stay in Paris, so that she could finally afford her dream vacation on a teacher’s salary. No romance emerged, but Matthieu’s sister taught her to tie a scarf in a manner both chic and cavalier and became her pen-pal for life.
Miss Toon did eventually share a kiss with Dr. Bomar, late one night in her classroom, followed by some vague groping in the music closet. It happened twice more before they agreed to pretend it hadn’t; still, the incidents kept their consciences busy and their cheeks pinked for a long time. But that was not the miracle.
In the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Chile, a turtle circled listlessly. For days now, it had been unable to eat. From time to time it swung its jaw over a flotilla of plankton, but swallowing plankton increased the restriction in its esophagus without relieving the emptiness of its belly. It was no longer certain which direction was the sky and which the deep. When another of the listless rubber creatures drifted its way, the turtle did not remember that it was with such a meal that the trouble had begun.
And yet this time the inevitable failed to happen. The new balloon, a yellow one, lodged itself beside the blue one for only a moment. Perhaps the turtle took a fortuitous swallow; perhaps the properties of balloon latex have been neglected by scientists. With a rubbery squink, the yellow balloon dislodged the blue and both passed harmlessly through the turtle’s digestive tract. In fact, when the heroic yellow balloon was excreted into ocean, its markings were still intact. Had anyone near had the opposable thumbs to stretch it out, he could’ve had seen that what at first appeared to be Sanskrit expanded into the plain six-grade phonetics of “Miranda” who did not dot her I with a heart.