Authors: Sue Stauffacher
Ms. Linski decided, for some reason fathomable only to high priestesses in India, that I would be a stabilizing influence on Sarah Kervick.
“Sarah will sit next to you, Franklin. And if she needs help, you will provide her with it. Quietly.”
Mentally, I calculated the effects of Ms. Linski's words on my health. “Quietly” meant whispering. Whispering meant closeness. Closeness meant contamination range. Every time I thought of Sarah Kervick's mouth and hair coming into contact with my breathing space, my blood pressure inched toward the ceiling.
But it seemed that Sarah Kervick did not want to ask me anything. She spent most of the morning leaning back in her seat with her hands pushed up under her armpits as if she were unbearably cold. When Ms. Linski asked Sarah to open her math book, she simply raised one eyebrow and flipped the book over.
Something told me Sarah Kervick was not National Merit Scholar material.
After lunch, I came back to find a note on my desk. It said, “Met me tomorow after scool. Owt bak.”
I glanced over at Sarah Kervick. A torn sheet of paper and a pencil had replaced the overturned math book.
“I'm afraid that's impossible,” I said, keeping my voice low. “I'm having my left hamstring professionally stretched tomorrow. You see, one of my legs—”
“You be there,” she returned, in what could be interpreted as a growl.
“These appointments are very hard to get,” I told her, searching my mind for the made-up name of an impressive-sounding doctor.
“Because I'm gonna wrap your tongue around your neck and choke you with it if you don't come.”
“I see. Well.” There didn't seem to be any more to say on the subject.
“Could you add psychological counseling to that list?” I now asked my mother as she filled a quart-size thermos with coffee.
“I can't afford counseling for you! If anybody needs counseling around here, it's me! I go to work every day and run errands on my lunch hour. Try to go to the grocery store and live in the same house with a kid like you! The produce is covered with pesticides, the cookies are filled with oxygenated vegetable oil—”
“That's hydrogenated.” “… the hot dogs are poison, the jellybeans are diseased—”
“I never said they were diseased!”
“Well, if you must know, I've been invited to meet the most fearsome student in Ms. Rita Linski's fifth-grade class after school
the school,” I shouted back in defense. “This is not where the buses pick up, Mother. They do not mow this part of the property! There are glass shards, cigarette butts, possibly even human remains back there!”
My mother walked over and cupped my chin, turning my head this way and that. “I think Grandma was right,” she said, finally. “You need something to distract you from all these crazy fantasies about shrinking and contamination and violence.”
She went over to the counter, picked up a knife, and stabbed it into a tub of room-temperature margarine.
As she slathered her toast, she said, “You need what every red-blooded American boy needs, Franklin, and that is baseball.”
A nerve beneath my left eye began pulsing wildly.
“How you can mention blood and baseball in the same sentence while I am attempting to ward off an anxiety attack about a far more immediate issue of danger is beyond me,” I managed to choke out.
“Marvin Howerton, then,” my mother said, snapping on her tool belt. “Is that what this is about? Marvin Howerton?”
I simply looked at her with tear-filled eyes. I was letting her imagination do the rest. The name Sarah Kervick could not possibly have conjured up the same horrible image as the one of her son flat on his back with Marvin Howerton's beefy fists dangling over him.
My mother stared at me. Then she shoved a triangle of toast into her mouth.
“Remember to lead with your long arm,” she said, and she was gone.
How I have survived to this day, I cannot tell you.
At school, I experienced a feeling close to rapture when I realized that Sarah Kervick was absent! I gazed lovingly at the empty seat of her desk until the thought occurred to me that she might be at home twisting rope into a coil or lifting weights in anticipation of our after-school meeting.
Never has a school day gone by so fast. Never have I felt so sentimental about multiplying fractions or westward expansion or even Ms. Linski's cereal box premium collection.
I was so distracted I forgot to check the surface of my seat upon returning from the pencil sharpener. I sat directly on a piece of gum that had been masticated by none other than Marvin Howerton. Though I immediately applied liquid Goo Gone from the travel bottle I keep in my desk, it made me feel slightly nauseated for the rest of the day to think that Marvin Howerton's saliva had made contact with my clothes.
At 3:15, I tried to engage Ms. Linski in a long discussion on the merits of decoder rings over, say, two-way wristband radios. But she was not interested.
“It's time to pack up, Franklin,” she said, flinging our carefully researched papers into her schoolbag and dismissing me without a backward look.
This roller coaster of emotion was definitely not good for my health. I decided to take my blood pressure with the sphygmomanometer my grandparents had given me for Christmas as soon as I got home.
As I collected my things, I reasoned that it was entirely possible that Sarah Kervick had fallen victim to some tragic domestic accident and would be unable to make our meeting. Most accidental deaths occur within five miles of one's home.
What was I thinking? I was less than five miles from home myself. As Ms. Linski waited, clucking in the doorway, I weighed my options. Break for home was the odds-on favorite, but it didn't look so good as a long-range plan. I had a feeling that a make-up session with Sarah Kervick would be even more dangerous than what was in store for me today. So, I decided to simply peek around the corner on my way to the safety-assisted crosswalk to assure myself that the meeting was, indeed, off.
This being March, there was no tall grass to keep me from seeing her, hunkered down on the sidewalk, waiting for me at the opposite end of the basketball courts. Her bony knees stuck out from her dress like two flamingo legs. When Sarah Kervick saw me, she motioned me over with her thumb.
Hobbling across the pavement toward her, I felt a growing numbness in my legs. As I gazed at the naked trees, the basketball hoops, the four square on the asphalt, it all seemed unbearably beautiful.
“O Precious World,” I cried, and sank to my knees.
Within seconds, Sarah Kervick was hauling me up by my jacket lapels and dragging me bodily to a deserted corner of the schoolyard. Judging by the amount of discarded cigarette packs and candy bar wrappers, I realized that what I'd told my mother was true. Even the janitor, Mr. Shorevitz, never came back here.
Now I understood how doomed mobsters felt when being “taken for a drive.”
Sarah Kervick stood me on my feet and raised her arm. I noticed something in her right hand, glinting in the sun. I stared at it, transfixed, waiting for life to end. It took me a moment to realize this was not high-carbon stainless steel. This was … plastic. Tortoiseshell, to be exact. This was a comb.
“Comb it,” she growled.
“Comb it,” I repeated, frozen to the spot.
“And if I ever hear you told, I'll use this comb to brush your teeth and make you gargle with chlorine bleach.”
She slapped the comb in my palm, turned around, and folded her arms.
Despite myself, I almost blurted it out:
Why me? Do I look like a kid who would know something about this kind of female activity?
But a life has to be lived on principle. I would not be swayed from my principles, even in the heat of the moment. And the most important principle was,
Do not escalate tensions!
I pinched a mass of dirty, matted hair between my fingers and felt like the miller's daughter, the one who was supposed to spin straw into gold. Now that my life did not seem in immediate danger, I began to calculate the probability of contracting head lice from this exercise.
“Go on. Pull hard! You can't hurt me.” Sarah Kervick took all the ratty, stringy hairs from underneath her sweater and flattened them down against her back.
For a second time I was tempted to incite her to violence by asking why she didn't just do the job herself. I had barely begun when the answer revealed itself. Her hair was so knotted that
there was no way to separate one side from the other. She'd have to be a contortionist to complete the project by herself. I began by applying the comb to the most promising section of hair, the bottom half inch. Instantly, I met resistance. I tugged. I believe I saw her wince. Was it possible that Sarah Kervick felt pain? And where was my anti-bacterial, sanitizing hand wash—the kind you use without water—when I needed it?
I worked until I lost all feeling in my toes from the cold. Picturing the blackened lumps inside my shoes, I almost got up the courage to ask her if we could at least go back to my house, where yes! we enjoyed the modern convenience of an efficient gas heater with a dust and mold filter.
But then I had to weigh losing a few toes against the knowledge that Sarah Kervick knew where I lived.
A shadowy figure in the distance caught my eye and began to take form. Never had I been so happy, so utterly delighted, to see my mother! And she was wearing her tool belt, which clanked as she walked toward us and made her look rather menacing, I can tell you.
“Who are you?” Sarah Kervick asked.
I waited for my mother to dress her down. Show me a woman who could stand up to Sarah Kervick and I'll show you my mother, I thought. I swear the national anthem started playing in my head.
“I'm Franklin's mother,” she said, more surprised than angry. “And I came here to pick up the pieces of my son I imagined were strewn all over the playground.”
“Huh,” Sarah Kervick huffed. “Some imagination.”
Mother took it all in: the knotted tangles of Sarah Kervick's hair, the comb in my hand. Gently, she took Sarah by the shoulders and turned her around.
“For this, you will need a detangler, dear.”
“I think I've got some at home. Do you want to try it?” Sarah pulled a hunk of hair off her shoulder and examined it. She looked at me, disgusted. Then she shrugged her shoulders.
“Why not?” she said. And she followed my mother—a complete stranger to her!—right into the van.
They left me standing on the playground with my mouth open, comb in hand.
This truly is a world of wonders.
Sarah Kervick was very interested in my mother's van. She pressed the window button a couple of times and let her hands travel back and forth along the seat until she saw me watching her. Then she stopped and looked out the window.
“I'm Julia, by the way,” my mother said after she turned the volume on the radio down.
“Oh, hi,” Sarah said, all shy.
“And you are …”
“Sarah Kervick,” I told her.
“Sarah,” she repeated after me. “Just Sarah.”
It wasn't far to our house. As we turned into the driveway, I saw it the way Sarah Kervick might have, just another boxy brick ranch built in the 1950s to withstand a nuclear explosion. It rose out of the center of a ring of vegetation that threatened to swallow it up. In late spring or summer or even fall, our yard is filled with flowers and flowering bushes and trees. My mother is a little obsessive about flowers.
And since she's careful not to breed allergy-inducing plants, I can enjoy them, too. Except the strongly scented ones. Or lilies with stamens that stain your clothes. Or bee-attracting varieties. Allergic reactions to bee stings have caused the untimely death of many a child.
But just now, in mid-March, the dried puffs of hydrangea
blossoms lay beaten at the edge of the lawn, and the ferns looked as if someone had singed them with a blowtorch, their fronds all brown and crackled on the ground. The grassy areas were respectable enough, except where my mother and I had worn them away, she forcing me to engage in that medieval event otherwise known as batting practice and me jumping to get out of the way of her pitches.
“I like this house,” Sarah said under her breath as we pulled into the driveway. “But who's he?”
I followed her finger to Bernie Lepner, who was currently tucked away under one of our yew bushes.
My mother calls Bernie “dreamy.” He's in fourth grade, and his favorite game is still make-believe. And his favorite place to make believe is in the bushes around our house. You see, Bernie's parents are more traditional. They favor the lollipop-bush style of landscaping. Their yard is tidy and sanitary and unlikely to attract vermin. But it doesn't lend itself well to make-believe.
“Hey, Bern,” my mother said as she jumped out of the van. “What's going on in Rebeltown?”
Rebeltown is the name of the kingdom Bernie has created under our front porch.
“Hi, Julia,” Bernie said, smiling up at her from under a cloud of bangs. “There's a porcupine stampede going on right now.”
“This is our friend Sarah,” my mother said. Bernie gave Sarah a smile, too, as she and my mother bent closer to see the action. He'd scattered the prickly poppy husks from last summer across the ground beneath the yew bush. They were his porcupines.
I wasn't so interested in this because it was one of Bernie's favorite episodes and he replayed it several times a month.
“Franklin, I got another name for our list.”
“That's fine,” I said. “We can talk about it
“Stuart Little. He has a boating accident,” Bernie replied, flicking over some porcupine casualties with his finger and ignoring my request.
“So he does.”
“And a terrible leak in his birch-bark canoe, so that's two water accidents.”
“Yeah, okay. Well, we've got work to do here,” I said, backing up the front steps, hoping Bernie would get the hint.
“And he gets rolled up in a window shade, but I wasn't sure how to classify that.”
Sarah Kervick had picked up one of Bernie's porcupines and was stroking it with her finger.