A slender woman standing in front of the chalkboard points her chin toward a boy seated in the second row of desks. “Go ahead.”
“That’s not the way I see it,” he says, pulling his right arm down and crossing it across his chest on top of his left.
“So,” Miss Marcy begins, “what do you see happening?”
“The little girl doesn’t know what’s going on. The man’s gonna start in on some pervy stuff with the doll or something, but she doesn’t see it coming. She wouldn’t even know it’s wrong. She’s just happy that he’s playing with her since no one else is around.”
“Well what makes you think he’d do something wrong?”
“Because it just kind of sneaks up on you, him being a creep. I mean at first he’s all clean-cut and wholesome wearing that sweater with the button-down shirt collar underneath and the collar sticking out and so you know think that she’s going to trust him because he looks like some college boy, but then at the end he’s just gonna be a real a dirtball perv.”
A hand reaches slowly toward the ceiling. It belongs to a heavy-set girl wearing a hand-me-down Marvin the Martian tee shirt. Most of the students call her Big Sister, one part because she’s two years older than most of them and two parts because she takes care of three young boys back at the home. Two brothers and a cousin.
Miss Marcy, resisting the urge to provide a springboard rebuttal to the boy’s comment, nods an acknowledgement to the girl. She parts her lips, waiting to hear Big Sister’s piece.
Big Sister leans back in her chair, exhaling loudly and building toward her diatribe. “It’s like if he had greasy hair you’d be reading a different story. I mean like nasty greasy hair like it’s gonna drip out on the floor if he puts his hand to it. It ain’t like that, though. The guy, Derek Bellman, he’s this younger guy and the little girl thinks he’s all nice so you don’t expect nothing is weird with him. He doesn’t look like the creeps you see on television programs who snatch kids and lock them in a basement hole and take pictures of them. I know he’s a perv though just from what it says, but then it don’t pan out and that’s what I don’t like about the story. Like nothing happened. So I’m wond’ring why the story don’t end right. It don’t end the way a story should, like the usual stories we read, see. It just stops right in the middle of everything with that creepy stare the guy give the little girl and that thing he’s got on his mind.”
A student in the front corner of the room speaks up. “So what if it’s different?” the boy asks nodding to the side to address the previous respondent, “something is gonna happen, it just doesn’t happen in these pages. The author makes you live it in your head. They don’t write the sleazy stuff Bellman is gonna do, instead they set it up so that you have no choice but to imagine what’s gonna happen to that little Gracie. It won’t be good, you can feel it. Clearly, he’s about to ̶”
“ ̶ can we slow up for a second here?” Big Sister forcibly reinserts herself back into the dialogue. “Can you tell me why we have to read about this? Like there ain’t enough of this trash happening out in the world now we got to read made up stories about it, too? I’m reading this last night after I fixed the runts dinner and that’s all I could think of was what if a man like this was really in charge of watching a little girl like this Baby Gail. Every word I read after that I just kept seeing red and I couldn’t go on no more. So why we reading this, Marcy? Why you always pulling this depressing shit out the book for us to read?”
Miss Marcy clears her throat, purses her lips, and tilts her head down, pinning her gaze on Big Sister.
“Miss Marcy, well paaar-don me,” Big Sister chortled in response, fully realizing she neglected to apologize for her vulgarity.
Miss Marcy moved from behind her desk and to the black board, writing some words of Big Sister’s frustrated summation in yellow chalk. She double-underlines the final remark: “Why do we read?” Pivoting to face the class, she asks, “I am curious to know the moment in the story you began feeling uneasy about Derek Bellman.”
Big Sister looks down at the pages open in front of her, moving her finger slowly over the lines. “Oh yeah, wait, I do remember that. Here. Right here where it the girl looks down to the doll and they say what the dirtball’s thinking. Right at the end.”
“Ok. Can you read that part for us?”
Big Sister clears her throat. “‘Gracie held the little cloth doll in the cradle that formed where her dress covered her crossed legs. Her voice made it coo. Her tiny fingers tucked its hair behind an invisible ear. She picked it up and embraced it like her mother did her baby sister at home. All the while Derek Bellman stared at her from the perch of his aluminum chair, his thin lips pressed together beneath two glossy eyes. Gracie’s mother was running late again. After the girl who worked the daycare’s desk poked her head in the playroom and told him she was heading out an hour early, his mind became unsteady.’ Then that’s it. End of story.”
“Good. Now who can say something about this passage?” Miss Marcy moves to the side of the room and places her book on the windowsill above the radiator.
A boy wearing a denim vest over a white tee shirt shifts in his seat and grunts. “Unsteady, huh? What’s that even mean except that he’s gonna do something to her.”
Marcy jumped in again. “Ok, so the language here is peculiar. Does he do anything?”
Big Sister jumps back in, heat propelling her words. “Well we never get nothing that says he does or doesn’t, but it’s pretty clear he’s up to no good. It’d be different if it was a lady watching the little girl.”
Most of the boys in the class chime in with a collective, “Oh, right.”
Miss Marcy tries to reel them back in. “But you never know what happened at the end, right? It just stops right in the middle, so who are you to say he’s bad or not. Maybe he skipped lunch and he’s getting dizzy since he has no food in his stomach.” The teacher’s question creates a brief hush, but it’s soon broken by a skinny girl wearing a daisy-print white dress in the back row.
“We think he’s bad because you’re always telling us that a story needs to have conflict. You say conflict is the heartbeat of a story and without it, nothing would move. So we expect conflict in this story, but there doesn’t seem to be any and so we go on what we’ve got. In the absence of conflict, our interpretive instincts tell we must invent our own.” After saying her piece, Daisy looks exhausted. Although she usually speaks but once a class period, her choice words gild Marcy’s lessons in gold. The teacher often wishes she could somehow share part of her meager salary with the girl as payment for the wisdom she imparts from the seat in the back. At the very least she could buy the girl lunch.
Denim Vest, sitting in the front row, starts without turning to face the girl whose comments he’s addressing. Marcy has a feeling the boy might take the discussion back to where it was before Daisy’s out-of-the-box comment connected some critical dots. She braced for impact as Denim Vest began.
“Look, we reading about this and it’s like the man is a sleaze-ball even though he looks nice and he has a nice haircut and all. It’s like good to read stories like this since we don’t usually think that this is how this kind of things happen. Like Miss Marcy say we need to take something away from this? Pervs come in all shapes and you shouldn’t trust your babies with anyone. ‘Specially not no white man.”
Miss Marcy had her arms crossed, her hind parts resting on the cold metal of the radiator. Denim Vest’s last bit had sparked something, especially among the fairer-skinned kids in her class. She followed the conversation with her eyes, observing the lips of those speaking and netting their auditory responses. She had trained herself to be a neutral listener, not like those first-year instructors who’d smile or start to glow pink when a student said something they agreed with or made a point that really hit. Sure, she felt better knowing she had at least one kid like Daisy in her midst, but the mere fact they had read and were talking about this story was a huge victory. Miss Marcy needed them to realize there was no brilliant end-all comment that could be made here, not even the brilliance from Daisy. Discussing a story never really ends. Look at the Bible and the discussions its stories have sparked, she’d often say. How’s that for literature’s ability to bring people together and to tear people apart? Writers put stories down in ink, hitting play to a tape that has the potential to run for the rest of recordable time. She’d never taught this cloth doll daughter story before, namely because she wasn’t certain it would be very well received by her students, but more so because she knew it would cause a stir among their parents, no matter how ambiguously it ended. Resting against the radiator, watching the debate expand, Miss Marcy decided it would be a story she would teach again.