Conjugation, a short story

Here’s a short story I wrote back in 2005 called Conjugation, first published in the arts magazine Border Crossings, and then, later, reprinted in the Journey Prize anthology, volume 18.

 

CONJUGATION

As I awoke one morning from uneasy dreams I found myself back in grade four. All summer I’d dreaded this day and now it was here, the new school year. My clock alarm went off and I patted the snooze button and just lay there with my eyes closed—6:45 a.m. and I had to get up and go to grade four. It was somehow uniquely depressing, grade four, sort of inescapably elementary. I didn’t even want to yawn and admit the day had begun. Still half asleep, I had a vague sense that some rude sunlight was coming through a window. I was getting nervous now. My bed seemed the only safe place. I didn’t rise when the snooze was over and my alarm started making a fresh little electronic scream— Well, I can admit it now, that’s when I finally started to cry. And no one came to dab my cheeks and give me a glass of orange juice before I got out of bed, and no one pulled back the drapes—first warning me to avert my salty eyes from the sun—and no one started my tub running so it was hot and ready by the time I came to sit in it, and no one helped me pick out some nice clothes from my dresser, or iron them, or button them, or tuck them in for me, and no one made me breakfast, not even a bowl of Mini-Wheats, not even a banana was peeled for me, and no one drove me to school and kissed me on the cheek and wished me a good day. No. No, I did all that. And I drove myself to school, and I asked the secretary in the principal’s office for permission to use a vacant spot in the staff parking lot because of course there was no student parking at Whispering Pines Elementary School.

 

I tried to appear nonchalant while the children of grade four gawked at me with no sign of shame—in what grade did a kid learn about shame? I looked at their soft faces and smiled in an open and hopefully well-adjusted way. Fact was I was totally nervous. I was sweating in my new t-shirt. I scanned my new classroom, nodding serenely at a poster of a monkey on a snowboard. Running along the tops of the walls was a series of cards with a picture of an animal on each and both their French and English names written below. Cow, Vache. Sheep, Mouton. Cat, Chat. Moose, Orignal. Hanging from the ceiling, a hand-made thing explored our vast planetary system in styrofoam and construction paper and multi-coloured pipecleaner. I suppressed the urge to sob.

I always hated children, even when I was one. I preferred the Bible to Sunday cartoons, cheese to chocolate, privacy to community. I kept to myself in school. I made basically zero friends.

Kids, the teacher said. She guided me by the crook of the elbow to the front of the class. I could tell by the civilized look on her face she’d been warned about me in advance. This smile she used on me she practiced maybe all summer long. Her hand in my crook like that, and her voice so affected and brave like it was, I felt a bit more in control and a little more helpless, and I thought I might be able to learn something from a woman like this. Kids, she said, this is our new classmate. His name is Lee.

I stood there.

I’m Ms. Durant, she said, and shook my hand. She was young, maybe a bit older than me, it was hard to tell. I was a foot taller than her.

Hi, I said. Nice to meet you, I said to the class. And then I took my seat.

 

We learned arithmetic in the morning and that helped me relax. We did some math exercises in our cahiers, and then a benign pop quiz, a kind of refresher course for those pupils who’d been in grade three last year and not working for an academic publisher.

I finished my quiz and sat facing the window, to daydream. A white cloud so white that I couldn’t quite believe it rolled by not too high off the ground.

A girl behind me tapped my shoulder. Her name was Melinda, a pretty little religious girl (she prayed in a loud whisper before the pop quiz). I looked back and she handed me a note folded into a kind of origami. It was one of those origamis I remembered being very popular one year and then just as quickly forgotten. There was a time when I could’ve made this miniature paper alcazar as well or better, but it was a forgotten art to me now. But it was odd to discover that even after I’d grown up, those same elements of childhood I’d experienced still existed in the here and now. Grade four was the origami grade.

I opened the note. It read: We want to know the answer to number 6.

When I put the note down on my desk I looked up to Ms. Durant, who was busy at something. Only after reading the note did I remember what kind of infraction I’d made simply by reading the note. God, new to the school and already the little buggers were trying to get me in trouble. I looked at my classmates. They were waiting to see what I’d do. No one was working. Immediately it became clear this was a test, my first of the year. Would I help them, my little co-pupils? Whose side was I on?

I shook my head, no. Of their cheating I would have no part. The origami I flattened as best I could, and put inside my desk.

While they all worked, I went back to my daydreaming. The cloud was gone.

I checked my watch. It was almost time for recess. An elastic bounced sharply off my ear and a round of vindictive giggles went through the room.

Shh, Ms. Durant requested.

Soon we moved on to fractions and the kids started to look antsy.

 

My next mistake was at recess, before I was even outside. This was an old school, a brick tower built in the nineteen-twenties with what felt like a hundred portables sprouting from it. Portable classrooms: the ghetto of education. Our class was lucky to be in the school proper, where two sets of old doors exited to the playground, one set for boys and one for girls. Well, without even noticing I went out with the girls.

This is the girls side, a little grade-oner explained. She pointed to the girls washroom. See?

I’m sorry, I didn’t know.

What are you doing here anyway? She asked. Shouldn’t you get a job?

Never you mind, I said.

 

Once outside I sat on a looping metal bar meant for bicycles and watched kids play. A mafioso of girls stood in a shady corner and discussed private matters. I noticed Melinda—the girl whose desk was behind me—standing by herself at her own set of bike bars and I thought how interesting and desirable she’d be someday, eventually making a zealot very happy. There was a game of tag in the field she seemed to regard with mild amusement. Some boys were crouched on the ground looking serious and getting dirty. Recess was only fifteen minutes. I couldn’t figure out why they thought so much could get done. Kids and dogs are alike in that they are so docile, but if you frighten or confuse or keep them penned up in cages too long they turn vicious. They need to get out as much as they need to be in. Or they kill you.

I thought I no longer needed recess but when the school buzzer went off and I had to go back in to class my whole body clenched. Meanwhile a scurry of impromptu races made the kids all vanish back into their classes in under a minute, with me still walking to the door.

The principal gave me an emphatic pat on the shoulder, How are you enjoying your first day back in school?

It’s fine, Ms. Wilson. It’s fine, thanks.

We walked through the boy’s door even though Ms. Wilson was a girl. It’s a good class, she said, but they all know each other, so don’t be alarmed if it takes a while for them to warm up to you.

I think it’s cool kids in grade four still make origami.

She nodded, Oh I know. Grade four is great for that kind of thing. Can I give you some advice?

Sure.

Teach the boys a code, make up a language, and send notes in it.

Good call.

Don’t tell Emma I told you that.

Who’s Emma?

Oh, pardon me: Ms. Durant. Ms. Wilson laughed, Ha ha, and walked back to her principal’s office.

 

I sat at my desk and conjugated verbs. After a long time deliberating I finally got the nerve to put up my hand and was astounded to feel my eyebrows raise too. Some kind of juvenile reflex saying, Please, do you see me?

Yes, Lee?

Can I go to the bathroom?

Ms. Durant checked over her shoulder to the clock. It’s fifteen minutes until lunch. Can it wait?

I suppose it can. I turned my head back to my desk, a little flustered, and a bit sore in the bladder.

She went back to the lesson. I ran, I run, I will run, she said, writing it all on the chalkboard. Meanwhile I tried to cross my legs but the desk was too low and my knee wouldn’t go over.

 

Before lunch, Ms. Durant handed out a form, counting out how many in each row and giving the forms to the person at the front to pass back.

Have your parents sign these and bring them back as soon as possible, she said. No one seemed to read what was on the form so I chose not to either.

I didn’t know where to eat, and somehow found it unbearable to follow the other kids into the lunchroom, so I went to my car and ate in the back seat. I’d made myself a ham sandwich. Even so I peeled the top slice of bread away to look at the meat inside, and said to myself, Ham sandwich. I ate it, disgusted with myself for such a boring lunch. I broke the straw from my juice box and tore it out of its wrapper and pierced it through the foil top and squeezed the juice into my mouth until the box was as flat as could be. I finished off two Oreo cookies and tried to remain calm. Only a few hours left and I could go home.

 

School let out at 3:30 and everyone scrambled to the cloak room to put on their jackets and by the time I got to mine everyone was gone except the other pariah in the class, a boy named Derek who looked like a snowman made of skin. He was tying his laces so slowly a kind of hatred welled up in me. Even the academic press staff at their most irritating didn’t make me feel this kind of rage.

I understand you drove here, Lee, he said to me. He was a mouth-breather. He looked so deeply stupid.

Derek, I said.

Derek is my name. That’s right. He regarded me, up and down, like a boy. I loathed him.

It’s true, I drove here, I said.

I have missed the bus again, he said. I always miss the bus.

Oh.

Now I have to walk home. He groaned. I have to walk through the high school park.

Why not walk around it?

It’s the short-cut, he said. He peered at me as if I was dense. No way I was giving this pudge a ride.

Derek, I have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.

 

At home that night I had a bit of a conniption. Making dinner I’d thrown a chicken breast in the oven and put on the timer. When the timer went beep and I opened the oven door I realized I’d never turned on the heat. Then I freaked out.

Aaaah, I screamed. The hair on my head was really on the verge of rising when the scream abruptly ended. I sat in a chair and rested my face. I took a deep breath.

I said to myself, Good god, I can’t go back there tomorrow. I just can’t.

I unzipped a compartment of my backpack and finally looked at the form Ms. Durant gave us that day. The upshot was we needed consent from our legal guardians for an overnight trip to a forest. I signed the damn thing immediately and crammed it back deep into the fuggy bottom of my bag.

The phone made its sound and I contemplated not answering. How crazy was it to not answer the phone? The odds of it being someone phoning to ask me how my first day back in elementary school was were so unkindly high that I knew if I didn’t answer it, that person, whoever it was, would almost certainly know I hadn’t answered the phone for the very reason that I didn’t want to talk with them about my day.

Hi, Lee.

Howdy, I said.

There was a silence, time for me to conjure up an image of my girlfriend sitting on her futon, having finished her own dinner and flipping through a fashion magazine with just enough energy to envy the women she saw there, and now deciding to be the first cruel person to care enough about me to ask how was elementary school.

How did school go today? She said it with a calculated lack of emphasis.

Fine, I said.

Fine? That’s all?

I dunno, I said.

Did you just say, I dunno? I could hear the magazine fall from her lap. She was standing now. Her place was always a ghastly mess, the lair of an otter obsessed with prized clamshells. She liked to look out the window when she talked on the phone, always exempt from the private reality behind her unctuous lifestyle.

So, how was it?

Baby, did you know they still make origami in grade four?

What? She sighed rather too heavily. Don’t you see why it’s so hard to connect with you? You push me away with all this nonsense.

Ms. Durant: I was thinking about her, in all honesty. The way her lips slanted down while she thought, her slim gentle hand brushing chalk from the blackboard with a yellow shammy, her laugh which started as a squeak and finished in a silent giggle.

 

It was an old desk. I got to know it well. The wood split at the corners and on its face someone long ago had carved the word KISS into it, and then later, maybe someone else, had filled the letters in with red ink. I respected desk vandalism. I also liked the green pole that connected the desk to the chair. When my hands felt too warm I cooled them on the metal.

During art class all the boys except for Derek got together and drew these incredibly detailed blueprints for buildings. The buildings could never be made, no logic to them, but wonderful all the same. I watched each boy take a portion of a large section of unrolled newsprint paper and start to work out plans for their wing of this enormous building. They steadfastly used rulers and incessantly sharpened their pencils. A boy named Chris was in charge. He requested revisions if designs didn’t satisfy criteria he invented.

A fuzzle never uses stairs, Chris said. Make that an escalator.

What’s a fuzzle? I asked.

Chris didn’t answer. He chose to sharpen his pencil and work more closely on the main entrance.

Alex, another boy whom I admired for his huge mature forehead, turned to me and said, A fuzzle is a perfectly round animal that is one point one eight sixth of a millimetre.

An incredibly tiny animal. Does it have eyes?

Yes, it has eyes.

How does it move?

Without taking his concentration off his work, Chris finally answered me. It uses very sensitive feelers. It’s covered in very sensitive feelers. It looks like hair, but it isn’t.

What does it eat?

Datum, another boy replied.

Datum? What’s that?

Chris put his pencil down, as if every moment I took away from their work cost him money. It was like talking to someone in the marketing department of the academic press where I worked. Datum is invisible speckles of floating meat, Chris managed to say.

I decided not to ask any more questions about fuzzles. I really wanted to be invited to work on the fuzzle project, but for now I was working on something a lot more mundane. With the only pair of left-handed scissors I was dutifully cutting out construction paper and making a two-dimensional garden.

I thought I’d try something I remembered from school. I took a jar of pins from the cupboard and started piercing them through the thin first layer of skin on the palm of my hand.

Hey, guys, I said. Check this out. I held my hand up and they gathered around to see if the pins would fall.

All the boys quickly had pins in their hands. They got an idea to freak out the girls with their newfound nightmare, and naturally, being girls, they started to make a lot of screamy noise and Ms. Durant came over.

Take those pins out of your hands, she said. Who gave you the bright idea to do this? Chris?

No, Chris said. No, it wasn’t me, it was Lee.

As I pulled pins from my hands, Ms. Durant stood beside me looking baffled. Thanks a lot, Chris, I said.

I’m a little surprised, she said.

I’m sorry, Ms. Durant. I remembered doing this when I was in school and thought—.

Yes, well. Not every tradition needs to be passed along to the next generation.

True enough, I said. When she walked back to her desk I hissed at Chris, You snitch.

Alex said, Yeah, Chris. He rolled his eyes at me, as if to reiterate to me that Chris was the worst kind of friend—a true rat. Someone was taking my side, I couldn’t believe it. I gave Alex a wink, and a smile, and he liked that, but really I was holding back tears of joy.

 

At home I was able to work the oven, and when the phone made its ridiculous sound I answered without hesitation.

We learned about Louis Riel, I told the director of the academic press.

Don’t underestimate the skills you’re learning. Be aware of the skills.

I’m totally aware of the skills. I’m meshing with the skills.

I’m serious, Lee. Please don’t think if you come back from this and nothing has changed that you can expect to keep your job. We’re a team, right? A community, Lee.

I wanted to tell him to piss up a rope, or to especially fuck himself, but I was predictably obsequious. We are a team, I said. I understand completely.

Anyway, he said, we’re hoping to have you back, all refreshed and such.

We left it at that. I sat in front of the TV for the rest of the evening doing my homework, drinking box wine until I was so drunk I couldn’t brush my teeth.

 

School was fine. Melinda and I talked occasionally. I asked her what church she attended and was irked to learn it was something Mormon. I had no idea they’d migrated so far north, I said.

Yes, it’s true, she said.

What do you do for fun? I asked.

I don’t know, she said. We have Bible school, that’s where most of my real friends are.

My real friends don’t go to this school either, I said.

After it sunk in, she giggled, and we shared that little laugh. The way she tilted her head, crinkled her cute little eyes, I could tell this poor little girl, this nice little Mormon girl, was beginning to have her first crush, the first of, I estimated, three, before she would utterly stamp away all her nigglings of religious doubt and sexual curiosity to marry a drab Mormon four and a half years older than her. She’d always remember me though: The first boy to show her some charm and attention like no boy in the fourth grade could ever express, Mormon or normal. Too bad I was twenty-eight and she only nine.

Buoyed by the strength of a young girl’s infatuation, I decided I was going to displace Chris as the alpha male of the classroom. The little monkey king with his fuzzle worship. Chris was going down. I wasn’t going to be his replacement, though. My plan was to make Alex the new leader of the boys. Alex and his wide, sage forehead would rule all. His brains and my adulthood: We were unstoppable.

 

My plan to overthrow Chris happened quickly, such is the way kids do everything. At an academic press it might’ve taken half a career, but in elementary school it took all of an hour. Basically after one lunch when Alex and I kept to ourselves, Chris began to fear he was losing Alex as a friend, so he started to buddy up to me in class, and went so far as to invite me to work on the fuzzle project. I think he figured it was better to have me on board than to lose Alex, who might initiate a mass friend exodus. But it didn’t matter. It was like checkmate whatever move Chris made.

Your lines aren’t straight enough, Chris muttered to me.

Sorry, I said, and sharpened my pencil. I gave Alex a wink and we smiled at each other. On one of the balustrades I was working on I added a rococo finish Chris approved of, not knowing it was actually a graffiti of code. Alex and I had invented this great code over the lunch-hour and already using it to undermine Chris and his fuzzles. My code translated simply as, Chris farts.

Alex replied by adding a wing of the building named, again in code, Chris is a farter.

 

 

There was a problem though. I was failing. Over Christmas break I spent time with my girlfriend’s family, chatting aimlessly or watching television shows I hated. My girlfriend ignored me even more than usual, moving me aside like a whining door. But I couldn’t concentrate on anything besides my low letter grades anyway. I excused myself for long stretches of family time just to hide in my girlfriend’s childhood bedroom and stare anxiously at the report card I kept hidden in my back pocket. I had one gold star, in music, because I already knew how to play the recorder. My only comfort came in knowing I wouldn’t have to show anybody my marks. My own parents were already dead, a depressing and shameful relief.

We’d begun long division in October and no matter how much I studied, it always left me confused. What was with that little table, held up by one leg and a number underneath it? The footrest of a number beside the table and a vase of numbers somehow (how?) appearing on top. It was a total bafflement. And then on a crucial social studies test I’d mistakenly written that Lois Riel was born in Edmonton—what was I thinking?

The worst was Ms. Durant’s comments. Unlike the other kids in my class I had a career to think about. I was sleeping poorly, I was constipated, and I related it all to my marks. I lay in my girlfriend’s childhood bed, underneath the chenille blanket and sour yellow sheets, and looked at my report card without blinking. Must learn to play fairly. Causes mischief. Does not play well with others.

 

In January, during art class, I broke it to the others. Alex, I said, I don’t think this wozzle compound is working out.

What do you mean? he said. Since Alex and I found ourselves in a leadership position there’d been no more fuzzles. Chris was devastated but too fearful of alienation to quit altogether, and so, with Hamish and Steven, and even dumb Derek, Chris agreed to work on a project Alex outlined as a giant war compound for wozzles, an even smaller creature than a fuzzle, perfectly cube-shaped and deadly poisonous, hovering just above the earth on a magnetic force field.

I could feel Ms. Durant nearby, and hoped she was listening to the conversation. I said, Wozzles prepare, but for what? What do they plan on going to war against? Now, Chris, I said.

Huh? Chris lifted his head up. He had so little energy for wozzles that his pencil was nothing but a tiny soft nub and his portion of the compound was a dull, hazy mess of wavy lines.

This wozzle here is deadly poisonous. All you have to do is touch one and you die. What kind of defense does the fuzzle have?

Chris thought for a minute. I was worried he’d say it had no defenses, a victim of never knowing a predator. But I knew if this kid was smart about anything, it was fuzzles. Finally, brilliantly, he said, A fuzzle has death-ray vision.

Boys, I said, it’s time we had a sleep-over. I think the fuzzles and the wozzles are about to go to war.

 

Over our ham sandwiches and detwizzled cheese tubes we sat at a large table in the lunchroom and laboriously developed this big survey map of the terrain where fuzzles would meet wozzles. Since both of these creatures were so tiny, the terrain we decided on was a vegetable garden. It had the rugged earth terrain we desired as well as lots of varying flora and underground dimensions, potatoes and carrots, which could act as cover. We all became detailed agricultural draftsmen, with Hamish showing some astonishing work rendering cabbage and broccoli. The job of critical appraisal was restored to Chris, and once again we were a tireless and coordinated group of sharpened pencils and vanishing erasers.

Then in gym class a girls against boys dodge-ball game ended in tragedy. Forgetting completely about how much stronger I was, I whacked Melinda in the face so hard with the volleyball her whole body swung through the air and she landed in a sobbing heap on the ground.

Oh my god, I’m so sorry, Melinda.

That’s it, said Ms. Durant. Detention after school, Lee. You should know better than to throw that hard. Are you okay, Melinda?

My face! she wailed.

 

Melinda was sent home sporting a gruesome bruise on the entire left side of her head. That afternoon was a misery. I felt her empty desk behind me, like a kind of apparition, breathing without breath down my neck. Her voice interrupted my every thought. My face! I heard her say. My face! My face!

I thought it’d make me feel very guilty, said Ms. Durant, to force a grown man to write lines, but frankly, I’m a little concerned. Didn’t you read what I wrote on your report card, or do you not care?

I didn’t answer right away. I was writing, I will not throw so hard in gym class ever again, over and over on five pages, double-sided, single-spaced.

I don’t know, I said. For a minute there I totally forgot I was an adult.

I agree.

You gotta know how important it is for me to pass. My whole career is riding on me passing grade four.

Ms. Durant wore a little green sweater and she had her hair cut recently so I could see a pair of adorable rectangular silver earrings, and I wanted to comment on them but it didn’t seem like the most opportune time. She said, Well, you’re attitude is very inconsistent.

My heart is in the right place, I said. I have a friendship with Melinda none of the other kids share with her. I hope she’ll forgive me.

She’s a Mormon, you know.

Nevertheless.

We were silent. I continued my lines. She leaned back against a desk and I couldn’t help but kind of desire her.

She smelled of cocoa butter. I wrote a few more lines.

Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? I said

She blinked. Go ahead, she said. I might not answer it though.

How was I going to ask this, I thought, and no sooner had I delayed than I became really nervous. Contrary to popular opinion, sometimes it is wise to speak before thinking. I’m wondering if, I’m curious if, well, ha ha, do you have a boyfriend?

She bit her lip and thought, intelligently, then finally, with melancholy, she said, A yes or no answer is unavailable at this time.

 

I went out and bought pijammas, not having owned any for close to fifteen years, just for the occasion of this night’s sleepover, and my finger was at the doorbell when Alex’s parents answered, both of whom I’d met at parent-teacher interviews. A very dormant couple from what I could tell. I had bags of chips in my hands, flavours I didn’t even know existed, like Chicken Fried Rice, Guacamole, and BBQ’d Steak. In my back pocket was a rolled-up Playboy—I thought it about time the boys learned something more about life than just wozzles and fuzzles.

I’m sorry, Lee, Alex’s father said in his pale and exhausted voice, like a man suffering from near-death ennui. He said, We’ve decided we can’t allow you to attend this sleep-over.

Don’t be absurd, I said. The conversation already seemed infinitely familiar from my days at the university press as I learned to dodge the scholarly cudgel of my halfwit boss.

You’re an adult, the man said. It sets a weird precedent. I’m sorry.

Don’t be sorry. Just let me in.

His parents stepped aside and I removed my shoes at the entrance. Sit down, I said. They sat down on their couch next to one another and his mother clapped on a living room light.

Look, I said. Alex is a very talented and intelligent young boy. He does well in school. You shouldn’t limit him.

I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to give us advice, his mother said, on how to raise our son. You’re a grown man and you met him as a classmate.

Don’t let that reflect on Alex. Here, I said, and pulled a little transparent pink box from my pocket, opened it. These are ear plugs. I thought you might end up needing them. Also, I gave my girlfriend your number, so if she calls, I’ll be in the rumpus room downstairs.

 

Things got started kind of slowly on the designs for the war because the boys paired up and pretended to fuck each other after poring through the Playboy. They called each other by the names of girls they adored. Oh, Jane, Hamish exclaimed from atop Steven. Oh, Mary, Steven replied. It was puzzling but I sympathized, and chose not to disrupt their fantasies. Little kids experiencing love for the first time. It was lewd and adorable simultaneously. I sat somewhat uncomfortably in a far corner and rummaged through old video games that looked about as joyful as a collection of broken phones.

At about 8:30 p.m. I decided to go upstairs and call my girlfriend.

You’re calling me from a sleep-over, she said.

Think of it more like a retreat, or working late. We’ve got a project on the go.

I’ve started seeing someone else, she said.

This comes as a complete shock, I said.

I called Melinda after that, concerned for her health.

You’re calling me from a sleep-over, she said.

It’s this fuzzle versus wozzle war. We’re working late. I called because I’m worried about you and wanted to apologize. Are you okay?

We gave me a Tylenol. Have you heard of that?

Tylenol? Yes, I have.

Yes, so I had one of those with ginger ale.

I am very sorry, Melinda.

It’s dodge-ball. It happens. God has forgiven you and so me too. Who is at the sleep-over?

Oh, you know, I said, the boys.

Is Chris there?

Yes.

Could you do me a big, big favour?

What’s that?

Could you, she paused. Could you tell him I like him?

My eyes kind of bugged out. Sure, I said. You bet, Melinda. Bye.

Oh, no! she squealed and giggled. Okay. No, call me tomorrow, okay? And then she hung up with a series of fumbles.

I went downstairs and studied the progress we’d made on the war. We were pretty much ready to start waging. I sat down with Chris and told him the news. He went so pale I thought he’d faint.

Well, do you like her? What should I tell her?

I like her, said Chris. I do like her, he said again as if it really had never occurred to him before. Let me look at that Playboy again, he said.

 

It wasn’t until Sunday I remembered we had our class field trip into the forest on Monday. That evening I went over the camping checklist, interrupted by the blurting sound of my phone.

We’ve filled your position, the director of the academic press said.

I’m completely shocked, I said.

We got busy. We needed someone.

I’m sure you were very busy. An academic press is a busy place.

I’ll give you a good recommendation.

For what? Grade five?

 

We took a big yellow bus into the forest. Us boys all went and sat at the back and when we drove over a serious bump the littlest ones, Steven and Hamish, would pop so high their hair would brush the ceiling.

Whee, they said in unison.

Careful, Ms. Durant yelped out over the megaphone.

Chris and Melinda sat in a seat together a few up from the back and our spy Alex reported they were holding hands but not speaking very much.

It’s often more complicated to talk, I mused. It’s better they just enjoy each other’s silence.

The forest was about thirty minutes from the city and included two large square fields separated by a column of trees, like a long, extremely narrow forest. It was very unnatural. We set up our tents in the line of trees, and made hamburgers and hot dogs over open fires and sang songs I forgot even existed and the kids didn’t know. Ms. Durant had a guitar and she sang and played at the campfire until it was time to go to bed. Her voice was beautiful and I became so relaxed. No job, no girlfriend, away in the forest and only a song to keep me from falling straight to sleep under a night filled with gold stars.

Alex, tucked into his brown bag, looked so small and new, I was reminded again of how much older and how much taller I was than any of my friends. Not that I wanted to be young again, or even small, but there was nothing in me that yearned to rejoin the world I’d left behind last September. The phony world of so-called grown-ups. I no longer considered myself back in grade four. For me this was, by virtue of all I’d gone through since I was nine years old, an entirely original grade.

 

Next morning Ms. Durant and her teaching partner announced we’d stage a game of capture-the-flag, and would split up into two teams. The morning air was just beginning to warm, and by the time we had the teams organized we were down to our t-shirts and the sun above us was a gleeful yellow. I was on the red flag team, with Alex as my leader, and it turned out that Melinda and Chris were both on the blue team—likely to get lost in the trees until a winner was announced. Our teams split up, each taking a field on either side of the column of trees, and went off to hide our flags.

Leaning on the wood beam of a fence, I watched as the game began and kids started racing off in all directions, climbing into bushes and getting lost and coming out covered in thistles and sap being chased by someone on the opposite team. Every now and then a kid would get tagged and put in our prison. Thanks to his wozzles, here on the field, Alex was a confident and brutal tactician. My pulse raced when I saw a child come close to our flag, but what with the incident during dodge-ball I was less than eager to get in there and start frightening kids. Better we lose than I smack someone else upside the head.

Ms. Durant came over and leaned on the wood beam with me.

Hello, she said.

Your kids are great, I said. You give them such good guidance. Look how well they play compared to those kids from the other class.

It’s true, they’re an energetic bunch. And how are you?

I’m enjoying sitting here and watching, I said. I’m proud of our strategies. I’m giving plenty of moral support.

I didn’t know what else to say so we fell silent and watched the kids. Almost foolishly, I wanted my team to win, but it was looking desperate. I counted my team-mates and figured we had little more than our defense left.

Ms. Durant said, I hope Alex is somewhere close to that blue flag, because if he’s in prison your team is sunk. You’ve got no one else.

What do you usually do with your summers? I asked her.

Me? Well, I go to the art galleries and museums and talk to curators and whatever. I read art magazines and history books.

That sounds really great, I said. I like galleries, too. I like museums.

She smiled. Just then, Alex came out of a row of trees, huffing, his face bright red. He saw me standing here and looked furious.

What are you doing just standing there? he screamed. We’re getting clobbered.        What am I supposed to do?

Well, run! he told me. You’re the fastest person on our team. We need you. I’m only one wozzle, he said. I can’t do everything myself.

I don’t know if I should, I said.

I looked at Ms. Durant for a hint. She was so beautiful, but she was my teacher. My grade four teacher. I thought, If only—if only—. And we stood there, on the other side of a fence from the kids in my class, and I really didn’t know what to do. Could I kiss her? Should I run?

Go on, she said. Your team needs you.

You’re right, I said. I gave her a light pat on the back—it was an impulse, but it felt good. I hopped over the beam and ran over and met Alex on the field. I was a secret weapon. I put an arm on Alex’s shoulder, my ally, my little friend. I kneeled beside him.

Okay, boss, I said. What do you want me to do?

Get that damn flag, he said.

I took off. And fast, I tell you. Because that’s how you play the game.