The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by Jennifer Fenn

       THE female gondolier broke through the recurring headlines near the end of the summer. Amid the ongoing recession and the ongoing oil spill, Patrick was startled almost, to see clear water and a woman gliding over it. He watched television while heating a bottle in the microwave, the minute and a half drawn out as it ticked by on the microwave’s digital clock.
      “A 24 year old woman named Giorgia Boscolo is set to turn the tide in Venice, becoming the city’s first female gondolier in 900 years,” the anchorwoman said. The microwave dinged and Patrick’s gaze swung toward it. He caught Giorgia’s blonde hair and petite frame only in his periphery and for a second he could imagine it was his own wife astride the wooden boat. Of course, his wife would be holding a briefcase instead of one of Giorgia’s long, elegant paddles.
      They had two children: Max, who was six and recently enrolled in the first grade after a long and rowdy, red-cheeked summer, and Olivia, an eight month-old surprise. After the depths of post-partum depression Marissa had sunk into after giving birth to Max, Patrick and his wife had spoken adoption, or perhaps lavishing all their love and attention on an only son. Patrick wondered if sometimes he was extra tender with his daughter so that she would never sense she had been an accident, whose arrival coincided perfectly with Patrick’s construction company going under.
      Since school started a few days ago, Marissa had been getting both kids ready for the day, bathing and dressing them and preparing breakfast to make up for her absence after the school day. Patrick had forty minutes to run while Marissa fed and dressed the baby, something she insisted on doing even though she had to wake up earlier. Patrick was grateful to have time to work out but he needed to get out the door quickly. He left the bottle to cool and laced his running shoes as tightly as he could before easing the door shut behind him.
      He could still run a mile in under eight minutes; the average 35 year old man lagged behind him by a minute and a half. He didn’t warm up or stretch, breaking into a run as soon as he left their driveway.
      Dew gleamed on grass that looked like it would cut him if he dared to skim his hands over it. Patrick pumped his arms faster.
      He kept his breath even as he sped up, circling around the neat blocks of acre lots. A single bead of sweat skated between his shoulder blades. He’d tossed a Men’s Health into his grocery cart on his last trip and read that puffing his exhales, like he was blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, would help his diaphragm expand and contract properly and prevent side stitches, and so he forced bursts of air from his mouth. Patrick’s expensive shoes, a gift from Marissa last Christmas, promised superior performance, but he couldn’t tell the difference between these and his last pair of Nikes.
      He knew some of his neighbors—a newspaper writer, an accountant, a restaurant manager—but what lay behind the hedges of a few of the homes was a mystery. When he’d been working, he didn’t spend too much time attending barbeques and block parties.
      The highway wasn’t far away, with its airport and hotels and the tunnel into the city. The drivers entering the community didn’t always adjust their speed; Patrick had zoomed down this street himself before without thinking of the kids that could dart out in front of his car.
      The sun hovered just above the horizon, painting the houses and trees with a thin light. Something was in the road ahead of him, near the curb and directly in his path. A mound of something, a slightly jarring sight in a neighborhood where everything was so resolutely in place.
      Oddly, as he strode closer to it, Patrick grew less sure of what it was. A misaimed newspaper? The shadowy form was too short. A stray basketball? A rock? But from where?
      He kept his breathing regular. His feet beat a steady rhythm against the pavement. He imagined himself continuing, out of the neighborhood, down the highway, until he hit some kind of nature, some trails or woods. The Adirondacks. Up north, through Canada, just tattooing this same beat. Inhale. Exhale. Right. Left. Grow a beard on the way. Live off the land.
      Closer now, Patrick realized the mystery mass was probably a mangled animal. Road kill. He would have to interrupt his breathing or risk smelling it.
      Then the road kill sprung to life and starting scrambling across the road.
      A turtle, sprinting like only an infamously slow creature could. His knobby head strained toward the white line at the road’s center. His clawed feet scurried beneath, crossing incremental snippets of asphalt. And as a speeding car bore down on him, his beady black eyes were still trained on the far curb.
      Patrick dashed into the other lane, waving his arms above his head, forgetting about his breathing. The turtle continued its struggle, oblivious that its pace would put it directly in the path of the car’s left front tire. It thought it was fast enough.
      Patrick stepped in front of the car and its brakes squealed. A black BMW. His chest heaved. He shielded his eyes with his arm and smelled his own sweat. The car stopped a few inches from his toes and the turtle.
      The driver screamed unintelligbly, pounding on the steering column. One of his neighbors. The accountant? The writer? Patrick wasn’t sure. The black orbs floating before his vision obscured the face, but it was a woman’s voice.
      The turtle pressed forward, scuttling, reaching. Patrick could pick it up and toss it to safety. But he stood, enduring the curses pouring out of his neighbor as though she were writhing on a Pentecostal church floor. Patrick shifted his arm and turned his head, blinking at a vein winding through his bicep. The turtle continued its epic struggle, teetering near the car’s right front wheel now.
      The sun continued inching up.
      The turtle stepped one leathery sole beyond the reach of the car’s tires.
      Patrick stepped aside and the driver sped away, waving her middle finger angrily.
      The turtle hurdled over the curb, and dove into the underbrush.

      “Okay!” Marissa whirled around the kitchen, one strappy high-heeled shoe on, her curls pinned back at the nape of her neck, wearing dark pantyhose, gray heels and a pale purple skirt that skimmed her mid-thigh. She carried her cardigan, leaving her shoulders bare besides the straps of her purple camisole. Sexy. “Max is dressed. He’s wearing that one pair of socks again because he swears they’re the only pair that don’t itch. Do you think you could find some more? If they take their shoes off at school, he’s going to be the smelly kid.”
      “Olive and I might fit in a Target run, but she was going to show me some hot stocks, so we’ll see.” Patrick bent down and untied his sneakers. He was still thinking about the turtle, but hadn’t decided whether or not he’d share this adventure with his wife.
      “She’s great for that. Salmon burgers are thawing.” Marissa grabbed a 32 ounce bottle of Brita-filtered water from the refrigerator. She poured some of it into a pint glass, passed it to Patrick and then tightly closed the lid and stuffed it in her shoulder bag. “I’d love it if Max would eat some fruit today. Scurvy and all.”
      Patrick shrugged. He slipped his socks off and stuffed them inside his shoes, thinking about his son’s smelly feet problem. “Then he could be a pirate for Halloween. Natural choice.”
      “Don’t forget about our meeting. Noon.” Marissa had both her shoes on now, her head tilted in exasperation. She had an important deposition that morning, he knew. Patrick kissed her cheek, hovering so that he didn’t touch her with his sweaty limbs. “I got it all. Stocks, socks, salmon, scurvy.” He’d left something out. “The meeting. Twelve noon.”
      “I’ll see you there, as long as this thing doesn’t run over.” She patted his ass and was gone. He never said anything about the turtle.

      They met at the school as planned. Patrick was feeling good; he’d already checked socks off the list and bought some juicy-looking oranges, all with Olive in tow. Marissa, on the other hand, looked a bit frazzled. Bad traffic, probably. She kissed him on the cheek and slipped back into her cardigan as they walked across the parking lot. “I dread this.”
      “It’ll be fine,” Patrick said, reflexively. He put his arm around her. They walked under the flag pole and its clanging ropes. The beds around the building were newly mulched and pungent. He dropped his hand from his wife’s waist and pulled the door open for her.
      The bumpy cinderblock walls of the elementary school were festooned with the students’ work: drawings, poems written on wide-lined paper and decorated with glitter, construction paper flags of different countries. The floors shone. Patrick inhaled the smell of pencil shaving and cleaner. The secretary glanced up at them, then returned to her typing.
      “Do you know where we’re going?” Patrick asked Marissa.
      She nodded and led the way.
      The teacher was younger than Patrick, probably around twenty-five, with dark hair cut straight across and level with her chin. She was also wearing high heels and panty hose and a skirt. He didn’t remember that from when he was in school. In jeans and a polo, Patrick felt under-dressed.
      The classroom room had something shoved in every corner and stacked on every shelf. Books and games towered precariously. Patrick quickly counted four bottles of hand sanitizer throughout the room. Posters festooned the walls and potted plants lined the window sills. Computers hummed against one wall. Small paper circles from a hole puncher sprinkled the floor. A large terrarium housed a hairy black tarantula, lounging on a rock. “Meet Lady Gaga, our new class pet,” a sign constructed out of neon green poster board proclaimed.
      “The kids voted on the name,” the teacher said, following Patrick’s gaze. “I was pushing for Snooki, myself.” She thrust out her hand and firmly shook both Patrick’s and Marissa’s. “Mrs. Hannum.”
      “Patrick Tanner,” he replied. Mrs. Maybe she was older than he’d taken her for. He nodded toward the spider. “Is she poisonous?”
      Mrs. Hannum shrugged. “Everyone’s survived so far.” She gestured toward the desks. “Take a seat.”
      The rows of child-sized desks were hollowed out to store the kids’ debris. Marisa slid into hers easily enough, bending her knees and crossing her legs at the ankles. Patrick struck his knee against the metal lip and bit his lip to keep from cursing.
      Once he was seated, Patrick rested his hands inside the desk, and encountered an avalanche of stuff. Crumpled papers, the sharp wood of broken pencils, frayed erasers. A name tag Scotch-taped to the desk announced the owner in chubby, green Crayon printing: Leo.
      Patrick pulled back his hands and the pad of his thumb snagged on a stray staple. A small dot of blood bubbled over his skin. He pressed his index finger to his wound so he didn’t bleed everywhere.
       “So Max is such a great little guy,” Mrs. Hannum said in such a way that Patrick steeled himself for the but. “He’s obviously so smart, for starters. He’s ahead in his math group, already adding double digits. And he’s got a lot of background knowledge. The other day he told us all about how scientists have discovered the triceratops didn’t really exist.”
       She raised her eyebrows, but kept her smile firmly affixed. “I hadn’t even heard that.”
      “I talk to him a lot,” Patrick interjected. His thumb throbbed. He squeezed it harder. “I have—I don’t know—actual conversations with him.”
      “That’s wonderful,” Mrs. Hannum beamed. “My concern is that, for instance, I had a hard time getting Max to stop talking about the triceratops. Or the ‘late, great triceratops,’ as he kept saying. We’re having quite a problem with off-task behavior.”
      Beside Patrick, Marissa had taken out a small notebook and a slim pen. She wrote “off-task behavior” in her flowing cursive.
      “Behavior like what?” Patrick asked. He tried to keep his voice even, but he could hear the note of defensiveness creeping in. He didn’t want to be one of those clueless ‘not my kid’ parents. He cleared his throat. “I ask because he doesn’t tell me anything negative about school. I think he’d spend the night here if he could.”
      Mrs. Hannum smiled again. “I’m certainly happy to hear that. But in fact, Max has spent a fair amount of time in the time out chair.” She swept her hand toward a rounded red plastic chair facing a shelf of books, isolated from the rest of the class, shoved into the corner opposite the spider’s terrarium. Patrick’s eyes drifted toward it and then back to the teacher.
       “Today, for instance,” she continued. “We’re learning verbs and we were brainstorming all the verbs that meant walk. The kids were throwing out words and Max yelled out ‘flamingo-stomp.’” Mrs. Hannum raised her thin eyebrows again. Patrick’s face flushed. “He demonstrated with this funny walk, well, like a flamingo.” She waved her hand. “And all that is fine. I’m glad he’s being creative and having fun. But the problem was he wouldn’t stop. He was squawking and stomping around the room for about ten minutes.”
      Marissa held a hand over her face. Patrick wished they were at a table so he could squeeze her knee or pat her thigh. Instead, Mrs. Hannum reached out and touched her shoulder, the one that was bare a few moments ago. “I’ve seen much worse, truly. Max is a sweet boy.”
      “Should we call the pediatrician?” Marissa asked, her brow furrowed.
      “I would recommend it. I would have him evaluated to see what the cause of his hyperactivity is, before thing get too out of hand.” Mrs. Hannum cleared her throat. “On another note, we’re looking for some parent volunteers to help out with—”
      She slid a blue Xeroxed paper toward Marissa, but Patrick snatched it up. “I’ll do it. Whatever you need.” The first section of the sheet asked for the volunteer’s availability. He answered out loud. “I’m always available.”
      Mrs. Hannum continued. “We’re looking for parents to come in dressed as historical figures for our Historical Halloween Party.”
      “I’ll be there,” Patrick replied. He folded the flyer in half. He already knew who he’d be.

       “You know what I did today, Max?” Max was locking and unlocking the car doors. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Patrick was back at the school to pick him up,       just a few hours later. “Stop that, Max. Do you know what I did?”
      “Went to Dairy Queen?” Max replied. A Blizzard had been Max’s favorite treat this summer.
      “No way, man. I don’t go without you.” Patrick raised his eyebrows. “I saved a turtle’s life.”
      Max swung his legs, knocking his sneakers against the seat. “Can we keep it?”
      “No,” Patrick said, miffed. “I set it free. It wanted to roam around the wilderness.”
      “Was it a boy turtle or a girl turtle?”
      “I don’t know. I don’t know how to tell.” They were closing in on the road that led to the Dairy Queen. Patrick considered making the turn.
      “Can we get a dog?”
      “No, Mommy’s allergic. We’ve talked about that.” Patrick glanced sidelong at his son. “You know, some people used to believe that the world was on the back of a turtle. Balancing on its shell.”
      Max wrinkled his nose. “What people?”
      Patrick shrugged. “The Hindus. I don’t know for sure. Isn’t that cool, though? The whole big world on a turtle’s shell?”
      “It’s not real, though.” Max’s forehead furrowed. “I’ve seen pictures of the Earth. From space.”
      “You’re right,” Patrick replied. “How about a Blizzard?”

      He already knew Ben Franklin’s most popular sayings. The standards. He who lies down with dogs wakes up with flees. Early to bed, early to rise.
       He practiced saying them ceremoniously in an old bald cap leftover from his fraternity days. He looked too much like Mr. Clean,though, so he bought a pair of wire-rimmed specs too. The rest of the costume would come by UPS. He’d ordered it from a site that specialized in historical reenactment costumes. He hadn’t told Marissa how much it had cost.
      The bald cap made Olive cry, he discovered, so he took to practicing while she was napping.
      He assembled a kite out of string, a trash bag, and straws so that he could talk about the fateful night he discovered electricity. He tied a spare house key to the string’s end.
      He was clearly going to be the best historical figure at the Historical Halloween Party.

      It didn’t come from him, Patrick knew that much. When he was a kid, he’d sprawled out on the living room floor and drawn for hours, his pencils and crayons meticulously lined up at his side. He’d waged epic battles with his Marvel comics action figures, Wolverine and Spider Man and the Hulk, for some reason his favorite, teaming up in configurations that Stan Lee had never imagined. For days he’d sustain the imaginary war.
       And look at all the focus and detail he was putting into his Ben Franklin performance! Maybe that would be a model for Max.
      The boy couldn’t focus through an entire Guitar Hero solo.
      Right now, his tow-headed cherub was twenty-five minutes into his attempt to complete his math homework. Marissa was working late. The innards of Max’s gaping book bag were strewn across the kitchen table. For a first grader, he had an awful lot of papers already.
      “Got it!” Max announced and held aloft a ditto with rows of simple addition problems marching across the wrinkled page. The top corner was ripped, like a feisty classmate had taken a bite out of it.
      “Fantastic,” Patrick said, trying to control his temper. “Now you can get started.”
      Max yanked a camo-patterned pencil case out of his bag. It had been left open; Lord knew where its contents had wound up. Max’s frowned and he shoved it back in the bag. “Can I do this in marker?”
      “Why? It writes.”
      “I don’t have any pencils.”
      “I bought you an entire box of pencils last week. Where are they?”
      “I don’t know. Can I use a marker instead?”
      Max got busy testing every marker in a 48 color pack, scribbling swatches on the back of his homework. He settled on a forest green.
      “Are you ready, finally?” Patrick was sitting across from his son at the table now, Olive in her high chair beside him. He’d fed her while he waited, determined not to argue with Max, not have his son in tears when Marissa arrived home.
      “Yup.” Max flipped over the worksheet. The colors had bled through. He slapped his forehead and looked at his father.
      Patrick shrugged. “Get a separate piece of paper, I guess. You shouldn’t have done that. If I was the teacher, I’d give you a zero. An F.”
      “I didn’t even do any problems yet!” Max’s face reddened. He picked at a scab on his elbow until Patrick pulled his hand away.
      “The paper is sloppy.” Patrick sighed. “You know how I make the pictures of the houses before I build them, to see if people want to buy them?” Max was clicking the cap on and off the marker. Patrick forged on. “Do you think they would want my houses if the picture I showed them was ripped up and smeared and in Magic Marker?”
      “Maybe. If the house was good.”
       Patrick snatched the marker away. “Wrong. They would just go to the next man who could make them a neat picture.”
      Max slouched in his seat and kicked the table leg. His lower lip pooched out. “I don’t know how to do this.”
      “Let’s ask Olive Oil,” Patrick suggested, trying to lighten the mood. He gently tickled her foot and she squirmed and giggled in her high chair. Patrick shrugged his shoulders. “No, she has no clue.” He paused. “But you know what founding father Benjamin Franklin would say?”
      “If your head is wax, don’t walk in the sun?” This gem seemed to be the only one Max could remember.
      “Energy and persistence conquer all things,” Patrick said, leaning back in his chair.
      Two hours later, Max’s math homework was complete.

      He was a ringer on his best friend Randy’s company’s softball team, recruited mostly for his ability to run from base to base without wheezing so much that the watching wives whipped out their cell phones, fingers poised over the 9.  Randy’s company, Peckering Landscaping, currently has a dismal record, and Patrick couldn’t help but feel he’d been tapped to turn things around.  
        “Everybody stacks their team.  Did you see Koehler Brothers’ pitcher?  Guy used to play for the Barnstormers,” Randy told him when he’d handed over Patrick’s new blue and white jersey.  “I put down that you were a consultant.”
      He’d known Randy for six years now; back when he still built houses, he’d contracted Randy’s outfit to do some landscaping.  Those had been good days.  The house would have taken shape around them, the stacks of beams and boards transforming into something useful, necessary.  He even missed the smell of the mulch.  
      For a bunch of guys who guzzled beers before, during, and after the games, the office park league was surprisingly competitive.  The men left the games dirty, sweaty and thoroughly exhausted.  Two umpires had quit on them, refusing to deal with their calls being so heatedly disputed.  
      At least two women had to play on every team.  Marissa, who had never played outside the league but was naturally athletic, had filled that slot a few times before her promotion; now Randy’s boss’s track star daughter was their catcher and the company’s new CFO, a lithe woman in her 40s, played short field.  A few spectators had gathered on the grassy hill behind first base.  Two small boys climbed a mountain of dirt, racing each other to the top, then sliding back down on their bottoms.  Two women talked nearby.  A teenage girl in black sweatshirt read a paperback.  
      He wished, for a second, that Marissa would have come, and brought Max.  
      Patrick busied himself tightening his sneakers, checking the laces on his battered glove, draining his beer and finally taking a few practice swings behind the backstop.  He waved to the guys he knew, some with potbellies bulging from beneath their tucked in jerseys and flopping over their belts.  
      “Hey, buddy.”  Randy came up beside him and slapped him on the back.  “Good to see you.”
      “You, too.”  
      “Where’s Marissa?”  Randy asked.  He picked up a bat and swung, making contact with an imaginary pitch.  
      “I don’t think she’s going to make it,” Patrick replied.  “Busy time at work.”  
      “I’m not sure if Meg’ll be here, either.  She’s training for a marathon.”
      “Good for her,” Patrick said.  “I’ve never done more than a 5k.”  
      His first at bat he struck out, swinging at pitches that were too high and inside.  Was it his imagination, or was he having a harder time seeing the ball?  They played him in left field.  He kept a hand raised to his forehead to shield his eyes from the sun.  
      The first half of the game was a slaughter.  A young guy on the other team hit two homeruns, batting in five of his teammates.  The obligatory girl popped up for what should have been an easy out, but the pitcher dropped the ball.  The girl bounded to first base, her perky ponytail bobbing.
Randy pounded his fist inside his glove and yelled from first base.  “C’mon, Peckering!  Let’s go!”  
      The next batter, a lanky young guy, only traded his beer for a bat a few seconds before he took to the plate.  He and his teammates were chuckling over a joke Patrick couldn’t hear.  Still, Peckering’s players took lumbering steps backwards.  He was probably the former minor league hero.
      The batter drilled the first pitch.  Patrick began sprinting backwards when he heard the ping of the ball making contact with the bat.  The ball rocketed over the infield.
      “Got it!”  Patrick yelled.  He ran back, back, back, his eyes trained on the black speck of the ball in the air.  His back slammed against the fence, jangling the chain links.  The ball had sailed over.  He had no choice but to jog around the fence and retrieve it, like a dog playing fetch.  He lobbed it back to Peckering’s pitcher as the batter rounded the bases.
      Randy waited for him as they headed back in to bat.  He grinned sheepishly.  “Maybe it’s better our wives aren’t around.  No witnesses.”  
      “You probably say you won no matter what,” Patrick said.
      “And hit three homeruns,” Randy agreed.  
      By the time Patrick’s last at bat rolled around, he’d struck out three times and polished off as many beers.  Peckering was rallying, though, and was only down by two runs when Patrick stepped up to the plate.  There was already a runner on first base.  He grabbed the bat the Koehler player had used for his last homer.  
      The pitch was a cream puff, arcing slowly toward him.  Patrick stepped forward and launched it back into the field.  He didn’t look, just hurled the bat and took off, but he knew it was a goner, blasting through a gap in the infield.  
      The base coach, a heavy guy Patrick recognized but couldn’t name, held out his palm emphatically.  Stop.  But Patrick kept sprinting, his chest heaving.  He almost knocked his anonymous teammate over as he rounded third.  Patrick heard but didn’t register his protests.  “Hey!”
      The sun was in his eyes.  He couldn’t make out the catcher.  
      He could make it.  
      He pumped his arms faster.  
      He was going to make it.  He slid, diving toward the plate.  A blooming cloud of dust and dirt exploded in his wake, stinging his eyes.  
“Safe!” the umpire yelled, slashing his hands through the dust.  The catcher, the opposing team’s female, had stepped aside to let the pitcher cover the plate.  The other man threw down his glove.  Patrick disentangled himself and stood and tried to brush the dirt from his legs.  His shin was a meaty mess of shredded skin and dirt-thickened blood.  Red rivulets ran down his leg and dampened his sock.  He spat wet dirt.  
      The Koehler Brothers players trudged in from the field.  The teams formed two sloppy lines and perfunctorily shook hands, mumbled ‘good game.’
      “We owe you a beer.”  Randy slapped him on the back as they lumbered back to the parking lot.  They passed the boys who’d been playing in the dirt, trailing behind their mother.  Their clothes, too, were streaked with dust, their sweaty hair matted to their heads.
      “You owe me more than that,” Patrick replied.
      “A case,” Randy said.  

      The next day, Max hit another kid with toy truck. The catalyst for such an uprising murky. Max said the kid pushed him because Max was tapping his foot too much. The kid said he did no such thing and that Max was a raving psychopath.
      The kid was Leo. Leo Cavalleri. He of the messy desk.
      Marissa called the pediatrician. Patrick took his son to the appointment, who recommended a psychiatrist, who saw them a week a later. The psychiatrist wrote a prescription, and just like that, Max was a card-carrying member of the medicated masses.
      On the way home from the appointment, Patrick stopped at the pharmacy, filled the prescription, and then detoured to Dairy Queen, where he let his six year old son devour a large Blizzard, with Reeses Pieces.

      The pills were small and pink. Patrick tapped some into his palm and eyed them. Concerta. Some weird play on the word concentrate that only seemed to mock those who couldn’t. Or concerted was the word of origin. As in, your child will now be able to make a concerted effort at schoolwork and normalcy. The thought of Max obediently swallowing one made Patrick nauseous. Who was he? Nurse Ratchet? He dumped them back into the bottle and shut it inside a cabinet. They could start the regimen tomorrow.
      Marissa had been the one who wanted this.
      “You have to be on your very best behavior today,” Patrick admonished his son as they drove to school. Max squirmed, trying to free his shoulder from the seat belt. Patrick put his hand on the boy’s knee. “Stop that. Listen to me. You have to wear the seat belt and you have to be really good at school today.”
      “I am good at school,” Max pouted.
      “Like if the other kids are working on their work, you need to work on your work just like them.” I want you to be just like everybody else. Was that really what he was saying to his six year old? Patrick forged ahead anyway. “And when it’s quiet, you have to be quiet, too. No more time-outs.”
      “I’m good all the time.”
      Patrick thought of the little pills. “Then be extra good.”

      The Historical Halloween party was not as widely attended as Patrick had imagined it would be. He drove to the school in full garb, wig and specs and tights and collar. The costume was so hot Patrick had the AC cranking despite the fall chill. In the classroom, Mrs. Hannum was serving orange-sprinkled, pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies with Pocahontas and some toga-wearing Greek. Mrs. Hannum was not in costume.
      “Ah, Pocahontas,” Patrick approached, bowing theatrically as the other parent-teers took in his garb.
      “I’m Sacajawea,” she replied shortly, flicking her feather-flecked braid over her shoulder.
      “Clearly.” Patrick removed his spectacles and made a show of cleaning them on his white shirt. “My glasses must have gotten dirty.”
      The kids were running around the classroom, scattering cookie crumbs as they sprinted around desks and yelled at each through full mouths. And yet, Patrick couldn’t help noting bitterly, Max was the one who needed to be drugged. His son was coloring, albeit intensely, as he pushed the red and blue crayons across the page. What he was creating, Patrick couldn’t tell.
      Other than the two moms manning the food table, only one other parent was in costume. He was wearing fringed leather pants, scuffed boots, a tan leather Sherpa jacket, and a coonskin cap. A rifle Patrick assumed was fake was slung over his shoulder. A beard had been face-painted over his jaw.
      “Davey Crockett!” Patrick greeted the other father with a bow. He was glad to meet another stay-at-home-dad. “Your exploits on the frontier have made news in the colonies.”
      “It’s Daniel Boone.” Hearing a woman’s voice emerge from such a masculine figure startled Patrick more than his second historical misidentification. He bowed deeply.
      “Why, yes, it is!” Faux Franklin laughed heartily. “Forgive me. My specs must be dirty.”
      She thrust out her hand, but kept her voice low. “Anna Cavalleri. Leo’s mom.”
      “Young Master Cavalleri,” Patrick smiled and pumped her arm all the more merrily. Leo of the truck incident. Better just to stay in character.
      “All right, boys and girls!” Mrs. Hannum clapped her hands. “Let’s get into our listening circle and get ready to meet our historical figures.”
      The kids scrambled into a lop-sided circle on a square of beige carpet. The parents clustered on the outskirts of the carpet near the terrarium and the notorious time out chair. Max was still coloring obliviously, biting his lip in concentration. Mrs. Hannum cleared her throat, “Max, we need you to join us.”
      “Come on, young lad,” Patrick waved his arm toward the circle. “We’re all gathering in the listening circle. You don’t want to miss out.”
      “A picture in the hand is worth two in the bush,” Max replied without looking up. He traded blue for green.
      “Why, that it is, but picture time is over,” Patrick said, lowering his voice and dropping the flowery tones of Faux Franklin.
      “Max.” Mrs. Hannum clapped her hands, like she was commanding a dog. “Come over to the listening circle.”
      A flush crept up Patrick’s neck, past the crisp collars of his maroon jacket. Everyone was watching: the other kids, the parents, Daniel Boone, Sacajawea. Max slid off his seat and scrambled over to the circle, scattering a few crayons in his wake.
      Was that so bad? Patrick thought, relieved.
      He still wasn’t giving his son those pills.
      “Let’s all welcome our historical guests!” Mrs. Hannum urged. “Good morning!”
      “Good morning!” the class chirped back like the little circle of conformists they were.
      “And a good day to you, too,” Patrick replied ceremoniously from the edge of the circle. “You all sound like you were early to bed and early to rise.”
      Mrs. Hannum scanned the guests. “Let’s hear from Daniel Boone first. Take it away, Mr. Boone.”
      “I’m Daniel Boone,” the woman stepped forward into the center of the circle and gruffly announced. She planted her feet shoulder length apart and rocked back on her heels. “And I believe a man needs only three things: a good gun, a good horse and a good wife.”
      She regaled the children with tales of the wild frontier for the next twenty minutes, stalking the edge of the rug like an agitated mountain lion. Patrick caught himself raising his white-powdered eyebrows a few times in response to Boone’s stories; he was pretty sure Boone had never single-handedly rescued a hapless Indian tribe from a herd of coyotes. Had Daniel Boone even been a real person? Wasn’t he like Paul Bunyon?
      “Let’s give Daniel Boone a big round of applause!” Mrs. Hannum urged, modeling with her own enthusiastic clapping. She scanned the parents. “And now we’ll hear from—”
      “I’ll take a turn in the listening circle.” Patrick stepped forward. “This nation’s early days were a sight to see indeed,” he blustered. He thought back to the speech he’d practiced. “The colonies were quite the place to be in the 1700s.”
      “Pardon me.” Boone strode into the center of the circle. She held her rifle aloft. “I forgot to ask if the children wanted to see my gun.”
      A cheer went up from the class, particularly the boys. Patrick heard Max among them. “I’ll just pass this around.” Boone winked at Patrick. “I bet you never had a gun like this, Franklin.”
      “Well, Mr. Boone, the pen is mightier than the sword,” Patrick declared, though he did not know if this proverb was even a Franklin-ism.
      “The gun is mightier than the sword,” Daniel Boone declared.
      “Say men who have no pens. Or the words with which to use them.” Patrick couldn’t help but grin. That sounded like the man himself right there! He put his hands on his hips authoritatively. “And I did, in fact, own a mighty musket.”
      The kids passed the replica rifle, staring down the barrel and capturing each other in its sight. Patrick decided he would soldier on anyway. In fact, he’d play his best card.
      “We had a war, with the merry old King of England,” Patrick said loudly. “Musket fire rang out over the land. And shortly thereafter, I discovered electricity!”
      Patrick realized his kite and key were in his car. “Just let me retrieve my—”
      A scrappy boy with untied shoes was next to Max, pointing the rifle at his forehead while Max laughed. Max reached for the round end of the gun just as Boone leaned down to take it back and Patrick tried to step over the lot of them and free himself from the listening circle. Max grabbed hold of the butt of the replica.
      “Let go,” Boone demanded, tugging. Max’s fingers clung a moment longer, and then Boone swung back, holding the gun over his head. The momentum carried him back, back until he cracked Patrick in the shoulder with it, knocking him off balance.
      Patrick teetered precariously before crashing with all his unstable weight into the spider’s terrarium. His wig slipped off and he covered his head with his hand, as if he’d forgotten he wasn’t really bald. The shelves the spider’s habitat rested on shook and then clattered down from the wall. The terrarium plunged to the ground in a storm of shattering glass.
      The kids shrieked. Mrs. Hannum lunged for the spider. Patrick stood and brushed off his pantaloons, his back muscles screaming. Daniel Boone slung his rifle over his shoulder.
      Lady Gaga the spider had already vanished.

      “A turtle!” Max pointed. Mrs. Hannum had allowed Max and Patrick to leave together, early. Patrick’s shoulder screamed. His costume was soaked with sweat. He’d taken his bald cap off, but his scalp still itched.
      In the center of the road, the stunned turtle had burrowed in his shell. Patrick slowed down, then braked, then stopped completely. Was it possibly the same one?
      Max kneeled on his seat so he could see better out the window. “Can we get it?”
      Patrick put his four-ways on and he and Max stepped out of the car. Max knelt down and thrust out his hand. Patrick grabbed his shoulder. “You don’t touch it. It might bite.”
      Patrick slid a palm under the turtle’s cool, moist underside. Its clawed feet churned in the air as Patrick lifted it, as though it were pedaling an imaginary bicycle. Or running a race it couldn’t win.
      Back in the car, Patrick found a plastic grocery bag. He spread it over Max’s lap, then carefully set the turtle down and buckled his son back in. Max’s eyes were big.
      “You can gently—gently—pat his shell, but don’t touch his feet and if his head comes out, don’t touch that either,” Patrick reminded.
      “Can we keep him for a pet?” Max asked.
      “Yes,” Patrick said. They would keep the turtle in a small terrarium, and they would fill it with grass and sticks and sand. They would fill its little water dish and feed it bugs from the outside, maybe even crickets or larvae from the pet store. And pretty soon the turtle would not know anything else, would not remember anything else, only his little world, with its small glass walls, where he all he knew was that he was safe.
      And Patrick would give his son those little pills.

      Max took his medicine with a juice class of milk each morning.  He stuck out his tongue in disgust each time, though Patrick knew the pills didn’t have a taste.  
      Homework time quickened to an hour, then three quarters, then merely a half.  After a while, Patrick didn’t even have to sit with him.

      One morning, while his family was still asleep, Patrick crept down to the garage where the turtle was motionless in his terrarium. Max had tried to mimic his natural environment with a few tilted twigs, some grass clippings, and rocks circling a small dish of water. The turtle’s head was resting on the water dish. Only his blinking let Patrick know he was still alive, though what the turtle’s gaze was directed at, Patrick wasn’t sure. They’d named him Ben.
      He had to move fast, something that seemed harder and harder to do. His shoulder ached when he reached into the glass rectangle and scooped up the turtle. Something had been knocked out of place when he fell into the spider’s lair. The turtle’s claws scraped the palm of his hand, but not deeply enough to draw blood.
      Patrick crept out the back door and jogged awkwardly down the road. Wet blades of grass clung to his bare feet. The sun shimmered over the tree line. He continued his stiff run until he reached the spot where he’d found that original turtle. Was it the same one he held now? He’d never know, of course. Seemed unlikely. But he set it down gently on the median, smack in the center of the yellow line, where he’d found the first one. The animal drew its head and legs into its shell, a hard, motionless orb.
      As Patrick jogged stiffly back to the house, he looked back only once, and when he saw that the turtle was inching toward the curb, scrambling across the black asphalt, sunlight splashing across the sky and its small shell like water, he didn’t turn back again.

Jennifer Fenn's non-fiction work has appeared in "Bitch," "Education Week," Venus Zine," "Teacher," and "Backhome."

COMMENT        HOME       BLOG


New Fiction

by Taryn Hook

by San Rafi

by Avi Wrobel

by Robert J. MIller

by Susan Dale

by John Staley

by William Fedigan

by Alice Charles


By accessing this site, you accept these Terms and Conditions.
Copyright © 2010-2011 ™ — All rights reserved