My classroom doesn’t have any furniture in it. It’s Tuesday, September 4, 2001, the first day of my first year as a third-grade teacher in Shadywood, California, and my students are sitting in a circle on the floor of our trailer — I mean, bungalow.
My students, the bright-eyed children of Mexican, Guatemalan, and Salvadorean immigrants, sit crosslegged on a carpet that is a mottled mixture of gray, blue, and red threads — the colors of a soiled American flag.
The Shadywood Unified School District selected this carpet, the night custodian informed me, because it hides puke stains better than any other blend of colors. Good. I feel like I’m going to throw up.
Parents peek through the front window, brows as furrowed as freshly plowed fields as they watch me pass out the twenty secondhand dictionaries that we will use as lapdesks until our thirdhand desks arrive.
The principal has a bolt in her neck.
I’d been trying so hard not to stare at her unibrow the first time we’d met that I guess I just didn’t notice. But there it is, neatly labeled in crayon, in Shirley’s drawing: “THE PRINCIPAL,” and below that, an arrow shaped like a bolt of lightning points to an object vaguely resembling a sparkplug protruding from a spot just above her shoulder, “THE BOLT IN THE PRINCIPAL’S NECK.”
My students are standing up one by one, sharing their pictures of the school. I’m only half-paying attention, wondering if 8-year-olds understand sarcasm well enough to appreciate a quip about the flatteringly slimming effects of stick-figure portraits, so, at first, I think that I misheard Shirley’s explanation of her drawing.
“Excuse me, dear, what did you say that is?” I ask.
“That’s the bolt in her neck,” Shirley says matter-of-factly.
“Now, Shirley, that’s not very nice,” I chide. “The principal doesn’t have a bolt in her neck.”
“Yes, she does, teacher,” blurts David, to a chorus of yeahs.
Turns out that it’s common knowledge on the playground that the principal does, indeed, have a bolt in her neck, though because her black hair hangs to her shoulders, it can rarely be seen.
The students are divided into several schools of thought regarding this bolt, the most popular theory by far being that the principal is, basically, a female version of Frankenstein’s monster. This theory is seemingly supported by the fact that she is a … um, sturdy woman with an ashen complexion and a penchant for wearing black.
A variation on this is that the principal is a cyborg, a robot wrapped in human flesh, and the bolt is where she clamps jumper cables attached to her car battery in order to recharge.
In either case, the consensus seems clear: the principal is a monster.
Years from now, people will ask, “Where were you when the World Trade Center towers fell?”
I’m in the teachers’ lounge. Someone has commandeered the principal’s small black-and-white TV and placed it on top of the Xerox machine. We watch in shocked silence. Outside, I can hear our students trickling in, blissfully unaware.
The networks begin to replay the grainy images. I avert my eyes, just as I would from the rhythmic flash of the Xerox machine upon which the TV is perched.
Mr. Perdú, a shell-shocked veteran of the trenches of Shadywood Unified, retrieves a flask hidden in the depths of the copying machine.
“Hey, Perdú, pass me some of that ‘toner.’”
Pitifully, the best reassurance that I can give my students is that no one knows where Shadywood is, that there’s nothing in Shadywood important enough to destroy.
“The terrorists won’t find us,” I tell them. “Even the furniture deliverers can’t find us, and they have our address.”
Something’s rotten in the cafetorium.
I’d like to think that, if I had designed our school, I could have come up with a name for a combination cafeteria and auditorium that wasn’t quite so ugly and authoritarian, like “dinner theatre.” But I doubt even that would have inspired the custodians to expend more energy on its upkeep.
Mostly, I think it’s the half-drunk cartons of milk curdling in the industrial-size trash bins pushed into the folds of the heavy canvas curtains that frame the worn boards of the proscenium stage.
As I carry the box containing my teacher’s guides for our new reading program back to the table the third grade teachers have staked out for the weekly staff meeting, my foot slips on a dark red splotch of what I hope is ketchup.
Sitting between my fellow rookie teacher, Millie, and Mr. Perdú on one of the long benches, I flip open a spiral-bound volume labeled “Presentation Manual” and am surprised to see that each lesson is completely scripted, the words I’m supposed to say spelled out in purple ink.
“What do I need a script for?” I ask. “I’m probably the only 22-year-old Midwesterner who ever moved to Southern California who doesn’t want to be an actor.”
Mr. Perdú turns to face me, but before he can reply the principal taps the microphone clamped to the podium with one blunt finger, signaling the start of the meeting.
“I see that everybody has picked up their teacher’s editions for our new reading program, Direct Instruction,” she says. “Typically, D.I. is used as an intervention program for remedial students, but our kids scored so poorly on last spring’s standardized tests that I’ve decided to adopt this as our core reading curriculum.
“Direct Instruction has been scientifically proven to elevate the reading skills of at-risk children like ours well into the average range,” she proclaims proudly. “Now, I’ll admit this isn’t the most exciting program. It places a heavy emphasis on rote repetition of vocabulary words as a means of building students’ decoding skills, but with so many inexperienced teachers on our staff, the scripted format should be helpful.”
Not quite sure if that was an insult, I squint at the principal’s face, hoping to glimpse some clue in her expression. Or that bolt.
“Repetition’s the key. What’s the key?” the principal asks. She looks right at me and raises an eyebrow.
“Repetition?” I venture.
“Exactly,” she says, smirking.
“Drill and kill,” Mr. Perdú sneers, pushing his materials away with disdain.
“What is it that gets killed, exactly?” I whisper.
“The children’s spirits, mostly,” he replies.
I knock lightly on the frame of the principal’s open door. She pries her eyes away from her typing fingers just long enough to squint at my face and venture a guess.
“Yes, Mr. … White, isn’t it?”
“Um, no. It’s Mr. Black, actually. Mr. White is black. I’m white.”
The principal snorts. Stops typing just long enough to scribble on a Post-It: “Mr. White = black. Mr. Black = white.”
“So Mr. …,” she consults her note, “Black, what can I do for you?” She turns back to her typing.
“My room doesn’t have any furniture in it.”
“Still? That was supposed to be delivered on Friday. Are you sure that they didn’t deliver it on Friday?”
“I’m pretty sure that I would have noticed twenty desks.”
She nods absentmindedly, ruffling the heavy black curtain of hair that hangs to her shoulder. For an instant, I catch the barest glimpse of … something, maybe a large mole, on the side of her neck.
“Yes, I suppose you would’ve,” she concedes. “Tell you what — I’ll call the district office about it right after I finish this.”
She nods without taking her eyes off her fingers, and there it is again, whatever it might be.
“So, what are you working on?” I ask, hoping to bait her into another nod through some clever conversational gambit.
“In light of recent events, I’ve decided to update the school’s emergency plan.”
“Say, that reminds me. I meant to ask you about the earthquake drill that we’re having tomorrow. We didn’t have earthquake drills where I grew up, but I gather that the students are supposed to duck underneath their desks for protection, right?”
“So what should my students do?”
“What do you mean?”
“They don’t have desks.”
The principal stops typing. Stares at me.
“They can’t participate in an earthquake drill if they don’t have desks,” she says.
“Exactly. I was thinking that maybe we could skip this one, since —” Her glare cuts me off.
“I take my drills very seriously, Mr. White. You’ll have desks by tomorrow morning.”
On Friday, the district is finally thoughtful enough to send us some broken-down thirdhand chairs and desks.
When my children spring up off of the floor and jump for joy over those rickety chairs and wobbly desks, I honestly think I’m going to cry. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.
Dead weight. That’s what the pale blue plastic tub feels like in my arms, its contents concealed by the matching lid’s airtight embrace. I lower it gently onto the faux wood tabletop.
Curious, I pop open the lid, releasing a whiff of new plastic and … something else. A typed sheet of instructions perches precariously on top of the items inside:
Medical Branch, Morgue
Start-Up Actions: Set up morgue area. Verify:
· Tile, concrete, or other cool floor substance.
· Accessible to coroner’s vehicle.
· Remote from student assembly area.
Operational Duties: After pronouncement of death:
· Confirm that the person is actually dead.
· Do not remove any personal effects from the body. Personal effects must remain with the body at all times.
· Write the following information on two tags:
1. Date and time found.
2. Exact location where found.
3. Name of deceased, if known.
4. If identified, how, when, and by whom.
5. Name of person filling out tag.
· Attach one tag to body.
· If the coroner’s office will not be able to pick up the body soon, place the body in plastic trash bag(s) and tape securely to prevent unwrapping. Securely attach the second tag to the outside of the bag.
· When moving bodies, take care to lift with your legs, not your back.
· Maintain a respectful attitude.
Shutting Down: After all bodies have been picked up, close down the
· Return all equipment and unused supplies.
· Clean up area. Safely dispose of hazardous waste.
Equipment: Tags Vick’s Vapo Rub
Pens/Pencils Plastic tarps
Plastic trash bags Stapler
Duct tape Pocket-sized mirror
“What the fuck?” I gasp, earning automatic glares from several of the other teachers gathered in the cafetorium for this week’s staff meeting.
Millie pulls her eyes away from the contents of her purple plastic tub.
“Triage?” she asks.
“Triage?” I ask.
“Yeah, I’ve been assigned to triage. What does that mean?”
“Um, I think it means that you decide who gets medical treatment and who … comes to visit me in the morgue.”
“Morgue?” she asks.
“Morgue,” I say.
“What’s the Vick’s Vapo Rub for?” Millie asks after reading my list of “equipment.”
Knowing, I sigh. “Ever seen The Silence of the Lambs?”
Millie, perplexed, frowns. “Yeah, but what’s that got to do with this? I mean, if Hannibal Lecter got loose on campus, that would clearly be cause for a lockdown drill, not an.…” She trails off, glances down at the still-warm, pale photocopy hanging limply in her hand. “An ‘Emergency Crisis Plan.’”
I roll my eyes. “This has nothing to do with Hannibal Lecter. Remember the scene where the FBI agents are examining a body they dredged out of a swamp?”
“They put Vick’s Vapo Rub under their nose to overpower the stench of decomposition.”
Millie looks down at the murky blue Vick’s bottle. “Ewww.”
Well said, Millie. Well said.
Gingerly, I unscrew the pale green lid. The pungent scent of the Vapo Rub hits me like a spring-loaded boxing glove in a cartoon. My head jerks away from the bottle and back into childhood: my mother smearing Vick’s on my hairless chest, daubing it under the red rims of my congested nostrils as I lay, limp and feverish, shrouded in my Charlie Brown sheets.
As soon as all the color-coded plastic tubs have been distributed, the principal steps up to the podium. This appears to be merely a small step forward, but is actually a giant leap backward.
She clears her throat theatrically, attracting our attention just long enough to get the meeting rolling.
“Since 9/11, I know that many of you have been asking yourselves ‘How can we protect our students from terrorism?’” she begins. “Well, I’ve come up with a historically validated anti-terrorist mechanism.”
We are a room full of jaded professional educators, yet we look up at the principal with wide-eyed wonder. Could it be true?
“You see,” she says, “when I was a child, we had air-raid drills. Every week, without fail, the air-raid siren would wail. Our teachers would don civil defense helmets and herd us into the only subterranean space in the school, the boiler room, where we would huddle next to crates full of Tang and shelves stocked with Spam. When we complained about the unbearable heat of the rattling old Weil-McLain boiler, our teachers would remind us that this was nothing compared to the flesh-searing effects of nuclear fallout.
“That shut us up, because we could see that our teachers were really afraid – they believed the air-raid drills were preparing us for something that was certain to happen, and soon.
“But those air raids never did come. The warheads never fell from the sky. Nuclear fallout never seared our flesh.
“And do you know why? Because we rehearsed for a nuclear attack. Because we were prepared. Think about it.
“Not convinced? I’ll give you another example. Mr. Perdú — how long have you been at this school?”
Mr. Perdú snaps to his feet like an old soldier nearing the end of his final tour of duty. “Twenty-five years now,” he barks.
“And in that time, Mr. Perdú, how many fire drills would you say that you have participated in? Hundreds?”
“Thousands,” says Mr. Perdú.
“And how many times has the school actually caught fire, Mr. Perdú?”
“Well, none, actually.”
“Exactly my point,” exclaims the principal. “This same mechanism will protect us from terrorism. The more we prepare for a terrorist attack, the less likely it will be to ever happen.
“Repetition’s the key. What’s the key?” the principal demands triumphantly.
“Repetition,” we drone in unison.
My hand shoots up into the air involuntarily.
“Yes, Mr. Black?”
I stand on shaky legs. “Why am I assigned to the morgue?”
The principal makes eye contact with Ms. Escalada, the school’s self-appointed safety coordinator. She is, without a doubt, the co-author of this ridiculous plan. Their mouths smirk knowingly at each other under arched eyebrows.
“Well, Mr. Black,” the principal says with mock gravity, “we thought that you looked the part.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, you do wear a lot of black.”
“What? That’s a ridiculous selection criterion!”
“Well, what would have been a better one, Mr. Black? Previous work experience? We don’t have any former morticians on staff.”
I scan the list of emergency occupations to see who’s assigned to be my partner in the morgue. “What about Ms. Addams?” I ask. “She doesn’t wear a lot of black. Why did you pick her?”
The principal trades glances with Ms. Escalada again.
“Free association, Mr. Black,” she manages to say straight-faced. “Mortician, Ms. Addams — Morticia Addams.”
Mr. Perdú chuckles.
“The morgue will be located in Room 1,” the principal continues.
Mr. Perdú stops chuckling. His hand shoots up into the air.
“Yes, Mr. Perdú?”
Mr. Perdú stands. “Why is my classroom going to be the morgue?”
“Because your classroom has the most reliable air conditioner. Gotta keep those Popsicles frosty.” The principal chuckles and, with an almost imperceptible toss of her head, there it is again: that, that thing on the side of her neck.
Even if the kids aren’t right about it being a bolt, I can’t argue with their ultimate conclusion anymore: The principal is a monster.
My girlfriend can’t stop laughing.
“What the hell’s so funny about the thought of me having to stuff dead kids into Hefty bags?” I ask.
Gwen falls over sideways on the sofa, clutching her sides.
“Well,” she manages to gasp between guffaws, “you do wear a lot of black, babe.”
“That’s a mnemonic device to help the students remember my name, not an indication that I’d make a good undertaker.”
I’m sitting on the edge of the roughly finished concrete flowerbed, a kind of low earthworks fortification that is the school’s second line of defense — after the terrorists scale the fence of black iron bars that lines the perimeter, they’ll have to somehow surmount the withered rose bushes.
It’s 3:14. Contractually, I was free to hit the gate at three, but like most days, I’m waiting for Steph’s parents to pick her up.
Steph is a chubby-faced cherub in a baby T-shirt whose sequined letters reveal that “boys lie.” Like most of the kids milling around between the fence and the flowerbed, she’s slurping away at a frozen treat purchased from the ice cream trucks that circle our school like news choppers orbiting a particularly spectacular accident.
Steph must have been subliminally influenced by all the patriotic assemblies — she bought one of those red, white, and blue Popsicles. What are those called?
“Hey, Steph, what are those called?”
She pulls the torpedo-shaped treat out of her mouth. Regards it with a practiced eye. The red has bled onto the white. She frowns.
“These?” she asks. “Um, let’s see … oh, yeah — ‘Bomb Pops.’ ”
“That’s right,” I say. “How appropriate. Patriotism and explosions do seem to go hand-in-hand nowadays.”
“Huh?” asks Steph, bewildered. Then, suddenly, her face lights up. Does she get it, somehow?
“My mom!” she yells, bolting from our perch on the flowerbed.
The first letters containing anthrax started turning up in Washington, D.C., in early October.
Our first book order of the year arrives in Shadywood a couple of weeks later.
One of the unadulterated pleasures of elementary school for me, both as a student and now again as a teacher, has always been the opening of the book-order box. Splaying the blunted blades of a pair of safety scissors and slicing through the brown packing tape with the top one to reveal the treasure trove of books that have somehow remained neatly stacked. Lifting the first volume to the nostrils for a sniff of that already effervescing new-book smell.
As much as my senses have been enthralled by those boxes over the years, I’ve never noticed the fine white powder that collects in the corners. Apparently, someone else has, if only recently.
Perched on top of the pile of Harry Potter and Captain Underpants novels is a slip of white paper. “Dear Educator,” it starts, “As part of our continuing commitment to serving teachers, parents, and children, and in light of the current difficult climate, we want to provide you with the following information:
“It is a common and longstanding industry process among book printers to use powders (such as cornstarch) in the printing process of magazine and book products to prevent pages from sticking together. This process sometimes results in a visible white residue in book and magazine packages. Our printers have assured us that this substance is safe and poses no health risk to consumers.”
Oh, OK. Good.
The alarm sounds. Two short bursts. The dry-erase marker in my hand squeals to a halt three-quarters of the way through the loop of a cursive k. I try to unscramble the alarm’s morose Morse code. Two short bursts?
“Fire drill?” I venture.
Wordlessly, Kimberly — my brightest student, a natural leader — drops her pencil, walks toward the door. The other kids follow her lead, form a line as straight as Kimberly’s bangs.
“Good job, guys. Excellent line,” I mutter as I extricate their emergency cards from my desk drawer.
Since 9/11, the principal has redesigned the emergency cards. When we were almost as innocent as our students, they were just 5” x 7” white index cards bearing each child’s name and a couple of emergency contacts. Now, the principal has expanded them to an 11” x 17” tabloid sheet to make room for a photo, a full set of fingerprints, current dental records, and a strand of the child’s hair (for the purposes of DNA identification).
I wedge the emergency cards under my left arm, pull the plastic tub out of its hiding place under my desk, and lug it to the head of the line one-handed. I pop the door open with my left hip.
“All right, guys,” I say. “Here we go.”
We file out of the room, heading for the gap between our bungalow and the next, the claustrophobic causeway that will lead us to our designated assembly point on the upper grade playground. Hopefully, we won’t be the last ones there.
Well, not quite. The principal is standing there, alone, her broad back to us.
“Uh-oh,” I say.
She whirls around, her two-inch heels stirring up a cloud of dust that swirls around her like a tornado and lifts her hair skyward, exposing the nodule jutting out of her neck. She levels her battery-powered bullhorn at us as if it were a gun.
A tornado. That’s one thing they don’t rehearse for out here in Hollywood. Good thing, since most of the schools out here are at least half trailer park, I mean, bungalow grove.
Tornado drills — back pressed against a windowless wall in the southwest corner of the school, put your head between your knees and kiss your ass good-bye — were just one of the things I had left behind in the Midwest. One time, my teacher confused the tornado siren for the fire alarm, led us outside, heads bent forward, struggling against the gale force winds that whipped woodchips at our faces —
Shit. This isn’t a —
“This isn’t a fire drill, Mr. Black! This is a lockdown drill! Get those children inside! Now!”
Gwen’s pet name for me is “goat,” and I call her “duck.” There’s a story behind that, of course – we wandered into a petting zoo during one of our first dates – but it’s one those anecdotes that’s really only cute if you were there at the time.
When they finally delivered my desk to the classroom, I decided that I didn’t want to display a photo of Gwen and I on it – you know how kids get the giggles – so I keep a stuffed goat and duck on it to remind me of her, instead.
“Next word. That word is ‘plans.’ What word?” I call, following the purple arrow under the word in the Direct Instruction presentation manual with my index finger.
The kids in the lower reading group, seated before me in a ragged half circle of rickety chairs, follow my finger with their eyes. The movements of their pupils are eerily synchronized.
“Plans,” they drone in monotone voices.
“Good,” I read from the script. “Next word. That word is ‘planes.’ What word?”
“Planes,” they intone, mesmerized eyes tracking my finger like a hypnotist’s swinging pocket watch.
Leaning against the back wall of my classroom, the principal glances at her stopwatch, then checks a box on the evaluation form clamped to her clipboard. We’re behind schedule, she’s informed me. The President had read “The Pet Goat” to the class he was visiting in Florida the morning of September 11th; we’re just getting to it today.
“All right, guys,” I say, setting the script aside for a minute. “Today’s story is about a girl with a pet goat. Who knows what goats are called in Spanish? I’ll give you a hint: it’s the name of a Mexican soccer team.”
“Just follow the script, Mr. Black,” the principal barks from the back of the classroom.
Glaring at the principal, I read exactly what it says in the presentation manual: “[First child to teacher’s right], could you read the first four sentences, please?”
The students exchange confused looks.
“Mr. Black,” the principal growls.
“David, could you read the first four sentences, please?” I ask, feeling my cheeks flush with humiliation as I lower my eyes.
“Sure, teacher,” David says. He reads haltingly: “A girl got a pet goat. She liked to go running with her pet goat. She played with the goat in her house. She played with the goat in her yard.”
“Good reading,” I read. Refusing to make eye contact with the principal, I stare past her instead, at the stuffed goat on the corner of my desk. “Cristobal, the next five sentences, please.”
Cristobal gulps, then picks his way through lines laced with landmines of nonsense. “But the goat did some things that mad the girl’s dad mad. The goat ate things. He ate cans and he ate canes. He ate pans and he ate panes. He even ate capes and caps.”
I don’t look up from the script, even after I hear the principal slam the door behind her while Carlos trudges through the next paragraph. “One day her dad said, ‘That goat must go. He eats too many things.’”
Yeah, the goat eats too many things. Like his pride.
Another thing that my room doesn’t have is a public address system. What, actually who, we have is Carmen, the librarian, going door to door down the double rows of bungalows. Not used to being the center of attention, she looks down nervously at the two sentences printed on the note card in her hands, reads her lines like a movie extra surprised and frightened to be granted a speaking part in the larger drama unfolding around her.
“This is an earthquake drill,” Carmen reads, risking a quick glance away from the card to make a token attempt at eye contact with the students. “Please DROP, COVER, and HOLD.”
Then she’s gone, the director cutting away from the extra, leaving Carmen only two speaking parts shy of earning her SAG card, leaving us crammed under our desks.
DROP to your knees, COVER the back of your head and neck with your right arm, and HOLD on to the leg of your desk with your left. And then WAIT.
And then the lights go off. Several of the children gasp. I sigh. The principal must have killed the electricity to simulate a power disruption.
In the darkness, my students’ faces are reduced to sidewalk chalk drawings – tan smears against a blacktop backdrop, features sketched hastily in black.
Five minutes later, we’re still huddled under our desks. It’s especially hard on the chubby children, the red-fingered rascals who seem to subsist solely on a diet of Hot Cheetos.
David groans under his desk. “Teacher, I can’t feel my legs anymore.”
“I can feel them,” grumbles Shirley.
We giggle, the kids and I, and our smiles are quick strokes of white chalk against the black of our mouths. But the laughter fades quickly, and the darkness remains.
Suddenly, frantic knocking on the door.
“Mr. Black?” calls a muffled voice. “Mr. Black, are you in there?”
Ha. I’m not falling for that old chestnut. “It’s just the principal trying to fool us into opening the door again,” I tell the children in a stage whisper.
The knocking trails off, but reoccurs periodically for the next twenty minutes or so. A marathon drill, it has to be getting close to half an hour.
Once again, a knock at the door, this time followed swiftly by the telltale jingle of keys.
This is new, possibly a novel variation on a lockdown drill. Curious, I stand up, holding the lightweight table over my head, lest the principal should discover me unducked and uncovered, and wobble woozily towards the door on cramped legs.
The door swings open. I throw my right arm across my squinting eyes to shield my dilated pupils from the waning sunlight. The smooth metal table leg rotates in the sweaty palm of my left hand, wrenches itself free. The table slides off the back of my head and crashes to the floor, pulling me down with it.
The silhouette framed in the doorway convulses in a fit of laughter.
“Mr. Black? Whatchu still doing in here?” he manages to gasp between waves of laughter.
“Walter?” I croak, recognizing the night custodian. “Why are you here so early?”
“Early?” asks Walter. “School got out ’bout fifteen minutes ago.”
“I tell you, this scripted reading program is insulting to teachers’ intelligence, Millie,” I complain during recess duty. “A monkey could do this. All it would have to do is point at the word —”
“— and maybe have a parrot on its shoulder to squawk, ‘Next word. What word?’” she interjects, cracking up.
“That’s brilliant!” I laugh. “I can see it now: The monkey holds up the presentation manual with his prehensile tail, then ruffles the parrot’s feathers. As the monkey traces the arrow under the word with one banana-stained index finger, the parrot screeches: ‘Next word. What word?’”
“Zombie,” Millie drones, playing the part of the children.
“Next word. What word?” I parrot.
“Lobotomize,” Millie drawls.
“Well, well,” says the principal as she stomps by, clutching a clipboard in one hand and a stopwatch in the other. “I see a couple of young go-getters are already practicing the vocabulary list for the next level in our reading program.”
The laughter dies on our lips.
On the fifth day of Christmas, my principal gave to me: one caulking gun, two tubes of silicone rubber door-and-window sealant, three rolls of duct tape, four rolls of plastic sheeting, five packages of respirator masks.
“‘Tis the season …” begins the card taped to the lid of a new plastic tub. Afraid of where this is going, I issue a preemptive sigh before thumbing the card open to read: “… for preparing for chemical and biological attacks.”
How does that old poem go? “The plastic sheeting was hung over the windows with care / In the fear that anthrax soon would be there”?
A helium-filled red balloon floats behind each of the padded black shoulders of the principal’s suit. On the one hovering over her right, someone has used a Sharpie to write the word “RED”; on the left, “ALERT.”
“Tomorrow,” she intones, beginning the staff meeting, “we will run through a complete dress rehearsal of the Emergency Crisis Plan.”
Surprised whispers cascade across the cafetorium.
“This will entail a complete evacuation of the campus,” she continues. “Ms. Escalada is passing out a map that shows every class’s assigned rendezvous point. In general, lower grade classes will exit the main gate and line up on Ánimo Avenue. Upper grade teachers should lead their students out the kindergarten gate and line them up on Término Avenue.”
“Wait a minute,” I say. “I must be confused. You don’t mean that we’re supposed to line our students up in the street, do you? Isn’t that incredibly dangerous?”
“Not as dangerous as a hijacked 747 slamming into the school, Mr. Black.”
“But that isn’t really going to happen,” I say.
“Don’t say that!” the principal bellows. “It’s precisely those kind of thoughts that will guarantee a terrorist attack.”
Momentarily stunned into silence by the intensity of her anger, I notice my mouth isn’t the only one left gaping.
Maybe it’s our collective intake of breath that pulls the balloons forward, their residual static-electric charges levitating the coarse black strands of the principal’s mane. A spark from “RED” leaps through the air and strikes the now-exposed nodule.
The principal winces, shields the puzzling protuberance with her right hand as she turns her head away and blinks her heavy-lidded eyes.
“Dangerous?” she muses softly. “Was it dangerous for my teachers to pack us around that rattling old Weil-McLain boiler? That day, it was so hot, too hot …”
As we stare, transfixed, the principal’s thick fingers tug on the node. She shakes her head.
“Still, this … this was nothing compared to the flesh-searing effects of nuclear fallout. Nothing.”
Millie valiantly changes the subject. “Um, what will be the bell signal for the Emergency Crisis Plan?”
“I’m glad that someone is asking a practical question,” the principal says, blinking out of her reverie. Millie, in spite of herself, beams at the principal’s verbal reinforcement.
“The Emergency Crisis Plan is beyond bells,” the principal continues. “You will hear the following message: ‘Attention teachers, this is a RED ALERT. Please evacuate the campus.’”
“Attention teachers, this is a RED ALERT. Please evacuate the campus.” Message delivered, Carmen’s head pops back out of the doorframe.
We walk in straight lines, calmly putting insignificant distance between ourselves and the imaginary bombs and phantom airliners.
Término Avenue runs north-south along the school’s eastern perimeter; Ánimo Avenue, west-to-east along the southern. The principal has harangued three sheriff’s deputies into cordoning off the resulting dyslexic L of blacktop with their squad cars.
The principal herself stands in the middle of the intersection of Término and Ánimo, where she can simultaneously monitor the evacuation onto both streets.
“Remember, people, if we do this now, we shouldn’t have to do it later,” she yells into the bullhorn.
In the squad car next to my class, a deputy shakes his head and yawns. I watch as he begins a thorough investigation of the contents of the pale blue pastry box that’s riding shotgun.
Thus distracted, he fails to hear the recorded calliope music.
The principal does, but not soon enough to escape the ice cream truck that swerves around the squad car.
Her blood sprays into the air, the reddest of red alerts. Her bullhorn clatters to the pavement, the impact jarring it into siren mode. A shrill wail fills the air.
“Air raid drill?” I whisper.
The nearest deputy springs from his black-and-white and runs after the ice cream vendor, who is fleeing down Término on foot. The other deputies get out of their cars, as well, but neither is able to fight his way upstream through the waves of screaming children.
In the midst of the chaos, Ms. Escalada stoops down and reaches for the principal’s fallen bullhorn.
I slap her hand away. “Do not remove any personal effects from the body,” I recite. “Personal effects must remain with the body at all times.”
Ms. Escalada pulls back, struck as much by the callousness of her own script as by my open palm, I hope.
I break the seal on the plastic tub, pull out the pocket-sized mirror, and hold it under the principal’s nostrils. No fog.
I return the mirror to the plastic tub, swapping it for two tags. I write the following information on both tags:
- Date and time found.
Friday, Dec. 21, 2001. 1:09 p.m.
- Exact location where found.
Intersection of Ánimo & Término Avenues.
- Name of deceased, if known.
Ilsa Enorme, principal.
- If identified, how, when, and by whom.
Visually. 1:09 p.m. F. Black.
- Name of person filling out tag.
Forrest Black, morgue director.
For a moment, I’m unsure just how I’m supposed to “attach” one of the tags to the body. Just as my left hand begins to drift toward the stapler, it comes to me.
With trembling fingers, I pull the coarse strands of black hair away from her neck. I lean close to peer at the bolt.
The pallid skin around it is puckered and shiny, as if cauterized by intense heat. However red-hot the bolt had been when it struck her, the metal – blackened over the decades by the touch of her oily fingers – is cold to the touch now. Imprinted at the end are two letters: WM.
“Weil-McLain,” I hiss in recognition.
I hang one of the tags on the bolt, then lift her feet off of the blacktop long enough to pull a black Hefty bag up over them.
She was big. It takes two bags. I duct-tape them securely together in order to prevent unwrapping, then staple the second tag to the outside of the bags.
I slide my arms under the body, taking care to lift with my legs, not my back.
Dead weight. That’s what the body feels like in my arms, its face concealed by the Hefty bags’ clinging embrace. I lower it gently onto the faux wood tabletop.
I walk over to the wall thermostat. Turn on the A.C. full blast. Gotta keep those Popsicles frosty.
“Drill & Kill” was originally published by Black Denim Lit in 2014.