The sky was crowded with aircraft surrounded by bursts of flack fired from a multitude of antiaircraft batteries. The planes disgorged bombs, some curiously directed as if they were modern day rockets, and machine gun fire from every possible turret, all connected by dotted lines with somewhat out of scale infantrymen below. Of these latter there were dozens, all firing up at the airplanes, or at the many hapless parachuters who descended through the maelstrom of small arms fire, most hanging limply or actually sawed in half, and sometimes completely annihilated by small explosions. It was one of Sam’s better efforts, and he had been working on it off and on all morning long. The subject matter rarely varied. It was all WWII, all the time. These drawings were not so much works of art, to be labored on, then held at arm’s length and admired, but rather depictions of events that took place in something close to real time, and were usually discarded after the page was so filled and obscured by machine gun fire, explosions, and stick figure corpses that it was illegible to one who hadn’t witnessed the carnage as it unfolded.
What the subject was that he was ignoring was unclear to Sam Elderfield. Fifth grade was, for him, the very worst year of elementary school, grimly foreshadowing junior high, though certainly a lesser terror. Sam had loved, or at least respected, most of his teachers at school until this year. They were all women, and most were spinsters or widows. Almost all of them were Irish-American. His fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Doyle, was the first teacher Sam had really disliked.
Mrs. Doyle had Sam at the beginning of his long decline as a student. His time spent in her class was mostly spent doodling, or discovering he could read a book while Mrs. Doyle was droning on about something or another.
Mrs. Doyle was tall, wore glasses, and had, to Sam and his friends, an inscrutable, emotionless, world-weary face. She never tried to frighten anyone. Her weapon was her resignation, her air of always having her prophecies fulfilled.
One day Sam wrote and passed a note to Charlie Parsons. He wrote the note on the back of a mimeographed school notice that had been sent home for parents concerning payment for milk money. He received these notices periodically, around the times of school vacations and holidays. They read something along these lines: “Dear Parents, Next week, because of the holiday, school milk will cost .32 a week instead of .40. Milk money payments are due by Friday. Sincerely, Helen T. Lynne, Principal.”
Sam wrote his note to Charlie note on the back, passed it, and returned to his doodling. Mrs. Doyle intercepted the note, read it, casually turned it over, and read the milk money notice side. She glanced at him over her glasses, and then instructed Sam to take the note to Miss Lynne. Though not overjoyed, Sam wasn’t too worried about Miss Lynne seeing a note he had written to Charlie about the most recent episode of Combat!.
The principal’s office was just down the corridor from his fifth grade classroom. The hallway was an interesting combination of varnished wooden wainscoting and green walls, the same industrial green the boy’s room was painted in. Sam stood alone in the hallway and looked at his note to Charlie. Were there any swears? There were not. The hallway was quiet, dark, echoey. Sam ran his fingers along the wooden trim and the metal banister.
He took the note into Miss Lynne’s office. She was, as were most of the teachers, severely coiffed. Eyeglasses, attached to a fine silver strand, rested on her bosom. Some of Sam’s teachers had worn big, clip-on earrings, necklaces, and make-up, giving them soft, grandmotherly presences. Not Miss Lynne. She was a bony, severe woman who wore a look of perpetual irritation. (There were no men whatsoever in the school except for the custodian). She looked up with a blast of annoyance at Sam’s presence. Sam handed her the note. She read it, glared at Sam, and idly turned it over. She read the other side, and then peered at Sam over her reading glasses. Sam had forgotten all about the altered notice.
A popular pastime of Sam and his friends was to change the words of these notices, an activity they found hilarious. They never brought these notices home, preferring to pocket the milk money difference and spend it at the store after school. “Dear Parents” would be changed to “Dear Nags”, “school” to “jail”, “milk” to “cow juice”, “money” to “bread”, and “Helen T. Lynne, Principal” to whatever was one’s favorite epithet for that intimidating and forbidding persona.
In this instance, Sam had changed her name to “The Lady From Mars,” and her title, “Principal,” to “Warden.” Sam had looked with pride upon the altered notice, admiring his imitation of the typeface, his large, John Hancockian “The Lady from Mars,” and all the cent prices changed to millions of dollars.
“So, Sam, you think this school is a jail?” Miss Lynne began.
“Well, I see here you have changed the word ‘school’ to ‘jail’ in this notice you were supposed to have brought home to your mother. Thus I gather you must think of our school as being like a jail, do you not?”
“Then why did you cross out ‘school’ and write ‘jail?’”
“It was a joke.”
“A joke? Perhaps you might tell me what is so funny about calling the Phineas T. Lawrence School a jail?”
“Well, we all do, just joking, I mean.”
“All of whom? Everyone in your class?”
“Well then, who exactly in your class thinks that our school is a jail?”
“I don’t know. Everyone jokes that it is. I mean, sometimes me and my friends do.”
“My friends and I do. Which friends? Charles Parsons?” She said his name, a somewhat infamous one in Sam’s neighborhood, with a certain distaste, that of the educated Irish-American spinster for the swamp Yankee. Sam nodded. Shame seeped into him like some cosmic leak.
“Who else? Harold Harrington?” Sam’s best friend, his closest, most bosom companion. Miss Lynne well knew this.
“Yes,” Sam said. He felt utterly defeated.
“So you and Charles Parsons and Harold Harrington all think this school is a jail?”
“Perhaps you would like to attend a new school?”
“If you think of this school as a jail, perhaps you would be happier in a new school.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“Perhaps you and Charles Parsons and Harold Harrington would like to attend Northwest.” Sam shook his head no. Northwest was a new elementary school that had siphoned off all the children who lived to the west of the Lawrence school. The thought of being sent there was a terrifying one. They sat silently, Miss Lynne staring at Sam. She stood up. She said, “Let us go to your classroom and see if your friends Charlie Parsons and Harold Harrington also think of our school as a jail. Let us see if they would like to join you in transferring to Northwest.”
They walked to Sam’s fifth grade classroom, only about fifty feet away. To Sam, the Lawrence School had never felt more like jail than at that very moment. If this had been one of his drawings, prisoners would have been rattling tin cups on the bars as they walked by. Miss Lynne opened the door and beckoned to Mrs. Doyle. Everyone in the classroom whirled around to stare, but Miss Lynne kept Sam out in the hall. Miss Lynne and Mrs. Doyle conferred. Mrs. Doyle went into the room and returned with Charlie. Charlie was about four feet tall, thin and wiry, with enormous blue eyes. He had the ability to adopt an expression of such outrageous, superficial innocence that it was practically a parody of itself, and especially irritated Miss Lynne. He looked up at her.
“Charles, Sam here tells me you think of our school as a jail. Do you?” Evidently the thought had never crossed his mind. He looked at Sam with an expression of shocked surprise.
“No!” he said to Miss Lynne.
“You have never referred to the Phineas T. Lawrence School as a jail out on the playground?”
“Oh, no,” answered Charlie. Miss Lynne gave him a sharp look to let him know she knew he was lying, then they sent for Harold Harrington. Harold had a more genuinely innocent expression. Mothers always described him, and his big, dimpled smile, as adorable. But when he was frightened, he looked frightened. Or at least serious. He shot Sam a look that let him know he considered this a great betrayal. Charlie Parsons never got into any trouble at home, because he had essentially run free from the time he was in first grade. He was the Huck Finn of the neighborhood. But Harold could and would and did.
“Harold,” began Miss Lynne. “I’d like to ask you a question. Do you think of this school as a jail?” Looking guilty and nervous, Harold managed to stammer out a denial. “Samuel says that he and Charles Parsons and you often refer to the Phineas T. Lawrence School as a jail. Have you ever heard Charles or Samuel refer to the Phineas T. Lawrence School as a jail?”
Lying did not come as easily to Harold as it did to Charlie, but he possessed a certain ability to blarney his way out of trouble, or to at least to cut his losses. Here was a way to revenge himself upon Sam, and save himself at the same time. “Well, I have heard Sam call this school a jail. But not Charlie.” Miss Lynne looked closely at him.
“Are you certain, Harold, that you have never heard anyone else besides Samuel Elderfield refer to the Phineas T. Lawrence School as a jail?” Harold said he hadn’t.
Sam was by now musing upon his crime. Calling school a jail wasn’t really considered a particularly daring thing to say. An easy way to humorously alter a school notice. A lesser descriptive word to couple with an expletive. Sam thought that if anything, Miss Lynne’s preoccupation with his having called school “jail” only validated his charge of her being from another planet. She dismissed Harold. Sam was left standing outside with Mrs. Doyle and Miss Lynne.
“Well, Mrs. Doyle, what do you think we should do with a boy who thinks his school is like a jail? I would think he might prefer to attend a new school, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes I would, Miss Lynne, especially if he is unhappy here.”
“Yes, that’s what I think,” said Miss Lynne. “Samuel, come back to my office with me.”
Sam followed her back to her office. Was he about to be transferred? Once back in her office Miss Lynne picked up the note, adjusted her glasses, and re-read the note. Then she handed it to Sam. “Read this out loud to me, please,” she said. Sam took the note. His own handwriting leapt off the page. He began to read out loud.
“Dear Parents, Next week, due to …”
“No, no,” Miss Lynne interrupted. “Read your words, what you crossed out and wrote in.” Sam felt that if he did he would laugh, but he was so frightened by this thought that he began to read quickly.
“Dear Nag, Next week, due to Washington’s birthday, the jail’s cow juice will cost $5,000,000 dollars instead of 6,625,000 dollars. The bread must be coughed up by this coming Friday. Sincerely, Helen T. Lynne, Principal.” Sam’s was a halting, embarrassed performance, punctuated by ummms and commentary from Miss Lynne. “I see. Cow juice. That is quite mature of you, Samuel,” and the like.
When he had finished, she said, in a cold voice, “That is not what it says. Read what you wrote, please.” Sam looked down at the page. There it was, written in his unmistakably large, looping cursive, “The Lady From Mars.” He couldn’t read it out loud. He couldn’t speak it. He could not bring himself to say “The Lady From Mars.”
The ensuing silence was long and terrible.
Miss Lynne sat stone still, glaring at Sam through her bifocals. Sam imagined that she had antennae coming out of a secret slit in the back of her jacket, and that she was rubbing them together in anticipation. The thought made him smile. “Do you find this amusing, Samuel?” she asked. Sam shook his head. “Read your signature of my name out loud,” she commanded. Sam geared up to do so. He knew he was defeated. He blurted out “The Lady from Mars,” forgoing the grandiose inflection he had imagined when he first wrote it.
“That was much too fast. Please try again, and this time e-nun-ci-ate.”
It seemed easier for Sam the second time. “The Lady From Mars.”
“Do you think I am a ‘Lady from Mars?’ she asked.
“No,” he answered.
“Then why did you write ‘The Lady from Mars?’ ”
Sam felt himself drifting away. He felt sickened by her repetitive questions, by knowing ahead of time what they were going to be, by the ominous sensation of this happening before and happening again. He was oppressed by this repetition. He thought about, and then rejected, the idea of resurrecting his “joke” defense. He said, “I don’t know,” knowing full well (and this knowledge was exhausting) that she would ask, “If you don’t know, who does?” She did. He shrugged.
“I think we had better have a talk with your mother about this incident. I think we should arrange for a meeting. We can talk then about you being transferred to the Northwest School. Return to your classroom, and you may come to my office during recess today and do your homework.”
By the time Sam returned home from school that day, it was dark outside. His mother was home. She was lying on the old couch in their living room, and looked up at him as he came in the door. “Where have you been, sweetheart?” she asked.
“At the Harrington’s,” he answered. She smiled at him. She was still a beautiful woman, the most beautiful mother in the neighborhood.
“I never understood why your mother hasn’t remarried,” people, usually neighborhood mothers, would say to Sam and his sister. “You’d think she could meet somebody at church,” they’d say. Sam had heard relatives wondering why his mother hadn’t met some young professor in Cambridge, as if his mother, her days spent picking roses in the Parson’s greenhouses, where she eventually became the bookkeeper, had the time or inclination to go to Harvard Square in search of Ph.Ds to seduce.
“Sam? Sam, would you mind getting me a nice, cool washcloth? A nice, cool washcloth for my forehead?” Sam went upstairs, soaked a washcloth with cold water, rung it damp, and brought it downstairs to his mother.
“Here, Mom,” he said.
“Thank you, sweetheart. I have a migraine. I’m sorry. I’ll get dinner going shortly.” Her eyes were closed as she spoke. Sam decided that now wasn’t the time to tell her about his impending transfer to Northwest. He asked her if there was anything else. “Thank you, sweetheart. Could you get me two bufferins and a glass of water?” Sam saw she already had a glass.
“OK, Mom,” he said, and went back upstairs. Susan came out of her room.
“Did you get Mom her Bufferins already?” he asked her.
“Yes. Two. She had them with her scotch.”
“OK.” Susan was in the third grade, and adept at taking care of their mother. Sam went back downstairs and into the kitchen. There was no dinner in sight. Sam began to regret not accepting Mrs. Harrington’s offer to eat with them. He poured out a glass of water, and brought it into the living room. His mother lay on her back, washcloth neatly folded on her forehead. “Here, Mom. Susan said that she already gave you some Bufferin.”
“Oh, that’s right, she did. I forgot.” She raised herself to one elbow. “Let me give you a kiss. How was school?”
“Do you have homework?”
“Some. I did most of it at Harry’s.”
“That’s good. How is Maureen Harrington?”
“I was going to call her, but you know how much she talks. I had to lie down. I have another migraine.”
Sam didn’t really know what to say.
“Sam, would you please get me about an inch or two of scotch in this glass? And some ice, please. Thank you, sweetheart.”
Sam took the glass into the kitchen, to the cabinet in the corner, on the bottom. Inside there was one bottle of S.S Pierce Scotch, half full. He poured some into her glass. The smell nauseated him. He walked to their old fridge in the back hall and got some ice. And returned again to the living room.
His mother had curled into the couch, her back to the room. “Here, Mom,” Sam said. “Here’s your scotch.” His mother turned, one hand holding her washcloth to her forehead, the other reaching for the drink. She smiled at Sam.
“Thank you, sweetie.” She put the drink down and settled back into the couch. Sam looked at her. “Do you want us to make dinner, Mom?”
“I asked Susan to start the hash. I’ll be up soon.”
Back in the kitchen Susan was struggling to open a large can of roast beef hash with a manual opener. Sam opened it for her, and she emptied it into a cast iron skillet, both of them laughing at how much the hash resembled dog food. Susan poked at it with a spoon, breaking up the glutinous tube of meat and potatoes, and the hash began to sizzle. Sam got out their ancient egg poaching pan, space for three eggs, and put water on the boil.
* * *
Later, in his room, at his desk, pretending to do his homework, Sam thought about the dinner. They ate formally and quietly, his Mother, a stickler for good table manners, trying to be cheerful, but in obvious pain. Sam was unable to talk about his day at school apart from playground anecdote and teasing Susan about a boy in her class. He had told Susan all about his visit to Miss Lynne’s office of course, when they were walking home, except for the part about being transferred to Northwest. Sam had told the story with comic bravado, with himself as the hero. He went to bed without going downstairs. He was eager to read. The book he was reading was The Swamp Fox of the Revolution, about his idol, Francis Marion.
He opened his window and placed his pillow just outside, on the roof. The winter air was delicious, especially in contrast to his stuffy, over-heated bedroom and its pulsating, clanking radiator. He could see hills and lights in the distance, the night giving the distant city place of pride, a pinkish-yellow glow that spread over the dark hills. Once he had determined his pillow was cold he put it under his head and nestled into the coolness. He turned his radio on. The DJ was Arnie “Woo-Woo” Ginsberg, who spoke rapidly and played, Sam thought, good songs, songs he sang to himself as he lay in bed, rocking back and forth, glorying in the privacy and cocooned against the world outside.
“I wish we were Catholic,” he thought. “Then I could go and tell Father Casey at St. Luke’s all about Miss Lynne and maybe he’d have a word with her.” He thought of the interior of St. Luke’s, the high, vaulted ceiling, the beams of dark, polished wood, the stone pillars, the vast, religious feel, the beautiful stained glass depicting the stations of the cross, the very anti-austerity, non-simplicity of the building, with its school and rectory and the convent, the building where the nuns lived. It was like a little village. Sam thought the interior of the Congregational church his family fitfully attended as being like drawings in history books of the meetinghouses pilgrims went to. In these illustrations there was always a frowning man approaching a sleeping parishioner with a long, knobbed stick ready to give him a good clout. Nothing much to look at while you writhed in boredom, whereas at a Catholic Mass there was so much to watch.
He began to pray. “Please God make my mother’s migraines go away. Don’t let me be transferred. If I had to go to Northwest, Susan would have to walk to school alone. My mother would be so embarrassed. All the other mothers would talk about it. Please don’t separate me from my friends.”
A song came on the radio called “I Remember You.” Sam thought that this was the most beautiful song he had ever heard. The poignancy of the song moved his fifth-grade heart. He felt that it had a flaw, though. When the singer sang “And the stars fell like rain out of the blue” Sam felt the songwriter had missed an opportunity for a more poetic lyric. Sam thought “blue” should have been “moon,” because he liked the image of stars falling out of the moon. After all, they were the same color. And when the sky is dark enough for you to see the stars, then sky isn’t really blue anymore. He liked the idea, though, of the angels asking the singer, when he got to heaven, what his greatest thrill had been. Sam wasn’t exactly certain what he would say if the angels asked him, but it would probably have something to do with summer, boats and the ocean. At least until he could manage to lead a life something more along the lines of The Swamp Fox.
When his mother came in he pretended to be asleep. She kissed him, adjusted his blankets, and turned his radio off. In the dark, in the night, he yearned for his day to have been different. He continued to pray. “Could you help me with Miss Lynne? Mom’s headaches? Please God, I want to do better at school. I was hoping I could do better at school without having to do much more homework. I am scared of Kenny Church. Please make me not scared of anyone. I would like to be better at baseball. I was thinking I could maybe be traded to Harry’s team, because his coach once told me I was a good pitcher, but my coach won’t let me pitch, and I like the kids on Harry’s team better, some of them, if you know what I mean.” He prayed until he fell asleep.
Elliot Slater grew up in Massachusetts and Maine. He is working on a number of thematically connected stories based on his childhood and adolescence (of which “Fifth Grade” is one). He is also working on a series of Saki inspired, pandemic-themed, comic short stories, several of which were short-listed for the UK’s Saki Short Story Competition in September 2021. He was nominated for Publication of the Month in Spillwords Press this past December, and has short fiction appearing in The Northern New England Review and Dark City Magazine in the upcoming months.
© 2022, Elliot Slater