by Louis Gallo
Piano lessons seemed a breeze next to Kindergarten. Jake had clung to Violet’s hand and squirmed fiercely the entire six blocks to McDonogh 9 as she escorted him to school and up the stairs into the cheerful classroom of Miss Swander, his first schoolteacher, a small, stooped and wiry woman with hair the texture of pine needles. The teacher gushed with enthusiasm as she welcomed Violet into the room. Violet told him later that Miss Swander had caught smallpox as a child, which accounted for the craters on her face as well as the curvature of her spine. One night when she was only seven years old Miss Swander woke to a chilling sweat and dread in her heart. She opened her eyes to see the smallpox demon zigzag above her face, buzzing like a horse fly. She rolled over on her stomach and pulled the pillow over her head, but the demon dove into the back of her neck, gnawed at her flesh and burrowed in, spreading pathogens into her bones and blood. Her fever raged for days until Father Rinaldi of St. Rosa de Lima administered extreme unction. Miss Swander’s distraught father prayed to St. Rosa and begged for his child’s life. He promised to repair the stained glass of the church windows for the rest of his days if she granted his wish. Within two hours Miss Swander’s fever abated, she opened her eyes for the first time since she saw the demon and meekly asked for a slice of king cake. The next day she hopped out of bed and, except for her disfigurement, proved the healthiest child in the neighborhood. Her strength became extraordinary. Still only seven, the child could lift her father’s Packard by the chrome bumper and hold it steadily two feet off the ground. She could thrash any boy in her neighborhood, even many grown men, though she only fought in self-defense. There was not a malicious corpuscle in her body.
One morning when she was away at school Mr. Swander ransacked his daughter’s room in search of the smallpox demon. He found an evil red insect with tiny horns protruding from its head; he tempted it into a mayonnaise jar with a chunk of rotten crawfish and drowned it in his own urine. The insect turned black, sizzled, clawed frantically at the sides of the glass and then, to Mr. Swander’s amazement, exploded into hundreds of small nuggets that resembled tiny four o’clock seeds. He drained the urine, poured the seeds into a lead box and soldered it shut, then buried it six feet below ground. He thanked St.Rosa and spent every spare minute of the rest of his life repairing the church’s windows, for as soon as he replaced glass or resoldered one, another would break in relentless, merciless succession. At age ninety he perished of chronic lead poisoning. His doctors marveled over the man’s constitution; the amount of lead in his body would have killed a battalion of soldiers. When Miss Swander bent over to kiss her father’s corpse goodbye, she tasted metal, a taste she could never brush or gargle away. Some said it accounted for the silverish tint to her lips.
‘And how’s the young man today?’ Miss Swander squinted down at Jake over her prince-nez.
‘Well…’ Violet raised her eyebrows.
‘Oh, pooh,’ Miss Swander said, cupping his head with her palm, “we’ll just have to stop that whimpering, won’t we?”
Jake despised the woman instantly. It was one thing to whimper but quite another to be exposed in front of all the other children by someone who had probably never whimpered in her life, who could not possibly grasp the urgent need to whimper.
He preferred to keep his Kindergarten reputation a secret, for he was quite aware that he had lost control. He spent an entire week self-exiled in the sandbox of Miss Swander’s merry class, refusing to participate or turn the pages of his workbook or even sit next to the other students at their little lacquered tables, detesting his so-called locker, which smelled like vomit. His grief knew no limit; his heart was broken; his mother had abandoned him. Never did he blame or hold it against her; Violet would not desert him unless forced into it. Thus silently and with mounting displeasure he unleashed his torrential woe upon Miss Swander.
The teacher finally capitulated and allowed him to sulk and grieve, the way he chose to spend his entire day. During recess he sought out sacred spots on the school grounds beside the azalea bushes or near the row of startling poinsettias whose lush red blossoms looked edible, places where his mother had walked with him or hugged him goodbye; or he hovered with longing near the unscalable wire fence that separated him from her and everything he knew, as a prisoner clings to the very bars which make freedom a dream. The places his mother had traversed were magical, spiritual sites, and he reasoned that if he returned to them, rooted himself in place for hour on end, he might reverse history, bring her back, end the dismay which swept him away from not only her and Columbus Street but even himself.
Yet as time passed he drifted away from the magic places, for obviously their magic did not work, his mother did not solidify in thin air, he was not instantly transported back to Columbus Street. One day he crept out of the sandbox toward Miss Swander’s desk and whispered into her ear that he wanted now to assume his place at one of the tables. He plunged himself into the baleful workshop exercises with the solemnity of a scholar, took his locker in stride, joshed around with the children in his class, who weren’t so bad after all, and in effect became a model student. It had become clear that no one would tolerate any less, that he would otherwise have soon become one of the very neighborhood coo-coos he and everybody else made fun of and taunted. And he succeeded in making his first real friend outside the family, that skinny boy Dave Silner who taught him all the dirty words and just so happened to live on the next block of Columbus Street. It was Dave who introduced Jake to such unspeakable secrets that he reeled simultaneously with horror and unquenchable curiosity. Dave had a deck of playing cards that depicted a fat young woman with skin pale as tissue engaged in fellatio with a naked man whose body was so hairy Jake could not tell if he were man or beast. The first time Jake saw the card he felt his heart catapult. The sight destroyed his peace of mind for weeks. He could think of nothing else, though he didn’t know what the act meant or why the naked people would resort to such ignominy. Yet they looked exceedingly happy. The playing card implied scandalous, mysterious vices—and incontestable pleasures—lying dimly ahead in the future, a future he longed to leap into, a future he prayed kept its distance.
Louis Gallo’s work has appeared in Wide Awake in the Pelican State (LSU anthology), Southern Literary Review, Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth, Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review, and many others. Chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Abomination of Fascination, Status Updates and The Ten Most Important Questions. He is the founding editor of the now defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. He was awarded an NEA fellowship for fiction. He teaches at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.