Check out my new story:
"The Test"in the Winter 2011 issue of Phati'tude Literary Magazine
As the teachers approached her, they could see that she was missing all
of her front teeth. Her hair was hidden beneath rags tied like a scarf, and she wore a pair of men's slippers, red sweatpants, and a sweatshirt that barely covered her distended belly printed with the
words: I Love Jesus.
"You all must be the teachers," she said.
"Yes. Good morning. I'm Mrs. Goodwin and this is Mrs. Lovejoy."
"Morning. I'm Brenda, Neesie's mama." She rubbed her hand on her sweatpants and shook the teachers' hands.
When Mrs. Lovejoy thought no one was watching, she quickly wiped her hand on the back of her slacks then stuck it in her pocket.
"This is Neesie's Grandma," Brenda motioned to the other woman still sitting in a chair beside the front door.
"Hello," said Mrs. Goodwin and Mrs. Lovejoy.
To Mrs. Lovejoy's relief, the grandmother did not offer her hand. Instead, she mumbled something unintelligible and smiled widely showing off a toothless grin.
"You ladies come in," offered Brenda.
The teachers obeyed and wished they hadn't when the smell of sour mop, vomit, fried pork, and pine sol met them at the front door. Mrs. Lovejoy took out a bottle of hand sanitizer from her designer handbag, squirted an innocuous puddle in her hand, and rubbed furiously. She then slipped it to Mrs. Goodwin who did the same.
Mrs. Lovejoy looked around the cramped apartment, noted the grime along with the smells, and found it difficult to sit in the chair that Brenda had offered. The teacher acquiesced after an agonizing fifteen seconds. After doing so, she thought sure she felt wetness seep into her slacks. She panicked, biting her lip, and imagining the long list of disgusting possibilities. But there was nothing wet in the chair, so she sat frozen, repulsed, and dizzy from the miscellany of odors.
Mrs. Lovejoy envied Mrs. Goodwin's wooden chair, for she had averted the risk of contagion – the filth, the banality, the poverty – she thought would surely infect them after a day with these people. A carnival of the grotesque they were.
The teachers had driven together, in one car, the two of them, barely acquainted before they were asked to do such a strange thing. They talked a lot about nothing on the way there, just trying to fill the space – the silence that people think they have to fill with words. They were doing more than evading the silence, though. They were avoiding what they both later discovered they were both hoping they did not encounter. So, as they pulled into the "The Oasis" apartments, they both exhaled ever so slightly when there were no crack heads greeting them at the entrance, and the hookers and pimps they had envisioned turned out to be a few middle-aged men and women walking home from the nearby bus stop. But, they had not been prepared for the people who were now playing host to them in this cramped little room.
Grandma, as the rest referred to her, sat in a semi-catatonic state, mumbling incoherent sentences to the others while a mixture of grits, eggs, and government cheese fell from her toothless mouth onto her makeshift bib assembled from an old dishcloth. Beside Grandma was "Auntie," who periodically wiped the spittle from Grandma's mouth and engaged her in dialogue, which neither of the teachers could decipher. Auntie wore a close-cut, mostly bald head, men's jeans, a Budweiser T-shirt, and no bra. She had almond-shaped eyes, a flattened head, and a protruding tongue. Occasionally, she blurted out a few phrases between the huge gap of missing teeth, but the teachers glanced quickly at each other as acknowledgment that neither of them could understand her. Helping Brenda fry the pork and eggs and boil the grits in the kitchen was the other auntie whose name was Cynthia. She walked with a pronounced limp, and one of her legs was much larger than the other. The only man in the bunch was "Uncle" – as the others referred to him. Uncle had a distended belly that matched his sister's. He wore jeans and a sleeveless undershirt that had been white some time ago but now was covered in the same dingy film that covered everything else in the grim apartment.
Between all of the aunties and the deluge of clutter and filth, there was Neesie, the child that had been the reason for their visit. She was "sick" – the teachers had been told. They never received a straight answer when they inquired about her sickness, so they stopped asking. They were told that her affliction prevented her from writing, or sitting too long, or coming to school, so they would have to test her at home. One teacher would mark Neesie's answers on the answer sheet, and the other teacher would oversee the process – because there was always a scandal in the school district about cheating on state tests – because the teachers and the state and the whole country for that matter assumed these kids were too dumb to pass on their own anyway.
Neesie stood up with the help of Brenda and Auntie, each on either side of Neesie as her support. Hanging from her frail frame was a bloody T-shirt that read, Thomas Jefferson Middle School. Neesie also wore a baggy pair of pants and no shoes. Her hair was an angry mess on top of her head, but she smiled with a full mouth of teeth and greeted the teachers who had never met her.
The teachers followed behind as Brenda and Auntie took Neesie into a bedroom lined with clear plastic bags full of clothes the same dingy color as Uncle's undershirt. The room had no furniture aside from the chair that was meant for Neesie. Mrs. Lovejoy quickly eyeballed a spot on the floor that appeared dry and free of debris. Mrs. Goodwin looked around agitatedly and finally found a spot on the floor near her colleague.
"Neesie be alright. That girl – she smart," Auntie said to the teachers, tapping the temple of her own head.
Auntie didn't know much, but she did know, as they all did, that the test was more important than the Language Arts, Reading, Social Studies, Science, and Math that it "tested." If Neesie passed the test, her school would get new computers and real books in the library that the students could actually check out. If Neesie passed the test, her school lunch might consist of a balanced meal, and her school would get money to fumigate and rid itself of the hundred year-old roaches and rats that had called the place home since the turn of the century. If Neesie passed the test, her district would get more money, and her school would be taken off the state's "failing list." And if her school was taken off the state's failing list, housing contractors might be encouraged to rebuild the community, and if they rebuilt the community, people with families brimming with smart kids might buy houses in her neighborhood. And if those smart kids came to her school, they could pass the test, and her school would get new computers, and real books in the library that students could actually check out…
During the testing, Neesie's nose kept bleeding through the tissues and dropping onto the same pool of dried blood on her school shirt. Mrs. Goodwin couldn't bear to see her wearing that bloody shirt, but when she called Brenda in to change the shirt, Brenda said that she had been trying to get Neesie to change that shirt all day, but she wouldn't. Neesie had wanted to show her school spirit while she took the test.
After six hours of testing, seven trips to the bathroom, two more nosebleeds, four cups of water, two bags of Hot Cheetos, and a Snicker bar, Neesie finished the test. On the day the test results were in, the teachers received two phone calls. The first one came in at 8'oclock that morning announcing that Neesie was the only student at Thomas Jefferson Middle to make a perfect score on the test. The other came in at 9'oclock notifying them that Neesie was dead. She had died of complications due to her illness, whatever that was, and she just stopped breathing some time during the night. Neesie's perfect score was the only one in the district, and Thomas Jefferson Middle remained on the states' failing list.