14 May, 2015
Mrs. Condell’s hair is a fizz of gray and blond, like yellow chalk that’s been left on the board too long. She wears a pale pink v-neck blouse that slides slowly underneath her breasts when she walks the hallways of the elementary school, and her tiny red Keds don’t squeak. As I sat in the second row of her fourth grade classroom, I would watch the line of silk venture slowly upward, hoping with some strange fascination that one day the blouse would rise up to the point that I would be able to see the thin line of skin between the cloth and her pants. Possibly I thought it would be funny to see such a private body part exposed, like when Mr. Isbell would roll up the sleeves of his starched white button-down to conduct “El Tango” in music class and I would stare in awe at the hairless underside of his thin arms.
Or perhaps I wanted to know definitively whether adults even had stomachs – like somehow their upper body floated above their pants without falling off when they walked. I can’t recall a moment when this actually occurred, as Mrs. Condell – even now I can’t imagine her with a first name – was repeatedly able to reach up and write long definitions on the board without showing the skin there, as if the silk were somehow tethered to the top of her pants. I imagined her sewing the fabric onto her body every morning like Peter Pan to his shadow.
One night, I looked up the definition of “blouse” in our basement – an entire row of brown and black tomes to which I owe my entire primary understanding of such strange, foreign words as fuck, and cock, and ejaculate (words whose meaning, I eventually learned, depended entirely on how you say it and when). I read that to blouse can also mean “to puff out in a drooping fullness.” Such a lovely definition I had never before found. It suggested a lazy luxuriousness, as though Mrs. Condell’s breasts were pillows upon which huge cats stretched out on every night. As though she were always in the midst of waking from a good nap. It was of particular interest to me that Mrs. Condell could inhabit this fullness while still retaining the modesty of her own skin. The next day I stole a brown belt from my mom’s closet and strapped it to the buckles of my blue jeans – sixth hole, with room to wiggle. I then tucked the bottom of my shirt into my jeans, pulling the fabric out gently with my thumb and forefinger on all sides until it drooped slightly over my belt like a mushroom cap.
Mrs. Condell wore a felt pumpkin for fall festival every year, which was the one day outside of May Day that we weren’t expected to do anything except spend our parents’ money on baskets of overcheesed nachos. It was the school’s attempt to further equalize the students, which was difficult because the majority of kids were poor enough that the school gave out jackets donated by churches in the Clay County area every Christmas. The pile of coats was bigger every year, a broken jigsaw puzzle of orange and yellow on the principal’s couch, like a bunch of well-dressed kids had been caught mid-rapture in a dog pile.
For the festival, each teacher was in charge of hosting a particular theme. It was as fascinating to see these activities taking shape in the weeks leading up to the festival in the form of decorations, candy, and a feverish apathy for actual learning as it was to observe the way that the teachers invested themselves in their chosen themes. Mrs. Thorn was once again hosting the dance room – a dark space of sweaty hands and slow music that chugged to the softly humming motor of the spinning disco ball on her desk. Mrs. Thorn herself walked the expanse of the room every fifteen minutes with a red flashlight that seems to expand in length every time I remember it. She would laugh whenever she found a particularly engaged couple in the back of the room, smirking in a way that dimpled her left cheek as she walked away. Boys like Jason P. and Destin S. often took advantage of the temporary anonymity of the dark room to hold on just a bit longer to the budding hips of their dancing partners; girls left the room in packs, blinking underneath the hallway’s fluorescent lights and pulling down the sweaty lower hems of their shirts.
Mrs. Condell herself rarely deviated from her theme, having offered the same one for three consecutive years. As she didn’t want her room cluttered by discarded hot dog wrappers and tear-away tickets at the end of the day, a large golden birdcage was situated snugly into the neck of her doorway. She then rested herself on the other side, reaching over the metal crate with a slight bend of her arm for student tickets. The students had three tries to choose a single key from the heap of brass that filled the bottom of the cage in order to unlock the padlock at the top. Students who found the key received two tickets.
From my place at the back of the line, I could see Cody P. standing in front of the golden cage, the weight shifting from converse to converse as he sifted through the pile. I could see the way his blonde hair flipped up over his blue collared shirt and the soft rolls of his neck, like two pale lips pursing and unpursing. After two attempts, Cody lifted up a key, and over the haze of voices I heard the metallic ping of a lock, unlocked. Mrs. Condell brought her hands together from where they had been resting on her lap and clapped them quickly. She then crooked her finger towards Cody and whispered into his ear. After a few seconds, Cody turned around and walked away, his head nodding furtively towards the people waiting in line.
I took a step forward while Lauren H. took her turn. With a swift check over his shoulder, Cody began making his way down the line, whispering quickly towards those still waiting in line ahead of me, all of them boys: “It’s the gold one. Like the cage. It’s really tiny.” When he got to me, his eyes were darting from side to side, as though he were going to be shot down any moment. He licked his lips. “She told me not to tell.”
Except for Lauren, who walked away empty-handed, each person in front of me was able to find the key. Some boys showed no pretense and located it on the first attempt. Others were more dramatic and tried two decoy keys before lifting the correct one up and, with an exaggerated jerk of their head, fitted it into the slot.
“Well, aren’t we some lucky chaps today?” asked Mrs. Condell. Her eyes narrowed as Trevor M. walked away with his winning tickets, the back of his neck a splotchy red.
By the time my turn came up, six boys – and 12 tickets – had walked away. I looked down to get my ticket out of my pants pocket, and handed it over.
I chose a brown key with a red tip at the edge. It was obviously too large for the lock, but I pretended to nudge it in. Then I found a black key with a rainbow decal at the top. Biting my lips, I grazed my fingers through the keys slowly. Finding nothing, I began to look at the keys three at a time, then two, then one. Had Cody meant old, perhaps? Or cold? I began cautiously to lay my open palms on the pile, feeling for differences in temperature, the sound of breathing from the boy behind me growing louder. From somewhere in front of me, a glint of something caught my eye.
I looked up quickly. Perhaps the key had fallen out of the cage. Surely it would still count. But where I thought I had seen the wink of gold before was now replaced by Mrs. Condell’s hands, which sat clasped in front of her. For a brief moment I wondered if I had seen the glint of her jewelry, yet the only ring she wore was her wedding band, and even from two feet away I could see that it was a tarnished, muddy color, like the skin of an old peach.
She sat quite still in front of me, her felt orange pumpkin winking mischievously from her left shoulder. I stood numbly on the other side of the cage and searched for a way to tell her that the key clearly wasn’t in there, though it was impossible to do so without revealing just how I knew. Mrs. Condell stared back at me, the loose strands of hair at the top of her head wagging gently from the air conditioner behind her. I watched as she straightened your shoulders impatiently, the sudden movement causing the collar of her pale pink blouse to dip further down. In the moment it took to rearrange herself, I saw unexpectedly the flash of white lace stretching itself along the hem of a bra, the contrast of a brown freckle on pastel skin.
“Any guesses?” she asked.
I shook my head and got out of line. From behind me, I thought I heard Mrs. Condell tell the students still waiting that the game was over. That she was done for the day, but I can’t be sure. Standing in a restroom stall a few hours later, I lifted my shirt and ran a finger along the thin line of belly just above my pants. Moments later, a knock rattled the lock of my stall, and I tugged the hem of my shirt down over my belt.