The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by Leslie Johnson

       To enter Washington Street Elementary School, Dave has to press a button outside the opaque double-doors, then stand on a red line in front of a security camera and wait for the door on the left to go “click.” And even though he’s been here before, at the “click” Dave yanks on the wrong door, the right-hand side, which doesn’t budge, so now he has to start over again. “Sorry!” he mouths into the small laser eye of the camera, pretending to hit himself on the head in slow motion.
       He signs in at the reception station, a raised circular kiosk where a security guard sits on a pedestal surrounded by video screens and control panels. As Dave receives his Visitor’s Badge, he waves across the lobby at Mrs. Livesy, who is waiting for him with the other volunteers.
       At age 62, Dave is the youngest of the “Let’s Read Together!” tutors. He steps with determined jauntiness toward his group: three old ladies who go to the same Catholic church and Grampy Jay, dressed today in a Yankees shirt and matching cap, his veined cheeks and nose flushed red with what Dave can tell is over-excitement.
       Grampy Jay likes everyone at Washington Street School to call him Grampy Jay. Everyone, not just the kids. Grampy Jay is a long-term volunteer, and he eyes Dave head to toe, as usual, with a squinting glare of suspicion. Well, Dave knows Grampy Jay’s type. Control freak. Self-important. Dave got a lifetime’s fill of Grampy Jays during his years at the Department of Transportation in Newington, squadrons of Grampy Jays vying against real and imaginary adversaries for their measly little state promotions. Baring his teeth, Dave gives Grampy Jay a huge smile and then turns toward the ladies.
       “I’d be willing to place a bet that you like CATS!” Dave says heartily to the frailest one.
       She bats her eyelids, which seem to have no lashes. “Why, yes I do!” Her fingertips flutter to the huge broach — a cartoon cat face with plastic whiskers and a red felt tongue — fastened to the neckline of her scarf. She has taken the advice of Mrs. Livesy, the“Let’s Read Together!” coordinator, to wear something the first day that can be turned into a fun conversation piece. Dave couldn’t think of anything for himself. He considered the orange apron he wears for his weekend cashier job at Home Depot, but that seemed too obtrusive. He grabbed one of the freebie orange Home Depot tape measures instead, which he’s carrying in his back pocket, although they’re not supposed to give gifts or trinkets of any kind to the students. That’s one of the rules.
“So today’s the big day!” Mrs. Livesy beams. “Are you all ready to meet your Reading Pals?” She’s dressed in black pants and a baggy sweater that falls from the mound of her breasts to the middle of her thighs. Her brownish hair is cut short, slightly curled; rimless glasses rest in the center of her wide, pleasant face. Dave has listened to her speak at all four training sessions, but he can never quite remember what she looks like until she is standing right in front of him again.
       “I have two cats,” the lash-less old lady is telling Dave in a high, trembling voice. “A tabby named Celeste, and then there’s Big Boy. That Big Boy, now he’s a trouble maker, let me tell you!”
       Grampy Jay clears his throat with a loud “Aaah–HEM” and places his knobby hands on his hips. “Before we get started with the youngsters, I want to say a few words.”
       Dave thinks, of course you do.
       “What we’re doing today is bigger than you. Bigger than me!” Grampy Jay lifts his finger in the air and stares hard at them from beneath his Yankees brim. “Because when you help one child — just one! — you’re helping the future of the whole world.”
       Despite himself, Dave feels a little rush of adrenalin. He said he was going to do something positive with his time, and he here is, actually doing it. Following through!
       Mrs. Livesy leads them down the third-grade wing, past crayon-colored portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr. on one side and snowmen made from cotton and silver glitter on the other. Dave likes the smell of the hallway — a mixture of glue and rubber sneakers and disinfectant that doesn’t seem all that different, really, from his own school days. Dave recalls being happy at school when he was a kid. The subjects came easily for him, especially math, and the teachers liked him, at least in the younger grades.
       Two of the old ladies are directed into a narrow supply room with a copy machine and a table with chairs. The rest of them walk on to another corridor where desks have been placed for them along one side of the hall. Dave takes the station in the middle of the hallway, and waits in his plastic chair while Mrs. Livesy goes to get the kids. He taps the desk, then straightens up his materials: the book, his goal sheet, the purple smiley-face stickers, and the stack of handouts he’s seen before with all the directions for the volunteer tutors.
       Mrs. Livesy comes around the corner again with three kids, two boys and a girl with long red braids. She leaves a lanky African American boy with dreadlocks and camouflage pants with Grampy Jay, who jumps to his feet and warbles, “WHAZZUP, Jamal!” Dave knows that the other boy — a fat kid wearing sweatpants and a tee-shirt that stretches tightly across his stomach — will be his. As Mrs. Livesy proceeds down the hall toward Dave, the boy shuffles awkwardly behind her, chewing on his hand. Why did Grampy Jay get the cool kid? They stop a few paces away from Dave’s desk.
       “Hector, I would so much like to see you take your hand out of your mouth,” Mrs. Livesy says in her kind voice. “Thank you very much Hector!” She reaches one hand toward his shoulder, not quite touching him, and beckons with her open palm for Hector to step closer. “Hector, say hi to your reading pal, Mr. Dave!”
       Hector’s lips, red and swollen from chewing on his hand, gather in a moist, unspeaking pout. Messy black hair covers his forehead and ears in oily strands, and a big smear of dried ketchup streaks the front of his cartoon-character tee-shirt.
       “Okay, have a super time reading together!” Mrs. Livesy says, and leaves them.
       Hector just stands there, looking at the floor. His upper eyelids look fleshy, like pieces of cooked mushrooms. His hand creeps up and over the curve of his stomach and into his mouth again.
       “Have a seat, buddy,” Dave says, but gets nothing. At the end of the hallway, Mrs. Livesy has deposited the little girl with the cat lady and is now disappearing around the corner.
       “Take a load off,” Dave says.
       Hector, still gnawing his hand, turns away, hunching his round shoulders.
       Dave thinks, so now what? In their training, the volunteers were told not to feel badly if their students were reluctant or even obstinate. Most of the kids do not choose to participate in “Let’s Read Together!” of their own free will. They have all been identified by their teachers as “at risk” on the literacy scale, and their parents have signed the agreement form that allows the kids to be plucked from the normal activities of the after-school program to work one-on-one with a literacy volunteer. The tutoring sessions run from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m., when the kids would normally be playing on the playground or making crafts in the all-purpose room. Mrs. Livesy’s advice about bad attitudes was don’t take it personally! They were not to reprimand or criticize the students in any way. That was not the role of the volunteer. They were to speak in positive “I” and “We” statements.
       “I would like to see you sit down in your chair,” Dave says, trying to mimic the kind but firm tone of Ms. Livesy’s voice. “And then we can start reading this fun book!”
       The boy sidesteps to the middle of the hall, away from him, and Dave panics. He stands and walks to the nearest classroom with an open door. The teacher inside has her back to him. She is talking on a telephone that is attached to the wall behind her desk. The teacher is holding the receiver to one ear and supporting her body as she leans at a weary angle against the wall with her other. The volunteers are not supposed to bother the teachers unless it’s an emergency. After school dismissal at 3:00, most of the teachers are in their classrooms, the volunteers were told, but they’re busy grading papers and preparing lesson plans and returning parents’ phone calls. Dave guiltily withdraws his head from the doorway, and to his relief he sees Hector is sitting down now in his chair. The little shit was probably afraid that Dave was telling the teacher on him. This makes Dave dislike the child even more, but hey, he reminds himself, he’s here to be a mentor. If the kid wasn’t screwed up, he wouldn’t need a mentor, right?
       “All-righty, bud,” Dave says. “Here’s the book.” He holds it up. “THE PANCAKE MAN.”
       Hector looks blankly at the glossy paper cover, breathing through his mouth, his tongue pressing against lower lip. His irises are so dark brown they blend into the black of the pupils. The two flat plates of his eyes roll in the direction of the book cover without seeming to actually focus on it. Hector is a stupid kid, Dave realizes. Smart people can’t keep their intelligence from showing in their eyes, even when they try, even when they’re trained actors — you can still see it. You can tell a lot just by looking straight into someone’s eyes. Maybe not what they’re thinking — Dave never believed much in psychic powers or mind-reading, at least not completely — but you could definitely discern to a significant degree their mental complexity. Their capability for strategy. Dave knows this from his years of playing blackjack, and he looks deeply now into the boy’s muddy orbs, searching for a glint of emotional ambiguity, a small sparkle of internal calculation, but finds none. Hector, Dave concludes, is a classic dumb-lucker.
       Grampy Jay’s kid is probably smart. Over Hector’s head, Dave can see Grampy belly-laughing at some joke his dreadlocked tutoree just told him. There are a lot of smart kids that do badly at school. They’ve got a chip on their shoulder. They’re rebellious or emotionally troubled, but they’re still smart. They just need someone to recognize their potential and pull it out of them. That’s the kind of kid Dave wanted.
       “So, buddy boy, what do ya think this book is going to be about? Just by looking at the cover?”
       This is called Pre-Reading. During his training sessions, Dave and the other volunteers learned all six stages of the reading process. Pre-Reading is stage one. Grampy Jay and his kid have already opened up their copy of The Pancake Man — well on their way to stage two or maybe even three.
       Hector is bobbing his head up and down very slowly. The kid has a double chin, and he seems to like the feel of letting his head drop forward till the flesh pushes out on both sides of his jaws, then lifting it up again in slow motion.
       “Pancakes, right?” Dave answers his own question. “Pancakes and the guy who makes them, right? I mean, there he is with his apron and a poofy chef hat and a big frying pan with a big pancake in it. What else would it be?”
       Hector’s head is lifting now, slowly, his chin tipping up, and Dave sees a roll of sweaty, dark blue lint embedded in the crevice that rings his pudgy neck. Greenish snot has congealed around the inner edges of his nose, and a yellow bubble pulses in one nostril. Dave can feel the vein in his left temple start to twitch. That was one of his tics in the old days at the blackjack table, before he learned to control it. He’s out of practice. It’s been over two years since he quit the casino. Two years and a couple months now. If he was back at the table right now, would he be able to stop his vein from hopping like this?
       Dave takes a breath. “The guy makes pancakes so they call him the pancake man. Maybe he makes really good pancakes.” He shuffles through the handouts of directions and suggestions for volunteers. “I bet you’re good at a lot of things, too! What’s something you’re good at? Let’s make up a title for a book that could be about you and something you’re good at doing. Like maybe a book about you could be called Football Player Boy.”
       Hector’s head has dropped forward, but this time he doesn’t lift it up again.
       “No football. Okay. How ‘bout Baseball Boy? How ‘bout Paper Route Boy? How ‘bout Cartoon Drawing Boy?”
       Hector’s head falls all the way down onto the desk, where he cradles it in his forearms.
       “How ‘bout Bubblegum Bubble Blowing Boy? How ‘bout Bike Boy? How ‘bout Fishing in the Reservoir Boy? No? Gee, ya stumped me then, bud. Those are all the things I liked when I was your age.”
       Dave glances over his shoulder to the other end of the hallway at the cat lady. She’s moved her chair so she’s sitting right beside the girl with the red pigtails, and she has her arm around the girl’s small shoulders as they read together. She’s tapping on the girl’s shoulder blade in a rhythm, maybe sounding out syllables. Which is so against the rules! Volunteers are not allowed to touch the students. Not ever. That was one of the first rules they went over, and that old lady knows it. If a child hugs you, Ms. Livesy told them, stand still for just a moment and then make a gentle movement of retreat. A step backward. A shift of the torso. Dave has never been the kind of guy to squeal on someone, but he hopes Grampy Jay takes notice of the way the old lady is patting that little girl’s back. Why should she get away with rule breaking?
       Dave feels a rush of anger, and he knows he’s over-reacting, but still. He feels it.
       It’s something he’s learned at Gambler’s Anonymous: to acknowledge an emotion when it comes to you. Not to pretend it’s not happening.
       “I want you to sit up, kid. I mean business. Sit. Up.” Dave’s low voice comes out much more harshly than he’d intended. He remembers using that phrase with his own daughter, Leanne, years ago when she acted like a brat: I mean business.
       Immediately he regrets snapping at the boy that way, but it works. Hector straightens up in the chair, and for the first time Dave sees his eyes waver with emotion, his puffy upper lids slanting into triangles of anxiety or maybe resentment. He starts chewing his hand again, on the flesh beneath his thumb.
       Dave says, “People are always telling you to just stop doing that, right?”
       Hector jerks his hand down and uses the back of his other wrist to rub off the saliva. They both stare for a minute at Hector’s hands, which are chapped and scaly, with patches of wet purple scabs, and Hector’s eyes turn flat again. He pulls his hands underneath the desk.
       From down the hall, Grampy Jay is cheering, “Whoo, Whoo! Way to connect to the text, Jamal!”
       Dave sighs. “Always telling you.”
       Hector says, “Sometimes I can stop.”
       “I know.” Dave nods. “I know about sometimes.”
       Dave picks up the book and taps it on the table. He should ask Hector about breakfast, as suggested on the handout. What would you like The Pancake Man to cook for YOUR breakfast? A pang of sharp desire stabs Dave in the gut. This happens to him sometimes. He’s picturing himself sitting alone in Denny’s at 3:00 a.m. after a good night at Mohegan Sun Casino, digging into a Grand Slam Breakfast special with grape jelly and maple syrup covering everything on the plate, stuffing his face with it. He hardly ever eats a real breakfast anymore. Just coffee. Maybe a protein bar or a banana.
       “Hey!” Dave says. “How many inches tall is this book? What do you say? Guess! How many inches?”
       Hector’s mouth opens.
       “What do you think? Three inches? Three hundred inches?”
       Hector giggles, and the sweet sound of it takes Dave by surprise. The boy’s laugh is quick, pitched high, and reminds Dave of something clean, like the squeak of a squeegee on a just-washed windshield.
       “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you a range. Between one inch and ten inches. One to ten. Okay? One to ten.”
      “Ten!” Hector blurts, barely glancing at the book cover.
       “Okay, okay. I’m going to have to say seven, bud. Seven inches for me, ten inches for you, right? It’s a bet. You in?”
       When Hector doesn’t answer, Dave tells him to say “I’m in,” and the boy repeats it. Dave takes the Home Depot tape measure from his back pocket, and Hector leans forward on the desk as Dave slowly releases the bright orange metal measure along the edge of the book. “Nine inches!” Dave announces, which he knew it would be. “You beat me, kid.” He presses the button on the tape measure, the metal snapping back inside its holder.
       Mrs. Livesy appears around the corner of the hallway; she stops by the old lady with no eyelashes, smiling and nodding as the little girl with braids holds up a piece of paper. Dave grabs the “goal sheet” from his stack and begins checking off the six boxes while Hector fiddles with the Home Depot tape measure, pushing the button repeatedly, giggling softly at each sharp SNAP.
       Dave says, “You won the bet,” and Hector looks right at him and smiles. There’s no mistaking it. When he smiles, his cheeks push up and his eyes practically disappear. “Quick,” Dave says. “Put it in your pocket.”

Leslie Johnson’s fiction has been broadcast on NPR and published in journals such as Colorado Review, Glimmer Train, Cimarron Review, Third Coast, Threepenny Review, Chattahoochee Review, and others. She in Connecticut, where she teaches at the University of Hartford.

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