The Midwest |


by Carol M. Quinn

Miss Harris favors a hands-off approach in homeroom, to conserve her strength for the rest of the day, but sometimes she cannot help but listen:

“You know it was the people downstairs who called on him. Because of the shit. He was always throwing shit down the incinerator. I told him not to.” Clarissa shifts in the narrow space between her molded plastic desk and chair. Her voice rises above the classroom’s usual background noise: the discordant bass lines escaping ear buds, the whispered allegiances and betrayals, the gentle rustle of what is almost certainly rats in the wall behind the blackboard.

Michael, Clarissa’s twin and the intended recipient of her loud whisper, pulls the drawstrings on his sweatshirt. The hood puckers around his face, and his voice emerges doubtful, impatient. “They wouldn’t snitch for shit. Shit’s just shit. What do you think people do with diapers? Nobody calls the cops on them.” 

“We’ll find out, I guess.” Clarissa is seven months pregnant, her tone bitter. Her boyfriend, born Josiah Prince, recently called the Tiger Man of Spring Garden, had been arrested last night for animal cruelty, reckless endangerment, and housing exotics without a permit.

The arrest was the top story on the late local news. Miss Harris, a stack of math exams on her lap and a mug of chamomile on her coffee table, watched the footage of a thin and handcuffed Josiah led to a waiting squad car. His neighbors milled about the courtyard of the Whitman Houses, some mugging for the camera, some folding their arms in disapproval, Clarissa nowhere to be seen. A visibly angry uniformed police officer spoke to reporters after the apartment menagerie—“two tigers, an alligator, a capuchin monkey, and three housecats”—had been sedated. “It is crucial,” she said, spitting each word into the camera, “to care for your pets. Never take on more than you can handle. Hungry tigers roaming the hallways is never an acceptable situation. There are children in this building.”

Miss Harris chuckles, remembering the officer’s indignation. She covers her indiscretion with a dry cough. Worry about the tigers, she thinks. There are children everywhere.

Clarissa, wounded and weary, sticks her thumb in her mouth.

“Whatever,” she lisps, resting her head on her desk. “Like it even matters.”

Michael looks away and pulls his drawstrings tighter. The wall rats hiss, and Miss Harris returns to her attendance list. Today, sixteen boys are present out of seventeen enrolled; Edgar is home with an ear infection. Of the fourteen girls she’d had at the beginning of the year, only eight, counting Clarissa, are still attending school; of that group, just six are present this morning.

Girls exist at the mercy of everyone, but Miss Harris wishes that her students possessed stronger instincts toward self-preservation.

Over the years, her girls had fallen pregnant following the exchange of lingering glances with a crush; engaging in deep, janitor’s-closet French kisses with their childhood best friends; allowing boyfriends of barely two weeks to slip clammy hands under their bras. Every year, one or two who forgot to change out of their uniform skirts before walking home were cat-called into pregnancy, their own hazy visions of the future no match for the highly specific imaginings of a stranger. Occasionally, pregnancy occurred without the physical presence of a man at all: Belinda last year became pregnant while writing her AP essay on Catherine and Heathcliff’s doomed romance; Louanna after watching a broadcast of the Oscars’ red carpet interviews. “The tuxedos,” she’d moaned, head in her hands.

Despite the occasional outliers (Sharice had birthed half a dozen eggs; Morgan, a perfectly formed, lyrically inventive first novel), the girls tended to gestate traditional babies. Early on, Miss Harris had attended a few sheepish living room showers, helping to arm sixteen-year-olds for motherhood with ruffled baby socks from Target, but she began a personal boycott of the events after realizing that, whatever a girl might promise before the birth, she never returned to school after.

Miss Harris reaches into the bowl of yellow and purple Laffy Taffy on her desk, grabs an optimistic handful. “Let’s talk prom, my lovelies. We’ll make a list on the board. Imagine the evening of your dreams. What are some of the items you might wish to procure? One candy per solid answer.” 

The dance will be held three weeks from now, the school basement transformed by crepe paper and Christmas lights into a starlit garden. Miss Harris looks forward to chaperoning, to complimenting the boys on their ill-fitting tuxes, the unpregnant girls on their mermaid cuts and ball gowns. She will smile kindly at the mothers-in-waiting, their round bellies swathed in maternity pastels like a clutch of bouncing Easter eggs.

“Dre-ess,” sing-songs fortunate Shavonne, who will enter a good college in the fall. She herself plans to wear a sequined crop top paired with a ballgown skirt. “And hair. That’s two candy.”

“Tickets,” says Michael. “They’re $60 per couple.”

“Division,” chirps Miss Harris, “is delightful! Sixty per couple, then, is how much per person?”

Michael shakes his head. “It doesn’t work that way. They make you pay $35 per person, if you only just buy the one ticket.”

“Don’t act,” says Shavonne, “like you won’t be splitting a couples ticket with your sister.”

Miss Harris offers each an additional Laffy Taffy. “Moving on, my dear ones?”

Nails and makeup. Corsages and boutonnieres. The students brainstorm, and she paces back and forth in front of the blackboard, tossing candy and scribbling. Little showers of chalk dust settle down the front of her shirt. There is cruelty to the budgeting assignment, a reminder of the distance between wanting and getting, but her students have always engaged far more deeply with real-world material than with the made-up problems of textbook characters. Although (“A limousine,” shouts Shavonne, “and a driver with a hat!”), in the case of teenagers, the line between possibility and fantasy has a tendency to blur.

Michael lingers after the final bell. He kicks at a large, gaping hole under Miss Harris’s blackboard, which leads to a crawlspace that she has never fully investigated. On slow days, her students like to toss wadded up notebook paper in the hole’s general direction.

“The rats are getting real bad, Harris,” Michael says. “You know they have a whole army under Broad Street. If they ever send an advance patrol in here, you’d be in trouble.”

Good teachers do not have favorites, but Michael is hers.

She is assisting with his resume; once perfected, he will type it on the classroom computer and she will use her code to print copies. Michael is seeking an office job following graduation. So far, he has penciled a notebook page with his skills and interests, his solid A- average and part-time counter role at the McDonald’s near City Hall. Objective, stated neat block letters at the top margin: To obtain a position that utilizes my valuable skills to enable me to save for college and support my family.

By which he means Clarissa, and his in-progress niece or nephew. No parents, not for a long time. There had been an aunt in the picture—Miss Harris vaguely remembers a gentle, harried-looking woman offering proof of guardianship to register the twins for their freshman year—but she hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

“You might want to mention,” she says, pointing to the McDonald’s entry, “that they gave you the busiest shift. That points to your skills under pressure. And here.” She writes down her phone number, her email address. “You should list me as a reference. Employers appreciate math skills.”

Michael looks up at her. “Rats can have diseases and shit,” he says. “Clarissa’s scared of them.”

Miss Harris arranges her face into an indulgent smile, squinting the corners of her eyes to create a crinkle. “I will handle the rats,” she says. “And if Clarissa needs something, she is more than welcome to ask me herself.”

The poison is safely locked behind the hardware store counter, and in order to make her purchase, Miss Harris must show the clerk her license. He records her identity, date of birth, address, and number of boxes purchased.

“This seems excessive,” she says.

“Blame Big Brother.” The clerk is bearded, mustached, and perhaps, she squints, twenty-two. “You know you can boil these down and inject them. If you control the dosage really precisely, it’s supposed to be like you’re melting into a marshmallow cloud. Eight boxes would kill a horse, though, if you want to talk about excessive.”

“Luckily,” says Miss Harris, “I will be using this rat poison to poison rats, as God and the manufacturers intended.”

He shrugs; not his business.

Outside the store, Miss Harris examines her purchase. The front of each box depicts a sinewy black cat baring pointed teeth and crying tears of blood. In seven languages, buyers are warned against ingesting the blocks: besides the obvious internal bleeding, serious and sometimes fatal allergic reactions could occur.

On the back of each box, a red circle with a line through it—the universal stop, no, avoid!—is superimposed over the crude black outline of a pregnant woman, all swollen belly and flowy hair. The poison contained within the blocks has been associated with serious birth defects, miscarriage, stillbirth. Women who are or who may become pregnant should avoid handling the blocks; should avoid lingering in areas where the blocks have been placed; should avoid spending too much time even thinking about the blocks, or about rodents, or about anything unhappy at all, really, lest the baby develop beady eyes, a tail, or a death wish.

In her classroom the next morning, dim light streaming through the dirty windows, Miss Harris sets to work. She shines her phone into the crawlspace, illuminating a carpet of crumpled candy wrappers and notebook paper, balls of dust and hair. No evidence of rodents, but lack of something is proof of nothing. The air is cooler inside the hole, and a little stale.

On her hands and knees, Miss Harris snakes the poison blocks quickly, happily, humming just a bit, until the crawlspace resembles the aftermath of a domino topple. She is so absorbed in her work that she does not hear Clarissa enter. Instead, she breathes in the girl’s distinctive scent, coconut and hairspray, undernotes of something feral. Miss Harris fights her face into a welcoming expression.

Good teachers do not have least favorites, but Clarissa—a pretty girl who has never evinced a desire to be anything else—is hers.

“Good morning,” says Miss Harris. She reaches for tape, for the bright blue posterboard filched from the old art supply closet, and covers the hole. “Bright and early! No Michael today?”

Clarissa, her blue eyes narrow and stormy, huffs at her desk. “I can’t just be by myself? That’s not okay with you?”

Miss Harris responds with silence. You, she thinks at Clarissa, are not by yourself. Even as we speak, your body is putting the finishing touches on your baby’s eyelashes, perfecting the final whorl of the outer ear. You will never be by yourself again. She collects herself, then says, “You seem angry. I wonder if you would like to talk about it.”

In response, her student leans sharply forward and hits her head against the desk. Once, twice, again: steady but without urgency, a lazy hammer, a portentous knock on the door.

Before the next smack, she braces her hand between Clarissa’s head and her desk, feels the bones of her fingers knocked between Clarissa’s skull and the unforgiving plastic surface. She speaks slowly, small words, short sentences. “Clarissa. Stop. What is wrong with you?”

Clarissa looks up, glassy-eyed and smiling, three small patches the size and shape of Miss Harris’s middle knuckles reddening her forehead. “Fuck you, Harris.” Her voice is soft, reasonable. “Always all up in everyone’s business. Jealous old bitch with no baby of your own.”

When Miss Harris slaps her, the girl’s cheek is cool against her throbbing hand.

By last period, the classroom lights hum extra brightly, and the radiators clank with increasing fury. Miss Harris pulls her cardigan tighter around her waist, presses her numb fingertips against her neck. Her students eye her warily; word gets around the hallways quickly. Michael, who never made it to homeroom, sits in back corner, his hood pulled low over his eyes.

“Don’t strangle yourself, Miss Harris,” says Shavonne. “We’d miss you.”

“Pshh,” says Edgar. “No, we wouldn’t.”

“Take out your math journals and a pencil,” she says. “Answer the question: how do you use math in your everyday life? I want to see a full paragraph, with lots of examples.”

The usual grumbling, perhaps an energized, aggressive edge.

“No,” she heads them off. “I will not repeat myself. I will not write the question on the board. You should be able to remember my words long enough to get started on the answer. And then, once you’ve gotten started, you can look back at what you already wrote to remind you.”

She looks out at their slack faces, at all their sharp teeth.

They have always, she sees, been ready to turn on her.

After dismissal, Miss Harris fills a yellow plastic bucket with reddish-brown water from the faculty lounge sink. Back in her classroom, she cools her hands in the bucket, then, using a grungy orange kitchen sponge, begins to clean her blackboards. Chalky water trickles down the inside of her wrist.

“Harris?” Michael sticks his head through the doorway. “You got any candy?”

“No,” she lies.

Old Spice and bubble gum and baby powder fill the air as Michael walks to the hole. Everything about him, she thinks, is kinder, sweeter, more innocent than his sister.

He peels back the posterboard, marvels at her elaborately constructed poison tracks. “Can I have some? We got a problem at our place, too.”

“Clarissa shouldn’t handle them,” she says. “But I trust that you’ll be careful.”

Michael looks in her direction, but down at the floor. “She’s real mad at you, Harris. I was trying to tell her you didn’t mean it, but you know she’s not a person who likes to listen.”

“Michael,” says Miss Harris. “That’s very kind of you, but I have never in my life done anything I didn’t mean.”

The principal’s hand on her shoulder is gentle, his dark brown eyes soft and concerned.

Miss Harris blinks and quickly moves her own hand to cover the small circle of drool darkening her desk blotter.

“Very sorry.” She pulls herself together. “I must have dozed off.” She is smeary-eyed, startled, and thirsty. She had sat down for just a minute after Michael left, closed her eyes. She had been thinking of the delicious tingle in her hand, how it had remained long after Clarissa left the room.

“This is inappropriate,” Mr. Khalif says. “And, more importantly, it’s not safe. Your door wasn’t even locked.” 

He takes a step back, and she feels herself dwarfed. So important, always, to use the physical space of the classroom effectively. Problems arise when there is a lack of clarity as to a situation’s alpha.

“Yes,” says Miss Harris. “Of course.” Her phone vibrates on her desk: unknown caller.

Mr. Khalif is still talking. “…to let you know that one of your students has begun the process of registering a formal complaint alleging an incident of physical violence.”

“It’s a bit more complicated…”

He holds up his hand. “She further alleges that you have inappropriately encouraged her to abort her child.”

“That,” Miss Harris says, “is ridiculous.” 

Mr. Khalif continues. “If these charges are substantiated, you know that we will be unable to keep you on staff.”

Miss Harris nods. She waits until she can no longer hear Mr. Khalif’s footsteps down the hallway. She listens to her voicemail, then checks the crawlspace. Every last block is gone.

Miss Harris pushes easily through the Whitman Houses’ front metal gate. The lobby of Michael and Clarissa’s building, though empty, smells of recent activity: pot, cigar smoke, the acrid aftermath of fire.

She takes a deep breath through her mouth and enters the dark stairwell, walks up four flights. Three knocks on the door of 4B, one for each crack of Clarissa’s head against the desk.

Locks turning, chains sliding. The door opens a sliver.

“Harris.” Michael sounds resigned. A smell, gamey and alive, seeps into the hallway.

“Michael.” She uses her forearm to push the door open further. Yes, there is Clarissa, curled on an armchair in the corner. She is pale, hair lank and sweaty, a throw blanket pulled up to her chin.

Miss Harris can feel her own heartbeat course through her body. She can feel blood moving in her toes, her stomach, her temples.

Michael gives in, swings the door open fully, and she sees the problem. In the opposite corner of the room from Clarissa, a tiger lies on his side atop a single twin mattress piled with sheets and newspapers. The sheets, the mattress, the tiger: all are streaked and puddled with fresh red and clotted purple and older browning blood.

“Oh.” Miss Harris steps inside. “A baby.”

The tiger pants, his dry tongue protruding between teeth the size of children’s fists.

Michael nods, tears in his eyes.

“No,” says Clarissa. Her voice is thick, phlegmy. “Not a baby.” 

“It’s not your fault,” Michael tells his sister. “It just happens this way sometimes.” 

Miss Harris says nothing to contradict him, but she and Clarissa both know: it is always the mother’s fault.

Michael continues. “We tried to stop it, but I don’t think we used enough poison.” 

“You should have come to me sooner,” says Miss Harris. “I could have helped.”

“Can’t you still?” His eyes are pleading.

She could. She has. Ling’s guppy, flushed so quickly down the toilet. Hannah’s tiny turnip, shut in the compost bin. Her hand, placed just so, before Theresa’s baby could take its first breath.

Miss Harris steps closer, examines the tiger’s paw pads, the tufts of hair sprouting between his toes, the cracked claws retracting and protracting. Under the blood and gunk of birth, Miss Harris knows there is a vivid orange coat; through the matted white underfur, she can almost see a beating heart.

The newborn’s green eyes narrow. His breath rumbles on the exhale. He is angry and confused. He is hungry. He wants his mother.

“Michael,” says Miss Harris, “it’s time for you to go.” 

She locks the door behind him.

Clarissa chokes back a sob.

“Shh,” says the teacher. She will not put up with tears. Clarissa is a mother now, and she must learn to feed her tiger.