Even Rat Pups Laugh Once In A While Part 4
Wednesday — Tim Falls in Mercury and Asbestos
Wednesday morning Stu read von Grawbadger’s enigmatic response: “If you listened to NPR instead of that country shit, you’d know rat pups laugh when you tickle them.” The form was the epitome of von Grawbadger. Stu read it standing up behind the desk.
After an uneventful morning, Stu headed to lunch.
Years ago, on a sheet torn from a Word of the Day calendar he had drawn a poor likeness of the living manifestation of a word he had found appealing. So now when he took a place in line at the cafeteria he considered it his good fortune to have lined up directly behind the model for that drawing: Ms. Tharpe, English Lit. He loved to hear her speak, even if he could never bring himself to do so in the same way.
He took a place behind her in line without announcing himself, settled in to learn and be entertained.
” … I fear instead that the children learn that it is okay to be hypocritical. We insist they address us by our titles, but we refer to them by only their first name or some condescending epithet. So deep in their little hearts they look forward to the day they are fully grown so they too can be hypocritical. They learn hypocrisy is a perquisite of seniority. I, conversely, have always insisted that if we respect the children, they will reciprocate.”
Stu knew he was speaking out of turn, but he couldn’t help himself. “I think the students here have bigger hearts than any of us adults.”
“Ah, greetings, Mr. Stuart!”
“Good afternoon, Ms. Tharpe.” He looked to Ms. Tharpe’s lunch companion, Mrs. Szmiegle, just ahead of her in line. “Hello, Mrs. Szmiegle.”
“Stu,” she returned kindly but without looking at him.
Ms. Tharpe put a hand on his arm. “So serendipitous for me that you have arrived just now. I was just telling Mrs. Szmiegle … “
“I heard. Sorry. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop.”
“Oh no, dear, it’s perfect. I won’t need to repeat myself.” She turned back to Mrs. Szmiegle. “But dear, consider now Mr. Stuart. Even the janitor wears a uniform with a nametag having his title on it. But how does he refer to the children?”
He answered, “I call them by name, when I know their names.”
“Aye, therein lies the rub. Our relationship to the children is asymmetric. A child encountering Mr. Stuart on the premises while he plies at his trade will hail him with an honorific. But Mr. Stuart will not deign to return in kind the respect shown him by that child. We should not be at all surprised that children who do not receive respect are unwilling to give it. I have the respect of the children because I treat them fairly, equitably. They respect me because I respect them. My relationship to them is symmetric, reciprocal, and therefore mutually respectful. ‘If you call me Mrs, or Ma’am, I shall call you Master, or Miss, respective of your gender.’
“Some find it awkward for a while, but anon they come to see the social custom for what it is.” She turned to Stu. “Mr. Stuart, I see by your countenance that you concur.”
“Actually, I was just thinking of a word. It made me happy to think of it.”
“Fellow logophile! Lover of words. I have always felt a sort of kinship with you. Now I know why.”
“Yeah. I like words.”
“Pray tell, of what word is it you are now thinking?”
This was a rare moment for him to shine, to elevate himself in the estimation of others who generally saw and expected nothing more from him than to carry out the trash. “I was just thinking of the word, ‘anachronism’,” he said, brightly.
At this Mrs. Szmiegle cocked an eyebrow. She looked to the back of Ms. Tharpe’s head, then to Stu’s face.
Ms. Tharpe gushed. “Huzzah, that is a good word! Well bully for you, Mr. Stuart. But pray, what brings ‘anachronism’ to mind this fine day?”
Behind Ms. Tharpe, Mrs. Szmiegle elevated her interest.
Stu delivered without hesitation. “You.”
Mrs. Szmiegle struggled to arrest a convulsion that threatened to send her tray and its contents to the ceiling.
Ms. Tharpe’s struggle was less kinetic. Only her face gave evidence of it: Lips in a very small, tight ‘o’ as though whistling, head cocked at a slant, eyes slitted and mining Stu’s expression for clues as to motive.
Behind her Mrs. Szmiegle won her campaign to compose herself. She placed her tray on the counter without accident. She put the back of a hand to her lips leaving only her eyes for Stu to read. He read mirth. A second passed. With her other hand she pumped a thumb up, three times.
Ms. Tharpe broke into a tentative smile. She said warmly, but slowly, “How long has it been since you learned the meaning of that word, Mr. Stuart?”
“Since April 20, 1999,” he replied significantly.
Mrs. Szmiegle said in a rush, “So it’s been a long time since you learned the word. It could be, you’ve forgotten the meaning so substituted a new one — one that flatters Ms. Tharpe, I’m sure. You might want to have another look at that definition though, Stu. Google it! Pleasure chatting with you!” She steered Ms. Tharpe away with an arm across her shoulder. The thumb at the end of that arm shot up once more.
“Could be my sweater,” Stu heard Ms. Tharpe say. Then, with confidence, “Yes, I had come to the same conclusion. He probably doesn’t know what it means.”
Stu at the register protested mildly to the cashier. “I know what it means.”
The cashier pointed to her nametag, which said only, “Delilah.” Then she said, “I believe you, Sugar.” She rang him. Pointing with her eyes to the dining area, she advised, “If you’re gonna eat in there, just sit as far away from them two as you can get. Maybe next time you see her, she’ll forget.”
“Okay. I’ll do that.”
And he did what he said he would do, or at least he tried to. On entering the cafeteria he saw Ms. Tharpe and Mrs. Szmiegle seating themselves at a table to his left. He went right. But in that direction was Miss Johnstone, sitting alone. She saw him, then raised a hand to flag him. As he came near, she seemed earnest.
“Oh Stu, I’m glad to see you. Listen, I wanted to ap — “
An electric crack from not far away but up in the ceiling cut her off. A weak shower of sparks rained from the hood of a fluorescent light fixture. A heartbeat later a boy’s leg punched through a ceiling tile, releasing fiberglass and dust and other unidentifiable powdery substances (“Asbestos, maybe,” thought Stu) onto the diners directly below the tile. Mr. Donovan jumped out of his chair, looked first to his clothing, then to the leg dangling from the ceiling.
He roared. “What the hell are you doing up there! Get down, now! And clean this mess up!”
But the leg didn’t come down; instead it pumped at the air, vainly, for purchase with which to climb back up.
Stu ran to the leg, stood with his hands off, said loudly but calmly. “You’re okay son, I’m going to grab hold of you and help you down.”
From the ceiling came a muffled, “No!” The leg swung up, kicked at another tile, releasing another cloud of dust, but found support. Mr. Donovan and others cursed or shrieked.
Stu remained calm. “Nobody’s going to harm you, son. You’re gonna get hurt if you try to stay up there. I’m gonna help you down.”
The leg released, swung, then relaxed into a dead man hang. “Okay.”
Stu clamped his hands onto the boy’s waist. “You can let go now.” The boy let go. Soon as the boy hit the floor, Stu recognized him. “Oh! It’s Tim, right?”
Mr. Donovan snorted, “You two are friends?”
Stu acknowledged, but with a minor correction. “’Acquaintances’ is the better word.”
“Well that’s just fantastic.” Mr. Donovan clapped his own shoulders. “I guess that makes him and all of this your problem.”
“Mr. Donovan’s right, Tim. You’re gonna have to help me clean this up.”
The bell rang. Tim boy looked to it, said, “But I’ll miss my class.”
“Yeah I know,” Stu started ironically. “Breaks your heart, doesn’t it? It’ll be all right, I’ll fill out a slip to excuse your absence. Who’s your teacher?”
Tim pointed. “Mr. Donovan.”
Mr. Donovan blew hard through his nostrils like an angry bull. “I am? Who are you? Tim, you said?” Without waiting for an answer, he said, “I don’t need a slip. You’re excused, Tim. Just get this cleaned up.” He patted his sleeves hard, muttering, “It just gets better and better.”
Stu placed a hand on Tim’s shoulder. “Let’s get some cleaning supplies and a new ballast in the shop. Stay close, don’t get lost. You got a lousy sense of direction, son.”
Tim looked up to him. “Huh?”
Stu pointed, said in a voice just louder than a whisper, “Girl’s restroom is that way.”
Mr. Donovan stopped patting. “That was a ballast, Stu?”