I spent a great deal of seventh grade desperately trying to avoid being locked in a dark music classroom—maybe you know the type; the high-pitched squeaks of air forced through plastic, the endless repetition of notes, the seat of a hard, wooden chair sticking to the back of your thighs… and some dreadful giant looming out of the darkness like a goblin, intent on obliterating any shreds of artistic expression you might have managed to drag in with you. My goblin was Ms. Streeter. Even that name, Streeter, sounded like the harsh, highly strung woman she was—barking out orders like a drill sergeant, glaring over the top of her steel-rimmed glasses.
Rumors abounded: she had been a darling of the orchestral circuit, until her conductor boyfriend started giving all the solos to a younger and more beautiful violinist, and left Ms. Streeter with a broken heart and empty repertoire. Or else she had been married to a composer who arranged an aria so beautiful and so complex that it was certainly a masterpiece, but Ms. Streeter’s voice cracked during the number’s inaugural performance, and she was disgraced and divorced in the same breath. Personally, I didn’t buy it. Something that romantic probably never happened to Ms. S. My lunch money was on Streeter practicing the perfectly ordinary adult habit of hating her life and—because we were young, with the potential for happiness still illusorily dangling in our futures—hating us.
Streeter squashed any hint of musical exploration, making sure that creativity and spontaneity had no chance of disturbing her rigidly structured lesson plan. We played music as if it were a series of mechanical inputs: left to right across the risers, bottom to top. Unfortunately for me, that meant the woodwinds went first. I held the recorder to my lips when she raised her rigid hands, but I didn’t blow—oh no; I faked it like a popstar with post-nasal drip at a stadium show.
For a few months, my strategy worked like a charm. I didn’t learn anything, but also, I didn’t die. Class was going swimmingly… too swimmingly. I got comfortable, and me being the little shit that I was, this meant trouble. I began to add embellishments to my fingerings, flitting my phalanges across the holes as if I were some sort of Liberace of the Recorder. I failed to notice the glares my flamboyance was attracting, until a shadow fell over my sheet music, and I raised my eyes to slowly meet the storm.
“Play,” the snake hissed between her teeth. A tepid sort of stirring occurred, and for a moment I held out hope that she had meant the whole class should resume its march toward orchestral mediocrity as a group, but those hopes were soon dashed.
“Not you!” the dog barked and snapped her jaws at the rows of risers behind me. Curse my short stature! Curse this front row seating assignment! Curse my parents and my grandparents and their grandparents and the hobbits they married and—
“You. Just you. Play.”
Now, I had options. I didn’t think so at the time, but I could have done any number of things. I could have fainted or pretended to be asthmatic. I could have screamed, pointed over her shoulder, and done a Power Rangers-style tuck-n-roll out of the classroom to freedom—anything to avoid the humiliation of squeaking that recorder in front of the whole class. To say I should have just blown that stupid giant whistle—and so what if it squeaked!—is to say I should have done something incredibly short-sighted. Stupid, even.
But I did.
I did blow it.
I blew it in the worst way.
The squeak I emitted was so loud, so shrill, so filled with the pent-up fear and anxiety of days spent in the dark and musty dungeon where the Dragon presided over her music stands and linoleum floors, that it blew its high-pitched harmonics right through the stucco of the hallway to where Marissa Thompson was just passing by on her way to the bathroom, pastel hall-pass clutched in her slightly sweaty hand. The laminated card slipped out of her damp grasp as she clapped those hands over her ears, and it fell onto the floor, where Tommy Mulligan’s rubber-covered right foot would encounter it, moments later, as he sped past on his Heelys—which he was expressly forbidden from riding through the hall. The card flew into the air, Tommy flew into the ground, and as he reached out to save himself, he grabbed a conveniently placed red metal handle, and YANKED.
When we were all assembled on the lawn, counting ourselves off in clusters and rows, the hot gaze of Ms. Streeter throbbed on the back of my skull as though the cafeteria behind me really had caught fire. “She can’t do anything, I didn’t pull it. Tommy pulled it, not me. She can’t do anything—” My chanting was beginning to draw stares. I desisted.
It was true, though. She couldn’t touch me. I hadn’t technically done anything wrong, even though my tremendous squeak had ruined her chances of leaving early on a Friday afternoon. It wasn’t like she had any plans, right? And anyway, the important thing was that she couldn’t touch me. Nope. No way.
I grievously underestimated my opponent. She didn’t touch me; she touched my recorder. My beautiful, hand carved wooden recorder—the instrument that my beleaguered parents had bought me as a last, desperate attempt to find some small scraping of musical talent hidden beneath the strewn wreckage of half a hundred violin, viola, cello, piano, flute, and harp lessons, none of which had left them with anything but a spare room full of instruments and a limp wallet. The beauty of this particular recorder was supposed to have served as my inspiration to try and make a meager amount of progress toward something resembling a skill, but it also came with a strict caveat—loss or destruction of such an object would result in severe punishment.
My fate would be worse than it was the time I left my retainer in a restaurant and my mother had to dumpster dive to get it back. It might even be worse than it was the other time I lost my retainer, on a bus, and my father drove 38 miles to the bus garage and paid a man $50 to let him search through the dark vehicles with his emergency flashlight, all the while wondering if he was going to be murdered by the man with the $50 because he was, as my father put it, “the creepiest stranger I ever met in a bus garage at 10 p. m.”
So when I went to my cubby at the end of the day and my recorder was gone, I knew my life was over. I knew it the way that my sister always knew who was going to kiss who in the next chapter of Sweet Valley High—I just knew.
Destiny had come for my soul.
I was doomed. I walked to the bus like one condemned—my arms at my sides, head hanging low, ninja-turtle lunchbox softly hitting my knees with every step. But the bus was gone—in my frantic search through the empty classroom for some sign of my lost instrument, I had failed to notice the farewell beep that summoned stragglers from the kickball court before departure—and here I was, watching the last of the minivans pull away from the carpool loop. It was a gift from god—a brief respite from whatever sentence awaited me behind the gleaming green lawn and white door of my parent’s suburban courtroom.
“There’s no such thing as a middle school honor-student.” The grumble came from behind me, and I whirled around, startled. “’s only me,” he said, leaning on the large gray trash can beside him, “where are your parents, kid?”
The Janitor. We eyed each other up, me wondering how much to divulge, him wondering—I don’t know, probably why this kid wasn’t saying anything and didn’t seem to have any parents. Maybe he was wondering where I got my sick lunchbox. Regardless, he smiled at me in a passably kind way, and then something amazing happened: he offered me the one comfort that every Janitor has to offer a strange, sad child alone in a carpool circle after the busses have all left.
He held out the prize, and wonderingly, wordlessly, I took it. It was taller than I was. I squeezed the trigger, and three metal talons clicked satisfyingly around an empty Doritos bag, the breeze tugging hopelessly at my trophy as I lifted and deposited it into its final resting place. It felt powerful.
“So why’d you miss the bus, then, huh?”
Damn it! My joy turned into begrudging respect. He had me now. He had granted me a rare privilege in the bestowing of The Claw, and now I owed him. Level eyes peered out from under the visor of his tattered Cubs hat, appraisingly. There was a moment of heavy silence.
“I missed the bus because my recorder is missing and my parents will kill me because it’s really expensive and nice and it’s the nicest thing they ever let me have and I keep it in my desk or sometimes in my cubby but I never leave it lying around because I’m not stupid, I know it’s important, but it’s nowhere, and I think she took it, I really think she took it because of the squeak—it was a really tremendous squeak maybe you heard it but it wasn’t my fault because she told me to play and it was pretty scary man I don’t know how anyone is supposed to play under those conditions and anyway Marissa shouldn’t have dropped the hall pass, I don’t care if she does have hyper-hi-drosis and her mom told my mom that there’s nothing to do about it—I heard them at my birthday party when I snuck downstairs because my mom made me invite all the girls in my class and they were just sitting there staring at me and I don’t even like them—and anyway Mrs. Herman has told Johnny not to Heely in the hall so the Dragon should really be mad at him for rule breaking and I don’t know why she hates me so much I really don’t but it wasn’t my fault.”
The Janitor blinked three times. “Well, at least you don’t have asthma.” I gave him a look.
“So let me get this straight; you lost your recorder, and now you can’t go home, because your parents will…parent you, if you do.”
“I didn’t lose it, she took it.”
“One of your friends? This Melissa person?”
“Not my friend! She’s a teacher.”
“And she lets you call her Melissa?”
“No! Not Marissa! Ms. Streeter.”
A strange look came over his face. It was almost a smile, but it was too tight around the edges, like he was mad.
“Ms. Streeter the music teacher?”
“Ms. Streeter took your recorder.”
I nodded. “Because of the squeak.”
He took me by the hand and practically dragged me up the stairs to the upper parking lot, the long metal arm of the claw bouncing and scraping along the asphalt after me, turtle lunchbox flapping in the wind. As we neared the office, I heard voices coming from behind the double hallway doors. We ducked down around the corner, behind an oleander hedge.
“Have you seen Helen? I wanted to go over her plans for the graduation concert, but I couldn’t spot her in all the chaos of that fire alarm.”
It was the Vice Principal, Mr. Carp, walking out of the office with Mrs. Herman, the German teacher.
“Oh, didn’t you hear? James told me that she and Angela were going out to dinner—”
“Helen and Angela? Why?”
“James said it was a date!”
“What on earth…”
“I think it’s cute, don’t you?”
“Well I… I just can’t really picture Helen dating… well, anyone actually.”
“Oh Robert, you are tooooooooo much,” Mrs. Herman giggled as they disappeared down the stairs. I took my nose out from between the leaves of the oleander bush, brushing loose twigs and greenery onto the grass, and looked up at the Janitor, curiously.
“None of your business, kid.”
“So you don’t know, either.”
We crept stealthily down the empty hallway, past the construction paper projects tacked up to the corkboards outside the dark office, past the pink door of the faculty women’s bathroom from whence the sickly strains of a drugstore air freshener were wafting, past faded signs for a school play plastering the theatre entrance, out the doors at the other end, and into the breezeway.
“Where are we going?” I hissed, back pressed against the concrete wall, keeping to the shadows like Carmen Sandiego.
“Faculty lounge,” he grunted back, standing out in the middle of the passage like a goddamn idiot. You had to admire his courage.
Now, the faculty lounge was not a place much frequented by the student body, for obvious reasons, but that didn’t stop it from holding a hallowed place in seventh-grade folklore. Some people said it was full of snacks and video games, and that the teachers went there during lunch to watch Friends and play Mario Kart—at least, Johnny said that, and he had once gone inside to deliver a note from the office to Mr. Newman when the regular aide had mono. I was not expecting, therefore, to find myself, at 5 p. m. on a Friday, peering through a dusty back window into a very ordinary, popcorn-ceilinged room with two lumpy chartreuse couches, a dirty glass coffee table above dingy brown carpet, and one lonely hot-plate, complete with a ring of unidentifiable beige sauce baked onto the rim. I could hear the hum of the ancient fridge from outside.
Seemingly undisturbed by the incessant whine of the prehistoric appliance, a form lay across one of the sagging couches, back toward the window, the slow rise and fall of shoulders beneath a navy cardigan suggesting that whoever it was, they were asleep. At the figure’s feet, propped up against the rusted leg of the coffee table, was a large, black tote, and protruding from the top of said tote, poking its noble nose out above disorganized bundles of papers and a hefty red three-ring binder, was my recorder.
The claw dropped from my hand to the ground with a loud clank.
“Shhh!” The Janitor’s admonition was short and staccato, as he pulled me down to crouch below the rim of the window.
“I saw her walking in here with it when I was getting my equipment. Weird for her to have such a nice instrument just tossed in her bag like that. Her face looked off, too—I’ve never seen that old witch look happy before.”
I snuck a peek back into the room. The figure on the couch had shifted at my disruption. A slack-jawed face was now turned toward the window, steel glasses sliding down a hawk-billed nose—Ms. Streeter. I sank slowly back down to the ground, my heart in my throat. “What are we going to do?” I looked up at the Janitor, imploringly. Wordlessly, he handed me the one comfort he had to offer a strange, sad child outside the teacher’s lounge after all the busses have gone.
It was an exceedingly delicate operation. Step one: borrow a large terracotta pot from the community garden. Step two: stand on the pot and realize that you still can’t reach. Step three: build a precarious tower of multiple terracotta pots, while your new friend grumbles about safety. Once the physical expression of my architectural genius had been examined and stabilized, I clambered up while the Janitor kept a lookout.
From where I was perched, I was half concealed by the wall, to the left of a bank of windows that spilled their poor excuse for light into the Dragon’s murky lair. I had to lean out pretty far to get my arm through, but this way, if anyone came through the door of the lounge, I could put my back to the wall for cover, and my tower was completely out of sight. The couch with its sleeping menace was lying underneath my position, Streeter’s head at three, her feet at eight o’clock, and the bag with its precious contents visible directly below. Mission: possible. I checked my six.
“Get on with it.”
I struck out from the shadows, lowering my weapon through the slightly open upper window pane, down through the stale air of the teacher’s lounge toward the treasure below.
“A little to the right.”
“A bit more.”
I was Indiana Jones, hanging from a rope above a pit of snakes, my moves skilled and sure. My recorder was below, begging to be rescued like whatever unrealistic female heroine Jones would fall in love with and then totally forget about by the sequel.
The terracotta tower produced a horrible scraping sound, and I froze—a tableau of fear, bravery, and the struggle of the oppressed caught in the jaws of evil—but the Dragon slept on. The Janitor reached out to help steady me. I leaned out further and he took a step back.
“You’re heavy for a ten-year-old.”
The claw bumped an empty Tupperware container atop the coffee table, stained with the remnants of spaghetti sauce. “Helen” was written on the side in neat black sharpie. I aimed my claw at the tote bag of the spaghetti thief, and gently closed its shining silver appendages around my beloved instrument. With a soft rustle it was free, swinging in the air, glittering in the fluorescent light. I pulled it up toward the window, holding my breath, until I had the prize clasped in my triumphant hand.
My friend let go and I jumped free, grinning like a lunatic.
“Yes yes yes!” I whispered, thrusting my recorder into the air like I’d just won an Olympic relay race.
“Let’s get out of here, kid.”
Just then, we heard the sound of a door opening through the window. We threw ourselves back down out of sight, listening anxiously.
“A-Angela, what are you—”
“Helen, why are you napping on that gross couch? You’ve got creases in your face from the cushions.”
Well, I couldn’t miss the chance to see that, now could I? Cautiously, I raised myself up just enough to peer over the windowsill. Ms. Streeter was facing the door, her hair disheveled. She looked younger without her glasses on.
“I thought you’d gone home,” she said to the figure framed in the doorway, “You weren’t in your classroom.”
“I’m the volunteer fire-safety coordinator, didn’t I tell you? I’ve been all tied up with paperwork over that accidental fire drill this afternoon.”
“Humph.” There was the grumpy facial expression I was used to seeing on Streeter’s face. “Is that what they’re calling it? I thought you’d left.”
“And I thought we had a date for dinner, but now I see you’ve already eaten…”
“I thought… you’d changed your mind.”
The Dragon definitely wasn’t crying, because that would be ridiculous.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Helen. I’ve been trying to ask you out for nearly a year. Get your bag and let’s go—we can still make our reservation if we hurry.”
Oh no! The bag!
As Ms. Streeter reached for her tote, I held my breath.
“What is it?”
“I had a recorder in here. A lovely one. Very expensive. Now where could it have gone…”
“I didn’t know you played the recorder.”
“I don’t! It belongs to one of my students. She tried to play it today, but the thing squeaked terribly, so I was going to take a look at it tonight. It may need to be taken to a repair shop—I think it’s warped.”
Wait a minute, WHAT.
“Come on, Helen, we’ll look for it later. We’ve gotta run if we want to have time for dessert.”
A door slammed. I peeked up at my friend’s face. He looked about as shocked as I felt.
When my mom rolled up to the carpool lane in the lavender Sienna, her face looked like a hurricane. She pushed a button, and the door rolled back. “Sesame,” I whispered to myself. My friend was up front, talking to the maternal weather system through the driver’s side window.
“Sometimes the bus drivers take off early on Fridays, ma’am, even though they’re not supposed to. Everybody likes to start the weekend as quickly as possible, I’m afraid. Not your daughter’s fault.”
“I’m sure she was not entirely inculpable, sir, but thank you for taking care of her—hope she didn’t give you any trouble.”
“She was a great help, actually—picked up some trash, even helped a bit with the hedge-trimming.”
“Well!” Mom flashed me her surprise-eyes in the rear-view mirror. “I don’t know how you managed that, but I’m glad she made herself useful!”
On the drive home, I took out my recorder and peered at it closely. Holding it up to my eyes, I turned it this way and that, examining the angles. Sure enough, when I held it straight down in front of my nose, there was a slight list left of center. Whaddya know. Maybe I wasn’t as bad at music as I had thought.
On Monday, in my cubby, there was a small silver instrument with a trigger. The telescopic pole could extend to about half the length of my body, and the claw at the end was sharp. I clicked it three times.
“What are you doing?”
Ms. Streeter was standing, arms akimbo, at the door of the classroom. Somehow, after everything, she looked less intimidating than usual.
“Nothing.” I said, hastily stowing my new treasure out of sight. New attitude or not, I didn’t want her getting any ideas.
“The Mean Streets” by Yersinia Pestis appeared in Issue 38 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Yersinia Pestis is a coccobacillus bacterium, rod shaped, with bipolar staining and no spores. It is a facultative anaerobic organism, whose notable works include the black death, first released in Europe by Xenopsylla Cheopis in 1347, recently re-released in a 2017 Madagascar outbreak edition. Yersinia currently lives with its mammalian host family in Berkeley, California.