Afternoon Miniature 3.12.23

from the New York Public Library Digital Collection

Every elementary school in this metropolis reeked by May of stale lunch, chewed-up pencils, and a fatigue that hung heavily, everywhere; on the staff it also betrayed itself in their careworn expressions. The dismissal queue came a little earlier every day while teachers crowed deadline reminders over the din of desks jostled out of place, casualties of children headed for the door with an urgency they hadn’t shown at the start of the school day. In May the teachers felt the same urgency, and so abandoned the dewy optimism they’d brought with them to their posts back in September.

With the final dissonant bell of the day, scores of children spilled out of classrooms like cockroaches and skittered toward the exits. Soon a clamor arose and filled the hallways; somewhere an adult warned the children to “walk-don’t-run!” to no effect at all. Katherine did not push or shove her way outside the building because she knew it was pointless. Instead, she shuffled more than walked, glancing one time at her wristwatch, the same one she’d been wearing since third grade. It was a habit, an exercise in futility.

When the doors at the end of the dark corridor blew open, a bright beam of light illuminated untied shoelaces and themed lunchboxes and grass stains on blue-jeaned knees. Earlier she’d returned her own half-eaten lunch to her backpack, and would soon pull it out and nibble on what was left of it. She took in the ugliness of the brutalist cinderblock building, stepping over its threshold in line with most of the other fifth graders. The city dwellers among them headed for the queue of bright yellow school buses; the neighborhood children were already halfway across the school’s sprawling front lawn and headed to their nearby homes, engaged in lively conversation. The balance searched eagerly for their parents in the carpool line; Katherine lived neither too far from school to take the bus nor close enough to walk, and found herself in their company, but after a moment turned back toward the building and lowered herself to the concrete walk, sitting cross-legged against the school’s warm brick facade.

She unzipped her bag and plucked out the crumpled lunch sack, unfurled it, and considered its contents: one-half of a peanut butter sandwich on toast; an uneaten box of raisins; a few broken bits of a cereal bar; and a hard-boiled egg now a skosh warmer than room temperature. She settled on the box of raisins and decided she would chew one raisin at a time, 60 times, and see whether she could render it into juice. After repeating this exercise three times, she decided five raisins seemed a more reasonable number for chewing 60 times and settled into a quintuple raisin-chewing rhythm.

The busses had pulled away from the curb, and a handful of carpooling children were all that remained for company. Not really company, though, because they were younger and she knew none of them. She entertained herself observing a pair playing a hand game, and another with an index finger up his nose and no shame about it at all. She averted her gaze from this spectacle and dipped her hand inside the bag in search of the sandwich; it was much easier to transform each bite of the sandwich into a gooey peanut butter-and-bread shake inside her mouth. Soon the sandwich was gone, and the remaining children.

She unfolded her legs, lengthening them in front of her. Into the backpack she dove again, this time fishing out her notebook and assignments. Most she’d finished earlier in the day, but decided to complete the last bits now, a few math equations and three or four remaining vocabulary words, which she could define without consulting a dictionary. Punctual. “THE CONDITION OF BEING ON TIME,” she scrawled in all caps, marveling at this irony.

Across the campus she watched the office staff and a few remaining teachers climb into their cars; over her left shoulder she heard a familiar jangling of keys, and then turned in time to see Mr.-Martin-The-Janitor locking the main entrance to the school; he waved at her cheerfully and she waved back without breaking a smile. Folding her legs underneath her again, she occupied herself with several tufts of grass poking up in the seam between two sections of sidewalk. She yanked out the first and was about to grasp the next when her eye settled on a column of ants marching single-file through the manufactured valley; with a single blade of grass, now she attempted to block the brigade, and challenged it to climb the narrow leaf obstruction, which made her feel powerful. Instead, this act had caused general mayhem among the ranks, whose leaders turned in panic, shouting orders to about face! she imagined, to the rear.

So engrossed was she in this exercise, she failed to notice an ancient sedan pull up to the curb, and was shaken to the core by the blast of its horn. The woman behind the wheel wore a different kind of exhaustion than the teachers, a subspecies that was equal parts fatigue and vitriol, which showed now in an angry pantomime that suggested Katherine was already in trouble without even having committed an infraction. So she made it a point to rise slowly, slowly, and to open her backpack and gaze inside with furrowed brow as if searching for some important thing. Blaaaaaaaast! sounded the car horn, a sustained note this time, and Katherine felt a slight shift in the universe, almost indiscernible, but there it was. Looking up, she shouldered her bag and watched her body step out of itself and head across the campus toward the day’s waning light.

3 thoughts on “Afternoon Miniature 3.12.23

  1. This has the aura of sadness. Katherine at such a tender age is putting on the fatigue she sees in all the adults in her life… She can’t even muster a smile for Mr. Martin.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s