Chapter One: ‘Fat’ Johnny Walker’s Empty Seat
Miranda Oliver felt the sun on her face as it burned its way through the glass panes off to her side. It was not unusual for her to feel that sun, as the windows faced east and in the morning, as the sun rose, its light fell in upon her. What was different lately was the amount of sun that was able to reach her. Once upon a time, not many weeks ago, the sun was obscured much like the sun is obscured during an eclipse. She had never seen a real eclipse, but she had seen enough on science shows and on the news to know what they were like. In this case, it was not the moon that obscured the sun, but it was ‘Fat’ Johnny Walker who played the role of the moon.
On days like this, when there was not a cloud in the sky, when there was no smog, when the cool winds from a weather front had taken such things away to leave only blue sky, the sun was always at its most potent. Normally, she would only feel some of it on the side of her face. It would be a distraction to say the least, but it was usually a pleasant distraction. She enjoyed the feel of the sun on her face, although her mother always warned her about the destructive nature of the sun and told her to always cover up whenever she went out in it. She loved the way it made her feel. The warmth on her face, perhaps like the warmth of the breath of a passionate lover that she read about in her friend Astora’s mother’s romance novels. Warm and tingling, adding warmth to her very own until she was nearly flush with it.
But now, with ‘Fat’ Johnny Walker’s huge frame no longer there blocking it, it was too strong. It made her squint against its radiance, and it drew tears from her eyes after they threatened to dry out. Instead of warming her, it threatened to burn her. She was not very dark in complexion, perhaps the hue of stained walnut wood, but she was certain that the absence of ‘Fat’ Johnny Walker had darkened her. When she held her arms side by side at night after her shower, she was certain that the left arm was now darker than the right arm. Her mother said it was her imagination and that perhaps it was her mental state that was darker, now that ‘Fat’ Johnny Walker had disappeared.
Miranda did not doubt that for an instance. Things had been rather dark and moody around school since ‘Fat’ Johnny Walker disappeared. The police suspected that he had run away from home. His parents suspected foul play and feared that he had been kidnapped. The students (most of the anyway) didn’t have an opinion one way or another and some of the crueler ones stated quite emphatically that they were glad he was gone, and didn’t care why or how.
She had been one of them, at first. Guiltily, she admitted to herself as she tried to cover her arms from the burning rays with her sweater (she had taken it off because it had become too hot to wear any longer), that she, too, like the class jerks, had been glad he was gone. That was the first day when she thought he was simply absent. That in itself, looking back, had been rather strange, since ‘fat’ Johnny Walker never missed school. She had known him for 7 years, since first grade, and in all that time, he had had perfect attendance. Whether it be inclement weather, family emergencies, illness, he was always in school no matter what. For many of the teachers it was his one redeeming quality, since he wasn’t a particularly bright or good student by any stretch of the imagination. For whatever reason, teachers like students who come to class every day, and they like students who come to class and don’t cause any trouble. That describes ‘Fat’ Johnny Walker.
Of course, for the students who were around him, he was big trouble, and not simply because of his 6 foot 2 inch stature and 300 hundred pound girth. He never bothered anyone and he could have been a real handful of a bully if he had wanted to be one. He was trouble because he was unclean. Dirty, to be precise. In fact, he was foul, plain and simply. His dirty blond hair was not dirt blond in color alone. It was dirty blond because it had dirt in it. Dirt, lice, dandruff. Cooties times ten, as it were. His clothes were filthy. If he didn’t wear the same clothes for a week at a time, then he wore them for two weeks. They were never washed. Stains remained for days at a time until more stains covered the old ones. And his smell…
Miranda almost recoiled in her seat at the thought of it and for the briefest of seconds was still glad that that was no longer an issue on a daily basis, but she could not think that thought without realizing that something had happened to him. And in spite of everything about him that she didn’t like (his loused hair, his filthy clothes, his smell, his rancid breath, his cruddy teeth), she would not want anything negative to happen to him. Never did. In fact, she only wished for positive things for him. She wished that he would lose weight. She wished that he would cut and wash his hair. She wished that he would take a shower (okay, a bath and a shower). She wished that he would wash his clothes (or at least change them daily and use lots of deodorant). She wished that he would brush his teeth and use some mouthwash. And, most importantly, she wished that he would study and do his work so that the kids would have one less thing to pick on him about.
Personally, she did not pick on him, because he was too big and too strong, and if there was one thing that she was she wasn’t a fool. The other kids teased him because they were certain that he wouldn’t retaliate. In all the time she had known him and the kids had teased him, he never had. He would just go about his business, absorb the punishment the way he absorbed his lunch, and not think twice about any of it. She, on the other hand, didn’t believe he would continue to take it. She feared that one day he would snap and there weren’t too many men in the school who could handle him, let alone any of the students in the class. He would break someone in half or thrown them out of the window before anyone could stop him, if her were to lose it. Matter of fact, he would probably break them in half, then throw them out the window. She knew without a doubt how strong he was. She remembered seeing him one day walking along the train tracks near the old factory between her home and school. He was minding his business, as usual, and just amusing himself. He would pick up a car tire in one hand and toss it over his head and catch it on the way down with the other. Then he wound up like a discuss thrower, spun around and let it fly. If it didn’t fly a good 50 feet in the air, it fell at his feet.
For herself, she could barely lift one off the ground. Thus, she decided it would be in her best interest to never, ever bother ‘Fat’ Johnny Walker. In fact, she often found herself sticking up for him. At least he did for a while until the other kids started calling her Misses Johnny Walker, and singing the annoying and childish but ever effective ditty:
Johnny and Miranda sitting in a tree
First comes love, then comes marriage
Then comes Johnny Junior in a baby carriage.
She cringed at the thought and even thought she still heard the laughter. In fact, the laughing grew louder until it was enough to make her look up.
She jumped when she saw the shiny brass buckle and web belt in her face. Her eyes rolled up even as she slumped down and the laughter returned in greater volume.
Steve Johnson, who sat behind her nudged her, and leaned over to whisper in her ear: “Missing your boyfriend again?”
Of course, it wasn’t a real whisper. It was whisper meant to be heard by everyone in the classroom and everyone heard it. Everyone who heard it broke into another round of laughter. All except, Mr. LeMan. And, Miranda, who didn’t see anything funny in the question.
“All right, Mr. Johnson, that’s enough out of you.” Mr. LeMan held out a stick of chalk in his powder covered hand. His fingers, even without the chalk dust, were almost as white and thin as the chalk. “Your turn, Miss Oliver. Number four please”
A few snickers echoed around the class as she took the chalk and stood. Mr. LeMan, shifted to the side so that she could go around him and go to the blackboard upon which the math problem awaited her.
Miranda was tall and gangly. Mr. LeMan was taller and ganglier. He looked like a skeleton, albeit a healthy one. His thinness did not make him look sickly. He could have used a bit of sun. For a second, Miranda considered asking him if he minded switching seats with him. She could teach and he could catch some rays.
“O Misses Walllllkerrrrrrr???????” Steve Johnson cried in a cracked falsetto.
Mr. Leman silenced him with a glare, even as the class crackled with laughter.
Miranda loved math. It was by far her best subject. She liked science too. And she loved the coolness of the front of the class, away from the hot sun blazing through the windows, and away from the wall where the radiators, newly roused from a summer of slumber, hissed and crackled to herald the first week of heating season and had yet to be set properly for anything less than roasting 8th graders. It was at least 15 degrees color at the blackboard and with a board filled with math problems, some finished already, and some awaiting the students to finish them, she was totally at ease. Even Steve Johnson’s taunts went mostly unheard as she focused her attention on the problem.
And then it was done.
“Very good, Miss Oliver. You may take your seat.” She found herself looking at the completed problem and hardly remembered giving it any thought. It was the most complex of the problems on the board, or at least it was supposed to be. A lot of the other students had trouble with Poisson’s equation.
“I can do another one…” she offered.
“Teacher’s pet. Teacher’s pet,” chanted Steve Johnson.
Miranda paid him no attention. The other students didn’t care much either, so his chant died before it could walk. To show his satisfaction, Mr. LeMan patted her on her head as she walked past him on her way to her seat, and back into the furnace. “Yes, teacher’s pet.”
Then he held out the chalk toward Steve Johnson. “Up and at ‘em, tiger. Numbers five and six please.”
The class erupted with laughter and Steve Johnson dragged himself from his seat and took the chalk from Mr. LeMan.
* * *
It was Miranda’s third favorite class. At her school, recess was a class. Not in the traditional sense of a class, but it was a time between classes for the development of socialization skills. It lasted exactly as long as the other, more traditional classes, and, yes, the students were graded on it. It was expected that each student would spend their recess periods getting to know the other students, and once a week, they had to submit a ten page paper describing the experience with the other student, two pages per student. All the papers were kept in confidence, so you could say just about anything about the other students that you wanted to, and no one other than the teacher (an presumably, the administrators) would know what was said.
Miranda didn’t mind the writing assignment, even though writing was by far her worst subject. She knew what the assignments were for. It was a back door way for the administrators to learn about the students in a way that would not be possible any other way. The kids could root out problems with the other kids before they could manifest themselves into something more serious, and the kid could get the appropriate counseling in a proactive way. That’s how her other had explained it to her when she first told her mom about the recess writing assignments. Her mother was pleased, too. It was, after all, a rather expensive charter school, and she wanted her money’s worth, both in educational quality and in safety and security.
Today, at long last, she was going to spend her recess with her best friend, Astora Stern, and with Joshua Abrams and Hussein Worth. Astora was going to be the subject of her paper, since she had already written papers on Hussein and Josh. She wasn’t sure which of the three was going to use her in their paper, but it wouldn’t surprise her if all three did. It wasn’t unusual for the same people to be discussed multiple times throughout the school year, as three was always something new to tell about a young teen’s particular behavior on a particular day under particular circumstance. The students just had to make sure to get everyone discussed at least once per year. But the best grades were always those who had everyone more than once during the year, s it demonstrated that you had contact with them more than once and just more than enough to satisfy the requirements.
Miranda sat on a bench beneath a silver maple that was bright red orange as the leaves were threatening to cascade to the ground at long last. A few leaves had already fallen from other trees and the ground around her looked like a sunset. With the earbuds from her old LG Chocolate cellphone/MP3 player firmly rooted in her ears and the sounds of her favorite love ballad drawing forth a flood of reveries, she silently contemplated the goings on around her while awaiting her recess buddies for today.
She watched Steve Johnson, short, stout but not fat, with dark hair slicked back into a duck’s tail, gesticulating about something that may or may not have had sexual overtones to it. From the reaction of the kids around him, knee-slapping laughter, it was something with definite sexual overtone, as opposed to him simply riding a horse with one hand on the reins and the other wildly whipping at the horse’s hind quarters and exaggerated pelvic thrusts.
And like the knocked out front teeth in the face of a familiar friend, there was too much room in the recess yard. No doubt, that room was caused by the absence of one tremendously large kid, who tended to skulk about, parting the sea of kids with his massiveness as well as with his rancidness. An aimless soul wandering to and fro, stopping only long enough to absorb more punishment, glean a few sentences worth of information from those backing away, pinching their noses, fanning their hands before their noses and giggling from afar so as not to vomit from the rising bile that his odor caused.
The Reason Why We Love Copyright © 2006 Walter R. Milton