A Song, and then a Nap - 3/11/2013

I've got my belly full of PB&J and I've taken my place in the song circle like I do every day after lunch. My boy Jimmy Jams is across from me. He’s got his arm around his main girl, Mona P, and everything should be aces. But even before Teach opens her mouth, there's something strange going around the room, some weird anxiety moving from kid to kid, a ripple that stirs the usual pre-nap calm.

Sometimes, you know, you just feel it coming.

Then right off the top, we're just three lines into this thing, and already you can feel the moment fishtailing. An old lady--well,there’s nothing strange about an old lady. I'm thinking, “What, maybe she's living in a shoe, or waiting for somebody to bring her a cake through the woods. Something nice. Something fun.” But there it is in the first verse, right out of the gate, bam! She swallows a fly!

OK, so you wanna give an old lady the benefit of the doubt, right? I mean, who hasn't been out riding along on their bike, maybe running out in a field when a bug comes along and, zap, it flies right into your mouth? Could happen to anybody. But what kind of geek goes ahead and swallows the blasted thing? A couple kids down from me, Peter Paste-Eater is sitting there with that open-mouthed look he always has plastered across his mug. He's picking at a scab on his arm. I know that when he thinks no one is looking, he'll pop it right into his mouth and chew it all slow and thoughtful, savoring it like some delicacy. Would even Paste Eater swallow a fly? No, I don't think so. Not unless things go really wrong for him in junior high.

And not only does this freak swallow the fly, we're supposed to believe that it might somehow kill her? Look, I'm no advocate for eating insects, but it's a fly, for cripe's sake, not a handful of fish hooks. What, we're supposed to call the morgue over that? Please! Either that fly’s made of arsenic, or you are handing us some line of malarkey, Teach.

Just sayin’.

All right, just what the heck is going through Teach's head? The fly was one thing. I'm not wild about what the Old Lady did, and if I'm being 100% honest, I'm starting to think she maybe did it on purpose. But come on. It's a fly. They're small. Maybe it's an accident.

But now--a spider! Come on, Teach! You're playing to a room full of four year olds here. This is straight pre-school—should you really be working your elementary school material for this audience? You've got some crazy old dingbat going off on a bug fueled bender, and once again, you have that reminder looming out in front of us, that wall of black, that eternal night--death. And for the second time in two verses, I might point out.

Oh, and just how did she come up with this spider all of a sudden like that? What is she, some kind of spider rancher? I'll just put a pin in that and see what the next verse has to say.

OK, so that's how it's gonna be. I had a feeling this is where we were going, but you gotta give Teach the benefit of the doubt, don't you? I mean, she's a professional educator, for crying out loud. There are standards, right? Surely they didn't hire her for her ability to coordinate those kicky dungarees and sequined sweatshirts.

But, no, it seems whatever training she's had is out the window, and she's going for broke. A bird, she says! Somehow this crazy old witch got a hold of a bird!

What’s worse, as I look around, I see that some of the kids are buying this stuff. Their empty little heads nod along to the music. You know the type: the followers, the li'l achievers, all of them smiling in that heartless way that makes you know for certain that they are destined to grow up to be lawyers, bankers, and insurance adjusters. They have Kool-Aid running in their veins, these kids. The world is their oyster.

But Jimmy Jams? I see the warning lights coming up in his eyes, then a cagey cool descends over him, and he gets that look that tells me he’s already mentally mapped every line of retreat out this room. But he doesn’t move, my Jimmy Jams. He just sits. And waits. And watches.

Heck, even Peter Paste Eater's normally vacant eyes narrow in scrutiny. “A bird?” he seems to think. “She swallowed a bird?” You can almost watch the thought clattering around in his head as it makes its way into his the vast echo chamber of his consciousness. “Beak and all?” he seems to think. “What about the feathers?”

Yes, Peter. She seems to have eaten the whole damned thing, and you know something? I don't think she’s anywhere near done yet.

Somewhere across the room, one of those icy banker-types lets out a delighted laugh, as though they haven't ever heard of a greater lark. A cat, she says! The old lady swallowed a cat! What a madcap romp!

But Mona P? I see something go off in her eyes. Mona's a survivor. She had a hard go the first couple months of preschool, went to some dark places, and she came back with the scars to prove it. And Mona, she's a cat lover, see? Even across the room, I can see her curling herself tighter up against my boy Jimmy Jams, looking like she wants to disappear into him.

I can see the moment going off the rails. I want to stand up and say something. Shout it! I can't be the only one. And yet, as we kids sit blinking stupidly at each other, each certain that the other guy will do the right thing, nobody does jack-squat, and still the band plays on.

Shouldn't something be going off in this poor old lady's addled brain? What is going through her mind as Fido comes padding into the kitchen, lured in by a biscuit or some other doggy treat. “Old lady has a treat,” the dog is thinking. “Old lady takes care of me. Must be treat time.” Then suddenly—wham!

Game over, Fido. Game over.

And Teach! Has she got a thought in her skull? I want to snatch her by her collar, shake that bobblehead of hers and shout, “Do you realize you just sang about the murder of two domestic animals? Pets, damn you! Not the food kind of animals!” Yet still she smiles vacantly at us, delighted by her song, by the sound of her own voice.

Jimmy Jams has had it. I see his hand moving slow to his waistband, his fingers sliding around the back to where I know he keeps his shiv tucked away, out of sight but always ready for action. I shut him down quick with a shake of my head so slight that surely no one else in the room notices. “Easy, Jimmy Jams, easy,” I try to say with my eyes, “Keep cool. We’ll figure a way out of this. We just need a second to think. Think, dammit!”

But let’s face it: that’s a hell of a lot for a preschooler to say with his eyes. Jimmy Jam backs up off the blade, but I can read the confusion in his gaze, and I know that communication has broken down.

And somehow Teach ain’t done singing.

One wonders about the human mind and its ability to seek equilibrium even as it reels in horror. “A goat!” I think. “So... she lives on a farm? She must! How else could she come up with a goat at the drop of the proverbial hat?”

But even as I struggle to make some sense out of this boozy gypsy song, logic breaks down on me. What sort of farm could this possibly be? Does she work it all alone? Are there no ranch hands there to help her tend the animals, to mind the fields, and to make sure she doesn't cram any livestock, alive and braying, down her gullet? Assuming she works this land alone, has she no one to check in on her? A case worker of some kind? My mind reels as I try to count the ways in which society has failed this poor woman.

I'm not the only one reeling. Looking across the circle to poor Mona P, I can almost imagine her four year old brain trying to fit this horrible scene into some logical framework. “Maybe it's a dolly farm,” she's thinking. “Like with play goats.” Mona P won't meet my gaze, and it's just as well, because I know the look in my eyes would drive that sad rationalization out of her mind. If this were some doll-sized goat, then the doll-sized fly would have been something the size of a grain of sand. A tiny thing—surely not the sort of thing that drives an old lady into a frenzy to devour every animal in sight.

For Pete's sake, Mona. Think, woman!

We're still just guessing she'll die?

Across the room, I see a last bit of fight flare up in Jimmy Jam’s eyes, but even as it does, Mona P sinks more heavily against him. Poor Mona P. She’s had it. She’s wiped out, blown to hell and gone, and all poor Jimmy Jams can do is let her collapse into him.

And Paste Eater? Paste Eater’s all but checked out now. The expression on his face might pass for a smile if you were one of those lawyer-types, but anyone with a soul can tell with one look at the Paste Eater that he’ll be up late tonight, lying awake in his narrow bed, tears streaming down his cheeks, his chest hitching with horrible, silent sobs, the kind of crying that only comes out of a poor son of a bitch who has shed way more than his fair share of secret tears.

The tears in that kid’s future. It’s enough to make even a strong man weep.

And there it is, ladies and gentlemen. As if it could have gone any other way.

In the moment after the song is over, we all sit in silence, staring blankly at each other, no one knowing what to say. Then, Teacher calls for nap time, and like well-trained animals, we oblige her. There is the general hubbub of kids rising up from the song circle, some of them laughing, some still humming in the wake of Teacher’s briny sea chanty, all liquored up on the sing-song melody. Some of them seem to know that what they heard wasn’t right, and for a split second, I find myself hoping that they will shake off the spell of the song and see this tale for exactly what it is. But even as they fall into line, I can see their minds changing. They rationalize their doubts away, putting aside their gut reactions to process this freak show into something more mentally palatable, something that doesn’t threaten to blow out that little flame of humanity that still glows within them.

But what about my crew? Well, there’s Mona. Mona’s a wreck. She seems to barely be able to push herself to her feet, and yet she stands somehow and takes her place in line. Paste Eater? Yeah, Paste Eater’s up. He’s ambulatory. But try to catch his gaze, and you realize there’s no gaze there to catch. The lights, as they say, are on, but Paste Eater isn’t home, and you get the feeling he might never be back.

And Jimmy Jams? Hell, even Jimmy Jams looks defeated. Our eyes meet for a moment as Teach marches us off to the cots, and I can read the accusation there as clearly as Teach read us that tale of woe. “Why did you stop me?” he wants to know. “How did you let it go that far?”

I have no answer for him. We drop into our cots, and Teach switches out the lights, and as I lie there shivering under my blankie, I feel the years mounting up on me. This is just the beginning, I realize. The future comes marching at us with stories that will grow bloodier and more horrific by the day. What is there left for us but to try to hold on to the last vestiges of our innocence, clinging to the old stories, the safe ones where where the cow jumps over the moon, and the mouse and the kitten, the bear and the red balloon are all together in harmony, and as we drift off to sleep, we have only to wish them goodnight, one by one.

Goodnight, Mona P. Goodnight, Jimmy Jams and Peter Paste Eater. Goodnight, Teacher.

And finally, goodnight to you, Old Lady. I only hope that you found something like sanity in the end, and that your final act gave you peace even as it spelled your doom.


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