Displacement

Satan on Your Best Day

by Julian Ford

 
  Home  |  Contents  |  Authors  Wordrunner eChapbooks  | April 2024  |  echapbook.com      

I woke up late that morning, as I did most third-grade mornings. My mother was there in the warm bedroom light, whispering, coaxing me awake.

Come on, honey, her voice soothed. It’s time for school. Come on, honey. Come on.

I had hated school even then. My first two years had come and gone in a flurry of jump-roping and how-do-you-do-ing, but when I realized I was in for the long haul, I had become unenthused with the whole affair.

Come on honey. The field trip.

My eyes opened, warm light and the cream-yellow of my room. I had forgotten about the field trip — Mrs. McKenzie’s whole class was going apple picking. I wiped my eyes and yawned, and my mother tossed my hair with hands I could barely see.

“Come on hon,” she muttered, “don’t be late again. Good day, good day!”

I nodded dutifully, and she glided away.

I dressed in speedy silence, legs stuffed into billowy denim, shirt and shoe and backpack all like air against my skin. No malingering today, I felt something bright and vivacious in the air, brazen excitement. In the kitchen my father sat and read the paper as I took my place opposite him, my mother’s hands shuffling quickly and hectic a cereal bowl before me. Yes, yes. Good day. Good day.

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The classroom smelled like ink spills and urine and bubblegum. Mrs. McKenzie had drawn a great big brown tree on the white board, flushed with ruby red circles hiding in the green. Field trip today! It read beneath the tree.

“Okay, my good little boys and girls,” she chirruped, “let’s line up for a headcount!”

The rushing of feet like the sound of wings fluttering, and the pushing and shoving of limbs. I ended up wedged in between Suzie Costilla and someone about whom I didn’t care.

Standing next to Suzie, doing my best not to look at her, a warmth like summer came over me. Her hair was black, and when she turned her head to see her friends it brushed my shoulder. The smell of flowers hitherto uncategorized. I had to say something for reasons I couldn’t surmise. I counted my breath, a trick my mother had taught me when I had to get my vaccine shots for school. Then I tapped Suzie’s arm. Where my finger touched, a white print ghosted on her sandy skin for only a moment.

“Hey. Hey Suzie.”

“Hey what.”

“Did you know if you eat apple seeds you die?”

She turned and looked at me. A lascivious crawling feeling.

“Hm?”

“Apple seeds. If you eat them you die.”

Her brown eyes performed an amazing cartwheeling dance over me, gliding up and down. She shook her head.

“Are you serious?”

I nodded, grim. “Completely serious.” I’m sure my eyes were like dinner plates.

She blinked at me. I blinked at her. My eyes and hers, dancing together. Then she smiled, like the sun pouring from out of smoky dim horizons, like light beams touching unwarmed dawn.

“Oh, shut up.”

She turned around. My face was like a furnace when Mrs. McKenzie came by and patted my head. Eleven, she said, ignorant of the world below her. I grinned stupidly at nothing in particular.

The gasoline-leather smell of the bus made me think of concrete blacktop and dusty parking lots. Boarding, I watched Suzie fall away from me. I did everything in my power to look as uninterested and disaffected as possible, hoping maybe Suzie could see how cool I was. I kept it up until the gym teacher Mr. Zelinski sat down next to me, and then the charade was over. He had little business sitting next to me that day, but when there weren’t enough chaperones, he got to leave his dark, bleachy closet office and step into the light as tag-along. I kept my eyes to the window, watching the town unspool out and hoping it would be enough to keep him at bay. It was not.

“Y’alright with me sitting here, Charlie?”

Charlie wasn’t my name but I nodded just the same. Mr. Zelinski grunted and nodded.

“What are we doing today, Charlie.”

“Apple picking, Mr. Zelinski.” I could see him in the corner of my vision — his white beard, yellowed years of tobacco, the black tar lines that ran along the parapet-teeth in his lower jaw, his viny nostril hairs spooling out.

“Excited?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You guess.”

When I nodded back, a little dog-snort escaped his nostrils. I could see he wanted to say more but didn’t. My chest felt heavy and I turned away. Outside, the landscape shifted and transmuted, old church steeples and shopping malls to wheat fields and reddening trees, all haloed by white birds ever overhead. It was very good, even with Mr. Zelinski breathing at my side.

The orchard appeared just moments after we bumped over the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line. Trees for miles, from the road out across the gentle crests of the hillsides, towering obelisks. The road ran up an old dusty hill to a barn, an antique that shone red as the apples. Along the barn doors, beaming fruits adorned a lazy banner. Ed’s Apple Orchard, it read. I wondered who Ed was. Maybe a tall, spruce face, old as the earth, a great white beard far cleaner than Mr. Zelinski’s, a lake-like voice. Beyond the barn, the hills ran for what seemed to be the rest of comprehensible earth. I wanted to imagine what it looked like in the woods, but before I could, Mr. Zelenski rose and broke the reveries of my classmates.

“OKAY-BOYS-AND-GIRLS-GET-UP-AND-GET-MOVING-BECAUSE-ITS-JUST-ME-AND-MRS-MCKENZIE-AND-YOU-DONT-WANT-TO-MAKE-IT-ANY-HARDER-FOR-US-THAN-IT-NEEDS-TO-BE!!!!!”

The voice shook the bus. Children stood in great pools of chatter, giggling and scuffing sneakers, spooked by Mr. Zelinski. In the back, Mrs. McKenzie made an admirable attempt to cohere the pandemonium. “Come on, boys and girls,” she sang, “we have to go meet farmer Ed!” Even as a child, I felt a spark of pity for her.

We erupted from the bus like a torrent, pluming into a gravel lot. There were adults waiting outside, sweet guiding figures in gingham and wool. Kind and smiling, a farmer fellow (Ed?) stepped forward to address us.

“Hello boys and girls!” He announced. His face shone red and speckled in the sun. No beard, younger than I had imagined. “Are we happy today! Who’s ready for a farm tour!”

Moans and murmurs. I already saw how it would go.

The tour was long and arduous, weary children marching through too-windy corn shoots and too-bright fields. The Mennonite-actors did their best to keep us all together, telling jokes and stories, but they were understaffed and over-tasked. All morning long, the air was filled with the well-meaning shrieks of “little boy get back here!” and “little girl you shouldn’t be touching that!” In spite of the heat, though, I enjoyed the newness of it. We marched through apple thickets and I touched the dim rubied skin of the fruits. I hopped horse droppings and giggled. I leaned against old fence posts to watch the cars go by on the far-off road. Instead of listening to the woman leading the tour I watched for Suzie, imagining her black hair in the thronging children. I never quite saw her.

The tour ended back in the barn. The tour woman, Sarah, brought us before a wooden barrel with a huge handle sticking out of the top. We encircled her. In the center, Sarah addressed us.

“Children, look here, look here. This is how people used to make butter in the old days! A long time ago, you had to do everything by hand, not like now.” A small woooaaaoowwww went through the circle of children. Somewhere in the group, a hand shot up.

“Did you have to make everything by hand?”

The woman nodded, her eyes excited.

“Yes, children, everything. Even our clothes!”

Another, louder woooaaaoowwww, rising and falling like a sea tide. She seemed to have a power over us that the other workers had lacked, a charisma I couldn’t place. I turned around and saw Mrs. McKenzie stood just behind us. I cocked my chin at her. Is that true, my eyes asked her, is that really true? In psychic understanding, she nodded. A third woooaaaoowwww unfurled in my mind.

In the center of the circle, Sarah pumped the great wooden instrument, the muscles under her arms flexing and working with agrarian strength, the wood of the old dinosaur creaking and uttering beneath her. The process went on for some time, and the class watched her dumb and mute. Her forehead beaded with sweat, and a single black hair curled out from under her headdress. In my stomach I felt a comfortable strange warmth, running down from my sternum to mid-thigh. My breath started to quicken. For some reason, I wondered where Suzie was. The woman heaved and worked and grunted, looking up and catching my eyes.

“And boys and girls,” she said. “Eventually, if you do that for long enough, you get…”

A pause, a ruffling and shuffling of her gingham blouse. Then from somewhere I couldn’t see, she unearthed a pure-white hunk of ivory.

“...This!”

The whole room was quiet for the space of what felt like an hour, as ones who had witnessed a great and world-shaping event. Her eyes were still on me it seemed, shining deep white light behind their pupils. I wanted to speak but could not. My words were dry and ineffectual in my throat. From the crowd, another child’s voice came.

“So, all that work just for that little thing?”

Sarah laughed, and the spell was broken; noise came back into the world.

“Well,” she said, “nothing comes easy under God’s skies.”

Then the tour was over, and we were free to escape and apple-pick in the wilds of the orchard.

Suzie was standing alone when I found her on the edge of the trees, far from the rest of the class. Her eyes were caught in the canopy above, one foot crossed in front of the other, like a sculptor considering a half-made shape. What way forward, what way ahead, how shall this process continue. She was a popular girl, usually encumbered by a gaggle of others, but now she stood alone. For a moment, I considered turning around and letting her be — playing tag, or stick-dueling with one of the other boys — but in my heart feathers ruffled, and my feet stayed. I hesitated. Then I called out.

“Is it an apple?” I asked.

She turned around and looked at me. Brown eyes that ran the length of the earth. She blinked and blinked again.

“Is it true?” She asked. “Is it true what you said?”

I blinked back. “Uh. What?”

“About apple seeds!” She exclaimed. “Duh. Would we die if we ate one?”

I said nothing for a moment, pacing forward to join her. “What. Oh. Right. Uh, I dunno. I mean, I think so.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. You don’t make any kind of sense. Why would teachers even let us eat it if it killed us.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, Suzie. It’s just something I heard.”

“Where did you hear it from?”

“Oh, you know,” I said. “Like, around.”

She shook her head and giggled. “You’re so dumb,” she said, hitting me in the shoulder. “Here, look, you need to do something for me.” She shot a finger up into the canopy. “See it?”

I looked. At first I saw only the gadding leaves, the slithering branches. The trees grew taller on the edge of the orchard. Then, I saw it, protuberant and fire-red.

“Oh boy. That’s really up there.”

“Doesn’t it look so good?” She said, more a demand of agreement than anything. “It’s so high up, but I want it so bad.”

“Try climbing it?”

“I tried, but I’m not strong enough. Plus the bark hurt my hands. You think you could help me?”

I hesitated. “Should we get a teacher?”

“Oh, you’re no fun.” She scoffed. “We could do it ourselves, I bet. I don’t like Mr. Zelinski a whole lot.” To this we shared a nod of agreement.

I looked at the tree, then Suzie, then back to the tree. Reaching out and running my hand along the coarse bark. There were no branches at arm level, not even any low enough to reach if you jumped. My eyes crawled along the height of the tree, from root to top. I gripped at the bark and licked my lips.

“What if,” I began without looking back, “what if I held you up and you grabbed it?”

“Huh?”

“Like, on my shoulders.”

“Is that allowed?”

I hesitated for a moment. We both knew it wasn’t.

“I don’t think so,” I muttered. “Is that alright?” I looked away from the tree bark and saw the rascal-grin etched along her face. I knew her answer before she said it.

She was light, but not as light as I’d hoped. Her thighs were unbalanced on my shoulders, and after only a few seconds I was swaying. I could hear her huffing through her nostrils above me, annoyed.

“Keep me still! I can’t grab it with you moving around!”

“I’m trying, I’m trying,” I huffed. “Can you reach it?”

Instead of answering, Suzie swiped at the air with her arms, rocking us like a boat in a storm. I did what I could to assist, standing on my tip-toes, but it was for nothing. She was undeterred. I felt her thigh muscles squeeze around my shoulder.

“If you jumped for it, I could.”

“What?”

“Come on!” She pleaded, kicking her feet. “I almost have it!”

I huffed, peering up to the fruit. It hung placid, wafting in the fall breeze, perfectly unreachable. Behind me, where I couldn’t see, I could hear the shouts and laughs of my classmates. Nobody was close, I was certain, no teachers or adults. I looked at the fruit above and grit my teeth, molar grinding against molar. I wanted it very badly. My hands moved from her ankles to her thighs and I gripped tight.

“Get ready, Suzie.”

I hefted my feet off the ground and we went careening. I felt her swipe, but no luck. I jumped again, harder, the sinews in my denim pants stretching. Suzie pressed me on, telling me to get higher, and I obeyed, grunting and sweating, and her swiping and swiping. I jumped higher and higher, working like a locomotive.

“More,” she said, “I almost have it, more, more, more—”

At my foot, something grasped tight. A wandering root, a muscle spasm, maybe a snake. A noise came from my throat, a guttural cough. 

“Ho my God—”

A thunk against the earth and a boom and a crack. The fall was swift and crashing.Suzie fell behind me and I went careening forward, my forehead slamming into something hard and jagged. My vision erupted, white kernels popping and bouncing off the other. A flapping and fluttering of wings in the dark, as birds in departure. Everything was dark for a moment. Then everything was blue, then green. I floated in the colors and thought no thoughts.

Sensation returned slowly. The warmth of the sun on my skin, the tickling of grass tongues along my ears, the sound of faraway children. I sat up and wiped my eyes, remembering who I was. I turned. At my side, Suzie clutched her forehead and moaned. I blinked and blinked again. The colors of it all seemed wrong, I thought. There was a strange redness in her fingers, the color of sunset spilling out along her brown cheeks. Optical illusion from a concussion, perhaps. Then I realized what the red was.

“Oh,” I said. “Oh god, um, Suzie. Suzie. Oh God. Uh, listen, I can go get a band-aid, I can go get Mrs. McKenzie, Suzie, oh my god, uh, I can um uh—”

In her eyes, furious water brimmed. She leaned her head back and cry-screamed, the skies splitting open. I leaned in and tried to hug her, the way my parents did when I hurt myself. Then through the trees, I saw him, his white beard storming down the green, his feet crushing down the vines and the ivy.

“—Oh shit.

Mr. Zelinski came roaring curses, separating me from the crying Suzie in an instant, his arms steely and forceful.

“WHAT-IN-THE-NAME-OF-SON-OF-A-BITCH…”

In the trees I could see that children had followed him, circling the scene in the trees all around us. Perhaps they had seen us even before the fall. Mrs. McKenzie was there too, standing in the circle of children, her face downcast and disappointed. Mr. Zelinski knelt down, consoling the crying girl, inspecting her for bruises, for marks, for wounds, and wiping the blood from her forehead. I stood in silence for a moment, and then something moved me to speak.

“I, uh, well, I don’t really”, I stammered, “I don’t really know how that happened, we were just trying to get that apple up there and I—”

Mr. Zelinski turned, his face red underneath the white of his hair. “Goddamn it, Charlie, get your nose out of it,” he demanded. “You’re like Satan on your best day! Go see Mrs. McKenzie!”

I tripped back. No words left. Around me I could hear voices, classmates giggling, Mrs. McKenzie shushing, the inquiring tones of the farm keepers. I was stumbling without looking, Mrs. McKenzie caught me in the trees, and I smelled her hypnosis perfume, the lavender and the myrrh and the chamomile. She took my arm, a firm and gentle hand around my bicep, and led me away from Suzie. Following Ms. McKenzie, I looked into Suzie’s brown eyes and she looked into mine. No words to be spoken. My face was hot and wet.

There was a scolding in the trees afterwards, Mr. Zelinski and Ms. McKenzie both. Assurance of parent phone calls and punishments. I answered exactly how I was supposed to and never once told a lie, looking at my feet the whole time. It didn’t matter. When the scolding was finished and Mr. Zelinski had taken care of Suzie’s injuries, I sat alone in the trees until the field trip was over. When we returned to the bus, I watched for Suzie’s black hair, hoping to apologize. I never saw her.

On the ride back, there were no seagulls in the sky. I didn’t notice when we bumped over the Pennsylvania-Maryland state line. Mr. Zelinski sat next to me and said nothing, and it made me happy that he didn’t. We were back in the classroom soon enough, then back getting a headcount, and then at the ring of the bell, back outside. Some boys I knew found me at the bus loop and told me to come over.

“We’re all gonna ride the same bus back today, and we can shoot Nerf guns at each other after.”

“I’m okay guys,” I said. “I’m actually going to walk home today.”

They shrugged, then went off, running and arguing.

Instead of walking straight home, I walked through the neighborhoods, mostly alone. As the day grew dark, the windows of the houses glowed soft and fire colored. Pretty soon, the sun was setting. On Marco Street, I picked up a stick and tapped it against my thigh for a while. From an oak tree, a squirrel skipped down and sat in front of me, its tail thrusting and swishing in the air. I looked at the stick in my hand and wanted very, very badly to throw it at the squirrel. Then I saw the squirrel’s watery eyes, and I saw what it wanted, and I thought I don’t know what I want.

At home, when dinner was ready, I ate quietly. My mother asked me how my day was, and I answered in rote practice.

“It was good.”

“Yeah, honey? How was the orchard? Was it fun?”

“Yeah. Really fun.”

“Learn anything new?” My father asked from the other side of the table.

“Mhm. About butter. Yeah. Yeah.”

In the corners of my darkening vision, my mother leaned in.

“Baby, is everything okay?” She asked me. I nodded.

“Mhm. It was super fun.”

In the other room, the phone rang. My father waved it off.

“After dinner. They can call back.”

We kept eating. Then, a strange sensation emanated down from my head into my nostrils, my toes, my fingers, my back. I put my fork down for a second, feeling my back shake and shiver. Then my mother had her arms around me, and my father was holding my hands, and all the lights looked bleary, and the snot was running down my face.

“I didn’t even want it, Mommy,” I sobbed, “I didn’t even want it, Daddy, I didn’t even want it.”

end of story

© 2024, Julian Ford Go to top