'The Optiontunist' is the first chapter from the novel 'All Flowers Die'
So There Books, ISBN 0967907306
Andrew K. Stone
My life began more than twenty years ago on a sunny autumn morning when I was eleven years old. It was the first day of sixth grade in a chalky, colorful classroom to which my mind constantly returns - not because I consider it the place I drew my first true breath, but rather because of what occurred which allowed that breath. For in that room, a string of events was set in motion, resulting in the entangled feelings like those felt when a loved one peacefully dies after too much suffering. I’m simultaneously haunted and inspired by these events and I often look back and yearn for the strange mixture of solace and sadness which began the moment I met Dale Tarleton.
He was wearing a lime green polyester shirt with white metal snaps instead of buttons, and brown corduroys upon which he spent a great deal of time hoeing an uneven field by scratching his fingers back and forth. He also had brand new black canvas sneakers with white leather stripes stitched at angles on either side. I thought that was pretty smart of him, or his parents, because anyone with new sneakers - especially a new student - usually spent half of recess being chased by kids who then spent the other half stepping on his sneakers to dirty them up. So it was smart because Dale’s new black sneakers couldn’t have looked any dirtier.
For some reason - even though we never used them - adolescent boys in the 1970’s had to carry black combs. I wore my hair as long as my parents would allow, and every couple of minutes I’d jerk my head to the right, hoping my hair had grown long enough to swing coolly into place like the rock musicians and other celebrities with bad haircuts whom I so greatly admired. But still I carried a comb in the back pocket of my jeans. However, Dale didn’t display the usual quarter inch of black teeth from his back pocket.
The teeth in his mouth were prominent, though. Slightly bucked, they were separated by a dark, crooked hollowness like the opening to a cave. His eyes were black and shiny, like ice on a midnight road, and were sunken into tan skin which tightly encased his face like shrink wrap. I have a photograph of Dale from these days tacked to my office wall and I understand the double take of those who first glance at it. It’s easy to mistake Dale for a drunken farmer or a horribly mistreated donkey.
Our classroom had the antiseptic smell and freshly-painted walls of the First Day. The virginal chalkboard faced us blankly while its wooden ledge unsuccessfully hid the unused sticks of chalk - powdery bullets of education. A giant bright globe with the names of all the countries in the world sat on a shelf. When I skulked into the classroom, I gave the globe a spin and stopped it randomly. My finger had landed on Burma and I wondered if a Burmese student did the same, his index finger scratching at some strange place called Rhode Island. The teacher’s desk, heavy and grey like a bank vault, was further weighted down with books, a wooden pointer and a calendar opened to the worst month of the year. And the bright sunshine taunted me from the freedom outside the windows. I still remember how bored I’d been just a few weeks earlier and how I would have given anything for a second chance at summer vacation.
Many times, I’ve closed my eyes and thought of another, more pertinent, second chance. But because I know that’s impossible, my mind shifts gears and I try to think of the most fitting analogy for that first morning of school and my life. The closest I’ve come is that of the heroic football player who dwells incessantly on only one play in his entire career. I think of myself as the player and meeting Dale as that play. Unlike the other players who consider their lives to have stopped when the whistle blew on their heroics, my most important play - or person - gave me the gift of a future, the ability to see it and, most importantly, the willingness to possess it.
Of course at the time, it didn’t seem momentous at all. I couldn’t know the impact this buck-toothed stranger would have on me; in fact, it started rather ordinarily. I was sitting at my desk, holding the wooden and formica desk top above my head as I struggled to put my school things inside. A few weeks earlier, my mother had bought a yellow Partridge Family lunch box for me, which I was carefully trying to fit into my desk without scratching the paint. As I moved things around the shallow desk, I heard a little laugh and, looking up, I noticed Dale in the row next to me.
“Can’t fit it in?” he asked.
“I’m trying to.”
“Maybe if you could take Tracy Partridge off the front it would fit better. I don’t think anyone will miss her - she doesn’t really do all that much.
“You don’t like the Partridge Family?” I asked, withdrawing my head from the desk and putting the lunch box on the floor.
“No, I like’em okay. But Tracy bugs me. All she does is bang the tambourine. Why do they need her for that?”
“I don’t know....”
“I mean, at least they could give her something to say once in a while. But they never even do that very much. I think it would be rotten to have to be Tracy Partridge.”
“But she is a TV star,” I reasoned.
“She’s not really a star. She just stands there, banging her tambourine. How does that make her a star?”
I slid the lunch box under my desk and challenged him.
“Well, who do you like? “
“Elvis Presley. He’s the King of rock ‘n’ roll.”
“You mean that fat guy with the weird clothes?”
“He doesn’t have weird clothes.”
“He’s fat, though.”
“Well..., at least he’s a real star. And at least he’s not in a band with his mother. That’s weird.”
I slid the lunch box even further under my desk.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I’m Kevin Ridley.” I sized him up, then stated, “You’re new.”
“No. I’m just from California.”
“Really? I never knew anybody from California before. What’s it like?”
“Well, there’s lots of palm trees that don’t belong there.”
“Cause some Spanish guy brought them over from Florida.”
“You mean like oranges?”
“Kinda, but they weren’t a gift. And now everybody just thinks they belong there. But they don’t - not really.”
“Anyway, my family just moved here. We used to live in Providence.”
“There aren’t any palm trees in Rhode Island, you know,” I said, hoping this news wouldn’t be too disappointing.
“Yeah. But there aren’t supposed to be, so that’s good.”
A couple of kids came over to my desk and I introduced them to Dale. They asked him about California and if he knew any movie stars and if he’d ever gone surfing. During the middle of their questions, a kid we called UpChuck, because of his recurring habit of throwing up at lunch, butted into the conversation and asked if we knew who our teacher was. By his very nature, UpChuck was intrusive, but something in his expression revealed he had secret information, so we paid him more attention than usual.
“I heard she came from the high school,” I said.
“But do you know why she came from the high school?” UpChuck smiled mysteriously.
“No, why?” another kid said.
“She quit ’cause a bunch of kids beat her up.”
“That’s baloney, UpChuck!”
“No it’s not, Ridley. My older brother had her for math and he knew the kids who did it. She was real mean so these kids ganged up on her and now she’s afraid to go back. They scared her real bad. My brother told me.”
“Your brother pukes more than you do.”
The accusations flew until our teacher walked in the door. She didn’t look particularly mean. She was an old Southern woman with powdery skin, bright blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. Tall and stiff, she had fat calves like balloons in her nylons, and two gold eye teeth. She also smelled funny. Her frilly, lace blouse and grey, plaid skirt had that overripe, mothball odor that lived in the closets at my grandmother’s house.
Like scared rodents, we scrambled for our seats. Our new teacher didn’t say a word, but instead, stood behind her bank vault desk and reached for the wooden pointer. Picking up a fresh piece of chalk, she turned to the board and wrote large, squeaky letters which travelled up our spines:
Good morning. My name is Mrs. Philbrain.
Then, using the pointer like a weapon, she rapped it against the board, gesturing for us to repeat each word as she touched it.
“Good morning,” we all said. “My name is Mrs....”
Everyone stopped and she rapped again, a bit harder, for encouragement. But still we struggled, trying to form the strange word through our murmurs. Finally Dale raised his hand. “Yes?” she asked. Her jaws snapped quickly like a bear trap - a warning against stealing the golden treasure embedded in her gums.
“Mrs....P Hill Brain?”
We laughed. The teacher glared angrily at us, but Dale asked with all seriousness:
“Isn’t that what it says?”
“No,” she answered, giving the rest of us a condescending glance before smiling at Dale: the example of a child really interested in learning. “A ‘p’ and an ‘h’ make an f-f-f, sound,” reiterating the ‘f’ three times as if to drill it into our heads. Then she said to Dale in her soft Southern voice, “ Now, try again.”
Dale read the whole sentence:
“My name is Mrs.,” and he stopped for a moment, looking at her with a bit of uncertainty. Mrs. Philbrain nodded with bright, wide eyes and so Dale said: “Mrs. F-F-Filbrain.”
We laughed again and it was when Mrs. Philbrain admonished Dale that we realized she was a stutterer.
“N-n-no! My n-n-name is Mrs. Ph-ph-philbrain,” she stuttered, her accent now hardened. And then we realized something else - it must have been true! She must have been attacked by the high school kids - kids who literally scared her speechless!
Dale raised his hand again.
“Mrs. Philbrain. Why does the ‘ph’ sound like an ‘f’”
Dale’s sensible question helped soften the teacher.
“Be-be-because when a p-p-p and an h-h-h are pu-pu-put together, they make an f-f-f-f sound.”
“But why? Doesn’t the ‘f’ do a good enough job of making the ‘f’ sound all by itself?”
The gold in Mrs. Philbrain’s mouth gleamed - she was obviously pleased with the chance to explain a phonetics lesson on her first day.
“ but -”
“Is there another sound that a ’p’ and an ’h’ make besides an ‘f’”
“N-n-n-no, there isn’t. A p-p-p h-h-h only makes a-a-an ’f’ sound.”
And so, Mrs. Philbrain went on to explain why a ‘p’ only makes an ‘f’ sound. But after the twenty-five-minute explanation, complete with stutters and Dale’s interrupting questions, her golden smile had dulled and she had hardened again.
We eventually found out that Mrs. Philbrain had transferred to our elementary school after teaching high school for almost forty years. This was her last year before she was to retire and she wanted to instruct at an elementary school as she’d done when she began teaching. Because she’d had such an illustrious career (as well as a nephew on the school board - after all, this was in Rhode Island) she was allowed to spend her final year teaching our sixth grade class. However, this never diminished our belief in the story of the high school bullies.
“They really must’ve done a job on her,” Dale said to me one afternoon. We were at my house. I’d invited Dale to come over and play in the backyard.
My yard had about ten yards of grass and then a little rock garden with steps leading down to a long hill. The hill ended at a weathered picket fence. Beyond that was a murky swamp with rivers like veins cutting through the tall grass. During moon tide, the rivers bled over the swamp, completely submerging it, but other times, when the tide was out and it was very hot, the swamp was damp and muddy and it stank.
I had a swing which my father had made by tying an old tire to a high oak branch, and Dale and I were taking turns swinging out over the hill. I got in the tire and pushed off, sailing into the air.
“I bet they pulled knives on her.”
Dale stood behind me, pushing each time I came back.
“Why not? Everybody pulls knives on people. It’s scary.” I swung back to Dale and he pushed me harder. As I whizzed up and then backwards, I heard him say:
“What about matches?”
I dug my Keds into the ground and skidded to a dirt-piling stop.
“Who would try to scare someone with matches?”
“Have you ever heard of somebody scaring someone with matches?”
“No,” he admitted.
“Then how do you know it would be scary?”
Dale thought a moment and said:
“How do you know it wouldn’t be?”
I didn’t answer. Instead I held onto the prickly rope and twirled in the tire, trying to imagine the terrifying aspects of matches.
Dale’s philosophy was simple - anything was possible. Ironically, this fit perfectly with a certain type of test Mrs. Philbrain liked to give - the multiple guess.
A multiple guess test was different from a multiple choice because in a multiple guess, every answer is somehow correct. To Dale, this was academic nirvana. To others, like my father, it was academic lunacy.
“What the hell is she teaching you kids?! Or should I say, what isn’t she teaching you?”
“Now, Ed...,” my mother began, giving me a chance to explain. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite explain the reason behind a test in which there was no wrong answer. In hindsight, I should have had Dale explain it to my father. Dale would have told him that in a multiple guess test, the point isn’t that every answer is correct. The trick is in finding - and supporting - the most correct answer.
“Why should there be just one right answer?” Dale once asked me. But I wasn’t sure.
“Because that’s how it is,”? I said, repeating my father’s sentiment.
“How what is?”
I told Dale that my father had said there was only one right answer in a test, and that was the reason for taking a test in the first place.
But Dale didn’t buy that. Had he been born in another time, Dale would have made a great speech writer for the Kennedys. There’s a quote by Robert Kennedy that says “Some men see things as they are and ask why? I dream things that never were and ask why not?” Dale could have written that for Robert Kennedy. And despite my father’s general dislike of the Kennedys, Dale could have used the quote advantageously in his explanation of the multiple guess test.
Dale subscribed to the multiple guess mentality. At eleven years old, when most kids took things for granted, Dale questioned everything. Would we be better off without Tracy Partridge, is there another combination of letters that make an “f” sound better that the “f” itself, and why couldn’t a gang of match-wielding teenagers be terrifying? Dale needed to know “why not?”
It quickly became apparent to Mrs. Philbrain that Dale needed to know every choice and every option, and whenever his skinny arm shot up, her face became marred with an expression like a unevenly rising cake. Mrs. Philbrain had taught school for a long time, but I don’t think she ever truly knew what she was up against with Dale.
Which is why, on a cloudy October morning, she probably shouldn’t have told us that we were going to have a duck and cover drill. Then again, it wasn’t in her power to stop the drill - even in the mid-seventies, our whole school practiced these air raid drills. But just as she had no choice about taking those little yellow pills we’d seen, she had no choice in this matter.
So, Mrs. Philbrain took a deep breath and, after a quick look over at Dale, explained the procedure.
“N-n-now class, when y-y-you hear the siren over the loud speaker, y-y-y-you’ll all g-g-get down under your desks and remain t-t-there until I g-g-give the all c-c-clear signal.”
Dale’s hand immediately shot up. For a moment it appeared that Mrs. Philbrain was pretending she didn’t see him. But he persisted, frantically waving his entire arm like a flag in a storm. There was no way out. Mrs. Philbrain sighed.
“Why are we getting under our desks, Mrs. Philbrain?”
She moaned slightly as if she had a headache, and answered:
“B-b-because that’s the p-p-proper procedure, Dale.” But again, Dale raised his hand and again she sighed and called upon him.
“Mrs. Philbrain, what are we supposed to do under our desks?”
“J-j-just c-c-crouch d-d-d-down and put your h-h-hands over your h-h-heads.”
“I t-t-told you, Dale, that’ s the p-p-procedure.”
“Well, do you think getting under the desks will really help?”
Confusion bent Mrs. Philbrain’s face.
“Save us from the bombs. I mean, do you think the desks will really do any good? What if a plane drops a bomb right on top of the school?”
Nervous murmuring filled the classroom. Mrs. Philbrain began shushing everybody. A look of pain peeked out from behind her eyes and she rummaged through her purse and took out the small dark bottle we’d seen a number of times. Opening the bottle, she withdrew one of the mysterious yellow oval pills and placed it under her tongue. Then, after a minute, the pain went back into hiding.
“It’s all right, c-c-class,” she said soothingly. “N-n-o one is going t-t-to drop a bomb on the sc-sc-school.”
But Dale persisted.
“Then why are we practicing for it? I mean, it would be silly to practice for an air raid if we didn’t think we’d ever have one, wouldnt it?”
The murmuring grew louder but still Dale proceeded.
“Somebody thinks we might really get bombed. So if a bomb lands on the school, do you think the desks will save us?”
A few kids became hysterical. Two girls were crying, and UpChuck rocked quickly in his seat while the stain where he wet his pants spread across the crotch of his corduroys.
Mrs. Philbrain began rapping her pointer on the desk, but it did no good.
“C-c-class, s-s-settle down, n-n-n-now, please!”
“I wanna go home,” one girl wailed. “I want my Mommy!!”
“Class, th-th-there’s nothing to b-b-b-be worried about. ”
“Well, maybe not this time because it’s only for practice,” Dale said. “But what about when the bombs really do get dropped?” And then his eyes got very wide, as he asked, “Will we really just burst into flames and be gone like in the movies?”
“D-d-dale!” cried Mrs. Philbrain.
Unfortunately, it was at that exact moment when the siren screamed over the loudspeaker.
“Help!!” the kids shrieked, and they jumped up and stampeded out the door.
“Class!! Stop that. C-c-come back!”
But half the class was already running through the halls, screaming “Air raid! Air raid! Help!”
More pain creased Mrs. Philbrain’s face and she quickly took another pill and put it under her tongue. I looked out the door, hearing the echos of running feet and the kids’ shouts, and when I turned back, I noticed hesitant relief showed on her face, though she glared at Dale before stomping out of the room to chase after the kids. I looked over to find Dale under the desk.
“What are you doing down there?”
“This is where we’re supposed to be,” Dale replied.
“But I thought you said the desks wouldn’t save us.”
“No, I just asked if they would. And I don’t think they will. But it’s always a good idea to find out all you can about things.”
And so, to me Dale became known as the “optiontunist.” Never content with one right or wrong answer, Dale would be in constant search for the best answer.
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