By Karin Lin-Greenberg
Featured Art: Girl by Egon Schiele
Ms. Gardner had not been in support of the plan to drag Roland Raccoon to every middle school science class, but the principal said they’d paid Margery Martin a flat fee for the school visit, and it would be a waste if every student at Grisham Middle School did not have the opportunity to visit with Roland. Ms. Gardner was certain the eighth graders in her sixth period class were too old to learn life lessons about kindness and compassion and giving everyone and everything a chance from a twelve-year-old blind raccoon that was also deaf in one ear. “But he loves to be sung to,” Margery Martin had informed the class, adding, “in his good ear.” She cradled Roland in her lap as if he were a baby.
Margery leaned down, put her lips unsavorily close to Roland’s ear, and sang something that might have been Frank Sinatra. The boys who were sitting against a bookshelf near the rear of the classroom, as far away from Margery as they were allowed, snickered, and Ms. Gardner heard the word “rabies” whispered several times. Margery was in her seventies, wore a baggy sweatshirt with a large cartoon raccoon’s face on it, pink elastic-waist pants, and thick-soled orthopedic shoes. Perhaps the fifth graders might find something charming in her, might think she was similar in some way to their beloved grandmothers, but the eighth graders were surely too jaded to believe that spending an hour sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounding a woman crooning to a raccoon splayed on her lap was a good use of their time. There were twenty-four of them in a semi-circle on the floor. Well, twenty-three of them cross-legged on the ground and then Julia Fredericks in a wheelchair. During the summer, she’d been in a boating accident when she’d gone to visit her cousins on Long Island, and her legs had been crushed. Doctors were unsure if she would walk again. Some of the girls in the class treated Julia as if she were their wounded pet, making sure to follow her everywhere, offering to help her at all times, even when it was clear that she did not need help. These girls were well-intentioned, even though they were mostly unhelpful and in Julia’s way. Julia had been remarkably patient with the girls fussing over her, and Ms. Gardner had thought of nominating Julia for Eighth Grade Student of the Year for this patience and for her resilience in the face of adversity, but she was afraid others would believe Julia’s nomination (and likely win) to be the result of teachers feeling sorry for her.
“Many people think I saved Roland’s life, but, really, he saved mine,” Margery said. She then explained that before Roland came into her life, her husband had passed away, and she was lonely and very, very depressed. She’d thought her life was no longer worth living. Was she implying she had been suicidal? Ms. Gardner wondered. Was this proper information to disclose to the students? During her time of great sadness, Margery found Roland Raccoon down the street from where she used to live in upstate New York. “I don’t live here in New York anymore, though,” she said, “because they don’t allow you to keep raccoons as pets. Seven years ago I moved to New Hampshire to start a new life with Roland.” That last sentence, taken out of context, might indicate a second marriage, a fresh start that didn’t include fleeing a state because of its laws about harboring wildlife in one’s home. “When I found Roland, he was in terrible shape. Some boys had beaten him with a baseball bat.”
After that revelation, several of the boys sat up straight and took notice of what Margery was saying. Sam Rizzo sat up especially tall, interest washing over his face. Ms. Gardner worried about Sam; she saw violence bubbling beneath his surface, and every once in a while, he could no longer control his emotions and would punch or kick a classmate. She was fairly certain Sam was covertly murdering crickets the students were supposed to be feeding Leon, the iguana that lived in the classroom, dropping their crushed bodies in a line on the windowsill. Since she didn’t have enough evidence to confront Sam, all she could do was quietly sweep the cricket carcasses into the trashcan at the end of every school day.
“Oh, poor Roland,” said Chloe Trainer. She wobbled side to side on her haunches and put her hands under her butt. Ms. Gardner was certain Chloe sat on her hands so she wouldn’t run up and grab Roland out of Margery’s arms, hold him to her chest, and try to absorb the pains of his past. Chloe was one of the kindest students Ms. Gardner had ever encountered, and she worried about her almost as much as she worried about Sam Rizzo. Ms. Gardner was unsure if the world was a more inhospitable place for people with tendencies toward violence or extreme kindness.
“Yes, poor Roland,” said Margery. She bent down and kissed the raccoon on top of his head, and he wiggled his legs in what Ms. Gardner could only describe as satisfied pleasure. “Poor Mr. Roly Poly.” Margery rubbed his belly, and his fur ruffled under her hand.
A ripple of snickers passed through the boys again, then Sam raised his hand. “Did Roland get blind because he was beaten?”
“That’s right,” said Margery. “Beaten and left for dead.”
“And then did you have to feed Roland from a bottle?” said Chloe. Ms. Gardner saw the combination of sympathy and excitement on Chloe’s face and knew Chloe was imagining herself bottle-feeding a wounded raccoon, soothing it with clucking sounds, tucking it into a soft bed under fluffy blankets.
“I did feed him with a bottle since he could not chew because of his injuries. Although before I got him he was at the animal hospital for over a month and was fed through an IV because his jaw was shattered.”
“My dad said that when we brought our dog to the animal hospital after he got his paw stung by wasps and it got all swollen up and he had an allergic reaction it cost enough that we couldn’t go on vacation,” said Phil Steinway, pushing his glasses up his nose. “We were supposed to go to Florida and go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But we didn’t.”
“Animal care, especially of a special-needs animal, is very expensive. This is why I ask for donations when Roly and I come speak at schools.”
A donation, that was what Margery called her $1,000 fee? No wonder the principal wanted Margery to haul the raccoon around the school. Margery told the students that even though Roland had been left for dead, she’d known he was a fighter, known that if he wanted to live badly enough, he would, and no matter how much it cost her to bring him into her home, it would be worth it. And now Roland was an important raccoon, she said, maybe even the most important raccoon in all of the world because he taught young people lessons, helped them understand that even if someone was different, they still had love in their hearts, and they were still worth loving. Ms. Gardner glanced at Julia in her wheelchair, tried to see what she was making of all this, but she just looked blankly at Roland. Ms. Gardner hated the notion of people (and animals, she supposed) getting better because they’d fought a good fight. Sometimes people got ill or injured, and even if they wanted to live or get better, they didn’t, no matter how much fight they had in them. Last year, her father had died. He was fifty-eight. There was a lot more he’d wanted to do with his life, but no matter what he tried—the medications, the experimental trials—nothing worked. It had certainly not been a matter of his not wanting to live. Maybe Roland Raccoon was lucky that Margery had swooped into his life and had nursed him to health, but that was because he could be nursed. A few more swings of the baseball bat, and there would have been no rescuing Roland.
Ms. Gardner’s eyes scanned the class. Most of the students were getting bored. Soon they would get distracted and then trouble would start. But here was what she wished she could tell her students when their eyes dimmed, when they deemed school dull: when you grow up, life is boring. Work is tedious. If adults misbehaved every time they got bored, the world would be in a state of chaos. Day after day, you do the same thing. Sure, maybe one day a raccoon will show up at your job, but even the raccoon won’t be particularly interesting, and it will likely create opportunities for people to misbehave and will make your job harder.
Down near the wheels of Julia’s wheelchair sat Brianna Merchant, her cheeks resting in both palms, her eyes fluttering closed. In her lap, she held a pencil case, which was an odd thing, since they were only listening to Margery, not writing anything in response yet to her visit. Brianna had long, shiny blonde hair and a complexion that glowed smoothly, even though most of her classmates were speckled with pimples. She was one of the girls that other girls wanted to emulate. Girls like Brianna sparked the interest of boys; they were the type that decades later boys would remember as their first unrequited crushes. And girls like Brianna knew they could be cruel to the less popular or homely or fidgety nervous boys, and there would be no repercussions. Ms. Gardner had been certain Brianna was the one to cut a hole in the bottom of Richie Detwiler’s backpack while it rested on the floor. When he’d put it on as class ended, all his books had slipped out, and everyone laughed at him. Well, everyone except for Chloe Trainer, who’d immediately leaped up from her desk and helped Richie collect his books and papers. At first, Ms. Gardner had thought the backpack had simply worn out, but then, as the rest of the class was gathering their books, she’d heard Brianna say to Tessa Chen, “He deserved it since he’s always packing up a few minutes early, while Ms. Gardner is still talking. Every single day he packs up early and disrupts the class.” Then Ms. Gardner had known that Brianna was culpable in some way for Richie’s ruined backpack. It was likely she hadn’t cut it herself, that she’d convinced one of her henchwomen—this is how Ms. Gardner had come to think of the girls that trailed Brianna everywhere—to do it.
For the first two months of the school year, Ms. Gardner had harbored a mild hatred for Brianna. Ms. Gardner knew that had she and Brianna been the same age, some of Brianna’s cruelty and disapproval would have been directed her way. By eighth grade, Ms. Gardner still had not shed her lisp; it would take four more years and a great deal of hard work with a speech therapist for it to fade. The mean girls at Ms. Gardner’s school had not hesitated to ridicule the lisp, especially after Ms. Gardner had won first place in the school’s science fair and had to present her project on forensics and the study of fingerprints to the entire school on the stage in the auditorium. Still, over a decade later, she can remember the giggles while she talked about loops, arches, ridges, and whorls in fingerprints, all those s’s in all those words slushing in her mouth, the sounds of girls giggling in the audience magnified by the acoustics of the auditorium. It was hard not to think of those laughing girls when Ms. Gardner looked at Brianna.
While Ms. Gardner hadn’t liked Brianna for the first few months of school, things turned truly bad in November. The week before Thanksgiving, Ms. Gardner had been out on a blind date at a Mexican chain restaurant in the mall. Her date, Orion, smelled like a health food store, had longer hair than she did, and looked remarkably like Weird Al Yankovic. Her father had loved Weird Al, and even though Ms. Gardner was too young to have appreciated his heyday, she’d developed a fondness for his music. Her father had played his Weird Al CDs over and over again when she was a kid, and they’d sung along to “Girls Just Want to Have Lunch” and “Addicted to Spuds,” their favorite songs. It wasn’t until years later that she’d realized Weird Al had been remaking other musicians’ songs and a lot of people found him to be ridiculous. Ms. Gardner looked across the table at Orion and puzzled over why he would be wearing a tank top in upstate New York at the end of November. In his tank top, Orion looked like Weird Al on the cover of Running With Scissors, which featured Weird Al sprinting on a track holding up a large pair of scissors in each hand. Thinking of the album cover made her unexpectedly sad, made her miss her father profoundly.
The waitress came by to take their order, and Orion questioned the poor waitress exhaustively about many items on the menu because he was a vegan. Ms. Gardner was angry at her landlord, Mrs. Petronelli, for setting her up on the date with Orion, who was her nephew. When Mrs. Petronelli had suggested the date to Ms. Gardner, she’d said, “How old are you now? Twenty-five?”
“Twenty-four,” Ms. Gardner corrected her.
“Well, you don’t have forever to find a man. I don’t see you ever out with any men since Will moved away. You can’t live alone forever.”
Ms. Gardner wanted to tell Mrs. Petronelli that she also lived alone (unfortunately, on the second floor of Ms. Gardner’s duplex, which allowed Mrs. Petronelli to watch Ms. Gardner’s comings and goings and allowed Ms. Gardner to hear Mrs. Petronelli’s television blasting QVC or the Home Shopping Network at all hours of the day and night). Living alone didn’t seem to affect Mrs. Petronelli’s life of meddling, watching television, and collecting rent on the four duplexes she owned on the block. Ms. Gardner had only agreed to go on the date because Mrs. Petronelli had hinted she’d raise her rent if she did not.
The waitress came back with their beers, and as Ms. Gardner watched the waitress walk back toward the kitchen, she spotted Brianna Merchant and her mother at a table across the restaurant.
“My student is here,” Ms. Gardner whispered. “What? Where?” barked Orion.
Ms. Gardner fought the urge to lift a finger to her mouth, to shush him the way she shushed Sam Rizzo on a daily basis during class.
“It doesn’t matter where,” said Ms. Gardner.
“Should we go say hi?”
We, thought Ms. Gardner. We?! She could imagine what would happen in school on Monday if she dragged a frizzy-haired, patchouli-scented man named Orion across the restaurant and introduced him to Brianna and her mother. The gossip would be never-ending. “We should just stay put. Could you imagine if you were in eighth grade and out with your family and a teacher came over to talk to you? Wouldn’t you have been mortified?” She thought then of Will, who’d broken up with her last fall when he’d gone across the country to start a graduate program at Berkeley in physics. They’d been together for five years, through most of college and then the just-starting-out years afterward, and then he was gone, out of her life. He’d said their relationship would be impossible to sustain with over three thousand miles between them. She hated him for believing that, and tried not to have any fond thoughts about him, but Will would have understood her need to hide from Brianna. He’d have ducked under the table with her, would have pretended to be searching for a dropped fork or a lost earring, hiding together until Brianna was gone.
“I think it would be nice to see a teacher in a social context,” said Orion.
“No,” said Ms. Gardner because she didn’t want to explain how profoundly weird it was to see students outside of school. Again, she used the tone she had to trot out when dealing with Sam Rizzo. No, don’t touch the Bunsen burners. No, do not clang the test tubes against each other. No, don’t even make jokes about weighing drugs on the laboratory scales. Ms. Gardner knew her students were intrigued by what her life was like outside of the classroom because she was younger than all the other teachers on her teaching team, and yet when she encountered students outside of school, they were strange and awkward. Last week, she’d seen Celia Nemer in the bathroom at the movie theater. After Celia washed her hands and turned around to look for the paper towel dispenser and had seen Ms. Gardner coming out of a stall, Celia’s mouth dropped, and she’d stared, wordless, water dripping from her fingers. Ms. Gardner felt as if she’d been caught doing something wrong, but she’d only been doing something human, peeing, after consuming thirty-two ounces of Diet Coke.
“It’s nice to see you, Celia,” Ms. Gardner had said. But it had not been nice to see Celia. The truth was that she was at the movies alone, and if Celia found out that Ms. Gardner was so pathetic as to not be able to even scrape up one friend to see a movie with, that bit of gossip would be spread to all of Celia’s friends. Celia was one of Brianna’s henchwomen, and once Brianna heard about Ms. Gardner’s pathetic friendlessness, the whole grade would know. But Ms. Gardner had, in fact, had a movie buddy until quite recently. Since graduating college, she and her friend Emily had seen a movie every Wednesday. Ms. Gardner rushed out of school as soon as the final bell rang, telling the other teachers on her team that she had a standing appointment on Wednesday afternoons. She suspected the others thought she was being cagey because she was going to therapy, and because of this they never questioned her Wednesday afternoon activities. Emily had worked at Starbucks for the two years after graduation, and she, too, told her employer that she could not work on Wednesday afternoons because of an important weekly engagement. And so every Wednesday they’d see a movie together. It didn’t matter if it was a good movie or a bad one, if it featured aliens or monsters or a love story or if it took place centuries ago or in the future. They’d just liked the escape of the cool, dark theater, the popcorn-scented air, falling into the world of the movie and not having to worry about money or jobs or their social lives for a few hours. But this fall Emily had quit her job at Starbucks to take on a full-time job as a live-in nanny for a rich family, and her Wednesday afternoons were no longer free, and then on the two evenings a week she was free, she was too tired for the movies. So Ms. Gardner now went to the movies alone on Wednesdays because she didn’t have to supervise any Wednesday after-school activities and didn’t want to go home and listen to Mrs. Petronelli’s blaring television while sitting alone in her apartment. She’d have to figure out how to hide from Celia the fact that she was alone at the theater, but after a few moments of staring, Celia said her friend was waiting outside the bathroom so she had to leave immediately. Celia sprinted out of the bathroom, crashing into a woman rooting around in an enormous purse, nearly knocking the woman over and sending her tube of lipstick flying.
Cheeseless, meatless, sour cream-less nachos were delivered to Orion, and a burger was placed in front of Ms. Gardner. Ms. Gardner took a large bite of her Olé Burger, and bloody meat juice dribbled to her plate. To his credit, Orion did not seem to be judging her food. Orion talked about his job at a store that sold running gear, and Ms. Gardner halfway listened to his stories about customers who came into the store to get their gaits analyzed and their shoes professionally fitted and then declared they’d buy the shoes Orion recommended for a better price online, but her attention was focused on Brianna. Soon after a waitress brought drinks to Brianna and her mother, a bartender came around the bar and joined them at their table. He was handsome in the way of men who’d been popular athletes in high school—good bone structure, wide shoulders, a confident way of moving—and looked to be at least a decade younger than Brianna’s mother. Ms. Gardner knew about Brianna’s parents’ acrimonious divorce, had been warned by the vice principal that Brianna might exhibit some behavioral issues as a result. There had been a great deal of money and property involved, allegations of infidelity, and rumors of Brianna’s mother intentionally crashing Brianna’s father’s Mercedes into the garage of the woman with whom he was purportedly having an affair. As soon as the bartender sat down, Brianna’s mother’s attention shifted fully to him. At one point, Brianna picked up her mother’s drink—something pink in a martini glass—and drained it and stared for a few seconds at her mother, who was still not paying any attention to her. As soon as Brianna finished her quesadilla, her mother gave Brianna her credit card and shooed her away, likely urging her to go into the mall so she and the bartender could have some time alone. Brianna lingered at the edge of the table, but her mother waved Brianna away again. Brianna walked toward the door, and Ms. Gardner hunched down in her seat. Brianna looked at her feet as she walked, and Ms. Gardner thought she was safe. After all, she’d sent Celia Nemer sprinting out of the women’s room at the movie theater; even a student as confident and bold as Brianna certainly wouldn’t seek out a teacher outside of school. As Ms. Gardner pretended to rearrange her napkin again and again in her lap, she thought that seeing this, seeing Brianna’s mother ignore her, should make her feel more sympathetic toward the girl. It was clear that Brianna felt powerful at school, surrounded by her henchwomen, but here, with her mother, the dynamics had shifted. Ms. Gardner’s eyes were still affixed to the napkin in her lap when she heard Orion cough and thought he might be choking on a tortilla chip. She looked up and saw Brianna standing by their table, her mother’s credit card playing between her hands.
“Hi, Ms. Gardner.” Brianna grinned, as if she now knew an enormous andincriminating secret.
“Brianna!” said Ms. Gardner. She balled up her napkin and continued to squeeze it while Brianna looked back and forth between Ms. Gardner and Orion. “What a surprise to see you here.”
“Is this your husband?” said Brianna. Ms. Gardner wished desperately that Will was sitting across from her. Will, with his short, neat haircut and round tortoiseshell glasses and checked shirts. Will, who looked so normal.
“I’m her friend,” said Orion, extending his hand to Brianna. She looked puzzled about the extended hand, then shook it after a long pause. “My name is Orion.”
“Ohhh,” said Brianna dragging out the word and staring at him for several moments longer than would be deemed polite. “Like the constellation.”
“Precisely,” said Orion. “Great job making that connection!” He held his hand up for a high five, and Brianna reluctantly brought her hand up to slap his. Ms. Gardner felt a swell of panic. She sensed they were only moments away from Orion inviting Brianna to join them for the rest of dinner.
“Are you a teacher too?” said Brianna. Ms. Gardner smelled the alcohol on Brianna’s breath.
“No, I’m training for marathons and work at The Runner’s Edge selling running gear.”
“Oh,” said Brianna. She was clearly unimpressed.
“And you’re in Mia’s class?”
Brianna paused. Orion had used Ms. Gardner’s first name. Of course Ms. Gardner’s students knew she had a first name, but she didn’t know if it had ever been spoken aloud in their presence.
“Yes. Sixth period Physical Science,” said Brianna.
“What a special surprise it is to meet one of Mia’s students,” said Orion.
“Well,” said Ms. Gardner, putting a hand on Brianna’s arm. It felt thin under her hand. She rarely touched her students, but right now she wanted to turn Brianna around, shove her hard on the back, push her toward the restaurant’s exit. “We don’t want to keep you. You go enjoy the mall.”
“Want a nacho?” said Orion, holding a chip coated in refried beans and guacamole up to Brianna.
Brianna stepped back from the chip, held at her eye level. “I should go,” she said. “See you Monday, Ms. Gardner.”
Monday, of course, went as expected. There were knowing looks, whispers, and giggles all through the classroom. Ms. Gardner was not being paranoid; they were all talking about her, laughing at her, and although she was the one with the dry-erase markers and the grade book, she felt thirteen again. After Ms. Gardner took attendance, Brianna’s hand shot up. “Are we going to do a unit on astronomy this year?” she asked. “I’m especially interested in learning all about the constellations.” Her henchwomen snickered.
“Astronomy isn’t currently part of the eighth grade curriculum,” Ms. Gardner said, trying to make her words as cutting as possible. But it was too late. Now all had been revealed about her: she had a first name, she peed, and she was passionately in love with a frizzy-haired man named Orion. There was little chance she could recover from all of this.
“Do you know what Roland’s favorite activity is?” said Margery. “It’s dancing! Could you?” she said, turning to Ms. Gardner, and pointing to a tape player that she’d brought to class in a canvas tote bag. Ms. Gardner wondered how many of her students had ever seen a tape player before. To them, the tape player might seem more exotic than the raccoon, something more worthy of scientific study. Ms. Gardner pushed the play button, and polka music filled the room. Ms. Gardner’s knowledge of polka music stemmed entirely from Weird Al’s polka songs, and hearing the music made her think of that awful date with Orion three months before. Things had not been the same in her classroom since Brianna came back and squealed to everyone about the date. Margery stood up and held Roland’s front paws, and they danced together, Roland taking tiny steps and keeping pace with Margery’s movements. “Join us!” Margery shouted to the class, but everyone sat still, staring at Margery and Roland.
“My grandpa plays this kind of music! He has tapes too,” said Zach Goss excitedly as he stood up. “Last summer when I visited him, we went to the Austrian Community Center and I learned how to do a folk dance.”
“Would you teach us all how?” Margery said, clearly delighted, and Zach nodded. Poor, earnest, kind Zach, with his crisply ironed tucked-in shirts and polished black leather shoes and neatly gelled hair, who clearly did not see how this dancing was not a good idea.
Zach held up his arms in demonstration, and still no one moved.
“Get up, everyone,” said Ms. Gardner. “Now,” she added sharply. That extra syllable seemed to have a magic effect on the students, who sprang to their feet. Oh, but there was Julia Fredericks in her wheelchair, and she obviously could not “get up,” as Ms. Gardner had ordered, and Ms. Gardner was furious with herself for her choice of words since Julia could still move her body in her wheelchair, do some approximation of Margery and Zach’s dance. Why hadn’t she just said, “Dance!”? But here was Chloe Trainer, already up on her feet, her hands extended to Julia. And here was Julia, taking Chloe’s hands in hers, smiling. And here was Brianna, still on the ground, her pencil case open, sticking pencils into the spokes of Julia’s wheelchair. Ms. Gardner swooped, clasping Brianna’s hands in one of hers, pulling the pencils out of Julia’s wheel, throwing them to a corner of the room, grabbing Brianna’s pencil case, pushing it hard so it glided all the way to the wall. “What are you doing?” said Brianna, and Ms. Gardner pulled Brianna to her feet. “Don’t be an asshole,” Ms. Gardner whispered. Brianna’s eyes widened. Ms. Gardner knew she shouldn’t call a student an asshole, but what other word was there for Brianna? Children with other problems—distraction, hyperactivity, overly talkative, daydreamers—could change, but Brianna was mean, and meanness was something that lasted one’s entire life. It was not something that could be shed like a snake’s skin once a person reached maturity. “Dance with me,” ordered Ms. Gardner, because what worse indignity could a thirteen-year-old suffer than having to dance with her teacher in front of all her classmates? Ms. Gardner held Brianna’s hands and pulled her far from Julia and Chloe, who were moving just a little bit to the beat of the polka music, who were not following Zach’s directions, but who looked lovely and happy dancing together, Julia in her wheelchair and Chloe gliding from side to side in front of Julia, and Ms. Gardner swore she would scream at any child who dared utter a word about Julia and Chloe dancing together being “gay.”
“Do exactly as Zach says,” Ms. Gardner ordered. She wanted Brianna humiliated, like she’d been the Monday after her date with Orion. Ms. Gardner had nothing to lose, had already been laughed at and talked about in this classroom for three months, but Brianna had everything to lose by not being her usual cold, composed, in-control self. Ms. Gardner expected Brianna to argue, to refuse to dance with her, but Brianna followed Zach’s instructions, raising her arms, lifting her feet.
“Just follow the oom paa paa,” said Zach, and the room filled with more sniggers, and the only people who weren’t laughing and who were dancing sincerely were Ms. Gardner and Brianna, Chloe and Julia, and Margery and Roland Raccoon, who had closed his blind eyes and was now gently swaying side to side with Margery, as if they were smitten teenagers at a school dance.
“When the song ends and we’re done dancing, I’ll sit back down with Roly in my lap, and then anyone who wants to can line up and pet him gently,” said Margery. “Roly is good luck, and if you pet him gently and whisper your hopes and wishes into his good ear, he might make them come true.”
“Can I?” said Brianna quietly.
“Can you touch the raccoon?” said Ms. Gardner.
Brianna nodded. For the first time in the classroom that year, Brianna’s cold façade had fallen away. Ms. Gardner recognized the expression on her face from that day at the restaurant in the mall, the way Brianna had looked at her mother, seeming vulnerable and needy.
“I suppose you can pet Roland,” said Ms. Gardner. She’d actually thought of making Brianna touch Roland, of punishing her by forcing her to pet the old, blind, half-deaf raccoon, which seemed like the kind of creature Brianna would not want to be near.
As the music ended, Zach took a deep bow, which triggered another surge of laughter throughout the classroom. “What a talented young man!” Margery declared, then she took Roland’s paws and made him clap for Zach. “Roland says thank you.”
“You are very welcome, Roland,” said Zach, and he bowed again in the raccoon’s direction.
“You can be the first to pet Roly,” said Margery, as she settled back in her chair and hefted Roland onto her lap. Zach smiled and ran his hand down Roland’s back then rubbed his ears, and Ms. Gardner could have sworn that Roland’s mouth shifted into a small smile.
“Anyone else who wants to pet Roland should get in line behind Zach,” said Ms. Gardner. “And you’re last in line,” she said to Brianna.
Brianna trudged to the end of the line, and again Ms. Gardner was surprised she didn’t argue. After Zach petted Roland, he moved away, back to his desk. Then Chloe wheeled Julia up and they both scratched Roland behind his ears, and Margery even let Roland sit in Julia’s lap for a minute. Roland stood and wrapped his front legs around Julia’s neck, which made Julia laugh, and Ms. Gardner was glad Julia got to do something special. As he waited impatiently in line for Julia to finish with Roland, Sam Rizzo let out an enormous, resonating burp, and Ms. Gardner told him that since he could not behave himself, he could not pet Roland. “I didn’t want rabies anyway,” he mumbled and trudged to his seat. Most of the students wanted a chance to pet Roland, but none of them whispered anything into his ear. They’d be made fun of if their classmates saw them whispering to a raccoon. If any of them still secretly believed in luck, they could do quiet, private things like look up to the night sky and silently wish upon a star or keep a rabbit’s foot in their backpack on test days.
Ms. Gardner wished she still believed in the power of someone or something to grant wishes. If she believed in Roland’s ability to make wishes come true, she’d wish for her father to still be alive, to be well and happy, listening to silly songs with her. She’d wish for Will to still be here with her, not across the country, holed away in a lab, maybe missing her, maybe not. And if she’d be allowed a third, small wish, she’d wish Emily was still available for Wednesday movies. If she could push it to four wishes, she’d wish she were better at her job. The science was not the issue—she’d always excelled in school, had been good at experiments and hypotheses, patient with work in lab during college—but it was dealing with these kids, not calling them assholes, not telling a student in a wheelchair to get up, not resenting them as if they were the same kids who’d mocked and hurt her more than ten years ago that was difficult. Ms. Gardner took a step forward, closer to Margery and Roland, and Brianna matched Ms. Gardner’s step exactly, as if they were soldiers marching in formation.
It was finally Brianna’s turn. Ms. Gardner thought about the pencils stuck in the spokes of Julia’s wheels, let her eyes dart to where they were still on the floor in the corner of the classroom. She suspected Brianna might pull Roland’s tail or squeeze his head or poke one of his foggy eyes. Her body tensed, prepared to spring forward, to grab Brianna and pull her away from Roland. Brianna reached out a hand, patting Roland’s head gently, and then lowered herself to her knees, her lips nearly touching the raccoon’s ear, her gaze focused on Roland’s unseeing eyes, ignoring the rest of the class, who had stopped their moving and rustling and fidgeting and were staring at her. It was so silent in the classroom that everyone could hear the smallest sounds, and Ms. Gardner was stunned when Brianna whispered, right there in front of everyone, “Roland? Can you help me? I have things I need to tell you.”
Karin Lin-Greenberg’s story collection, Faulty Predictions, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in literary journals including The Antioch Review, Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, and Shenandoah. She lives and in upstate New York and teaches creative writing at Siena College.