Jane-Alice Merkin was used to having people laugh at her.
Janie was the sixth-grade class clown, not stupid Bobby Sloan, who tried much too hard and whom she hated. She was the one with the big mouth, the one who challenged her teachers, the one who could get away with it because her grades were so darn good even if she had to rush through her tests to finish first. Unlike some of the goofy but scaredy-cat boys, she was the one who did the most outrageous things, like jumping off the merry-go-round at full speed, then brushing off wood chips on her way back from the playground to get to her social studies class.
And precocious Janie was, for most boys, and even for a couple of weird girls, the go-to girl for a grope and a quick feel. She knew it made them like her. And it made her feel good inside. Dirty, yes, but good. For Janie, it was anything to cut through the boredom. Anything to make the day go faster.
Big Joey Ruffino was in Mr. Tauber’s class because he had already been left back and because, when he acted up, Mr. Tauber had a way of punching Joey’s arm to shut him up without anyone noticing, or caring. A couple of teachers were overheard more than once joking that “Ruffino’s as stupid as he’s fat.”
Joey never laughed at Janie or with her, and it wasn’t funny at all that he was the one of few who never got a chance to fumble under Janie’s plaid blouse and short skirt. “C’mon Janie ... I like you ...” he begged one mid-May afternoon as he followed her out of the school. “Please Janie ... lemme kiss you ... lemme touch you ...” When she refused, he punched her hard in the back and ran off laughing, leaving her crumpled on the sidewalk, sobbing and moaning. When the same thing happened the next afternoon, Janie tried to run but he was way too fast for her. He hit her so hard and it hurt so bad that she could barely make it home.
Janie staggered into her house and wanted to cry out “Mommy! ... Mommy! ...” but she bit her tongue at “Mo ...” when she saw her mother hunched over the newspaper-covered worktable in her converted dining room-studio. Janie knew darn well not to interrupt her when she was working so she struggled silently past her mother’s sacred workspace and dragged herself upstairs to her room, where she eased herself onto her bed.
Sheila Merkin was always so absorbed making pottery and ceramics, doing beadwork, and silver-smithing, that Janie had learned early on not to bother her while she was “in the process.” “If you think it’s so goddamn easy, Janie, why’n’t you try it for yourself?” Her mother always reminded her that all of her hard work put “food on the table” and “clothes on your back.” “How about you standing on your feet all day at the arts and crafts fairs?” And, “How about you going to that miserable Irma Howden to beg her to display my work on consignment?”
The summer before, on a steamy August afternoon, Janie had been so bored she plopped herself down next to her mother, who was taking a break from smoothing a ceramic bowl. “Whatcha doin’, Ma?”
“This is art clay, Janie ... No, don’t touch it ... See, it has flecks of gold in it ... And it’s very expensive.” Janie idly picked up a glass fiber brush and fingered its tip. Suddenly, she shrieked from the stabbing pain of the tiny glass shards that had pierced her skin.
“What the hell did you do that for, for chrissakes?” Sheila screamed. “I told you not to touch anything!” She flung a wet towel over the clay and dragged her blubbering daughter into the bathroom. She cursed Janie about the cost of the clay and about her project being “a goddamn total loss” as she dug each fragment out with a tweezer. She finished by growling “I shoulda let you suffer and bleed” and by dribbling burning droplets of mercurochrome from a tiny brown bottle onto Janie’s swelling fingertip.
On her bed, still stiff and aching from Joey’s wallop, Janie vowed that she would never let that happen again. She would get back at him. Since Joey was too big to beat up, and she had no brothers or sisters to fight for her and her Dad was long gone and her mother could never be interrupted or bothered to do anything, it was all up to her. And then she remembered the glass fiber brush.
Early the next morning, before her bleary-eyed mother padded downstairs, Janie searched through the storage boxes until she found her mother’s ceramics tools. She slid the sponges, bevels and shapers aside and reached for the most worn-down of the glass brushes, the one she figured her mother would care least about. She carried it gingerly into the kitchen.
Janie hummed as she made a thick peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich and cut it in half. She peeled back the bread from one half, picked up the glass brush by its cardboard wrapping, scraped off shards from the tip with the knife, and smeared the slivers into the jelly. She tore a small piece of bread off the glass-sharded half and slid the sandwich into a plastic baggie. Then she returned the glass brush back to the bottom of the storage box and straightened out the tools.
She was so jumpy that she couldn’t finish her Oatie-O’s and skim milk. She tossed the cereal and rinsed out the bowl, brushed her teeth, zipped up her jacket, swung on her book bag and left for school. All morning, she was so excited she could barely concentrate on her work. She counted down the minutes until lunchtime.
Janie was sitting with Lauren and Megan when Joey swaggered into the cafeteria with Paulie and Jimmy, the Watson twins. They made their usual rounds, picking on the smaller kids, snatching stuff out of their lunch boxes and bags, gobbling down their candy and throwing the rest on the floor. As usual, the lunchroom lady didn’t seem to notice – or care.
“Hey, Joey!” Janie forced herself to smile wide as he approached. “C’mon and sit down next to me.”
Joey made a big show of tearing himself away from the Watson boys, who elbowed him and teased him and then egged him on.
He swung his leg over the bench. “What’s up, doll face?”
What an idiot, Janie thought. Doll face. “I’m not that hungry today. You want the rest of my sandwich?” She offered him the marked half.
“Sure.” He grabbed it and took such a large bite that he had trouble chewing the gluey mouthful and swallowing it down. Then he scarfed down the rest.
“Whatcha doin’ later?” He gave her a big grin.
“Nuthin’ much, Joey.”
“Maybe I’ll see you after school?”
“I don’t know, Joey. I don’t know if I want ... uh ... if I can.”
But Joey caught up with her that afternoon. He looked flushed. “Hi, Janie. What’s up?”
“Not much. But I’ve gotta get going.”
“I kinda wanted to walk you home.” He grimaced and rubbed his stomach. “But it sorta hurts.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.” Janie felt her lips twitch upwards. “I hope you feel better.” When he was out of earshot she started giggled and then doubled over in laughter.
Each morning or so for the next couple of weeks, even when she was in a hurry, Janie sprinkled glass fibers onto half of her sandwich. Each day in the lunchroom, she shared her sandwich with Joey. After a few days, Joey stopped barging into the lunchroom with his rowdies, and he stopped raiding the younger kids’ lunch boxes. Janie saw he was acting different – less crazy, less wild – and he had started to become – if not exactly likable – at least not so much of a jerk. Best of all, he never tried to punch her again.
The last week before graduation, the sixth-graders were busy practicing We Are the World in four-part harmony,
marching in and out of the gymnasium two-by-two, and disguising the backboards with crepe paper and cut-out flowers. Joey wasn’t in school and wasn’t there to ruin things. At a rehearsal, one teacher was overheard telling another that Joey was in the hospital – “It’s too bad, you know, but thank goodness ...” – but that the doctors couldn’t determine the reason for his abdominal spasms and his internal bleeding. As the story spread, Janie had to hide her smile when she heard the gossip. When Lauren and Megan teased Janie about the missing Joey, about her missing Joey, her answer was “Oh, puhleeze ...” And when they speculated about possible reasons, Janie’s response was a haughty yet suggestive, “I don’t know what in heaven you’re talking about.”
Finally, it was graduation day. Sheila Merkin was sitting in the last row because she had arrived late. She had been so preoccupied with another gold-flecked art clay project on deadline that she had remembered Janie’s graduation only at the last minute.
So Sheila barely heard it announced when “Miss Jane-Alice Merkin” was called up by Mr. Scotto to receive Roosevelt Elementary’s prestigious “Most Likely to Succeed” award. When Janie crossed in front of the audience, climbed the steps and walked across the stage, a smattering of giggles and chuckles from her knowing classmates crescendoed into an audienceful of guffaws and shouts. Upset at first and caught by surprise, even her oblivious mother joined in the hilarity.
As Janie was handed the ribbon-tied scroll, and when, panic-eyed, she grabbed at her stomach, the audience howled and roared even more. But when her legs buckled and she fell, writhing, to the stage, the chortling and pointing, the hooting and hollering, came to an abrupt, horrified halt. Because this time, as she was carried off the stage by Mr. Tauber and Mr. Scotto ... this time, as Sheila Merkin ran, wailing, down the aisle, to get to her “poor baby” ... this time, the precocious and promiscuous “Most Likely to Succeed” class clown wasn’t clowning around.
Jane-Alice Merkin had made one rushed mistake too many.
Rev 9 / December 13, 2007 .. Minor rev 10 / June 19, 2018
December, 2018 Copyright © 2018, Lloyd B. Abrams
-- Appeared in Grassroot Reflections Number 47, August 2018