Bucks County Writers Workshop
The Meaning of Sharks by Mary Jane Aklonis
Millie stood farther away than necessary from the glass partition separating severe burn patients from visitors. Her eyes scanned the white sheet suspended over Mike's form then focused on his closed eyes. Yesterday, he sat in her high school special education class eating donuts and working the computer until it printed SHIT in giant letters. Last night, while building a pipe bomb in his basement, he sparked some gunpowder with a soldering iron and it blew up in his lap.
Betty, a fellow teacher at Hillside High, had called her early that morning to tell her the news.
"And Millie, we all know what happens when a bomb blows up in a guy's lap, don't we?" Betty boomed the question over the telephone forcing Millie to guess the obvious.
"Says right here in the Hillside Times that the bomb 'tore off the sixteen year old's genitalia.' Imagine, right in his own basement while his father was upstairs reading." Millie sucked in air as Betty read that the bomb also blew off both of his hands.
"Both?" she said incredulously, visualizing the large blocked letters SHIT that Mike had produced by pressing the keyboard with his filthy fingers. "Will he live? I can't imagine his dealing with physical torture on top of all of that psychic pain, Jesus."
Betty had no idea but from the rest of the article she learned that Mike stayed conscious throughout, cursed the ambulance crew so violently they refused to help until the cops came, and even then they had to subdue him.
Millie asked about the hospital and was surprised to hear that Mike had been medevaced to a burn unit not far from her house. Betty suggested that since she lived so close by that she should be the first to visit.
"Boy, Betty," Millie sighed, "I thought cleaning the kitchen floor was the only pressure I faced this weekend. This is tough."
"But you're so diplomatic, and everybody in the department thinks you're the only one who could handle this situation."
Millie had trouble dealing with Mike under the best of circumstances but she gave in to the flattery. Besides, it was the right thing to do. At the kitchen sink, she popped a bagel remnant in her mouth while absently tracing the outline of a tiny felt gingerbread man propped against the windowsill. Her fingers traced the simple stitching that held its stuffed form together. What would she say to Mike and how would he react to her? Scooping up the rest of the bagel, she thought of how Mike cupped his hands around the stack of chocolate donuts on his desk. Stringy hair (the same length and color of Charles Manson's he told her) curtained his profile as he dipped into the food like a wary dog.
In the hospital gift shop, Millie chose a bunch of silver balloons with yellow smiley faces painted on them. A volunteer at the cash register assured her that children especially loved this choice. Millie mentioned that this child she was visiting was a bit difficult and had unusual tastes but they seemed a better choice than the ones with get well messages.
In the waiting room of the burn unit, she maneuvered the balloons while donning the special garb required before entering the patient's area. The shiny, rubbery faces scraped at the drop ceiling and came within inches of the hot fluorescent lighting.
As Millie stared through the unit's glass walls she saw a series of beds on the other side with ghost-like patients positioned in a variety of geometric configurations. Against one pillow, she noticed the familiar black hair splayed across the muslin sheet. She thought she saw Mike's eyes flutter but she prayed that he'd stay unconscious for the whole visit. She repeated Betty's assurances to herself about her skills with people but her own flesh began to heat from anxiety.
Tubes, liquid bags, the smell of cleanser mingling with excrement; Millie decided to leave before the fifteen minute limit imposed for cases this severe.
As she tugged at the balloon strings, a heart-wrenching scream pierced the air. Mike began to thrash as his face contorted around his howling mouth. Millie let go of the balloons sending them in a rush to the ceiling. She thought she heard a few of them pop but Mike's screams effectively muted any sounds of exploding helium. A rubber-gloved hand patted her sleeve. Millie reeled around to find an elderly nurse smiling at her.
She asked Millie, "Are you his mother dear? Oh no, too young, maybe his older sister."
Millie snapped back, "I'm his teacher, that's all. I guess I shouldn't have come."
The nurse patted her again, saying how it's quite a shock to see someone we love in this condition. She patted her again, then withdrew quietly. Shock, Millie calmed herself a bit then heard Mike scream at a doctor who was trying to soothe him.
In the midst of his hysteria, the doctor, who was an Asian American female, motioned for Millie to come around the glass partition. Millie approached the bed as the doctor tried to focus Mike's attention.
"You have a visitor," she peered into his milk white face untouched by the bomb. The sheet placed over metal rings formed a tent hiding the third degree burns he'd suffered. Millie thought she smelled burned flesh but tried to block the idea as she avoided peering inside the loosely draped cover.
Screams subsided as Mike's green eyes glared into Millie's face. She began to babble about the balloons she had bought, how a few of them had popped and a few others were hanging from the hospital ceiling.
"Get outta here, you bitch," he interrupted. "You too, Dr. Chink," his voice strained as Millie peered down the pink insides of his throat. Millie told him not to get upset, she just wanted to let him know that she and the other teachers cared and hoped he'd get better quickly.
"I said get out," he began to cry as Millie left, avoiding eye contact with the doctor as she headed for the cylinder at the end of the waiting area marked "discards." She stripped away the paper garments she'd been given and placed them in the designated bin. Removing the surgical mask helped her breathe more readily but she still felt as if she were running a temperature.
To calm herself down, Millie decided to stop at her favorite restaurant on her way home. Her fiends from Hillside teased her about living alone in the big, bad city but her neighborhood consisted mostly of marginally poor older people. The women favored elasticized polyester pants and rubber soled oxfords. Many dangled cigarettes from their mouths as they shopped the main streets here for the week's specials. Right now, they seemed magically innocent next to the behavior of suburban teenage boys.
At Petite Gourmet Cafe, Millie ordered a crab salad on whole wheat with a glass of white wine. She tried to avoid fatty foods and alcohol but after the ordeal she'd just survived she felt entitled to indulge. On the restaurant's walls, the owner had painted large tropical fish with colorful stripes. Her boys' class at Hillside liked her to show them National Geographic specials of fish, especially sharks, piranhas, any creatures with finely honed killer instincts. Mike liked these features the best. He had said, "Don't show us any sweet assed dolphin videos unless a shark's eating its heart out."
Millie bit into her sandwich, savored the crabmeat and took a swig of wine. One day in class, she had tried to explain to Mike that the killer instinct related to survival rather than passionate hate. "In fact," she asked casually, "How would a species survive if hate dictated its decisions?"
"Oh that's easy," Mike, mocked her, "It would kill anyone or anything that bugged it and live happily ever after." The class applauded and Mike continued, "First thing, the species would kill all of its old ugly teachers." The boys hooped and hollered and Millie debated whether to react or stay silent.
She opted to stay silent, remembering the source of Mike's anger. His mother abandoned him for her crack addiction when he was nine, leaving him to the whims of his alcoholic father. More than once Millie had called the State Children's Bureau to report cigarette burns on Mike's arms. Dutifully, the caseworker would ask Mike the routine questions ending with, "Do you feel safe to go home tonight?" Mike would look at her and say, "Sure, whore, don't you? Wanna come home with me to make sure I'm all tucked in my bed?" He pointed to his crotch as she handed him her business card before leaving. His anger exhausted Millie and her colleagues beyond any other situation she and the rest of the staff had ever known.
Flecks of crab caught in Millie's teeth and she picked at them discreetly behind a napkin hiding her mouth. Can't pick your teeth without hands. She wondered how Mike could live with even more deprivation, where would that anger go?
"Only the good die young," Mike had fired that cliche at her one day. He issued platitudes as challenges. What did he mean? Did he know someone who had died young? His head bent low to the desk as his fingers reduced his donut to crumbs.
"My old lady never got up in the morning, she was too fuckin hung over. But this crossing guard, she'd come into the house, wake me up, and help me find some clothes to wear off the floor. Once, she sat on the curb with me all day when I wouldn't go to class." His hands stopped playing with the crumbs.
Millie asked what happened to the guard. His fingers swirled the crumbs. "She got fucked, fuckin pregnant, then fucked from a blood clot." He swept some of the crumbs violently off the desk then licked the remaining ones with his tongue. Millie patted his shoulder lightly, feeling tension and bones.
He taunted her about not having kids of her own. "Can't get anyone to pump you, huh?" For that comment she'd gotten him suspended, made the father come to school, and demanded that the principal make him apologize. Of course she knew his "I'm sorry," lacked sincerity and the principal did remind her that after all Mike was disturbed, but she didn't care. He had to know that she had feelings, too.
She had time to find a man, get married, have children, too. These days, thirty-eight was considered a good age to become a mother, and she had just turned thirty-six. Lately though, she'd been too tired to party at singles bars and most of the men where she worked were either gay or married.
When Millie got home, several messages from other teachers in Hillside were on the answering machine. They asked the same questions. Did he seem as bad as they say? One friend commented that only Millie could have found the right words to say to Mike. She let the words talk to her but didn't return any calls. That image of the sexless gingerbread man came back to her again. She wondered if Mike could ever return; view a video of shark teeth sinking swiftly into the flesh of an unsuspecting victim. Could he manage to hold a donut as the class watched fish guts float serenely through the water?
Millie smiled as she thought of calling a teacher and describing the "silly assed" balloons she'd bought. Why couldn't anybody drive the thirty-minute route to the city and go with her this morning? She grabbed the National Geographic video on sharks, popped it into her VCR, poured some wine, and pushed play.