As Always, Jason
During my first period English class Miss Hart would sometimes stop talking about a poem or a play, turn her head, take off her blue-framed glasses, and stare out the window. But there was nothing outside to look at, just clouds and small hills dotted with vague buildings in the distance. Sometimes she'd do that right in the middle of a sentence. "Shylock feels wronged because…, " she'd say, "because…" and then she'd be somewhere else, even while she stood right there in front of us. Miss Hart reminded me of the present my father gave for my fifteenth birthday: a plastic, life-sized model heart with hinges so you could open sections up and see the raw insides, the colored valves and arteries and tubes, the right and left ventricles, where blood came in and where it left. You could actually touch the thumping thing in your chest—but of course it didn't thump at all.
Everyone talked about the coffee Miss Hart drank. She'd pour dribbles from her Thermos into the cup, and she'd sip from the cup all through class. Then, if she made any mistake—stumbling over a word, backing up into her desk or the wastepaper basket accidentally—that would be it. The whole class would laugh right in her face because they all knew what she'd been doing. She'd stiffen up, steady herself by holding onto the desk edge or the chalk holder at the blackboard, and pretend that nothing had happened.
I thought a blue pen would be best for Miss Hart. I folded a page from my writing pad down the middle, and tore it neatly along the crease, slipping the bottom half inside my math book for use later. "Dear Miss Hart," I wrote on the top half. "The heart is a hollow muscle. Sincerely yours, Jason." I made the words as smooth and clear as I could—I always did well in handwriting class. I folded the paper in half three times and wrote "Miss Hart" in fancy block letters on one side of the small square note, like an address on a tiny envelope.
After class I went up to Miss Hart, who was standing behind her desk, and gave her the note. She unfolded and read it in front of me.
"Very nice Jason," she said. "Did you learn this in biology?"
"No, Miss Hart," I said. "I found it for you."
"You found this for me?"
I nodded. "It didn't come from biology class. I found it for you."
Miss Hart stopped smiling. She glanced at the note once again, snapped open her black purse, and dropped it inside. She wouldn't look at me any more, but instead began fiddling with papers on her desk and shifting her coffee cup to the left and then to the right. But I didn't care. She'd read the note and that's all that mattered. So I left for my next class.
To write my notes I kept a set of Flair pens clipped in my shirt pocket in this order from left to right: green, red, pink, blue, black, orange. I made sure each morning that there was plenty of lined paper in my notebook pad. And I kept a supply of facts in my head. Sometimes it wasn't easy to match a fact to a person. Other times the match happened before I even thought about it. I'd see a face, and the fact would arrive with the name, like a pair of dice, or shoes. One didn't make sense without the other. These notes were my personal Christmases on days that weren't Christmas. I folded my presents instead of wrapping them like my mother does with last year's gift paper.
In third period I wrote this in orange ink to Les Roarke: "Dear Les, Pluto is the furthest planet from the sun, and the last discovered. Best regards, Jason." Les was slumped in his chair one row over and three seats ahead of me, so I had to toss the note a good distance. It fell short of his chair, right by his feet, face up. Les saw it, but didn't reach for it. I knew he'd read his name, and I could see him glancing at the note suspiciously all through class. Once, when Mr. Fields was busy writing a complicated equation on the chalk board—lots of X's and Y's as numerators and denominators, and talking to the class indistinctly over his shoulder—Les leaned over as if to pick the note up, then lost his nerve and abruptly straightened himself. He must have thought it was a trick that would somehow end badly for him. Of course he couldn't know it was me who wrote the note. Finally, he stepped on it and dragged it under his desk with his foot. Then, when the bell rang, he lifted his foot, scooped the dirty note off the floor and into his pocket, and scurried as fast as he could for a large boy, out of the room. I bet he locked himself in a bathroom stall to read it.
Because fourth period was a study hall, Mr. Gardner would be especially vigilant for misbehavior. That's why he caught me. Nothing pleased Mr. Gardner more than to catch and punish a small infraction. He used to be in the military, he told us once, and rose to the rank of sergeant. Melissa O'Halloran, the prettiest girl in the class, sat two seats in front of me and one row over, so I asked Tommy Nielson to pass my note, written in red, to Melissa. Melissa looked nervous as she turned to take the note from Tommy. She looked as if the last thing she wanted was someone interrupting her solitude. After Tommy slipped it into her hand, I heard Mr. Gardner shout from his front desk, "Melissa? What's that in your hand?" And he walked over, a big smile on his haggard face, and took it from her. He unfolded the note slowly, to raise the class's expectations. "Let's all hear what Tommy wants to say to Melissa," he announced. "Let's hear what's so important it couldn't wait until after class." Then he cleared his throat and read my words to the class. "Dear Melissa, The Manx cat has no tail. As always, Jason."
There was silence. Melissa, who had been so quiet and serious all through class, began to giggle, and Mr. Gardner, red-faced, looked over to me. "Stand up, Jason," he said. I stood. "What does this note mean?"
"It's for Melissa," I answered. "It means what it says."
Students began laughing as if I'd said something funny. And so Mr. Gardner felt he had to give me a detention for talking back and sending a note in code to Melissa. But I considered that a small price to pay. After class Melissa spoke to me for the first time. She told me she thought the note was funny. "Some day," she said, "I'll write you one back."
In my fifth period math class I sent a note to Susan Blister using my green pen. "Dear Susan," I wrote, "Vishnu in his third avatar was a boar. With kindest regards, Jason." I asked Martin Soames to pass the note to Stephen Scully, who passed it one row over to Susan. No one can resist a note with her name on it, least of all Susan Blister, who wrote and passed more notes than anyone else I knew, though she never passed one to me. Once I saw her pass a note that made Melissa O'Halloran stand up and leave the class. Susan unfolded and scanned it quickly, then looked back at me. She was smiling, but it wasn't a friendly smile. It was as if she smiled at some bad thought of her own. I smiled back anyway. When class ended, she said to me in a voice loud enough for anyone in the room to hear, "Jason, you're such a stupid little troll. Why don't you get a life?"
"There's no other life to get," I answered, which was true. But she had already turned her back to me and was walking to the door.
I used my black pen to write to Matt Childer during the sixth period government class taught by Mr. Steele. In the first half hour, we had to take a test on the separation of powers in American government. I always knew answers for tests so I finished after fifteen minutes, and wrote these lines on a half sheet of paper: "Dear Matt, Actaeon was torn to pieces by his own dogs. Best wishes, Jason."
Matt sat in the row to my left, but behind me. I turned to face him, and while Mr. Steele was explaining something to Julia Mitchell, who had walked up to his desk, I tossed the note so it landed on the edge of the little desk attached to Matt's chair. Matt's test was in front of him, along with the blue book and scratch paper Mr. Steele had passed out, but he wasn't writing. I noticed that he didn't even have a pen. Matt wasn't the same as other kids. He never opened a book or answered a question. Teachers left him alone. And though he didn't seem to have any friends, no one teased him either. I wasn't sure he would read my note, since he didn't bother to do much of anything in class. After I tossed the note, he looked over at me as if he had become aware of my existence for the first time. Then he opened up the note and read it.
I didn't expect a reply. I had no recollection of seeing Matt ever write anything. And no one had replied to any of my notes since I began sending them. That's not why I wrote notes. But Matt did write back. I kept my head turned just a little so I could see what he was doing. He tapped Jimmy Coleman's shoulder in front of him, and something he whispered made Jimmy stop taking the test and give Matt his pen. Matt turned my note over and wrote on the other side. Instead of folding the paper back up, he crumpled it into a little ball, which he threw so it bounced off my head and landed on the floor by my feet. The whole time he never actually looked at me. Then he put Jimmy's pen in his own pocket. Mr. Steele, who was now reading a book, either didn't notice or didn't want to notice what Matt had done. I picked up the paper ball.
Matt's hand writing was small, clear, perfectly regular, as if Miss Hart herself had tutored him in penmanship. If you drew a line underneath with a ruler, the bottom of each word would just reach it. What his two sentences said was this: "If I see you write or send any more notes to any one, I'll kill you, you little fuck. I mean it."
My heart started beating fast as I read those words because I knew they were true. I stuffed the paper in my pocket. It was the first note I had ever gotten from anyone, and I wasn't prepared for its effect. I tried to think about the plastic model heart and its complicated compartments and colors and hinges. But that didn't calm my own thumping heart at all—it only brought to mind Miss Hart and her blue glasses, and the window she stared out of, and her Thermos.
I thought for a moment that I might send Matt another note, just a short one explaining why I wrote my notes, but I realized that the words themselves, no matter what they said, would infuriate him. I understood that I had no choice. I had to do what Matt said. I couldn't write any more notes. I'd have to throw out the pens. And I'd have to forget about matching names and facts in my head—I couldn't do that any more. When class ended, I was the first one out of my chair and into the hallway, moving as fast as I could.
Poet and fiction writer David Lloyd teaches for the Creative Writing Program and the English Department at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY. He has published poetry, fiction, articles and interviews in a number of magazines and anthologies in the United States and the United Kingdom, including Denver Quarterly, DoubleTake, Planet (UK), and TriQuarterly. He is also the editor of The Urgency of Identity: Contemporary English-language Poetry from Wales (Northwestern University Press, 1994), and of Writing on the Edge: Interviews with Writers and Editors of Wales (Rodopi Editions, 1997). In 2000 he was co-recipient of the Poetry Society of America's Robert H. Winner Memorial Award.