Everyone loves the art teacher, and the other teachers say that’s only because she leads the kids out to recess. But the kids know the art teacher is beloved because she shows them how they can make birds of any kind by tracing their hands onto construction paper, how they can cradle depth into any illustration by drawing out from a single point on the page, how they can paint their elephants any way they’d like, with two trunks, with eagles’ legs, with the sidelong faces of a storybook godmother.
The art teacher asks the kids to sit in diamonds or squares when they gather outside. She says circles are old hat. She tapes kids’ works she admires to a star student display beside the chalkboard at the front of the classroom. The administrators forecast controversy, but none of the kids mind the star student display. They love the tradition and they love the art teacher. When new star student art goes up, they say, “Hooray! We love the art teacher!” They all regard it as a good thing. So do their parents.
The art teacher and the kids link arms and form a parallelogram on the playfield as a storm approaches the school. The winds blow stronger and the sky to the southeast is darker, then darker. A foldout chair circles the top of the flagpole. The air smells like the Gulf. The other teachers and the administrators warned the art teacher that she should take the kids inside early, but she refused: “It’s just gonna be a little squall.” As the winds rise, the art teacher must yell so that the kids can hear her, and she yells, “Turn, turn, turn!” And the parallelogram rotates as the air above them deepens. And the parallelogram morphs from diamond to square to diamond to square again as the kids and the art teacher strain to hold shape.
Then the parallelogram is a circle, and they spin so fast that some kids drag others through the grass. Their pants tear and stain. Laughter fills their chests and diffuses into the circle’s electric center. A downpour opens over them and thunder peals. They scream, the circle breaks, and they sprint to the school. They laugh so hard they can barely breathe. Kids race and shove each other through the mud. Some swing jump ropes like lassos. Others spread their arms and play birds or planes in flight through the rain toward the warm and roosting school lobby. The art teacher is sure to herd all stragglers.
Inside the school the kids chant their love for the art teacher. Some who have cringed from physical touch their entire lives hug each other deeply for the first time.
The administrators will reprimand the art teacher for this recess, but most of the kids will remember it as their favorite memory from elementary school and their favorite memory of the art teacher.
At night in her home, she works on her own projects. The dark vinyl floor of her kitchen is sticky with milky, misshapen daubs of clay. Spires of aborted sculptures wind among each other toward the ceiling. The tops of some of the taller ones have melted under the cylinder lights above the dining table. She calls this her art graveyard and her husband winces and counters her deprecation. She hunches in a chair and wears nothing but the bottom of an heirloom leotard she’d cut in half below the stomach. Clay cakes her shins. She looks like the Boxer at Rest, staring at one of her sculpture spires to nowhere. She stirs after a half hour of stillness and opens a comic book. She puts her thumb over Krazy Kat’s white face. She traces a finger along the crosshatch shadows of Ignatz and his soaring brick.
Her husband moves darkly behind her, but that’s not his fault, she reminds herself. They don’t keep many lights on to save on energy. The cylinder lights above the art teacher flood her pose, and she is a portico under peacetime night. In her periphery, he’s stumbled and spilled onto the floor while pouring a liter of vodka into a pint of ice cream. He’s naked. A creamy splotch of liquor and vanilla spreads on the floor beside a daub of clay. He takes a deep drink from the pint of ice cream. When he’s done he says, “Oh thank god.” They have no children.
In bed he tickles her with his beard. She pokes his nose. For months she’s dreaded this time of night. She imagines a counsel of women who meet in an oceanside orchard and chant toward the wine-dark sky that is the outermost layer of her mind, “Take him. Take him. Take him.” “Ok!” She tells them. But they won’t leave.
“We need to try,” he says.
“We need to try.”
He rolls on top of her. They try.
In the morning, there’s a note from her husband taped to the top of one of her most-finished sculptures. It reads, “Remove ‘failure’ from your vocabulary.” She tears the note up and leaves the pieces on the floor.
After another half hour of squatting in her leotard, she picks up the pieces and bakes them into a small, vanilla cake, which she eats.
“When are we going to play in the rain again?” asks the student.
“When it’s hurricane season again,” says the art teacher.
“When are we going to play in the rain again?” asks another student.
“Never,” says the art teacher.
“When are we going to play in the rain again?” asks another student.
“When I tell the Hyades to neglect the kid and do a jig.”
“When are we going to play in the rain again?”
The husband is late to the hospital, where they’re keeping the art teacher. She’d bled more than usual, and they wanted to make sure, but. “But,” the doctor says. The doctor’s mouth is tight across his skull. The art teacher is curled on her hospital bed. She is crying and she is still thin. Her thinness is shocking to her, a bowl molded then never filled, forgotten in stray, lovesick middens. “How could you fail me like this,” she asks her body. She cringes with shame at her own shame. She won’t anticipate the feelings of emptiness, the listless gazes at swollen pears on her counter, this grief laid low by surprising cliché. She won’t anticipate watching the unassembled crib and thinking, “She would’ve been three months.” The husband turns his phone on silent before he walks into the room. He sits on the bed near the art teacher. He doesn’t dare touch her. He says, “I’m sorry.” For the next month, the husband will have to repeatedly explain to the art teacher why she’s no reason to say, “I’m sorry” herself.
Her dreams gather in maybe a dozen different opaque pools before they betray any image. The first few nights of sleep back home yield shades of one recombinant image too frail for memory. But on the eighth night, she dreams of a dim, seaside grove, all violet, all moonseed smothering the murmurs of ten hundred black stalks, of the grove’s only clearing, where a deerwaif shivers in rawboned heap of mange, laboring just to stand above the chorus of frogs. Her bowlegs finally lift, she staggers once in her new stilted gait and collapses. Still. Several darker cycles of nightfall, two cooing auroras, descend, until a man with the torso of her husband steps from the bluewood and scoops the teeny petrified thing, poor thing, into a brand name cooler.
The parents are concerned about the projects the art teacher has assigned recently, about some of the artworks chosen for the star student display. After the kids make their hand-traced birds, the art teacher asks them to cut off the fingers of the tracings. This clips their birds’ wings and decapitates them. She asks the kids to cut slowly.
She no longer allows chitchat in her class. When Michelle whispers to Rena about what she’s drawing, the art teacher yells at them. She yells so loudly that the paper plate turtles on her desk blow onto the floor, as if startled by the volume. She yells so loudly that afterward the classroom stays silent for the remainder of the period. It is so quiet that in the middle of class the art teacher hurries out of the room and isn’t back for the rest of the period, and no one makes a sound while she is gone.
Eliot, the second grader infamous for dissecting and reassembling dragonflies, has completed a series of Civil War battlefield illustrations in which some of the Confederate soldiers are historically revised with bionic limbs and werewolf fangs that enable them to slaughter their Union foes more efficiently, and the art teacher has taped these drawings to the star student display.
The kids do not say, “Hooray.”
This is a turn;
Eliot’s work has never been taped to a star student display. The kids and most of their parents think he is a failure, a menace. To produce these drawings, Eliot wore every red crayon and red pastel in the art classroom down to nubs. All of the girls and most of the boys say “Ewwww!” when they pass the display. At the start of every class period now Antonio clutches the little red nubs to his chest mournfully and paces, crying, “Useless, useless. These are all useless” before dumping them back into the coloring bin and slumping into his assigned seat to gouge aimless, black scribbles onto printer paper.
Eliot laughs at all of them. The art teacher reminds the kids and their parents that sometimes art shows the disgusting and the depraved, and that it is important to find beauty in those things too, even though it is difficult. The art teacher reminds the kids and – when she is alone, herself – that it is very important to find worth in what may seem worthless.
“What is it?” asks the husband.
“It’s your dinner,” says the art teacher.
She pushes the plate of red clay toward him. Crimson dye seeps through the clay’s deep cracks. The sculpture shifts and teeters like a little Babel, then crumbles in front of them. Neither dare move. The clay dries quicker now, she notices. “I notice the clay dries quicker now,” she says at the husband. The husband doesn’t dare move. She laughs full-bodied, in a way that makes her voids sound stripped of lacquer. Somewhere in the kitchen is a joke only she can hear. The husband stares at the table. The art teacher plays with her hair as her laughter deflates, and she looks off.
“Ok.” she says. “Ok, I’ll get dinner.”
She rises from the table and searches the drawers for “coupons,” she says. “Gotta find those coupons.” She rifles through bowls, spices, colanders and Tupperware. She throws silverware on the floor and tosses a sheet pan like a disc and it clatters against the refrigerator. She can’t find them. She exhales long and hard. The husband stares at the table. She walks into the bedroom and prostrates herself. She arches her back like yoga. She rocks forward and back in this position. Forward and back slowly, then more slowly, and she stares at the carpet that’s a foot from her face. She doesn’t notice a long stream of spittle that falls from the front of her lips and onto the carpet.
Her breathing is a light pant. Forward and back.
The ceiling fan light bulb flickers, flickers, strobes, burns out above her. Half an hour later and still prostrate, she whispers toward the floor, “Babe, think we need a new light bulb.” Her arms buckle. There she sleeps. The husband won’t dare move.
On a Wednesday she brings in animal pelts for the kids to feel. She tells them that Indians made art out of animal pelts, that they would stitch beaded scenes of themselves killing the animal into its own hide, beaded scenes of intricate, topaz teepees beside a queasy disc of a sun Itself smaller than an irrelevant portent.
She stands over Eliot as he rubs his palm in circles over buckskin.
“This is its insides,” he says. She says, “Good.”
“Was it a mama?” he asks. She says, “Maybe.”
They stare, the teacher over the student and the student at his subject in a long moment of consummation. She hears this word “consummation” amid the profound, little castaways in her sense-making, and her thoughts confuse their origins. Neither Eliot nor the art teacher blink. She’s made it a goal to remember these perfect moments.
The administrators call the art teacher into their office. They send one of their own to watch the kids. They discuss adjustments to the art teacher’s schedule until the end of the school day. Extant budgets now seem to disappear.
The months on her microwave calendar drain into an empty grid. She refills it in June. She moves all the furniture to the apartment perimeter and stacks plywood boards in the empty center. Clay goes up, clay goes down. The brittle spires break and she dumps them. She’s stolen activity notebooks from the classroom supply closets and in them she writes long passages, then revises the passages, then revises the revisions. On the purple dotted lines beside the Comic Sans “Name:” printed beside the cartoon hippo, she continues her writing, manifestos (8):
She speaks on Matisse’s Dance and its relation to orifices, to divinity. She speaks on the parody and the fumbling and the arboreal, their bluntness and dissolution. She speaks on code switching in the epicene and in the stag, on fissures in grapefruit carpel and placenta and synecdoche drowned in their swimming pools. She speaks on a charred linden tree that keeps a hollow brimmed with sulfur light and rainwater, yet the bowl beneath its branches stays with the dry stain of winters. She revises: the order of the space between a heaven’s point is always contracting, always spying when it will dilate, again, when I will call You “heat death” and spelunk anyway. She says that if what she is writing is strange or ridiculous it is because the sublime, when finally confronted, is a hackneyed copy of something else, wilted like forgotten folios.
This immediacy in her. These many thoughts leveled against theses that insult her own. Wreathing words that burst into nonsense and back into meaning. Words whose mottled letters crush syntax out of each other. Dense dreams won’t leave her, dreams of saffron-crusted maenads tense in precise consecrations over wooly carrion of fantastical mammoths. Once upon a time cicadas were more coherent than any monologue. She’ll see part of the wall in her bedroom jutting out and think of how one stud could both pin and not pin whole worlds to arguments and arguments to worlds. So she concludes, finally, in the cramped margins of a back cover, crammed beneath a meek-faced lion devouring a birthday cake:
the more data you have on a subject the less familiar it becomes. inherent contradictions reveal themselves in a vast, rhizomatic system that once appeared to you as a cohesive unit. little hypocrisies show themselves, oppositions impossible to resolve given the subject’s immense and coiling history. like an infinite zoom into a mandelbrot set, the obvious blurs in the periphery, and what’s in front of you is both too obscure and too intricate to behold. this is the cost and substance of intimacy with any subject, anyone. common things become too bizarre to bear sometimes, little descriptors of phenomena just refuse to bind, and they dissolve, so one sculpts. so I sculpt. so I sculpt this:
a sculpture of women that is twelve sculptures of women, connected in an outpouring at their mouth(s) and appendage(s) with copper wire. all about 6-7.25’ x 3-4’
When she’s done with this notebook she tosses it onto the pile of others she’s filled. She admires her completed sculptures: Giant women in porous clay, all enveloped in some unnamable limit situation, fighting for prominence with a choked and impossible mannerist scene. Sibyls to Pleiades, half with three breasts, some with ten navels wrinkled in patterns, midwives to vestals with legs threading through an aging abbess. There is firm favor and will in them, sure and vital as the ocher hips on the earliest limestone Venus. They are impressive women in the midst of urgency. Women she could still eat. Their poses are an inevitable conclusion. The art teacher has not been sleeping and does not know if the days have been three or two. Her arms and chest are crusted in a centimeter of multicolored clay. Her leotard is in ribbons at her feet. She sits in still contentment amid her sculptures for five minutes, before she remembers something and opens her notebook again to write beneath everything else:
pick up strawberries tomorrow from farmer’s market. yogurt and dryer sheets too…
call m-in-law. check on him.
The art teacher closes the notebook again and smiles. She lays her head on her crossed arms on the kitchen table. She decides then, or maybe it was several hours before in the desperate wedge of some conspiring morning, “This is the first best day in a long time.” And she can’t help but laugh at how boring this thought is beside everything – like a homespun relic of the triumphant nudes of antiquity – how boring it all is in comparison to how much she has left to do.
“When do we get to see the art teacher again?” asks the student.
“Sit down,” says the administrator.
“When do we get to see the art teacher again?” asks another student.
“Sit down,” says the administrator.
“When do we get to see the art teacher again?” asks another student.
“Sit down,” says the administrator.
A grading scale is imposed. New pavers along the perimeter of the playground discourage a sudden rushing toward the fields.
Alert, Alert. Boys and girls this is a drill. Please lock and secure your classrooms at this time. We are pretending there is an intruder coming in through the front entrance. Please lock and secure your classrooms at this time.
“Let’s lock the door,” says the administrator. “Boys, I need you to carry this table to the door. Girls, I need you to sit criss-cross applesauce by your cubbies.”
Six boys carry the table at which they sat to the doorway. Others stack chairs, benches, and boxes on top of the table, blocking the doorframe.
“Ok children, make sure you have something in your hands to defend yourself.”
Eliot grabs scissors.
Michelle grabs a sharpened pencil.
Down the hall Rena peeks into the principal’s office. She was late this morning and is still in the hallway, inert with fear because she doesn’t know where her friends are, because she has a new stamp on her hand that means she is in debt to the district for lunch.
Someone has remembered their lessons: when the administrators are not paying attention second grader Liza cups the class gerbil Wallace in her palms and shows him how everything outside the classroom windows changes, under floods, under droughts, under seasons. Wallace is blind. But this does not tamper Liza’s excitement when she shows him the depth of her field, how the rust on seesaw Pegasus is the same color as the little red missile on the underside of her puppydog, is the same color as her brand new mom’s brand new lipstick.
The art teacher uses her old school keys. They feel lighter than she remembers. The hallways look like they’re waiting for her. “You’re waiting for me,” she tells them, using her inside voice. The art teacher walks past the teachers’ lounge with its expired microwave and stained Care Bear-decaled coffee mugs piled in the sink, past the cafeteria and its posters that boast the importance of mathematics and oceanography, past the gymnasium and its 1996 softball championship banner in a sloppy heap atop a stack of blue mats. No one will stop her.
Michelle opens the door for the art teacher. Inside the classroom the kids sit under the tables criss-cross applesauce.
They do not dare move. The administrator is absent.
“Where are the teachers Michelle?” asks the art teacher.
“They are dealing with an emergency.”
“And you’re the class officer?”
The art teacher nods. She surveys the classroom. The kids look like they want to break away from a reedy indentation under all, like they want to drag themselves up from their hunching and embrace her, but they know they should not, under orders from the administration.
The art teacher walks to a table and squats in front of an expressionless and criss-crossed Eliot, who hides his face from her.
“Eliot,” she whispers.
“Eliot,” she whispers more softly.
He rotates his back toward her. He sobs quietly.
The art teacher makes an X with her index finger on his back and singsongs, “Criss-cross, applesauce…”
The art teacher scurries her fingers up his spine, “Spiders crawling up your back….”
Eliot falls into a fetal position and makes one sound they all can hear.
Here: When Eliot fell, the art teacher lifted her hands from him. All of the kids watched in awe. The art teacher was crouched by Eliot where she watched him in silence as a mother watches her child mouth the names of her parents for the first time. There she aligned her breathing with his. Her inhales and exhales sounded distinct as the first rites of autochthons.
After minutes of silent patience, of tending to the curled-up Eliot, without touch, without speech, but with breath, the art teacher placed her palm on the nape of his neck.
Eliot then made one sound they all could hear.
The art teacher had made it her goal to account for these consummate moments; from the fetal position, Eliot laughed, and he didn’t stop laughing as she continued:
Watch out for the bumblebees!
On the tile floor, in the center of the circle of students, the art teacher held Eliot (his hands pressed over his face), and she didn’t release him until the kids leapt up from under their tables to embrace her, and if they could not embrace her, to touch her face, her wrists, any article of her clothing. The beads bunched on her bracelets from the tugging of tiniest wills.
The kids formed a line in the hallway behind the art teacher. They’d remembered how she’d begin to lead them to recess. They were still fond of her vision for a brand new world. They had not forgotten. They would never forget.
The art teacher led the kids through the back door of the school, through the fields and past their lone ice cream cart abandoned in the gulley that floods once a semester. She led them out the gate and into the abandoned shopping center complex where simpering bobcats nosed long lost baseballs underneath port-a-johns. She led them across the empty main drive where the cars of parents would gleam under heat toward the school in afternoon caravans.
Midstride, Eliot tied a string to a confused wasp and walked it like a dog. It flew at arms length. Its bug friends followed. They walked by a swollen storm drain from where Rena and Michelle dragged globs of rotten lotus they called earth waffles and portioned them to the kids to play-eat, stringing the long stamens on top of their heads and deeming the beady pistils earrings, if only they had their earlobes pierced. The art teacher led them under the bridge beside the stadium, across the highway. She led them along restaurant row and just on the other side of the old lover’s lane.
The art teacher led them across the state.
Each of the kids had concealed a musical instrument before they had begun to follow the art teacher, and they had kept them a secret from her, until quarterway through their journey the art teacher ordered, “Play,” without even looking behind her, and without even looking at each other, the kids, bewildered by her perception but faithful, slung out their brass, their woodwinds, their percussion, and they played. They played for miles. They played marches first, then swing time. During a period when the sky was a taut, empty expanse tucked into scabrous plains of mesquite brush, when they thought they wouldn’t see rain again, they played one arabesque before beginning a daylong interlude, when they played nothing in a period of mourning. But they then played a ballad when cumulus dawdled in the horizon.
Of course reporters from every corner of the state dropped what they were doing to observe this procession, and when they saw it, all were too amazed to stop them, and all were too amazed to record what was happening.
But The Art Teacher and Her Kids became icons in several counties. One county constructed a monument of Them outside the landmark drug store taller than the statue of the mutton-chopped Confederate. The monument underwent two iterations. In the first, the sculptor miscast in bronze The Art Teacher’s extended arms, so that one looked larger than the other. In the second, The Art Teacher’s mouth changed shape depending on the angle from which you viewed it. When They passed through the main street of a town in another county, The Art Teacher saw her grandparents on their front porch. She waved to them, “Hi grammy! Hi grampa!” They waved back, smiling. Grampa gardened while grammy stuffed a broken flagpole into the recycle bin. They looked so proud.
The Kids never questioned Their destination and never knew it. They simply arrived on the coast from out of all of this. The Art Teacher led Them around an orchard vacant of everything but blackberries, and She eyed a group of idling cultivators whose blades at a glance were the raised, surrendering arms of a senator. There was no one there to pick the berries and no one there to push the machines to somewhere leeward. Good. This was a coastal town committees spoke of but never maintained.
“We’ll have a beach party,” said The Art Teacher. The sands sloped down to the gray ocean and clumped with algae the color of curdled broth. Here They removed Their shirts and gathered sticks to pitch tents in which They would never sleep because of the scope of Their caper and the light in the light.
The Kids were tentative to play. No one would swim because they had no towels. They lolled in a stratum, until:
Emma approached The Art Teacher and whispered in Her ear that she liked Jackson and The Art Teacher approached Jackson and whispered in his ear that Emma liked him and they hugged and swayed in a kind of waltz and Gabby saw how Emma and Jackson were then a pair and Gabby wanted to be a pair and she notified The Art Teacher who directed her toward Jayden and they leaned into a tarantella and Michelle asked The Art Teacher if She thought Eliot liked her and The Art Teacher said the best way to find out is to ask and Michelle pulled aside Eliot who was playing in the algae clumps and Eliot crowned her in seaweed that draped down her hair like a bridal veil and they both laughed as two conjoined crabs crawled down her face and Ashley let Rena know that she liked her by petting her like a puppy and showing her googly eyes the way Wallace sometimes made googly eyes when you picked him up and as the Kids played across the beach they found their pairs and when The Art Teacher saw that the pairs were right and even and good She clapped Her hands over Her head in a collapsing Y and exclaimed:
A coastal storm approached – it’s hurricane season again.
“It’s hurricane season again,” said The Art Teacher, looking out over The Kids, over everything.
Scattershot blots wavered in the sky above them. Were they wayward spoonbills silhouetted against the overcast? No, She knew them: they were the furniture from Her apartment flying through the air and dropping into the sea. And She knew their course, the weft of their scheduled journey. She knew it so well She could cast the scene: A tornado, of course. A tornado had torn through Her town, torn through the school, torn the roof from Her apartment and whipped its furnishing into the air and miles toward the Gulf. And here were those furnishings falling into the ocean, the queen-sized bed, the bureau, the sofa, the refrigerator, the stools, the cushions. And there were the sculptures of Her giant women, this whirling airborne carousel of effigies soaring like something halfway suicidal and finally crashing into a riptide so distant from her it all looked like tiny seeds going plunk plunk plunk into a wide, grey membrane.
The summers in that state had changed, were dark and chalky then as a stumbling beyond a deposit of graphite. Above Them opened a circle in the wine-dark clouds.
Post-storm, when the inundated heap pieces of homes and shops into separate piles, when they were all again acolytes tamed with loss, recovering their small devastated industries, when the fishermen pushed back beyond the coast’s landfall debris and beyond the breakers, then they were trawling for snapper, but they pulled up large clay collarbones, and reaching, straining shoulders in their nets, all else dissolved and loamy and sifting into the clouded space among dead fish.
— Colin Traver is a writer and editor living in Austin, TX.