Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3455 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

Living in the Ben Franklin Block

Elizabeth Gauffreau

It has been one week since Eddie left for Great Lakes Training Center, and I’m living in the Ben Franklin block by myself with the old people. My apartment is bare and quiet. I find it hard to sleep at night.

I used to fall asleep to the sound of my father’s typewriter, for as long as I can remember. As he typed, he would mumble commentary—his office was across the hall from my bedroom—and if he particularly liked what he was writing, he would chuckle or shout. The phone was always ringing at my parents’ house, and my brother’s saxophone wailing, and the dog howling, and usually one or two radios going, too. But the place never really seemed noisy, not enough to get on your nerves. Here it is so quiet I read most of the time. Then after awhile I’ll want to get up and do something, but I feel so tired and heavy I can’t. So I’ll put together a jigsaw puzzle and wonder when it’s all going to end.

I spend most of my time in the bedroom because it is the only room in the apartment with windows. The other two rooms are set directly behind this one, and they get no light. I can’t stand having to turn on lights in the daytime. It’s wasteful. But a person can’t very well sit around in the dark.

Around noontime, I’m lying on my bed reading, when I hear laughter and shouts. When I get up to look out the open window onto Main Street, a warm breeze is blowing into the room. The sun is shining, and leaves are spinning through the sunlight onto the sidewalk. Kids from the high school are walking across the park, shouting and laughing, shoving each other, falling onto the grass. A few of the older kids—still the younger kids to me—are strolling, smoking cigarettes, cool. A few—not many—carry books. I recognize most of them, even from a distance, as they cross the park for the stores on Main Street to buy candy, or Carney’s Restaurant to eat french fries and gravy. We only have half a day on the first day of school.

I graduated in June, so the first day of the 1974-75 school year starts without me. I don’t feel bad about having graduated, except that I wish my class could have had a commencement speaker who wasn’t drunk. The whole town had to sit in the gym in what you could call a conspiracy of embarrassment trying to pretend that the lieutenant governor of Vermont was not disheveled and drunk on the stage, telling stupid jokes and not making any sense. He kept repeating how high school was the best years of our lives, which didn’t make sense to say to a graduating class, because that would mean that the best years were over.

Last year the first day of school was just as sunny and beautiful as today, and I left the house wanting to work. I wanted to write a 500-word essay, I wanted to memorize the periodic table of elements, I wanted to solve quadratic equations, I wanted to analyze the causes of the First World War!

I walked to school with my brother, as I did every year. We each carried a small notebook in the back pocket of our jeans, and a new pen; we’d stopped carrying ring binders after junior high. Even though we only had half a day, we thought we might have to write down some assignments because we were getting a number of new teachers. Most of the teachers we’d had since ninth grade had gotten sick of the school and sick of Enosburg and quit. We didn’t know what to expect, whether the new teachers would be easy or hard or stupid or what, so we brought the little notebooks just in case.

When we reached Main Street, we waited for Eddie and continued on our way to school. Eddie was wearing a flannel shirt torn down the back. I was surprised his mother let him out of the house like that. I got away with more than I should have, but there was no way my mother would have let me out of the house wearing a torn shirt. His jeans had no seat. “Making a statement, Eddie?” I said, and he just laughed.

As soon as we walked inside the building, I felt like learning something, just because it smelled so good. The old wood floors were covered with another layer of shiny varnish, and everywhere was the smell of fresh paint and boxes of chalk and another chalky smell, like plaster.

We went to assembly in the gym first. It was noisy, with all five hundred of us talking and laughing and bouncing around in our seats trying to see if anybody had changed since last year. We had the Pledge of Allegiance, and then Mr. Budreau, the principal, stepped up to the podium to speak. The routine was always the same. First he welcomed us, and we all groaned. Then he went over the school rules. Study hall unless you have an honor pass. No destruction of school property. (He listed the school property it was possible for us to destroy and in what ways it was possible for us to destroy it.) He announced that Room 31 had been partitioned into Rooms 31A and 31B and that Rooms 21A and 21B were now Room 21 again. There was to be one person to a study carrel in the library and no shoplifting from the local merchants.

Then he introduced the new teachers, who were sitting in a row beside him on the stage on folding chairs. As each name was called, the teacher stood up, bobbed his or her head once, and sat back down again. After they had all been introduced, we just sat there. I guess Mr. Budreau expected us to applaud or something. Before he dismissed us, I quickly counted across the row. We had nine new teachers last year.

I’d signed up for Advanced Placement English for senior year because once I got out of junior high, English was my favorite subject. In seventh and eighth grade, I had Mrs. Myott. She taught grammar out of these nasty little books, yellow in the seventh grade, orange in the eighth, called the Warriner’s Series. She never tried to teach us anything, just assigned grammar exercises out of those nasty little books. When she finally broke down and did a four-week “unit” on literature, all we did was read stories in class out of a book that was at about a fourth-grade reading level. She’d ask us the reading comprehension questions at the end of the chapter and then read the answers out of the teacher’s manual. When the boys acted up, she would bop them on the head with a textbook or pop them with her wedding ring.

We had a bunch of new teachers when I started ninth grade, and I got one of them for English. I liked Mr. Mercer right from the beginning because he did not teach grammar. We read books all year long, and when we’d come in, he’d discuss them and ask questions about the meaning and significance. He got a little carried away with symbolism and Christ figures—he saw Christ figures behind every tree—but I imagine that was because symbolism was the big thing when he went to college, and he was just teaching what he had been taught. That year I read Fitzgerald for the first time and Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence and Shakespeare.

It was in Mr. Mercer’s class that I read Faulkner for the first time, a story called “Barn Burning.” I had never read anything so magical and mysterious yet real at the same time. When the day of the discussion came, I must have made a fool of myself gushing over the story, but I didn’t know it at the time because I was just so blown away by that story, and when Mr. Mercer said that Faulkner had written lots of stories just as good and novels, long novels, that were even better, I could barely sit still.

The only problem was, no one in the class knew what Mr. Mercer was talking about. Even the ones who’d actually read the assignments didn’t know what was going on until he told them. And then he had to tell them in outline form and write it on the board. I guess it must have been frustrating to try to talk about a book you like with other people, only to be unable to get a complete sentence out without someone saying, “Is that going to be on the test?”

And I guess it must have been frustrating to point out puns in Shakespeare’s plays (which he loved doing) and have no one get them but the skinny girl with the glasses in the front row (me). He always insisted that Shakespeare was a master of the pun and that we should respect the pun as a legitimate art form, not like the sonnet or the tragedy, of course, but still right up there.

As it turned out, Mr. Mercer just made things worse for himself with the puns because whenever he would telegraph that he’d made a witticism by raising one eyebrow or smiling, two of the boys in the back of the room would intone, “What a pun, man, what a fuckin’ pun, man,” whether the witticism was a pun or not. Mr. Mercer tried being good-natured about it, which didn’t work, and when he started throwing them out of class, that didn’t work either because he looked like he felt bad when he did it.

Tenth grade was more of the same, although George and David had flunked the previous year and been put in a dummy English class, so at least Mr. Mercer didn’t have to put up with the “fuckin’ pun” chorus. It got frustrating for me after a while. Do you know how hard it is to keep your face contorted into an expression interested enough to keep the teacher lecturing, so interested that he doesn’t see, or if he does see, doesn’t care, that there are twenty-five other people in that room bored beyond belief? Do you know how hard it is to sit in a classroom and try to tell the teacher with your eyes, Keep going, I’m listening, don’t quit on me now, don’t give up on me now?

I didn’t have Mr. Mercer for eleventh grade English, but I saw him in the hall occasionally and talked to him about what I was reading, but it wasn’t the same. He looked so sad all the time that I wasn’t surprised when he told me he was quitting at the end of the year. I was surprised to hear he was quitting to become a carpenter, though. I thought he would just go to a better school.

The teacher I had for eleventh grade, Mr. Windsor, didn’t like puns at all. At the beginning of the year, he said, “The pun is the lowest form of humor,” and that was that. Nobody made puns or talked about puns. I liked him because he formed the first honors English class at EFHS, and I liked being in an honors class. He told us at the beginning of the year that because we were college-bound, he was going to treat us like college students. No honor grades unless the work was top-quality, no excuses for not taking tests and quizzes, no late homework accepted, no misbehaving (talking, whining, note-passing, nail-filing, hair-fiddling, notebook-doodling, yelling out the window at passersby) or you were expelled from the class. Not sent to the office or given detention or even a one-day suspension. You acted obnoxious and you were out of the class, never to be allowed back in as long as Mr. Windsor was teaching it. No one got expelled from the class because we knew that Mr. Windsor was not a man to be tested.

We read good books that year, too. Moby Dick, for one. I was really excited to be reading Moby Dick because I had heard so much about it from my father. I hoped that I would like it as much as he had. When Mr. Windsor handed out the books, they were brand-new paperbacks, ordered new by the school that year, and I was even more excited when I held mine in my hands and saw that it had never been opened; the spine was still stiff and uncreased. It smelled like a new book, too, almost vomitty. The picture on the cover wasn’t very good, a three-color drawing of a sinking ship with the fuzzy flukes of a whale in the background, but when I opened up the book and read the first line, “Call me Ishmael,” I knew that book was going to be important to me. Just the way the line sounded, simple with only three words, yet romantic with the name “Ishmael,” I knew I was going to like that book. And when I went to class the next day and Mr. Windsor explained the significance of the line, the significance of the name Ishmael, the outcast wanderer of the Bible, I never wanted him to stop lecturing.

Mr. Windsor only lasted a year because the parents kept complaining about his classroom and grading policies. When he quit to become a carpenter, I think he was figuratively flipping off the whole town—the principal, the parents, the school board, the students, and me, too, I guess.

I had heard rumors before school ended that year that the teacher we would have for Advanced Placement, Mr. McFarland, had become tired of teaching; but he couldn’t quit, even though he had an independent income, because he had another year left on his contract. (The independent income was aside from the money he made selling homegrown.) I didn’t want to believe the rumors, but the first two weeks of school, we received no assignments. Mr. McFarland just perched on the corner of his desk and told us stories. The first one he told us lasted for the entire period and was about how his house, called Skunk’s Misery, had burned to the ground and all his stuff burned up. He rebuilt the house over the summer, but he made a conscious decision not to replace his clothes because he did not want to be encumbered by material possessions. He now owned two pairs of jeans and two muslin shirts, which his girlfriend had made him. And he was glad he had made this decision. It was such a good thing for him.

That first day, he mentioned that we would be reading Crime and Punishment for the first half of the year, and every day I came to class expecting him to pass out the books and give us our reading assignments. But every day it was more of the same stories. His girlfriend had given up social work because she didn’t want to be encumbered by other people’s pain. And he was glad she had made this decision. It was such a healthy thing for her.

After two weeks of this, I said, Screw you, Mr. McFarland, and screw Skunk’s Misery and your girlfriend, too. I checked Crime and Punishment out of the public library and read it on my own. When Mr. McFarland finally got around to passing out the books, he gave us the reading assignments and then didn’t discuss them. One day in November he gave us a desultory lecture on existentialism, and that was it. A smattering of Nietzsche to fall unnoticed to the floor like the wet leaves on the sidewalk outside. (He had saved his lecture on existentialism for November for dramatic effect.) After that, I started coming to class late.

After the existentialism lecture, Mr. McFarland told us to write a paper about Crime and Punishment so that he would have something to grade us on. I raised my hand: What about Crime and Punishment? He fingered his sideburns: Anything, something intelligent if you don’t mind, doesn’t matter. At home, I cranked a piece of paper into my father’s typewriter and tapped out, Raskolnikov’s life is a drag. I took the piece of paper to class the next day, put a heading on it, and handed it in.

We waited a week to get the papers back. The following Monday Mr. McFarland walked into class as usual and started a story about his college days. Janet Dodd raised her hand: Our papers? He answered: You know what? I looked at those papers last weekend, and I said to my girlfriend, Damn it, I don’t want to grade these papers. And she said, Don’t. So I picked up the whole lot and threw them in the wood stove. He waved his grade book over his head. Don’t worry. Everybody got an A. (Even me.)

The second half of the year we read MacBeth aloud in class, going up one row and down the next, each student’s accent becoming more pronounced than the last, until Chris Brigham was reading, Boi-the-prick-in-of-moi-thumbs/Sump-thin-wick-id-this-way-comes. Daydreaming in class became easier as the weather got colder and the steam heat in the radiators clanked and hissed. I would daydream about Eddie because I loved him and there was nothing else to do.

When the snow began to melt, Mr. McFarland took down the names of the people who would be taking the Advanced Placement Test in the spring. When he got to me, I didn’t trust my voice to say no, and I just shook my head.


All the kids have left the park, and I turn away from the window. My legs are aching, and I go back to the bed and pick up the book I was reading. I have arranged my books in alphabetical order by author’s last name, so that I can read them all in a logical order—skipping over the ones I’ve already read, of course. Right now I’m on Maggie and Other Stories by Stephen Crane. I think his writing relies too heavily on descriptive passages, and I keep losing patience with it, but I made an agreement with myself that I would finish every book that I start. Then, as I move from left to right on each shelf, I will know that I have accomplished something and that I have done it without cheating.

By the time I have finished Maggie and Other Stories, it is four o’clock, time to go to the post office to check the afternoon mail. It takes me awhile to find a pair of shoes. I don’t want to wear sneakers because it takes too long to get the laces tied, straining to get past my belly to my feet. I find my old penny loafers in the back of the closet. I thought I’d thrown them away because I’ve had them since sixth grade, and they’re a size too small. I slip on the loafers and a denim jacket and lock the apartment door behind me. It’s strange, locking my door. My parents never lock the doors at home, except for one night when they locked me out for staying out too late with Eddie.

The hallway smells of old people, a stale, cabbagey smell. I don’t know why I get the feeling every time I step outside my apartment that I should tiptoe across the cracked linoleum and sneak down the stairs, holding my breath until the heavy glass door shuts behind me and I’m out on the sidewalk where I belong.

As I walk across the park to the post office, the leaves are still spinning slowly off the trees, but they don’t look as nice as they did this morning. There is no mail in my box, and I am glad that Eddie has only been gone a week, so that I have a good reason for not getting a letter from him, and I won’t feel disappointed that he hasn’t written.

When I get back upstairs, I still haven’t started feeling hungry, but I scramble myself an egg so I won’t feel guilty. Sometimes I think that if I don’t eat, it will put an end to the waiting, but I don’t dare try it. After I eat the egg, I go to the bookcase to see who’s next in line. Charles Dickens. A nineteenth-century novel will be good. It takes a long time to emerge from one.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury