The Girl Who Didn’t Know What to Be was in school one day when Ms. Standly, her regular teacher, called in sick and so did Ms. Moore, who was Ms. Standly’s assistant, and so did half a dozen other teachers because the Have a Bad Day Flu was going around that month. And so that day a very prim lady who insisted that she be called Mrs. Charity was called to school under emergency circumstance to teach the second grade class.
The Girl Who Didn’t Know What to Be didn’t yet know that she didn’t know what to be and so she thought of herself only by the name her parents had given her – Metrissa. Metrissa was very excited with the arrival of Mrs. Charity because school had reached that long part of the year when the days went so slowly that they would start again before they had finished. Any change of the routine seemed like a good idea to Metrissa, even if Mrs. Charity seemed a little severe when she walked into class.
“So, class,” she said, “you probably are thinking that because I am a substitute teacher that you will not have to turn your brains on today. Oh yes, I can see it your eyes, you think that you’ll have some fun at Mrs. Charity’s expense.” Mrs. Charity looked around the room very slowly as if she dared them to disagree with her. “Admit that you were thinking that very thing, weren’t you?” she said and looked right at Metrissa.
“Me?” said Metrissa. “Oh no Mrs. Charity, I was not thinking that at all. I was thinking about what you were going to teach us about today.”
“I doubt it. But never mind, I can assure you that you’ll not be having any fun with Mrs. Charity. No one ever has fun at Mrs. Charity’s expense. We are going to start right now with today’s lesson.” Mrs. Charity looked around the room again to make sure that nobody had any other ideas. “Today,” she said, “we are going to be discussing occupations. You,” she said pointing at Tommy Motley, “what are you planning to be when you grow up?
Tommy was twisting the collar on his shirt and hadn’t been paying much attention to Mrs. Charity. “What?”
“I said, what do you intend to be when you grow up, young man?”
“I’m gonna be a football player.”
“Oh, so you want to chase around a silly ball.”
“Well, I’m gonna play football,” Tommy said.
Mrs. Charity shook her head at the hopelessness of it all. Then she turned her gaze on Ben Howard. “How about you?”
“Me too,” said Ben.
“Me too what?”
“I’m going to be a football player, too,” said Ben, “and a ‘gineer”
“A ‘gineer. Like my Dad. He works in an office where he draws plans of buildings and roads and that kind of things and I can go there with him whenever I want.”
“I believe that you mean Engineer, and that seems to be a much better idea than a football player. Engineers build things.”
“Well doesn’t build them. He draws them. He is kind of an artist.”
Mrs. Charity went down the rows of students asking what each one wanted to be.
“A movie star.”
“One of those guys that rides up on top of a truck.”
Finally, Mrs. Charity reached Metrissa.
“You. What about you? What do you want to be?”
Here was the problem. Metrissa had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up. There were so many choices and she hadn’t yet decided which one was the best. When she was little she used to say that when she grew up she wanted to be a bird so she could fly and that always made the grown-ups laugh but one time her Dad said, “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” and she thought that was good advice so she decided to take her time before deciding what to wish to be. She hadn’t expected that her time would run so short and that Mrs. Charity would be standing in front of her with her stern face and all the other kids would be looking at her, expecting her to announce what she was going to be when she grew up.
“I don’t know.”
“What did you say, girl? Speak up.”
“I said I didn’t know.” She said it much more loudly.
“Well, what would you like to be?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t decided.”
“You must want to be something, don’t you? You don’t want to be a nothing, now do you?”
“No, Mrs. Charity. I do not want to be nothing.” Metrissa looked at her shoes.
“Well, dear, what is it you want to be?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sometimes children believe that substitute teachers are fun to poke fun at cause they don’t know anything and won’t ever be back. But not Mrs. Charity. No one ever makes fun of Mrs. Charity. So why don’t you just tell us all what you would like to be when you grow up.”
“Really. I don’t know.”
“I don’t find this very funny, girl.” Mrs. Charity turned to the class. “What do you think that this girl should be when she grows up?”
In the back of class, Tommy Tudereaux yelled “a substitute teacher” and Mrs. Charity’s face turned bright red. She snapped back to Metrissa.
“Well, Little-Girl-Who-Doesn’t-Know-Who-To-Be, I guess you wouldn’t object to doing a little thinking about who you want to be, would you?”
“Good. Perhaps you would like to start right now. Why don’t you take that little seat over there in the corner and you just think about who you want to be when you grow up. And when you have decided please let me know. In the meantime, we will go on with our lessons.”
Feeling very small, Metrissa went to the chair in the corner. It was a very small chair and not very comfortable.
“Oh, girl,” said Mrs. Charity, “turn that chair so it faces the wall; I don’t want the class to distract you.”
And so Metrissa sat. And thought. And sat.
And as she thought she turned into the wind and blew out the open school window into the tumbling fall day outside. She whooshed and spun across the schoolyard out of control in the vast pandemonium that she had discovered. She blew over walls. She roared like a train and the roars she roared spread out themselves all about her and she felt like a spirit moving over the earth.
I will be the wind she said to herself. I am the wind. I am everywhere. I am nowhere at once. I am moving always. I am the sky when the sky starts moving.
And then she was back in her seat at school staring into the wall. Behind her she could hear Mrs. Charity talking.
‟Yes. That is right. They did not intend to let you sit like lumps on your seats just because a substitute teacher arrived even though I know that’s what you were all expecting. Mrs. Charity knows that’s what you were hoping for when you heard that your regular teacher was sick. You probably didn’t even feel bad when your teacher was ill you were so smugly pleased that you would have a substitute and could sit like lumps on the chairs and throw spitballs and pass notes amongst yourselves snickering all the time.”
The Girl Who Didn’t Know Who To Be became a bursting brilliant ball of light and she was suddenly travelling away from school and town and earth into and through the blue brightness of a fall day and then suddenly through the sky and into the nimble black regions behind the sky where the stars were. She shot forward so fast that she split the night universe, planets whizzing past to either side and the hoary brilliantine stars ahead quickly gone like signs passed by a rushing train. The speed was so fast that all sounds died and she could not feel her toes and then the black regions opened into a blinding homecoming where all light finally comes home to rest.
And she was back in her seat at school.
‟That’s the way it is today but that is not the way it has to be. There was a time you know before there was Xbox and iPads and children had to spend their own energy to get something done. That’s what they had to do and that what they did. No one should be surprised if you can’t think for yourself when they haven’t given you marching orders.”
Metrissa poured golden liquid amber from the room running in syrupy flowing waves across the school courtyard and into the brilliant undulating light that was waiting there. The light and the amber syrup mixed together with layers of blonde on honey blonde all glowing from the center as if there was a light in the center of the amber honey flowing Metrissa girl.
And then she was back.
Metrissa slowly looked over her shoulder. Mrs. Charity was standing at the front of the room and was holding a globe in her hands as if she was big enough to hold the world. Metrissa turned slowly back to the wall.
‟Oh no you don’t” said Mrs. Charity. ‟I saw you looking. I saw you looking at Mrs. Charity. I saw you wondering if I would let you come back and join the class. Hoping that I would let you come back and join all the children who want to be something when they grow up.” Mrs. Charity gestured with the globe. ‟Stand up. Stand up. Have you decided what you will be?”
She stood up. The children were all looking at her. She did not say a thing. All her words were in front of her.
‟Please answer Mrs. Charity. Have you decided?”
Metrissa said, ‟I have decided.”
‟Well don’t keep us waiting dear, what is it that you want to be?”
‟I will be a word maker,” Metrissa said, ‟I will make words.”
‟Why how odd of you dear. Surely you don’t mean that. We don’t make words. We just, we just, we just use them dear. Why if everyone could just make words then no one would know what anyone meant by them. Don’t you see Mrs. Charity’s point?”
‟I think that it will be easy to make words. When I make a word people from all over will know what I mean and they will want to use the word and they will ask me for permission.”
‟Could you be thinking that Mrs. Charity is too old to know what you are doing? Could you be thinking, Miss Don’t Know Who To Be, that Mrs. Charity won’t just realize that her leg is being pulled …”
‟Yoooouuuccchhh!!!!” yelled Teddy Cumberbun from the back of the Classroom.
They all turned to look. Teddy was standing on his desk. A small green plastic item like a little pencil sharpener was stuck on his finger.
‟What is that?” Mrs. Charity demanded.
‟Its a …, its a …..” Teddy said but he tailed off.
All around his classmates tried to help.
‟Its a peashooter.”
‟Its an eraser.”
‟Its, its its…”
‟It is a mortan hand bangle,” said Metrissa. Everyone stopped and looked at her. They knew just what she meant.
‟And what,” Mrs. Charity asked, ‟is a mortan hand bangle?”
‟A hand bangle? Seriously? You never?” piped up Jonston Lucree. ‟You mean it?”
‟She doesn’t dilly.” Metrissa said. ‟I can tell. Just by the jurly look.”
Jonston whistled. ‟Big time. Let me hear that one again.”
‟You heard the hopster. Hankopeebee.” Metrissa said.
‟Are you making fun of Mrs. Charity, Little Girl Who Doesn’t Know?”
But Metrissa was busy word making the piano commotion in the classroom. ‟Its all so bumper glide mizmat,” she said, ‟You know what I bigger bobble?”
Mrs. Charity smacked the desk with the book in her hand so hard that the thunder boom of the big sky class headroom wardeled around in the high sound snippet. ‟I will not have this jilly bizmat here!!” she shouted in tundra glee.
The classroom exploded in laughter.
‟No really tob chocks!!!” Mrs. Charity screamed.
All the children laughed louder.
Mrs. Charity looked hard in all directions until the noise emptied out of the room.
The room was clip clop quiet. No further understanding passed the class. But Metrissa was still on the loud wagon. ‟Stick-o-business! It’s a billion bizzles for free. Stay julip, melville.”
‟That’ll neber belittle, sticks,” said Mrs. Charity. ‟That’ll neber belittle.”
Metrissa was well beyond the puzzle. The names were bigger than their meaning. She turned and hopped on a hovering hozzle. And over she sped the classroom and the missing connections and now there was no Charity and none the need, for there was no gap in the admiration she had for this spinning amber planet bearing all to who they were going to be.
And Metrissa was going, too.
“How does my laugh sound to you,” he said, “does it sound tinny?”
“Tinny?” She asked. They were in a coffee shop on Chestnut Street called Coffee Roasters. They were in large over-stuffed chairs. She had a latte in a saucer and she had it delicately balanced on the big round arm of the chair but she didn’t trust its purchase so she had a hand on the edge of the saucer as if she was pinching a lip.
“You know, thin, tepid. My laugh should be, you know, booming. I mean it’s always been booming. But now I am worried that maybe its somewhat tinny. What do you think?”
“You have a nice laugh, Larry,” she said. “Its just fine.”
“But is it booming?”
“I don’t know for sure what booming means.”
“Come on. Everyone knows what a booming laugh is. Big. Hearty. Rumbling. Contagious even.”
“I think of your laugh as more like a warm chuckle.”
“Oh my god. That’s worse than tinny. I was worried it was tinny but now it’s not even a laugh, it’s a chuckle. God that’s only one step up from a frickin’ titter. Jesus. That’s what you really think?”
“Larry calm down. It’s a fine laugh. I love your laugh. It makes me smile whenever I hear it. So maybe it is contagious.”
“Does it make you actually laugh or does it just make you smile?
“Oh I don’t know.”
“It isn’t really contagious if it only makes you crack a smile. That’s hardly even infectious.”
“I am not obsessing but it’s a bitter blow to be told that your laugh doesn’t work. Maybe it has never worked. All these years I thought it was booming. God, my laugh is like a low-grade fever; it can’t even get through the tinkle of background noise at a restaurant.”
“Larry, don’t do this. You have a nice laugh. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Easy for you to say. How would you feel if someone told you that, say, your eyes were not at the same level.”
“What does that mean?” She asked, arching one eyebrow.
“Just an example. You know.”
“You are saying that my eyes aren’t level?”
“Just a little askew. Like not exactly at the same precise level – just a tiny bit off, really tiny, like you’d have to use a carpenter’s level to notice. I was just looking for something that was kind of analogous.”
“Not level? How long have you thought that? Is this a new thing or have you been thinking that for the last two years?”
“Don’t worry, it isn’t something new. It’s not like one side of your face is starting to sink or anything. It is just part of how you look. Which I love, by the way. Always have. Fell in love with you with this face.”
“Even though you think it’s lop-sided?”
“I didn’t say lop-sided. I never said that. It’s not lop-sided at all.”
“As good as. Now I have got to go find a mirror.”
“Totally unnecessary. I was just trying to make a point.”
“About my laugh. Remember? You said it isn’t booming.”
“And so you decided to make me feel like damaged goods because you don’t have as good a laugh as your brother?”
“My brother? What does he have to do with this?”
“Oh I know where this is coming from. He has got that big laugh and you are always comparing yourself to him.”
“My brother is a moron. He can laugh all he wants but he is a flat out moron. You know what he said the other day? He said that if he had it to do it over he… oh never mind. It doesn’t bear repeating.”
“You can’t do that. You can’t start in and then just go all silent.”
“He said that if he had to do it over he’d be a male prostitute.”
“Exactly. He thinks he is such a stud.”
“He makes a lot more as a surgeon than he’d make as a prostitute I would imagine.”
“Oh come on, he doesn’t really want to be a prostitute, it’s just his way of telling me that he is so attractive that women would pay to be with him.”
“God. You two really need to get some help. You could keep a therapist busy for years.”
“A few years in therapy with Jimmy? Jesus, shoot me now. Seriously. I could hardly get through a dinner with him.”
“So that is what this is about, I knew it.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s always the same after you see Jimmy. You spend the next week digging out from whatever bag of shit you have come home in.”
“Yeah, you’re so right. The guy is just a human shit storm. I always tell myself that I will get in and out and I won’t listen to anything he says but he knows just where the buttons are and he pushes and pushes. I am so glad he lives 3000 miles away.”
“You don’t have to see him.”
“I know I know. But I think my folks would want us to talk.”
“You gotta live your own life, Larry.”
“He is such an asshole. Did I ever tell you about the cemetery business?”
“What cemetery business?”
“Oh my God. I can’t believe I never told you! You’ll love this. You didn’t know her but my mother’s sister, my Aunt Annie, died a few years after my Mom and I was the executor of Annie’s estate.
“She never married and by the time she died she didn’t have any people around so I got stuck with making the funeral arrangements.”
“You are a good man, Larry.”
“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, we buried her up in Westchester.”
“Well the thing is, she wanted to be with my folks in Queens at the family plot. There are five slots there so I told her she could. I probably told her three times. She was really concerned about it. She said my parents were not only her closest relatives but she and my mother were best friends.”
“So why did you put her in Westchester?
“Jimmy and I are co-trustees of the family plot and it turns out that we both have to agree.”
“And he wouldn’t agree that she could be buried there?”
“No. The bastard.”
“But I thought you said it was a family plot.”
“Yeah it is, but the plots are all allocated and she didn’t have one.”
“So there wasn’t room?”
“No there are five unallocated slots. But we both had to agree who is in them.”
“Why wouldn’t he agree?”
“He said Dad couldn’t stand Annie. He thought she was a gossip. Said Dad would turn over in his grave if Annie was buried there.”
“But she was your mother’s sister?”
“Yeah. Jimmy’s an asshole. I tried everything to get him to change his mind. I offered to give up our spots there.”
“Wait, we have spots in a cemetery in Queens? You are kidding?”
“I have two and you get one of them. Think of it was a wedding present.”
“I hate Queens. I don’t want to get buried in Queens.”
“It’s a really popular cemetery; people are dying to get in.”
“HaHa. Larry, I am serious. I don’t want to be buried in Queens. Promise me right now.”
“Fine. You don’t have to be buried in Queens.”
“I am serious.”
“Me too. Dead serious.”
“Stop it. You can give my spot to Jimmy.”
“That’s what I said, but he was totally dug in.”
“It’s a grave topic.”
“I can’t believe you couldn’t work this out. What kind of lawyer are you anyway? Don’t you buy shopping centers and things for your clients? You couldn’t even get a little six-foot plot for your auntie?”
“I know. I know. I tried to buy him out. I offered up my spots. But you know how he is. And time was running out. I mean Annie was up at the funeral home and they kept asking me what to put in the obituary – they couldn’t get the obituary out until I settled the gravesite issue. So when Jimmy said no for about the fortieth time I really didn’t have a choice. I put her in that big cemetery in Westchester. For the time being.”
“Did she have any family or friends there?”
“No. I just got her a free spot so she would have a place and I figured I could move her later if I could make him see reason.”
“Jesus. That is so sad. How long has she been up there now?”
“Christ, it has to be five years or so.”
“And have you asked him to change his mind?”
“Every time I see him. I even got the lawyers at work involved. I thought maybe I would just sue the bastard, but they said I didn’t have a case.”
“Wow. It takes the breath away.”
“I know. I feel like Annie is disgusted with me cause I broke my promise.”
“Why did you promise her? I mean if you didn’t really have the right to agree?”
“How could I have known that Jimmy would be such an asshole? I mean why would it even matter? It’s just a hole in the ground. It’s not like Jimmy is all sanctified or anything. I don’t think he has been to church since we were kids. And you know what? He didn’t even tell me the real reason.”
“You mean your father did get along with Annie?”
“My father wouldn’t have cared. He wasn’t that kind of guy. No Larry just used him as a convenient excuse.”
“So what was the real reason?”
“The real reason is that Jimmy couldn’t stand Aunt Annie and Jimmy plans to be buried with the folks and Jimmy doesn’t want Annie horning in.”
“He said that?”
“No but I can read the guy like a book. It’s always all about Jimmy.”
“Yeah. Trust me, he doesn’t want me there either. You’d be okay, though. He likes you.”
“Even though I am lopsided.”
“I didn’t say that. Cut me a break.”
“Fine. But I am not getting buried in Queens. You promised.”
“Let’s just get cremated.”
“Perfect. You can scatter my ashes in the Pacific.”
“Very poetic. That way you can be where you love. Forever.”
“I want to be with you forever, we have to wait and mingle our ashes before they … oh shit!”
“Oh shit! What a great idea! You have given me a great idea! Oh my God darling you are brilliant! Why didn’t I think of it sooner?”
“So that’s what I do with Annie. Oh it’s perfect.”
“Do what with Annie?”
“I get her cremated.”
“I thought you said she was buried five years ago. Isn’t it a little late?”
“No, they can do it. They just exhume her and then they do the cremation. It’s not like there is a statute of limitations.”
“Don’t you see the strategy – oh my God, it’s so perfect! – I get her cremated and then I put her ashes in a cup and take them to Queens and then I dump her right there on my folks’ gravesite. Then she’ll be with them forever.”
“Jesus. That’s your brilliant plan?”
“It’s better than brilliant. Its frickin’ perfect.”
“And what about your brother?”
“I won’t tell him. He’ll never even know.”
“Are you actually thinking about doing this? I mean like as a serious thing?”
“Oh yes. It will so serve him right.”
“Won’t the ashes just blow away?”
“Some of them sure, but I can dig a little hole there and just tamp them down. Maybe sprinkle a little water on them.”
“You are going to plant your auntie?”
“It’s so perfect. And wait! Catch this! I just take a little spoonful of Auntie Annie and put her in his grave site so when he kicks the bucket he’ll get buried with her! It’s fantastic. That’ll fry his ass.
“You are crazy.”
“Have you ever seen someone’s ashes? You think there’ll be enough of her to do the job.”
“What job? Larry? What job are you doing? Is this about your Aunt Annie or about Jimmy?”
“It’s about Aunt Annie. I promised her…. Okay, it’s partly about Aunt Annie and partly about Jimmy. But even if was all about Jimmy, it’s what she wanted. I am being serious.”
“Larry. You better give this some more thought. I don’t think this is a good idea. It’s probably not even legal.”
“You have to make a stand sometimes.”
“Don’t Larry Larry me.”
“Larry Larry Larry. Give it a rest.”
“I am gonna do it, My Dear.” Larry let out a big laugh, a booming laugh. “You just watch.”
“Oh God, Larry.”
The Girl Who Did Not Know What to Be was originally published in Fiction Vortex