Last Stand at the Strand by Kara Jane Rollins
by Kara Jane Rollins
(This piece won 1st prize in the Jack London Short Story contest, sponsored by the Peninsula Branch of the California Writers Club!)
Miss Myler convinced me early in 5th grade that I was a slovenly girl. Before that year, I was confident in school, but when she called on me with her leaden voice I forgot facts I had carefully learned. I was labeled most lazy in class when we did our daily geography drills, the regurgitation of each state’s exported products. Miss Myler praised students like Clarisa Widlow for being excellent. The rest of us didn’t stand a chance, the struggling, unwashed, bumbling, or unsure.
Each morning she kept her small black eyes on us as we trudged up the stairs to the second floor. She required that each child say, “Good morning, Miss Myler,” looking into those reptile eyes. If a greeting appeared absent-minded or insincere, the entry had to be repeated. That meant returning to the sidewalk, entering the front door, and climbing the stairs with Miss Myler’s hooded lizard eyes measuring each step. I made that trip at least a half dozen times that year. She nicknamed me “the dawdling daydreamer” and told me I had a bad attitude about school.
She seemed to hate the ranch kids the most, the ones who came to school on the yellow school bus from working ranches on the Almy Bench. They milked cows and gathered eggs before school and had evening chores as well, feeding animals, getting horses to pasture, running hay stackers and cultivating machines. They wore dusty jeans, cowboy shirts, and muddy boots. I sat in the back row that year with the ranch kids. Miss Myler said sitting there might help me learn to speak up. During the second week of class, Miss Myler made Lamar Weston stand at his seat. He shambled to his feet awkwardly, his face white.
“Always remove your hat when you are indoors. Didn’t anybody ever teach you that?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Lamar took off his cowboy hat and stuffed it in his desk. His dark, greasy hair fell down on the nape of his neck.
“How often do you bathe, young man?” Her voice was an ice pick, chipping each word precisely for him. Lamar stared silently at the scarred desk in front of him, his eyes on the deep carvings and ink stains. I sat six feet away, wanting to answer for him. He turned a dusky pink that started at his dirty neck and moved to his broad forehead. The color rolled quickly into purple.
“Well. I’m waiting for an answer.” Her pinched eyes were raisin-bright on him.
Lamar shifted his weight in his muddy boots. “As often as we have well water,” he said. A few kids laughed and Miss Myler shushed them with a look.
“You may sit down,” she said. “I hope you learn something about hygiene this year.”
Lamar lowered himself into his seat. There was wetness in his eyes, but he didn’t cry. Those ranch kids were tough.
A few weeks before the end of the school year, Miss Myler leaned over her desk like a predatory bird and hissed, “Some students in this class will have a bad surprise the last day of school. They will not be moving on to 6th grade.” She looked right at me. Although my report card grades had been satisfactory that year, there were always comments about poor effort. I wore a coat of fear to and from school from that day on, sure I was being held back in 5th grade.
My last book report of the year was the final link in a chain of disgrace. I knew I had not spent enough time on it. When it came my turn, I got up slowly to face the class. My book was about a girl who had learned to love the sea living alone in a lighthouse. I went through the mandatory book report items: the author, the title, the number of words, and whether I would recommend it to others. I held up a required drawing of what the book meant to me. I had drawn a girl with brown hair, big gray eyes, and a tentative smile standing next to a lighthouse. They were the same height and her arm was around it. A few kids giggled.
“Even though I’ve never seen the ocean, I love it. I want to be a lighthouse to help ships to safety.” My voice was small and breathy.
Miss Myler’s heavy shoes thudded to the front and the rest of her followed, soundless and disembodied. I couldn’t remember being that physically close to her before and tried to make myself smaller. She snatched my drawing and turned a tight face to the class.
“Wasn’t that just about the worst book report you’ve ever heard?” They all looked down at their desks.
“Go sit down,” she said, disgust oozing from each word.
That last day of school, l951, the sun rose pale in a dreadful sky. I walked out the front entrance of our apartment building and Buddy Buford was raking up old winter leaves in the front yard, talking and singing to himself. Buddy lived with his two older sisters down the block and did handyman duties around town. In the summer and fall, he hired out as a ranch hand, working cattle and bringing in the harvest. Uncle Harold said Buddy was the best ranch hand around, even though he was a little slow in the head. Daddy said Buddy was a little kid in a grown-up body. I liked Buddy because he was a real cowboy from head to toe and our little Wyoming town didn’t have many of those.
Buddy could work, but he couldn’t do complicated thinking. Once, just to test him, I asked Buddy if he were a Republican or a Democrat. I could tell he didn’t understand because he said, “damn nuisance kid,” and walked away. Usually, though, I was nice to Buddy, because he was a kind and funny man.
That morning I said “Hi, Buddy,” and he waved a big gloved hand at me. Then I hustled on ahead of my sister because I needed to be alone to do a little praying. As I walked the blocks to school, I skirted the muddy leaves on the sidewalk and said silent prayers to God and to Jesus, just to cover all the bases.
“Please, please, please don’t let me be held back in 5th grade. I’ll be the kindest, most hard-working girl in the world.” I said it up into the pale yellow sky.
We were having a little graduation picnic that day. I was happy my mother was busy typing Daddy’s PhD thesis and couldn’t be there for the announcement of my failure. She’d find out soon enough. Wrapped sandwich halves in waxed paper were piled on two blankets in the shady schoolyard. Our instructions were to march silently in a single row, pick a sandwich half from each blanket, sit down at the picnic tables, and eat without making any trouble. We knew what “making trouble” meant to Miss Myler. It meant loud talking, touching each other, moving around too much, and use of dirty words, especially by the ranch kids. Miss Myler added, with emphasis, that any student who tried to pick a particular type of sandwich or complained about what he or she got would be sent home. After all, those nice room mothers had spent time making good sandwiches.
I crossed fingers on best hands in line, praying not to get the potted meat, which always made me gag. Sure enough, I got two potted meat halves, which I hid under some leaves in the yard when no one was looking. My stomach growled as I sat empty and waited for Miss Myler to make the announcement, a starving girl about to flunk 5th grade. And then, at the end of the picnic, instead of reading names of those who didn’t pass, Miss Myler said with a grim smile, “Good luck to all of you in 6th grade next year.” It was the first smile I could remember seeing on her face. I waited for her to say it was a joke. My friend Alice poked me, motioning it was time to leave. We were dismissed from Clark School that day like a noisy flock of swifts. I ran all the way home and Buddy was across the street, working in the Leeman yard. “Buddy, I passed 5th grade,” I bellowed, as I bounded up the apartment steps. He gave me a puzzled grin.
Later that week, when I was sitting on the front stairs and Buddy was mowing the lawn across the street, I saw Daddy walking up the hill from the train station, home for the weekend instead of staying at school in Salt Lake City. I ran down to meet him and as we reached the corner, Buddy ran over something in Mr. Leeman’s yard with the mower, making a big, old grinding racket.
“You stupid son-of-a-bitch.” Mr. Leeman was there quickly and jerked the mower away from Buddy. “I ought to get somebody to do this who’s got half a brain. Go on home, Buddy. You’re no good to me.” Buddy’s face was all caved in. His cowboy hat had fallen off and he picked it up slowly, as if he didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t the first time I had seen Mr. Leeman yell at Buddy.
“Get out of here, Buddy. I don’t want you around here anymore messing things up.” Buddy walked across the road to his sisters’ house, rubbing at his face the way he did when he was upset. He shuffled up to the front door and disappeared. It made my heart hurt. Mr. Leeman nodded hello to Daddy and went into his house.
I tugged on Daddy’s hand. “Why is he so mean to Buddy?”
Daddy spoke slowly. “It’s not fair, but sometimes people pick on a person who’s weaker than they are.”
“But why? He made Buddy sad.”
“People either can’t see how others feel, or, if they can, they just don’t care.” There was a pause. “You’re a good girl.” He patted my head.
I wanted to talk about how Miss Myler hated me and Lamar Weston, but Daddy had too much to worry about already.
The next day the Strand Theatre on Front Street opened and we started a summer of matinee attendance while Mama did her thesis typing. For fifteen cents we could sit all afternoon and watch Movietone News, two movies, and some cartoons. We each had an extra nickel to buy candy. The penny candy was in delicious rows in a crowded little space at the front of the theater: bright gumballs and red paraffin lips, Tootsie Pop suckers, hard little Boston Baked Beans, tiny Milk Dud boxes, and waxy six-packs filled with sweet liquid. I liked melting Junior Mints in my mouth or pouring tart Lik-a-Maid powder from a packet onto my tongue. I thought having my lips and tongue tinted with the Lik-a Maid was like wearing lipstick. Once, I bought a licorice paraffin mustache, wore it for a while, and then ate it.
Buddy was there that first afternoon and many afternoons after that, a big roundish man hunkered down in a row of kids with a large box of popcorn. Buddy was spell-bound by the words and actions on the screen. At a certain point in the Roy Roger’s movie the crooks were plotting their next move at the top of a bluff.
The toughest of them said to the rest, “When Rogers rides into the ravine, we’ll ambush him and his whole gang. We’ll wipe them all out at the same time.” He waved his arms in a circle and said, “Then we’ll be free to take over this whole territory.”
It was too much for Buddy, who had been scowling and fidgeting in his seat. He jumped up, blocking the view of the kids behind him, flailing both fists at the gigantic cowboys on the screen in front of him, and yelling in his squeaky voice.
“Oh no, you won’t, you sons-of bitches. You can’t trick Roy Rogers. He damn good fighter.”
The Strand might as well have been turned on its head. Kids were cheering, laughing, and stomping. Harley Hoosen stopped the movie and came running down the aisle like Porky Pig, his hands flapping around in the air and his shirttail out. His eyes were wild, with his glass eye looking one way and his real one the other. He motioned for Buddy to leave the theater and some of the kids started booing. I remembered Buddy’s face when Mr. Leeman was mean to him. I thought of Lamar Weston’s eyes. I started out slowly with a little chant in my seat.
“Bud-ee, Bud-ee, Bud-ee,”
The kids all along my row picked up on it. Then I made my voice louder. Soon the whole theater had picked up the chant.
“Bud-ee, Bud-ee, Bud-ee.” The noise filled up the theater and it seemed to me it would fill up our little town.
“Bud-ee, Bud-ee. Bud-ee.”
Kids were standing up and throwing bits of candy paper.
Harley yelled, “You kids stop that racket right now,” but we weren’t much afraid of him and his marshmallow ways. He gestured at Buddy to come with him, but Buddy didn’t move, confusion washing over his face. We started stamping our feet and clapping our hands to the rhythm of “Bud-ee, Bud-ee.” My sister whistled with two fingers in her mouth and other kids joined in. The theater felt like it would explode.
Finally, Harley pointed his fat finger at Buddy. “No more dirty words in this theater.” He hustled on back to the projection room, trying to smooth down his hair, which was fanned out around his head like a hazy halo. We cheered and clapped. Kids passed candy along the rows to Buddy. I folded my arms and pressed them into the warm spot inside my stomach. Buddy belonged there with us at the Strand Theatre, the place where he was happy.
On the way home, I saw Buddy walking alone, wobbling up the hill bow legged, his feet pointing outward like a duck in his cowboy boots. I thought about telling him never to work for Mr. Leeman again because the man was just too darn ornery for his own good. But I didn’t want to confuse Buddy, who needed all the work he could get. Instead, I closed my eyes and whispered a little prayer into the pale yellow sky.
I hurried to catch up with him yelling, “Good show, huh, Buddy?” He gave me one of his goofy smiles.