It burned when Gerry woke. He wasn’t accustomed to the sensation and couldn’t ask his girlfriend if she shared symptoms. Meg was already gone, off working the six-to-four shift at the clinic. Attempting to ignore the occurrence only made things worse as Gerry showered the previous day’s inactivity away and dressed sensibly. Any other morning his routine would have remained intact, but that particular Thursday carried the burden of many notions avoided up until the alarm’s buzz.
Riley’s class field trip reflected pink sparkles on the kitchen calendar. Meg was the original chaperone before scheduling conflicts placed the burden on her live-in boyfriend. Gerry had never intended for things to get so serious. He thought Riley’s presence alone would eventually sever any good that came from a mutually beneficial attraction, ready to move on before the real fun even began.
The TV coughed high-pitched cartoon melodrama as Gerry stepped into the kitchen. Riley was halfway through a bowel of marshmallows, already dressed in her tan jumper.
“When did you get up?” He asked.
“I couldn’t really sleep.”
“I don’t know if that’s it.”
“Well, I don’t know either, pollywog.” He grabbed a bowel from the cabinet, failing to notice the girl’s expression.
“You better not call me that in front of my friends today,” she said.
“Your mom’s the one who embarrasses you, not me.”
“You just haven’t had the chance to yet.”
Gerry shrugged and partook from the same box of sugar. He’d stopped drinking coffee the previous month, although the shakes had yet to subside. Neither female in the house noticed a difference. They didn’t talk about him much, although he’d occasionally step into a room and count the seconds before the silence. Gerry suspected Meg’s compassion on the decline, but couldn’t blame the brunette across from him at the kitchen table. To Riley, things between her mother and the man upstairs were peachy.
The girl impatiently waited for him to brush his teeth and lock the front door. The duplex on Veil Street was on its last leg; tiny cracks in the plaster growing exponentially every time it rained. Meg spent her Sundays browsing the classifieds, while Gerry loosely followed his mother’s scribbled recipes with hopes of surprising the girls. They’d always say thank you before grace, although he often doubted the authenticity of their appreciation considering the leftovers.
“Why do those lights always flash?” Riley asked, buckling in.
“I need a new sensor or two,” Gerry rolled his eyes.
“Oh, okay,” the third grader plugged her ears in and kept them that way until school.
Gerry followed Riley through the red swinging doors, feeling a bit displaced as she swerved past older students at their lockers. He expected an introduction to her teacher, but the girl simply found her desk and got comfortable. Ms. Noggle appeared sweet enough despite an infrequent shift in the tone of her voice. She had eyes everywhere, handing out class rosters to Gerry and two other chaperones.
Connie McDowell folded up the list before tucking it into her Gucci bag. Mable Dent gave Gerry a quick look over and smiled. “Don’t worry. They’ll all calm down in about five years,” she joked while Ms. Noggle read the agenda aloud.
The urge to go again crept up on Gerry fast. He kept adjusting his stance by the supply closet, minor beads of sweat forming just above his hairline. As the kids lined up, he sauntered down the hallway towards the lavatory. Memories of younger days flooded in as two sixth graders argued over trading cards near the stalls. Gerry’s entrance cut their negotiations in half. Even after the echo of their profanity faded, he still had problems beginning his stream. If it was an infection, there was only one place he caught it. More questions popped in as he thought about every second Meg spent without him.
Riley shot Gerry a dirty look from the back of the line as he caught up to the group. “You’re not sitting with me, just so you know,” she said, hopping onto the bus.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, poly…” he stopped himself, catching a few sharp stares from her fellows students. Gerry knew their names but not their faces. Some of the boys were real bastards; some girls even worse. The chaperone took an empty seat in the middle; the third graders abruptly situating in surrounding clumps, looking for the proper blind spot.
Mable plopped down next to Gerry and smiled. “So you don’t mind me sitting here, do you?”
“Of course not,” he replied.
“Good, because I really don’t wanna get stuck next to Connie again. She can be a real trip, and not in a good way. Last time I was two Tylenol in before she shut up.”
“Well, you don’t need to worry about that with me.”
“Good,” Mable patted him on the shoulder. He caught the briefest glimpse down her shirt, two round breasts nearly forgotten by a significant portion of the population. “Not that we can’t get to know each other,” the mother clarified. “I think it’s best that we also stay sharp, though.”
“No, of course. I completely agree.”
“Oh lighten up, will you? I was only kidding.”
“No, me too.” Gerry tried to smile as Ms. Noggle did her final headcount.
It was a good ninety minutes until their destination. Mable got updates on Gerry’s unsteady footing. He’d been with Meg for close to a year, moving in only after losing his job at the firm. Riley was still adjusting, but had warmed up to him. Mable appeared intrigued by every detail. He felt like they should be sowing or playing bridge as good words shifted to bad in the surrounding space.
A small but significant ball of paper glided past, nipping the tip of Gerry’s left ear. He stood and glared at the first two smirks a seat up from the back. Wes Murphy and Mable’s son, Dustin; they were like pigs on payday. His fellow chaperone arched her back and leaned against the window. Peripherally, Gerry felt confident to have her on his side. Rather than screaming, he took a calming breath as if back in the courtroom. “I know it was you two,” he finally said.
“Who? Us?” Wes grinned.
“Yeah, this isn’t my first rodeo, but if you two wanna act like a bunch of clowns, maybe I should tell the bus driver to turn around so we can go to the circus.”
“The circus? That’d be sweet. We could get corndogs and goldfish.” The few students without their ears plugged in giggled at Wes’ comment.
“Sarcasm. Look it up when you get the chance, genius.” Gerry sat back down, somewhere between relieved and terrified.
“That wasn’t what I expected out of you,” Mable said.
“Well we just met each other. Let’s not try and ruin all of the surprises.”
“No, of course not.” She focused out the window, past overcast farms and areas dwindling in population. Then the noises took over. Mable sort of hummed under her breath with the engine. It was a song he didn’t know; Gerry’s eyes darting to every head bobbing along. He thought of his youth, plugging into a Walkman and biking around the neighborhood, catching glimpses of the Ferrante sisters changing at their open window. Perhaps little boys weren’t as devious anymore, the chemicals and technology shrinking portions of their soul nearly unmeasurable to modern science. He wondered what it would be like when Riley started dating, whether he’d still be around or if another substitute father figure would scope Mable’s legs whilst ignoring the cursing from the back of the bus.
The urge to go again followed residual anxiety. Time was painful to their destination. Questions for Mable dried up. He checked on Riley, but she was fine without him. Gerry knew that no matter what the advice, it would still lack key ingredients for Riley to take him seriously. If he was a joke to her, then the rest of her class must have really been laughing.
The cracked and faded sign to Atlee Mine and Museum brought hope to some and yawns to others. Ms. Noggle gave her signature speech when the bus stopped, listing every rule and regulation off the top of her head, before marching everyone forward in an orderly fashion. She broke the children up with their designated matrons, double-checking the numbers. Gerry had Riley, her friend, Lane Shaw, the rich girl, Abby Fritz, the nerdy Moses Sloan and everyone’s favorite rebel, Wes Murphy. They were a ragtag bunch with animosity and regulated style. “So who has to use the restroom?” Their chaperone asked immediately.
Only Moses and Abby reciprocated, Gerry staying close to Mable’s group as they entered the small brick building. Dustin’s mother kept an eye on the stragglers as Gerry and Moses set up shop at opposite urinals. The former lawman focused on far better memories as the same burn hit him midstream. He tried not to make a face, washing his hands seconds behind the third grader. They didn’t share a single word. If there was a story with Moses, one that the other parents knew all about, nobody bothered to fill Gerry in. He thought it best to leave the quiet ones alone with hopes that they already understood reality.
Two tour guides surfaced from their coffee machine, splitting the groups in half. Gerry and Mable were stuck with Oliver, a short man in his early sixties with a bad dye job and thick wire frames. He began at one glass case and gradually moved along, spitting up dates and times with little enthusiasm. Wes and Dustin got a few quick cracks in before Mable laid down the law. Riley and Lane giggled without as much as a noise. Gerry was proud of his girlfriend’s offspring. She maintained her composure even when the tour shifted to darker territory.
Somewhere in the 1970’s, Oliver deviated away from the model trains circling miniatures, beginning an alternate rant. “Right around this time, I was living with my first wife, Cora, and the greatest idea struck me square. She always had problems opening jars, ya see. Whether it was pickles or peanut butter, my old lady would call me up from the basement to help her twist off the top. So the one day I gets this idea to make this flap that’ll help her out so I don’t gotta get up every time she wants some applesauce.
“So I work in my shop all night, in the dark, because of this thunderstorm that knocked the power out. I slave away before I create this thing, this opener. The next morning, she uses it on some canned potatoes and like magic, we’re in business, but I didn’t get to the patent office fast enough. Some Johnny Quickly S.O.B. beat me to the punch. My bride finds this out, and calls me a liar. We’re divorced a year later. Luckily, no kids with that one. She didn’t have the hips for it anyway.”
“Um, excuse me Oliver,” Mable interrupted. “But we’re kind of on a schedule here. Can we get back to the tour?”
Oliver scanned the faces of ten children and two adults, all completely baffled. Rather than allowing them the benefit of the doubt, he eyeballed Gerry. “You let your woman give just anybody their comeuppance?”
“We’re not married. This is a field trip. It’s supposed to be somewhat educational,” Gerry replied.
“You don’t think I’m educating you? These are lessons to live your life by. Don’t trust that somebody hasn’t already stolen the greatest darn idea you’ve ever had in this here world, or maybe the greatest darn girl.” His statement made the boys laugh and the girls turn gooey for as long their attention spans could handle the randomness.
Gerry didn’t know what to say. Mable watched him for a reaction, something cool or profound. A perpetual sadness shot up from the blue and white tiles below them. Oliver interrupted with more facts about his place of business. The tour swiftly moved on as if nothing had happened. The adults told the children to listen up; there was a distinct chance to still learn something. Gerry wondered where his next career would lead him, whether he’d be telling similar stories to defunct youngsters with hopes of striking more than a chord.
At twelve, they broke for bagged lunch. Riley and Lane distanced themselves from their guardian. Gerry sat stranded at the picnic table, chewing with his mouth closed, constantly shifting his weight. For a second, he thought the earlier symptoms were all in his head. Observing the silent Moses awkwardly settling next to Wes and Dustin only made the downtime worse. The cool kids would occasionally humor their awkward counterparts, but eventually all returned to their proper end.
“So how was the inside?” Connie sat and fixed her bra strap.
“You mean the tour?” Gerry responded.
“Well yeah, we’re going in next. I was just curious, and I can’t seem to find Mable for a round of girl talk.”
“Just so long as you don’t have Oliver as your guide, you should be fine.”
“Never mind. I don’t wanna ruin any surprises.”
“Oh, okay,” Connie settled into her veggie wrap. “So is this your first field trip?”
“I mean, as a chaperone.”
“Oh, well then yes.”
“Are you hanging in there?” Her eyes widened.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“You gotta be careful in the mine. There’s not really a lot of room to move around.”
“Yeah, I bet.”
“And keep an eye on that Wes. He’s ungrateful just like his father.”
“I’ve been trying my best.”
“Last year at the school picnic, he stuck worms in my lunchbox, and they were gonna give him detention, but his dad got him out of it. Now what the hell kind of lesson does that teach anyone?” Connie stared through Gerry with hopes of gratification.
“I’m not sure I know.” He ate faster then, swallowing lumps of bread before excusing himself. Gerry didn’t inform anyone; his forehead greasy as he landed at the same urinal and ignored the hurt. Oliver waddled in not two seconds after Gerry flushed, breathing heavily.
“You catch the bug too?” The tour guide suggested, passing the sink.
“No, not exactly,” Gerry replied over the faucet.
“Well, it’ll sneak up on you. That’s the way it did with me. Now I can’t seem to shake it.”
“I’ll keep my eyes open.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought I’d do too. It didn’t work. You think you’ve found a good one and then she turns out to be a whore like the rest.” Oliver groaned and broke wind.
Gerry humored the old man best he could. “Maybe they’re all whores.”
“No. Just the ones you really fall for.”
Exiting, the chaperone considered Oliver’s statement, whether there was something more to it. His cellphone buzzed, clearing just enough air as the kids grew restless in the background. “Hello?” Gerry answered mid-breath.
“Hey babe, how’re you holding up?” Meg asked.
“I’m getting there. How about you?”
“Today’s been pretty easy. Not a lot of trouble here.”
“So how’s Riley? Are you with her right now?”
“She didn’t wanna eat lunch with me.”
“Don’t feel bad. She did the same thing to me last year.” Gerry could tell his girlfriend was getting a supreme kick out of the circumstances.
“In any case, we’re fine. We’ll be home soon.”
“Okay yeah, I was just calling to check in.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
“You don’t sound tip-top,” Meg said.
“Yeah, well we can discuss that later. Right now, I should get going.”
“No, I understand. Have fun, alright?”
“I will.” Gerry tucked his phone away and wondered why he hadn’t told her. It wasn’t the ideal place to have the conversation, although her input would have greatly helped his restlessness.
Mable tapped him on the shoulder not soon after. “So Ms. Noggle just told me we gotta get a move on with our groups if we wanna see everything.”
“Okay, wouldn’t wanna miss what’s next.”
“Is that more sarcasm I hear?”
“No, just enough. I’ll go round them up.”
“Alright, sounds good.” She smiled, as he waited for her to look away.
Soon they were underground; the small train car rattling on the makeshift track as Lonny moved his helmet lamp around, shining what little light he could on the third graders. Gerry was ready to sleep in the caboose, this particular guide far less charismatic than their last. Another regimented speech followed with fewer fun facts. Wes and Dustin agitated the already rocky ground, while Abby shrieked and almost threw up from claustrophobia. Gerry let Mable handle the messes, only speaking when necessary. The more time they spent in tight quarters, the easier it was for him to realize how imperfect she’d be if they were together. He couldn’t make her happy, and her son would have eaten him alive.
Gerry pictured the father in the wallet-sized photograph, smirking with just the right polish in his slicked-back hair. He would never have to go on a field trip or show up to the game; to coach and offer sagely advice, read the right bedtime story, make light of the subtle embarrassments or teach the boy how to tie his first tie. There were devices with light-up tutorials and naked women faking their best orgasms to make everything happen faster than it should. Mr. Dent didn’t have to say all of the same things twice to his wife. Mable was aware of where she stood. He had the better job, while she saw no shame in the occasional batted eyelash on the school bus.
His last bathroom break was by far the worst; Gerry’s eyes adjusting to the phosphorescent lights after the mine. He thought of better men working their nails down to the black grime, hacking up portions of their insides at the bar after work. A pack of gritty cigarettes in their rolled-up sleeve; their paycheck’s first dollar spent on a cheap pounder of beer, or the jukebox and any way to avoid the wife and kids. Moses stepped in, sucking back a wad of phlegm, taking his time down the urinal line. The pain hadn’t ceased so much as centered; the lawman wondering how he’d handle the problem.
“So did you have fun today?” Gerry asked.
“No, of course not. Did you Mr. Colter?”
“No, but I wasn’t supposed to in the first place.”
“It sure beats working, though, right?” Moses said.
“Did you hear somebody say that?”
“No, I just said it myself,” the boy zipped up and washed his hands. “It’s not like anybody else learned anything new today either.”
“Yeah, you’d be surprised,” Gerry sighed. “C’mon, we better get back, before they leave us behind.” He followed the eight-year-old outside and onto the bus. Mable and Connie were already comfortable up front. Gerry paid Dustin’s mother a soft but vital glance as he passed her. She didn’t look up from her cellphone, texting possibilities for dinner and foreplay to a distant spouse on the cusp of considering his options.
Gerry sat alone as the day’s refrain made enough noise to drown out every student in Ms. Noggle’s class. He overheard subjects worthy of a stern talking to, but abstained from playing the adult. A part of him hoped his lack of involvement would warrant a phone call to Meg or his name ending up on a list with the other deadbeats. He wanted to have the argument with his live-in girlfriend, for her to see him as he really was, staring at the taped over obscenities and meaningless red-ink scribbles on the seat, contemplating when and where he caught the infection.
There was roughly forty-five minutes left in school when the bus returned. Gerry signed Riley out early despite having no authority to do so. They exited the building not two steps behind Mable and Dustin. The woman held the door, scolding her son as he darted across the parking lot. “So I guess I’ll be seeing you around, Gerry?” Mable said.
“No you won’t,” Riley answered for him. “Believe me, this is a one-time thing.”
“Is that so?” The mother smiled.
“It was really nice meeting you, Mable,” Gerry finally replied. “I’ll be sure to remember all your pointers in the future.”
“Let’s hope so,” Mable nodded, before Dustin’s impatient shriek made goodbyes far easier.
Riley flicked the stereo on immediately after the engine started. She waited an extra moment to see if her driver had anything to say. When he didn’t, the third grader cleared up what she could. “So you have a crush on Dustin’s mom, don’t you?”
Gerry exhaled, laughing breathily, as if she’d caught him doing something far worse. “What are you talking about?”
“She’s married. Dustin’s dad is an astronaut.”
“I think you’re misinformed, Riley.”
“Well, in any case, I’m fine with it. I don’t like you and my mom together anyway. You should just marry Dustin’s mom, and then you can be his problem.”
“But I enjoy being your problem so much,” Gerry joked.
“Abby said you were some kind of weirdo. She didn’t understand when I told her you just sit around the house all day on the computer or the couch.”
“Someday Abby will find herself a good loser just like me.”
“You are a weirdo.”
Gerry could only agree with her, stopping just a little longer at all the signs as if to prove to some invisible monitoring service that he was much better at the job than they thought. Riley hugged her mother upon their return home and was quickly in her bedroom. Gerry stood in awe of the woman who had chosen him out of all the rest. He kissed her soft skin and suggested they go out for dinner despite problems down below. In the morning, he’d call the doctor’s office and accept that the benefit of the doubt was just enough to keep the tunnel from caving in around him.
Christopher S. Bell is twenty-nine years of age. He has been writing and releasing literary and musical works through My Idea of Fun since 2008. His sound projects include Emmett and Mary, Technological Epidemic, C. Scott and the Beltones, and Fine Wives. My Idea of Fun is an art and music collective based out of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. (www.myideaoffun.org) . Christopher’s work has recently been published in the Broadkill Review, Madison Review, Red Rock Review, Mobius, Gesture, and on Fringelit.com. He was also a contributor to Impression of Sound.