You’re All in Big Trouble

Mrs. Gwynn was my all-time favorite teacher. Because of her, I loved going to school. She filled her classroom with big leafy green plants. She had her own bookshelves with her own books and, best of all, an old clawfoot tub with a bright yellow shag rug inside it. We took turns sitting in that tub during silent reading time. All of us agreed that it felt like bathing in Mrs. Gwynn’s sunshine.

She did this spectacular thing. Person of the Week she called it. Each of us would get to be Person of the Week sooner or later. Though there were doubts among us. Much debating about who might be picked when and why. She’d unspool a sheet of butcher paper the length of our classroom’s door because that’s where she’d hang it once she finished, facing the third and fourth grade hallway, for all passersby to gaze upon in astonishment and reverence. Person of the Week would lie as still as dead meat on that paper while Mrs. Gwynn traced their silhouette with a marker. Then she colored in that outline with a better you. “Person of the Week!” the top of the paper said, and your name under it, all big and brilliant. We’d crowd around the door then, admiring, absorbing. There’s someone! We said. Well deserved! Quite the honor! All us nobodies would sign it with well wishes and little doodles, and come that glorious week’s end, Mrs. Gwynn would roll that paper up nice and tight, secure each end with its own rubber band, and home with you it went so you’d have proof forever: Person of the Week.

Then it was my turn.

Mrs. Gwynn’s markering made that butcher paper sing. Person! It chirped in my right ear. Person! It cooed in the left. Person! It ballyhooed around my legs and feet. Her nostrils widened, then her face drew tight. I knew she smelled the sharp tang of milk parlor on me, chlorinated-manure stink that went deeper than scalding water and soaps. I was proud.

Person of the Week! I’d have her know how right she was.

“I am a very dedicated worker,” I assured Mrs. Gwynn who nodded thoughtfully. Yes, she could clearly see that.

I told her about bucket-breaking newborn calves and dehorning yearlings, what it’s like pinning a pig on the wobbly cutting table with dad on the razor, yanking a testicle free and tossing it into the wide mouth of your pullover.

“Some people eat pig testes,” I told Mrs. Gwynn.

Which was true. Dad fingered a couple out of my boot then wiped them clean on his pantleg. On three, he said. I swallowed mine whole. Jesus! Dad said, then he forced a dirty finger down my throat.  

“Oh, my!”

Mrs. Gwynn’s my! You couldn’t beat it. So much expressed with so little, and her coloring away the whole time. I’d never worn an orange shirt before. My eyes were brown, not blue. This is the best Person of the Week yet! I thought.  

“There’s more, Mrs. Gwynn!”

Raccoons had found the cow feed. Full of disease, dad said. He had me dig a tuna tin out the trash barrel, fill it with dog food, and set the live trap. Must be first class, whatever’s in that kibble. Wasn’t a week we didn’t catch one. Dad explained to me that you can’t shoot a coon in the trap because if the trap gets bloody the other coons won’t go near it. Take it to the horse trough, dad said. Which wasn’t a horse trough because we didn’t have horses. Over the fence it went. Splash! Takes a good while for a raccoon to drown. I felt bad about that, so I made myself watch as a sort of penance.

“Penance,” Mrs. Gwynn said. “Is that something you learned in church?”

Person of the Week smiled at that.

“Can I tell you a story, Mrs. Gwynn!”

The Reverend Scott Jaffe was renting the empty house on our farm, which Mrs. Gwynn knew all about, being that she was on the church board that had called to see would dad be interested in leasing. More than happy to, dad said. No one had lived in the house for a long time, our ancestors all dead or moved away, which was the same thing. Dad said the church would be doing him a favor. Jaffe helping him keep the house up. Wouldn’t take a cent for it. There was just one thing.

Dad told Jaffe: no dogs in the house. Then, not two weeks after Jaffe moved in, the water heater’s pilot snuffed, and dad was pointing at them mousy nests of dog hair gathered along the baseboards and table legs.

Jaffe shrugged. “Must have traveled in on my pants.”

“And these paw prints?” Dad said.

“I don’t see it,” Jaffe said.  

“He thinks I’m the dumbest asshole in the world!” Dad said.

Four of the house’s windows faced the road, two others the driveway. Every day we were up and down that road, doing bale and bucket chores, and every day Jaffe’s three dogs, chasing the truck from one window to the next, spreading hair and mutt butt all over the house.

Mrs. Gwynn frowned. Waxy brown bits had broken off in Person’s hair, so hard was her pressing. I got to feeling that maybe she didn’t want to hear anymore. Problem was I hadn’t gotten to the part I that really wanted to tell her.

“As I was saying,” I said. “I was in the back of the truck, trying to keep them buckets from tipping, dad cranking into the driveway, and I could hear Jaffe’s dogs going woof! woof! woof! only it sounded like rooh! rooh! rooh! like they were under water. Dad started cussing them then, and because the truck’s windows were up, it sounded like he was under water, too. Then, I get this funny feeling, Mrs. Gwynn, that it’s not them, but me, like I was at the bottom of a giant aquarium, and there’s Reverend Jaffe on the other side of the glass, sitting at his kitchen table, buttering bread!”  

“Reverend Jaffe didn’t do that,” Mrs. Gwynn said.

“You mean did,” I said.

“Didn’t,” Mrs. Gwynn said.

She put her crayon down. Her face turned up to meet mine, then a little higher, like she done the month before when I’d forgotten about that pocketknife being in my pocket, and which I’d thought was the easiest thing in the world to forget, considering how frazzled I’d been that morning, up choring since long before dawn and it being a foggy one that never really broke, which was probably why dad kept insisting that there was still plenty of time to get ready for school, the result being that there’d been no time for showering and making the bus both, or even changing clothes, but Mrs. Gwynn hadn’t seen it that way, nor had Principal Francis, who’d agreed that I’d taken the knife to school on purpose, that purpose being that I was up to no good.

“Just look at the filth on your pants,” Principal Francis had said to me.

Then, “How about we call your father and see what he thinks?”

I was relieved. I knew that they’d believe dad.

And that’s what happened.

“How many times have I told you not to take your pocketknife to school?” Dad had said.

I tried explaining again, but he drowned me out.

“How many times?”

Now it felt like him saying it all over again, and here with Person of the Week’s right pant leg not half colored. The shoes not even started. That abandoned crayon. Merciless.

All I could think was that Person of the Week was about to be ruined for the first and maybe only time ever. I started blabbering about raccoons again, only Mrs. Gwynn wasn’t as interested now.

“This one bandit-eyed trickster, Mrs. Gwynn—and you won’t believe it, not at all you won’t—he’d been in the trough plenty long enough, looked every bit as drowned as the others, but hoist out the Havahart then dump him on the ground and what happened next but: Gasp! The both us!”

Well then, what does Mrs. Gwynn go and do but drop by the dairy! Came that very evening! Burst into the milk parlor and floated down the work-pit steps like an angel in a perfume cloud. Of course, the cows smelled this right off and started stamping hooves and raising tails and the splats were on Mrs. Gwynn’s cream sweater before she reached the pit’s floor. Terribly embarrassing for me, though who wears perfume and knit sweaters to a milk parlor for fuck’s sake?

“This is a nice surprise!” Dad said.

He was as delighted as ever. And so was I. So were we all.

How wonderful to have a visitor drop by! And Mrs. Gwynn, my all-time favorite teacher no less!

“C’mon,” I said, nearly dragging her by the wrist. I took her to see the newborn calves and our piss-stinking billy goat and the dogs and cats, pointing at each and saying its name. Then I showed her the balloon-bloated cow carcass that the rendering plant hadn’t picked up.

“Care for a jump, Mrs. Gwynn?”

I was only half joking.

Inside the big barn, our bull, Candy Tom, pressed his skull against the gate. He bellowed at us then flung soiled straw over his back with a forehoof.

Rude, I thought.

We climbed the ladder to the haymow. Mrs. Gwynn touched the hand-hewed beams. Her head tipped back, eyes big and scaling alfalfa bales to the rafters.

“All this will be gone come spring,” I said.

Then I explained about cow plops, how the more solid ones stretched a butthole beyond the imagination and how we scooped all that mess into a manure spreader then carpeted our hay fields with it.

“Circle of life, hakuna muchacho!”

It was all very fascinating to me. But I don’t know how much Mrs. Gwynn heard, being that she kept glancing toward the feed pile where another raccoon had gotten itself caught. It looked like two coons were in the trap, only one of them was a tangle of black and white electric wires that the actual coon had pulled through the meshes. I hadn’t noticed any wires around when I’d set it. Dad will not like this, I thought.  

I pulled a bale down from the stack then and showed Mrs. Gwynn how I’d been having to yank the strings off them by hand because of the trouble over that pocketknife. I hadn’t meant to bring that awful business into our nice visit. But because it came up, I needed to illustrate my point. I got another bale down and set it in front of her.

“Pull those strings off,” I said.

She said, “Oh no, I don’t think I could do that.”

“Go on,” I said.  

Mrs. Gwynn didn’t want to.

“Put your knee into it and pull.” I showed her. “Like this.”

Mrs. Gwynn’s eyes watered. Her nose dripped.

That dead cow smell must be getting to her, I thought.

“I know!” I said. “How about a ride on the tractor?”

“Your father wouldn’t allow that,” Mrs. Gwynn said.

“Wouldn’t allow it!”

Down the ladder we went.

“Watch,” I said and fired up the old Massy Fergusson 175. My all-time favorite tractor and my all-time favorite teacher. It did not get any better. The trusty MFer farted right out the barn, slick as a whistle.  

“Climb up on the hitch there, Mrs. Gwynn. We’ll go up the road and feed the pigs and heifers. We can bet on which of Jaffe’s dogs will win the race the around the window track. My money’s on the yellow one!”

Mrs. Gwynn looked like she wanted to leave. She looked as if she’d dart to her car the moment I looked away.

I didn’t look away.

“I better be going,” she said

“Stay,” I said. “I’ll let you drive if you want. I’ll teach you. It’s easy.”

She didn’t want. She had to go.

“So long, Mrs. Gwynn, and thanks for coming!”

The next day at school, we were greeted by a substitute teacher.

“Mrs. Gwynn gave me specific instructions,” the substitute teacher said.

My classmates dutifully gathered around the door, started signing their names and making little doodles in the white space surrounding the blue-eyed paper doll. Someone had drawn a ginormous penis on it with a blood red crayon. It was me.

“We heard Mrs. Gwynn went to your house,” my classmates said.

Where did they hear these things? I wondered.

The substitute pointed at the peen.

“Which one of you did this?” She said. “Tell me or you’re all in big trouble.”

A damp, cloudy day it turned into. Shadows swamped the classroom. I sank into Mrs. Gwynn’s clawfoot tub while the substitute teacher crumpled Person of the Week into the trashcan. The way it sounded got me thinking about this one time dad and me were swimming in the pond during a rainstorm. Splash me once more, dad said, and I’m going to hold you under until the bubbles come up. I remembered how it felt, him catching me by the neck, then the way that storm seemed like it was everywhere.

I wrapped Mrs. Gwynn’s yellow shag around me like a pelt and curled into a ball. Its rubbery backing stuck to my skin. Had a stagnant smell. I pulled the rug up over my head then fingered the stolen pocketknife from my shoe. Holding it reminded me of the raccoon that’d yanked those wires into the trap. That raccoon had looked pretty healthy to me.

All of them had looked fine as far as I could tell.

July 17, 2023

Barney T. Haney

Barney T. Haney teaches English at the University of Indianapolis. Winner of the Chris O’Malley Prize, his work has appeared in Mid-American Review, Marathon Lit Review, and Barely South Review, among others.

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