Zero Conditional

by Caitlin Horrocks

Principal Steckelberg was late. Eril brushed snow off the wooden steps of the administrative portable and sat to wait for him. Daycroft Montessori Academy was made up only of portables, standing in a circle on concrete blocks. The office building was brown. The other five were blue, yellow, orange, green, pink. In her phone interview, the principal had told her that the portables were the same colors as the pie wedges in Trivial Pursuit. This, he had said, symbolized the value Daycroft put on knowledge. When Principal Steckelberg arrived he unlocked Cerulean, where Eril would be teaching the third grade.

“Fourth grade is in Vermilion, second in Lemon, first in Tangerine, fifth in Salmon. We have an excellent teaching staff. They’ll be a real resource for you.” Steckelberg opened the door and stood aside, gesturing toward the darkened classroom, as if presenting a prize she had won. Eril supposed she had. It was a job, after all. The heat had been off for two weeks and she could see her breath. A long table below the windows on the opposite wall was covered with cages of hamsters, a rat, a fish tank, a tiny garter snake under a heat lamp.

“Your predecessor was quite the biologist. We’re sorry to lose her. She had a last minute job offer after Christmas. Some kind of field work out in New Mexico, dietary habits of predatory birds. She was coming in to feed the animals up until yesterday.”

On the table, Eril’s predecessor had left long lists of instructions on the care and feeding of the animals. She had also left bowls of soft grey balls of owl vomit filled with the fur and bones of whatever the owl had eaten. The contents of twenty pellets had been glued, spread-eagled, on squares of cardboard, the bones arranged into the skeletons of voles and shrews. It was an ambitious project for third graders. The skeletons were caked in Elmer’s glue, slivers of rib bones shellacked onto skulls, paw bones the size of rice grains wedged into eye sockets. Larger bones were scattered across the table, sticks and bark and the jagged brown dust of dried leaves, sea shells that smelled like the residue of the animals they’d harbored, damp and rotting and salty. It was a great wreckage of life.

“I’m sure you’ll want to prep, so I’ll leave you to it. I’ve left the key in the door. Once again, welcome. Glad you could join us on such short notice.”

The principal left and Eril walked across the room to the table. The portable felt suspended over some uncertain, hollow space. Once she heard the principal’s car pull away, wheels spinning in the unplowed lot, she jumped up and down. The floor quivered. Eril was not used to feeling so large. She looked at the walls, the alphabet in cursive, the American flag, a series of Your State Symbol posters: the official fish of the state of Michigan was apparently the Brook Trout, the official mineral the Petoskey stone. The official state game animal was the White-Tailed Deer, for which, she read, the hunting season was divided into periods for Archery, Regular and Late Firearm, and Muzzle-loading. She wondered if her eight year olds would know these things. She wondered what she was supposed to teach them. For a moment she wanted to cry.

* * *

Monday morning she stood and watched the children arrive, stripping off their coats and boots in a pile near the door. The children stared at her suspiciously and read her name, Ms. Larcom, on the blackboard along with the date and a Word of the Day: fortitude. A boy lifted the rat out of its cage and cradled it in his hands, letting the long, hairless tail dangle in the air like a tentacle. “Binx’s tumors have gotten bigger,” he announced, and set the rat on a blonde girl’s head. The girl screamed and the week went downhill from there.

Thursday was a field trip, already arranged by the departed biologist. There was no money to charter a bus, so Eril had been left instructions to walk the children to the corner and catch the 16B Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor bus to the Natural History Museum. The docent delivered the museum rules while standing next to a transparent plastic woman whose internal organs could be lit by pressing buttons. Bored, the children lit her pancreas, large intestine, esophagus. Then the boys figured out what the mammary glands were, and the woman lit up like a strobe light, like a showgirl, until the bulb in her left breast went out with a loud snap. A hot, burning smell lingered.

“They’re very immature,” a voice commented, down by Eril’s waist. She looked down at Donald’s brown hair, so light it looked dusty, like he was either prematurely old or extremely dirty. He’d worn a sweatshirt with dinosaurs on it, “to mark the occasion” he’d said. Then he told her, “Maybe you should tell them to stop.”

“They’ll get bored in a minute.”

“You’re the teacher. You should tell them to stop.”

“You should mind your own business.”

“You’re not a very good teacher, are you?”

“Maybe you’re not a very good student.”

“That’s not true,” Donald said. “I’m an excellent student.”

Of Eril’s twenty students, she’d decided she liked Donald the least. He’d held her hand on the bus, refusing to notice the way the other kids mocked him, and lectured her on how Archaeopteryx was the first prehistoric bird, who had both scales and feathers, and how during the Ice Age Mastodons had once walked here, right here, along the 16B bus route. It seemed to Eril that there was something very wrong with him.

The docent walked them past the plastic woman to the Hall of Dinosaurs and paused by a duck-billed Parasaurolophus skull. “Are you signed up for the planetarium show?” she asked Eril.

“Sure,” Eril said. “The planetarium sounds good.”

“They might be a little young,” the docent said.

“For the planetarium? They’ll be okay.”

During the show a little cartoon astronaut, white and puffy like the Michelin Man, floated across the starry ceiling. “The surface of the sun is very hot,” the narrator intoned. “Much too hot for humans to survive. They would burn up instantly.” The astronaut disappeared into the yellow circle of the sun as a man’s screams faded into silence on the soundtrack. One of the students whimpered. On the way back to Daycroft, Eril threatened not to let the troublemakers, the mammary gland boys, the whimpering girl, the incessant, chatty Donald, back on the bus. “I’m going to leave you here,” she said. “Let’s see how you like that.” It was a clumsy threat, Eril knew as she made it. The kids knew she didn’t mean it, and this just confirmed what they’d known for a week: Ms. Larcom was not a very good teacher.

At the staff meeting that afternoon Eril asked about curriculum, about lesson plans, about discipline, about what was and was not appropriate for third graders, about all the things she was only just realizing she knew nothing about, absolutely nothing. Besides the principal and secretary there were four other teachers, refugees who had come to Daycroft Montessori in search of a place to exercise their frustrated talents. One decorated the class bulletin boards with her own hand-painted borders, spent two weeks every January on watercolor reproductions of famous paintings, the originals taped to the students’ desks so they could be confronted with their own inadequacy. Another recycled the vocabulary of modern dance into stress-relieving activities, physical fitness initiatives, units encouraging creative self-expression. The fifth grade teacher had filled her classroom with all the musical instruments she could afford, meaning mostly bongos and plastic xylophones. She had written a version of the Code of Hammurabi set to bongo accompaniment for a unit on Justice Through the Ages. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” she sang, drumming her hands on the table. “The kids love it.”

They asked Eril what drove her, what she loved, what she could twist into thematic units that met MEA standards for the third grade year. But Eril was a woman without great talents, forced to pride herself on small, unexpected skills, like the way she could untangle knots, hold her breath for two and a half minutes, or the way she’d taught herself in the sixth grade to balance things on her head the way women did in third world countries or finishing schools. She still practiced sometimes, unloading groceries from the car and balancing a twelve pack of diet soda on the top of her head, plastic bags in each hand.

* * *

That Friday, the end of her first week, Eril commenced teaching grammar. It was something she knew. The four types of conditionals, starting with the Zero. The conditional tense for certitude, a state of inevitability: If you heat water to 100 degrees Celsius, it boils, Eril wrote, then crossed it out. If students misbehave, they are punished, she wrote in larger letters. The chalk squeaked as she made the final “d” and the children complained. Eril rapped her knuckles on the board. “Five examples in your notebooks. Go.”

She walked around the room and looked over their shoulders. If you go to the sun, you die. If astronauts go to a star, they scream and burn up. Donald had two sentences so far: If climate change happens, species go extinct, and If people are mean to someone, they will be sorry.

“That’s the first conditional,” Eril said. “We haven’t learned that yet.”

“They are sorry,” Donald corrected.

“It’s grammatically correct,” Eril said. “But it’s not really true. They aren’t usually sorry at all, are they?”

Donald erased his sentence.

* * *

Daycroft was not a real Montessori school. Daycroft was not, as far as Eril could tell, a real anything apart from a last ditch effort to avoid Ypsilanti public schools. For parents who couldn’t afford other private schools or charters and didn’t bother looking too closely, there was always Daycroft. The student body, Steckelberg had told her, was a stimulating combination of disadvantaged youth and wealthy hippie offspring. Eril had just earned an Associate’s Degree in Behavioral Science at Washtenaw Community College. It would have been in Hospitality but she’d changed majors in her last semester; a surprising number of the requirements had been the same.

When Eril saw her friends all they wanted to talk about was the job, how funny it was, Eril as a schoolteacher, Eril who’d never cared for school, who couldn’t do math, who had no affection for English beyond the mechanics of it, who, at twenty-one, hadn’t even scraped through a real college, who, upon graduation, had filled out applications to be a desk clerk at the Marriott, an assistant manager at a sandwich shop, a receptionist at a furniture distributor, and a schoolteacher, and gotten hired by the school. “It’s just for the semester,” she told them. “Teaching’s not for me.”

“We could have told you that,” they said, and she’d wish desperately that someone had.

On her better days, she decided it wouldn’t have made any difference if they had or hadn’t told her. As little as Daycroft could get away with paying her, without certification, without a clue, it was more than she’d earn elsewhere. Enough to keep her in her apartment, pay the higher car insurance premiums since her parents had removed themselves as co-drivers. Enough to call her parents and give them the number of a cell phone she’d paid for herself.

On other days Eril would drive the long route home, back into Ann Arbor, past the house she’d grown up in and that her parents had sold, and think about how she could teach forever and never be able to afford to live in that neighborhood again. She felt as if the job, her whole post-parent life, was an elaborate game with particular rules about money, about independence, about fortitude; it was only sometimes that she remembered there was no judge, no winner to be declared, and no prize to be awarded.

* * *

One of the rat’s tumors kept growing, swelling out from his armpit to the size of a ping pong ball. It dragged along the ground as he walked, until there was a bald patch at the bottom of the swell. The children refused to touch him anymore. Eril followed her predecessor’s instructions to the letter but the rat got sicker, the snake got sluggish, the shells got stinkier. Whatever kind of green thumb the other woman had had with animals, Eril thought, she had the opposite. The water in the fish tank grew cloudier. There were special snails, Donald explained, who were supposed to eat the algae but couldn’t keep up since Eril didn’t seem to take good enough care of the water. The snails hid all day, Donald said, sleeping, but if it was dark and quiet, like at night, they would come out and start eating the algae. This, he told Eril and the rest of the class, was called nocturnal.

“I know that,” she said, and wrote it on the board with a line under it.

Donald asked, “Do you know what the opposite is called? What we are? Sleeping at night?”

“Why don’t you tell us?”

“Maybe I don’t want to.”

Eril didn’t know the word he meant and Donald knew it. She turned to the blackboard. Second Conditional, she wrote. If Donald behaved himself, he would not have to touch the rat. The class whispered. Eril walked to the animal table, the thin floor echoing beneath her. She lifted Binx out of the cage, supporting the tumor with her right palm so the weight of it wouldn’t drag on the rat’s skin. She carried Binx to Donald’s desk and set him down, cupping her hands into a loose enclosure. “Touch the rat,” Eril ordered.

“Diurnal. The word was diurnal.”

“It’s a little late for that. Touch.”

Grimly Donald stroked the smooth white fur on the rat’s head. The rat’s whiskers twitched.

“Now touch the tumor,” Eril said. That had been the Word of the Day two weeks ago, tumor, so the students could put a name to what was happening to their class rat, define his misfortune and use it in a sentence.

“Ewwwwww…” the class called out, and Eril shushed them. For once it worked, and the classroom was silent as Donald traced the bulge with the tip of his index finger. Eril saw him shaking and almost told him to stop, it was all right, he could stop. But only almost. The class was quieter than it had been all semester. She couldn’t fold now.

That night Eril’s mother called to gloat. “What’s the temperature there? Forty-something?” Eril’s parents had sold the house just after Christmas; her father had taken early retirement and they’d kept an eye on real estate prices, looked at condominiums in Florida or Arizona, places where they would never have to shovel snow again. The day they left for Scottsdale, Eril moved into a studio apartment filled with boxes of her old books, clothes, and stuffed animals that her parents had announced they would no longer have room for. She had her bedroom furniture and whatever else her parents hadn’t wanted. She had two coffeetables and no couch. She’d sit on one table, put her feet up on the other, and watch the old television her parents had left. If she angled it right she could get all the networks plus the Canadian channel, broadcast from across the Detroit River in Windsor. There was nowhere to put the boxes so they stayed piled along the walls, four of them wedged in a cube under the card table she ate at. She’d forget and bang her knees against them as she ate frozen pizzas in the evening.

I guess it’s in the forties,” Eril told her mother.

“You know what it’s like here?”

“Nice?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe. I’m sure you’ll have another freeze before spring, too.” “Probably.”

“How’s the boyfriend?”

“There’s no boyfriend. Not since August. You know that.”

“That was August. Plenty of time for someone new.”

“There isn’t anyone.” Eril curled her legs beneath her on the sturdier coffee table.

“Are you looking?”

“I’m trying not to get devoured by small children.”

“The job’s going that well?”

I tortured a child today, Eril wanted to say. I made a boy touch a dying rat. “The bathroom’s right in my classroom, practically,” she said. “Just this flimsy door. You can hear the kids peeing. It’s too weird. My back teeth are floating by the time I get home.”

“I put the old Amaryllis, you know, from the backyard, in the guest bathroom here but it hasn’t bloomed. I don’t think there’s enough light.”

“The kids are pretty crazy. I can’t make them shut up.”

“Hats off, Eril. I wouldn’t teach kids. You were enough, and there was only one of you.”

“I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

“I’m sure you’re doing just fine.”

“I’m really not.” I should quit, she almost said. I should get out before I hit one of them. I don’t know what’s happening to me.

“Modesty gets you nowhere. Your father and I are both very proud of you, you know. Really showing your independence.”

“Thanks,” Eril said, swinging her legs out to rest them on a box behind the coffee table. Her feet sank through the top and she felt the plush fur of an old teddy bear, a coffee-colored puppy, Eleroo the purple Wuzzle, squish beneath her toes. “That means a lot.”

* * *

The next week the ground refroze into ridges and canyons of mud and weeds, footprints and tire tracks caught rigid by the cold snap and dusted with snow flurries. The kids came to school in boots again, left them at the door and went to their desks in sock feet. Eril passed out a grammar worksheet and tried to get them to work in pairs, boy-girl: it was mutiny. They shouted in protest, they howled about cooties. The biggest boy poked a girl in the eye and Eril couldn’t tell whether or not he meant to do it. The sound level in the room rose, tidal and swelling; it broke over her, and she turned to the board and wrote, “Third Conditional: If the class had listened to Ms. Larcom, they would not have had to go outside.”

“Recess!” the eye-poker said.

“No,” Eril said. “This is a punishment. Get in your line.”

“Boots come first,” the eye-pokee reminded her. “Then line.”

“No boots,” Eril said, and stared them all down. It was strange, she thought, the way they didn’t protest. They howled bloody murder at boys working with girls, but she could lead them like lambs out onto the frozen dirt of the yard. They stood there in a line in their socks, without coats, and she looked at each of their feet: stripey, mismatched, Spiderman, Barbie, plain white athletic. Two girls were in tights, one boy barefoot. She saw faces at the windows of the other portables and waited for someone to come outside, to tell her to stop. No one did. Finally she looked at her watch. It was almost time for math. “Back inside,” she said, watching them file past, shivering. Surely they’d tell their parents, the parents would tell Steckelberg, and she’d be fired. She felt only relief.

But Steckelberg never came to talk to her. No one came, and Eril wondered if the kind of parents who sent their kids to Daycroft ever actually asked what they did there. Eventually the children had neat lists of sample sentences written in their notebooks, four kinds of conditionals plus mixed clauses. If Sammy had not made farting noises, Ms. Larcom would not have taken his lunch. If Lindsey had not passed notes about Ms. Larcom in class, Ms. Larcom would not have cut a piece of her hair off. If PJ had not put a tack on Donald’s seat, Ms. Larcom would not have made him sit on a tack himself to see how he liked it. If Donald weren’t always such a know-it-all, Ms. Larcom would never have put masking tape over his mouth.

The animals were getting worse, too. The fish tank was thick with algae and thicker with snails. One night Eril had worked late with only a desk lamp on, and she’d seen them emerge, inching out of their hiding places to climb up the walls, their slimy gray bodies pressed against the glass. That night, at another staff meeting where no one would meet her eyes, Eril stayed after to talk to the principal.

“It’s about the animals,” she said. “Something needs to be done.” She explained about the death, the stink, the strange, unsettling ways they were all falling apart.

“That’s good material,” Steckelberg said. “The circle of life. Plan some lessons around them.”

“Is that really a lesson we want them to learn? Aren’t they kind of young?”

“You seem to be teaching them all kinds of lessons, Ms. Larcom. I’m really not sure why you’re objecting to this one.”

Eril looked at him, swallowed, tried to think of a way to explain herself. Wondered if he shouldn’t be the one to explain himself, if he knew what she was doing and hadn’t intervened.

“Just make it to the end of the semester, Ms. Larcom. That’s all any of us are expecting. Just make it to June.”

* * *

Binx made it to April 21st. Eril found him dead that morning and emptied the pencils out of a rectangular box in the supply cupboard. She lifted the bulging rat into the box and covered him with a tissue. She closed the lid, Scotch taped it shut, and wrote “Binx” across the top. Then the students began arriving and there was no time to bury him. Before Eril could hide the box, they saw it and demanded to bury the rat themselves. Eril assigned them into groups to handle formalities like “Eulogy,” “Gravesite Selection,” “Hole Digging.” They scheduled the funeral for after lunch. But when Eril went to pick up the coffin from the windowsill, it was gone. The children denied knowing anything. She made them drag their chairs against the wall and sit still while she searched. The box was in Donald’s desk, the cardboard top open, the rat nestled inside.

“You stole my rat,” Eril said, holding the box in front of Donald’s face.

“The class’s rat.”

“Whatever. You’ve got a dead rat in your desk.”

“I wanted to tell Binx goodbye.”

“You have to ask the teacher if you can do something like that. Maybe Binx died of something catching.”

There was a general shifting of bodies and thunking of chairs as the students moved away from Donald and Binx and Eril.

“The word is contagious,” Donald said.

“You’re staying inside for the funeral. Then you’re staying after. We’ll sit here until the snails come out.”

“Fine,” Donald said. Eril felt victorious, that the boy with the enormous vocabulary was still reduced to “fine” in the face of her authority. Her discipline was flailing but final.

After Binx had been eulogized and buried, Donald’s face at the classroom window, after a multiplication quiz and a map review had been stumbled through, the other children packed their backpacks and went home. Eril turned off the lights and closed the shades. Donald’s face was lit green by the lights inside the aquarium, shining through the shifting, algae-clouded water. They sat together, close to the tank, and Eril knew she must look the same way, green and unearthly. They sat for what felt like a very long time and Eril looked behind her, realized she couldn’t make out the face of the wall clock. She wondered how Donald got home, who picked him up, if there was a bus he caught, if he walked. Hating children left her breathless. It made her feel powerless, to hate someone so small, thin and fragile people who could not even tie shoes correctly, who ate pudding snacks and played kickball and whose handwriting was clumsy, unpracticed. Who fumbled with their snow pants and seemed unable to navigate even the most basic challenges life would provide. Who even so would not respect her and would not listen. It took her outside of herself. Ms. Larcom was someone helpless, petty, venal. She was cruel and incompetent. She was not Eril, could not be. Could not: modal verb, negative certainty.

“Donald, if you need to get home—” she said, splitting the silence, the soft gurgle of the water filters. “If there’s a bus you need to catch—”

“Shhhh….” Donald said, and put his index finger to his lips. It was like all his gestures, studied, precise, like human behavior learned from pictures instead of from actual humans. It made her want to hit him.

“I’m not saying I don’t think you need punishment. I’m just saying—”

“Shhhh, please.”

“Donald, I’m saying you can go.”

“The snails won’t come out unless you’re quiet.”

“I don’t care if the snails come out.”

“If the snails don’t come out we can’t leave.” He looked at her, stricken but instructional, explaining a truth that she’d conveniently forgotten. He put one hand on his hip and the other he used to scold her, wagging his finger in the air in front of her face. In the green light he looked underwater, the pale hand floating in front of her.

“Donald, I’m sorry. Forget about the snails. You can go.”

“Be quiet, please.”

“I’m trying to apologize.”

“Please, Ms. Larcom.”

“I’m sorry about Binx. I’m sorry about everything.”

“Shush, Ms. Larcom.”

“Is there something I can do for you, Donald? Do you need a ride home? Tell me what you want me to do.”

“Be quiet, please,” Donald said, almost moaning. “Just please be quiet, or we’ll never get to leave.”

Caitlin Horrocks is the author of the story collection, This Is Not Your City. Her stories and essays appear in The Best American Short Stories 2011, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, The Pushcart Prize XXXV, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story and elsewhere. Her work has won awards including the Plimpton Prize and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship. She is a fiction editor at West Branch and teaches at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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