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The Greatest Man in Cedar Holeby Stephanie Doyon
Chapter One: Bottom of the Bucket
On the first morning of the new school year, Miss Delia Pratt began the session by ignoring the collection of miserable little souls that made up her fourth-grade class. As they wandered in from the playground, she cracked open the newest issue of True Detective magazine and flipped directly to the exploits of Detective Nick Cabot, whom she followed faithfully every month. To the bumbling students in slickers and rain boots clotting the doorway, Delia raised an absent hand — the same way a cow might swat a cloud of flies circling her flank — but her full attention was paid to Cabot, who was clipping at the heels of the notorious jewel thief he had been trailing all summer. A flash of the badge, a click of the handcuffs, and the classroom dissolved; Delia's mind became broad and dense, the corners rounded and dulled to a blissful stupor. Her body took on the slogging consistency of pudding, allowing her head to wobble forward and her chin to sink down into the exposed chasm of her cleavage.
The students stared in horror as their teacher's eyelids flitted closed and the brass clasp holding her blond updo slid along the back of her neck. A single whimper rose up from the doorway. Beads of rainwater rolled down to the hem of the children's slickers, drip-drip-dripping onto the floor in monotonous rhythm. Lungs paused, afraid to breathe. Two students with compulsive tendencies checked and rechecked the name on the front door; upon confirming and reconfirming they were in the correct classroom, one proceeded to tap his fingers against the wall, five taps per finger, while the other mentally sang through a comforting, continuous loop of "Dixie." Among the more generous children, Miss Pratt seemed, at worst, curious and unhelpful — but to the majority she was sinister and cold and her profile, if viewed at the correct angle under certain light, was not unlike that of a witch.
"Maybe she had a heart attack," one of the children whispered. The offhand comment lightened the communal mood; more than a few spines tingled at the possibility of a dead teacher and class being canceled for the entire year.
"I think she's still breathing," another said. "Go poke her with a ruler."
"You do it."
As the children debated their course of action, the sun elbowed its way into the classroom, cutting a diagonal swath from the back window to the chalkboard at the front of the room. There was cruelty in the timing of the sun's sudden, unobstructed appearance-from nearly the moment school let out in June to that very September morning, the sky had been a constant smear of gray and wet.
Cedar Hole was at a disadvantage, and not just because of the weather — the town seemed to exist almost by default. It was five miles of negative space, patched together from the discarded scraps of the surrounding hill towns of Palmdale and Mt. Etna, contained within a border so ragged and senseless it appeared to be drawn with the sole intent of shutting out every possible geographic feature of charm and beauty. The terrain was joyless; spreading out low and flat, prone to collecting runoff from the hillside, and trapping a thin fog that often didn't burn off until suppertime. The land was soggy even through summer, smelling of green rot well into the bleached heat of August.
Only the grass seemed to enjoy all the moisture. Cedar Hole lawns came up as thick as a carpet without the trouble of sprinklers or fertilizer or any of the other nonsense they had to deal with in other communities. In fact, the grass grew so quickly that constant mowing was required to keep the phenomenal growth at bay — depending on the rainfall, most people mowed upwards of three times a week. It was the first chore Cedar Hole parents passed off to their kids as soon as they were tall enough to reach the push bar, and during brief, dry periods, children hurried outside to trim the lawn before the weather turned wet again. Happy to finally get some fresh air and sunshine, they mowed with reckless speed and diffuse concentration. It was no coincidence, therefore, that Cedar Hole had the largest number of severed toes per capita in all of Gilford County.
As the sky broke for the first time in months, Miss Pratt's classroom became saturated in a teasing gold. The abrupt change in brightness roused Delia from her semi-coma; as she blinked in the glare and collected her oozing posture, her mind resumed its three dimensions. The room returned to her, bringing with it insipid paper leaves taped around the doorway and the aspirin smell of chalk dust. A dark mood was fermenting inside Delia. She took one last, longing look at Detective Cabot and slapped the magazine shut.
"Sit your asses down," she ordered.
In the doorway, the children jerked to attention. They scattered and thinned out along the wall of coat hooks, abandoning their rain boots and lunch bags along with any hopes of school being canceled. Movement brought a fleeting sense of relief, though as soon as they chose their seats and settled behind the rows of wobbly desks, relief gave way to an oppressive dread. The entire school year stretched out before them long and endless, paved by a woman whose temperament was as inhospitable as the Cedar Hole climate.
Delia rested her hands on her hips, her figure still unencumbered by the strains of motherhood or the comfortable slouch of marriage. "I don't want to be here, either, but unfortunately there are laws we have to obey." She leaned back against the front of her desk. "How many of you can already read and tell time?"
There was a smattering of raised hands.
A few hands dropped away.
"That's good — looks like everyone's caught up on their learning. No matter what they tell you, everything else is just a waste of time. History and science are only helpful if you're going to be a contestant on Twenty One — and I think it's safe to say that none of you ever will." The sunbeam trespassed across the corner of Miss Pratt's desk. With a yank she pulled the window shades down to the edge of the sill, returning the room to a more manageable atmosphere of artificial light. "So I guess we'll just have to kill time until the school year is over. Anyone have any ideas?"
Another whimper rose up from the back.
"Last year, our teacher had us make name tags," a brave soul called out. "So you can learn our names."
"I suppose that's a fair idea," she sighed. "What do you need?"
"Cards and crayons."
Miss Pratt rifled through the supply closet at the back of the room, and to her surprise discovered the exact supplies she needed. She traipsed up and down the rows, distributing index cards, fistfuls of broken crayons, and strips of cellophane tape, all the while examining the face of each student. One or two of the kids, she noticed, were new to Cedar Hole.
It was easy to spot newcomers. Aside from the obvious physical clues (rosy complexions, shiny hair, and other hallmarks of a superior gene pool), there was a restlessness behind the eyes, an almost wild panic. No one came to Cedar Hole by choice or accident — they were delivered only by the cruel hand of misfortune, dumped on the town's doorstep after all other prayers, favors, and bargains had been thoroughly exhausted.
"Welcome, dear, to Cedar Hole Elementary," Miss Pratt said to a plump brunette with pigtails. The girl wore a dotted Swiss party dress with a yellow sash tied around the waist that spoke of money but not necessarily taste. "What's your name?"
"Candace." The little girl smoothed a curl off her forehead.
"What brings you here, Candace?"
"We moved from Palmdale a few weeks ago."
"My mother and my sisters."
Miss Pratt surveyed the prissy upturn of Candace's nose. "What about your father?"
Candace yawned and stretched her arms overhead, the sole survivor of a sinking ship. "He took his secretary to Hawaii."
Moments like these, Miss Pratt concluded, were what made teaching worthwhile. Ten-year-olds were keenly observant and wise to the workings of their households, and spoke faultlessly of their parents without the hindrance of discretion. One more year, Delia knew, and contempt for their families would slowly worm its way into their hearts along with a perverse loyalty that would eventually steel their mouths shut. But right now, she could find out everything.
"That's a nice story, Candace. We'll have to talk more about it later." Delia made a few notes in the grade book next to Candace's name, underlining both the words Palmdale and Hawaii to be remembered for discussion during lunch break in the teachers' lounge.
"If anyone brought chocolate chip cookies today for snack break, see me later," she announced to the class. "No nuts, please."
Miss Pratt resumed crayon duty, digging deep into the bucket. The brighter colors — the yellows and oranges and even some reds — were hardly used, while the drab colors were worn down to nubs. In her experience, the children of Cedar Hole did not like to draw rainbows or unicorns or other sappy, mystical things. Instead, they had a penchant for rocks and moss and other tedious signatures of their landscape, their palette running to a dismal spectrum of grays, browns, and greens.
"I'll take an orange," said a little boy in the front row. "If you have one."
The boy sat bolt upright in his chair with his hands folded neatly on the desktop. Delia paused. He was so shiny and well groomed that she automatically assumed he was also a newcomer who had suffered a fate similar to Candace's.
She handed him the crayon. "Interesting choice."
The boy immediately got to work on his name tag. His letters were bold and steady, evenly spaced and gently serifed, an unusual contrast against the feeble penmanship of his classmates. Even more unusual was the inclusion of a middle initial between his Christian and surnames, accompanied by a tiny star where one could have more predictably expected a dot. The boy's creativity was so undiluted that Delia suspected he couldn't have been in Cedar Hole for very long at all — a week, at most.
"'Robert J. Cutler,'" she read aloud.
Miss Pratt had only said the name in passing — an absent play of the lips as her eyes scanned the tag, a habit from childhood that returned during unguarded moments — but Robert took it as a call to attention and stood beside his desk. The boy appeared tall for his age, though in truth he fell just below average. The illusion was created by the way he distributed weight within his slight frame — shoulders rolling back comfortably in their sockets, rib cage floating over the pelvis, chin and neck forming a confident ninety-degree arc. One hip bore the majority of his weight while the other sloped gently downward, which came across not as effeminate or arrogant but conveyed a maturity the other children in the class wouldn't reach for several more years, if ever. None of these subtleties registered with Miss Pratt, however, who was singularly taken with the boy's dress shirt and trousers. They had been pressed to a state of crispness that made her think of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.
"What's the J for, Robert?"
"Jeremiah. After my paternal grandfather."
"We use regular words in this classroom, please," Miss Pratt scolded. "There are others who might not understand your fancy language."
"My father's father, then."
Miss Pratt sniffed the air and thought she noted the starchy scent of old money — Palmdale money for sure. "Am I supposed to call you Robert J., then, or just Robert?"
"You may call me anything you like, Miss Pratt," the boy said.
His answer pleased her. Robert's manners suggested to Delia that he was from a prominent family, one that must have experienced something tragic and irreversible for him to end up in Cedar Hole. It was undoubtedly a delicate, yet juicy situation. She drew closer, choosing her questions carefully.
"When did you move here, Robert?"
The boy shifted his weight to the other hip. The smooth skin of his forehead made a fair attempt at confusion, but produced only the barest suggestion of it. "Miss Pratt?"
"When did you get here? Over the summer?"
"I think you've been misinformed," he said, lacing his fingers behind his back. "I've always lived here."
"I mean Cedar Hole."
"I understand. I've always lived here."
A shallow breath caught in Delia's throat. "You can't be a Hellion."
Cedar Hellion was the less vulgar of the two pet names Miss Pratt had for Cedar Hole natives. Like the children who were currently inhabiting her classroom, most Hellions had doughy faces and demeanors marked by alternating moods of whininess and defeat. They were fond of postures that demonstrated a sort of collective lethargy, frequently running air through their vocal cords with each exhalation to produce a repetitive string of downhearted sighs. This shiny little boy was neither doughy nor tired nor pathetic. He was clearly carved from a much finer stock than the rest.
Delia sucked her teeth. "You must have been born somewhere else, then. You were born somewhere else and your parents brought you here when you were a baby."
Robert shook his head. "My mom and dad are from Cedar Hole. We've always lived here."
"So have I — and I don't know any Cutlers."
"William and Sissy?"
"What's your mother's maiden name?"
Delia searched the boy for the distinct facial features that ran in certain local families. There was the high, yellowed forehead of the Wellers, which sank back from a very pronounced, shelflike brow bone. Or the Hanson neck, a gangly, disjointed thing that always looked ready to buckle under the weight of a too-large head. And of course there was the pitiable Rendyak smile, an overgrown set of teeth housed in an otherwise small mouth — Rendyaks were recognizable by their strained lips and their constant need to lick their teeth to keep them from drying out. Occasionally, two members of these distinguished clans would marry and have offspring, which Delia thought produced an almost unparalleled homeliness worthy of Barnum & Bailey. Perhaps, just this once, it had produced a specimen as fine as Robert.
"Beaumont," he said.
"I've never heard of them."
"No, Miss Pratt," the boy answered, returning to his name tag. "I don't suppose you have."
Numbed and startled by this new information, Miss Pratt gave him a handful of the best crayons. "We'll talk more on this later."
Delia continued on down the row. By the time she reached the last desk, she had reached the bottom of the bucket, with only a few crayon crumbles remaining.
"Not much left for you," she said to the boy sitting there. She turned the bucket upside down and dumped a handful of burnt sienna chips onto the desktop.
The boy snaked his arm around the crayon pile and swept them in close to his chest, leaving a trail of brown streaks across the top of the desk.
"Hey, I know you," she said, looking down at him. "You're a Pinkham. You've got that little dimple at the end of your nose that they all have."
Most of the students turned to take a look, except for the entire left side of the room, which had melted into infectious puddles of sleep. Bathed in the dusk of the window shade, the contagion was now threatening to spread; other nearby students nestled into the crooks of their elbows, lulled by the warm, dark cave their bodies made against the desks.
The boy made no indication to the affirmative, but Delia knew he was a Pinkham. His eyes were that same flinty gray she had seen in all the Pinkhams — eyes that craved attention, then just as quickly deflected it. Pinkham lips were curled and brooding, perpetually sour-mouthed, and frequently engaged in the process of either eating or expectorating and often both at the same time. The skin was pale to the point of translucency, a milky sheath over prominent veins, quickly turning a pulpy red if provoked. Delia even recognized the sweater the boy was wearing; the front was covered with a hand-knit baby chick, once yellow, now a peaked yellow-green, hatching from a jagged gray shell. She had seen the same sweater on all the Pinkham girls, nine times over.
"Your parents certainly are busy," Miss Pratt said with a leering wink. "How many more after you?"
"I'm the last," he said, curling in on himself, as though he half expected to crawl inside the chick's shell. If Robert was Cedar Hole at its best, the Pinkhams were the lowest of the low.
"And what did they name you?"
Miss Pratt snickered. "All those girls and they name you that."
The doughy boy sitting directly behind Francis raised his hand. "You can call him Spud — that's his nickname."
Miss Pratt knelt beside Francis's desk and leaned in close to his ear. "Don't worry, no one's expecting too much from you. If you're gonna take off, don't hang out in the hall where Principal Nelson can catch you — he's already on my case enough. Go out back in the woods — got it?"
Francis didn't answer. He picked up a piece of brown crayon and wrote spud on the index card.
"And another thing," she said, lowering her voice. "Any chance I could bum a smoke off you? I left mine at home."
Francis curled his upper lip, where a white crust of mucus had dried. "I don't have any."
"Sure. Well, if you see any of your sisters, tell them to meet me behind the Dumpster at lunch. Billie owes me half a pack by now. Okay?"
Copyright © 2005 by Stephanie Doyon
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