Fiction

Toil & Trouble

September 2015

By Brian Daly

potionsI go to Parkside High, home of the Not-So-Great Apes.

Wait. That might not be their name.

Then what is it?

What? What? What?

Oh, this is the worst. I have to remember what to call them so I can cheer them on to victory in “The Big Game.”

Just kidding.

But now I’m serious: If you see me at “The Big Game” or even “The Petite But Adorable Game,” shoot me. Shoot me dead before I cram my hand into a foam “We’re Number One” finger.

I hate my school.

Parkside High has a plus-size student body. Whoever said good things come in small packages (I think it was either Aristotle or Perez Hilton) should have gone on to say that it’s never a good idea to stuff too much into that small package. That’s Parkside: too many kids packed into the stairwells like cattle.

“Temple Grandin, please report to guidance.”

In the crush of students at Parkside, I don’t stand out. I’m a stealth student flying under the radar and sailing under the sonar and slithering under the electric eye. I might as well be invisible and fragrance-free.

This morning I climbed the front steps of the school in a herd, wondering, as always, how I was going to make it through another day. (Hypnotize myself? Chew my cud?) Then it was into the hallowed halls and up the stairs to the second floor. Mr. Littlefield, my biology teacher, was standing outside his classroom, which is what the teachers at Parkside do to provide a safe and welcoming environment for us students. Oh, the warmth! I nodded at him, and he flashed me a winning fake smile and said, “There he is!”

Yes, I was there. And thank you for noticing.

Farther down the hall, I ran into Mrs. Webber, my math teacher, and gave her the continental nod-smile combo, the one that comes with the complimentary French eyebrow.

She said, “Hey…how’s it going?”

I stuck a thumb up and narrowed an eye like a sniper. She was thinking, Here’s a young man who’s going places. I was thinking, Hey, how’s it going, Spencer? Just once.

I slipped in through the rear door of Mr. Talbot’s room and sat at my desk in the back left corner, which is where I sit in all my classes if I have a choice. While I was wrenching my English binder out of my backpack, I heard somebody come in through the front door, so I looked up and saw a young-ish woman–mid-twenties?–raking a tangle of curly black hair away from her face. She pushed her Clark Kent glasses up, too, while her hand was in the area. She was wearing clunky motorcycle boots, a colorful batik skirt (or was it a tablecloth?), a powder blue men’s dress shirt from the dollar rack at Goodwill, and a fuzzy pink cardigan she inherited from her great-aunt after the 23 cats that lived with the old girl ganged up on her one night and smothered her while she slept.

She looked fabulous.

Old Mr. Talbot, bent over his desk like Bob Cratchit, was squinting at his iPad and trying to do something mind-blowingly complicated like check his school email.

She said, “Mr. Talbot?”

Nothing from him. Not now. He was busy. Intense concentration required. Barely breathing. Emergency call. Bomb squad. Tick tick tick. Got to defuse it.

She said, “I’m your intern,” and smiled.

Snip the blue wire. Wait–maybe the green.

She advanced on him with her hand extended, and finally he blinked and said, “Who?”

“Sue Stein. Your intern.”

As they shook hands, he said, “Oh, my goodness. Welcome to Parkside High, Ms. Stein. I’m Milton Talbot.”

I’d been paying attention to what was going on in the front of the room and hadn’t noticed my English binder sliding down the desktop. It tipped over the edge and slapped the floor, which made Ms. Stein look my way.

“Oh,” she said. “Hello there.”

“Hi.”

“This is one of your sophomore English students: Schuyler Watson.”

“It’s Spencer Wilson.”

“Nice to meet you, Spencer.”

“Right,” I said. “Spencer. Nice to meet you, too, Ms. Stein.”

Other kids were showing up for English now, but she kept talking to me, which was refreshing. She said, “I’m a student at the university, and I’m going to be here for a while doing an internship–”

“–teaching Macbeth,” said Mr. Talbot, a dim smile perking up his saggy face.

She said, “Really? I didn’t know.”

“Oh, yes.” said Mr. Talbot. “Macbeth. Every year at this time.”

Ms. Stein said, “It’s been a while since I’ve read it, so I’m going to need some time to prepare.”

“Oh, there’s no need, dear. No need at all.”

Did I notice the skin over Ms. Stein’s temples tighten ever so slightly when she heard “dear”? (How would you know? You weren’t there. Forget I asked.)

Mr. Talbot opened a squeaky drawer low on his vintage oak desk and lifted out a tome that looked like a Bible with a water retention issue. He said, “You can use my Macbeth file,” and dropped it–thwomp!–onto his desk, narrowly missing the iPad.

Ms. Stein gulped. “Thank you. I’m sure it’ll be a big help.”

Mr. Talbot said, “Well, let’s see.”

“You mean now?”

“No time like the present.”

“I just meant I thought I’d have a day or two to get settled in and–”

“Oh, give it a try. Jump right in. I’ll introduce you.”

And within a minute, Ms. Stein picked the Macbeth file up from Mr. Talbot’s desk and started reading to us. What fun. Nothing else quickens the pulse like listening to someone read unfamiliar material written in a leaden style. When she got to the part about the play being written in iambic pentameter, Mr. Talbot clapped the five-beat rhythm, looking happy that he could still clap.

I scanned the room from my observation post in the back to see how the lesson was going over: Thirty-two kids looked ready to go nighty-night.

Ms. Stein kept reading. “The Bard arranged words to suit his needs and desires, whether to create rhythm or to highlight phrases or to make a character’s speech pattern unique. At times, he inverted the typical word order of English speech. For instance, a character might say, ‘Goes he,’ instead of ‘He goes.’”

Rudy lifted a well-muscled arm and said, “Ms. Stein, I’ve got to go.”

Ms. Stein said, “Go? You mean to the–”

“Bad.”

Mr. Talbot said, “You’re a sophomore in high school now, Rudy, and it’s time you learned self-control. See if you can hold on.”

When they get around to remaking the juvenile delinquent movies of the 1950s, Rudy will be cast as a brooding loner in a tight T-shirt who gets shot accidentally when a zip gun battle breaks out at the Pulaski Day Dance.

While Rudy slumped at his desk and scowled, Ms. Stein, her forearms seizing up, put the file down and said, “You know, kids, I was just thinking. So much of William Shakespeare’s life is unknown to us, but his life’s work is familiar to people all over the world. Isn’t that something? He wrote Macbeth 400 years ago, and here we are today at Parkside High beginning our study of that very play.”

Mr. Talbot looked just a tad put out. Back to the file already!

But Ms. Stein pressed on extemporaneously, probably glad to give her arms a rest. “I remember one of the themes of this play is ambition, and now that I’m thinking about it, it seems to me that Shakespeare, who was a playwright trying to forge a career in an iffy business, must have understood what a powerful drive ambition can be, and that probably helped him write the Macbeth character as a fully-formed human being.”

I made a note of that.

Camden, famous school-wide for her flowing mane of perfect blonde hair and for using people and then throwing them away like dental floss, must have heard that tidbit even though she was watching a horror movie on her iPad with her earbuds plugged in underneath all the hair. She snapped her fingers. Taylor, her top handmaiden, leaned forward from the desk behind her.

Camden said, “Write that down.”

Write that down?

Oh.

Ah.

I see.

Camden wanted to give the impression to Mr. Talbot and Ms. Stein that she was paying attention and she wanted to keep Taylor on her toes. Just last year all she was allowed to do for Camden was give her her dessert at lunch, and now this year she picks out the horror movies that Camden watches in school. If that isn’t the American Dream in action, I don’t know what is. Of course Taylor makes herself sick worrying that her movie selection might displease Her Highness, but that’s the price she pays for status. Today’s movie seemed to be a winner. Phew. From what I could glimpse, it had something to do with dead teenagers. Maybe you’ve seen it.

Ms. Stein said, “The ambition that drove Shakespeare to make a name for himself with his plays was like the ambition that drove Macbeth to make a name for himself by murdering Duncan and–”

Mr. Talbot said, “All well and good. Thank you, Ms. Stein. Now please return to the lesson.”

That’s what Ms. Stein did, but she looked a tad put out herself to be reined in just when she was starting to roll.

I wrote “make a name for himself” in my notebook.

Then I leaned on my elbows, my face in my hands, and closed my eyes so I could concentrate on the lecture.

Not.

I took a nap.

When I came to, I checked out the room again. Some of the kids were awake, but their heads were doing the slow orbit thing, and there was drooling.

Ms. Stein read, “In the year 1603, King James VI of Scotland ascended to the throne of England, at which time he also became known as King James I. Londoners of the day became as interested in Scottish culture as students at Parkside High School are today.”

Well, there’s a meaningful benchmark.

And the bell rang.

Rise and shine!

The other kids left, but I stayed behind for a minute to look at my notes. While I was reading them, I highlighted “ambition,” “make a name for himself,” and “theatre,” and when I did that, the seed of an idea took root in the mental soil inside the cerebral flowerpot on the psychological windowsill of my mind’s kitchen, right next to the virtual spider plant.

This is chapter one of Brian Daly’s Toil & Trouble, a novel about “a high-school sophomore who thinks he’s put the Macbeth Curse on his school’s production of ‘The Scottish Play.’ He’s the author of Big and Hairy, a middle grade novel. He also wrote the screenplay adaptation of that book for a Showtime Original  Feature starring Richard Thomas. Look for a staged reading of Brian’s new musical comedy Come Out Swingin’! at the Lyric Music Theater on October 2.