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By Lois Ruby
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Lois Ruby
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Told by Adam
"Poetry is a bitch," Mrs. Loomis said that fateful day in October, and I wasn't sure I'd heard her right, since I'd been staring at the pie-faced clock that was groaning its way toward the end of English. But when Diana gasped, I knew I'd heard a word come out of Loomis's mouth that any of us would've been sent to the assistant principal for.
"Adam, how is poetry a bitch?" Mrs. Loomis asked. She had a habit of picking me for the big ones, because in her mind I was the classic underachiever, like my brother Eric who managed to get in to law school anyway. I think all the teachers spent their lunch hour talking about me. My name was probably carved on the oak frame of the couch in the teachers' lounge, so that when I graduate, the Dwight D. Eisenhower High School teachers who never had me in their classes will hear about Adam Bergen, the one whose name is synonymous with wasted potential.
"Well, uh," I began, sliding my hand through my straight brown hair. My hair flopped right back into place, as I knew it would, because my hair is one of the few things I can count on at least 94 percent of the time.
"Yes, Adam?" Mrs. Loomis's smile looked like it caused her great pain as it cracked the papier mâché of her face.
"It's kind of hard to explain."
"Ah, Adam, how true," Mrs. Loomis said. "And how imprecise. Take the word literally."
Literally? Bitch? I could think of a few at Eisenhower High. But I knew Loomis was looking for something bigger, something more Shakespearial. I looked around the room for a clue.
"Back to the clock, Adam? It can't possibly advance toward the bell without your watchful eye. We all owe you a debt of gratitude."
The class snickered, but a quick glance behind me told me that Diana wasn't involved in making me feel like the court fool. She was feverishly writing in her green notebook. Pretty soon her hand shot up; I felt the wind at my back.
She cleared her throat and read from the loopy backhand writing I was always trying to decipher whenever she passed me a note in class. "Poetry is a bitch because her face looks sad, but her tail — that's T-A-I-L — tells a different story."
"Very good, Diana. Anyone else?" Behind her back (which was like the Great Wall of China), we called Loomis the Big Bang, largely because her polyester pants were so dangerously full that we expected an explosion at any time. Wasn't this how the world started? She'd start a whole new universe full of little creatures that instinctively knew the difference between a predicate nominative and an object. What a thing to look forward to.
Mrs. Loomis turned her back and tubbed her way over to the chalkboard. When she walked, the flesh followed a few seconds behind her. "People? Any ideas?" she asked, in that Sandy Duncan voice that couldn't have been her own.
"Where's the ventriloquist?" Diana had asked, that first August day in Loomis's class.
"Gentlemen? Have you anything to contribute?"
The guys in the class were all slumped down in the chairs as if, nearly laid out on the floor, we might not be spotted by Mrs. Loomis's X-ray eyes.
It was a big relief when Cynthia Turner raised her hand and read breathlessly, "Poetry is a bitch because, well, like a dog, she's real loyal, only she's loyal to language, not a master."
Mrs. Loomis gave Cynthia her cracked smile. Suddenly hands were going up all over the room. Not hands with motor grease under the nails, or with Def Leppard written on the palms like tattoos. No, these were all female hands.
"Poetry is a bitch," Katie said, emphasis on the itch part, "because she gives birth to words that feed on her and grow into big, like, sonnets — no, bigger than sonnets, like, epics, like, big dogs, you know, German shepherds?"
"Yes. Well, you get the point, class. Those were some reasonably good examples. I'm still looking for something from you gents."
We slunk lower. Suddenly my friend Brent's voice shot into the silence. "I know a poem, Miz Loomis. It's the shortest poem in the English language, and it's about Adam."
Oh, no, here it comes.
"It's called 'Fleas.' It goes, 'Fleas — Adam had 'em.'" Well, Brent brought the house down. Even Loomis laughed, shaking the Jell-O in her polyester and maybe hurrying the dawn of the new universe.
"Thank you for that note of levity, Brent. And now, can we return to our lesson for today? Gentlemen, you can all sit up now, the heat's off. Pay attention. When I say 'poetry is a bitch' or 'my heart is a cavern,' what literary device am I using?"
It was metaphor; everybody knew that. Metaphor was whatever compared things but didn't have the words "like" or "as" in it. But I wasn't about to say it out loud. Rulo Número Uno of High School: If you know the answer, never, never volunteer it unless your graduation depends on it. This was like the thieves' code of ethics the guys always followed, and why not, since it's worked for generations, and men are still getting elected president and king and all that stuff.
The hand was clicking from one second to the other. Three more sweeps of the clock, and the bell would ring. Only another fifty-four minutes until lunch. The cafeteria had to be serving pizza, because it was Tuesday.
"— into pairs," I caught Loomis saying.
My mother had packed a huge, juicy pear in my sack. It was a Harry-and-David Fruit-of-the-Month-Club pear, and just thinking about it made my mouth water. A big wedge of cheese pizza, a piece of cake, chocolate milk, celery and carrot sticks (for tossing like wet spears across the lunchroom, into the geek camp), and my yellow pear. Not a bad lunch. I was a man of huge appetites. That's what Diana said. But we're talking lunch here. I could eat and eat and never get fat. To tell the truth, I could have used about ten extra pounds, mostly in the legs and buns. "Buns are everything, Adam, everything," Diana said one night, and since then I'd been trying to figure out how to get my food to settle there, short of plastering pizza to my butt.
Pizza. Maybe I'd have two slices today. At a buck a piece? I tried to remember what was in my wallet. You see? I kept busy during English.
"— though I'm loathe to appear sexist," Mrs. Loomis said. My eyes snapped away from the clock. Certain words grab your attention. "I am pairing you by gender this time, because the ladies of this particular class seem to have a firmer grasp on poetry than the gentlemen. So, I've made my pairings for the poetry project."
No problem. She'd pair me with Diana, of course. Everyone knew we were going out together. Diana wouldn't push the poetry business too hard, and when we were parked in the back seat of her car, I can guarantee that poetry wouldn't be the main topic. But, even though one of Mrs. Loomis's favorite lines was "justice, justice shalt thou pursue," she didn't. I got stuck with Miriam Pelham.
How do I describe Miriam Pelham? The best word to describe her is "no." No make-up, no jeans, no Tshirts, no sneakers, no jewelry, no shape, no personality. Also, no friends. In the Who's Who of Eisenhower High, Miriam Pelham wasn't actually anybody. If you looked her up in the back of our yearbook, the Abilene, you'd probably see only her junior picture, her face and eyes and hair all one faded-out shade of winter gray. In class, you never knew Miriam was there. The only way you could tell she wasn't, was by staring at her empty seat long enough to remember who usually sat there.
Brent looked over at me and gave me the finger-down-the-throat sign. He got Ramona Ruiz as his poetry partner, and Ramona was at least a 42C, which made up for her moustache. Miriam Pelham. How lucky could a guy get?
It was Loomis's way of getting even with me, pairing me with the deadest girl in the class. What did Miriam need with a great extracurricular school like Eisenhower? She might as well have been in a convent. On the day the whole senior class cut school and went to Cheney Lake, Miriam Pelham and about five other social misfits showed up for school. The teachers couldn't wait to tell us the next day. And when we had assemblies, Miriam always asked to go to the library instead. I'm guessing she never went to football games, not that I noticed. At pep rallies, which you had to go to, she sat like a mute while the rest of us exploded with wild cheers like EISENHOWER POWER!!! and WE'RE PSYCHED FOR IKE!!!
Once I asked Diana, who is in charge of the entire Eisenhower world, if Miriam Pelham did anything normal, like sweat or drink carbonated beverages.
"Well ..." Diana thought about it for a minute. "She suits up for basketball."
"Whoa, she actually gets out of those flowery skirts and starchy nun's blouses?"
"Don't be obscene, Adam."
"I'm not asking about her underwear."
"White, government issue. Little pink hearts. Just kidding. I never really noticed. I just thought it was amazing that she even played sports, being so holy and all."
Around Eisenhower, we all knew she was a religious fanatic. There were three or four others in the school who met in Mr. Borell's classroom for some hearty Bible thumping before school started. We'd see them coming out just before first hour, their faces all red and sweaty, as if they'd just been to a Friday the thirteenth movie. Of course, they never had anything to do with the rest of us normal people, as though they didn't want to catch what we had. But they didn't have much to do with Miriam, either. She didn't even sit with the Jesus freaks at lunch. Sometimes I had to pass her in the lunchroom, as I looked for my friends. She'd take things out of a rumpled sack, and she'd be reading and twirling a strand of her mousy brown hair while she ate. As crowded as the cafeteria was, there was usually an empty space on each side of her. That's religion for you.
Religion, now there's something I take seriously. I seriously try to avoid it. Oh, sure, I had to go to Sunday School for eleven miserable years, and I had the standard regulation bar mitzvah a few years ago and the confirmation last year, but now I only go to the synagogue when my parents make it a condition of my surviving into manhood. Religion is their department, not mine. It's not that I don't feel Jewish; I do. It's just that in the things that define who I am, which is one of the more exciting things we used to do in Sunday School, besides making succahs out of tongue depressors, Jewish wouldn't be at the top of the list. The list would go like this:
(2) citizen of the universe
(3) human being
(6) champion-quality debater
(8) too thin
(9) male and maybe, just maybe
So, since religion wasn't in my Top Five and was even at the lowest end of my Top Ten, you can imagine how thrilled I was to have a poetry partner who was first cousin to the Virgin Mary.
English was grinding to a close, finally. Even though I'd been staring at the bell, I jumped when it rang. All the kids were slamming their books shut, scraping their sneakers under their desks ready to bolt when Loomis gave the word.
"Before English tomorrow," Mrs. Loomis said, as though it were the Eleventh Commandment, "thou shalt get together with thy poetry partner." Then, when the Big Bang turned toward the board, we escaped.
In the next class, physics, Miriam sat in her usual seat, the front of the third row. I was over closer to the window and four seats behind her, so I had a good view of the back of her head, which she kept pointed straight toward Mr. Moran. Brent sat in back of me, tapping out some rap song on my back with the eraser of his pencil. Mr. Moran, A.K.A. Mr. Moron, was returning our tests. He had this cruel way of passing them back according to score. Diana's was always near the top, and by the time mine came, Diana had already corrected her few mistakes and handed the paper back to Mr. Moran. Miriam's paper, I noticed, was halfway down in the pile. She took the paper from his hand and stuffed it under her desk, without even looking at it. Then all of a sudden her head dropped to her desk with a clunk.
"Mr. Moran, look!" Arnita cried.
Moran ran over to Miriam, lifted her head by the chin, then eased it back down. "Terry, go get the nurse, pronto," he said, in his calm, even voice. Arnita, who was sitting behind Miriam, patted her back, but Miriam's arms hung lifelessly at her sides.
She's dead. I'll get a different poetry partner, I thought, then felt a jab of guilt. Brent had stopped tapping, and we all sat there silently embarrassed until the nurse came in. Mr. Moran and the nurse eased Miriam onto the floor, on her back. Arnita smoothed the skirt down over Miriam's knees. The rest of us crowded around. We'd all had CPR in gym. We all knew you were supposed to yell into the face of the victim, "ARE YOU ALL RIGHT? ARE YOU OKAY?" We watched the nurse check the airway for an obstruction, check for breathing, take her pulse.
Well, Miriam was alive. Pretty soon she started pulling her eyes open, as if they were stuck together with rubber cement, and when she saw us all huddled over her, she got this scared look on her face. "What did I do?" she asked.
"You fainted," the nurse said. "Can you sit up?" She could. "Can you stand up?" Unsteadily. "Can you walk? Let's go down to my office, and we'll call your mother."
"No!" Miriam said. The nurse looked around at us all, while Mr. Moran motioned us back to our seats.
"All right, we'll talk about it," the nurse said, supporting Miriam firmly as they left the room.
"Back to our cogent discussion of velocity," Moron said, but it was useless.
Brent said, "Mr. Moran, what happens to Miriam Pelham is really important to Adam. See, he just got her last hour for a poetry partner." Brent kicked the bottom of my desk hard enough that I jumped with that old male instinct to protect my vital organs.
"Of course," Mr. Moran said blandly. "It is alarming when a student faints, but I'm certain she's fine. All right, people, let's take a few minutes to diffuse the tension." That meant he'd sit at his desk correcting papers, and we could talk.
"Well, on TV," Rachel whispered, "whenever a woman faints, it's because she's pregnant."
"No, no, sometimes it's because they got leukemia," Arnita said. "She sure looks pale." Some of the guys snickered, because Arnita was about as black as a tree stump. She snapped, "Whaddya think, I don't get pale when I'm sick?"
Diana, of course, had her own diagnosis. "Personally, I think she's anorexic. Anorexia nervosa is the disease of the '90s."
"Maybe it's PMS," Brent said.
Rachel shook her head. "Can't be, if she's pregnant."
"How would she get it?"
"We'd run out of diseases of the '90s, so someone started talking about a rock concert that was coming to the Kansas Coliseum, and the Jesus freaks that were threatening to picket it, and about the anemic record of our football team. Mr. Moron never did tune back in before the bell rang, and pretty soon Miriam Pelham's fainting spell was ancient history.CHAPTER 2
Told by Miriam
I don't remember fainting, only waking up on the floor and seeing the whole class hovering over me like a coven of witches. I remember snapping my knees together, and the nurse, Mrs. Elgin, saying she'd call my mother. "No!" I remember that.
I told Mrs. Elgin I was fine and pinched my cheeks for some color. Maybe that would convince her. Mama did that every morning, not for any nurse, of course, but so she'd look fresh and healthy as she headed for the church. It was Mama's job to send out all the mail and run off our bulletins. She didn't get paid much, not in money. What she got was something far more valuable to all of us — a sense of belonging, of being loved, a blessing from Brother James when we were feeling vulnerable to the dark spirit, a healing hand when that was what we needed most.
Right now I just needed some color. So I pinched my cheeks and smiled brightly.
"Miriam, I do not like the way you look. When was the last time you had a checkup?"
I could feel this band tightening around my chest. Brother James always said, "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord," but I also knew that telling the truth now would cost us all way too much. Holy Jesus, forgive me just this once, I prayed silently. "Just a week or two ago," I said.
"And did everything test out all right?" Mrs. Elgin asked.
Excerpted from Miriam's Well by Lois Ruby. Copyright © 1993 Lois Ruby. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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