Lost Cause: Part 1

The obelisk, Tallulah’s fourth-grade class learned in preparation for their upcoming field trip, stood 97 feet tall. Made entirely of granite, it weighed 258 tons on Earth, which equated to 86,000 pounds on the moon, where the obelisk stood. The most important feature of the monument, Mrs. Bennington told her students as she tapped her pointing stick on the image projected on the whiteboard, were the 337 names etched on its sides, each representing one Confederate soldier who had died during the battle at the site of the obelisk’s construction.

Tallulah was drawing as her teacher spoke. As part of her Individual Education Plan (IEP), Tallulah was allowed to draw during her teacher’s lectures. Tallulah’s brain worked differently than the brains of her classmates. “No, no, no, not wrong,” the counsellor had told her parents while sucking his moustache during the conference to determine her IEP, “just different.” Drawing, he’d explained, would allow Tallulah’s brain to absorb the things her teacher said. This absorption had not occurred when Tallulah was younger, when she instead just sat and listened to the facts her teacher taught.

There was a wastebasket next to Tallulah’s desk filled with the drawings she had completed that day. The wastebasket was her counsellor’s idea. “The idea is for us to distract Tallulah from all the thoughts she’s working on actively,” he’d said during the conference with her parents, “so she’ll retain only the stuff we want her to learn passively.” Tallulah’s parents had been seated across from the counsellor in tiny plastic chairs made for children. Tallulah was at a table in the back of the counsellor’s office. The counsellor had given her a box of crayons and told her to sit there and shut up while the grown-ups talked.

“And you think this will work?” Tallulah’s mother had asked. Tallulah’s daddy, his arm around his wife, glared over his shoulder at his daughter. A summer earlier they had been forced to sit in the same brightly coloured chairs to discuss her report card. Displays an undesirable amount of curiosity, her teacher had written that time. Asks too many questions.

The counsellor quit sucking his moustache and leaned over the papers on his desk. “Mom,” he said, and pushed his moustache off his lips with his tongue. “I think this is the only thing that’ll make that girl finally get with the program.”

In her classroom, Mrs. Bennington changed the transparency, and the obelisk was replaced with an image of the construction workers who’d built it. Dressed in spacesuits, the workers sat on rafters with metal lunch pails in their laps. The top third of the obelisk had not yet been built when the picture was taken.

Tallulah finished her drawing and put down her crayon. She had drawn herself on the moon surrounded by spirals for stars. The picture wasn’t very good. It was just a black stick figure on a brown circle surrounded by yellow loops. Tallulah enjoyed other subjects more than art. She liked math, but messed up her equations when she asked questions like, “Why do the girls have to write grocery lists with our answers while the boys get to make rockets?” She liked science, but hated how the girls’ experiments ended with baking cookies while the boys got to mix the fuel that made their rockets fly. Tallulah once asked if she could mix rocket fuel too. That caused the Mitchells, twin brothers who were the smartest kids in class, to cry from laughter until Mrs. Bennington sent Tallulah to the counsellor’s office for “being disruptive.” That was when the counsellor came up with her IEP.

“Now, you can’t tell because of their helmets,” Mrs. Bennington said, tapping her pointer on the construction worker closest to the camera, “but these folks came from all different walks of life to build this monument to our history.” Mrs. Bennington went on about the controversies associated with building the obelisk, such as the workers exposed to the moon’s lack of oxygen and gravity and the like. “We are truly living in an age of wonder,” she marvelled. Tallulah stared into the image, disregarding the construction worker closest to the camera, who held out his hand so the monument appeared to rest in his palm. The rest of the students marvelled alongside Mrs. Bennington.

“How come that one guy has his helmet off?” Tallulah asked from the back of the room.

Mrs. Bennington turned sharply from the whiteboard. The students turned as well. The Mitchells snickered, and the other students felt it was okay to snicker too.

“Look,” Tallulah said, pointing. “That one’s holding his helmet and drinking a soda.”

Slowly, Mrs. Bennington turned back to the whiteboard, her hands behind her, the tip of the pointer dragging over the blue carpet. She leaned toward the image cast from the projector. Blurred in black and white, one of the workers, it seemed, was holding his helmet under his arm while drinking from a Big Gulp.

“How could he survive on the moon like that?” Tallulah asked. “You specifically said we weren’t allowed to take our helmets off when we’re on the moon tomorrow. You said our heads would explode.” Like she normally did, Tallulah then began reciting the other facts that she had learned, which in this case were the rules that had been listed on the field-trip permission slip that had gone home with the students earlier that week. How they weren’t allowed to take off their helmets, or stray from the designated paths on the lunar surface. How their parents released the school of any and all liability, including, but not limited to, injury, disappearance, and/or death, during the train ride to the rocket’s launch facility, or the rocket flight itself, or the touring of the lunar surface, or . . .

All the students except the Mitchells faced forward, reexamining the image. One of the Mitchells shook his head to get his sandy hair out of his eyes and said, “Maybe Professor Tallulah should be teaching the class if she’s so smart.” The other Mitchell, fingering his puka shell necklace, said, “If Dr. Tallulah knows so much, maybe she should ask us to turn our heads and cough.” The Mitchells laughed, and so the other kids laughed too. Mrs. Bennington ignored them like she did and leaned so far forward to examine the slide that her nose touched the whiteboard. Tallulah continued reciting the rules: “. . . and we’re never, ever, ever to touch the monument under any circumstances —” Then Mrs. Bennington snapped back from the whiteboard and pulled the transparency from the projector.

“You done with that picturing, girl?” she asked Tallulah as she placed a new transparency on the projector. On the whiteboard shot up the image of astronauts holding hands around the obelisk, which was surrounded by American and Confederate flags. Banners were draped across the obelisk declaring “Grand Opening!” and “A Small Step for Man!” and “A Museum Worth Rising For!” Tied to the banners were balloons. Tallulah wondered how the balloons could float like that when there was no oxygen on the moon, and therefore nothing for the helium inside the balloons to rise above, but she noticed Mrs. Bennington was staring at her while she lectured, so Tallulah just crumpled up her drawing and threw it in the wastebasket.

***

The next day was the annual fourth-grade field trip to the Moon Memorial (and Learning Center) for Our Confederate Dead. The monument had been erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy exactly two hundred years after the present’s storied past became its inevitable future, to ensure, the fourth-graders learned from memorizing the Daughters’ commemoration speech, that “our history was out of the touch of those who would tell us otherwise.”

That morning, while the fourth-graders lined up along the railroad tracks behind the playground and waited for the train to arrive and usher them to the launch facility, the rest of the school cheered and waved pennants in the school’s red and blue — and also photographs of older siblings and friends who had not survived their trips during previous fourth-grade expeditions. The janitor smoked a cigarette and filled his mop bucket with a hose. Mrs. Bennington stretched her calves while the PE coach paced behind her and her students, his shorts riding up his thighs as he tossed a rubber ball from hand to hand. “Remember your training!” he yelled while he eyed the boys and girls about to embark on the first stage of their journey. “Freight hopping is not a game! Keep your knees high and remember to reach for the boxcar and then jump, just like we learned in PE!”

In the library, Tallulah’s fingers shook as they clutched her black crayon while working on her latest drawing. She tried not to watch the festivities outside the window. She tried not to listen to the cheering of the school or the horns of the marching band or the orders barked by Coach. The field trip was the most important event in a fourth-grader’s life, but Tallulah wasn’t going. Instead she was stuck where she was. While some students, like the Mitchells, were destined to go off and get their high school diplomas, everyone else was to go to work at the Supercenter or Piggly-Wiggly upon graduation at the end of the year. The counsellor determined who was working where, and in which department, but before he could decide whether Tallulah was going to shag carts or clean up aisle spills for the rest of her life, Tallulah’s mother intervened and lined up a job for her daughter in the Supercenter’s automotive section, so she could work under her daddy (like he had worked under his daddy, and so on, and so forth) and not get fired for “pestering somebody else.” For Tallulah, the trip was her one chance to visit somewhere outside her town. To see something new before a life of mufflers and tires, and maybe, just maybe, oil filters.

During supper the night before, Tallulah had asked her daddy to sign her permission slip, but the phone rang before he could click his pen and begin the first of several loops that made up his signature. At the dining table, Tallulah and her daddy had sat in silence while the steam from their food dissipated and in the other room Tallulah’s mother’s voice rose through the octaves of incredulity. “I thought this IEP was supposed to fix her?” her mother kept yelling into the phone, and Tallulah knew Mrs. Bennington had to be on the other end of the line. Tallulah’s daddy soon became aware that the permission slip and pen were still in his hands. He read the slip and then set the pen on one side of his plate and the paper on the other.

“You know your mother and I met on our moon trip,” her daddy said as he picked up his fork and knife. “Of course, we were in class together before that, and grew up down the road from each other. I used to pull her pigtails and she hated me. But the moon changed all that.” In the kitchen, Tallulah’s mother asked Mrs. Bennington if more detention would help her daughter. Her daddy cut his venison, its juices rushing from its charred exterior. “Up there, we learnt about ourselves. Who we are, and where we come from. The great Lee himself once said, ‘Obedience is the foundation of character.’ Look it up. But no matter what foundation we lay for you, you ain’t characterizing. You ain’t obedient.”

Her daddy chewed his steak and picked up the permission slip. He pulled the slip’s corners taut and read it once more. When he was done he laid his eyes firmly upon his daughter and pressed the paper onto his plate, the meat juices seeping through the words. Before Tallulah could ask why he would do that, to say that Mrs. Bennington would never accept the slip soaked in blood, her father retrieved his fork and knife. He made his first cut (“Dear Parent or Guardian . . .”) and put the moist paper in his mouth. He took another bite (“. . . I give [child’s name] permission . . .”) and another, until it was gone.

“That lesson individualized enough for you?” he asked, and stifled a burp with his fist. He’d told Tallulah to clear the table because he was full as a tick and too stuffed to move. Tallulah did as she was told, and as she washed the plates she tried to see if any ink had somehow bled off the page, as if that would somehow change something. But she knew it hadn’t, and even if it had, she knew it wouldn’t have changed anything. Before going to school the next morning, she pulled the plate off the drying rack to check again, just to be sure.

Outside the library, the train whistle blew in the distance, the first of many blasts to alert everyone that it was on its way. The black crayon between Tallulah’s clenched fingers broke in half. She was crumpling her drawing — a grey train and orange smiling stick figures and a huge yellow moon hovering over them and a single stick figure at the corner of the page, the moon’s wobbly shape making it seem like it could teeter off its axis and crush everything at any moment — when the library doors burst open.

“Tallulah!” the counsellor yelled. The librarian shushed him without looking up from her romance novel. “Tallulah?” he whispered. Her frazzled counsellor stood with his hands on his hips in the doorway, scanning between the collections of westerns and mysteries on the shelves. When he saw Tallulah, near the window in the back, he beckoned with a single darting finger for her to pack her stuff and follow him at that very moment.

The whistle sounded again and echoed over the field. It was closer this time, and louder. Coach, his shorts riding up his thighs, quickened his pacing behind the students. “This is it!” he shouted. “This is what those drills were for!” The fourth-graders began bouncing on their toes, readying to take off when directed. The rest of the school cheered, except for the children holding pictures of their departed siblings, who wept.

Mrs. Bennington!” the counsellor screamed above the noise. Across the field Mrs. Bennington was stretching her hamstrings to limber up for her run. She straightened and spun toward the direction of the counsellor’s voice. Her face drooped and contorted at the sight of Tallulah being yanked across the field by her other least favourite person: her ex-husband.

Mr. Bennington,” Mrs. Bennington snapped. “Tallulah does not have a permission slip. She is not getting on this train.” Another whistle burst through the air. Smoke appeared above the trees. Coach ordered the fourth-graders to begin high-stepping in place.

“No, ma’am,” the counsellor said. He let go of Tallulah’s hand and raised his finger to the sky. “I’m declaring an override to that decision, Mrs. Bennington. An override! By the power invested in me, as academic adviser of Pickett’s Charge Elementary, I am not babysitting this girl while you’re off gallivanting on some tryst! No, ma’am, this girl’s going with you. She’s going to the moon!”

The train fumed as it came hot and heavy out of the treeline and into sight. Coach paced behind the students, demonstrating, for the last time before the train’s arrival, how he wanted the fourth-graders to run, the muscles of his thighs heaving as they bounced up and down, propelling his body higher with every step.

“Tryst?” Mrs. Bennington said, folding her arms. “You’re the one filing for our separation. Whatever I do with whomever I do it is none of your concern.”

The ground rumbled and a big breath blew down the tracks from the engine’s approach. Tallulah’s papers flew from her grip. She tried to chase after the sheets before they fluttered away, but it was no use. One of them landed next to Coach’s muscly calves as he ran in place. The whistle blew again and Mrs. Bennington and the counsellor’s screams disappeared into the noise. More papers fluttered away, landing beside the high-stepping Mitchells.

“Planning a nice trip?” one of them asked as Tallulah scrambled to gather her work. She didn’t understand the Mitchells’ comment, and he pointed to her untied shoes. “Maybe just a fall,” the other said. Both boys laughed like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.

The whistle blasted once more, and then kept blasting, the conductor having spotted the mass of children crowding around the track. Tallulah dropped to her knees and shoved her fingers in her ears. The Mitchells took off running down the tracks. The janitor dropped his cigarette in his bucket. Other students ran too. Tallulah, who had always drawn during PE and never participated in the drills, didn’t know what she was supposed to do. And so she knelt there with her fingers in her ears until Coach threw his rubber ball and hit her in the back of the head.

“Lift those knees!” he screamed. And with that, Tallulah took off after her classmates.

***

An hour into the train ride, one of the Mitchells was still crying. Tallulah couldn’t tell which one. They both had peachy freckles and sandy hair and broad shoulders, which was the opposite of Tallulah, who stared past her reflection in the port window. The Mitchell sat sobbing alone, hugging his knees behind the crates of rabbits and sacks of feed. He was keeping his distance from the eleven other students who had pulled themselves aboard the boxcar. Mrs. Bennington knelt beside him.

“Your brother’s probably just in one of the other cars,” she said, but her voice was hollow. It was as if she were reciting words rather than actually saying them. Tallulah turned toward the port window. She knew Mrs. Bennington was lying. They had both been running behind the missing brother. He had almost taken them both with him when he tripped and then disappeared under the train.

“But I seen him!” the remaining Mitchell sobbed. “He was right behind me, and then I got on, and then I turned to help him up, but then I didn’t see him no more!”

Outside the port window the trees gave way to a blighted valley like all the other valleys they had passed. Store fronts with shattered windows and collapsed roofs. Homes with missing walls, chipped toilets and moist mattresses inside. A complex of buildings stood behind a barbwire fence, smokeless stacks casting long shadows, the ground black and slimy. Another complex, and another. And another. One complex looked like it had tipped over and fallen on its side, and the ground was littered with broken bricks and old sewing machines and ticker-tape receipts. In the third grade Tallulah’s class had studied the old factories, and read books and wrote reports and performed plays about their benevolent contributions to society. Tallulah had almost failed the entire third grade when she asked, “But if they were so great, then how come they’re not around anymore?” On the train, a rabbit poked its head through its crate and pecked at Tallulah’s side.

“Soon as Coach gets back from rounding up the others, he’ll tell you what’s what,” Mrs. Bennington told the sobbing Mitchell. She checked her watch. The other students sat silently atop the crates, the rabbits gnawing at their shoelaces. Mrs. Bennington asked, “Why the hangdog faces? Are you not excited for the moon?” She smiled and kept smiling until everyone else smiled too.

The rabbit at Tallulah’s side pecked harder, and Tallulah noticed her clothes looked like someone had splatter-painted her in red. She flicked goo off her pants and stepped away from the reach of the rabbit’s furry, outstretched neck.

The latch on the boxcar door slid open and a humid wind filled the interior. Coach shimmied slowly into the open door, clinging to the boxcar’s outer ledge. He pulled himself inside. His face and arms and leg muscles were black with the soot from the engine. Mrs. Bennington rushed to the doorway and stopped herself from hugging him. Instead, she began brushing him off. A few of Tallulah’s classmates pulled themselves in after him, their faces also smudged. Mitchell watched hopefully, but when his brother did not appear, he buried his head between his knees.

“These were all I could find,” Coach told Mrs. Bennington as she brushed off his chest and shoulders and biceps. In total, he told her, five students, including the Mitchell, were missing. “More than last year, but better than the year before,” he said, and turned around to let Mrs. Bennington brush the soot from his back. Tallulah thought her teacher spent an extra-long time rubbing the coach’s backside clean.

“All right, folks,” Coach said. “Roll call. Once Mrs. Bennington here calls your name, raise your hand quick-like so we can get on with it.” He adjusted the elastic waistband on his shorts, and Mrs. Bennington got out her attendance sheets. “We got a couple minutes before we arrive at the launch facility,” he said once Mrs. Bennington was through, “so I want you to start limbering up for our departure. Might be a good idea to grab one or two of these rabbits while we’re at it.” When the children didn’t understand, Coach said the convenience store where they would stop for lunch didn’t have much with regards to variety. “Unless you like hundred-year-old Fritos,” he joked.

Outside the boxcar door, a muddy field and another dead factory rolled into view. Then another. And another. Tallulah peered out at each of them until she spotted one that seemed completely unlike the rest. Smoke spewed from its towers. Lights twinkled softly and brightly around its perimeter. It was unlike anything Tallulah had ever seen. It was clustered and busy and massive, even compared to the Piggly-Wiggly and the Supercenter back home. For a moment Tallulah wondered if this was one of the cities at the end of the line, but then Coach yelled that this was their stop. Beneath her, the train wasn’t slowing.

“Now remember,” Coach said, and motioned for a kid to get off a crate. “When you jump, be sure to tuck and then roll, and not the other way around.” Outside, a concrete dome rolled into view behind the factory. The dome was bigger than the factory, with even more lights and activity. Tallulah saw the factory, and she saw the dome, but what she didn’t see was a rocket. And she didn’t see a way for a rocket to be stored or launched from the factory or dome, either.

“Mitchell!” Coach barked, and Mitchell looked up from his knees, his eyes red and watery. Coach opened a crate and pulled out a rabbit. It nestled its face in Coach’s palm as he rubbed its back. “I need you to focus, son,” Coach said, and he jerked the rabbit’s neck so its body went limp. “I don’t want you ending up a smear on the tracks like that brother of yours.” He handed the rabbit to Tallulah, who was still trying to figure out where the rocket was that was supposed to dispatch them into the yonder of space.

The children stood staring out the door and at the ground swiftly moving below them. “Raise your hand if you’re excited for some moon cheese!” Mrs. Bennington asked. A few hands hesitantly went up as she put her attendance sheets in her bag. Coach yelled for everyone to watch closely, and then leapt off the train to demonstrate how to properly tuck and roll into the field. Then came the first nudge as Mrs. Bennington forced the first student off after him. Then another, and another. Mitchell wept as Mrs. Bennington threw him off.

Tallulah kept searching for the rocket as the moon rose red on the horizon. Then she too felt a nudge, and soon she was rolling through the muddy field, her shoes flying off her feet, the soft rabbit limp but warm in her hands.

 

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