Miss Merkin was lovely, charming, funny, and overly wonderful for a second grade teacher. At least, that was how she appeared to other educators, but Kenny Carlyle thought she was a bully. Privately, when he was alone at home and able to speak freely, he would call her the “B” word to himself, that dreaded one he had seen on the shows his mommy watched and repeated while daddy was watching the news that he watched. “Daddy,” he said, “I don’t feel good. I’ve got a fever.”
“I saw you holding that lamp close to your face earlier.”
“Oh. Well, shoot.”
“Why don’t you want to go to school?” his father asked.
“Miss Merkin is a bitch!” he had blurted, unable to contain himself. Kenny had slapped a hand over his face, stunned by what he had just said, and panicked. His father had stared at him, his eyes narrowing, then begun to shake. Whether with laughter or anger, Kenny would never really know. Maybe it was some odd mixture of both, the silliness of hearing a kid swear mixed with the annoyance that it was his. After calming himself, his father had explained that, “…you can’t just call people that. It’s not polite and it may not be true.”
“But it is,” Kenny had insisted. “She’s always mean to me.”
“Well…are you a jerk to her?” his father asked.
“I try not to be,” Kenny said, tears springing to his eyes. “I asked her after class yesterday. She said she doesn’t single me out or anything but she does, I can tell.”
“No,” his father said. He took Kenny’s arm, pulled him down next to him, and gave him the side-hug. “I’ll talk to her if you want.”
“No dad!” Kenny said. “I don’t want her to think I’m a sissy.”
His father chuckled. “Why not?” he asked. Kenny had been unable to answer this, unsure of what his answer would be. “Fine,” he had been told. “Then just man up about it.”
Kenny had tried, and tried hard. He had been nice to her, he had studied hard to make her happy, but he could not so much as ask to go pee without a snide comment or a rolling of eyes from Miss Merkin. She never had so much as one kind word for him, no matter the situation. He raised his hand politely in class but she only called on him if no one else wanted to answer. One day he took her an apple, like he had seen other kids do in movies and cartoons. She had rolled her eyes and eaten her banana with her lunch instead, the apple sitting on her desk like some sort of monument to his shame.
The third week of each month always brought a show-and-tell day, a chance to bring something from home and let everyone see it. Miss Merkin always told them to bring something interesting, an item of some personal value or a trinket that had a story behind it. Kenny had not had much luck thus far, receiving middling scores but still trying his hardest to impress. Others had brought small pets, toys that meant a lot to them, one even brought the new puppy they had gotten for Christmas. Kenny had brought his geode from Colorado and had gone last, after three others with the same type of thing. He had taken his copy of Beauty and the Beast that his mother had given him, but Miss Merkin had said a movie really did not count as an interesting personal item or something with a story.
This time, however, he was sure he had something. Rooting around in his parents’ room for some trinket or piece of family jewelry, he had stumbled across this thing in their sock drawer, under the darned argyles. It was like nothing he had ever seen before and it was hilarious. It rested inside a little box, like something you would put jewelry in, with a bow on the lid. Inside was a card, his father’s signature at the bottom. Apparently it made things more interesting, or so the note scrawled on the card indicated. His parents had been arguing a lot not long before and then something had changed, it might have to do with this. If he could spin it so that it sounded like this gift, this kind gesture, had saved their marriage then Miss Merkin would have to accept it.
Jamie Tyers went first that Friday, with his father’s hammer. He spun a tale of woe, the man trapped in his life in an office and bored out of his mind, only to tell of how the man had busted out and began working as a carpenter by turning his hobby at home into a full-time business. Now the man made tables for a living and Miss Merkin thought that was uplifting. Annie Abelman had brought her grandmother’s quilt, one made in hiding in France as the Nazi’s had closed in on the house. She had wrapped her face in it under the floorboards to mask the sound of her breath while the SS captain had walked overhead. The woman had made it out and lived to the ripe old age of ninety-seven, impressive for anyone. At this Miss Merkin had been near tears, the story moving and told, according to Annie, exactly how her grandmother had told it to her. Kenny sat at the back of the class, wondering how he could compete with that. He saw that others were worried as well, but he had the worst of it. They all knew Miss Merkin picked on him.
When it was finally his turn he stood, the oblong box in hand, and headed up to the front of the class. “What have you got for us today?” Miss Merkin asked flatly. He looked at the tissues on her desk, the graveyard of tears and snot deposited there as she listened to Annie’s story of fear and frailty during the Second World War, and knew he had to do this right. Standing still, head down, he thought of the arguments his parents had been having when they thought him asleep in his bed, the whispered half-shouting and frustration. The memory brought tears to his eyes and he was finally ready.
“Six months ago,” he began, “my parents were about to file for divorce.” The class quieted, the chatter of children spiraling into silence. This was a topic many were familiar with, even Miss Merkin herself was a divorcee, and this brought all eyes to him. “They would put me to sleep, tell me a story or talk for a bit, and then go into their bedroom when they thought I was out so they could fight.” Other Kenny, also known as Kenny Dupree, took a sharp inhale and held his breath. His own parents had gotten divorced over the summer.
“Then, one day,” young Kenny Carlyle continued, “everything changed. My dad came home one day, this box in his hand, and told her to open it later. The next morning they were the happiest I had seen them in a long time. Dad got up early and made Mom her favorite banana pancakes, coffee, and cut up a fruit salad. We were all laughing and making jokes. I didn’t know why, but I wanted to be happy with them so I just enjoyed it. I thought it would last a day or two but it…it kept going. They stayed happy.
“A week later I was thinking they’d start fighting again, but they just stayed happy. It was weird, I had no idea why.” Miss Merkin was still, her breath shallow. She was rapt with attention and that made Kenny happy but he had no idea why. “They were smiling and kissing a lot. They started talking about Disneyland. Mom even asked if I wanted a little brother or sister this one time, it was crazy how quick it changed. I had no idea what was going on with them.” Miss Merkin had moved a hand over her belly and tears had sprung to her eyes. “Mom kept calling my dad sweet and winking at him. It was crazy.” Kenny lifted the lid of the box, set it on the table. The children craned their necks, trying to see what was inside. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Miss Merkin also trying to see.
Instead of lifting the object he lifted the card his father had written. He opened it and began to read aloud.
“Bella, I love you. I thought this might make things more fun, make them better. I’m sorry I’ve been so hard to live with lately and I want things to be exciting again. I thought this might spice it all up for us, give us something to try. With love, Andy.”
The rest of the class was rapt, but Miss Merkin had frozen. Her face had turned this wild shade of red and her eyes were wide, almost scared. “Uh,” she stuttered, “Kenny that might be enough.” It was not, not for him. He hefted the object out of the box.
It was shaped like a pink and white gun, with a trigger switch that turned it on. The end of it was a loose rubber that hung off of the end like an old banana, and there were little wings on it that were made of the same material. It was not huge but it was heavy, the machinery inside adding a heft to it. Kenny used his forefinger and flicked the switch, pointing it at the class. It began to vibrate, shuddering in his hand and a numbing sensation ran up his arm. He could barely hold it, the thing had a setting on the side and it was cranked all the way up. He displayed it to the class, turning it back and forth so they could see the whole thing. “This,” he declared, “saved their marriage.”
Everyone was looking at the object curiously as it shook in his hand, trying to figure out what it was. Everyone, that was, except Miss Merkin. From the back of the class he heard a snigger and he stood on tip-toes to see who it was. It was Will Crane, a skinny little poor kid from the south side of town. The boy could barely contain his giggles, and finally he stopped trying with a burst of laughter.
“That,” he howled, “is the wildest-looking vibrator I have ever seen!”
Slowly the realization dawned over others in the class, the children who knew the word starting to laugh with Will. It spread to the others, those who still had no idea about what they were seeing except that it was obscene, and before long the whole class was laughing. Kenny joined them, not sure what it was about but cracking up with his peers. He jumped forward and thrust the object out before him, the girls in the front row squealing and pushing back in their chairs.
“Kenny Carlyle, you get your butt to the principal’s office right now!” Miss Merkin shouted. This elicited more laughter from the class, the use of the word “butt” bringing more howls from the young children. Kenny ignored her and walked closer to the kids, intending to hand the object off so it could be passed around. Miss Merkin leapt from her chair behind her desk, nearly tripping over herself, and grabbed him by the arm. He whirled, looking back at her in surprise.
“What? Why?” he asked.
“Why would you bring this?” she continued to yell. “What possible reason?”
“You hate me and I wanted to bring something different and try to get a good grade for once!”
At this the class quieted instantly. Miss Merkin stood still, looking him in the eyes. The object, the “vibrator”, still shook in his hand and it sent shivers up both of their arms, the spark of realization made manifest. “Kenny,” she said quietly, “I don’t hate you. Why would you think that?”
“You’re always picking on me,” he shouted. Tears came to his eyes now and shook from his face, the shaking object shivering his whole body and sending them leaking at awkward angles down his face.
“Kenny,” she said, releasing him, “we can talk about this later but you have to know I don’t hate you.” She knelt before him. “I’ll meet you in the office after a bit. Mrs. Hatchet can watch recess, I’ll come talk to you instead.”
“Am I in trouble?” he asked, suddenly frightened.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Just head down there and I’ll be down in a bit.” On impulse she leaned forward and hugged him to her. After he had recovered from his shock he hugged her back, the pulsating thing slapping against her back. He smiled to himself, content at last.
She kept the object after making him turn it off and replace it in the box. Walking down the hall, he realized that there was almost a skip in his step. He had finally charmed Miss Merkin, and that made this the best day of his life. There was an old movie his mother loved, a musical where a man clicked his heels after receiving a peck on the cheek from a girl he liked. Kenny tried it and fell flat on his side, missing the click and losing his footing. He shoved up against the lockers, sitting up against them, and began laughing. He was having the best day, and not even a trip to the principal’s office could change that.