Cancelled Check, By Lois Marie Harrod

Another stupid joke. Brian and Josh are doing their daily can-you-top-this-one. Today their jokes have the quality of a head cold, each one makes Ginny feel as if she can’t breathe. Maybe she should have taken a day off. But the car repair—976 big bucks, those tiny little computers that control the transmission. Better here than home worrying, Mark fretting around.

So she stands there, pretending she hasn’t heard. Easy to get away with pretending. Everyone says, “Oh, Ginny doesn’t hear you. Ginny’s distracted. Ginny’s doing lesson plans. Ginny’s grading papers.”

And sometimes she is, certainly with the cut-backs, Norma and Fred not having their contracts renewed, class size bigger and bigger, she has 137 students this year, 137 history essays to grade every week—that is if she assigns what is required. And Ginny does. She is that kind of teacher.

Of course, not everybody does. Brian and Josh joke about writing up essay assignments in their lesson plans that somehow never got assigned. The bell rang just as I was getting to it. Decided to let it go until next week when I could really explain it. Realized students weren’t really ready. It fools Old Staplehead. He never realizes I’m assigning the same essay week after week.

Like some of her problems, Ginny supposes. Like the jokes. Recursive. What Staplehead says they should be doing. Lessons that repeat and add on. Repetition is mastery.

So most of the time Ginny does hear what her colleagues are saying, just pretends not to. And most of them aren’t interested in her. All so much younger. She supposes she is liked by students—fair, sometimes fascinating in the classroom, but outside, all business. Unattractive and uninteresting, she thinks. Tall. Gawky. Older. Standoffish, is what she heard Brian call her. Shy, says Josh.

Ginny likes Josh better than Brian. Too bad Brian seems determined to coarsen him up. Of course, Ginny has already been there longer than everyone else except Old Staplehead, History Department Chair. Ginny was the first of that second round of history teachers hired after the baby boomers began retiring; most of them had gotten out when the State started threatening to cut pensions. Get out when you can, while you can still get health benefits.

Today Brian and Josh are trading abortion jokes while they are supposedly reading his mid-terms. One right after another. Right off Huffington Post, Ginny guesses.

A fetus wakes up one morning only to realize he’s in the process of being aborted. The fetus looks at the doctor and asks, “What the hell are you doing?” The doctor turns to the patient and says, “Don’t worry, not all of them are this stupid.”

Ho, ho, ho.

“What are you working on?” Nancy asks Ginny. Oh, crap, happy Nancy, thinks Ginny, losing her place. We do what we can, Nancy always says, we do what we can to educate these little monsters.

Stupid little monsters, thinks Ginny.

Ginny finds lunch with Nancy pleasant enough when they aren’t surrounded by the department malcontents. But Ginny and Nancy don’t hang out together after school. Ginny doesn’t have the extra bucks to spend with someone so relentlessly cheery. Mark lost his job again six months ago. Too many sick days, they said. Now chemo.

Ginny looks up from her essay to Nancy. “Me? Oh that essay I had the kids write to demonstrate comprehension of a scientific article—you know the one that Staplehead said I should use to fulfill state requirements, historical documents, scientific stuff: Less than 20% of the skeleton survived, Ginny intones monotonously, including much of the posterior cranium, fragments of most deciduous and unerupted permanent teeth . . .”

“The one with the three-year-old found cremated in that Alaskan dwelling? You used that?”

“Yep. But most of the kids don’t get it—and this is the honors class. Did they really burn the baby? Is that what it says? Was it some sort of sacrifice? ” Ginny looks at Nancy again.

“Here’s one for you liberals,” says Brian.

A man finds a fetus on a park bench, crying, and asks, “What’s the matter?” The fetus responds, “I just got aborted!” “That’s terrible,” says the man, “but it could be worse. If you were born, you’d probably end up fighting a war you don’t support in Iraq.”

Ho, ho, ho.

“Article sounded sick to me too,” says Nancy, ignoring Mark. “There are some advantages in teaching the low-lives.”

“Yep,” says Ginny. “The students don’t understand that whoever buried the baby left afterwards. That’s what the evidence suggests.”

What do you call an abortion in Czechoslovakia? A cancelled Czech.

“Guess I wouldn’t want to live with a dead baby in my basement,” says Nancy.

“Well, maybe not a basement. More like a hearth pit used for burial. No evidence of anything being cooked afterwards.” Maybe she would tell Nancy. Nancy might understand. Or might not. They never talked politics, pro-life, pro-choice.

What happens afterward, Ginny asked three days ago. Incineration, said the nurse.

Another $450 dollars—not covered. Ginny said she’d call for an appointment.

After a couple has sex, the woman turns to the man and says, “If I get pregnant, what should we call the baby?” “A fetus!” he bellows before erratically speeding off to his home in Hyannisport, Mass.

“Oh, Josh, don’t you think this is getting old?” says Nancy.

“Historical allusion,” says Brian. “The sort of joke our students should be getting. Yep, an old joke. Gonna use it.”

Ginny shrugs. “Most of them don’t even know who John F. Kennedy is, was.” She is getting old too. Is. Was. Too old.

And she hadn’t wanted it, how could she have it now, but she had wanted it, and it stuck around longer than most and then it had slipped away without her saying it could go. Maybe that’s what was bothering her most—not making the decision.

She had left the car with her mechanic Greg Kohfelt two days ago and when she came back yesterday, used that toilet of his. Suddenly felt so sick. Had to. The toilet he was so proud of. The one he thought she should want to use: “You being a history teacher and all, don’t you want to use the toilet.” Greg’s eternal joke. Ten years. Recursive. Ever since Mark and Ginny had moved into Florence.

No, she hadn’t really wanted it, not now, not after all the miscarriages and now when she was 45, and Mark . . . gone to the doctor for what he thought was a cough. Thought they had beaten it. Maybe the stress of losing his job. How could she have handled that too?—but, yes, she had wanted it, and then she had lost it, and she hadn’t told Mark when it began and when it ended.

The toilet. Something she always told her history classes about. Said they should all go to Greg Kohfelt’s. He had a toilet owned by Hitler, installed by the previous owner in the l950’s, had been on the Aviso Grille, Adolf’s favorite yacht. That’s what he claimed. Had a big sign on the door. HITLER CRAPPED HERE. They could crap there (yes, she’d use the word in class, crap, to amuse them, keep them interested, but she had never used Greg’s toilet, Hitler’s toilet, Adolf’s toilet.)

She thought she was going to throw up yesterday when Mark let her off to pick up her car. Told Greg sorry, she had to use his bathroom before she left. Right after she paid.

“Finally the historian will crap on Hitler,” Greg laughed. She felt too sick to smile.

It had looked like any toilet in a dirty auto shop. Not a toilet that would go on a yacht. A basics 50’s toilet, the sort she and Mark had in their house. She had thrown up and then wiped off the seat with the disinfectant she always carried with her and sat down.

A woman and her fetus were walking into a clinic. “I’m scared,” said the fetus.
The woman replies: “How do you think I feel? I have to walk out of here alone.”

***

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Lois Marie Harrod’s 16th and most recent collection Nightmares of the Minor Poet appeared in June 2016 from Five Oaks. Her chapbook And She Took the Heart appeared in January 2016, and Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis (Cherry Grove Press) and the chapbook How Marlene Mae Longs for Truth (Dancing Girl Press) appeared in 2013. The Only Is won the 2012 Tennessee Chapbook Contest (Poems & Plays), and Brief Term, a collection of poems about teachers and teaching, was published by Black Buzzard Press, 2011. Cosmogony won the 2010 Hazel Lipa Chapbook (Iowa State). She is widely published in literary journals and online ezines from American Poetry Review to Zone 3. She teaches Creative Writing at The College of New Jersey. Links to her online poems and short stories at www.loismarieharrod.org.

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