Court Ogilvie earned his M.F.A. in 2009 and then became an Behavior Interventionist for Desoto County Schools working with special needs students on behavior and social skills. At night, he teaches beginning writing classes at Park University and Southwest Tennessee Community College.
LUNCH LINE RULES
Oak Hollow Intermediate School was modeled after the asterisk. Third grade hall was a straight line to the left. Fourth grade hall was a straight line to the right. Fifth grade hall ran smack dab down the middle and stretched all the way to the playground. All points led to the cathedral-size foyer where Maria Carpenter waited for her meeting to start. Embedded in the floor beneath her was the school seal, courage in the face of adversity. Maria was afraid. What if Kramer saw her? If her son discovered she was on campus, he’d want to go home. If she refused—Lord Jesus, what would happen!
Down the cafeteria hall, a class awaited their turn to enter the lunchroom. Maria quickly stepped out of view. Was that Kramer’s class? She couldn’t tell. Did he see her? She heard no shiver me timbers. No, blows me down. Sounded like everything was okay. No screams. No crying. Mrs. Farr’s classroom was down the arts hall. Luckily, her meeting didn’t start for another couple of minutes—two minutes and fifteen seconds to be precise. To reach the arts hall, she’d have to pass in view of the class. Best just wait it out. Let the kids file in and get situated. All hell would break loose if Kramer saw her.
Taped to the cafeteria entrance was a poster listing the Five Expectations for Lunch Line Behavior:
Rule #1: Respect personal space.
Hot peanut butter breath moistened the back of Martavious’s neck. He so wanted to spin around and let him have it—one time, just one time! That’d be sweet. Bet everyone in class would fist-bump him. Bet his teacher Mrs. Browning would add five tokens to his behavior chart, shoot him a sly little wink--always wanted to do that. That’d be a good day. But then Martavious remembered that morning’s talk. How everyone had to be patient with Kramer.
“Eyes on me,” announced Mrs. Browning. “Three, two, one. Zipped lips and promises.”
Martavious held up his right arm as if swearing allegiance. He pressed his left index finger against his lips and remained as still as possible. Kramer’s face suddenly appeared next to his. Their cheeks were practically kissing.
“Have I got zipped lips and promises?” Mrs. Browning said. “From everyone?”
The class stood in line on cafeteria hall. They were last to lunch that day. Beginning of the school year, they were fifth from last, but Kramer kept running out the back doors. Said he saw some Bluto kid hogging the swings. Trinitee Banks said Bluto was Kramer’s supervillain like in a comic book or something. But Trinitee lied a lot.
“Dame’s a regular drill sergeant,” Kramer mumbled. Martavious turned around. Kramer rocked back and forth on his black Buster Brown’s. His navy shirtsleeves were rolled all the way to his biceps, and he wore a white sailor’s cap, or was it a captain’s cap? It was some kind of boat hat. That’s what somebody told him. He didn’t have zipped lip and promises.
“…all I can stands, cause I can’t stands no more…, ” Kramer whispered.
Kid was so weird. He squinted his right eye all the time, talked out the left side of his mouth like a pirate. And he talked to nobody. Nobody listened to him and still he talked all through class—bugged everybody.
“Kramer!” said Mrs. Browning, a familiar sound.
“I AIN’T SAYS NOTHING,” Kramer shouted back. God, that kid was loud, always. And he walked funny. Swung his arms like he was dropping elbows on John Cena.
“All right, Mrs. Browning’s class,” said Mrs. Browning. “Remember the lunch line rules.”
“Respect personal space,” the class recited. Kramer cupped his ears.
“LOWERS YA VOICES,” he barked. “Kew.” Mrs. Browning didn’t move like she was hit with a freeze ray.
“What’s the second rule?” she asked the class, but eyeballed Kramer.
Rule #2: Be patient. Don’t go unless tapped.
Two years ago, Anita Hernandez was hired by Oak Hollow to be their English as a Second Language instructor. The Mexican population was booming in Hernando, Mississippi and she loved county insurance—had newborn twins for goodness sake. But Mrs. Farr and a few other choice teachers convinced the school board to repair and reopen the abandoned railroad station off Goodman, transfer all the ESL students into a special school. Mrs. Hernandez lost her classroom that year and had to settle for Personal Care Assistant. She tried transferring to the new school, but Farr blocked her. Said she needed an assistant if Kramer Carpenter was going to be in her room.
“Sorry, I’m late. Sorry,” said Mrs. Carpenter shuffling into Mrs. Farr’s room. Mrs. Carpenter was a wisp of a lady, blonde and well to do, a diminutive Barbie doll.
“Not at all,” said Mrs. Farr. She practically cooed bootlicking. Farr and Carpenter’s monthly meetings were always a stressed-filled affair. Not surprising what the meetings were about.
“Still following Kramer’s Behavior Plan?” Mrs. Carpenter asked. She fiddled with her purse.
“Well…” said Mrs. Farr. “We’re working on it. Giving him that good ole college try.” Anita was a professional, graduated Ole Miss with honors, passed all her PRAXIS tests on the first try. Yet, here she was, a nursemaid to a white lady’s brat. No, they weren’t following the behavior plan. They were just trying to keep the kid from freaking out all the time.
“Myself and Anita—Mrs. Hernandez and I,” struggled Mrs. Farr. Carpenter was the only person Anita knew made Farr nervous. Lawyering up in education did that. “Now, that’s what I wanted to tell you—so happy I can finally give you good news. We’ve had tremendous progress with Kramer’s academics since—“
“You are calling him Kramer?”
“Oh, of course, of course. Right Anita?” Anita smiled from her small desk in the corner, a lie like every other. No, they weren’t calling him Kramer. Kramer wouldn’t respond to Kramer. They had to call him what he wanted.
“You’re not singing the song?” Mrs. Carpenter said. “Dr. Hampton said—“
“No, no, everything’s grand. We’re really are making progress,” said Mrs. Farr. “Though. Honestly. We’ve struggled consistently—consistently, mind you—calling him Kramer. Sometimes we have to call him—“
“No,” ordered Mrs. Carpenter. For an undersized Barbie, even Anita was intimidated. “No, we agreed—agreed as an IEP committee. You and Mrs. Hernandez were going to call him Kramer. Everyone must call him Kramer. Understand me? That’s what his IEP says.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Farr. “I know that but he’s—we’ve figured out how to get him to do his work. His class work. He’s passing. Can you believe that? Passing English. He’s writing! Trying to. Right Anita?”
“Si,” Anita whispered.
“I’m not interested in his grades. At the meeting, we didn’t talk about grades. We talked about social. He’s here for social. We agreed as a committee—my lawyer stated—“
“Yes, yes, but the rules,” pleaded Mrs. Farr. “He follows the rules more. Stay an arm’s length apart—he does that. Sometimes without prompting. Be patient. Right? Wait until—these rules are important to the school environment, Mrs. Carpenter.”
Rule #3: Always use a polite tone of voice.
On the north end of the cafeteria, glued to the white cinder block walls, were kitchen tiles hand-painted to look like American flags. Above the tiles was a Merry Christmas banner; Snoopy happily danced around a Christmas tree. Taped to the cafeteria window was a small menorah cutout. Long white cafeteria tables, with their pristine counterfeit tabletops, lined side-by-side in regimented columns. Mrs. Coker’s third grade class rose on command, gathered their empty Sun Chip bags and Little Debbie plastics and innumerable Lunchable kits and lined up single file, ready to exit the cafeteria.
Trinitee Banks vomited—or at least, she pretended to. Half of Coker’s class watched. They were third graders. They couldn’t help it. They watched Trinitee heave and heave and ho and ho, and then make an ungodly, totally disgusting barf sound underneath the table. Trinitee spilled some of her apple juice, hoping the babies bought the act. When she overheard earsplitting ewwwws! and one beautiful Gross! she returned to her bench a proud woman. Mrs. Coker shooed her disgusted class out of the cafeteria as quickly as she could.
“WHERE’S ME SPINACH?”
It came out of nowhere and it was loud, real loud. Louder than Trinitee’s vomit noises, louder than the fourth-grade boys who always got in trouble, louder than dropping a textbook on the tile floor, louder than firecrackers on the fourth of July. It was so loud it was gorgeous.
“ME SPINACH,” bellowed again. Principal Townsend scurried into the food area.
That’s when Trinitee spotted Olivia Onion. Olivia Onion was the smallest fifth grader at Oak Hollow. She always wore a solid colored dress with a frilly collar and she always kept her dark hair in a ponytail. She had the most irresistibly dismissive lisp.
“Olivia,” called Trinitee. “Olivia. Across from me. Sit here.”
“ME SPINACH!” came again. A silence erupted throughout the cafeteria. Faces turned to faces, wide eyed and smiling. Everyone knew who was shouting. Startled, Olivia quickly picked it up the pace and sat across from Trinitee.
“Kwamma sounds mad,” she said.
“Don’t worry. I’ll protect you,” Trinitee lied.
When her father died in a car wreck two years ago, Trinitee discovered the joys of little white lies. Like the ones she told her teacher to get out of class--just feeling sad today. Mrs. Browning didn’t hesitate. Off she went. Or half lies like I turned in my homework already, which she did two weeks ago, old homework. Two weeks counted as turned in already by her definition. But after a while, she liked lying because it bothered adults. She didn’t like adults. When she got caught skipping, they told her it was because she missed her dad—like that was why she didn’t want to come to school. When she pushed Cathy Wrings in the mud puddle, they gave her lunch detention, but apologized for it—like she couldn’t help it, it wasn’t her fault. How ridiculous! When she told Mrs. Daniels, she wasn’t doing any more homework, any more class work—nothing. School was boring. The principal and counselors and Mrs. Daniels surrounded her in the third-grade hall and said nothing. She was ready, ready to take them on, but they didn’t punish her, didn’t argue with her, didn’t yell, didn’t say anything. They just stood there and stared, and she hated them for it.
“He’s not bewwy nice,” Olivia said. Trinitee wondered how a kid who sounded like a three-year-old made Honor Roll every nine weeks.
“Don’t worry, kid,” Trinitee said. “I got you.”
“He won’t weave me awone.”
Kramer strolled out of the lunch line, tray in hand. Lunch was a barbeque sandwich with a vegetable cup, pound cake for desert—only it wasn’t pound cake but some recycled cornbread with frosting. Trinitee noticed Kramer’s vegetable cup lacked the mandatory broccoli floret and celery wedge.
“Good morning Kramer,” called Principal Townsend.
“Don’t what’s me. Say good morning. When someone says good morning, you respond. That’s the rule.” Kramer snarled. “How do we respond Kramer?” Kramer gritted his teeth. “How do we respond Kra—”
“GOODS MORNINGS TO YA,” he said and marched towards the cafeteria tables.
“Kramer!” called Mr. Townsend.
“WHAT’S. I SAYS ME GOODS MORNINGS. WHATS?”
“Your cap. It’s not Hat day. Take your cap off please.”
“BUT ME HAIRS UNKEMPT.”
“Lower your voice,” said Mr. Townsend. He looked left, looked right like a burglar making sure the coast was clear. “I’m not asking again.” He adjusted his glasses and took a deep breath. “Those are the rules, Kramer. Students may only wear hats on Hat day. Please remove your cap or I’ll take it.”
Kramer snatched his cap off his head and shoved it in his back pocket. Mr. Townsend said thank you and shook his head. Trinitee knew that look. Townsend was tired of Kramer. Why? Cause Kramer was different, a handful. How many times did adults shake their heads at her? Poor Trinitee. Even if they didn’t say it, she knew that’s what they were thinking. Kramer might as well have been surrounded by the principal, the counselor, Mrs. Browning. They were all staring at him, and she hated them for it.
“Kramer,” she called. “Sit here.”
“Noooo,” Olivia said. “He’s not awwowed too. Mws. Bwowning said.”
“Kramer,” Trinitee said and waved. Kramer spotted Olivia and—what looked like an old man having a heart attack while eating his favorite ice cream—smiled. His gruff exterior melted. His loud voice softened. He blushed. He actually blushed. Tray in hand, he made his way towards Trinitee but he didn’t swing his elbows like usual. Trinitee couldn’t be sure but it looked like he danced his way over.
“Kwamma’s not awwowed to sit with me at wunch. Mrs Bwowning said so.”
He stopped right behind Olivia and kewww-ed. Trinitee loved it. The kid looked so weird. He was bald for goodness sake. A fifth grader? Bald! And not on purpose. It looked like he shaved all his blonde hair off except for a small, curly tuft just above the forehead. Even better, he drew these giant black anchors on his forearms. They stretched from wrist to his elbow.
“AHOY,” he called and then he said “Hellos me sweets,” to the back of Olivia’s head. The guttural drag in his voice vanished. He wasn’t as loud as a peacock. There was something sweet in his voice, a shyness unusual for the boy who once punched Principal Townsend in his big ole fat stomach.
“No, Kwamma,” Olivia said without turning around. She nibbled on her Dorrito chip.
Kramer convulsed and gyrated, bobbed his head and bent his back. He looked like someone was repeatedly punching him in the stomach, and he liked it. The space next to Olivia was all clear. Kramer gently placed his tray down like it might shatter the table to pieces. Olivia slapped her hand on the empty bench seat.
“No, Kwamma,” she said. “Teacha’s wules. You’wa not awwowed to sit next to me anymowa.” Warmed by her voice, Kramer hid his silly grin and mumbled quietly, Ag-gag-gag-gag.
“No Kwamma. Teacha’s wules. You can’t sit hewa.”
“YER LOOKING PARTI-CH-ERLY BE-YOO-TIFUL DIS MORNINGS,” he said. “ANDS YER VOICE—“
“Kwamma,” Olivia shouted, but stared at Trinitee. “Go.”
All at once, Kramer’s body slumped. His shoulders dropped and his knees bent. His eyes fell. His chin bowed. What looked pleasant before, punched repeatedly in the stomach, looked deadly now, as if Olivia was the Bluto villain Kramer fought on the playground and she just delivered the most devastating knockout punch Trinitee had ever seen.
She knew how he felt. When her father died, Trinitee was sitting in class, working on bell-work. Mr. Townsend knocked on the classroom door. Mrs. Daniels, her third grade teacher, stepped outside. Trinitee saw another lady, a lady she knew worked at the school but had no idea what she did. Then Mrs. Daniels covered her mouth. Her eyes were as big as paper plates. She looked at Trinitee, and it hit her. That gut shot that told her something was wrong. In the hallway, they spoke quietly, told her about the car wreck, about her dad. Said they were sorry. Did she need anything? Mom’s on the way. The other lady told her she was a counselor; it was okay to talk about it. But no one talked. They all stood in the hallway staring at her, waiting for her to do something, and she hated them for it.
Kramer lumbered his way to the end of the cafeteria table and plopped down on the bench. None of this affected Olivia however. She continued staring at Trinitee munching on that same Dorrito chip as if the rest of her day went ahead full steam. Everything was okay, her dad was still alive and well and waiting at home.
Kramer didn’t touch his food, didn’t say a word. Nearest kid was three spaces away. Looked like on purpose too. None of his peers knew what to do with someone that sad, especially if it was Kramer. Mostly because it was Kramer. How do you cheer up a natural disaster? But Trinitee understood.
Olivia continued munching on that same Dorrito chip staring at Trinitee. And Trinitee hated her for it.
Rule #4: Remember the Golden Rule—treat others as you wish to be treated.
“How many times this week—since the meeting have you called him Popeye?” asked Mrs. Carpenter. “Answer me! This is serious, Mrs. Farr. He’s spent thousands of hours in therapy. We’ve spent—the IEP states that under no circumstances was anyone at this school to call him Popeye. No circumstances.”
“Mrs. Carpenter,” Mrs. Farr said. “I’ve an obligation to the state to make sure he reaches academic—“
“We’ve been fighting this for—you were there! We told you. You agreed.”
“Now, Mrs. Carpenter,” said Mrs. Farr. “Please understand that—“
“Have you sang the song?” asked Mrs. Carpenter. ““Have you been giving him anything green?”
My Christmas Wish worksheets were tacked on the wall behind Mrs. Carpenter. One particular worksheet was a large can of spinach drawn in crayon. This woman had to know, Mrs. Farr thought. She had to know her son was a holy terror—an unrelenting disturbance. How else was the boy going to learn? He couldn’t contribute to society if he didn’t learn, didn’t get a diploma. What about the other students?
“Yes,” Mrs. Farr said. She crossed her arms, stood her ground. “Yes, we have. I needed work out of him. I needed data. He’d work if I’d give him a green gummy bear.”
“I can’t believe this,” said Mrs. Carpenter. She paced the classroom, marched up an aisle of student desks, marched back down. “Is he outbursting? Have you put him in a restraining—why haven’t I been getting calls about outbursting?”
“He hasn’t been,” Mrs. Farr said. “That’s what I wanted to tell you. It’s a miracle. He’s been doing class work, actual class work. And on grade level! Math word problems. Vocabulary worksheets. Coloring the countries of Europe. Fifth grade class work, Mrs. Carpenter. It works. It’s working.”
“NO GREEN!” shouted Mrs. Carpenter. Anita tiptoed out of the classroom. “You know what happens. You know what happens.” Mrs. Farr could hear the tears in her voice.
“I do,” Mrs. Farr said. “I really—and if he outbursted once—just once—we’d have stopped. But he didn’t outburst. He didn’t. It was like…,” she looked to her ceilings tiles. High school art students painted them animal themed. One tile had A for aardvark. Another B for beetle. Her ceiling was a mosaic of color and shadow, two contributors to child brain development according to the latest research.
“It motivated him,” she confessed as if asking Jesus into her heart. “Maybe he felt smarter rather than stronger? I don’t know. I half expected an outburst. I really did. But he did his work. He did all his work.”
Two weeks ago, as usual, Kramer did nothing in class. He argued IT AIN’T’S ME THING and did whatever he wanted. Sometimes it was Legos. Sometimes he drew spinach cans. His Popeye obsession so worried his parents that they waived academics in favor of social development. Whoever heard of a student who went to school to make friends? It was ridiculous. But Mrs. Farr abided. Until two weeks ago. While her special needs students diligently worked on their assignments, bettering themselves and their future, Kramer played with Legos. He refused to stop, to obey. They couldn’t even get him to write his name—simply write his name on a worksheet. Anita held up her hands and said que a hora?
“Mrs. Farr,” Mrs. Carpenter said. “I know my son is difficult. I know this. I’m sympathetic to your—I get it. You just want to teach him. That’s your job. I get that. Really. But what good is an education to someone—“ She inhaled her lips, cupped her eyes to hold back the tears. “No one talks to him. No one wants to be his—we can’t go anywhere because he’s like this—acts like this. Do you understand? We have to get him to stop. Dr. Hampton agreed, we have to get him to stop!”
And then Mrs. Farr decided to pick a fight with Kramer. She gave him a choice: lose recess or do you work and get a gummy bear. A green gummy bear she promised. Anita looked like an alligator crawled into the classroom. But Kramer stopped. He stopped playing with the Legos and sat at his desk, took up his pencil, and wrote his name.
“For two years we’ve been doing this—dealing with this problem,” said Mrs. Carpenter. “I have to scout locations ahead of time and make sure there’s nothing green there to eat. That’s my life. That’s what I have to do now. And that’s fine, I live with it. But you’re making my job harder. Do you understand? He can’t get better if you’re feeding into this.”
“Mrs. Carpenter, I understand,” Mrs. Far said. “I totally understand what you’re—but how’s he going to get a diploma if he can’t do his multiplication tables? What good are friends—they won’t take care of him when he’s twenty, thirty, fifty? He can’t hold a job—can’t read! Seriously, Mrs. Carpenter what’s more important?”
For a long time Mrs. Carpenter stared at Mrs. Farr, her eyes glossy from the truth. Mrs. Farr knew she was right. God told her she was right, and despite the data and the research and all that hullabaloo, the boy needed an education. No man or woman was worth their salt if they didn’t have an education.
Rule #5: Eat your food like you’re eating in church.
Principal Townsend gained two pounds. His scale told him that this morning.
The scale was an evil thing, a devilish contraption—a Christmas gift. He only got the darn thing because he accidentally told his wife he overheard some of the kids talking about his belly. It was right after Kramer punched him. Some fourth graders said that belly stop a tank. He pretended he didn’t hear them. Then he made the mistake of telling his wife. Kids being kids. No big deal, honey. The scale was wrapped and hidden in a tackle box.
Bobby Stevens cackled, chunks of Little Debbie dribbled out of his mouth. Will Thomas yelled in his twin sister’s ear just to annoy her. Individually, kids weren’t loud. But put them all in one room and the noise could shatter eardrums. Townsend had to carry a bullhorn just to keep kids tolerable.
Mr. Townsend stood by the food area entrance in the cafeteria thinking about the weekend. Big fishing trip planned. Great outdoors. Sardis Lake. Absolute silence for hours. No screams. No cries. No kids. Townsend patted the walkie-talkie clipped to his hip.
Barnes Jefferies exited the food area. On his tray were two barbeque sandwiches, two bags of chips, two vegetable cups and three slices of cake. Couldn’t believe his parents paid for all that every day, but Barnes was a big fifth grader, bigger than most. Middle school football coach already rang Townsend’s phone wanting to know about him.
Suddenly, someone screamed. A girl. Over by the window. Townsend jolted, scanned the room. Betsy Manchester slapped Carlos Gomez’s arm. Looked like he spilled some chocolate milk. No big deal. An assistant principal had to snap fast, get there before things got out of hand. Luckily, false alarm.
“All right you two,” Barnes said through the bullhorn. “Number 3 voices in the cafeteria.”
Screams usually meant Kramer. Townsend scanned the room again. Couldn’t believe he forgot about Kramer. He always had to keep an eye on Kramer. Mrs. Browning’s class was by the window. He didn’t see Kramer. Still scanning, he moved towards the back doors. If he didn’t spot Kramer soon, he was calling Code Blue, sprinting towards the playground.
Kramer was at the end of the cafeteria table, spotlighted with loneliness. No one talked to him. He was hunched over his tray, lifeless. Townsend thought about going over there, asking how he was, but that could agitate Kramer, might get him all riled up. A good day was an absent Kramer.
Barnes Jefferies plopped down next to that Olivia girl—last name escaped him. Cutest thing ever. The way she talked with that lisp. Really was adorable—at least, until the IEP meeting reminded everyone Olivia had a disability. We treat everyone equally here at Oak Hollow Intermediate he promised.
Barnes shoveled a barbeque sandwich in his mouth—the whole sandwich! Oliva scooted away. Michael Battles and Arnie Lewis cheered him on, laughed and slapped the table. Olivia scooted some more, but Tamera Williams was chatting it up with Brandi Meyers, oblivious to the whole affair. Townsend remembered Mrs. Browning stopping him last week in the great hall. Warned him about Olivia. Something about Kramer. He couldn’t recall.
Barnes bellowed like a volcano. Barbeque bits and bread spewed like lava. Olivia slapped his arm and yelled stop it! That’s gwoss! That egged the boys on. They started mocking her, Barnes hardest of all. Gwoss! Gwoss! Gwoss! Then, Townsend remembered Olivia was Kramer’s Olive Oyle.
Kramer wasn’t at the table. Townsend scoured the aisles, the exits, searching for a Popeye in a sea of Waldos. He unclipped his walkie-talkie. Kramer stood by Carlos and Betsy. They looked like Frankenstein was about to eat them. Kramer reached over Carlos and grabbed his vegetable cup off his tray.
“Kramer!” yelled Townsend through the bullhorn. “Stop! Stop that this instant!” It was too late. Kramer inhaled the broccoli floret and celery stalk, flexed his biceps. Townsend yelled Code Blue! Into his walkie- talkie.
Rule #6: Throw trash in the garbage.
“We actually changed the code word for emergencies for Kramer, if you can believe that,” said Mrs. Farr. “It was green. Now it’s blue. We’ve bent over backwards for this child. Changed procedures, lunch schedules—we’ve literally removed students from their homeroom all to accommodate your son. What more do you want from us, Mrs. Carpenter?”
No one understood. Ever since Kramer was born, no one understood her child. He was special, brilliant. He learned how to program the DVD player when he was six, learned how to work a computer better than his father. His only problem was social. He didn’t know how to talk to people. He used to think singing was how people talked—at least, that’s what Beauty and the Beast taught him. He sang everything he said in kindergarten and everyone ignored him, thought he was weird. She reasoned it was a phase. He’d grow out of it.
“So I imagine you’ve ignored every protocol?” said Maria. “Every accommodation on his IEP?”
“Of course not,” Mrs. Farr said. “He gets extra time on assignments. We’ve taped off a small area in the back for his safe place. We’ve also been—“
“None of that matters,” said Maria’s. “Only thing we cared about—god, I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you’re doing exactly the opposite of what we talked about.”
In first grade, he watched a Batman movie, thought talking like Batman would work. He’d walk up to kids, to complete strangers and with a husky voice declare I’m Batman. Kids would just turn away, go back to climbing the monkey bars, pretend he didn’t exist. Strangers would continue walking like he was trash on the ground.
“Kramer has to have an education, Mrs. Carpenter. That’s the only way he’ll survive. And he can do it. He’s smart. Smart enough, obviously, to do fifth grade work. Look.”
Mrs. Farr scurried to her desk, snatched a worksheet, and shoved it in Maria’s face.
“Look at that. That’s a timed multiplication test. Now look at that.”
Written in green crayon were the correct answers. All fifty of them. As a mother, she should have been proud but how could she be proud of a child who kissed her cheek but bit her hand? How could she love a child everyone knew but no one liked? She didn’t know what she did to deserve Kramer—God, she promised herself to never think that again.
In third grade, they decided as a family to try trick-or-treating. Dr. Hampton suggested new identities might help Kramer transition out of Batman. But they had no idea what to try. Costume store was a disaster. Kramer grabbed two plastic swords and whacked four kids, two mothers, and the cashier. They didn’t even have to talk the police. Cops already knew Kramer.
Afterwards, Kramer, as usual, grabbed his tablet and watched YouTube. For hours, he watched movies, cartoons, TV shows, everything he could. His father couldn’t understand why a person who didn’t know how to act like other people watched other people all day long. Then they heard the song.
Kramer smiled. His eyes lit up. Popeye the Sailor filled the screen—corn pipe and spinach cans, burgers on Tuesday and Olive Oyle’s lanky frame. Something about those ridiculous characters touched him.
It all clicked. The Halloween problem was solved. Kramer was Popeye. Mom was Olive Oyle. Dad was Bluto. They went trick-or-treating and no one ignored him. He knocked on doors and roared, well blows me down and the adults laughed. They loved it. Kids were howling—funniest thing they ever saw. Peers asked how much candy he got. That night he traded a Snickers bar for a box of candy corn. It didn’t matter how bad the trade was. Somebody traded with her son!
“Mrs. Farr,” said Maria. Her voice sounded strained like she had been choked. “Our therapists—Dr. Hampton recommended all the techniques—that document grants my son federal protection and it means you—YOU!—have to provide all accommodations. Or you’re breaking the law!”
By Christmas, they knew something was wrong. Kramer never snapped out of it. Day and night, Popeye. They removed all the plants. No more vegetables at dinners. They hid all the markers—no more anchors. It was just easier that way. Dr. Hampton warned them about the song. The theme song was the trigger he theorized. Music coupled with heroism and fantasy is a powerful antecedent. The consequence was Popeye. Kramer’s dad bought it—because men bought the easiest answer to every problem—but Maria knew it was more than some damn song and a funny voice. People paid attention to him, good or bad. Whether he knocked over the Little Debbie display at the grocery store or somebody giggled when they heard him say I yam’s what I yam’s, Kramer wanted attention—any attention he could get. She was sure of it. He was her son after all.
“Code Blue! Code Blue!” screamed Coach Davis running past Mrs. Farr’s open door. Maria knew it was Kramer. It was always Kramer.
As Maria ran down the hall, she passed a robot Fathead informing the kids four quarts make a gallon. She ran past the choir room. The children sang “It’s A Small World After All.” She ran past a Kobe Bryant Milk ad and a vending machine that only sold soda and sports drinks. Painted on the wall was the school mascot, a knight wielding a mighty lance riding a majestic white mare. She turned right past the fire extinguisher and the school guidance counselors safely watching on the other side of a glass door.
Inside the cafeteria, Mr. Townsend and Coach Davis surrounded an abandoned cafeteria table—the teacher’s table to be sure. Abandoned Lean Cuisines and blue cheese salads in Tupperware littered the counterfeit tabletops. And there was Kramer, his cap on his head, his sleeves rolled to the biceps, those damn anchors on his forearms again, standing atop the vacated table, swinging and kicking, daring anyone to fight.
“GETS BACK. ALL A’ YAS.”
He kicked a Styrofoam takeout box, manicotti and French bread scattered across the floor, obvious leftovers from a nice restaurant. Coach Davis managed to grab Kramer’s wrist but Kramer tried to bite him. Coach Davis quickly let go. This was Maria’s son. Her one and only.
Hanging on the cafeteria walls behind Kramer were three different armed forces posters. All the soldiers looked happy hauling gear, wearing head-to-toe camouflage, standing on a mountain cliff overlooking the hostile barren valley at sunset. Proud boys, all of them, and surely, at home, proud mammas.
On the wall in Maria’s living room were pictures of her and her husband before they married. Trips to Florida beaches, camping in Arkansas, standing in front of the Washington monument. Then engagement party, wedding shower, Christmas. Her favorite was the wedding photo, the important one. Then Kramer. Kramer in his father’s arms the day he was born; sitting in his high chair; walking around the zoo; the one birthday party he was invited to before they were asked to leave.
“Coach,” shouted Mr. Townsend. “Get to the other side of him.” Coach Davis maneuvered so they boxed Kramer in.
“I’M STRONG TO THE FINCH CAUSE I EATS ME SPINACH.”
“I got’em. I got’em,” said Coach Davis.
Then, the pictures changed. Therapy Christmas party. One of Kramer and Dr. Hampton smiling. Special Olympics team photo. Personal Space merit badge award ceremony. Family portraits without dad, without mom, always Kramer.
“Damn it,” Coach Davis shouted.
“You all right?” Mr. Townsend said, circling around to make sure Kramer didn’t make a run for it. “He’ll get ya if you’re not careful.”
“Caught my eye,” Coach Davis said, pressing his fist against his left eye. Where Kramer hit him.
Teachers hurried their students out of the cafeteria. Most of the boys watched in awe. The girls whispered to each other, pointed at Maria. Their teachers shooed them on, don’t look at him like he was a car accident and they were trying to be respectful. Maria hated them for it. She wanted to give it to them all one time—just one time. They didn’t know what he was like on good days. When he offered to sweep the house, mop the kitchen. When he sat down beside her and rested his arm on her leg—God! How she wanted him to stay that way forever.
“I got his feet,” said Mr. Townsend. Coach Davis grabbed Kramer’s wrists, smudged his anchors. They fought her son and her son fought back. He screamed—Lord Jesus, it was such a horrible scream. It wasn’t Popeye, wasn’t Batman, wasn’t Beauty and the Beast. It was a voice she hadn’t heard in a long time, a voice she forgot existed. It was Kramer’s voice.
Maria fell to her knees. She felt gutted, her life splayed on the floor bleeding shame. Kramer fought and fought. Coach Davis held him in the restraining hold. Mr. Townsend supported Kramer’s head so he wouldn’t bang his skull against the tiled floor.
It was never going to stop. Every day would be like this. Her son would never fit in. It was her responsibly to take care of him, her burden for life—but wasn’t there parole? Didn’t most parents feel some kind of reward raising their child?
Mrs. Browning escorted her class out of the cafeteria. Maria saw Kramer’s Olive Oyle, Olivia Onion. The poor girl was crying and it was because of Kramer—she knew it. Maria imagined Olivia going home, telling her mother about Kramer. Her mother comforted Olivia, held her in her arms—Kramer wouldn’t even let Maria touch him, only he could touch her. Maria imagined Olivia standing behind a podium giving the valedictorian address. She made fun of her own lisp in her speech. Where would Kramer be at that moment? The last to leave the cafeteria was a large boy pressing bloody napkins against his nose.
“He’s not stopping,” said Coach Davis. Kramer scream as if tortured.
Dr. Hampton advised calling him Kramer, never Popeye. Popeye reinforces the fantasy, rewards his choice to act. But the song solidifies it, because, after studying the cartoon—which I did proudly for three weeks—we see Popeye’s triumph is not transparent after eating spinach. Spinach is a catalyst, a consumer symbol really. Most of the time in the cartoon, Popeye actually retains his superhuman strength without it. Spinach is the reminder he can win, not he will win.
No, it’s when we hear the song that we know Popeye’s going to triumph. Kramer wins as Popeye, because Popeye wins when the song is played. The audience knows Popeye is going to win when we hear the song. Don’t let him hear it. Never. The song signifies triumph in Kramer’s mind. He wins even if he’s losing. In fact, more so. It’s the equivalent of an addiction to gambling. Gamblers receive the same amount of endorphins winning AND LOSING. Don’t sing the song.
The song was Kramer’s switch. It turned him off. In the costume store, he finally stopped hitting people with a sword when his father fell on his knees and sang the song. When Kramer knocked over the Little Debbie display, he tore through the aisles, none of the employees could catch him. Maria had to get on the loud speaker and sing the song until Kramer stopped. It was one year to the date when Kramer last heard it, and Maria knew she didn’t have a choice. She had to sing the song.
“I’m Popeye the sailor man.
I’m Popeye the sailor man.
I’m strong to the finish cause I eats me spinach. I’m Popeye the sailor man.”
Kramer stopped. Coach Davis and Mr. Townsend deflated. The empty cafeteria sounded hollow. Maria saw the Menorah cutout taped to the far window. The yellow flame on the candle caught her eye, hypnotized her. She pretended the flame was real, dancing, warming, burning her flesh, a baptism that would release her from the one duty she never thought she’d regret, being a mother. Kramer was her life now, for better or worse, and she could never leave it.
“Blows me down,” Kramer whispered.