White parents, a mom and a stepdad from Bloomington, Minnesota, people who call themselves progressives but vacation every year in Paris, have a problem paying a whole hundred dollars for a list of school supplies generated without transparency. The school district is expecting too much in the way of docile cooperation, and the mother, whose name is Chelsea, is not going to stand for it any longer. The stepdad’s name is Luke. In high school—go Pioneers!—they called him Luke the Nuke, but his potency, such as it was, is now long gone.
Modeling clay? Chelsea says, What kind of—excuse me—teacher expects students entering the fifth grade to research the proper handling and storage of modeling clay? And the seed packets; do not get her started on the seed packets. For one thing, the growing season in Minnesota is about five minutes long, and, it seems to Chelsea—and she is not alone!—the money might be better spent on a starter fund for a classroom set of graphing calculators. Has anyone considered the very real danger the smaller children might swallow the seeds and require medical attention? Someone call a meeting.
Chelsea is my cousin, and Luke is my cousin’s second husband. Her first husband died in a boating accident; Chelsea and Luke still have the boat that killed him. Some in the family suspected foul play, but I know better: Chelsea and Luke are too stupid to kill someone, even a scrappy little low-IQ surfer guy like Chelsea’s first husband, whose name, no joke, was Frankie Avalon. (Avalon was his middle name; his last name—appropriately—was Smith.) You might be thinking, and who are you? Who are you who seems not to approve of Paris vacations, you who have taken no personal risks whatsoever aside from sharing the unwanted and unnecessary information that you are Chelsea’s superior-sounding cousin, who are YOU to disparage the good intentions of these hardworking parents who want only what’s best for their children? Who am I, indeed? I’m not going to tell you.
A ten-year-old girl named Annika, distraught over the departure of her mother’s girlfriend—it’s a complicated story—took an overdose of her mother’s girlfriend’s epilepsy medication, but, to her disappointment, nothing much happened except for a trip to the Emergency Room and, later, a demand from her mother that she sign up for twice-weekly therapy sessions with a guy named Rick, but you can call him Ricky, like Ricky Ricardo, except he’s from Oklahoma City, an overgrown cow town, he said, where they do have a gay bar called the Havana Inn but otherwise no expensive cigars, no vintage automobiles, and certainly not a single decent mojito within a fifty mile radius. Rick used to be a handyman—a vinyl flooring and ceramic tile guy, he said—but he wanted something better for his life, and so went back to school where he earned both his bachelor’s degree and his master’s degree in four years plus one semester. Annika had learned a lot about Rick—that he had a girlfriend who owned her own Sno-Cone shack, that his favorite candy was Toblerone—but so far she had perfected the art of pretending to be shy during her sessions, a strategy that paid off in the form of extra time spent listening to her own voice played back on one of those old-fashioned tape recorders and reflecting on its meaning by doodling into a “feelings notebook.” Her mother’s girlfriend, when she first came on the scene a little over a year ago, brought with her a great number of kitchen appliances and foodstuffs, including a Presto PopLite Hot Air Popcorn Popper and a mystery blend of exotic spices to sprinkle on the kernels—Annika had told Rick about this, but not much else—but her mother’s girlfriend took both the Air Popper and the exotic spices with her when she left the townhome Annika still shares with her mother.
Now, whenever Annika tells her mother she hates every snack not made in the Presto PopLite Hot Air Popcorn Popper, her mother tells her to go to her room and take a shower because, her mother cannot help but notice, Annika has not bathed in four whole days. Annika tells her mother a bath and a shower are not the same thing—everyone knows this—but her mother only sulks and stares at her phone. Annika is not yet allowed to have a real phone, only one of those flip-phones for old people in case she needs to call the police. Annika would never call the police, however, because she knows exactly two police officers in real life, and one of them is their next-door-neighbor who beats his wife and the other one is the rent-a-cop who stands guard at her elementary school, where he never does any actual work but smokes behind the dumpster and reads from the Koran. The kids call him ISIS Ike, but his real name is Nader Sharifi. The worst part about Nader Sharifi is that he once said he was studying to become a dentist and wanted to practice by cleaning Annika’s teeth. She said no, but that same day was the occasion on which she decided to take her mother’s girlfriend’s epilepsy medication, which came from a brown bottle she’d mysteriously left behind in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom off the townhome’s master suite, a room her mother and her mother’s girlfriend had always called “the mistress suite, ha ha.” There were seven pills left, a lucky number. And how was her mother’s girlfriend coping without her epilepsy medication? Not well, Annika thought, probably not well. She might be having a seizure at this very moment. Annika knew she herself did not want to die die, only think about dying, and make everyone else think about dying, but she had not anticipated all this thinking about death would end with so much time spent in Ricky (not Ricardo)’s office, who, like her mother and her mother’s girlfriend, seemed to be gay but not happy, not very happy at all.
It was the dead of winter when I had the bright idea to start the Dwight D. Eisenhower Fifth Grade Community Garden, but now that school is about to start I have my regrets. Once, in my twenties, I was a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. I know that sounds like a non-sequitur—some stupid do-gooder’s kiddie garden of poison ivy and weeds followed by a crappy game show that should have gone off the air sometime during the first—or, at the very latest, the second—Gulf War, but stay with me: the important thing to know is that I won a lot of money. I mean, I was good at that game, so good they had me back for Champions’ Week and I cleaned up all over again. There are a lot of things I could have done with that money. I could have taken a trip, like a really long trip, the kind where you get lost in some exotic locale and start a new life with a different wardrobe and a different name. I could have gone to graduate school. I could have bought a big house, or a boat, like the sleek speedboat my cousin may or may not have used to kill her first husband. I could have taken up collecting rare baseball cards or paraphernalia from long-ago political campaigns or antique radios. I could have financed an extremist wing of a band of radical feminists. But I did none of those things. Instead, I continued in the same job I had when I first became a contestant on Wheel of Fortune and put the money toward my retirement. That is to say, I went back to the fifth grade, where I had a little more moxie, like I became active in the union and asked for more Advanced Placement courses and refused to work at the concession stand at peewee football games and decided, on a whim, to put my feet up on my desk more often and even started to curse. But I remained a teacher, the same job I started in, the same job I do now, the same shiny apples bound straight for the trashcan, the same metal detectors and active shooter drills and Pledges of Allegiance. The same fifth grade community garden, where I hear about my students’ suicide attempts—three last year—and grow tomato plants that always die, where I use organic pesticides only and keep an eye on the security guard who, out of the blue one day, gave me a toothbrush; it was dental health month he said, and I should know, because I teach.
Dinah Cox’s first book of stories, Remarkable, won the fourth annual BOA Short Fiction Prize and appeared in 2016. A second collection is forthcoming from PANK Big Books. Individual stories have appeared or are forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Cream City Review, Calyx, and Raleigh Review. She teaches in the Creative Writing program at Oklahoma State University, where she’s also an Associate Editor at Cimarron Review.