Volume 23, Number 4

Last Year

Eric Duffy

Johnny knew because he watched, watched everything. At school Johnny watched teachers teach and students trying to listen, while also taking notes, doing homework and texting their friends from two classes over. Johnny saw people kissing, people eating garlic toast and people trying in vain to get comfortable in classroom desks. Johnny also frequently viewed students getting high, teachers getting high on caffeine and young baby birds getting too high on a tree branch, outside his geography room’s window. The baby birds fell to their eminent death; the students and teachers fell to their eminent depression. Neighborhood cats frequented the ground around the tree looking for little broken, feathery bodies. Fortunately, Johnny watched closely to where they fell and buried them under the football field.

* * *

In autumn, Johnny happily welcomes the many moments of intrigue that the school year brings to him as a senior at Patmos High. Johnny watches Coach Wilhelm give himself a hernia on the bench press as he tries to prove himself to the football team. Johnny watches as Amelia Farrow, goddess of the school spirit committee, gives her tuna-salad sandwich to chubby Rachel Greenly during lunch, because she is “trying to drop down a size!” Later, Johnny watches chubby Rachel Greenly crying because she knows she is too full, but she eats Amelia Farrow’s tuna-salad sandwich anyway.

As the school year builds momentum Johnny is one of the few to notice how Mrs. Heffernan, English teacher and collector of small cow figurines, blushes every time the vice principal, a man named Mr. Berger, happens to pass her in the hall. Mrs. Heffernan blushes even worse on Wednesdays when Mr. Berger wears his “Evening Sea Breeze” cologne. On Wednesdays Johnny does his best to avoid Mr. Berger and his fragrant odor. Most students find that avoiding Mr. Berger is easy because “Evening Sea Breeze” is not a smell students are used to in the upper Midwest. However Johnny is certain that rotting-fish smell is actually pretty accurate to a real evening sea breeze.

Especially because he is a senior, Johnny watches the freshmen as they adjust to life in high school during the first few months this year. During the first school assembly Johnny watches the faces of the freshmen as Principal Whitman addresses the student body. During several different remarks pertaining to recent weather issues on the West Coast, Johnny notices many looks of boredom, interest and fear among the new high school class. However, there is of course Beatrice Huxley who, when her eyes are not burning holes in her chemistry book, looks up at Principal Whitman, blinks twice and picks her nose.

When Jake Riley arrives for ninth grade, Johnny watches as he stumbles into the wrong bathroom where Leo Felmann and Reed Porter are making a drug deal. Johnny later observes Jake Riley holding his broken nose in the nurse’s office and explaining the ordeal to Vice Principal Mr. Berger. In the hall outside the office, Johnny pretends to be invisible behind the veil of his aviator sunglasses and listens to Mr. Berger call the police. Felmann and Porter are escorted out of the school by two men in uniform, and as Johnny watches, Felmann flips him the bird.

Felmann is not the only person in Patmos High who flips Johnny the bird. In statistics class Johnny watches nervous Mr. Chop use his middle finger to point to complex problems inscribed on the chalkboard. Though Johnny is content with drawing comics about the origins of Mr. Chop’s various stains on his collared polo shirts, Mr. Chop often uses the whole class time to talk about his brother in Oregon. Mr. Chop’s brother, Argus Chop, sends them videos of monsoon-like rains drowning the region that are quite unheard-of in that state. Johnny watches Mr. Chop use an entire package of chalk in a furious description of how rains in Oregon and other strange things might be happening. Johnny watches as Mr. Chop realizes that he is using his entire statistics class to discuss an unrelated tangent.

Johnny notices that Mrs. Pounds, family sciences teacher, has a knack for baking pies and does so for almost any occasion. So, once Election Day rolls around, Johnny makes a point of arriving a half an hour early and watches Mrs. Pounds cautiously amble into school to deliver four different pies to the teachers’ lounge. Each pie is carefully plastered with a different candidates' name in whipped cream. Johnny watches Mr. Timmons, who once attempted to write a slightly illicit series of children’s novels based on “Spanky, the Wondrous Naked Mole Rat,” emerge from the lounge exclaiming that he hates Mrs. Pounds’ patriotic pies. After eating a veal sandwich for lunch in the lounge, Mr. Timmons realizes that Mrs. Pounds intentionally leaves out the Republican candidate for senator, who is, coincidentally his cousin, Jim Rogers. Johnny observes that this realization drives Mr. Timmons to bring in an extremely large and rare steak to the lounge on the following day. The steak, Johnny notices, has the Democratic candidate’s name carefully spelled out in barbeque sauce and is complete with a large knife piercing its side. Johnny hears Mrs. Pounds say that the steak was eaten by no one and can still be heard “mooing” in the lounge.

Due to the fact that Johnny cares little about politics and even less about “mooing,” Johnny waits until the hallways clear at the end of the day and lets himself into the teachers’ lounge for a feast. While he devours a decent chunk of rib-eye, Johnny flips on the thirteen-inch Toshiba in the lounge for the pure interest of finding out what soap opera Ms. Gladys, school psychologist, has been watching. To Johnny’s dismay he finds that the station is turned to CNN and ends up watching a news report on rampant extinctions of various types of birds and whales. The news report, which has a flashing red banner across the bottom of the screen, exclaims: “Climate Watch: Average Temperatures Soar!” and occasionally, “Clouds of Migratory Insects Ravage South America, Moving Northward!” Fortunately the report reminds Johnny that he needs to feed his snapping turtle, Esteban, a cricket. He rushes home and leaves Mr. Timmons’ half-eaten steak, which is no longer “mooing” or displaying the name of a senatorial candidate.

November slips into December, and Johnny watches the snow fall. He watches his fellow students bustle into the warmth of school, cupping their hands around their faces, using their breath to warm them. Johnny loves to watch Grant Bellman during the cold of winter. Grant Bellman is from California and for some reason sees it as his duty to wear shorts and thong sandals despite the weather. This is, of course, until the frostbite advisory reaches critical on December twelfth, which scares Grant’s hairy feet into an ugly pair of mukluks. Johnny sees this as proof that even if you are from California, a nice pair of mukluks puts everyone on the same playing field.

Just before winter break, the students of Patmos High drag their feet through the hallways like the blood in a corroded heart struggling to pump. Johnny notices thongs during passing time. Johnny finds that they stick pointedly out from the many pairs of low-cut jeans, and though he tries hard not to look, they seem to stutter at him in an endless stream of capital Ts.

The last day before winter break becomes unbearably long for Johnny. It forces him to watch Alice Holling, who sits in front of him in English, as she nervously chews on the end of her red pen and habitually pulls the back of her jeans up over her pink capital T. Johnny sees her obsessively pick stray strands of hair from the back of Portia Wendell, who sits quite unaware in front of Alice. Johnny finds Alice’s habit of preening fellow students in front of her without them knowing quite amazing. Johnny watches as Mrs. Heron, their English teacher, loudly and unexpectedly calls Alice’s name. In her shock Alice bites clean through the red pen in her mouth and its ink splatters on her face as if she were some kind of cannibal. Johnny finds this odd because the answer to Mrs. Heron’s question, “What does Queen Tamora in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus become when she unknowingly eats a pie made from the remains of her two sons?” was in fact, “cannibal.”

After winter break Johnny watches the Patmos High pep rally from the bleachers, third from the top on the far left in the gymnasium. Johnny loves pep rallies. He watches the senior class emcees, Josh Gent and sandwich-giver Amelia Farrow, try to pump up the crowd by chanting phrases like, “Go Fighting Lambs! Go Patmos High!” Johnny finds that Josh Gent does most anything for a laugh. His clowning as the football team does their song and dance number with the “Lambettes”—the Patmos High cheerleaders—leads Josh to snatch the toupee off the head of Mr. Van Braun. Mr. Van Braun is the school’s aged teacher of European history. He has been a recent contestant on “Wheel of Fortune” and has since become quite popular with students and teachers alike. Once the old history teacher realizes that his toupee is gone, Johnny watches as he initially shrinks from the laughter of the students and then, thinking better of it, rises in rage and slaps Josh Gent across the face. Johnny watches the faces of Vice Principal Berger, Principal Whitman and the entire faculty freeze in shock at the actions of Mr. Van Braun who merely cackles and walks out of the gymnasium. After the vindicated old man leaves, Johnny watches Josh Gent intently. Josh Gent seems confused and frozen, clutching his cheek, staring in disbelief at the tattered toupee and then up at the crowd, which is equally silenced. After this incident, Josh Gent never looks quite the same again and neither does Mr. Van Braun, who is now wearing a blond toupee and has moved to Florida. He is now dating the saucy queen bee at the Ocean View retirement community, or so Johnny suspects.

Johnny watches his homeroom teacher explain that Florida is experiencing a sudden and unexpected meteor shower. Fortunately, Mr. Van Braun survives by escaping with his new girlfriend, Ethel Laureate, in her Buick LeSabre to Kentucky. Sadly, everything that was once the Ocean View retirement community has been reduced to nothing but a smoking crater on Florida’s western shore. Johnny suspects that Disney World is no longer where famous baseball players can claim to go after winning the World Series.

Johnny suspects a lot of things. Johnny suspects that the food in the cafeteria is really quite good. However, Johnny thinks that Principal Whitman comes down each day and dyes the food so it looks suspiciously spoiled. Because of this, more students bring bag lunches, and the district office saves money on food. Johnny also suspects that second floor of the school is haunted, the janitors deliberately jam lockers, and Mrs. Edberg’s pet iguana, Burwell Saint Clair, only pretends to be male. Johnny swears he saw Burwell Saint Clair wink at him and then swish his tail seductively.

Johnny suspects that the education system has found a way to manipulate the weather. Johnny imagines that Mr. Berger flies an Air Force C-130 aircraft and dumps barrels of the school’s hot sauce into the atmosphere so that it heats up, and snow days are increasingly less likely. However, Johnny begins to wonder if maybe the education system messes things up in some even worse way. For instance, it is February now, but the projected forecast is ninety-six degrees for the next ten days and then below freezing after that. This begins to make Johnny suspect that the school might not really know what it is doing.

Because Johnny suspects that the second floor of the school is haunted, Johnny is late to class if the classroom is in that vicinity. Johnny keeps his head down and reads poems by Edgar Allan Poe from his poetry book when he walks in that hallway. However, this causes him to walk into people, trip, or on some occasions become possessed by the haunting spirit. The spirit belongs to Melvin Grop, who mopped floors as a janitor in that wing long before Johnny’s time. Melvin died peacefully five years ago, surrounded by family and friends, in a hospital at the age of eighty-seven, so Johnny has no idea why Melvin’s ghost unexpectedly has Johnny mop floors and angrily shout gibberish at passersby.

Johnny suspects that if he really tries he will be a star football player for the varsity team. Johnny suspects that most matches are rigged anyway by Ross Gerald who is the ref at home games and who sneaks off during stoppages to have a pull from his flask of whiskey. They would have banned Ross from the games last season but his antics were so funny during halftime that no one has the heart to replace him. Johnny figures that all he has to do is be a drunk and more humorous then Ross Gerald, and he can win the hearts of his fellow players. Johnny is sure people will love him the same way they loved Forest Gump when he ran through the marching band with the football for a touchdown.

Johnny has also started to be of the mind that the girls’ bathrooms of Patmos high school are of far better quality then the boys’. Johnny can hear them through the vents, laughing, chatting and enjoying themselves like it is a dinner party or at least a small get-together with friends. Johnny imagines couches of fine quality, a fireplace hearth and scattered magazines for leisurely browsing. Johnny can take it no longer when he sees Jamie Rump and Megan Patterson emerging from the girl’s bathroom on the third floor of the north wing, brandishing breath mints. Johnny petitions faculty and students alike for the equalization of bathroom quality but he mainly gets signatures from students making fun of him by putting elegantly written phrases in cursive like, “You’re a dumbass!, “Bite me!”, or “Take a shower!” Unfortunately Johnny’s push for equal bathroom rights loses some steam when the girl’s bathroom floods with bullfrogs climbing out of the toilet bowls. The flood of frogs finds its way to the science lab and wreak havoc on the equipment. Johnny suspects that this might have something to do with the many frog dissection experiments the science teachers are currently so keen on. Ultimately Johnny is pretty certain that a flood of bullfrogs is enough to put things on an even plane as far as bathrooms go.

Johnny’s petition is now just a discarded piece of paper left strewn about around a garbage can, like his suspicions regarding the school’s swimming pool. Johnny sees Principal Whitman swim laps in the pool during lunch every year and wonders if perhaps the pool isn’t some kind of fountain of youth that Whitman uses so that he can always be principal. Johnny grants that this is a little far-fetched even for him, but it is the only way he can explain how Principal Whitman’s school picture for the past thirty years has never changed. His picture is of the same lined, middle-aged face that it was years ago. However, when Johnny watches the pool turn to blood in the middle of a swim meet, he realizes that a fountain of youth would never turn to blood, so the swimming pool must just be a regular one. Despite the water being turned to blood Johnny can’t quite figure out why so many people are frightened by the blood-filled pool. Johnny is pretty sure the hospital no longer needs blood donations.

Johnny wonders about lots of different things. For instance, Johnny can’t figure out why there are so many tornado drills but no actual tornados. Of course he only wonders this until three subsequent tornados strike the school. Luckily the “head between the knees” trick really does work, and the only casualty is Burwell Saint Clair. Frankly, Johnny isn’t really that sad to see the iguana die, but he wonders how the reptile managed to fly three states over and land safely in someone’s backyard only to drown when it crawls into the deep end of their pool.

Johnny wonders if the teachers are ever going to actually teach their subjects again or just keep on ranting about how the world and foreign relations have gone to hell. Mrs. Heffernan seems utterly bewildered with how the representatives from the country of Laos are controlling the United Nations, and she does not stop talking about their sudden nuclear-arms capabilities. In Mrs. Pounds’ class Johnny listens to nothing but CNN, which is on the television constantly. All Johnny can do is to watch Mrs. Pounds stuff herself with pie while she nervously hangs on every word about the building of volcanic pressure in the Yellowstone region. Just to see if she still functions and is not entirely catatonic in front of CNN, Johnny chucks his eraser at her, but all she does is frown at him and turn back toward the television.

Johnny also wonders why Carlos Mendez keeps poking him throughout the entire month of March during history class and asking him if he wants to “ascend.” As Johnny notices Carlos Mendez and fifteen others chanting in the hallway outside of his geography room door, he tries to squeeze by but accidentally kicks over the burning candle in the middle of their circle. In April, when Johnny sees Carlos or anyone within his group, they stare intently at Johnny with wide eyes and chant things like, “one of us, one of us,” over and over again. What is odd is that Johnny begins to notice Carlos everywhere now, and Johnny wonders if perhaps Carlos adjusts his schedule so that he has more time to stare at Johnny.

During the afternoons in May, Johnny starts to wonder where all the bus drivers are. Seventy-five percent of the school has to pile onto only three buses, causing it to take over four hours to drive to all the neighborhoods. However, Johnny is pretty certain that it would go faster if the clouds of locusts making their way up Beech Street would just get out of the way. The only person who lives on Beech Street is Jenna Philip-Kingston. Jenna’s father works for the CIA as secretarial manager and senior coffee provider. Johnny often wonders what things he overhears when he brings coffee to meetings between clandestine spies and their powerful bosses. Johnny hears Jenna telling what secrets she knows to Margret Sidney. He hears Jenna say that the school library is a cover for a government missile silo, and that Mr. Timmons, who always wears ugly ski masks in the winter, is really a super agent from Laos working to uncover the missile silo.

On the last day of school, Johnny sees many things. Johnny sees Vice Principal Berger wear a gas mask. He sees Carlos Mendez and his followers, now forty-five strong, drink a strange yellow liquid at the same in the parking lot and then never come inside the school. He also sees a full moon and a solar eclipse happen at the same time (Johnny thought this was actually quite beautiful). By second period, somehow all the first-borns have mysteriously disappeared, and Johnny sees Kelly McQueen cry when she realizes Dustin Baker, a first-born, is no longer there for her to cheat on for their biology final exam. Johnny is there when Laurence Welch becomes so frustrated when his locker door jams that he kicks it, which opens the locker and miraculously also opens a cosmic black hole in the hallway in which all of Laurence Welch’s school work is sucked.

During lunch, Johnny spends a lot of time eyeing Rachel Greenly once again. Rachel Greenly somehow drops fifty pounds and now only eats celery sticks, which oddly begins to make her feel sick to her stomach. In between mouthfuls of Sloppy Joe, Johnny also witnesses the first earthquake in the history of the school. The earthquake, which actually vibrates Johnny’s chair in a way that gives him a decent massage, rips open a hole in the floor of the main entrance of the high school. The hole, which appears quite deep, begins to speak in a deep voice about something called “judgment day.”

By Johnny’s last class that day, the government of Laos invades the school through the fourth-floor math room window, and Mrs. Edberg gives her final lesson to Johnny’s class about the importance of maintaining proper hygiene. Johnny is not entirely sure if he knows what Mrs. Edberg is supposed to teach at this point, but nonetheless he takes her advice in stride. As Johnny packs his things and heads for the exit, he watches as Mr. Whitman argues with the voice in the hole in the school about how he really doesn’t think it is his judgment day. Unfortunately for Mr. Whitman, the hole wins the argument by ordering the army of Laos to push Mr. Whitman in.

Johnny and several others wait two hours for the buses to show and have to watch their step in the parking lot because several lava flows have erupted. One such lava flow makes its way past Johnny and astonishingly ravages Vice Principal Berger’s Honda Civic. By nightfall Johnny still waits, and he watches as a curious man dressed in white, brandishing novelty wings on his shoulders, runs up to him. In between gasping breaths, he admits he is terribly sorry for his tardiness, and they will soon be off. By seven-thirty Johnny watches the ground drop beneath him as he sits piggy-back style on the back of the man dressed in white. By seven-thirty-five Johnny watches as they fly over his house, and he waves goodbye to everything he knows. By seven-forty Johnny no longer needs to watch; now he can rest.