Mr. Keane looks like Gordon Lindsey, I told my dad in 1961.
Gordon Lindsey was the owner of the local mortuary, the one we kids tip-toed by on our way to school. Mr. Lindsey grew red roses and calla lilies in the front yard of the white home. Ionian columns flanked each side of the front door. Dark green awnings shaded the windows from the sun.
Why do they care about the sun when the people in there are dead, I often thought and sometimes expressed to my friends, as we scooted past the house.
At least Gordon Lindsey has some life in him, my dad observed. On Wednesdays, at our Rotary Club meetings, he comes alive and jokes around, just like you, Cheri.
My heart swelled with love and satisfaction upon hearing my dad’s tacit acceptance of my jokes. Dad’s subtle nod, whether by comment or eye contact, validated my very existence.
I hate Mr. Keane, I told my dad in 1961.
Hate is a strong word Cheri.
Well, I do and nothing you or mom say will make me change my mind. My mind is made up and that is that, I added for emphasis.
The next day, I slid into my desk and waited for the bell to ring, signaling the start of another mundane day of 6th grade.
Good Morning, students, said Mr. Keane in Gregorian chant.
Good Morning, Mr. Keane, we parroted back.
Why, Mr. Keane wasn’t keen at all! Out on the playground, I began schooling the slower kids first.
Hey, Mike, did you notice that Mr. Keane isn’t keen?
Mike came close to me, looking deeply into my brown eyes.
I get it, he said, as if a large padded mallet had just hit his cranial gong.
Back in the classroom, I thought, Mr. Keane is an oddball with no humor. I didn’t mind odd, but humorless people scared me. Math instruction began. For once, he left his desk. His bony pointing finger touched down on my lousy math paper like a scythe. He jiggled chalk in his hand, a ghostly extension with four other thin white fingers.
He moved about our classroom like Mark Twain’s undertaker in Huck Finn.
“ He was the softest, glidingest, stealthiest man I ever see; and there warn’t no more smile to him than there is to a ham.”
I was the type of ham you wanted in a classmate, suspicious of overarching authority, sneaky, and sometimes, funny. That Mr. Keane and I were heading for a clash was inevitable.
Because life in Mr. Keane’s classroom was akin to life in a mortuary, I felt an anointed need to plan a prank of grand proportion. At lunch, as I took more treasured marbles –steelies, cat-eyes, and purries—from the 6th grade boys in our daily game of Ringer, and as my sock of marbles drooped heavily with those jewels of victory, I hatched the plan.
The strategy was simple: In a show of collective action, all 32 of us will shut our math books loudly at the same time (upon my signal).
Out on the softball field during lunch recess, I revealed my plan to Mike.
Tomorrow during math, I will cough twice. All of us will flip our books closed in a unified whonk, I carefully explained, hoping Mike would get it. At that moment, a fly landed on my hand and with one swat, I killed it.
Wow. You’re quick, Mike observed.
Thanks. I know, I said with my customary humility. You tell the boys; I’ll tell the girls.
That night around the dinner table, my little brother Steve wrapped his dinner in a napkin, fried liver with bacon, and stuffed that ticking olfactory bomb into the hutch’s drawer behind his chair.
I saw his transgression but kept it to myself. In light of my own plotting, I’d wait for that piece of meat, rich in iron, to ripen into a bad smell in our dining room. Then, Stevie and I would both have something to look forward to: annoying those in control.
The next day at school during math, we executed our prank: I coughed twice and 32 hormonal brats slammed their math books shut in unison.
Mr. Keane, who taught from behind his desk, jerked his head up in surprise.
Then, ominously, he slid his black-rimmed reading glasses down his thin nose.
Who planned this silly joke? He asked without any hint of amusement.
Well, if no one comes forward, then you all shall pay for your disrespect of me and of mathematics (especially fractions). Instead of reading you Sherlock Holmes after lunch, I will choose a scary story, sure to bring a confession to the table.
After lunch, Mr. Keane read Edgar Allen Poe’s A Tell-Tale Heart.
My own heart began to beat harder, so hard, I was sure Mike, Dede, and Christine could either hear or feel the thumping.
No one budged when Mr. Keane put The Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe down on his desk.
Class, you all have committed a grave error today. He looked at me.
That sound! That cacophony of rudeness! Why, that slap to my face and my position have upset me greatly. To this histrionic statement, my adrenal glands delivered to my heart a shot of momentary satisfaction.
For one of you, the one who orchestrated such a dull distraction, this little trick will be the final nail in your coffin.
School ended and I walked home, past Gordon Lindsey’s mortuary, home to the House of Usher, where I knew a crack had already formed in the dining room wall.
During dinner, my father had one thing to say:
Who the hell stuffed the liver in the drawer?