Eliza tapped on the aquarium glass with her pen. She scowled at the still-alive salamander. Conjured bad thoughts about him. Considered withholding crickets. He didn’t look any worse, or even sick at all—whatever that would look like. Nor did the bullfrog, or the gerbils or the turtle. Not even that stupid goldfish. This was unheard of, these small animals and their ridiculous longevity, and frankly, the timing was not good. Some tiny thing needed to keel over and soon, or else Eliza would have to give a Big Talk, and she just wasn’t up to it. Not this week.
In a perfect world, the dead thing would be furry and cute, four-legged and named after someone’s grandmother. The chicken wouldn’t do, not with those creepy claws, nor would the silkworm pupas. They weren’t really even pets. She never should have let the class name them. But that salamander, Mr. Magoo. Now, he was a contender. The kids seemed to like him a lot, while Eliza did not. Not one bit. He had the sticking-out eyes of a criminal: dark and never blinking. She suspected that lizards could live as long as humans. Wasn’t that one of the factoids that little boys threw at her, year after year? Maybe that was for turtles. This had to be some kind of a record.
Maybe she could find an already-dead pet, a white mouse or some such, like on Craig’s List or from a lab. Several of the animals were actually looking healthier, as if her classroom was Canyon Ranch. Their vigor was like a curse.
“You are going to have to talk to the a.m. kindergartners about death,” Ruth, the principal, told Eliza. “And soon.” And with that Ruth squished away in her weird round-bottomed sneakers, slurping on the green swampy drink in the Ball jar that she marched around with every morning. Ruth was some sort of a professional drudge.
Eliza decided to show the kids The Lion King as a warm-up. She wondered if it might be too abstract for five-year-olds, but once they started bawling she knew she’d done the right thing. “Look guys, it’s for your own good,” she had said when she plopped the kids down on their hypoallergenic nap cushions. “Believe me, it’s better this way.”
Of course some parents complained, but they always did. They were so sure their little nippers were simultaneously naïve and possessing genius of an order never before known. Three parents had actually used the word zeitgeist when extrapolating on their spawn’s exceptional understanding of the workings of the world in the “other things we should know about your child” section of the application packet. Actually, all the school wanted to know was whether they were truly potty-trained and if their little heads would puff up like blowfish if there were a peanut in the building.
Despite all the ancillary nonsense, the being-with-the-kids part of the job was excellent. Kindergarten is small window where children are mature enough to speak in full and comprehensible sentences, and yet still were enthusiastic about almost everything.
“Miss Eliza! Miss Eliza!” They ran towards her from all points in the schoolyard and huddled around her legs. Without her even asking, they lined up, eager to go into the classroom.
“We need to have a talk,” she said, as she counted their little heads. “Has anyone lost, umm, maybe their grandpa?”
“Lost?” said the overly-verbal Clarissa. “How could I lose my grandpa? I’m not in charge of him.” Ruth appeared at the window and made a slicing motion across her throat. Eliza wasn’t sure if this meant that she was fired or was supposed to kill something—that couldn’t be it—or maybe Ruth was choking (if only). Eliza made a point of having a student or two by her side at all times for the rest of the day. If Ruth came barreling towards her, Eliza would whisper, “little ears,” which would deflect Ruth. But she couldn’t forever use five-year-olds as her shield.
“What about we make voodoo dolls of the critters and then do bad deeds upon them?” Eliza’s boyfriend Revelry had said. “We can make them out of dryer lint, and put googley eyes on and then have them meet sorry endings. I’ll document it.”
This was the week Eliza had scheduled to break up with Revelry. She was fed up with his everything-must-be-a-performance approach to what she felt were legitimate problems. She promised herself that if he didn’t on his own and without prompting finally admit that Revelry was not his given name and just cut it out already, that he was out of here. “That’s not a name!” she screamed, but silently, in the mirror. She was getting too old for his I’m an artist, so I just can’t help myself antics.
When Revelry was awarded a genius grant on Tuesday of break-up week, Eliza lost her momentum. This grant, in the amount of $10,000, would allow Revelry time to spend his days archiving a soundwork consisting of the purrs, scratches and other bodily sounds that their cat Sylvia made. Well, technically, Eliza’s cat. So, far be it from her to interrupt his artistic vision. She would have to let Revelry stay in order to give him continued access to his subject or medium or whatever poor Sylvia now was. She and the cat were art-hostages in their own home.
“I’ll give you a credit on the recording as a co-artist,” Revelry said. “Then you can write off Sylvia’s food and cat toys. Eliza wondered when he began to know or care anything about money, since it was her teenie apartment, her food, her cat, and she was pretty sure that Revelry wouldn’t know a tax return if it walked up and introduced itself. And while sometimes the only apparent difference between him and her students was height, she gave him credit for sticking it out in a career that seemed like a massive gamble. She herself had changed her major from art to early childhood education after one overwhelming term.
The Glorious Day School seemed, and in many respects was, an ideal teaching situation. But with each new round of applications, the parents became increasingly militant in their laid-backedness as well as their neurosis. They alternately wanted their child to slide down their own super-duper-colorful inner rainbow and in addition, be fully prepared for Princeton by the time they were eight. Our Equinox will be attending school dressed as he prefers, in either surgical scrubs or with pants on his head. He will only eat foods presented in clusters whose units are prime numbers. And he has written a sonata about Pangaea. Or some such nonsense. In truth, the kids were precisely unremarkable, each and every year. And that’s what made them perfect.
And usually, she could count on one or most of the classroom pets to come to an untimely and utterly random demise. Then everyone gets to learn their lesson about death and they can move onto hot lava. But these animals were proving to be problematic in their extreme health.
“We’ve never gone four months—maybe not even two—without some animal or another turning into a rock overnight,” Brett, the other, far more cuddly Kinder teacher said. “I usually check all of the aquariums before the kids get in.” He wore those shoes that have toes, but Eliza liked him anyhow. “You know,” he said, waving the recess flag over his head, “this might be a record. Six months and no corpses.”
“Yeah, well now I’ve got Ruth all over my case,” Eliza said. “Death is on the lesson plan. Now, according to the little note she left me, I need to hurry it up.”
“Miss Eliza! Miss Eliza!” Several little boys came screeching towards her, one holding a bloody baby tooth in his palm.
“Trevor! Your first tooth!” She said this with a fervor that implied that no one had ever performed so worthy a deed as losing a tooth. “Congratulations!” She looked over the boy’s head to Brett, “Apparently this all has to go down soon, so if something turns up D-E-A-D in your room, will you please throw it into mine?”
“You got it, Sweetie,” said Brett.
When Eliza walked into her apartment that night, she was surprised (but not) to see a cluster of Revelry’s art-school buddies, all eight years out but still skinny and ironic in their muttonchops and lack of socks. The living room (AKA: the only room) was a salad of wires and discarded shrink-wrap.
“Eliza. Honey! Not just microphones. We got ceiling-mounted cameras!” Revelry said, pointing upward, which pulled his Cookie Monster t-shirt way up past his bellybutton. “Awesome or what?” Eliza had always liked that little stripe of hair on his stomach. At the same time, she wished he’d stop dressing like a toddler. “We can stream everything. All Sylvia, all the time. We’ll be famous.”
“Know what? You just do whatever it is you’re doing,” Eliza said. “I’m going to go sit in the bathtub and weep.”
Once the drilling and hammering was over and the art-boys left, Revelry knocked on the bathroom door. “You okay?”
“I just don’t get what the crisis is. Dead animal emergency, says Ruth. Crazy crone. Can I just quit?”
“What about a decoy?” Revelry said. “I was at the pet store, you know, getting a little sumpin-sumpin’ for Sylvia. Some of those toys look very authentic. So I got these.” He pulled from the paper bag five greyish-brown catnip mice, which did look like real mice, sort of. If you squinted.
“I guess if I wave one at the kids from a distance,” Eliza said. “Let Sylvia maul them up a bit.”
He threw two of the catnip mice out the open door to the living room and Sylvia performed a flying pounce-tackle-roll combo. “How excellent. I hope the camera got that,” Revelry said. ”Hey want some company?” Rhetorical, as his pants had already hit the floor. Revelry had a particular fondness for bathtub sex, which was fine with Eliza, except oftentimes she wondered if she had fractured a kneecap on the enamel tub. After, they could still hear Sylvia thumping around in the living room with the mice.
The next day Eliza had a paper bag with two roughed-up cat toys ready to go. But it was Fire Drill Day and then it was time to go home. The next day was Music Day, stressful enough without the mice, with everyone wanting a turn on the drums. Then it was Friday, which meant a half-day and she didn’t want to enact her plan and then have the weekend wash it out of their jellylike minds.
“Nothing dead in my room,” Brett said, on the way out, “or I absolutely would have tossed it onto your desk.”
“Thanks for looking out for me,” Eliza said. “You know, I can’t but wonder if something else is going on. Why the urgency?” Ruth had stopped talking to Eliza.
“I’m thinking just wait. Something will drop soon.”
So things went on: the bags of mauled but unoffered toys, staring down the Kindergarten pets, the drunken bathtub sex. And the hostile post-its from Ruth, always unsigned. Such a freak show, that Ruth was. Maybe Eliza should just lower Sylvia into the gerbil tank: instant Pamplona!
Meanwhile, Revelry was getting a bit of traction on the videos, which one of his friends was streaming for him. The upgrade from simply audio seemed to be paying off. The guy would come by the apartment every now and then to adjust the sound or move a camera. Revelry’s actual work input seemed minimal. Sylvia took to her stardom as if she were born for it.
When a critic came to interview Revelry, he seemed more interested in Eliza than in The Sylvia Project. He didn’t even want to meet the cat. “I don’t much like animals,” the reviewer said in a faux-British accent.
“Why did he keep calling me Sylvia?” Eliza said after he’d left.
“I don’t know. It was like I wasn’t even here, the way he kept staring at you,” Revelry said.
“Well I for one thought he was a creeper.”
Revelry opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of wine. “Tub?”
“Sure, why not,” Eliza said, rubbing the sides of her kneecaps. Revelry tossed a catnip toy into the middle of the room and Sylvia launched herself from the couch.
So this is my weird little life, thought Eliza. At least now they could afford classier wine.
In the morning, as usual, Revelry slept while Eliza raced around trying to piece together a teacherly outfit from the piles of clothes she’d left mouldering on the floor. Her phone rang every couple of minutes, but she ignored it for as long as she could stand it. When Brett called for the seventh time, she answered. “I sure hope you’re calling about something dead.”
“You may want to check out The Weekly’s art section,” Brett said. “Or not.”
“Is Revelry reviewed?”
“Sort of. And remember, I’m only the messenger, “ Brett said.
“Stop it,” Eliza said. “Give.”
“Apparently the cat movie is getting a lot of internet play. One could say a bit much, if one was a private sort of a person. Who has a job where they are in charge of, say, impressionable youths,” he said. “And frankly, I would not have pegged you for a howler.”
“Howler?” Eliza knew nothing good could come of whatever he was going on about.
“Call me if you need a drink,” Brett said, “I’ve got a carton of Chardonnay here with your name on it.”
Eliza tiptoed into her classroom, checked for casualties. She felt pretty sure that Ruth didn’t have the wherewithal to go online and watch the Revelry’s film with the horrid, HORRID soundtrack of Revelry and herself in the background. She really was a screamer. Who’d have guessed? Not even Eliza herself. Of course she’d agreed to have her name put on the project along with Revelry’s. And of course that evil interviewer had linked his story to the site and of course, she’d mentioned her job, specifically naming The Glorious Day School in the interview.
When the first parent came to drop off their spawn and wouldn’t leave, Eliza knew it was all over: her job, maybe her teaching license, definitely her sense of decorum. Irate mothers and fathers stood with their feet hips-width apart, their arms gripping their children’s shoulders. Eliza wondered which of them had first found the video. And then for how long did they keep it to themselves as a private nugget of entertainment? She had done nothing that each and every one of them hadn’t done, except for having a clueless boyfriend with numbskulls for friends.
She could hear Ruth squishing towards her. The doom about her was palpable and sadly, not about the critters.
When Eliza wrote out her letter of resignation, Ruth stood over her to make sure she did it right. Every thirty seconds or so, Eliza’s phone vibrated and danced along her desktop. Another frantic text from Revelry. And the promises: No more art! No more technology! He’d replace their claw-footed tub with a tiny shower that very day! He meant well, her art-boy. Meanwhile, the pets ran around in their habitats, all cute, chewing and pooping, just like they’d always done.
-- Linda Michel-Cassidy is writer and visual artist living in rural northern New Mexico. Her writing has appeared in Eleven Eleven, Provo Canyon Review, Writing Tomorrow, Blackheart, the anthologies Seeking Its Own Level and New Mexico Voices and others. She reads for Post Road and Drafthorse and write reviews and conduct interviews for The Review Review.