Essays

Elementary

JILL MANDRAKE

When Ronny was in grade 8, his teacher wrote on his report card: “Ronald has lost inter­est in every­thing except girls and Elvis Presley."

I. WE CALLED IT THE MERRY-GO-ROUND

A clas­sic piece of play­ground equip­ment stood near the pri­mary wing: a cir­cu­lar plat­form that revolved when enough of us kids pushed. In order to get on board you had to take a run­ning jump.

At lunchtime, that thing was more crowded than the school bus. We’d play a game where one kid was the conductor. He’d holler, “Where to?” and some­one else would answer, “Chilliwack” or “Calgary” or “the Ponderosa.” We’d push that merry-go-round till every­one agreed we’d arrived.

One day a girl answered, “Texaco!” No one made fun of her, even though most of us knew she couldn’t have meant the gas sta­tion. The weather must have been swel­ter­ing that day because her cheeks were flushed. “Okay, we’re going to Texaco,” said the conductor. We began spin­ning around faster than ever before. The girl who’d said “Texaco” flew off and was par­tially dragged under the revolv­ing floor.

This was the first time I’d heard some­one cry “Mummy, Mummy” when in dan­ger. I didn’t know kids really said that. The conductor and his friends man­aged to bring the merry-go-round to a halt before the girl had hollered “Mummy” more than three or four times. She got back on as though noth­ing in the world had hap­pened, and we all went some­place new.

The conductor that day was a kid called Greg. In class that after­noon, Miss Tudor caught Greg eat­ing his sand­wich when he thought no one was look­ing. She got the strap out from her desk, took Greg to the cloak­room and hit him with it. The strap was a clas­sic piece of teacher’s equipment; black leather with a red pin­stripe down the mid­dle. It had the same design as the red racer snakes we’d see on the way home. The red racer isn’t poisonous.

II. RONNY'S REPORT CARD

When Ronny was in grade 8, he was afraid to bring his report card home. His teacher, Mr. McMurray, had writ­ten in the comments ­section: “Ronald has lost inter­est in every­thing except girls and Elvis Presley.” If McMurray had taught Ronny the fol­low­ing year, he would have written: “Ronald has lost inter­est in every­thing except girls and the Beatles,” but this was the year before the Beatles played Empire Stadium.

When Ronny handed his report card over to Mum, she read McMurray’s com­ments out loud in a dis­gusted voice: “ . . . girls and Elvis Presley.”

“Nah, that’s not true,” Ronny mut­tered, before he was sent to his room.

Later that evening, I was lis­ten­ing to my radio and one of Ronny’s favourite songs came on. It was a lesser-known Presley tune, with a rol­lick­ing, uplift­ing refrain: “I gotta know, gotta know, gotta know.”

Ronny’s room was next to mine and I wanted to cheer him up, so I cranked the vol­ume as loud as it would go. The vol­ume wasn’t loud, but laugh­ably fee­ble, if you com­pare it to what’s playing now.

III. SNACK BAR AT THE DRIVE-IN

On Labour Day when I was eight years old, I won­dered why the teenage tough guy would not go back to school for another lousy year. He didn’t answer the ques­tion; he only gave half a shrug. He wore a leather jacket with cracks in it, as though he’d spent a lot of time in the rain. Craven M ­tobacco smoke blew from both his nos­trils.

He was ahead of me in the queue-up at the drive-in snack bar. Another guy in a leather jacket, with his girl­friend tag­ging along, shoved ahead of me and said, “Brent, are you going back to school tomorrow?”

“Nope.”

“Did you pass?”

“Yep.”

Everything?

“Yep.”

“Then why not go back for another lousy year?” His friend tried to sound non­cha­lant, but I could tell he was disappointed.

The man behind the snack bar, wear­ing the sort of chef’s toque you rarely see any more, leaned over and asked me what I wanted. I wanted a candy bar that I’d had only once, and couldn’t think of its name. I gave half a shrug, in com­plete imi­ta­tion of the teenage tough guy. I later discov­ered, when ask­ing around, that what I’d wanted was an Eat-More.

IV. POPULAR

Why did all five of us pile into the car, just to go to the store for milk, eggs and bread, and maybe but­ter? Dad said, “We’re out of milk, eggs and bread, and we’re low on but­ter.” Mum was away some­where that day. Dad got in the car, fol­lowed by me, Grampa, my brother Ronny and my friend Henry. The ride was bumpy for half a block. Dad stopped the car and got out. “Flat tire in the front,” he said. Then Grampa, Ronny, Henry and I got out and stood around while Dad got busy. He bent over the trunk. A few drops of rain fell. “This spare tire is for some other car,” Dad shouted.

Two girls and a boy from my school were walk­ing past. The boy, who was extremely pop­u­lar, looked in our direc­tion and groaned. Then he smirked. The two girls, who were almost as pop­ular as the boy, didn’t look at us. One of them was casu­ally swing­ing a tran­sis­tor radio. The music waft­ing in our direc­tion was “Yes, I’m Ready” by Barbara Mason. Ooh, I loved that song. It took a painfully long time for the three kids to walk past, as though I were dream­ing them.

Then I guess the car was pushed back to our dri­ve­way. I wouldn’t have been required to push, being a girl. Henry wouldn’t have been required to push, being so young, but he would have wanted to. Grampa wouldn’t have had to push because he was frail. Dad would have said, “Oh no, Frank, you don’t have to push.” He might have even said that to Ronny, too, just to be nice. We would have all jumped in and lent a hand anyway, pushing it home.

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JILL MANDRAKE

Jill Mandrake writes strange but true stories and leads Sister DJ’s Radio Band, featuring rhythm and blues covers, post-vaudeville original tunes and occasional comedy bits. https://hido.bandcamp.com/album/the-neti-pot

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