Verdad Magazine Volume 10
Spring 2011, Volume 10
Fiction by Jackie Craven
I wouldn’t be here now, speaking to you, if it weren’t for Mr. Huffenpuffen, who came to teach our fourth grade class after Mrs. Blanchard had her baby. He rolled in like a cloudy day, a gray-haired man in a silver Honda Civic, smoking cigarettes, listening to the morning stock report. When he opened his car door, smoke billowed out and followed him to our classroom like a jet stream.
Lisa Sanders said he was too old to be a teacher. “Why doesn’t he just go to a nursing home?” she whispered as he droned on and on, talking about past and future tenses. His voice was scratchy. He stopped every few moments to sip from a water bottle he kept on his desk. Then he shuffled up and down the aisles between our desks, muttering something about prepositional phrases.
Lisa snickered. I think I might have thrown a jellybean. I’m not sure.
I wasn’t sure of a lot of things in those days. I twirled my compass, nibbled at my bagged lunch, and carved grooves in my desk. I had to sit at the back of the room because I was tall. I should’ve been in the sixth grade, but Mrs. Blanchard refused to promote me. She would’ve sent me to Special Ed if my mother hadn’t been stubborn.
“Honestly, Danny,” my mother said after I brought home another F in History. “You’re not stupid. You just have to pay attention.”
She might as well have asked me to spread my arms and fly. One moment I’d be in my school desk and the next moment I’d be opening Christmas presents, swimming in the bay, pushing a grocery cart through a checkout line, driving a bright red VW Beetle on a highway somewhere along the southern coast.
Now, there’s nothing unusual about a 12-year-old who daydreams. But for me, these lapses in attention were much more than flights of fancy. Just as some infants are born deaf or blind, I suffered the congenital inability to stay put in time. Without the capacity to grasp minutes, hours, or days, my entire life unfurled simultaneously. I was a fourth grade student at Ramsey Elementary School. I was a teenager nervously asking Lisa Sanders for a dance. I was a distraught figure—age unclear—watching my brother’s coffin lower into a grave.
When life has no sequence, nothing comes easily. How could I learn to read when the letters had no order? How could I arrive at school on time when the hands on the clock spun uncontrollably in both directions?
Mr. Huffenpuffen stood beside my desk. “What’s that you’re carving?” His gray hand, smelling of smoke and chalk dust, touched my shoulder. “Roman numerals?”
I dropped my compass.
“Why Roman numerals?” His scratchy voice was more curious than angry. “It’s as though you’re trying to keep track of the days.” Then he shuffled back to his desk, sipped from his water bottle, and called across the room: “See me after school.”
So began my new life. In between learning to walk and writing my will, I sat in the empty classroom with Mr. Huffenpuffen. “Danny,” he began, “where are your feet?”
We sat in facing desks, our bodies too big for the narrow seats, our knees touching. I twisted to look down.
Bare feet on packed wet sand, an infant’s feet kicking air, black sneakers with white rubber toes on a speckled linoleum floor.
“Where?” Mr. Huffenpuffen asked again.
I pushed my feet down. Black sneakers on an accelerator. Black sneakers on a speckled linoleum floor. Black sneakers—
“What. You think I don’t know where I am?”
Mr. Huffenpuffen watched me with pale, moist eyes.
“I know where I am.”
“It’s okay, Danny.” He tipped his head back to sip from his water bottle.
I watched his Adam’s apple vibrate, then pretended to look away. “Fuck you.”
The bottle made a dull thud as he set it down. “Time.” His dry voice was barely a whisper. “Time,” he said again, more loudly. “It’s like this bottle, Danny. Transparent.”
I was riding a tricycle with silver tassels. I was wrapping my arms around Lisa Sanders. I was wondering if Mr. Huffenpuffen was senile.
“So, why do we even have a bottle?” he demanded.
He picked it up and dangled it in front of my face. “Do you know?”
The bottle swung back and forth like a pendulum. Then, slowly and deliberately, Mr. Huffenpuffen tipped it upside down.
Wedged in the narrow seat, I couldn’t leap up fast enough. Water gushed onto my desk, splashed my knees, and trickled coldly down my legs.
“That’s life,” Mr. Huffenpuffen said. “Life gets messy without time.”
Maybe I shouted at him. Maybe I called him names. Whatever. I was riding the tricycle, snoozing in a beach chair, waiting to cross a street.
“Danny.” Mr. Huffenpuffen’s voice was a foghorn coming from far away. “Where are your feet?”
Standing beside my desk, I looked down: black sneakers with white rubber toes. Water puddling on a speckled linoleum floor. “Here.” I shifted from foot to foot and listened to the squish of my wet sneakers. “I’m right here.”
At dinner with my family, I began to giggle. “Ma!” I called out. “Where are my feet?”
My brother Henry rolled his eyes, and my mother watched me with a puzzled smile.
“Where are my feet?” I kicked the legs of my chair. In just one day, Mr. Huffenpuffen had taught me a powerful lesson: By focusing on my feet, I could stay fixed in time. Nearly exploding with joy, I chanted: “Guess! Guess! Where are my feet?”
“Settle down now,” my father said, and Henry sighed, “What a dork.”
My mother beamed. “I’ve never seen you so happy.”
After that first burst of exhilaration came the hard work. For the remainder of the spring, I met with Mr. Huffenpuffen every day. “My feet are here,” I recited. “My feet are here.”
Then, even while I trembled to hold on, I slithered around in time.
“Danny…” He drew me back gently. “Where are you?”
“Here.” Exhausted and frustrated, I gave way to tears. “I’m sorry. I messed up. I fell into the future—”
“Now. Now, there.” Mr. Huffenpuffen leaned back in his seat. “Enough of that. You’re doing fine. It just takes practice.”
“Your feet, Danny.”
Sometimes he reviewed our reading lessons. He cut a square out of a piece of cardboard and instructed me to glide the cardboard window over the page, one letter at a time. “The secret,” he said, “is to focus on what’s in front of you.”
Other times we worked on arithmetic. “Time,” he said, “requires numbers. It’s all about counting and sequence.”
“Like the marks I carve on my desk,” I said, almost understanding.
Sometimes we didn’t work on school assignments, but sat in the narrow desks and talked about Life, with a capital L. Mr. Huffenpuffen understood me because he had been born with the same disability. He didn’t even learn how to read until he was 19, and then by luck he broke his ankle in a skiing accident. Crumpled in the snow with pain shooting up his leg, he had an epiphany. The pain showed him how to focus. As his ankle healed, so did his life.
“Of course, no one recovers completely,” Mr. Huffenpuffen said. “But with concentration, you develop self-control. You cling onto the moment, even if your knuckles turn white.”
Mr. Huffenpuffen’s story gave me hope and inspiration. If I worked hard on my lessons, I might do better in school, and even go on to college. Maybe I’d become a teacher like Mr. Huffenpuffen, or make it big in the stock market where a touch of temporal confusion (properly harnessed) might prove useful.
“Don’t fool yourself,” Mr. Huffenpuffen warned. “Each time you go galloping into the future, you run the risk that you’ll never return.”
I nodded, trusting him. When Mr. Huffenpuffen emerged from his smoke-filled car, he wasn’t a dusty old man in a frayed jacket. He was a genie, bringing me magic.
Day after day, I practiced what he taught me. I watched my feet. I focused on sensory details. Bright sun, damp heat, scent of suntan lotion, scratchy sand, sandpaper face, tobacco taste, bruised lips.
When the details jumbled, I closed my eyes and concentrated. Heat, damp, scratchy, dry, tobacco. Then, at the edge of my senses, came an odd tactile memory: the sensation of firm, dry pressure against my mouth.
“What’s wrong?” Mr. Huffenpuffen asked. “You were doing so well.”
“I’m tired. This is too hard.”
I hiked across town to the beach. Waves crashed, fizzled, and nibbled at the shore. A girl in a yellow swimsuit kneeled in the sand, scrubbing it with her towel. She glanced up as I walked by. “Dirty,” she said. “This beach is so dirty.”
I licked my lips. The dry taste of tobacco wouldn’t go away.
“The school year is almost over,” Mr. Huffenpuffen said one day. “What will you do all summer?”
I rocked in my seat. “I dunno.”
“Will you remember everything we’ve talked about?”
“I tell you what.” He sipped from his water bottle. The Adam’s apple vibrated. He set the bottle down. “We can continue. Once a week, maybe. Just to keep the lessons fresh.”
“Why not?” Ma asked me later. “He’s been so helpful.
“I don’t want to.”
“He won’t even charge us.”
“I hate him.”
“What? You love Mr. Huffenpuffen. You know you do.”
“He’s a dirty old man.”
“Danny! Whatever do you mean?”
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to focus. I pushed a grocery cart through a checkout line. I rattled the bars of my crib. I stood in this room talking to you. I perched on the edge of my mother’s bed, tears rolling down my face. “He smokes cigarettes. And he kisses me.”
Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t accused Mr. Huffenpuffen. Maybe he wouldn’t have lost his teaching job. Maybe he would have tutored me through the summer, and maybe I would learned how to stay fixed in time, or, at least, how to make sense out of the fragments of time that jumbled my thinking.
I got a job doing the only thing I could: sitting on the beach, watching. The waves rolled in. The waves rolled out. Children scuttled in the tide. The lady in the yellow swimsuit scrubbed the sand. I drove my red VW along the shore. I stepped up to this podium to speak to you. No. I sat in the tall lifeguard’s chair, chanting, “Where are my feet, where are my feet?”
I had a certificate showing that I’d completed the lifeguard’s training and CPR, but couldn’t remember taking the classes. What if someone called for help? Would I hear? Would I even be there?
“Why don’t you go back to school?” Lisa Sanders—no, McMillan—suggested. She was a married woman now, a mother. She carried her toddler in the basket seat of her grocery cart. “You could get a GED.”
“School.” I let out a snort.
“Yeah.” Lisa Sanders snickered. Now we were in our fourth grade classroom. She was 10.
I did—I do—think about school. But with the thoughts come that disgusting taste—old tobacco. My mouth ached. I was a fallen apple with a bruise that went to the core.
“He’s back in town,” my mother said one day. “He’d better not cross my path.”
“I’ll kill the pervert,” my father said.
“Unless I get to him first,” I said.
I was a grown man, and we were getting ready for Thanksgiving. I arranged chairs around the dining room table, listening for my brother Henry’s car crunch up the driveway. I handed candy to trick-or-treaters, danced with Lisa Sanders, signed a contract for a red VW, sat knee-to-knee with Mr. Huffenpuffen, gave the speech you’re hearing right now, pushed a grocery cart through the checkout line. Three cans of cranberries, a bag of walnuts, a familiar scratchy voice.
A chill shivered down my legs.
“It’s good to see you.” Mr. Huffenpuffen stood at the cash register. His hair was thin and he wore a Piggly Wiggly apron, but it was him, all right. “How are you doing, Danny?”
“You.” I found my voice.
“I should kill you.”
“Danny. Remember our trick. Focus on your feet.”
Oh, I knew where my feet were all right. I wasn’t an infant or a schoolboy or an old man. I was me, I was now. I was in a Piggly Wiggly checkout line, clenching my fists around the handle of my shopping cart. My mouth filled with the taste of tobacco and blood, but what spewed out was years of rage. “You ruined my life.”
Mr. Huffenpuffen stood like a wax figure. His face was as white as his apron.
“How many other children did you—?”
“Young man.” A woman with an enormous tapestry bag stood behind me. “Just stop that yelling. Can’t you see he’s sick?”
Mr. Huffenpuffen and I sat knee-to-knee in the schoolroom. He gave me a cardboard window to hold over the words in my lesson book. No. I was in my red Volkswagen. It sputtered as it traveled along the shore. I stepped carefully onto the boardwalk, leaning on a cane. From the high lifeguard’s chair I could see the entire beach. Behind the checkout counter, Mr. Huffenpuffen sprawled like a plastic mannequin. I kneeled beside him. CPR. I’d learned it somewhere. I pushed my hands against his chest.
“Is he dead?” The woman with the bag wanted to know.
Henry, in his army uniform, waved as he crossed the landing strip toward his plane. I slouched through a hallway at my old high school. Lisa slipped me a note, but I couldn’t make out the words. My red VW roared, but wouldn’t start. Back at the Piggy Wiggly, I squeezed Mr. Huffenpuffen’s nose and forced air into his mouth. I pushed on his chest. Air swished out. I pressed my lips harder against his mouth and recognized the taste of old tobacco.
So, I thought. This was the sensation I remembered. Not a kiss between an old man and a child. I was an adult, desperate to save my teacher’s life.
My Volkswagen revved and sputtered. My father stood to carve the turkey. Lisa was on the phone: “Why didn’t you return my call?”
Then I careened back to my fourth grade classroom. Mr. Huffenpuffen sipped from his water bottle. “Are you with me, Danny?”
I pressed the cardboard window against the words in my lesson book. “Yeah. I’m here, but—I’m sorry.” For no reason, I began to sob. “I messed up. I fell into the future—”
“Now. Now, there.” Mr. Huffenpuffen leaned back in his seat. “Enough of that. You’re doing fine. It just takes practice.”
“Your feet, Danny.”
“My feet.” I gasped for air. I blinked down at my shoes. Brown loafers on a scuffed wooden floor.
Here I am. My feet are right here. I’m in this room, talking to you. Why, I’m a grown man, too old to cry.
Have I been here long?
BIO: Jackie Craven has a Doctor of Arts in English from SUNY-Albany. Her published books are The Stress-Free Home: Beautiful Interiors for Serenity and Harmonious Living (Rockport Publishers, 2004; reissued by Quarry Books, 2005) and The Healthy Home: Beautiful Interiors That Enhance The Environment And Your Well-Being (Rockport Publishers, 2003; reissued by Quarry Books, 2004). Since 1999 she have provided all content for the architecture pages at About.com, a New York Times Digital company. Her work has also appeared in numerous publications including House & Garden Magazine, the Providence Journal, the Toronto Sun, and others. In addition to an active freelance writing career, she has held writing residencies at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in Woodstock, the Cummington Community in Massachusetts, and the Dorset Colony House in Vermont. She has received fellowships from the New York State Writers Institute and other workshop programs and studied with David Rieff, Leonard Michaels, and Madeleine L’Engle.