Tarantulas and Tombstones

Mrs. Smythe used the tip of her index finger to push her glasses up on the bridge of her nose. She could see them better now, all seventeen of her students. She could see them better, but her sight was still a little fuzzy.

 She spoke over her plump shoulder to them as she wrote on the blackboard. “Your mid-term assignment is to write about an object commonly found in Augusta Junction.”

 Phena felt eyes upon her. She glanced to her right across the narrow aisle of scratched pine desks. Vaughn Templeton smirked out the corner of his mouth and gave her a wink. She scowled at him.

 Mrs. Smythe began to make a list, beginning with number one. “I want you to write a brief history of the item. Number two – ”

 One of the boys snorted and chuckled when she said, “Number two.”

 The teacher ignored the boy. She was used to the students’ immature bathroom humor.

 “Write about the current day use and significance of the item. Three: Conclude your essay by writing about the significance of that item to you.” She turned away from the blackboard and faced her students. “Any questions?”

 Sarah Chang’s Siamese twin mole bounced up and down on her chin as she asked, “How many words?”

 “At least five hundred.”

 Groans all around.

 Phena was one of only a few who didn’t groan. She was already in deep thought about potential items to write about. She was considering ice cream as a good choice. Then she thought about her journey to school each morning on the streetcar. The streetcar was another possible subject; streetcars had an interesting history. She noted both choices on her paper. As she wrote, she became aware of her pencil. Pencil... Mankind began writing by scratching on rocks, and then someone invented the quill, and after that, the fountain pen and pencil. There was a very long history there, and the ability to put communication in writing had changed the course of mankind for the better. She could not imagine not being able to write! She circled the word pencil after she jotted it down.

 Mrs. Smythe answered a question about the due date, “The final Friday before Christmas break.”

 One month. More than enough time.

 Vaughn leaned forward and tapped his buddy Rick’s shoulder. “I’m gonna write about catchers’ mitts. I got dibs on that.”

 Rick turned halfway around in his seat, draped his arm over the back of his chair. He replied to Vaughn, “Catcher’s mitt, huh...” He leaned forward and whispered something to Vaughn, and Vaughn giggled and slapped Rick’s arm.

 Phena knew whatever Rick whispered was a dirty joke of some kind.

 Annie Gerson, who had the desk in front of Phena’s, turned around and asked her, “What are you going to write about?”

 Phena glanced at her paper, then again at Annie. “I’m not sure yet.”

 Annie Gerson was a very pale girl who always dressed in black and was very interested in things of a dark nature. She was the only girl in school who wore her hair long instead of bobbed. She always wore a pewter spider brooch on the lapel of her coat. There was one time in fifth grade when Annie brought her pet tarantula to school for Show and Tell. She took the thing out of its temporary home, a huge Ball canning jar, and let it climb up her arm to her shoulder. It sat there on her shoulder staring ominously through its many eyes at the class as Annie talked about how wonderful tarantulas are as pets. “They love cockroaches!” Most of the students avoided her because she was so weird. Annie Gerson was easily the most morbid girl in the entire State of California. “I’m going to write about tombstones. Tombstones are very interesting, don’t you think?”

 Phena was not surprised at this. Annie’s father made his living creating monuments and tombstones. He had a big workshop at the end of town adjacent to his house. He displayed samples of his work in the front yard of the shop beside the parking lot. Everyone who had ever traveled out the highway saw the macabre display and never forgot it.

 Phena managed an insincere smile that Annie interpreted as encouragement. “I think tombstones are a wonderful subject. I bet you know a lot about them, huh?”

 Annie grinned, a grin almost bubbling with excitement. “Oh, yes! I could write pages and pages!”

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