short fiction from richard yates

11 Kinds of Loneliness - Original
 

Richard Yates, "Fun with a Stranger"

 

All that summer the children who were due to start third grade under Miss Snell had been warned about her. "Boy, you’re gonna get it," the older children would say, distorting their faces with a wicked pleasure. "You’re really gonna get it. Mrs. Clearys all right" (Mrs. Cleary taught the other, luck­ier half of third grade) "—shes fine, but boy, that Snell—you better watch out." So it happened that the morale of Miss Snell’s class was low even before school opened in September, and she did little in the first few weeks to improve it.

 

She was probably sixty, a big rawboned woman with a man’s face, and her clothes, if not her very pores, seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust that is the smell of school. She was strict and humorless, preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming, frequent trips to the bathroom, and, the worst of all, "coming to school without proper supplies." Her small eyes were sharp, and when somebody sent out a stealthy alarm of whispers and nudges to try to borrow a pencil from somebody else, it almost never worked. "What’s the trouble back there?" she would demand. "I mean you, John Gerhardt." And John Gerhardt—or Howard White or whoever it hap­pened to be—caught in the middle of a whisper, could only turn red and say, "Nothing."

 

"Don’t mumble. Is it a pencil? Have you come to school without a pencil again? Stand up when you’re spoken to."

 

And there would follow a long lecture on Proper Supplies that ended only after the offender had come forward to receive a pencil from the small hoard on her desk, had been made to say, "Thank you, Miss Snell," and to repeat, until he said it loud enough for everyone to hear, a promise that he wouldnt chew it or break its point.

 

With erasers it was even worse because they were more often in short supply, owing to a general tendency to chew them off the ends of pencils. Miss Snell kept a big, shapeless old eraser on her desk, and she seemed very proud of it. "This is my eraser," she would say, shaking it at the class. "Ive had this eraser for five years. Five years." (And this was not hard to believe, for the eraser looked as old and gray and worn-down as the hand that brandished it.) "I’ve never played with it because its not a toy. Ive never chewed it because it’s not good to eat. And Ive never lost it because Im not foolish and Im not careless. I need this eraser for my work and I’ve taken good care of it. Now, why cant you do the same with your erasers? I don’t know whats the matter with this class. I’ve never had a class that was so foolish and so careless and so childish about its supplies."

 

She never seemed to lose her temper, but it would almost have been better if she did, for it was the flat, dry, passionless redundance of her scolding that got everybody down. When Miss Snell singled someone out for a special upbraiding it was an ordeal by talk. She would come up to within a foot of her victims face, her eyes would stare unblinking into his, and the wrinkled gray flesh of her mouth would labor to pronounce his guilt, grimly and deliberately, until all the color faded from the day. She seemed tohave no favorites; once she even picked on Alice Johnson, who always had plenty of supplies and did nearly everything right. Alice was mumbling while reading aloud, and when she continued to mumble after several warn­ings Miss Snell went over and took her book away and lectured her for several minutes running. Alice looked stunned at first; then her eyes filled up, her mouth twitched into terrible shapes, and she gave in to the ultimate humiliation of cry­ing in class.

 

It was not uncommon to cry in Miss Snell’s class, even among the boys. And ironically, it always seemed to be during the lull after one of these sceneswhen the only sound in the room was somebody’s slow, half-stifled sobbing, and the rest of the class stared straight ahead in an agony of embarrassment­ that the noise of group laughter would float in from Mrs. Cleary’s class across the hall.

 

Still, they could not hate Miss Snell, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own. "When we learn a new word it’s like making a friend," she said once. "And we all like to make friends, dont we? Now, for instance, when school began this year you were all strangers to me, but I wanted very much to learn your names and remember your faces, and so I made the effort. It was confusing at first, but before long I’d made friends with all of you. And later on well have some good times togetheroh, perhaps a little party at Christmastime, or something like thatand then I know I’d be very sorry if I hadnt made that effort, because you can’t very well have fun with a stranger, can you?" She gave them a comely, shy smile. "And that’s just the way it is with words."

 

When she said something like that it was more embarrassing than anything else, but it did leave the children with a certain vague sense of responsibility toward her, and often prompted them into a loyal reticence when children from other classes demanded to know how bad she really was. "Well, not too bad," they would say uncomfortably, and try to change the sub­ject
 

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