Still a work in progress, p.1
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.1

           Jo Knowles
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Still a Work in Progress


  1 Please Stop Standing on the Toilet Seats

  2 Please Don’t Encourage the Cat to Lick You

  3 Please Fix the Lighting in the Boys’ Bathroom So We Can See Our Reflections Better

  4 The Pole in the Community Room Is Not for Pole Dancing

  5 Please Ban Country Music from All Future Dances

  6 Sequined Camouflage Is Not Appropriate at School

  7 We Are Too Old for Picture Day

  8 The Fart Squad Needs to Be Disbanded

  9 The Storage Shed Is Not for Kissing Behind

  10 Prevent Locker Juice: DO NOT Leave Food in Your Locker Over Break

  11 Please Stop Giving False Impressions

  12 Secret Santa Presents Should Come from the Heart, Not the Fruit Bowl

  13 Secret Santas Are Offensive

  14

  15 Welcome-Back Hugs Should Be Limited to Five Seconds

  16 If You Are Going to Share Details About Your Love Life, Please Learn the Bases

  17

  18 Please Do Not Abuse the Suggestion Box

  19 Please Try to Spend More Energy on Stuff That Matters

  20 Please Don’t Take Your Bad Day Out on Innocent People

  21 To The People at This School Who Have Been Acting Depressed Lately: Don’t Stop Believing

  22 Instead of a Complaint, Here’s a Tip: Seize the Day!

  Acknowledgments

  “I am not afraid of Molly Lo,” Ryan tells me from inside the stall in the boys’ bathroom. He refuses to use the urinal, just like everyone else.

  “Then why are you hiding in the bathroom?” I ask.

  “She’s stalking me,” he says. “Stalkers make me nervous.”

  The toilet does not flush as Ryan’s head appears at the top of the wobbly metal wall of the stall . . . then his sneaker, as he slings his leg over. He struggles with getting all the way over, grunting and cursing, then finally slides down the side to land in front of me.

  “You forgot to flush,” I point out.

  He shrugs and straightens his shirt. “I’m conserving water. ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow.’”

  “Seriously? No wonder it smells so bad in here.”

  I wait for him to wash his hands.

  No one knows who the original person was to leave the door to the stall locked from the inside, but for some reason, no one wants to be the person to unlock it. This means that in order to use the bathroom, you have to either crawl under or climb over to get in and out. Since crawling under would mean having to touch the boys’-room floor with your hands, there’s really only one choice.

  I usually just try to hold it.

  “I wish she’d get the hint that I’m not interested,” Ryan says. He peers into the mirror to inspect a zit on his upper lip.

  “You should pop that and get it over with,” I tell him.

  “I know, but I bit my fingernails down too far and can’t get a good squeeze.” He gives me a look as if he’s considering asking me to do it for him.

  I give him a Not a chance look back.

  “Forget it,” he says. “Just c’mon.” The mini volcano on his upper lip leads us out.

  In the hallway, Lily Smith is standing next to Small Tyler and pointing at his locker. “We know it’s you,” she says, all bossy. “And it’s disgusting. You have to clean it out.”

  “It is clean,” Small Tyler tells her. Small Tyler isn’t actually that small, but the other Tyler in school, Tyler Gingritch, is kind of a giant, and that’s how people distinguish the two of them.

  “What smells like fish?” Belle asks, coming up behind Lily. She wrinkles her nose and whips her long, shiny black braids over her shoulder at the same time. Belle is an eighth-grader, but she’s friends with Lily because Lily acts like an eighth-grader.

  “What’s the problem out here?” We all turn to see the Tank coming down the hallway. His actual name is Mr. Sticht and he teaches social studies. All the girls love the Tank. He has huge muscles and a tattoo on his arm of some military crest that everyone in his unit got when they were deployed in Iraq. The Tank is our hero, even though most of us are from families who opposed the war. I think you can be antiwar but still be grateful to people who have to go fight in one. No one messes with the Tank, and no one ever calls him that to his face.

  The small crowd moves aside as he approaches the locker, which, now that people have cleared a path, does smell suspiciously like fish.

  The Tank swings open the locker, and a wave of even stronger fishiness wafts over us. People cough and gag.

  Small Tyler steps back. “I swear there’s nothing in there,” he says. “I’ve looked! It’s just paper and stuff.”

  The Tank steps backward. “Well something’s making that smell,” he says, covering his face with his enormous hand.

  “Maybe someone put something in there as a joke,” Small Tyler suggests.

  “It smells like death,” Ryan says.

  Someone laughs.

  “OK, OK, pull everything outta there,” the Tank orders. “Someone go get the trash can.”

  Max Fitzsimmons volunteers, holding his arms out as he struts down the hall, as if his muscles are so big they prevent his arms from resting at his sides.

  Ryan elbows me and rolls his eyes. “His muscles aren’t that big,” he mutters, shaking his head in disgust.

  “Whose muscles aren’t that big?” our friend Sam asks way too loudly, coming to stand between us.

  “Tell you later,” Ryan says.

  Max drags the trash barrel back, and everyone steps even farther away because the trash smells almost as bad as Small Tyler’s locker.

  “Well, get going,” the Tank tells Small Tyler.

  He starts pulling crumpled papers, books, and other stuff out of his locker.

  “How did you accumulate so much junk in just two months?” the Tank asks.

  Small Tyler shrugs. The tips of his ears are bright red. I feel bad that we’re all just standing around watching him. We’re not good friends, but I do like the guy. Our school is on the small side, so everyone is kind of friends at some level.

  I step forward and motion for Small Tyler to hand me the trash from his locker so he doesn’t have to do it all by himself.

  “Thanks, Noah,” he mumbles.

  The more he empties it out, though, the stronger the smell. People step back farther and farther down the hall. Even the Tank looks a little worried about what we’re going to find when we get to the bottom.

  I glance over at Ryan and Sam, who have stepped way back from the scene, shaking their heads at me, as if I’m the biggest sucker in the world.

  This is what I get for being the nice guy.

  Small Tyler stops. “Uhhhhh,” he says quietly.

  “What is it?” I ask.

  A few people step closer, risking the smell just to see. People have a sick fascination with gross things.

  Slowly Small Tyler lifts another handful of crumpled-up balls of paper out of his locker, but these ones have something brownish dripping from them. He tries to hand them to me, but I step back. Even I have my limits.

  Unfortunately I’m not fast enough, and a drip lands on my sneaker.

  “What. Is. That?” the Tank asks, screwing up his face.

  “Locker juice,” someone whispers.

  “Ewwwww,” everyone whispers back.

  “Well, get it the hell out of there!” the Tank bellows. He drags the trash barrel closer so Small Tyler can get the dripping trash in without getting any on the floor — or anyone else’s shoes.

  When he tosses it in, an even stronger smell hits me all at once, and I stagger backward into Max, who staggers into Lily. We are like dominoes falling into one another and gasping, eyes watering. I try to think of
a worse smell but can’t, and that’s saying something. There are three things I can think of off the top of my head. A dead mouse whose smell spread through the whole school the day the heat kicked in for the first time this fall. Tyler Gingritch’s farts after his parents had a chili-contest party in October and he wandered through the school leaving gas in every room just to torture us all, and then Zach Bray and Max Fitzsimmons, who were also at the party, formed a group called the Fart Squad and went around leaving stink bombs right before class. And finally Mrs. Phelps’s coffee breath, better known as Death Breath. It fills the science room every morning and makes even Miranda-with-the-Always-Stuffed-Up-Nose gag.

  This is the smell of a thousand dead mice. A million Fart Squad bombings. And worse than a fan blowing Mrs. Phelps’s Death Breath straight into your mouth.

  “I found it!” Small Tyler says, holding up a leaky sandwich bag. It looks like it once held a sandwich but now holds a brown, moldy thing with putrid liquid dripping out.

  “Tuna sandwich,” he says. Then he covers his mouth with his hand like he’s trying not to throw up.

  Students start gagging and stumbling down the hall. The Tank points to the garbage can and yells, “Drop it in! Drop it in!” as if he’s yelling to one of his commando buddies during mortal combat to drop a grenade down an enemy’s trench.

  Tears roll down Small Tyler’s face. It’s not clear if they’re from humiliation or the horrible odor. It doesn’t matter. We all understand.

  He quickly drops the dripping bag into the trash. Then, in one brave gesture, he scoops up all the remaining dripping papers at the bottom of his locker in his arms and dumps them in. The Tank slams down the rubber lid and motions to Max, who grabs the handle and quickly wheels the garbage down the hall.

  “Take it out! All the way out!” the Tank hollers. Everyone jumps out of the way as Max wheels the trash and the stench to the front door of the school.

  “You know where the cleaning supplies are,” the Tank says to Small Tyler, wiping his eyes. “Everyone else, Community Meeting!”

  Small Tyler heads to the janitor’s closet while the rest of us walk down the hall to the Community Room. I turn back to see him standing at his open locker with a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle. I feel guilty for leaving him, but not enough to get any closer to that smell.

  “Now you know why we keep telling you not to leave food in your locker!” the Tank says as he ushers us down the hall.

  Lesson learned.

  Community Meeting happens once a week. Everyone in the school has to go, including the teachers. The Community Room used to be the music room, but our town had budget cuts and they cut the music program. The walls are painted green, and old couches donated by various families line the walls so that if we’re all sitting on them, we form a circle/square. The problem is that there are more students than seats on the couches, so if you get to Community Meeting late, you’re stuck sitting on a beanbag or on the floor in front of the couch sitters. The beanbags are mysteriously sticky and smell like dirty sheets. The floor is cold and kind of gross because it doesn’t get washed very much. In either case, you have to sit in front of the people on the couch, which means you are close to their feet, which means, depending on who you end up in front of, you are probably going to have a miserable hour.

  I look at my own feet and the locker-juice drip left on my sneaker. It’s shiny, and I bet sticky, too. I try to rub it off on the floor. This is another reason no one should sit there.

  I find an open spot on the red couch next to Sasha Finnegan. I attempt to smile at her, and she surprises me by smiling back. She’s the cutest eighth-grader in the school. She’s also dating Max, so her smile is likely meaningless. I let myself have a split-second of hope anyway, then remember the locker juice on my shoe and hope it doesn’t smell.

  Curly, the school cat, pokes her bald head out from behind the couch next to mine. She’s hairless and looks more like a little gremlin than a cat. Ms. Cliff, the principal, thinks having a school pet helps the students feel more calm and less stressed. A few years ago the school had a dog that was supposed to be hypoallergenic because he had hair instead of fur, but while he may have had a calming effect on the students, the students didn’t have one on him. He developed something called irritable bowel syndrome, and the parents complained that the students shouldn’t have to be cleaning up dog poo as part of their education. The principal insisted the school still needed a pet, so they finally settled on Curly.

  It’s kind of a mystery how anyone could think that Curly could provide comfort and calm. She looks cold and stressed-out all the time, like she lost her coat and can’t find it. It seems like the students are the ones constantly trying to comfort the cat instead of the other way around.

  Curly jumps on my lap and turns in careful circles. I pet her so she’ll settle down. Her skin reminds me of the stingray I got to pet at the New England Aquarium last year. Smooth, even though it looks like it should feel like sandpaper.

  Today, Curly’s wearing a neon-green vest. Ms. Cliff, who is the art teacher as well as the principal, has a sewing unit in class, and students always make Curly vests for their projects. She needs them to stay warm. I don’t know how Curly feels about them, but she puts up with it.

  Ms. Cliff motions for all of us to hurry up and settle down. The Tank brings the Suggestion Box over to the group of teachers all sitting on one couch. There’s the Tank, who teaches social studies; Ms. Cliff; Mrs. Phelps, the stinky-breath science teacher; Madame Estelle, who teaches French and math; and Mr. Marshall, who teaches English.

  Mrs. Phelps reaches into the box and unfolds a slip of paper. “‘Please stop standing on the toilet seats,’” she reads.

  She looks up and eyes us all suspiciously.

  “Do we think this is referring to the boys’ room or the girls’ room?” she finally asks.

  It drives me a little crazy when teachers say “we” as if all of us are one big unit who think the same thoughts and not individual people.

  People answer “Boys’” and “Girls’” at the same time.

  Mostly it sounds like all the boys said “Girls’” and all the girls said “Boys’.”

  The girls’ room is like a mystery cave to the boys. All we know is that it smells like twenty kinds of body spray vying for air domination. You literally taste it when you walk by the door.

  Poor Jem Thomas got the Bathroom Locker this year. That’s the one closest to the bathroom entrance. He says even his sandwiches taste like body spray.

  “Why would people be standing on the toilets?” Ms. Cliff asks the group.

  I glance over at Ryan, who is sitting on one of the beanbag chairs, trying to look innocent. Curly stands up and turns circles on my lap again, pricking my thighs with her tiny claws. Sometimes I think she senses our tension and gets all tense herself.

  Sam raises his hand. “To talk to their neighbor?” he asks innocently.

  “Gross!” Lily Smith says.

  He blushes. “Just a guess.”

  “Toilets are for sitting on,” Ms. Cliff says, all serious.

  “Or standing in front of,” Ryan points out.

  Everyone cracks up.

  “We all know what they are not for, is the point,” says the Tank. “So whoever is standing on the toilets, for whatever reason, please stop. Some people do have to sit on them, Ryan, and there’s no telling where you all’s shoes have been.”

  Someone makes a gagging noise.

  I peer over my lap to inspect the locker juice on my shoe. This is just one more reason why my option to never use the school toilets unless death from holding it seems imminent is a sound one.

  The Tank reaches in for another suggestion. “‘Please stop calling the Suggestion Box the Complaint Box,’” he reads.

  “Yes,” Ms. Cliff says. “That is an excellent suggestion. The more you call it a Complaint Box, the more people will complain. We want ideas for making your experience here better.”

  I
’m pretty sure Ms. Cliff is the one who wrote that suggestion.

  Curly finally settles back down on my lap while Ms. Cliff reads a bunch more complaints disguised as suggestions. Curly’s body is extremely warm. I try to pet her again, but her skin creeps me out too much, so I just kind of tap her gently. She closes her eyes and rests her head on my knee.

  “Does anyone have any more comments about this week’s suggestions?” Ms. Cliff finally asks.

  No one does.

  After school, I wait on the steps for my ride. My mom is driving today, and I pray she doesn’t hop out of the car and wave to me when she gets here like she did on the first day. After that, whenever I got to school, everyone would do the Mom Wave when they saw me. I’m really glad that got boring after a while.

  Harper Lewis jumps down the steps next to me and barely manages to land without falling. He stands and swivels to face me.

  “Shotgun,” he says, grinning.

  I roll my eyes. Like I want to sit in the front next to my mom?

  Harper and his brother, Stu, live a few blocks from my house, and our parents take turns driving us to and from school. Hardly anyone takes the bus because it takes so long to get home. We only live about a ten-minute drive from school, but if I took the bus, it would be close to an hour because of the route. My dad says it would be good for us to ride the bus, but some high-school kid got beat up right under the bus driver’s nose last year, and now my mom insists on driving.

  My mom picks us up, and then we head to the high school to get my sister and Stu. There, we wait in the long carpool line. As usual the students take their sweet time saying good-bye to their friends, as if they will never see them again. Emma has to hug everyone. I catch Harper looking at her dreamily. Everyone looks at Emma that way.

  She finally saunters over to the car and climbs in next to me.

  “How was your day, honey?” my mom asks cheerfully.

  “Fine,” Emma says in the same tone. She reaches over and punches my arm. It’s how we say hi to each other. I punch her back.

  Harper turns around from the front seat. “Hey, Emma,” he says hopefully.

  She smiles. “Hey, Harper. Nice hat.”

  He’s wearing a New England Patriots hat that says GO, PATS!

 
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