Biographical Non-Fiction posted February 5, 2016


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Beef Stroganoff

by Captain Jack


By my fifth grade school year, I'd faked illness once too often, so the one day I truly suffered from extreme nausea, my mother merely rolled her eyes and shoved me out the door. With the previous night's beef stroganoff yearning to stage a reappearance, I fully expected to launch the entire batch before the morning was over. And In that little town of Loma, Montana, puking in school was a disgrace that would hound the perpetrator through childhood and beyond. No matter how popular a guy was, one public upchuck would forever brand him as "That kid who puked in school."

In anguish, I trudged through the deep Montana snow, occasionally bending over to attempt the finger-down-the-throat maneuver, only to dry heave like a convulsing animal. Though I considered wandering off to spend the day in someone's garage, my past brushes with truancy court, coupled with my fear of freezing to death in the Montana winter, rendered any escape from this predicament out of the question. I slogged on and, slowed by my weakened state, reached the school door just as the bell rang.

I staggered down the hallway, slipped into the classroom, and cringed under the hostile glare of my imposing homeroom teacher, Mrs. Bender. I could never look at this woman without thinking of a praying mantis. She was gaunt, freakishly tall, and her large, round eyes sat so high on her face that they encroached on her lower forehead. Living up to her name, Mrs. Bender was perpetually bent forward from the waist to the extent that, behind her back, we called her "Bender Over".

"Well, well, Jack," she said, her voice dry and scratchy (even her voice invoked comparisons to tropical, tree-dwelling insects), "Nice you could make it this morning."

With all this bending and glaring and scratchy-talking doing nothing to alleviate my nausea, I lowered my head, crept to my desk and slid into my chair.

In front of me sat Susie Skidmore, whose affections I'd sought to win the entire school year. Though I ordinarily bestowed Susie with flirtatious overtures, my nauseated state severely limited any thoughts of adolescent courting rituals. And to my left sat my on-again-off-again best friend "Spider Bite" Wilson, who would normally bombard me with chatter about fishing and hockey and cars. Too light-headed and queasy to socialize with either classmate, I slumped down and stared straight ahead.

Though a gastronomical eruption was increasingly inevitable, it was unthinkable for boys in that small town to request a restroom break. It was okay for the girls, but any boy who violated this unwritten test of masculinity would be considered a weakling. Thus trapped, I sought to contain my sputtering guts until lunch break, when I could flee to the restroom, scramble to the farthest stall, and open the floodgates.

"You look like crap, Jack," said Spider Bite, as the first class began.

I waved him off with a grunt and my stomach unleashed a grumbling noise--something like zhizz-zhurr-zhurm-zhlopp. Susie turned around and wrinkled her nose at me. Evading Susie's attention, I turned my head to see Spider Bite staring at me with amused eyes.

"Now you sound like crap," he said.

"Must be the boiler down the hall," I mumbled.

Sitting silently through first and second periods, I managed to keep my bloated innards from exploding, and by eleven o'clock, with only science class remaining, I'd grown quietly optimistic I could survive one more hour.

But the gods of misfortune, like they would do throughout my adolescence, intervened to thwart my hopes. In science class, we happened to be studying volcanoes, and when Mrs. Bender cranked up the movie projector to show a cauldron of gurgling lava, the disturbing visuals prompted my sputtering guts to follow suit. And the narrator's wording didn't help, droning suggestive phrases like "churning cauldron", "rumbling liquids", and worst of all, "imminent eruption."

By the time I heard the flap-flap-flap of the projector, signifying the movie's end, I'd conceded an inevitable visit to the porcelain goddess was at hand. Choosing the lesser evil, I chose to forego my pride and raised my hand.

As I waited for the lights to come on, I heard Spider Bite say, "Pssst."

In no condition to talk, I turned to shut him up, but noticed he was "psssting" right past me and toward Suzie.

"Pretty cute, movie, eh?" he said in a tone that could only be construed as flirtatious.

I heard Suzie giggling and acknowledging Spider Bite with an unmistakably receptive smile. "It was very very cute," she said.

It was bad enough they were using the obvious code word "cute," but they were speaking right past me, as if I were an inert ping pong net.

Their blatant affront triggered in me an uncontainable urge to defend my honor, and I momentarily set aside my gastronomical concerns. Disregarding the consequences, I reached over, grabbed Spider Bite's forearm, and dug my fingernails deep into his skin. Spider Bite, never one to back away, clutched the front of my knit shirt with his free hand, twisting until he'd stretched it into a bulging mass.

In the heat of our chivalrous dual, the lights came on, prompting us to beat an instinctive retreat. Though the fight-induced adrenaline had temporarily dammed up my innards, my digestive dilemma returned with a vengeance, and I felt the first spurt of acidified stroganoff remains percolate into my esophagus. I again thrust my hand up.

As I did, Spider Bite whispered toward me, loud enough for Suzie to hear, "You're a warmed-over turd."

In our little school, the term "warmed-over turd" was considered a monstrous insult, wielded only in the most drastic of circumstances, and surpassed only by carnal references to a guy's mother. Accordingly, and especially since he'd uttered this blasphemy in Suzie's presence, I again forgot my swirling bowels and I swung my fist, barely grazing Spider Bite's arm as he recoiled.

"JACK!"

I flinched and looked up to see Mrs. Bender seething at me with her praying mantis eyes.

"JACK," she repeated, "come up here!"

I struggled to my feet and glanced over to see Spider Bite in a shameless display of theatrics, moaning and rubbing his arm as if a wrecking ball had just swung through the wall for the sole purpose of maiming his upper bicep. I wandered up to Mrs. Bender, my stomach bubbling as vigorously as the afore-mentioned volcano.

This daunting woman towered over me, looking more praying mantish than ever. Nearly disabled by the nausea, I hunched over to an angle exceeding Mrs. Bender's by at least fifteen degrees. I gulped, prompting a bitter load of goop to burst into my mouth. I clamped my lips together, praying to high heaven I wouldn't splatter the entire payload across the room.

Mrs. Bender clutched my shoulder, and as she did, I ground my teeth and prayed to every deity I could imagine--God, Allah, Buddha, and the ghosts of ancient Druids--to keep my stomach crud in custody. With this tug of war between my guts and the outside world at a stalemate, I gazed at the floor and endured Mrs. Bender's barrage:

"Why did you hit Spider?"

Behind me, Spider Bite intensified his moans, and from his wavering tone I could tell he was making a monumental effort to stifle a laugh.

"What did Spider ever do to you?"

I wanted to tell Mrs. Bender of Spider Bite's shameless trespass onto my romantic territory, but I knew she would assign little relevance to my quandary.

As if she could physically rattle a confession from me, Mrs. Bender shook my shoulder. But the only element this action shook was another dose of chunky acid up into my esophagus. Mrs. Bender's scratchy voice grew scratchier as she shook me. "I have half a mind to send you to Mr. Burnside's office."

Her words struck me like a bolt of ironic lightning. This was my redemption. On my way to the principal's office, I could beat a quick detour to the restroom and finally unload the goods. Therefore, I could salvage my dignity and later rescue Susie from Spider Bite's evil intentions. Granted, this punishment would get me a trip to detention hall, but considering the alternatives, I wholeheartedly embraced Mrs. Bender's edict.

I quickly looked up. "OK," I said.

Mrs. Bender loosened her grip. "OK what?"

"OK," I repeated. "I'll go to Mr. Burnside's office."

She widened her already bulging eyes, her pupils moving independently of each other, and released my throbbing shoulder. So accustomed was she of using this threat to cow students into submission, that my surrender left her at a loss for words. After all, Mr. Burnside was, arguably, the cruelest principal to ever preside over Loma Elementary, and in any other situation, the mere mention of his name would infuse a sense of doom into my soul. But at the moment, his name was music to my ears.

"Mrs. Bender," I begged, feeling the jumbling murk inching up toward my mouth, "please give me the detention slip and I'll take it to Mr. Burnside right away."

As she stood pondering my unprecedented compliance, a sizeable dollop of goop triumphantly completed its journey into my mouth. I tried to plead further, but the gooey mass sloshed around my tongue so lavishly that speech was rendered impossible. Inflicted with the deplorable taste, I contorted my mouth into a monstrous sneer.

Mrs. Bender gasped and backed up a step. "Are you making faces at me?"

I somehow managed to swallow, but unable to contain my agitation, I shouted, "No!"

The fervor of my outburst, coupled with my dreadful sneer, provoked this woman to her breaking point.

"Your behavior is despicable," she said. She thrust her finger toward a chair in the corner--the area she'd christened the "Corner of Shame." "Sit there until lunchtime," she seethed. "And I'll escort you to Mr. Burnside's office myself."

This was not on the agenda. Mrs. Bender only accompanied a kid to the principal's office in extreme circumstances, and my unintentional belligerence apparently qualified me for this dubious honor. With my plan of escape thus crushed, I bowed my head and hobbled over to the Corner of Shame.

Back to square one, I sat writhing and tending to my gurgling innards, and as I did, a dire complication arose. In addition to the increasingly inevitable puke, a squishy buildup of fecal mass had mobilized its own advance toward the opposite orifice. Faced with this added injustice, I was now forced to clamp my sphincter muscles as tight as I was clenching my jaw. I wrapped my arms around my abdomen and rocked back and forth, hoping to God Almighty the bell would ring before the imminent blast.

Miraculously, when the bell finally rang, my inner gunk was still confined. The other kids filed past me and glanced over with smirks of amusement, and few signs of sympathy. Compounding my discomfort, I could only watch as Spider Bite and Susie walked side by side, their hands dangerously close to touching. When Susie paused and looked my way, I searched her face for compassion, but found none.

I now lost all will to live.

With the room cleared, Mrs. Bender, now armed with a discipline slip, again clutched my shoulder, her fingernails impaling my skin even deeper than before.

With no other kids present to witness my surrender, I submitted an appeal for emancipation. "Mrs. Bender," I pleaded, "it's really important for me to visit the boy's room."

As expected, with my teacher already provoked to the verge of violence, Mrs. Bender scoffed and said, "You can hold it." The finality in her voice left me no hope for recourse.

She dragged me out of the classroom and pulled me down the long hall, my guts rumbling as I zigzagged behind her. When we passed the boy's room, I glanced over longingly, like I was losing a long-lost friend, and then braced myself to face our daunting principal.

Mr. Burnside had transferred to our school at the start of the year, and this was to be our first encounter. Little was known about this mysterious tyrant beyond the usual rumors: he'd escaped prison where he'd been serving a life term for murder; his hobby was to capture stray puppies and torture them in his cellar; and he advocated the death penalty for all children above the age of five.

Mrs. Bender hauled me into the office and shoved me in front of the principal's desk. Seeing Mr. Burnside up close for the first time, I had no doubt the afore-mentioned rumors were accurate. He was stout and bald, with seething eyes and a distinct scar on his face, and looked as if he'd never smiled in his life. All in all, he bore a striking resemblance to Benito Mussolini.

Mrs. Bender handed Mr. Burnside the slip, stepped back, and folded her arms. With a giant, mutated praying mantis behind me, and a fascist dictator's doppelganger before me, I stood trapped between the two most intimidating creatures in the history of Loma Elementary.

The hulking principal read the slip with a scowl, looked up, and gestured for me to sit down. I labored into the chair and tried, with little success, not to squirm. Like a wolf examining a trapped ferret, Mr. Burnside studied me in silence. He was obviously a man who relished in prolonging his captive's discomfort to the brink of insanity.

He tapped his fingers on his desk, emphasizing the last tap:

Tap-tap-tap-TAP

Tap--tap-tap-TAP

And he executed a strategic pause at the end of each sequence, allowing a nearby clock to fill the gap.

Tap-tap-tap-TAP... tick tock, tick tock...

Tap-tap-tap-TAP... tick tock, tick tock...

Every vital organ in my abdominal cavity was now synchronized to the percussion section of the Blue Danube Waltz.

Mr. Burnside sat, still not talking, likely debating whether to subject me to the guillotine or a firing squad. I averted my eyes and spotted photos of his wife and three children on his desk. I calculated the probable trajectory of an involuntary upchuck, and I concluded such an occurrence would spatter the entire Mussolini clan with bile stroganoff.

Finally, the ghastly principal tossed the slip to his desk, sat back, and eyed me up and down.

"Young man," he said, "You look a bit pale."

Before I could divulge the true reason for my sickly appearance, he nodded toward the disciplinary slip and said, "What do you have to say about..." he then leaned forward and pressed his index finger onto the slip, "...this?"

Behind me, Mrs. Bender grunted in smug satisfaction.

By this time, I was in no mood for this brute's melodrama, and for all I cared, he could sentence me to hard labor--just so I could flee to the bathroom before the big kablooey.

He strategically stared up at the plastic paddle hanging on the wall--the paddle known as "Mr. Justice."

Tap-tap-tap-TAP... tick tock, tick tock...

Throughout my gastrointestinal turmoil, I'd forgotten about this peril. The previous principal, Mr. Lilly, had used the paddle quite sparingly, and when he did, wielded it quite lightly. But it was rumored Mr. Burnside would swing the cruel paddle with sadistic abandon, and relish every whack he delivered. Worse yet, a rendezvous with the infamous Mr. Justice could very well influence the outcome of my digestive dilemma.

The surly principal cleared his throat. "Violence," he said, "is never the answer."

Ironic that the reincarnation of Mussolini would condemn violence.

"When I was your age," he went on, "I too was often faced with conflict. And I was, at times, also tempted to resort to fighting." He paused to examine his finger nails. "But I learned how to handle these situations before any violence could erupt."

Why in the name of thundering Zeus did he have to say "erupt"? Sensing I was in for a long biography that I could scarcely afford to bear, I blurted out, "Yes I hit Spider Bite! And I'll take any punishment you give me!"

Mr. Burnside flinched and raised his eyebrows. "Young man," he said, "I'm not a man to be rushed." To emphasize his point, he leaned toward me and stared.

Tap-tap-tap-TAP... tick tock, tick tock...

Nobody could say I hadn't given it a good go, but the moment had come for biology to have the last laugh. Like a marathon runner unable to take another step, like a rock teetering too far over the edge of a cliff, like a runaway train heading for an inevitable crash, I succumbed to the inevitable, and let whichever fluids gush from whichever exit they desired. And the winning orifice was--well, looking at the bright side, the Mussolini family remained stroganoff free.

My soul detached itself from my body and I floated to the ceiling, observing the scene from a distance. With a combination of pity and disgust, I gazed down on this repugnant boy in the chair, wondering why he allowed himself to commit this ultimate atrocity. I don't know how long I levitated, but a gasp from Mrs. Bender, coupled with the sight of Mr. Burnside jumping to his feet, brought me back down.

Now that we all realized what had happened, I'm not sure which of us was most affected. Mr. Burnside, the unyielding tyrant, stood rubbing his hands together like a shell-shocked child. The usually unflappable Mrs. Bender was backing toward the door, as if a wild animal had just entered the room. As for me, I was hit with a bizarre combination of emotions: physical relief from finally unloading my gastric burden, contrasting sharply with the realization I would forevermore be branded the school's most untouchable creature.

I stood and anticipated one of two reactions from these bullies. They could explode in fury and inflict me with even more abuse, or they could flee the room and run through the halls, proclaiming to the world how I'd just crapped my pants.

Mr. Burnside looked from me to Mrs. Bender and back. He finally spoke in a tone so subdued that I scarcely recognized it. "Why didn't you ask to go to the restroom?"

What could I say? My failure to ask was based on absurd childhood pride, a lame excuse no adult authority would possibly accept.

As if reading my thoughts, Mrs. Bender stepped to my side and said, "He did ask." Her voice had also changed--previously scratchy, now low and steady. "It's not his fault, Mr. Burnside. It's mine."

The principal stared at her. "Why didn't you let this boy go to the restroom?"

"I was too angry with him," she said, enduring Mr. Burnside's stare.

"Too angry?" The bewildered principal sat back down and picked up the phone. "I better call his mother to come get him."

Mrs. Bender shook her head and said, "She works as a nurse clear over in Fort Benton."

Mr. Burnside looked up. "His father?"

"Passed away two years ago."

He turned to me. "Anybody?" I averted my eyes, feeling more alone in the world than I ever had. I truly considered committing suicide at the first opportunity.

But Mrs. Bender reached down, grasped my hand, and said, "I'll take care of this."

Dazed and weary, I felt myself being escorted back down the hall. This time, instead of digging her fingernails into my shoulder, Mrs. Bender held her arm around me, occasionally patting my back. She led me to the private bathroom in the teacher's lounge, turned on the faucet, and I felt my clothes being removed.

Next thing I remember, I was wrapped in a sheet and Mrs. Bender was guiding me to a cot in the nurse's station. After she took my temperature and gave me some aspirin, I lay down and drifted in and out of consciousness. Hours later, the final bell awakened me, and I looked over to see Mrs. Bender standing before me, holding a fresh set of clothes.

"They're Spider Bite's," she said. He gave Mr. Burnside permission to go to his house and pick them up." Though these clothes, like all of Spider Bite's, were more ragged than mine, I put them on and never felt cleaner in my life.

The three villains who'd been determined to ruin my life now had their golden opportunity to do so, but my morbid secret was never revealed. From a closer perspective, Mr. Burnside now resembled Winston Churchill more than he did Mussolini. Mrs. Bender was transformed from a vicious, insect-like monster into a dedicated teacher. As for Spider Bite, you might say he was the kind of guy who would help a friend in trouble.

I don't know whether it's the people around me who change, or if it's the way I see them. And I'm still trying to figure that out.


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