On the first day of class Milton Smuekoff counted sixteen students. His roster listed twenty-five. “I’m Mr. Smuekoff—smoo-a-cough. As I take attendance, you should write two paragraphs describing why you are unique.” The students started digging for pencils. “Help yourself to the cup of pens on my desk.” Two BD kids lunged for the green pen with fluorescent fur.
The girl sitting alone at the back table pulled a blue Pilot G-2 out of her black leather book bag. She wrote briefly, confidently, and then laid her head down. When I called “Earleana Dolejs,” she corrected my pronunciation without raising her head. “It’s pronounced ‘Dull-ish.’” Several males snickered. “I’m Mitty. Only Earl calls me Earleana.”
The English department listed the class as Fundamentals of Fiction, but everyone at Thurgood Marshall High School called it Writing for Losers. The class attracted skaters, taggers, druggies, dirties, gang bangers, and outlaws. A few kids enrolled because they wanted me to read their short stories, poetry, or movie scripts. The rest of the students were LD, BD, or ADD. They ate Pop Tarts and Mountain Dew for breakfast. Everyone except for Nathan and Cordell had colds.
I circled the classroom asking questions as they wrote. “Your mom’s pit bull bit you where?” Mitty didn’t look up when I stopped beside her. Her paragraph title, written in bold but erratic script, read Dancer’s Dilemma.
“Work late?” I asked.
“No sleep for the wicked,” she replied.
Mitty was five feet tall with wavy brown hair that spread over her shoulders and down to her waist. She wore jeans torn at the knees and a khaki sleeveless cotton shirt. A gold snake wrapped around her left arm. Six gold studs pierced her right ear.
The door opened, and the boy nicknamed High C called out, “Red Alert! Red Alert!”
“Smells like The Mule,” Mitty said. Several girls laughed.
“Smells like The Mule!” repeated Toad from the corner of the room. “Smells like The Mule!”
The figure entering wore a dark gray knit cap, a jacket advertising Steglich Construction, an Army sweatshirt, faded overalls, and steel-toed shoes. “May I help you?” I asked.
“I’m The Mule.”
“I don’t have a ‘Mule’ on my class list,” I said.
“Last name’s Steglich.” The Mule took off her hat, revealing short curly auburn hair. “Everyone calls me The Mule.”
“The Mule it is,” I said. As she walked to her seat, I caught the scent of Dreams, a perfume my daughter wore when she was in high school.
I gave my students their first formal assignment. “I want you to report on an incident that lasted only five minutes. Any ideas?” High C raised his hand. “Yes?”
“I hate burning flesh,” he stated. It was not an answer I had anticipated.
High C’s hair was wispy and thin. His skin was yellow. I’d heard talk of a liver transplant because of the Hepatitis C. “Could you elaborate?”
“Sure, Mr. S.” High C sat at the round table near the chalkboard where he watched the door. “I was in the ER at St. Mary’s when they brought in this guy. His grill’s propane tank exploded. They showed me the shrapnel in his leg. I smelled his burnt flesh.”
The class mumbled their approval, wishing they had a swell idea like that.
With twenty minutes left in the period the door opened again. A girl entered wearing a bright blue corduroy jumper. She was obviously pregnant. “What happened to you, Sissie?” asked Toad.
“Don’t act stupid, you wart-infested little puss-ball.” Sissie waddled to an open seat, plopped down, and tried to get comfortable. Before I could ask, she answered. “I’m Selena Alvarez Diaz. My friends call me Sissie, with an ‘i-e,’ not a ‘y.’ Sorry I’m late. Jimmy, my two-year-old, puked up on the way to the sitter’s so I had to change. I can get a late slip, but Mom will just excuse me so I don’t think I should waste the time.”
Toad piped up. “You’re a cow. You’re always pregnant. You should get fixed like The Mule.”
Mule was over the table and on Toad in a blink. She pushed over his chair and lifted him off the floor. Before she could hit him, Cordell Stewart and Nathan Hicks grabbed her. “Don’t do it,” Mitty called out to The Mule. “Mr. Powder will suspend you again.”
While Nathan restrained her, Cordell encouraged The Mule to listen. “If you don’t hit him,” Cordell said, “Mr. Smuekoff can cut you some slack, since you were provoked.” Cordell looked my way with raised eyebrows.
“Remember, it’s Toad talking,” Nathan said. “Toad’s stupid! Aren’t you, Toad?”
Toad cowered. “That’s right. I’m full of crap. Don’t listen to me. I’m an idiot.”
The Mule relaxed, and Cordell and Nathan let her go. After that first day, Mitty and The Mule sat together. There was a bond between them that took me a long time to figure out. Sometimes teachers aren’t very bright.
Occasionally Nathan and Cordell would edit rough drafts with them, otherwise the two young women kept to themselves.
Cordell was the starting center on the varsity football team. Nathan was the All-State quarterback. Both wore Iowa State sweatshirts. Nathan hoped to attend ISU on football scholarship. Cordell would probably pay tuition and walk on.
One morning before class in mid-September Cordell brought in his sixty-thousand-word sci-fi epic. “It’s about a culture of mutants who live on toxic wastes in the twenty-second century.”
“Science fiction isn’t my strength,” I told him.
“Mom used to be my editor,” he said, “but when she got to the scene on mutant breeding practices she suggested I get professional help. I took your class because I knew you’d been published.”
“I’ll read it, and then we can talk.” I hesitated. “In return, maybe you can help me . . ..”
“Sure.” He stretched out his long legs and knocked over the chair on the other side of the table. “What do you need?”
“Actually it’s about whom . . ..”
He wasn’t pleased. “What do you want to know about Nathan?”
“It’s not Nathan. I can read his press clippings. Tell me about The Mule.”
“Ah-h-h-h-h.” He nodded his head. “I had a crush on her in third grade. I beat up Skip Janovsky for teeter-tottering with her.” Cordell hesitated. “You know she did baby shampoo commercials?”
“I’d heard that.”
“The Mount Union Times published some of her glamour pictures in an article about her modeling. People called her Andrea, or they called her The Princess. She competed in Little Lady beauty contests all round the country, but she wasn’t stuck up or anything. And she was a real talker. Then in fourth grade, she got quiet. She didn’t go onto the playground. She didn’t give Valentines. She hid in the rest room.”
“My folks later told me the school nurse discovered she had gonorrhea. Apparently, she’d been abused by a beauty contest judge who was ‘a friend” of her mother. When her parents divorced, she lived with her dad. And she dressed like him, too. In class pictures from fourth and fifth grades, you’d swear she was a boy. Plus, she got into fights. A lot of fights.” The five-minute bell rang, and the rest of the class started dribbling in. “Won most of them.” Cordell went to his seat.
In early October, The Mule wrote in her journal about winning the Little Miss Princess contest at the National Dairy Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa. Eventually, she wrote about the growth spurt in sixth grade that made her tower above all her classmates. She also wrote cutting herself with razor blades in middle school because it gave her a sense of control. She wore long-sleeved shirts to hide the scars. I learned she was the best roofer on her father’s crew. “I’m a wizard with a nail gun.” I learned she vacuumed while listening to Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals. And I learned about her nickname.
The Mule had asked her fifth grade health teacher what “sterile” meant. The teacher defined it and gave the example of a mule. “That’s what Dad says I am,” she told the class. After that, the kids called her The Mule. In my class she never said a word. I understood why.
One day Toad blurted out, “I’m not going to go to Taco Bell any more.”
“Shut up!” Mitty said.
“Who cares!” Cordell and Nathan called out. Joseph “Toad” Truesdell was a pug-like boy who wore black jeans and concert t-shirts for classic heavy metal bands like Megadeath and Slayer. He played in a local metal band called Balkan Assassins. Teachers took early retirement rather than teach him. Toad constantly moved, scanning the room, drumming on his desk, and nudging anyone within reach. He sharpened his pencil thirteen times a period. He wrote in spurts. “I’m not going to go to Taco Bell any more,” Toad repeated.
Sissie leaned over and whispered, “Why not?”
“My dog’s missing.”
Toad’s one friend was Sissie, the very pretty, very pregnant, very privileged Hispanic girl in class . Her parents, both doctors, ran a mid-sized bi-lingual general practice clinic that catered to the entire metro Latino community from the very rich and professional to the very poor and undocumented. Sometimes when Toad got agitated, Sissie would softly stroke his hair to calm him. Sissie wanted to be a psychiatrist. Other days, though, Sissie became his target. When Sissie joked about Toad’s failure to keep a job, he shouted at her, “At least I don’t need a green card.”
“Don’t give me that wetback stuff,” she snarled. “My family’s lived here since 1938. My grandfather was at Normandy. Yours was probably in prison.” There was some truth in her allegations.
In my other writing classes, I had students who lacked ideas. Fundies of Fiction students had plenty to write about. When it was time for the character sketch assignment, High C wrote about a boy who escaped to Guatemala rather than have another liver biopsy. Sissie wrote about a beautiful Hispanic girl who was always getting pregnant.
“Are high school girls really that naive about sex?” I asked after hearing Sissy read her character sketch aloud.
“Believe it,” Mitty said.
“But,” Cordell questioned, “this girl is really dumb ….”
“It’s probably all true,” Toad said. “Sissie’s too boring to invent something like this.”
“Do you want to defend yourself, Sissie?” I asked.
“The first time I got pregnant,” she said, “I was that stupid.” She looked around the class and sensed what they were thinking. “You’d think with two doctors for parents, that they’d tell me something about the facts of life.” Several of the girls nodded in agreement. Mitty just smirked.
“Anyway, this guy, Allen, told me I couldn’t get pregnant if we did it standing up. Well, that was a crock. Plus, even guys with dynamite car stereos get diseases. So when Rudy and I decided to get it on after Prom, we had the limo driver stop at the Ready Stop to get some protection. Rudy found these cool glow-in-the-dark condoms. So that’s what we used. The next morning, I looked at the label. ‘Warning, these devices are meant to be decorative. Not meant for use during intercourse.’ I tell you, you’ve got to read the label.”
“So your story,” I offered, “is a cautionary tale designed to aid students who may have similar ignorance?”
“Sissie wouldn’t know a cautionary tale if it bit her in the behind,” Mitty told me after class.
“I know, but I think you should give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
Mitty wrote character sketches with elaborate descriptions of the fragrances: Happy by Clinque, Pleasures by Revlon, Ananya by Body Shop. “My favorite novel is, Perfume,” she told me. The first episode she wrote for class featured an aging exotic dancer who initiated young dancers by telling them the history of the strip tease.
One day I overheard a conversation with The Mule. “You still dance?” Mitty asked.
“Sometimes.” The words hung between them. “When nobody’s watching.”
“You’d make more money if you let people watch.” The smile left The Mule’s face. “Earl’s short-handed Saturday night. He needs a couple girls to work the cages. I’d work one. You could do the other, like sisters.”
The Mule responded carefully, “I don’t perform any more.”
“I know. But this would be different. You’re in a cage. No one could touch you.”
The Mule considered it. “No, I don’t think so.”
After school Mitty told me more about The Mule while she filled out college applications. “The divorce cost Mr. Steglich half his construction firm. Now he’s got a small operation. The Mule says he loves working with the crews. The Mule works with them, too. She’s one of the guys. You can tell from her wardrobe.”
“Overalls are very practical. Lots of pockets.”
“You don’t attract men with pockets.”
“I don’t think The Mule wants to attract anyone.”
“You’d be surprised.” I raised my eyebrows. Mitty motioned that her lips were sealed. “In elementary school, she and I ran in different circles. My dad was a bouncer at Lucky Duck’s where he met my mom. Later he bought the bar. The Mule’s family belonged to the Deere Bluff Country Club.” She made a little motion with the side of her index finger to indicate an upturned nose.
“One day for show and tell she brought a crown she won and modeled one of her costumes. She was gorgeous. And a great dancer. We both took lessons at Marlene’s Dance studio. Mom wanted me to learn some moves. The Mule was sharpening her talent for Junior Miss America.”
“It’s hard to believe now.”
“Oh, The Mule could convince you. Her mother was second runner-up to Miss Minnesota.”
The last week in October, High C was at his usual post, guarding the classroom entrance. Someone opened the door and he shouted, “Red alert!” The stranger wore a loose fitting white man’s sleeveless undershirt. Underneath was a black lace bra. Over the shirt she wore a black sheer jacket that masked her muscular shoulders and arms. She wore black silk pants that stopped before her ankles, revealing gold chains on each one. Her shoes were open toed high-heeled mules. Her toenails painted maroon.
“Wow!” was all Toad could say.
The Mule sat down beside Mitty and gave her a high five. Cordell and Nathan picked up their backpacks and joined the girls in the back row. That’s where they sat for the rest of the term.
The Mule motioned me over to her table. “Mr. Smuekoff,” she said, “your house needs a new roof before winter hits. A strong wind from the north and those loose shingles would be gone. You’ll have melting snow dribbling into your living room.”
That was the most The Mule had ever spoken to me. “I’ve been meaning to get it fixed.”
“I can get you a deal if you move fast.”
“I’m not sure . . ..”
“My father expects to finish a house Friday morning. He’s looking for the quick roofing contract before he breaks ground on Monday. I can cut you a deal. We’ll do it right, quick, and cheap.” She winked at Mitty. “Tick. Tock. What do you say?”
“Can I get a written . . .?” Before I’d finished the sentence, The Mule pulled out the estimate. Very professional. Very cheap. “Looks like we’ve got a deal.” She left class smiling.
On Thursday The Mule walked into class with Cordell. “We’re going to Homecoming together,” he told me. Toad started to say something, but stopped when Cordell turned in his direction. Cordell was six-three, two-hundred-and-twenty-five pounds of muscle. Toad was a stick figure.
“I just remembered I’m supposed to report to the Security Office. I’ll be right back,” Toad told me as he headed for the door. “It’s a misunderstanding about Vice-Principal Powder’s missing car stereo.” As he left the classroom he met someone in the hallway. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Shut up, Toad!” It was Mitty.
Mitty wore a black sleeveless dress with a half-inch thick hemp choker around her neck. “What happened to your hair,” Nathan asked, rising from his seat.
A quarter inch of stubble was all that remained of her beautify hair. She walked to her seat as if it were any other day.
The Mule whispered, “What happened?”
“I thought I’d look better without it.”
Mitty didn’t write anything in her journal. And when we peer edited, only The Mule, Cordell and Nathan shared their papers with Mitty.
At the bell, the room emptied quickly and I was left alone with Mitty and The Mule.
“So, what happened?”
“Some friends gave me a haircut,” she said without looking at either of us.
“Really?” The Mule asked.
“They weren’t exactly friends.”
The Mule touched her arm. “If they weren’t friends, who were they?”
“Clients.” I kept quiet. “I dance sometimes for private parties. Teasing kind of stuff. Nothing nude.” She turned on The Mule when she saw her disapproval. “And I don’t turn tricks. It’s innocent shit.” She turned back to me. Earl always sends Stevie to chaperone.”
The Mule and I just waited for Mitty to continue. She took a breath and exhaled slowly. “At last night’s party Stevie stepped out for a smoke. So this scum bag Scandinavian type waved some money at me and tried to feel me up. I pushed him away. His buddies grabbed me. I started screaming when he picked up a scissors. I stomped on him so hard my spiked heel drew blood. By the time Stevie arrived with his ball bat, my hair was gone.”
“Did you file charges?” I asked.
“That’s not the way things are done in my profession,” Mitty told me.
“You need a new profession,” The Mule said.
“What else can I do?”
“Dad is short-handed Saturday.”
Mitty let out a short, single burst of laughter. “Saturday is our big night at Lucky Duck’s.”
“You can work for my dad from eight to five, and still work for Earl Saturday night.”
“What would I do?”
“Lay shingles. I’ll show you. You’ll do fine. Bring sun block. I’ll get you some clothes to wear.”
“Why should I work for your dad when you won’t work for mine?”
“Mine will let you keep your clothes on.” The Mule started dragging her out of the classroom. Mitty looked over to me. “The Mule’s crazy. I’m no roofer.”
Saturday morning Mitty arrived at my house before the crew. She showed up in tight jeans shorts, pink tennis shoes, and a light nylon jacket that read “Earl’s Show Bar.” The Mule brought her coveralls, a flannel shirt, a warm sweatshirt, work gloves, extra socks and work boots. With a stocking cap on, Mitty didn’t look any different from the rest of the crew.
The Mule worked with her. Up on the roof with the men, laughing and smiling, the girls were the center of attention. They fell into a routine. Mitty quickly learned where to place the shingles while the Mule guided the nail gun. Mitty became skilled at cutting shingles to fit the ends and around dormers. At first the crew was nervous around her, but Mitty soon had them laughing and carrying bundles for her. In the mix of baritones and bases was Mitty’s light airy voice.
As the day got warmer, the crew began shedding their bulky clothing: jackets, sweat shirts, caps. By afternoon everyone was wearing T-shirts and jeans. In her orange tank top, Mitty stood out again.
I watched the crew work in the afternoon sun. I had a lawn chair and a thermos of coffee. Cordell and Nathan came over after football practice. They didn’t come to see me. When the crew took a break, Nathan and Cordell joined the girls. While they talked quietly, Nathan placed his right hand on Mitty’s bare neck and gently massaged it. She leaned her body closer to him. Meanwhile, The Mule introduced Cordell to the crew, like a little sister introducing her new boyfriend to her brothers.
The Mule’s father, Mr. Steglich, was a large muscular man, with a giant beer belly. He dressed like the rest of the crew except for the hard hat that said, “Head Honcho.”
“You have a beautiful daughter,” I told him.
“I sure do. She used to win beauty contests when she was little. Won a lot of titles as a four and five year old. Then she started modeling. She was named Little Miss Iowa when she was seven.”
“She’s very graceful, too.”
“She knows how to handle a nail gun, and she’s not a bad dancer when she takes off her work boots.” His face filled with pride. “Andrea was named after my mother.”
“It’s a lovely name.”
And on Monday when Cordell and Nathan escorted the girls to class, I made it a point to compliment “Andrea” on the roofing job. No one corrected me.
Paul Lewellan is shopping for an agent for his latest novel, Twenty-one Humiliating Demands, about an aging assassin who fails in his attempt to retire. He has published over sixty short stories. Paul teaches in the Speech Communication Department at Augustana College.