It is the turbulent 1970s, and Toni is a middle school student in a rough northeastern inner city school. Making matters worse, one of the few other white students attending the school is severely mentally ill. Toni starts out being sympathetic with Gertrude, but as the school year progresses, Toni starts to resent her.
© copyright 2012 by Sara Jacobelli
We are certainly in a common class with the beasts; every action of animal life is concerned with seeking bodily pleasure and avoiding pain. ~ Augustine
They tortured her. Every morning in Biology. Miss Money was always late, leaving plenty of time for the girls to torture Gertrude Pinski. The guys ignored her, they lounged in the back of the room, playing cards, long legs stretched out, bullshitting about the upcoming Ali-Frazier fight.
Toni didn’t join in. When Mr. George in Social Studies talked about the good Germans who did nothing while the Jews were persecuted by the Nazis, Toni wanted to say They were scared. They were scared they would be next. But she just laughed like everyone else.
At first she felt sorry for Gertrude. Hair greasy, clothes dirty, fingernails filthy. Pointy glasses that kept slipping down her pointy nose. Painfully thin. She didn’t talk, she sang “Row, Row Your Boat” in a scratchy whisper. She didn’t react to her tormenters, although once Toni spotted tears in her eyes.
They’d surround her, snap her bra straps, say, “I like your shoes” and shriek with laughter.
Due to mainstreaming, it wasn’t unusual to have a retarded kid in class. But Gertrude wasn’t retarded. She was crazy.
“Gertie your friend? She white too.” The tallest girl, Shakela Pickett, snapped her gum loudly. Shakela stayed back a few times, was older, making her the ringleader. Toni envied her because she wasn’t afraid of anything.
“Nah, she mental.” Everyone laughed. To be the only other white kid in a class with Gertrude was unbearable.
Miss Money finally showed up, but Toni was lost in thoughts of the first few weeks of school. East Side was tough, especially if you weren’t black or Puerto Rican. It was dangerous, constant fights and riots, hallways run by street gangs. Her friends from Beardsley Elementary moved to the suburbs or switched to Catholic school after the first month when the library was burned down during a riot, and a seventh grade girl was gang raped in the hallway. Toni stood in the doorway of her homeroom and saw the gang rape come down. It was the first time in her life she was paralyzed with fear. Shakela dragged her back to her seat. “Girl, you crazy? Don’t go out there.” Toni put her head on her desk, closed her eyes. Inside her head she played her favorite Motown hits over and over, as if her brain were a radio.
“Italians ugly. Don’t know if they white or what, can’t make up they minds,” said Lucy Rodriguez. The other Puerto Rican girls laughed. They staked out one side of the room; a cluster of black girls had the other. One Cuban girl, Rose, sat by herself doing homework. The gang members told Rose, You be my lawyer, get me outta jail.
“Your father a Mafia or some shit?” said Shakela. “He look like some gangster.” The black and Puerto Rican guys in the back of the room were shooting dice. Gertrude looked comatose.
“He got a gun.” Toni wondered where Shakela could have seen her father.
“He speak that Italian?” said Debra Jackson. Toni was leery of Debra, who might smile but turn on you in a hot minute. The black girls leaned forward to hear the Mafia story. The Puerto Rican girls clustered in a tight circle and gossiped about cute guys in staccato Spanish. Toni understood a little, she knew the word “puta” would spark fights.
“He from Italy. They ain’t supposeta talk about it. Mafia stuff.”
“Girl, he could be a hit man.” Shakela looked impressed. “How you say gangster in Italian?”
“Malviventi. Or malandrino.”
“Mala what? Mala-drino? That sound bad.” The other black girls nodded.
They went to the back of the room to flirt with the guys. Class was half over by the time Miss Money showed up, drinking a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, smelling like cigarette smoke. Toni went into the graffiti-covered girls’ bathroom to sip the blackberry brandy she kept in a cough syrup bottle.
Toni had to get rid of Gertrude. It wasn’t so bad when there was at least one other white kid in class, like the Polish boy who didn’t speak English and seemed content to be left alone. When it was just her and Gertrude, there was too much of a chance they could be lumped together. The Mafia story wouldn’t last. Someone would spy her father wearing his blue uniform, driving the Hoffman Fuel truck.
By Halloween, Toni felt Gertrude was asking to be tortured. She felt the school was wasting their time “mainstreaming” her. The girls grabbed Gertrude’s report card and passed it around, shrieking in hysterics. Gertrude got an F in every subject, including PE, where she sat in the bleachers and pulled out strands of greasy hair.
In the cafeteria, Gertrude whispered “rocket ship” and “swing-set.” She’d attempt to buy a Coke from the machine, but someone usually took her money before she got the Coke. Kids threw food at her, made her eat paper. As the weeks passed, they paid less attention to her. By Christmas break, she was a ghost who haunted the classrooms and hallways.
Toni stole pills from her mother’s prescriptions, diet pills “for energy” and sleeping pills. She was careful to sneak one at a time.
Just before Easter break, Toni had enough pills. At lunchtime, she bought a Coke, took it into the bathroom, locked herself in a stall. She used the Coke can to crush the pills on top of her loose-leaf binder. She used her fingers to scoop the powdered mixture into the can. It might taste funny, but Gertrude wouldn’t notice.
She walked by Gertrude’s table with the Coke hidden by her army jacket. She left the Coke in front of Gertrude without anyone seeing.
She knew that Gertrude would drink it.
Author’s note: I originally wrote this piece with Downer magazine in mind, since they publish pieces of the dark side of life. They rejected it, but suggested several other publications. I sent it to Fiction 365, and they rejected it also. Fiction 365 did provide a very personal and detailed response, and said the story had possibilities, that I was a writer “with chops” and they would like to see more from me.
So, sure, I could revise and resubmit, or maybe I could shop it around more. Since I’m working on other projects, I probably won’t revise this story. I still think it has merit, so I decided to publish it here.
For those of you who are wondering: Yes, I did attend a middle school like the one portrayed in the story. It was even called, “East Side Middle School.” And no, I didn’t kill anyone. And yes, Motown helped me get through it all.
“Motown Classics,” by Lammyman. CC License NonCommercial, No Derivs. Flickr.
“Motown 656-Supremes-From Broadway to Hollywood.” by The_Old_Grey_Wolf. CC License NonCommerical Share Alike. Flickr.