Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By James W. White

Inez is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events is purely coincidental.

Tommy Foster sat behind Inez Zapian in fifth period, ninth grade algebra. At the end of class, Inez would turn around and look at Manuel, who sat behind Tommy in the next row. She always looked just before the bell rang. 

Tommy’s friend, Gary Feldman, had told him there were a lot of sexy girls at their school, Beaumont High School, home of the Fighting Yellow Jackets. He also said the prettiest girls went to Beaumont’s cross-town rival, Coleridge High. When Tommy saw Coleridge High’s class of 1965 Homecoming Queen, Sue Kellogg, sitting on a float in their homecoming parade he thought she looked swell. But he knew Beaumont girls were sexier. 

Tommy didn’t really know the difference between pretty and sexy, but he figured Inez was sexy because she wore those transparent blouses that let you see her bra almost as if she wasn’t wearing anything at all. He was amazed clothes like that were allowed. 

All during fifth period’s forty minutes of hell, Tommy stared at Inez’s back and hid from the teacher, Miss Hargrave. He wondered if Inez hated algebra as much as he did. That would make them friends, sort of.

After roll call, Miss Hargrave always stood in front of the classroom, holding her pointer in one hand, and slapping it against her other hand, making a whap, whap sound. Then she’d aim the pointer at her first victim and call their name. “Take out your homework assignments, class,” she announced. “Let’s start with the section on writing expressions.”

Tommy groaned when she aimed the pointer at him. “Tommy, please read problem two for the class.”

“Uh… Oh, here it is. Brianna practices playing the piano 30 minutes each day. Write an expression for the number of hours she practices in d days”

“Fine.” Miss Hargrave smiled. “Now, using the expression you wrote, what are the number of hours Brianna practices in four days?”

Tommy stared at his assignment sheet and sighed. The space for problem two’s expression was blank. He squirmed in his seat and looked at Greg, the beanpole know-it-all who sat next to him.

Greg whispered, “It’s two hours, turd-for-brains.”

“Oh,” Tommy looked up and beamed, “It’s two hours, Ma’am.”

“And?” Miss Hargrave wrote the number 30, the letter d, and the number4 on the chalk board. “Tell us how you came up with the answer.”

Tommy froze while the pointer tap-tapped against the board. Some students snickered.

After ten taps Miss Hargrave let out a long, tired sigh and turned around, facing the class. “Class, can anyone help Tommy?” 

A cluster of hands shot up. Amid the chorus of answers, Tommy thought again about Inez.

Her boobs moved when she walked. Was that sexy? Did she walk like that on purpose? He concentrated on the bra’s two little metal hooks. Sometimes they peeked through Inez’s long black hair. Other times her hair was in braids or combs, but Tommy liked it best when it hung down behind her like a curtain.

When her hair was piled on top of her head a dark line appeared around the edge of her face just in front of her ears. It didn’t seem natural and made Inez even more mysterious. She had secrets about a life he didn’t know. He wanted to learn her secrets. He knew they would be wonderful.

*   *   *

“Your algebra teacher called me this afternoon,” Tommy’s mother said that night at the dinner table while she scooped mashed potatoes into the serving bowl. His father’s head was in the refrigerator. “She says you’re not paying attention in class and not completing your homework assignments.”

Tommy nodded and prayed his father didn’t hear.

“What’s this?” his father came to the table holding a butter dish.

“Oh, nothing,” Tommy replied. He shaped his mashed potatoes so that the gravy made a pool of brown lava in the middle of a volcano. “It’s just that I forgot to do one lousy problem last night and, wouldn’t you know, that’s the one she called me on to do in class. Bad luck, huh?”

“I don’t think it’s bad luck, young man. We talked about this.” Tommy’s father gave him a hard look. “Algebra is an important subject. You can’t graduate unless you pass algebra. If you don’t keep up, you’ll never catch up. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir, I understand.”

“Are you sure?” Tommy’s mother said. “Because she says if you miss another assignment she will need to schedule an after-school meeting.”

Tommy’s father rolled his eyes. “Tommy, don’t make me do that.”

After dessert, Tommy slid his chair away from the table. “Don’t worry, Dad. Can I be excused to do my homework?”

That night, Tommy dreamed about Inez. In the dream, he met her at Juan’s Place on A Street. He and his friends never went there because they didn’t sell hamburgers or fries or shakes. Whenever he walked by the restaurant, he heard Mexican music blaring out the entrance. He once stuck his head through the swinging double doors. Pictures of toreadors and Indian princesses hung on the wall behind a mahogany counter.  

“I dreamed about a girl in my algebra class last night,” Tommy told his friend Gary on their walk to school the next morning. 

“Who cares?” Gary said while he picked at a scab on his arm.

“So, I was at Juan’s Place, the restaurant on A Street.”

“Juan’s Place? You are so weird. Nobody goes there.”

“Yeah. Well… The girl who sits in front of me, her name’s Inez, walked in and sat down beside me. We were in a booth.”

“You, Inez and a bunch of cockroaches.”

“Ha ha. Anyway, she dropped her gum in my water glass. Then I called her a bitch, or something. Then she hit me and I laughed and she hit me again and I grabbed her wrists and she twisted and struggled and I pinned her…”

“And then I bet you wet your sheets.”

“No, dumb ass. I pushed up against her and felt her boobs on my chest.”

“Oh boy, I’m so excited.” Gary flipped the bird at a car full of seniors that drove past, honking and shouting profanities at them. “That’s the stupidest dream I’ve ever heard. You didn’t even try to look up her dress?”

“Screw you, Gary.”

*   *   *

During lunch period, Tommy ate a peanut butter sandwich while he stood behind a tree spying on Inez. She was sitting in the middle of a gang of tough-looking kids who hung out around the picnic tables speaking Spanish. Manuel was there too. Tommy wished he could speak Spanish instead of stupid old French, so he could understand what they were saying. Nobody spoke French except for his stupid French teacher.

The boys wore tan pants, short sleeve, straight cut shirts and pointy black shoes. They had tattoos on their arms; usually it was a cross or a skull. Manuel had a cross on his right arm. It looked ragged.

Tommy feared their menacing looks, and he was jealous of their laughter and their companionship. They shared secrets with Inez.

While he ate his sandwich, he imagined standing among them with his arm around Inez’s waist, speaking Spanish and showing off his mean-looking tattoo of a cobra with its fangs dripping red blood down his wrist.

That would be so cool.

A few Mexican boys were in Tommy’s fourth period PE class. He stayed out of their way, but in the showers he couldn’t help staring at the guys with tattoos in places you couldn’t otherwise see. They were so gruesome they looked like they were made with a switchblade.

“I wonder why they do that?” Gary said on their way to fifth period. “My dad told me to stay away from Mexican people, so I don’t get any of their crazy ideas. He said they don’t know shit from Shinola.” 

“What’s Shinola?” Tommy asked.

“I don’t know, but he says it all the time.”

Tommy thought about kissing Inez at Juan’s Place. “I bet Inez knows shit from Shinola.”

*   *   *

Inez walked into fifth period wearing a fuzzy pink angora sweater. The sweater hid her bra, but after she sat down, Tommy saw the little hooks peeking through the loosely knitted material.  

Manuel came in just as the tardy bell started to ring. He never looked at Inez. Moving deliberately slow, he slid into his seat a fraction of a second after the bell stopped. Not late enough to get yelled at, but just enough to get everyone’s attention.

For the next twenty minutes, Miss Hargrave talked about last night’s homework, lectured about the new assignment, did three practice problems on the board, asked for questions, blah, blah, blah. For the last ten minutes, she always let the pupils start their homework.

When she finally stopped blabbing, Tommy opened his worksheet. Two numbers are reciprocals if their product is 1. A number and its reciprocal are called multiplicative inverses... I won’t graduate if I fail algebra. Dad’ll kill me.

With all his might, he concentrated on the sample problem while Inez’s hooks shone in his eyes. To divide a number, you can multiply by its… its what?

“Tommy?” Miss Hargrave stood next to his desk close enough Tommy could smell some sort of perfume mixed with chalk dust.

Startled, Tommy stared at his teacher, eyes wide. “I thought this was free period?” Out of the corner of his eye he could see the faces of everyone in class focused on him.

“Never mind about free period, I want to go over the sample problem with you. Now look at the problem.” Miss. Hargrave slowly read from the book like Tommy was in a first grade reading class. “If a hot air balloon takes a 2.5-hour trip and the wind speed (speed of the balloon) is 4.75 mph. How many miles away from the liftoff site will the balloon land?” She paused. “So, Tommy, how would you calculate the distance?”

The numbers, words and symbols stared back at him like meaningless squiggles.

“Multiply by the inverse?”

Giggles and stifled laughter rippled through the class. Inez kept silent.

Miss Hargrave shook her head. “Manuel? Can you help Tommy with the problem?”

Manuel stretched his legs and stared at the ceiling with a bored look. “To find the distance, multiply the rate by the time.”

“Thank you, Manuel. That’s correct.” Miss Hargrave walked back to her desk and slapped her pointer at the chalkboard. “And remember class, when you multiply real numbers with the same sign the product will always be positive.” 

Tommy scribbled Manuel’s answer on his answer sheet. He looked again at the pink sweater. What if she looks at me this time?

Five minutes left.

 “Tommy, Manuel, I want each of you to write the expression for the sample problem, calculate the answer and hand me your work after class.” Miss Hargrave sat at her desk and made notations in the attendance folder. “You may begin your free time now. Nobody leaves until the bell rings,” she added, announcing the obvious. 

At two minutes to three, Tommy’s efforts to solve the problem encountered obstacles but his mind wandered without hindrance. Is rate the first one? Are they positive? She’ll look at me this time. I know it. I bet she feels sorry for me. I hope Manuel doesn’t get mad ‘cuz she won’t look at him. I’ll say buenos dias after class. She’d like that.

When the second hand jumped to 2:59, Inez twisted around in her seat, snatched a glance at Manuel, and twisted back. Her curtain of hair shimmed as she suppressed a snicker, mocking Tommy.

His daydream reduced to shambles, Tommy inadvertently yelled “Aww, man!” just as the bell rang. His cry bounced around the classroom walls like a ping pong ball as the students got up to leave. Inez left without a sound. 

Tommy stared into his algebra book and hid as students filed by.

“Retard,” someone said.

Manuel casually dropped his paper on the teacher’s desk without stopping.

“Please wait outside for a minute, Manuel,” Miss Hargrave said as the students shuffled by. “You get the solution, Tommy?” she asked as Tommy walked by her desk, paper in hand.

“Uh, I think so.”   

“Let me see your work.”

Tommy dropped his page on Miss Hargrave’s desk and ran for the door. “Sorry, Ma’am, I can’t stay. I’m late for sixth period.”

Rushing through the classroom door, Tommy collided into Manuel in the hallway. The impact knocked Manuel into a crowd of students on their way to sixth period. Manuel quickly recovered himself and took an anxious look up and down the hallway. Satisfied none of his friends saw the mishap, he slicked back his tousled black hair and grabbed Tommy by the arm before Tommy could escape. “Wait a minute,” he said.

Tommy dropped his books and forced himself not to scream. Visions of forcibly circumcised penises, switchblades and tattoos of crosses and skulls filled his head. He held his breath and waited for the pain.

“I’ll never look at her again. I promise,” Tommy whimpered. “I didn’t mean anything.”

“Look at who?” Manuel gave Tommy a quizzical look. “Did you work out the expression and calculate the answer?”

Tommy’s arm ached, restrained by Manuel’s firm grip. “I think it’s…it’s eighteen miles. But I’m kinda guessing.”

“Eighteen miles?” Manuel let go of Tommy and removed a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket.

“That can’t be right. Just the whole numbers, four times two is only eight, not eighteen.”

Relieved to still be alive, Tommy took a deep breath. “I guess so, but… but…” He remembered Greg’s comment about Shinola and for a moment he pondered the contradiction. How can Manual know algebra? Greg’s dad said they don’t know…

“Let me finish.” Manuel scratched his head. “I’m not sure how to multiply decimals, but I think the product of the two terms is more than eight miles, but fewer than fifteen, right?” He opened his algebra book.

Miss Hargrave stuck her head out the classroom door. “Come in Manual, let me show you something. Tommy?” Miss Hargrave gave Tommy a startled look. “I thought you were late for class.”

Tommy scooped up his books, backed his way down the hall and disappeared in the crowd. “I’m late already!”

“I’m worried about you,” Miss Hargrave shouted. Her words were lost in the noisy hallway. “Don’t make me send your parents another note!”

Tommy never looked back. I’m gonna pay more attention, Ma’am. I promise, he murmured to himself.

Miss Hargrave shook her head. “Come in for a minute,” she said and ducked back into the classroom. Manuel followed.

*   *   *

Inez peeked out of the girl’s bathroom as Tommy ran by. When he was gone, she left the bathroom and waited outside the classroom door.

“Decimals are easy, just remember the rule about signs,” Miss Hargrave said from inside the classroom as Manuel walked out.

The sixth period tardy bell rang.

“Wait, I’ll write you a slip,” Miss Hargrave offered.

 “I’m good,” Manuel replied and closed the door.

In the hallway, empty now, Manuel grabbed Inez around the waist and tickled her. “I’m hungry,” he said while Inez thrashed at him in mock anger. “Let’s skip last period and get some tacos.”

“Fuckin’ wetback,” Inez cackled. “You think you’re so smart.”

*   *   *   *

Jim is a California-based writer of historical, literary and science fiction. He earned an MA in U.S. History. His professional career has included military service, teaching, research librarian and technical writing. Jim is currently serving as President of his town’s literary non-profit organization, Benicia Literary Arts. Jim’s stories have appeared in Datura Literary Journal, The Wapshott Press, Remington Review, and Adelaide Books.

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