by Dean Marshall Tuck
Cicatrix by Dean Marshall Tuck

— n. The scar left by a healed wound

What would Miss Pippin rather be doing? That is a question my child’s mind didn’t yet have the sophistication to ask, but one that occurs to me now. You tend to think of the saintly ladies—that was the way they seemed to me, anyhow—of Lambston Elementary, as career-minded educators, in for the long haul, children-loving, matrons of the primary school. But those were teachers. Miss Pippin, she was a librarian.  

Even at ten, I recognized there was something off about her, something unjust in the way she dealt with us kids, but I hadn’t the temerity to let on that I was hip to her mysterious disdain for children, or was it quiet resentment of her status there in the elementary school library? Miss Pippin was the first adult I ever knew who actively disliked me, and she had no qualms about demonstrating this. If I stepped out of line, she’d narc, and I’d have to copy the dictionary at my desk while the rest of the class went downstairs to the library, aka media center—there was a television with a VCR strapped to a cart somewhere, after all. 

Also, there was the time she was showing us the new computer that would replace the old Dewey Decimal card catalog. “Search anything,” she said. “Anything you’re interested in.” 

I answered, chin pinched hard to my chest, “Aliens,” looking up only to find a frowning perm, and a bifocaled eye-roll. She punched my word into the keyboard, smacked that “Enter” key, spat me out a receipt with a call number, and I took home a book about illegal immigration for fifth grade-Republicans. Not a word about black triangles or strange lights, no Roswell or Phoenix in that one. Well, maybe Phoenix. 

Then there was the “Re-Covering Books” initiative. Miss Pippin ordered us to illustrate new book covers for the old ones that had been damaged. After having copied by hand plenty of pages of Merriam-Webster in my day—pronunciation keys and illustrations included—I was a pretty adept drawer or doodler, so I thought I could find my way into her good graces there. She handed me Catcher in the Rye—maybe she wanted me to slip up and say some of the words I was reading in front of my parents—so with pen and colored pencil, I drew a pretty detailed sketch of a catcher crouching over home plate, catcher’s mask and mitt, waiting for that pitch, behind him, of course, wheat—miles and miles of wheat. That was the front cover. Maybe it was just a big baseball on the back. 

“You didn’t read it, did you?” she asked. 

“We were supposed to read them?” I said. 

I was one of several splayfooted rascals, clomping around that edifice of solicited silence. There was Ricky and Brandon and Travis—each more daring and creative than I. Of our warren, I was definitely the Fiver to their Hazel, Bigwig, and Blackberry—I mean, if you want to frame this in Watership Down references we could all understand. 

Ricky—who, by the way, drew a pretty photo-realistic mouse on the front, and an anatomically correct Vitruvian man on the back of his copy of Of Mice and Men—said, “Why don’t we mess with her a little bit? She needs something to distract her from the next dumbass project she’s got cooking.” Clearly, Hazel.  

Brandon (Bigwig) who could already palm a basketball, suggested some dumb, expellable offense that amounted to nothing more than vandalism. 

Travis (Blackberry), mullet, pre-moustache, and a rather unfortunate malocclusion—always seemed to be gnashing his teeth when thinking deeply—said, “Why don’t we just start moving things around? Put stuff where it’s not supposed to be.” 

“Like books,” Bigwig said.  

“Sure,” Hazel said. “Let’s start there.” 

It was exactly what you’d expect. Universal Monster Movie books shoved in with the Laura Ingalls Wilders, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its sequels filed away into the Berenstain Bears, an occasional barrow-style burial mound left on the floor, if we could arrange one of us to distract her on the opposite side of the library. We’d even select a fun book to “bury” there. Usually whichever one she’d forced on us the week before, typically one of those American Girl books. 

But aside from the mound, the misplaced books prank was really playing the “long game,” and we were rarely around to witness the slow-drip septicemia of all the mini-discoveries she found, or the headache of not being able to locate a title that wasn’t where it normally lived. 

So, we adopted more visual methods.  

Ricky said, “But it’s got to be smart, and you can’t be seen, or else game over.” 

Brandon and Travis had found a bunch of red and orange canvas bounds, and around a dusty, old globe sitting in a window, arranged them in such a way that made the world look like it was on fire. It wasn’t so inspired, but there was an element of anarchy to it. 

But Ricky’s, his was really the pièce de résistance. An older kid, sixth grade maybe, had crafted this magnificent pinhole diorama where you put your eye up to a small hole to see, in gloriously backlit three-dimension, the miniatures, cutouts, and sculpted creations inside. I’ll never know how Ricky managed to insert a seraglio of concubines into the Arabian Nights diorama with no one noticing. Had he snuck in during recess or Miss Pippin’s smoke break? They were only cutouts of models from the JC Penney catalog—you can imagine which section—with construction paper veils, but it was still pretty inspired, I thought. 

Of course, I was the one to ruin the fun. I had found a book about human anatomy that I opened to the reproductive system, and left it propped on a shelf that was below a poster with a huge close-up of a kid, third-grade probably, neat afro, bright eyes and glowing smile, with the ALL CAPS script above his head that read, SHOW ME WHAT YOU KNOW! I was in the act of walking away when the book clattered on the shelf, and there she was, the spider woman with spinneret eyes, shooting her little webs my way. 

I was cornered—conferenced with the teacher, note home, the whole warren mad at me—and had to fess up to and undo all the fun while avoiding implicating Hazel, Bigwig, and Blackberry. It must’ve taken some manner of verbal jujitsu, wizardry, or alchemy to make it all go away, and hopefully smooth things over with the guys, but a few weeks later, things were mostly back to normal. 

Still, I could tell we weren’t fully on the up-and-up, so the next library visit we had, I told them I wanted to pull off one more stunt. Everyone had a part: Travis would be the distractor; Ricky would take the Abraham Lincoln bust from the biographies; Brandon would snag the JFK head from the history section; and I would secret the folded prayer hands statue—a kind of Albrecht Durer adaptation—from the religion section. Without being observed by Miss Pippin or tattled on by the rest of the class, we brought each dusty statue together to a centrally located shelf that provided a kind of corridor wall for funneling children through the media center, up to a short stage at the far end of the room. In short, it’s not the kind of place anyone could miss it, but when you live in a space like this one, when you sit on your pre-diabetic behind nine-to-five, nine months a year, day-in-day out, rather than becoming acutely aware of any vicissitudes, you can go a little stuff blind. 

We were all quietly reading the books we’d chosen, Miss Pippin a stone’s throw away, safe behind the circulation desk, biding her time before our teacher would return to retrieve us and march us back upstairs to our classroom. I had found a book of Calvin and Hobbes comics that had somehow magically appeared not far from another book I’d probably checked out a dozen times already that year about the mysteries of the world. It had pages about Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, the Nazca Lines of Peru, a tornado that had dropped thousands of fish all over a small community outside Spokane… Anyway, I was puzzling over some of the SAT words Calvin and Hobbes were saying to each other when I happened to look at Miss Pippin, standing behind her computer, staring at the middle of the library at our arrangement. From her vantage point, it looked like Abraham Lincoln, our solemnest president, had raised his folded hands up to the ear of our most dashing president, JFK, perhaps to tell him a secret, or maybe a dirty joke, and that classic, coin-stamp of a winning smile betrayed that whatever Lincoln had to say was pretty funny. 

I watched as her expression made a journey of sorts, from distracted, to perplexed, to annoyed, and finally, with the slightest corner of an upturned smirk perhaps, amused. About that time, our teacher had arrived. I was certain she’d complain, rat on us, have us—me, more likely—copying yet another page of the dictionary instead of getting to boot that dusty, red ball across the field, but to my surprise, the woman with a quahog in the place where her heart ought to have been, looked at our teacher, then to the presidential jest, and then, would you believe it, to me. They chuckled a bit, and without exchanging a word, the teacher directed us to leave. I thought maybe she’d give something away as we filed out of the library, maybe let on that she knew it was me and my friends’ doing, but she didn’t. She just settled herself back behind her computer with one of those Christian Amish romance books. 

Several weeks later when our class had library time, I wasn’t ready to part with my book of comics. It was against her policy for a student to keep an overdue book, but, to my surprise, she let me check the book out again, and for the duration of my time at Lambston, up through the end of sixth grade, Miss Pippin never moved the statues back to their original, dusty places.

Dean Marshall Tuck is a writer living in eastern North Carolina with his wife and daughters. His work can be found in journals such as The Florida Review, Rattle, and Beloit Fiction Journal. Excerpts from Twinless Twin, his novel-in-progress, can be found in Epoch, South Carolina Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review (forthcoming). Tuck serves on the advisory board for North Carolina Literary Review and teaches writing at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro, NC.