A Happy Starfish ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Did I tell you how I hate school? This morning in zoology I had to dissect a starfish. The inside of the starfish is green. That’s disgusting enough, but the thing that got to me is the fishy smell. It’s a smell that lingers in my head and my nose. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat any kind of fish or seafood again for as long as I live without being reminded of the green insides of a starfish.
The world is very cruel. That little starfish was probably just minding its own business on a beach somewhere when somebody picked it up and put it in pickling solution where it instantly died. One minute a happy starfish and the next minute a laboratory specimen to be cut open and have its insides probed. If I was a starfish, I would want to live on a faraway island where there were no people and I could die of old age.
After zoology was American history, but I skipped. I thought I was going to vomit and I didn’t want anybody to see me. I went to the boys’ toilet on the third floor where it was quiet and went into a stall and latched the door. I put my hands on my knees, leaned forward and closed my eyes, trying not to think about that starfish.
In a minute somebody came into the toilet whistling. I hate people who whistle. It spoiled my concentration, so I just spit into the toilet and flushed without vomiting. I opened the stall door and went to the sink and started to wash my hands.
“What do you think you’re doing?” somebody to my left said.
I turned and saw it was Dutch Farquhar. If there’s anybody in school I hate, it’s Dutch. He’s the class president and a snitch. Mr. Perfect. He has somehow taken it upon himself to keep the rest of us in line. Probably someday he’ll be a congressman or a senator or something if somebody doesn’t kill him first.
“Washing my hands” I said curtly.
“That’s not what I meant, smartass! What are you doing out of class?”
“You don’t look sick.”
He took his eyes off himself in the mirror and leaned in close to me, sniffing.
“Get away from me!” I said. “What I have might be contagious.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in American history?”
“It’s none of your business!”
“Are you skipping?”
“Why should you care?”
“As class president, I’m supposed to report anybody skipping class.”
“Go to hell!” I said.
He grabbed me by the collar and pulled me toward him, holding his right arm back like he was going to hit me in the face. “What did you just say to me?” he said.
“I said, ‘go to hell’.”
He roughed me up a little bit but didn’t hit me. He finished by pushing me into the sink. “You stupid little baby!” he spat out viciously.
“You’re a big man, aren’t you,” I said. “Going around telling everybody what to do!”
“I’m going down to Mr. Crawford’s office right now and write up a report stating that you’re loitering in the bathroom when you’re supposed to be in class.”
“I hope you break your leg going down the steps,” I said.
I went to the library to hide out for the rest of the period. I wandered around in the dusty stacks for a while and then went all the way to the back and sat down on the floor in the corner. I opened a book on my knees so if I heard anybody coming I’d pretend to be reading.
I was starting to feel a little less like vomiting. The quiet and the smell of old books made me sleepy, so I leaned my head against the wall and dozed off like a bum sleeping it off in an alley.
“Here he is!” Somebody said in a loud voice.
I jerked awake and saw Dutch Farquhar looking down at me. Behind him was Mr. Crawford, the principal.
“I was sure he’d be here!” Dutch said triumphantly.
“Here, here!” Mr. Crawford said. “What do you think you’re doing? Sleeping on the floor in the library!”
“I was feeling sick,” I said, standing up.
“You haven’t been drinking, have you?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in class?”
“American history class,” Dutch said.
“I was afraid I was going to vomit,” I said. “I didn’t want to do it where everybody could see me.”
Mr. Crawford took hold of my arm above the elbow and squeezed. I was sure he was going to make a bruise and I was sorry there wasn’t anybody else there besides Dutch to see it.
“Skipping class won’t be tolerated in this school,” he said in a low voice close to my ear. I could smell his cologne and it was worse than the starfish. “Do you want a suspension?”
“No,” I said. “I just want my high school years to be over.”
“Do you need me to help you with him?” Dutch asked.
“No, thanks,” Mr. Crawford said. “I can take it from here.”
“Before you tell somebody else to go to hell,” Dutch said to me with his demonic smile, “think about who you’re talking to.”
“That’s fine, Dutch,” Mr. Crawford said. “You may go now.” To me he said, “Proper disciplinary action will be taken at an appropriate time, but, for now, you may go to your next class, and if you even think about skipping class again you’ll be faced with a three-day suspension. Think what that will do to your scholastic record and to your chances of getting into a good college.”
My next class was gym class, which was worse than all the others put together. I went to the locker room and changed out of my “street clothes” into the ridiculous-looking, baggy red shorts, a stretched-out tee shirt and my grass-stained high-top tennis shoes that were too small for me and made my toes hurt.
While we were all standing around waiting for the teacher to arrive so the class could begin, I spotted Dutch Farquhar about twenty feet away, bouncing a basketball. When he saw me and gave me a look of bemused hatred, I held his gaze and mouthed the words go to hell. I know he knew what I was saying.
The physical education teacher was Mr. Bliss, or “coach,” as he liked to be called. He was four feet, eleven inches tall, and he always wore a gray sweat suit and sweatpants with a whistle around his neck.
“All right now, everybody!” he yelled and blew his whistle. “Time for warm-up!”
As bad as the warm-up was, it wasn’t as bad as the game of volleyball or basketball that followed. We stood in rows as Mr. Bliss faced us and directed us in the knee bends, sit-ups, pushups, and jumping jacks.
It was during the jumping jacks that I vomited on the floor, a thick green mass that looked exactly like the insides of the starfish. Everybody stopped jumping and looked at me. I bent forward to vomit again and fainted face down in what I had just deposited on the floor. It was only the second time in my life that I fainted. The first time was when I was eight and had the flu.
When I came to, everybody was standing around in a circle watching me in fascination. I had really spiced up their boring old gym class. Mr. Bliss was kneeling beside me, waving a bottle of smelling salts under my nose.
“He’s coming around,” he said.
“I want to go home,” I said.
“Can you make it to the nurse’s office?”
“She doesn’t like me. I pushed her down the stairs once.”
As I stood up, Mr. Bliss took hold of my arm. “Go get dressed,” he said, “and go see the nurse.”
“I don’t know,” I said, wobbling for effect. “I feel like I’m going to faint again.”
“Dutch!” he barked. “Go with him and help him get dressed!”
Dutch stepped forward, ready once again to fulfill his role as student leader.
“I don’t need any help from him!” I said. “Just give me time!”
I went down to the deserted locker room, cleaned the vomit off my face and out of my hair and put my clothes back on. As I was leaving the locker room, I noticed the door to Dutch’s locker was partway open. I approached the locker, pulled the door open all the way and looked inside. There, on the top shelf, was his expensive wrist watch that one of his admirers had given him. I slipped the watch into my pocket and deposited it in a trashcan on my way to the nurse’s office.
I walked into her office and vomited again, all over the floor. Now, I have to tell you, there’s nothing like vomiting to get people’s attention. You can say you’re sick, but vomiting clinches it.
She dropped what she was doing and came running toward me with a kidney-shaped metal pan. She told me to lie back on the cot and she put a wet cloth on my head. When she took my temperature and saw I had a fever, she called my mother and told her to come and get me.
When I got home, I got straight into bed in my clothes. My mother stood in the doorway and harangued me, as usual.
“Why did you choose today of all days to be sick?” she asked.
“I figured it was time,” I said.
“Algebra test today?”
“No, I failed that last week.”
“Well, I have to tell you,” she said, “sometimes when you say you’re sick I don’t believe you, but today you look sick.”
“Thank you,” I said.
When I refused to see the doctor, she got him on the phone and brought the phone to me in bed. I told him about dissecting the starfish and what happened after that at school, and he said it sounded like I had a stomach virus that was going around. He told me to stay at home from school for a few days and rest and not eat any seafood. Those words, I discovered, are among the most beautiful in the English language.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp