Cat Scratch Fever ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This is a slightly expanded version of a story I posted earlier.)
When Miss Cudgel walked into the classroom, the laughter and loud talking stopped at once. She shot a stern look to the class at large to let them know they weren’t getting away with anything she didn’t know about, removed her sweater and draped it over the back of the chair. After sitting down at the desk, she waited a few seconds for absolute silence and began calling roll.
“Here,” Phillip said.
“Wah-wah-wah! Here, teacher!”
“Very funny,” Miss Cudgel said. “Anything for a laugh. Who are you supposed to be today?”
“Nobody, teacher,” Eli said. “I was pretending to play the trombone.”
“Well, you play your imaginary trombone someplace else. The classroom is not the place for it.”
She looked up from the roll book, about midway to the back of the room and saw Clarabelle Beers in her usual seat with her head down and her face hovering over her desk. “Clarabelle, why don’t you answer me?” she said. “Can’t you hear me call your name?”
Veronica Stompers, sitting to the right of Clarabelle, raised her hand timidly.
“Yes, Veronica, what is it?” Miss Cudgel said.
“She wet her pants,” Veronica said. “There’s pee all over the floor.”
At this the class laughed uproariously. Everybody jumped out of their seats to see. There was nothing like somebody wetting their pants in class to spice up a dull winter morning.
“Sit down!” Miss Cudgel bellowed in her finest authoritarian manner. “What is this? You know not to get out of your seats without permission! We’re not a bunch of animals!”
“Oh, yes we are!” somebody said, but she didn’t know who said it so she chose to ignore it.
She stood up and walked back to where Clarabelle was sitting and bent over her. “Clarabelle,” she said softly. “Did you have a little accident?”
Clarabelle looked miserably into her eyes and nodded her head.
“Come with me and we’ll get you fixed up, then” she said.
She took Clarabelle to the nurse’s office down the hall, where she knew there was an abundance of paper towels.
The school nurse, Maxine Phegley, who was not really a bonafide nurse but a sort of medical assistant, was sitting at her desk reading a magazine. When she looked up and saw Miss Cudgel open the door and come into the room with Clarabelle, she quickly stowed the magazine out of sight.
“What’s this?” she asked, standing up.
“We had a little accident,” Miss Cudgel said.
While Miss Phegley went to get paper towels to help Clarabelle get herself dried off, Miss Cudgel went to summon the janitor to come with his mop to clean the mess up off the floor in the classroom. When she returned to the nurse’s office, Clarabelle was snuffling into a paper towel held to her face.
“I’m cold,” Clarabelle said.
“I’m afraid her clothes are soaked through,” Miss Phegley said. “I think you should send her home.”
“I can’t send her outside in wet clothes,” Miss Cudgel said. “It’s five degrees outside. She’ll freeze to death.”
“Well, call her mother, then.”
“You wait here, dear,” she said to Clarabelle, “and I’ll go downstairs to the principal’s office and get your mother on the phone.”
She asked the secretary to get the phone number for the Beers family. When she called the number and got the busy signal, she waited two minutes and tried again. Still the busy signal.
She went back upstairs and informed Miss Phegley that she would drive Clarabelle home herself, in her own car, to get into some dry clothes. They would be back as soon as they could.
“Would you mind,” she asked Miss Phegley, “to sit in on my class and make sure everybody behaves until I get back? Tell them to read in their social studies book the chapter on Peru. Take down the names of anybody who thinks of it as a play period and doesn’t do what they’re supposed to do.”
“Just as you say,” Miss Phegley said.
Miss Cudgel helped Clarabelle into her coat and led her outside to the parking lot. She opened the passenger-side door for Clarabelle, thinking vaguely about the pee on her car seat, and then got in herself.
“Where do you live, Clarabelle?” she asked.
“We live out in Scraptown,” Clarabelle said. She had brightened considerably outside of school.
Miss Cudgel sighed but didn’t say anything. How could she not have known that Clarabelle lived in Scraptown? If she had ever given it a thought, she would have known.
Scraptown was on the southern edge of town, across the railroad tracks near the sewage processing plant. It was where the poorest people lived, the ignorant and hopeless of the world. The one thing the people in Scraptown could do properly, Miss Cudgel thought as she jolted her car over the ruts in the road, was have lots of children they were in no manner prepared to take care of.
The Beers home was the last dwelling in Scraptown, a miserable little gray square of a house set on a hill, surrounded by winter scrub and an assortment of car and major-appliance parts.
“You can pull in there, by the fence,” Clarabelle said.
It hardly seemed like a driveway, but Miss Cudgel turned off into a little scooped-out space that had been washed away by the rain just big enough for a car.
Clarabelle ran on up to the house with Miss Cudgel behind her. When Clarabelle came to the front door, she stood aside and waited. Miss Cudgel knocked, expecting a slatternly, fag-smoking mother to answer the door, but instead it was answered by a frizzy-haired girl in her teens.
“Who are you?” the girl said.
“I’m Miss Cudgel, Clarabelle’s third-grade teacher.”
“Did something happen to Clarabelle?”
“Here I am!” Clarabelle said, coming around behind Miss Cudgel.
“Clarabelle had an accident at school and she needs a clean change of clothes,” Miss Cudgel said. “I’m going to wait for her and then take her back.”
The girl seemed hardly to care, but she stood aside for Miss Cudgel to enter.
“Are you Clarabelle’s sister?” Miss Cudgel asked.
“I’m Rosalie,” the girl said.
“Is it all right if I sit down?”
She sat down on a sofa the color of mold.
“What kind of accident did Clarabelle have?” Rosalie asked.
“I went my pants!” Clarabelle said proudly.
“Oh, brother!” Rosalie said. “Anything for attention.”
Clarabelle disappeared into the back part of the house.
“She needs a bath, too,” Miss Cudgel offered.
“Take a bath, CB!” Rosalie yelled.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” Miss Cudgel asked, smiling to soften the question.
“Well, ordinarily I would be,” Rosalie said, “but my mother is in the hospital with cat scratch fever, and while she’s away I have to stay home and take care of Winchell.”
“He’s my brother.”
“Too young to go to school?”
“He’s retarded and doesn’t go to school. He used to go to retarded school but he flunked out.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s in his room. I gave him a pill to quiet him down. Would you like a beer?”
“My mother says I should always offer visitors a beer.”
“We have to be getting back to school as soon as Clarabelle finishes dressing.”
“Before you came,” Rosalie said, “I was sitting here by myself wondering and wondering. Do you think I ought to get married?”
“How old are you?”
“I think you should finish school before you think about marriage.”
“That’s what everybody says, but I don’t think I’ll wait that long. My boyfriend wants me to marry him and he’s not going to wait years for me. He’ll find him another girl if I make him wait that long.”
“Is he a classmate of yours at school?”
Rosalie laughed. “No,” she said. “He doesn’t go to school. He’s twenty-one. His name is Ricky. Don’t you think that’s a cute name for a boy?”
“Does your mother know about him?”
Rosalie laughed loudly, throwing her head back. “She’d steal him away from me if she thought she could!”
Finally Clarabelle came out of the back room, wearing a stiff corduroy dress three or four sizes too big for her and a knit cap with all her lank blond hair tucked inside. “I got dry,” she said, “and I took a bath, too!”
“That’s the first one in about a month, isn’t it?” Rosalie said.
As Miss Cudgel and Clarabelle were going out the door to go back to school, Miss Cudgel said to Rosalie, “It was nice talking to you.”
“Yeah,” Rosalie said. “You too. I’ll invite you to my wedding. Haw-haw-haw!”
When they were on the highway headed back to town, Miss Cudgel looked away from the road to Clarabelle and said, “Somebody needs to speak to you and I suppose it might as well be me since your mother is, um, in the hospital.”
Clarabelle looked solemnly at her, believing she was about to be scolded.
“I won’t be able to do this again,” Miss Cudgel said. “Bring you home to change your clothes, I mean. This has disrupted everybody’s morning, including Miss Phegley’s. You’re supposed to go to the bathroom before school starts in the morning or during recess. If for some reason you don’t go during recess and you have to go when you’re in class, come and tell me and I’ll let you go. Please don’t sit there in class and let it build up until you can’t hold it in any longer and it comes out on its own!”
“Are you mad at me?” Clarabelle asked.
“Of course not.”
“Could we stop someplace and get a hamburger?”
“I’m afraid not. They’re waiting for us back at school. Are you hungry?”
Miss Cudgel looked at her watch. “It’s almost lunchtime,” she said. “You have your lunch money, don’t you?”
“When the lunch bell rings, go down to the lunchroom and get yourself a good lunch. Some roast beef and mashed potatoes. Cooked carrots. Tell the head hairnet to put it on Miss Cudgel’s tab. Can you remember that?”
“The head hairnet.”
“I like you, Miss Cudgel,” Clarabelle said.
Miss Cudgel turned her eyes away from the road for a moment to smile at Clarabelle. That’s when she hit the icy patch that she should have slowed down for. The car spun around two times like a carnival thrill ride and slipped rearward into the ravine that could not be seen from the road.
Copyright 2013 by Allen Kopp