by Karen Multer

I wrote the new word in the back of my blue notebook, carefully copying out the correct definition: malinger—to feign sickness or injury in order to avoid duty or work. I read it to myself, then added the word feign underneath it. So far this week, I’ve had languid, calamity, misanthrope, perforation, ambidextrous, and douche. I found out that last one wasn’t very nice, so I wrote it in pencil. I can erase it if Heidi Weis goes snooping around in my stuff again and decides to be a tattletale.

Rodney Steuben is a malingerer. I heard Miss Anderson mutter that word under her breath after she sent him to the nurse’s office for the fourth time this week. She had just passed out the test on the U.S. states when Rodney began complaining his stomach was hurting. He moaned in the back row and swore he was gonna be sick. Miss Anderson put her wastebasket next to him, just in case. She waited, but nothing happened. As soon as she crossed back to her desk, I saw Rodney wink at Dwayne Holtzer. He opened his thermos and poured a tiny bit of orange juice into the bucket. Then he made puking noises that made Miss A. come running back. She looked into the wastebasket, sighed, and Rodney got to miss the test.

Later in the afternoon, when we were supposed to be writing out vocabulary words, Rodney said his palms were itchy. Those of us in the rows in front of him could hear him scratching and rubbing his hands on his jeans like he was a Boy Scout trying for his fire starter patch. Miss A. couldn’t take it anymore and finally gave him something from her desk called Benadryl. He was quieter after that.

When I got home, I looked up the word malingerer in the dictionary. I learned that a malingerer is a person who pretends to be sick so they don’t have to take tests or study vocabulary or even clear the dishes. I suspect that Rodney Steuben is secretly a genius.

I started collecting new words last year, right after Sandy Schwabenbauer announced she was going to be the world’s greatest at Cat’s Cradle and get into the Guinness Book. Everybody made such a big deal because she could do Jacob’s Ladder in under eight seconds. I don’t see what’s so special about a dumb piece of yarn. Sandy’s always messing around with beads and stuff. I guess when you don’t have much going on upstairs, there’s always “The Arts.” Anyway, I figured if someone like Sandy could go for a record, so could I. I’d have the biggest list of important words that any fourth grader ever had—words that Sandy would never know because how could she? She was busy gluing macaroni to shoeboxes.

This was my secret plan: I was going to crush Sandy rhetorically. Then the class would know who really deserved to be in the 1977 edition of the Guinness Book. Honestly, who do you want representing your school in such a presumptuous publication as the Guinness Book? Someone who scored in the 99th percentile on language and comprehension or someone who thinks bottle caps make perfectly reasonable tap shoes? I rest my case.

The next time Sandy was showing off her latest trick—Witch’s Broom or whatever—I would pretend to be all fascinated along with everyone else. As she was being fussed over, I’d wait for the perfect moment to casually slip the word narcissist into the conversation. Then the dominoes will really begin to fall, as Nietzsche once said.

Laura Dahlstrom’s head would whip around so fast her braids would get stuck in her braces. Mike Torgerud would demand, “Where did you hear that?” his voice filled with envy. Miss Anderson would shake her head in amazement and pride. A photographer would be hired to take my picture. And there, right next to me in the photo, would be my blue notebook filled with pages and pages of special words, thousands of them. Sandy and her stupid string would be long forgotten. At least, this was my plan. Then “The Incident” happened, and all bets were off.

Right off the bat, something needs to be said about Sandy Schwabenbauer. I’m not trying to be mean about it, but she’s what people would call “substantial.” She’s the tallest girl in the class, but that’s not all. She’s big, too. Not exactly F-A-T, but not exactly small either, if you know what I mean. Her pants make noises when she walks. She’s excused from running in gym which makes zero sense. It seems to me if you’re a substantial person you might be an excellent candidate for extra laps at recess.

Sandy probably thinks her craftiness makes her interesting, but she would be wrong. What makes her interesting—and by interesting, I mean “interesting”— is the way she sits down in a chair. Or rather, the way she assaults a chair. Picture a polar bear collapsing into a snowbank after a particularly large meal. That’s Sandy. She gives out, with all her substantialness underneath her, and exhales loudly as she does. A flimsy plastic chair is no match for solid construction, which is really what’s called for where Sandy is concerned.

There was another player involved in “The Incident”: Jeffrey D. The school nurse is on a first-name basis with both him and Rodney Steuben. The problem is Jeffrey D. has a tendency to faint at the slightest thing. For instance, if he eats ice cream too fast and gets brain freeze? Down he goes. This one time, Jeffrey zipped his bottom lip into the hood of his parka and promptly hit the deck. That one I can sort of understand, but three stitches later and zip! zap! zoop! he was good as new. Also, if he holds his pee too long, he might pass out in the boy’s bathroom. That actually happened. Who knows how long he would’ve laid there if Boy’s Bathroom A hadn’t been closed for repairs? It was Larry Olafsen who found Jeffrey in Bathroom B, flat on his back with his fly wide open.

Anyway, that morning, the morning, started out okay. We were supposed to be making paper flowers to put inside paper cones that we’d hang on our neighbors’ doors for May Day. Arts and crafts for the scholastically challenged. I tried to convince Miss A. that this activity was not the best use of my time, but she just smiled and said I might like it. If I wanted to stay on her good side—and I did—I figured it was best to just go along.

The following supplies were assembled in front of me: a paper plate with a big blob of Elmer’s glue on it, pipe cleaners, a small stack of construction paper, scissors, and two popsicle sticks. Miss A. is big on popsicle sticks, which is a mistake in my opinion. Dewey Vetsch winds up eating them half the time. I watched him chew on a popsicle stick until it was as soft as a piece of al dente pasta. Someone got the big idea to pay him a nickel for every piece he swallowed. We were all pretty impressed and kept feeding him as many as he could take. By the end of the school day, he’d earned $3.10. Maybe that should go in the Guinness Book. Marsha held up one pink and one yellow piece of construction paper, and I eenie meenie miney moed to help her pick. Laura had already completed her cone and was nearly done with her second flower. Mike Torgerud was busy gluing his fingers together. Jeffrey D. was minding his own beeswax. And Heidi Weis was sharpening her pencil at Miss Anderson’s desk. At some point—I couldn’t tell the nurse exactly when—Sandy was returning from the bathroom. I only remember that I heard the whissh whissh whissh of her pants before I saw her. Heidi Weis was now seated just to Sandy’s right, and Jeffrey D. was sitting directly behind Sandy. We never learned why she did it, but just as Sandy turned to sit down with her usual force, Heidi reached over at the last second. And gripped firmly in her fist was her newly sharpened pencil.

The scream was heard throughout the entire school. Kudos to Sandy—I didn’t know she could move that fast—but she bolted out of her chair quicker than anything. And let me tell you, that pencil had nearly been swallowed up whole. Only one remaining inch, with the pink eraser still intact, was poking out of her jeans. Heidi’s hands flew to her face in surprised shock. Jeffrey D. was eye level with Sandy’s backside. He took one look and immediately fainted, slumping down over his desk and biting his lip hard in the process. There was blood on his chin by the time Miss Anderson got to him. Unfortunately, the commotion got Larry Olafsen’s attention. He stood on his desk yelling “Mayday! Mayday!” over and over again, using his paper cone as a megaphone. Sandy was screaming, the pencil was sticking out of her B-U-T-T, and Miss. A. didn’t know whether to pull it out or leave it in. This was the chance I’d been waiting for. Thanks to my special blue notebook, I knew what to do.

“Miss A., Miss A.!” I waved to get her attention, but she didn’t hear me. “Miss A., Sandy’s been perforated!” I tried again. “That means her rear end has been poked clean through!”

Miss Anderson turned and gave me a look that made me take my seat. I heard her say a word I won’t include in my notebook, but I chalked that up to the stress of the situation. Her hands were shaking as she held tight to Sandy’s shoulder and pulled the pencil out in one fast motion. Sandy screamed even louder that time. That was the end of arts and crafts.

The rest of the day was very exciting. Sandy went to the hospital, Heidi was sent home, and Jeffrey D. was marched to the nurse’s office. He came back with a blue raspberry sucker and made sure everyone got a good look at his purple tongue. Miss Anderson was nowhere to be found, so Mr. Fitzpatrick watched our class until the bell rang.

Due to the traumatic events of “The Incident,” I took a page out of Rodney Steuben’s book and malingered over my dinner. It involved a lot of sighing, and let me tell you, it worked! Not only did I not have to do the dishes, but I also got to stay up later than usual and watch TV with a bowl of buttered popcorn. Upstairs in my bedroom, I thought about the events of that day. How Larry Olafsen covered his ears and rocked back and forth as Sandy screamed. How Jeffrey D. cut his lip open and bled on the carpet. How I never did get to work the word narcissist into the conversation.

Three weeks later, Sandy is still walking with a limp. Now everyone is being so nice to her, and she’s gotten Jacob’s Ladder down to seven seconds. Some people have all the luck.

Karen Multer is a Chicago-based writer, though she’s never been able to shake her Wisconsin roots growing up on the backwaters of the Mississippi River. Her short stories and essays have been published in Cutleaf Journal by EastOver Press, Open Minds Quarterly, Black Fork Review, and L’Esprit Literary Review, among others. She was a featured writer at the Writers Read live podcast recording in New York City. This summer, her short story, “Sunfish Days 1985,” will be published in Great Lakes Review. A former Dramatists Guild Fellow, her work has twice been featured at the Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival. She’s also an accomplished composer who licenses her original music for TV and Film including HBO, Netflix, and Amazon Originals.