HOMEWORK

 

©1999 by Jay Braiman

 

 

This entire story is true. I swear.

I guess I should have expected it. I don’t know if it started that morning, when I accidentally put salt, and pepper, on my corn flakes, or the night before when the cable went out during “Ally McBeal.” I love that show. But I guess I’ll never find out what happened. That’s the tyranny of cable companies. I keep telling my parents to get a satellite dish.

I know I put my homework in my bag. Or, rather, I knew. Or I thought I knew. At least I think I thought I knew. But, whatever the case, it was still on the kitchen table when I left the house. I got all the way to the subway station before I realized it. It’s a good thing the batteries on my CD player ran out, because when I looked in the bag for the new batteries, I noticed that my homework was missing. So were the batteries.

I still had time, so I ran home as fast as I could, in the process knocking over two trash cans and an old lady with a shopping cart, spilling her groceries all over the sidewalk. I apologized profusely, but she wouldn’t listen. Either that or she didn’t understand English. She just kept screaming at me in some foreign language I didn’t recognize. Not that I know any foreign languages anyway. You’d think she’d understand the word “help,” as in, “Can I help you with those groceries, lady? Do you want me to help you?” But no, she just kept screaming at me. What will she do if someone tries to steal her purse? Yell “Fashmoolala!” or whatever the hell “help” is in her language?

Just as I neared home I dropped my keys into a drainage grate. I might have yelled something at that point; I don’t really remember. I lifted the grate out of the hole and looked down, spotting my keys resting comfortably on a narrow concrete ledge, just out of my reach. Even if I lay flat on the ground with my whole upper body hanging down I couldn’t have reached it. Maybe with Wilt Chamberlain holding me by the ankles, dangling his upper body from the ledge, then I could have reached it. Yes, I know he’s dead. Oh, sure, I could have climbed down there, that would have been easy. Trouble is there was no visible way to get out. Fortunately, and uncharacteristically, I realized that before lowering myself down into the abyss, so I had to go around the back of the house to find the spare key. Trouble was, I couldn’t remember where we put it. Even if I could, my father changes its hiding place every few weeks. Sometimes he tells me, sometimes he doesn’t. I couldn’t remember if he told me this time.

I spent about ten or fifteen minutes trying to find another way in – maybe dad had absent-mindedly left a window open – when I stepped on something and nearly broke my foot. It really hurt. I didn’t know what it was at first; there shouldn’t have been any rocks on the fire-escape, but there it was. It wasn’t a real rock, though. It was one of those fake ones, with the flat bottom and the hole in it for hiding spare keys. Doesn’t really work, though, if you put it two floors up on a fire escape, but I wouldn’t expect my father to think of that. I removed the key from the slot in the fake rock and limped down the fire-escape steps, around the side of the house and up the stoop.

I unlocked the door and went straight to the kitchen, envisioning my homework resting on the table where I was sure I had left it, but the reality didn’t match my vision – it was gone. No way, I thought, there’s no way this is happening to me. I spotted it on the floor about two seconds after my dog, Spike, came sauntering into the room. I could almost see his mouth watering as he saw my homework, a delectable morning meal for him, lying on the floor by his water dish. We looked each other in the eye for a moment, sizing each other up like prizefighters. Then, like a cat, I dashed into the corner as Spike made his move. So quick with those chompers was he that I was forced to dive to the floor, snatching my homework from the jaws of death a mere instant before crashing into the wall ahead of my beloved canine. Despite the pain in my arms and back, I felt relieved, for I knew I couldn’t have the dog eat my homework. No way Mrs. Santana would believe that.

Shaking off the bruises, I sprang out the door and back down the steps, realizing I still probably wouldn’t make it to school on time, then abruptly turned around and leaped back up, pounding on the door in frustration at having forgotten to replace the spare key. The hell with it, I thought; dad just better not forget his keys. Or lose them, like I did.

I still had my homework in my hand, so as I hurried down the sidewalk toward the subway station, I tried to walk and stuff the paper into my bag at the same time. Just then a city bus rumbled by, much faster than it should have been going, and the rush of wind whisked the paper out of my hand and up into the air. It must have risen at least forty or fifty feet, drifting back and forth, taunting me as I helplessly waited below for it to come down, hoping against hope that it would land on or near the sidewalk. I should have known better.

Three cars and a motorcycle went over it before I had a chance to pick it up, depositing generous amounts of dirt and grime over the answers I had so meticulously written in black ink the night before. Watching carefully for oncoming traffic, I stepped carefully onto the street, snatching the soiled page off the pavement, but no sooner did I hop back onto the sidewalk than a mosquito bit me on the back of the neck. Reflexively I reached back and swatted the critter, but in the process dropped the paper again, into a puddle of some mysterious, dirty, yellowish-brown liquid. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it sure didn’t smell like roses.

Choking back the urge to retch, I gently lifted a dry corner of the page with two fingers, shaking off the excess liquid and holding it as far away from me as I could. I held it that way all the way to the subway station, and on the train all the way to my stop. There was no way I was putting that filth into my bag.

By the time I got off the train, it had started to pour. Great, I thought, just great. As I grumbled profanities to myself incessantly, walking from the subway stop to the building, the paper became so wet that those meticulously-written black-ink responses grew blurred and mingled with the yellowish-brown substance that had soaked the rest of the page. Finally, at the door of the school, I resigned myself to the futility of the effort. With a heavy heart, and a degree of both reluctance and relief, I dropped the putrescent thing into a trash can.

“Nice of you to join us,” called Mrs. Santana from the front of the classroom as I trudged through the door, fifteen minutes late, my head hanging low and rainwater dripping from my clothes. She asked right away, “Do you have your homework?” I shook my head no. “Why not?”

I looked up, making eye contact for the first time, and walked slowly across the room toward her, stopping less than three feet away. Staring her dead in the eye, with an absolutely straight face and deadpan voice, I gave the only reply I thought I could under the circumstances.

“The dog ate it.”

 

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