Last Name Withheld
We called him Mister and then his Last Name because every Mister in our life was in charge. So what else could we do but stand there and take it? His legs two khaki-clad snakes coiled around us. His thick fingertips sinking fangs in our shoulders. We said, “Yes Mister,” when called to his desk. We said, “Yes, Mister, Yes,” because when it came to the adults who governed our classrooms we’d been taught, from one grade to the next, to never, ever say “No.”
Be in your seat before the bell rings. Raise your hand before talking. No gum chewing in class. Just a few of the handwritten rules Mister displayed in his classroom. Mister insisted we follow each one, along with the rules he didn’t display, rules like no other Mister or Misses we’d known. So we’re quiet when we know to be quiet. We do as we’re told. We stand there and take it.
Because when we followed his rules, Mister rewarded us. “Bonus Bucks,” is what Mister called them. It’s only play money, but within the den of his classroom it spent like real money. We stashed it away - greasy stacks of counterfeit currency, coveted, hoarded, within the abyss our desks.
For 50 Bonus Bucks, we got extra recess.
For 100, we doubled our lunch time.
For 200, we got an A on a test. And oh, how Mister loved to talk about grades. How he loved to call us up to his desk, one girl, one boy at a time, extending his legs as we approached like a gate, then closing them shut to corral us, confine us, pulling us so close that the heat of his body became the heat of our bodies. “Let’s talk,” said Mister, in a voice that spilled like thick, amber honey, hands kneading the flesh of our shoulders, our backs and our arms. “Let’s talk,” Mister said, “let’s talk and keep talking.”
And we knew to be still, to follow the rules, to say, “Yes, Mister. Yes.”
One morning, I counted. 48. 49. 50. Fifty Bonus Bucks. I wanted extra recess, so I bought extra recess. And began swinging. And when my swing time was up, I jumped, but fumbled the landing. The concrete earth rushed upward to greet me, biting bloody chunks of flesh from my palms. In his classroom, Mister zeroed in on the blood and ushered me away to the restroom.
“Does this hurt?” His hands swallowed mine, massaging warm sink water from my wrists to the tips of my fingers. “Does it hurt when I do this?” I shook my head no, because this didn’t hurt, but this didn’t not hurt except I don’t know what to call this, this place between hurt and not hurting, between the heat of his body and my body, so I shook my head and said, “No, Mister, this doesn’t hurt.”
And Mister was walking me back to the classroom, and he’s telling me how I need to be careful, that the world’s full of danger, how boys who think they can’t break are always the first to be broken. “Trust me,” he said, and his smile was all teeth and wide eyes, his hands were like jaws gently mouthing my shoulders, and I knew Mister was right, that there, between the bathroom and classroom, I was in danger of breaking. But I knew, if I took it, the rewards that were waiting. So I nodded my head, smiling back as I took it, saying over and over, “Yes, Mister, yes.”
Will McMillan is a queer writer born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon. His essays have been featured in the Sun, Hippocampus, Atticus Review, and Redivder literary journals, among many others. His experience being outed and subsequently disfellowshipped as a devout Jehovah's Witness lead to him being featured on the September 1st, 2017 episode of This American Life.
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