Fifth-Grade English | Patrick Loafman

She’s a gingerbread girl with M&M eyes; her cheek tastes like molasses. Her mother is a baker and her dad is a pinch of salt.

I lick my palm after holding her hand during lunch; it’s sticky and sweet and spicy.

She’s small and brown and shaped perfectly… I carry her around as though she were made just for me.

She feeds me popcorn, kernel by kernel, in the movie theater… soft touches in the darkness… I want to bite off her fingers but I resist. 

I’m in love with a girl named Ginger, whose lips are drawn with thick icing. She always smiles and never says anything. She sits beside me in English Composition; the cartoon boy on my other side, winking at the great blue heron in the back.

The rest of the kids are pretty much real.

The teacher is confused and teaches us how not to write… and, yes, she sometimes becomes a bird – a Japanese red-crowned crane with number two pencil in long beak which she tosses into the air, twirling and ruffling her white wings.

There’s a fifty-year-old man in the front row… sand falls from his wiry hair… he smells like sardines and appears to have just awakened… he’s a confused poet who forgot where to break lines, so he’s sent back to fifth grade to get things straight.

The red-crowned crane bows and flaps and bugles; everyone but the old man and me are taking notes.

The cartoon boy writes Japanese Calligraphy… words shaped like dancing women… he smirks at me, resembling a blue-eyed cartoon Christ, not the real one.

The old man is a bird who forgot how to fly… I reach under my shirt, check to see if I still have wings… Ginger with her unchanging iced smile…

The old man coughs up a tooth he swallowed a decade ago, flicks it my way… it spins under the door.

The old man becomes a child bent over the teacher’s desk, whipped with the yardstick… the boy who is fifty never weeps… the teacher works up a sweat… the boy won’t break to feed this flame.

The cartoon Christ bows his head, examining the wounds inflicted onto his palms, as does every student in this classroom.

The beating continues as the gingerbread girl’s sugary center grows fleshy and full of blood… her lips purse and change expressions… she’s finally ready to speak…

I want to reach out and put her back into my lunch pail but it’s too late, she’ll never return to my dark box.

She’s becoming a lock and my tongue some sort of key…

A strong language of liquor and fish oil and sea salt gathers like saliva… sentences too sturdy to be broken over the knee and forced into becoming mere kindling for a larger fire.

I fold the cartoon in half, then quarters, placing him in my mouth, but he’s used to that.

The crane flies off with the heron.

The old man grows fuzzy-edged… small as old news print… hard to read… shrinking to a grain of salt… wedging himself under my eyelid… I blink rapidly but he won’t flush… he can’t fly… he’s there for good.

The room is full of fifth graders wearing the heavy, fleshy masks of their grandparents, and the bell is about to ring.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | summer 2007