Drive Up Pay Toilet

         In the course of an extended and inchoate process of discovering girls, Jim Burke discovered Prudence Stringler, who sat ahead of him in his eighth grade homeroom. She was tall and somewhat gangly, which she would no doubt grow out of, but even then she was more or less attractive, and in

Enrico Donati
his early confusion over such matters, he’d gotten his incipient sexual urges mixed up with his post-pubescent notions of what society and his family expected of him, and Prudence, gangly and more or less presentable, reminded him of all the somewhat gangly and more or less presentable mothers of his schoolmates – indeed, she seemed somehow the ideal of what a suburban housewife must become. He was smitten.

         So he peered into what he could see of his future and saw himself becoming much like his schoolmates’ fathers – pleasant if vaguely ineffectual and largely distracted – and thus saw himself the likely consort, if not of Prudence herself, then someone much like her. And this was important, since the course of his adolescence had already been something not especially steady; over the course of two years he’d been summoned several times, along with his parents, into sit-downs with guidance counselors and assistant principals. The likely actual course of his future had been outlined to him in unmistakable terms as something much more dire than the outcomes for his schoolmates or their parents.

         If he’d been told, in fact, that even a station in life of comfortable mediocrity was likely past his reasonable aspiration, then how much more enticing, for its probable unattainability, was the sympathetic attention, or even the affection, of Prudence Stringler? He began to think about how he might acquire the one or the other. He wasn’t a jock, so he couldn’t impress her as an athlete. We know already that he couldn’t recite brilliantly in class. But he was in fact a naturally clever fellow, and he thought he might be able to make her laugh, though the Stringlers were of stalwart Methodist stock and not much given (something Jim was still too young to understand) to idle levity.

         But Jim’s cleverness actually went some way. A prior owner of the Burkes’ home had left a stash of old radios in the attic, some so old that they had vacuum tubes and Bakelite cases. Most didn’t work. Jim took them back to his room and plied them with his soldering iron, to see whether swapping out various parts might bring one or two of them back to life. Here and there, he succeeded, though his mother, seeing what he was doing, said, “Jim, I wish you could find a more constructive use for your time.” Jim’s time was actually well-occupied, what with piano lessons and daily practice, scout meetings, swimming sessions at the YMCA, marching band, and the like, but it was likely that college admissions staff would not be impressed by a kid puttering with old radios.

         His fondest fantasy was actually just to be able to explain to Prudence how thoroughly he enjoyed this puttering, and how much satisfaction it gave him when he was finally able to restore one to life. But he knew the result of this could only be polite murmurs of agreement followed by her quick exit from the scene, and she would be no more impressed by this than a college admissions officer would. But Jim’s cleverness, as I’ve said, went far.

         He surveyed the general clutter on the desk in his room, and he spotted several wire paper clips. He began, for no good reason, to think of a cutaway diagram of a gasoline engine, showing the pistons and crankshaft, in one of his science books from school. He took one of the paper clips, straightened it out, and began to bend it into a new form, that of a crankshaft with space for only one piston. One end of it he bent into a crank. Then he bent another paper clip into a piston rod with an eyelet on one end that fit onto the crankshaft he’d just made.

         Then he got some shirt cardboard, such as came back with his father’s shirts from the laundry, and cut it into a small box that would enclose the crankshaft. He made holes in the ends for the shaft itself to ride in, with the crank extending from one end. He made a hole in the top for the piston rod, put the pieces together, and tried it out. Indeed, he could turn the crank, and the piston rod rose and fell from the top of the box.

         He went to the kitchen and tore off a small piece of aluminum foil. Back in his room, he cut it with scissors into an elongated triangle and serrated one edge to look like a saw blade. This he taped to the piston rod protruding from the top of the box. When he turned the crank, the saw-like piece of foil went up and down, to some apparent purpose. The next morning, he placed the whole assembly carefully in his shirt pocket and took it to school.

         Sitting down at his homeroom desk behind Prudence, he took it out of his pocket. She turned around, curious. He turned the crank, and the saw went up and down. “That’s cute,” she said. “What is it?”

         “A drive up pay toilet.”

         Her laugh escaped before she knew it was coming out. It was sincere, uncalculated, unpretty, something between a guffaw and a cackle, though in that instant, as far as Jim saw, her face suddenly became not just presentable, but beautiful. But one peal was all she let out before she caught herself and went back to being Prudence.

         At the same time, from the front of the classroom, the teacher heard the laugh and saw the odd activity at Jim’s desk. She strode over immediately and confiscated the infernal device from his hands. As it happened, in grabbing it away, she crushed the putative saw blade made from aluminum foil, so that its function was no longer apparent, and it would not be possible for even an assistant principal to claim it was a weapon, so Jim heard nothing more about it.

         But neither was it returned to him. No matter; it had cost him nothing, it had taken him little time to build, and he wanted to make Prudence laugh again. He went home that afternoon and produced his Mark II version, this one a two-seater, with two saws. He brought it in the next morning and, a bit more cautiously, showed it to her. But this time, she was ready and didn’t laugh, just some faint murmurs of feigned appreciation.

         So he returned for one final effort. He completed the Mark III version that evening, a veritable dreadnought of its type, with four saws, able to accommodate a row of passengers sitting abreast in a Greyhound bus. He pulled it from his pocket in the next morning’s homeroom to show Prudence. “Oh, grow up,” she snarled. But he’d already begun to understand that that sort of adulthood wouldn’t be available to him.

One of John Bruce's recent short stories was nominated for the 2009 Pushcart Prize. His writing has appeared recently, or will appear, in 13th Warrior Review, Backhand Stories, Cantaraville, The Cynic Online, decomP, Diddledog, DOGZPLOT, Eskimo Pie, Fiction at Work, Greenbeard, Holy Cuspidor, The Journal of Truth and Consequence, Lyrical Ballads, Pear Noir!, Press 1, The Scruffy Dog Review, Short Story Library, Why Vandalism?, and Word Riot. He has degrees in English from Dartmouth College and the University of Southern California.

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