The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town by Jennifer Niven

  Instead, I asked our dog Tosh, my seventh-grade neighbor, the FedEx man, Joey (who was worse at math than I was), and even my mother before I asked my dad for help. Mom and I labored quietly, secretly, in my room, whispering so my dad wouldn’t hear, trying between us to make one good math brain. We particularly hated story problems.

  Mr. Brumley was a fat little man who looked just like a garden gnome, only without the red hat and suspenders. Each day before Algebra class, he stood in the hall, just outside his door, hands clasped behind his back. Sometimes, every now and then, he held them clasped in front of him. He nodded at students and watched them and yelled at them to slow down if they were running or walking too fast. “Exercise caution, Miss Ripperger!” “Walk, do not run, Mr. Wissel!”

  Joey and I always seemed to end up in the same math classes together, but this was not true of Mr. Brumley’s class. We both had him for Algebra second semester of our junior year, but Joey had him second period, and I had him fifth.

  On one memorable day, Hether Rielly and I arrived at Mr. Brumley’s classroom and he was standing in the hallway, his face a very bright red. His white hair looked more like smoke than hair. He didn’t even nod at us as we walked in, just grumbled to himself, which was not like him at all.

  “What’s wrong with Mr. Brumley?” I said.

  “Who knows?” said Hether. “The mysteries of the very old.”

  We sat down, waiting for the first bell to ring, and started asking around to see if anyone had done the homework. As usual, no one had. As a group, we then did what we usually did: we tried to get Rob Jarrett to give us the homework answers. Rob Jarrett and Tamela Vance were boyfriend and girlfriend. They weren’t the most interesting people at parties, but they were both miraculously smart at math. Tamela Vance was in Joey’s class, and everyone in there tried to copy off her. We, in turn, tried to copy off Rob. You couldn’t always rely on them, though, because they fought a lot.

  When Rob just sat there, not speaking, his math book closed, his notebooks on the floor by his feet, Hether said, “Great. What the hell are we supposed to do?”

  Ross said, “Maybe you should do your homework, Hether,” even though he never did his once the entire time I knew him.

  Hether said, “Shut up, Ross.”

  The bell rang and Mr. Brumley walked into the room. He stood behind his desk and folded his hands, his face still a bright, dangerous red. He said, “Someone has taken the answer pages from my book, so we won’t be able to go over the homework today. Let’s move ahead with tomorrow’s lesson.” He opened his desk drawer, pulled out a piece of chalk, and began to write things on the board.

  We all looked at one another. It was an outright miracle, too good to be believed. Rob Jarrett sat there, glaring at Ross’s back. He was the only one who seemed oblivious to the news.

  Later that night, Joey told me what happened:

  During second hour, Mr. Brumley stood in the hallway before the bell rang. No one had done the homework. Tamela sat in the back of the room sniffling and patting her eyes with a Kleenex. Panic ensued.

  Deanna Haskett kept saying, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”

  From his seat, Joey peered into the hallway. Mr. Brumley still stood there, hands clasped, alternately nodding and barking at students. Joey turned to Diane Armiger and said, “Keep them distracted.” He meant Martha Schunk, who was so dutiful and self-righteous that she seemed more like an adult than one of us, and Deanna Haskett, who was a blabbermouth.

  Diane complimented Martha on her penny loafers and then asked Deanna if she didn’t have some just like them while Joey stood up and walked toward the front of the room. He marched right up to Mr. Brumley’s desk and with one swift motion, ripped the homework pages from the book that lay open there. Joey carried the pages to the window, opened it, and flung them outside. He walked back to his seat and sat down.

  Deanna Haskett, who had seen the whole thing, started saying, “OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGod!”

  “What’s she carrying on about?” Lance Powell said. Lance, who played on the basketball team, was so tall that he always sat at the back of the room because no one could see over his head. He took naps before class and sometimes during.

  “Nothing!” Diane said.

  The bell rang and Mr. Brumley appeared, shutting the door behind him. He marched over to his desk like a fat little general, hands still clasped, and said, “Let’s go over the homework.”

  They all opened their books and their notebooks and sat there, waiting. Mr. Brumley circled around behind his desk, and picked up a piece of chalk. “Now.” He glanced at his book. He peered closer at his book. He leaned forward and began flipping through pages. All the while, the top of his head, which was nearly hairless, was growing redder and redder. “Where have the pages gone?” he said. He kept flipping forward and backward through the book.

  Everyone sat still as could be, even Deanna.

  “Where are the pages?” He looked at them. “Who. Ripped. Out. These. Homework. Pages.”

  Deanna Haskett turned just slightly to look at Joey. Her eyes, already so far apart that they were practically on opposite sides of her head, were wide. Everyone looked around at one another innocently. Joey, with his blond choirboy haircut and glasses, looked the most innocent of all.

  “Without these pages, we can’t go over the homework,” Mr. Brumley said.

  Lance Powell, who had been dozing off again, raised his head and said, “What happened? Someone ripped a page out?”

  “Lance Powell said he ripped the pages out?” Joey said, very low, looking all around, wide-eyed.

  Tamela Vance stopped sniffling long enough to say, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Lance ripped the pages out?”

  Mr. Brumley stopped what he was doing. He turned and stared at the back of the room. “Lance Powell, did you rip these pages out?”

  Lance sat up and rubbed his eyes. “No.”

  Mr. Brumley glared at him. “I’m not going to ask you again.”

  Lance said, “I didn’t rip the pages.”

  Mr. Brumley stared at Lance for a good, long minute. Then he picked up a piece of chalk and his textbook and said, “I hope whoever did this is happy. Because of you we can’t learn the math for today. You may never learn the math we were supposed to learn today. That may be your one and only chance in this world. And someone has ruined it for you. We’ll just have to go on to tomorrow’s lesson.”

  Toward the end of the semester in Mr. Brumley’s class, on a particular day in May, the school year was winding down, and the second floor was hot, and I was full and sleepy from lunch, and the idea of one more math class was almost too much to bear. Hether and I walked to class together from Humanities and she said, “I hate math.”

  I said, “I hate math, too.”

  Lori Bechtel was walking behind us, on her way to Mr. Brumley’s class. “I hate it, too,” she said.

  “Let’s ditch,” Hether said.

  We can’t do that, I thought. I was always afraid of getting in trouble. I blamed this on my mother, who, I was sure, had never done anything naughty in her life. I had heard story after story at my grandmother’s house about my aunt Lynn getting caught smoking, or my uncle Bill smuggling a goat into a classroom, or my aunt Doris putting Elmer’s Glue on the teacher’s chair. But no one ever said anything about my mom except that she was the valedictorian and a majorette and president of the student council and Miss Hi Miss and a cheerleader, plus the organist at the Methodist church.

  Out loud, I said, “Okay.” Immediately my heart started racing. Ditching was not something I usually did, even though I had friends, namely Tommy Wissel, who did it all the time.

  Lori and Hether and I were already near Mr. Brumley’s classroom. He was standing outside, hands folded, and we turned around before he could see us and walked the other way, straight into Ross.

  “Class is that way,” he said, turning me around and pointing me in the right direction. He began pushing m
e along like a wheelbarrow.

  Hether was jumping at him like a little yappy dog. “Let her go, Ross, you big Jew!” She and Lori, who was tall and sturdy and played on the tennis team, pulled him off me.

  “I’ve got cramps, Ross,” I said. “I’m going to the nurse.”

  “Me too,” said Lori.

  “Me too,” said Hether.

  Ross snorted and walked away backward. “My big white Jewish ass!” he yelled.

  We made a right and slipped down the stairs toward the cafeteria. We hid in the concession area, which was behind a stone wall painted red. When the bell rang, we leaned against the Coke machine.

  “Where should we go?” I asked. I was nervous because Mr. Lebo, the dean of students, had a way of being everywhere at once.

  “We could stay here,” Lori said.

  “No,” said Hether. “We need to keep moving. If anyone stops us, just say that we have cramps and are going to the nurse.”

  We heard the rapid tap-tapping of heels going past. They paused and then tapped toward the cafeteria.

  “Come on,” Hether said.

  We moved together through the halls of the school, which were deserted. They looked strange and hollow. The floors were shiny. The lockers scuffed. These were things I never had time to notice when 2,500 students were pushing and fighting their way to class.

  We headed down the Smokers Hall, past the swimming pool. The air smelled stale and sweet, like cigarettes and chlorine. We crept under the windows of the athletic offices and then stopped cold when we got to the basketball court, where Mr. Fleagle was teaching a freshman P.E. class. We backed up and went around the other way, up the end of the hallway by my AP History class, and toward Social Hall. Because Social Hall sprawled outside the principal’s office, we slipped up the stairs to the second floor.

  We walked quickly. Where was Mr. Lebo? Our goal was the art museum. We thought if we could get there we’d be safe because we might be mistaken for art-loving tourists, out for an afternoon’s sightseeing excursion. Suddenly Mr. Wysong appeared and we sprinted back down the stairs. We backtracked then, past my AP History room, back toward the Tiernan Center, back by the swimming pool, and up through Smokers Hall.

  “Let’s go to the cafeteria,” said Lori.

  We headed back that way, but there was a sudden tap-tapping of heels again, which sent us scurrying up the steps to the second floor. The long hallway was clear, but the tricky thing now was that we had to walk by Mr. Brumley’s classroom. His door was closed, but there was a window in the door, and we didn’t want to risk being seen.

  “What do we do now?” Lori said. We looked at one another, hovering at the end of the hallway, near the top of the stairs. It was always dark down there, like the janitor just couldn’t be bothered to change the bulbs in the ceiling. It gave me the creeps. It looked like the exact spot in school where something mean and scary would happen if we were starring in a horror movie and not our real lives. I wished we’d gone to class. I was starting to get a very bad feeling.

  “We just walk by as fast as we can,” Hether said. “And if anyone stops us, we say we’re headed to the nurse.”

  We set out together, all in a line, walking very quickly, heads down. As we passed Mr. Brumley’s room, I glanced back and saw Ross’s face.

  “There they go!” he shouted. “Jennifer, Hether, and Lori are out there, Mr. Brumley!” Mr. Brumley threw open the door and we ran.

  “We have cramps!” I yelled. We all clutched our stomachs.

  There was the pattering of little feet as Mr. Brumley sprinted after the three of us. Dear God, what have I done? I thought. Instead of cutting down the middle stairs to the central hallway and, eventually, the nurse’s office, we ran like track stars down the second-floor hall. At the end of the hall, we turned right and raced up the stairs to the third floor, taking them three at a time. Mr. Brumley came puffing along behind us.

  We ran back down, back to the second floor, toward the Tiernan Center. We could hear his feet on the shiny floors. We skidded up the handicap ramp, past the offices of the gym teachers and coaches, through the doors to the pool, down through the Smokers Hall.

  “Do you see him?” screamed Lori.

  “Keep running!” Hether yelled.

  We rounded the corner into the main hallway and sprinted for the nurse’s office. We were sitting down when Mr. Brumley burst in, one minute later, face purple. Unable to speak, he pointed at us.

  Lori was doubled over in her chair, trying to breathe. “Lori was sick, Mr. Brumley,” I said. “Hether and I got so scared. We were in the bathroom and she just fell over and said she had cramps. We had to get her down here as fast as we could.”

  His face wrinkled up and he finally managed words. “You girls.” Puff puff. He waved at Hether and me. “Just come on up,” puff puff, “when you’re done.” Puff puff. “And, Miss Bechtel, I hope you feel better soon.”

  He waddled out, wiping his brow with the handkerchief he kept in his front shirt pocket. We looked at one another. “I feel so bad now,” I said.

  “Me too,” said Lori. “We could have given him a heart attack.”

  “I don’t,” said Hether. “We got out of math class, didn’t we?”

  We spent the rest of the period reading magazines and talking to the nurse, who gave us Tylenol for our cramps and then wrote us a note excusing us from next period, too.

  Jennifer’s green room

  World Affairs

  We bought a house on Hidden Valley Drive, 720. It is a pretty house! It is brown and white and has a very big backyard! I have a large green room—the largest room in the house—that is completely my own. It has three windows and green carpet and four closets and a canopy bed with removable posts on top that make really good microphones.

  —Jennifer McJunkin, “My Life in Indiana,” September 25, 1977

  My world was made up of: school, friends, boys, my parents, my pets, music, clothes, and the Big City where I would live one day. I wasn’t aware of much that went on beyond that. My world was, for the most part, a happy place. I attributed this to being an only child and the only grandchild on one side—I was used to love and undivided attention.

  We all felt very safe in Richmond, Indiana. For the most part, nothing much ever happened. Once every few years there was a murder, and every so often you read in the paper about an armed robbery or a drug bust or a rape. But about the worst thing that ever happened in our town was petty theft. The local paper was mostly filled with news of 4-H fairs and pictures of prize-winning goats and pigs, of the neighborly things that people had done for one another (reported by Norma Carnes in her regular column “Norma’s People”), and every week we read about the new books being added to the shelves of Morrisson-Reeves Public Library. There was the occasional sensational headline: Police Chase Cookie Truck. Man Killed by Vending Machine. Police Shoot and Kill Pharmacist Wielding 4-Foot Sword. Man’s Sneezes Cause Accident. But just about the only thing we had to be scared of in Richmond was nuclear war. This was on our minds because it was on the minds of our president and our nation—not that we paid much attention to the national news in the Richmond paper. The “Nation” and “World” columns were only three to four paragraphs each at most.

  My sophomore year of high school, the Government and Civics teachers all got together and decided we, the students of Richmond High School, needed to watch The Day After, which starred Jason Robards. The Day After was a TV movie that portrayed a nuclear war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact and showed, in horrific detail, the effects of that war on the residents of Lawrence, Kansas; Kansas City; and numerous farms that looked as if they could have been located on the outskirts of Richmond—out where Jeff Shirazi or Eric Ruger lived and sometimes had parties.

  The Day After would be educational. It would be informative. It would help us know what to expect and how to handle ourselves in case Richmond was attacked by nuclear weapons.

  They showed The Day After to us in two parts since
it was too long for a single class period. I was sleepless for weeks. It was bad enough to imagine a nuclear war, but thinking about surviving it—limbs falling off, flesh melting, all those blind people at the end. Nuclear devastation was the most horrible, frightening thing I could imagine. I was sure the Russians were going to bomb us and I was going to die a miserable, wretched death just like the people on screen.

  In my bright green room, surrounded by my posters—the Stray Cats, Duran Duran, Bono, the Police, Bob Geldof, Fleetwood Mac, Rick Springfield—I lay on my yellow canopy bed and imagined a world without my mother or father, my dog or my cat, my best friends, the boys I liked, the music I listened to, the things I dreamed of, much less trees or houses or grass or arms. I moved my head and my legs around. I felt the skin on my hands, my face. I made myself think fast about the world I lived in—one where people were neighborly to one another and spelled out “It’s Spring!” in tulips on the grounds of Glen Miller Park and took pictures of goats and didn’t do much but steal from one another every now and then, but only small things and not very often.

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