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Nearly five hundred children have matriculated into Mrs. Gallagher’s fifth grade, and she anticipates five hundred more.
Former students return to visit her, to report on their vicissitudes of fortune, but rarely can these former students find Mrs. Gallagher, the location of her classroom kept in constant flux by bureaucratic elementary school administrators. Many return in small groups to watch the fifth grade graduation ceremony, for each year at the conclusion of the ceremony, the principal presents Mrs. Gallagher with the much-coveted “Excellent Teaching Award.” Every time, Mrs. Gallagher flushes pink all through her cheeks and down her arms and, quite regularly, really, she trips on one of the four stairs leading up to the stage. Once at the podium, she thanks her students that year. “R.J. and Sydney and Erica and Hank and Justin and Nancy and Amy and Tom and George and Brad and Alyssa and Josh and Katie and Cody and Mike and Sarah,” says Mrs. Gallagher.
Gyrating in the warm late July breeze, Mrs. Gallagher reclines on an inflatable lounge chair in the deep end of the backyard pool. She sips from a pineapple smoothie with a blue umbrella perched atop the ice cubes. Her mailbox, unnamed. Her address, unknown. Within the district, presumably, but impossible to pinpoint so exactly amid the parked cars, hedges and groaning swing sets of anonymous suburban sprawl. The children of Mrs. Gallagher’s fifth grade class are now distanced and displaced by summertime and spread across the surface of the ever-curving earth. They, the children, sometimes imagine picking up the phone and calling Mrs. Gallagher, but they cannot think of what to say—no, impossible, impossible—what would they say?
The only children who do occasionally call—“Just to say hi”—are the children from Mrs. Gallagher’s very first class twenty-nine years ago, long before even the birth of R.J. and Sydney and Erica, et cetera. Mrs. Gallagher had seventeen fifth graders, eight boys and nine girls and of course she remembers that their classroom was G170, basement level, because in early March of that year the heater exploded and set the walls ablaze. The opaque, black smoke, Mrs. Gallagher remembers, poured in beneath the two inch gap at the base of the classroom door and the cracks along the sides. Knowing the danger of smoke inhalation—the rapidity of suffocation death—Mrs. Gallagher drew her desk up to the nearest of the narrow windows lining the ceiling, opened the window, and began lifting the children (huddling around her, rushing around her legs, climbing up next to her onto the desk) from under their arms and sliding them up and onto the lawn. Once she had lifted the last of the seventeen children through the open window, Mrs. Gallagher hoisted herself up and out of the basement, abandoning her pink pumps which remained in the smoke filled classroom quite properly upright on the desk. She sprinted across the soccer field, herding the children forward toward the approaching fire trucks, holding one of them on her hip—Jimmy, yes, sweet-natured Jimmy—who had gashed his ankle on the metal handle while kicking his way to the grass.
The children were all safe, thanks entirely to Mrs. Gallagher, for room G170 and much of the school basement fell in on itself that morning, enveloped in flame. The parents said, “We love you, Mrs. Gallagher,” and everyone has always agreed that Mrs. Gallagher handled the situation very well, that she acted quite courageously. As for Mrs. Gallagher herself though, she continues to wonder, for instance, if the door to the classroom had not been so securely….had she not had the strength…if the height of the desk…if one of the children had…and the girls’ and boys’ bathrooms so far down the hall…did she even count them as she?...confabulations that at this very moment erupt into existence and run themselves out across the vivid landscape of the mind’s eye.
Mrs. Gallagher dips her fingers into the pool water, the glistening crests and troughs, and untwisting the straps of her green-and-white polka dot bikini, turns over in the sun. •
Ariel Djanikian graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 and holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan. Her first novel, The Office of Mercy, will be published by Viking in February 2013. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband and daughter.