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Published in Print: January 1, 2003, as A Retching Tale

A Retching Tale

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The creator of an acclaimed TV show recalls a 2nd grade scene starring a lovely heroine, a mumbling janitor, and a pile of sawdust.
—Glynis Sweeny

When I was in grade school, it seemed like everyone was always throwing up. Every time I turned around, I'd hear a splat and see some queasy-looking kid standing over a puddle of puke. And then, seconds later, I'd get a whiff of that unmistakable throw-up smell. This always announced the imminent arrival of a janitor, who would enter carrying a large broom and a dustpan full of red sawdust to dump on top of the offending pool of barf, which was then swept back into the dustpan and spirited away by our unlucky custodian.

What a gig.

I've never been able to forget that red sawdust. I always knew when it was around because of its own distinct odor, something akin to an extremely cheap bottle of Grandma perfume, a sort of subdued peppermint smell with just a hint of mothballs tossed in. Throw-up smells terrible, and because of that, the red sawdust always smelled pretty good when it arrived. It wasn't something you'd want to smell every day, but when the air was ripe with the aroma of what was formerly inside of a kid, red sawdust was about as welcome a smell as fresh, home-baked cookies on a rainy day. That is, until it was dumped on top of the vomit, where the two opposing fragrances would battle for superiority and produce a tangy, sour bouquet, like a pungent French cheese gone horribly wrong in the back of a hot car.

As a kid, I never knew why janitors always used that red sawdust or where it came from. Years later, when I was working in the warehouse at my father's store, I learned that it was actually a manufactured product called sweeping compound and was made to both soak up spills and keep dust from going into the air as you swept a dirty floor. Not knowing this back then, I figured that the red sawdust was just something the janitor had found lying around in the wood shop and decided was as good a substance as any to camouflage a puddle of throw-up. Because he had to do something so that we kids didn't have to look at it. All school professionals know that if one kid sees another kid's throw-up, that kid will then also throw up. And then another and another. Throwing up is contagious. One kid with a nervous stomach can set off a chain reaction in a crowded classroom that could seriously deplete the world's supply of sweeping compound.

I never understood how my peers could throw up so easily. To me, throwing up is about the worst thing that can happen to a person. The stomach- twisting retches. The complete lack of control over one's body. The hellish sounds of air being forced through upwardly traveling bile. To this day, I think I'd rather die of food poisoning than have to throw the tainted food back up. I think I've only thrown up about three times in my life. But never in school. Things were bad enough without adding regurgitation to my list of problems.

My most vivid experience with throw-up happened in the 2nd grade. It was show-and-tell day, and I had brought in a brand-new Hot Wheels firetruck that I was dying to show off and tell about. That truck, which I had wanted for months, was everything I had dreamed it would be and more. Bright red and so new that all four wheels were still straight. They hadn't had a chance to bend inward yet like Hot Wheels cars always did after a few play sessions, so that when the car was rolled, it would simply go into a spin and tip over.

No, this Hot Wheels firetruck was pristine. It even had a little ladder that you could move up and extend out. I'd been trying to get my mother to buy it for me for what seemed like a million years and had finally guilted her into it. The day before, she had accidentally thrown my favorite troll dollin with the laundry and had turned his bright-red hair pink, and I played her like a royal flush. My tears could only be stopped by a trip to the toy store, and lo and behold, the firetruck was mine. And nowI couldn't wait to impress my peers with it.

The teacher, Miss Drulk, had gone out of the room for a minute, and I was busy making the truck race to the scene of a fire on my desktop, complete with screeching tires sound. I was good at sound effects and was convinced that no one could do the sound of a car getting into an accident and blowing up better than I could. True, I couldn't do a machine gun as well as my friend Gary, and when it came to helicopters, Stephen Crowley was the king. But when it came to automobiles, the rest of the class could simply step aside. I was the master.

As I sat there, lost in my own noisy world, making the truck go into a catastrophic slide that saw it heading for a fall off the side of my desk— where it would then burst into flames in super-slow motion—Chris Davis, a perpetually dirty kid who sat behind me, tapped me on the shoulder.

"Hey, Paul, that's a neat truck. Can I use it for show and tell?"

What? I thought. No way. This was mine. I'd been waiting all day to show this baby off. "No. My mother just bought it for me."

"Aw, c'mon. I don't have anything to show. My family can't buy me anything. We're poor."

For a kid who was poor, he sure said it a lot. I'd always heard that poor people were proud, but the only thing Chris was proud of was telling you how poor he was. He was always talking about how his family lived in a shack, how they didn't have any clothes, and how they had to eat birds in order to keep from starving. I never knew if I believed him or not. I couldn't imagine anyone's family sitting around naked eating robins and sparrows.

But my mother had always drilled into my head that I had to be nice to people who were less fortunate than we were because we, too, might be poor someday. Did she know something I didn't? I would wonder. Were we on the verge of bankruptcy? Because I was terrified at the thought of having to walk around in front of my parents naked.

I stared at Chris for a few seconds, deliberating. He stared back at me with a pathetic look on his face. I stared at his hands. They were filthy. His clothes had food stains down the front. His hair was dirty and looked like it hadn't been combed in days. I wasn't sure if this meant that he was poor or if it was simply proof that the guy was a slob. However, my Sunday school teacher's voice rang out in my head: "Do unto others as...." Yeah, yeah, yeah. All right. I get it. Stupid Bible.

"Well....OK. Here. But be careful with it."

All school professionals know that if one kid sees another kid's throw-up, that kid will then also throw up.

Fortunately, I had brought along one of my less cool Hot Wheels cars, and I figured I could show it instead. I don't know why I didn't give Chris the less cool car, but I didn't. I guess I wasn't good at thinking on my feet when I was 7.

Miss Drulk came back into the room. I had a huge crush on Miss Drulk. She was beautiful. She always wore short dresses, and her hair was done up in that 1960s, straight-down-to-the- shoulders- then-flipped-up-at-the-ends style that I thought was just the most feminine thing imaginable back then. Simply put, she had blond, That Girl hair. And she was always extra nice to me, too. Miss Drulk knew that the other kids picked on me, and she always seemed to be coming to my defense. Once, when some 3rd graders made a dog pile on top of me at recess, Miss Drulk came running over and made everyone get off. I was crying, as usual, and so she took me into the teachers' lounge and gave me carrot sticks out of her lunch. I really fell in love with her that day. Even now when I eat carrot sticks, I occasionally think about Miss Drulk. Her or Carl Slanowski, who used to secretly shove carrot sticks up his nose, then give them out to teachers.

Anyway, Miss Drulk came into the room and announced that it was time for show and tell. When she said it, I felt a twinge of excitement. But then I quickly remembered that it was going to be the poverty-stricken Chris Davis, and not I, who would be showing off the brand-new Hot Wheels firetruck. I immediately felt mad at the guy for guilting me out of my first moment ever of potential coolness.

And then suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard it.


Oh, no, I thought. It couldn't be.

I turned around to see Chris Davis sitting behind his desk, which was now covered with throw-up. COVERED. For a poor kid, he sure had a lot in his stomach. And what was buried under the lake of vomit?

My firetruck.

Chris had barf running down his chin and was about to start crying. Kids always cried after they threw up. Probably because throwing up was so disgusting there was nothing else to do but cry. And if you cried, the odds were you didn't have to clean it up yourself. But when I saw Chris about to start bawling, I just wanted to slug him. I mean, if anyone had the right to cry, I did. Couldn't he have pushed my firetruck out of the way when he felt the vomit coming? I mean, throw-up gives you a couple seconds of warning before it arrives. It doesn't just appear. You've got at least a few solid moments of nausea and tingling in the back of your throat that let you know you have time to push a brand-new, three-inch-long Hot Wheels firetruck that doesn't belong to you out of the goddamn way. And didn't the kid even know he was sick? He must have at least felt queasy when he was talking to me. A person can't just feel great one minute and then lose the entire contents of his stomach the next. I guess he'd had a bad bird for breakfast.

Chris started crying. Miss Drulk came over and pulled him away from his desk. The massive amount of vomit was starting to migrate down his desktop and spill over the edge onto his seat. It was truly disgusting, but the worst part of it was seeing that faint outline of a firetruck-shaped lump underneath it all. Miss Drulk hustled Chris off to the bathroom. I heard him crying all the way down the hall and even heard his sobs echoing out of the boys' bathroom.

Mr. Carowski, our mysterious janitor, a mountain of a man from some unknown country who spoke to us in an unintelligible mixture of garbled English and rumbling bass tones, came in with the famous red sawdust and dumped it on top of Chris Davis' desk. All my classmates were over at the window trying to get some fresh air, since the room was now filled with the unmistakable odor of stomach stew. Mr. Carowski then took a hand broom, swept the whole vomity mess into a bucket, and sprayed the desk with disinfectant. The disinfectant smelled even sweeter than the red sawdust, but that didn't make me feel any better. Mr. Carowski took his bucket, mumbled a few indecipherable words that I think were supposed to convey the warning "Don't touch his desk until it dries," and departed. I looked down at where my firetruck had once sat. Nothing was left but the memory.

I never asked Mr. Carowski about my firetruck, and I never saw it again.

And I never got over my anger at Chris Davis. Especially when I found out that he lived in a house twice as big and way nicer than mine.

Vol. 14, Issue 4, Pages 37-38

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