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Anything that Sticks

2010 Short Story Contest: First Place Winner
Anything that Sticks

Carter Conway presses the tip of his index finger against the point of his pencil. He lifts his desk lid to check his other pencils. "Fifth graders," he says sharply, like a teacher. "I hear chattering in this classroom. Too much chattering."
     Cutting through all of the babble, however, Carter also hears that someone is using the manual pencil sharpener. He likes the grinding sound the sharpener makes when the handle is turned, and the way the wheel can be adjusted to accommodate different-sized pencils. He also loves the smell of the shavings in the canister, and is always quick to volunteer to take them to the garbage pail so that he can watch the tan flakes that smell like his grandfather's workshop fall slowly into the can. The electric sharpener, he always says, makes the shavings too dusty, and they don't smell good. No thank you, he would rather not empty that canister.
     Carter watches as Jimmy Franco turns (grun), turns (grun) the handle of the sharpener. He again inspects his own pencils. Some might be too sharp; others are round, but not too dull. He looks at his aide, who is seated in a chair beside him. She says, "They're fine. Take out your book and listen to your teacher."
     Carter retrieves his social studies textbook from his desk and closes the lid. The hinges squeak horribly. He remarks, "For anything that sticks and shouldn't, there's WD-40. For anything that doesn't stick and should, there's duct tape."
     Everyone laughs. Smiling, Carter pulls the hood of his dark blue sweatshirt over his head and then he laughs, too. "There are over 2,000 uses for WD-40," he adds, hopefully.
     Carter folds his hands in his lap as his aide removes the hood from his head. He looks at his teacher, then opens A Nation of Many Nations, and turns to Chapter 9, page 124: "The Colonies of the Northeast." He places his index finger at the top of the page, paragraph one, and tries to run his finger along each line as Marissa Sprague reads aloud, at top speed, "By the middle of the 18th Century, the colonies had"—but he can only understand a few words through her rat-a-tat-tat delivery.
     Carter whispers, "Other restrictions may apply." He begins to hum as he moves his finger back and forth, back and forth—quickly, quickly, quickly—trying to find the words "lively trade" and "British" that he thinks Marissa may have said somewhere in there. He hums until he feels a tap on his knee.
     He looks at his aide, who puts her finger against her lips and says, "Shh."
     Carter's eyes drift to the opposite page of his book, where he sees a picture of a building. Under the photo, he reads: "Boston's Faneuil Hall: The Cradle of Liberty, the Home of Free Speech." He moves his face closer to the image, and wonders if that really is Faneuil Hall, because, in this picture, there is snow on the roof. To Carter, Faneuil Hall is a hot place to be wearing a hooded sweatshirt, kiddo; a hot place where his grandfather keeps the blue sweatshirt safe in his backpack so that Carter can keep tabs on it any time he wants during the entire vacation.
     Marissa Sprague finally stops rat-a-tat-tatting when the teacher tells her to stop reading at the word printed in bold type: founders.
     Lucy Andrews raises her hand. "I have a connection," she says. "Last summer, my family went to Cape Cod, which is in Massachusetts."
     "A tourist, eh?" says Carter. "What's on top of Faneuil Hall?"
     Lucy Andrews groans.
     Carter says, "Are you a tourist, or a spy? Your secret's safe with me."
     Carter hears fingers snapping, and when he looks at his teacher, she puts her index finger to her lips and says "Shh" just like his aide, and tells the students to write the word founder in their social studies notebooks. Carter opens his desk again, which groans like Lucy Andrews. He presses his lips together like the Tin Woodsman from The Wizard Of Oz, and says out of the side of his mouth, "Oiiiiil."
     Carter puts his hands in his lap. His aide snatches his green wire ring notebook from the desk and closes the lid much too quickly, much too loudly, in Carter's opinion. "What's this?" she says, pointing to the unraveled wire of the notebook. Carter looks from the notebook, to his aide, and back to the notebook. "Never mind," she says. "Listen to what your teacher tells you to do."
     Carter looks at his teacher, but she is not talking yet, so he examines the map that has been pulled down over the chalkboard behind her. He sees the Northeast and finds Boston in a heartbeat. He moves his eyes south and west, and locates Crown Point, Indiana, where his grandparents live. Carter got to skip the final week of school last year when he drove with his grandparents from Crown Point to Boston for what his grandfather called "a little R & R." His parents had stayed back in Madison with his new baby sister.
     Before their trip, Carter and his grandfather had spread the nice Rand McNally map across the drafting table in the workroom behind the garage in Crown Point. "Let me show you something," his grandfather said. "I think a map guy like you will appreciate this."
     His grandfather drew two exaggerated points on the map, one at Crown Point, the other at Boston, and set a ruler down on the map between them. He said, "Why don't you pick up that pencil, and connect these two dots?" Carter had looked at the map and ruler until his grandfather said, "Go ahead. It's our map, so we can do whatever we want to do with it. No worries."
     Carter connected the dots, and ran the pencil back and forth several times along the ruler until his grandfather said, "That ought to do it."
     "See here?" his grandfather said as he lifted the ruler from the map. "This line here is what we used to call the 'distance as the crow flies.' This means that if you could flap your wings like a crow and fly in a straight line over the land and water without worrying about roads, that's how far it would be from Crown Point to Boston." Carter had looked at his grandfather's arms and then his own before examining where the pencil mark traveled across the map through a small, southern portion of Lake Erie in Ohio, then through Jamestown, New York, just north of the Pennsylvania state line. It continued past Binghamton, New York, cut across the Catskill Mountains, over the Hudson River and into Massachusetts, right through Worcester, to Boston.
     "We don't have wings, do we?" his grandfather said. "That's kind of confusing, I guess. Let's see. Another way to put it, I suppose, is the way my granddad used to put it. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. See here?"
     Carter carefully considered the pencil mark as his grandfather ran his finger between the two points on the map. He ran his own finger across the mark, back and forth, back and forth. "This is a line segment," he finally said. "Lines go on forever and ever and ever. This is not a line."
     "Well, I'll be darned," his grandfather had laughed. "You are absolutely right. It is a line segment, isn't it? You're a man of few words, but we can't get much past you, can we? Okay, here's a challenge for you. Let's look at the map key, and see if you can figure out just about how far it is from Crown Point to Boston on this line segment you've drawn, here. After that, we'll have to figure out how we're actually going to drive from here to Boston."
     From Crown Point on the map in the classroom, Carter's eyes trace a line segment to Boston, which is approximately 850 miles as the crow flies. From Crown Point again, he lets his eyes merge onto I-65 North, then onto I-80 East. He locates Cleveland, which they could have passed had they decided to catch I-480 and travel up through Buffalo, New York. Looking over their own map in the workshop, however, Carter and his grandfather had decided against any route that went through Buffalo, New York. No offense to the fine people of Buffalo.
     Carter's eyes continue east along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Though unmarked on the map, he finds the general area where you would catch 81 North, then 84 East. … Carter thinks that he would turn here, turn there, but this classroom map sure isn't a Rand McNally. He finds I-93, and knows that from there, you watch for the slight left off of the exit to the Government Center ramp in Boston, toward the Aquarium and Faneuil Hall. It is a long, long drive from Crown Point to Boston in June—about 990 miles as the car drives—but you get to see a lot of the country that way. You also get to listen to the radio.
     Carter looks at his aide as she taps on his notebook and says, "Yoo-hoo, anybody home? Pick up your pencil and start writing. Founder."
     Carter says, "From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is Fresh Air."
     His aide continues to tap her finger on the number one that she has written in his notebook. Next to the number, Carter writes the word founder and retraces over it several times so that it is in bold. He adds a colon, and beside it, writes, "Samuel Adams."
     He folds his hands in his lap and looks at his aide again. She erases "Samuel Adams" and says, "Carter, the teacher wants you to write the definition. The definition." She points to the small box in the bottom left margin of page 124, where the word founder is again written, also in bold, but smaller type.
     Carter brushes the bits of eraser left on the paper, and can still see the faint traces of the words his aide has erased. He says, "Sam Adams ain't just a beer, folks. Sorry to disappoint all of you beer aficionados." He picks up his pencil and copies from the book: "one that founds or establishes."
     Carter agrees with his teacher that there is too much talking when all she should hear is writing, ladies and gentlemen. He touches his index finger to the point of his pencil, and glances at the manual pencil sharpener. He looks at the map again, sees Boston, as plain as day. You cannot see the exit for Faneuil Hall, but it's there. You can trust him on that one, because his grandfather says, "That Carter is a stickler with maps." Veer left on the Government Center ramp in Boston, and you'll be heading toward Faneuil Hall. Faneuil Hall with its working bell and weather vane. Carter glances at the picture of Faneuil Hall in the book.
     He hears his name, and looks at his teacher, who asks, "Have you written the definition in your notebook?"
     Carter's aide says that he has. Carter says, "Grasshopper, ladies and gentlemen. The answer we were looking for is … grasshopper."
     Carter's teacher and aide both sigh very loudly, in Carter's opinion. "Grasshopper," he repeats. "This is true."
     Carter will not look at his aide. He hears her suggestion that they move to the back table to work, but he will not answer her. He would rather take a pass on that, thank you, anyway. He leans his face close to the picture of Faneuil Hall again and studies it carefully, brushing the snowy roof with his finger. He rests his chin in the center of page 125, and squints first one eye, then the other as he examines what must be the weather vane on top of the building, but it is too small, really, to make out. He reads the caption of the photograph again: "Boston's Faneuil Hall: The Cradle of Liberty, the Home of Free Speech."
     He does not like this photograph in the least. You can't really tell if that's even a weather vane in this picture. The weather vane on top of Faneuil Hall is four feet long and weighs eighty pounds, and an eighty-pound grasshopper's got to count for something, folks. The tour guide on the Freedom Trail in Boston last June was just kidding Carter's grandfather about being a spy—"no worries, kiddo"—because in the colonial times, if you didn't know that there was a grasshopper weather vane on top of Faneuil Hall in Boston, well, then they knew you weren't a Yankee Doodle Dandy. You must have been a Red Coat, or even a spy for Britain. Or today, you could just be a tourist from the Midwest, but the tour guide won't hold that against you.
     The snow on the roof in this picture bothers Carter. There is no snow on Faneuil Hall. He has seen it. There is no snow on the roof on his two post cards of Faneuil Hall at home. There is no snow on the cartoon drawing of Faneuil Hall on the souvenir "Sights of Bean Town" silk scarf his grandfather bought him that he likes to run through his fingers when he watches television or reads The Hardy Boys: Secret of the Old Mill.
     Carter hums. His right ankle itches. The stupid elastic on the sock is uncomfortable. It feels like he is not very happy, and it feels like he is very itchy. He runs his pencil down his sock, and hums.
     He hears a tapping sound on his desk—rat, tat, rat-tat-tat—and looks at his aide. He puts the pencil back on his desk. He pulls his shoulders up to his ears, and raises his hands, palms up. "If the kid wants a silk scarf, let's get him a silk scarf," he says.
     Still humming softly, Carter picks up his pencil, and next to the number two his aide has written in his green notebook, he copies from the right margin of page 125, "Stamp Act: Law passed under Britain's King George III that imposed taxes on goods and services in the colonies of America. This law angered the colonists because …" Carter decides that this definition is very long, and he begins running his pencil down his sock again. He hums.
     There is a computer at the back of the room next to his teacher's desk. Carter will not look at his aide, but now that she mentions it, he wouldn't mind working on that computer. He looks at the clock above the bulletin board, and sees that the school day will end in twenty minutes, which means that he needs to do a summary of his day with his aide. In twenty minutes, the automated school bell will click twice and then ring like a firehouse alarm. The sound used to make Carter very uncomfortable, but not any more. It is what it is.
     Carter looks at his aide. She says, "I'll pack up the rest of your stuff. You go on back there and wake up that computer."
     Carter closes his social studies book, and carries it with him to the teacher's desk. He sits in the high-backed desk chair, puts the book in his lap, and grips the armrests with his hands. He pushes his feet against the floor once, then lifts them off of the ground and lets the chair glide (whizzzzzz), off of the plastic floor protector (tick, tick), and onto the tile floor. He moves his legs slightly left, pushes off of the floor once, and again lifts his feet as the chair rolls smoothly to the right, to the small computer desk.
     Carter likes how the chair can shoot backwards, and then switch directions and roll sideways without a hitch. There is definitely a clever design to the steering pivots on this chair, he decides, peeking below the seat at the wheels when the chair stops moving. He has noticed before that this chair has spherical wheel casters, somewhat different from the single wheel casters on the chair at the computer desk at home, which sometimes flutter like the wheels on a shopping cart. Carter would love to see how these casters are mounted to his teacher's desk chair, would love to examine how far apart the wheel axle and steering joints are to make the wheel assembly rotate so smoothly and easily. The last time he tried to turn the chair over, however, his teacher talked to him about the proper use of classroom equipment. Another time, he decides.
     He stops in front of the computer desk. "Yoo-hoo, anybody home?" Carter says to the computer screen as he shakes the mouse. He watches the screen as it turns from black to blue with the "logged on" message. He clicks on the message, and gets to the fish screen with the desktop folder, clicks again and waits while the computer grumbles and growls and shows an hourglass. "One moment, please, I'll connect you," Carter says. He loves computers, even this computer, this "old junker," as his teacher calls it.
     Carter looks at his aide, who has pulled up a chair and is unwrapping a piece of hard candy from a cellophane wrapper and putting it into her mouth. She says, "Did you hear me, Carter? I had a pretty good day today. How about you?"
     Carter hears the candy clack against her teeth and sees small red flashes of it before she tucks it into her cheek. He turns back to the computer screen.
     "Carter, look at me," his aide says. "I said that I had a pretty good day today. How about you?"
     "And you?" he says, still looking at the screen.
     "Carter," says his aide. "I already told you I had a nice day. You need to listen to people carefully when you have a conversation. Remember how we talked about cues? You have to listen."
     Carter clicks on the "Carter's Daily Reports" folder on the screen and opens the "blank forms" file, moves the curser to the date line and begins to type with his index finger, "A-p-r." He hears a tapping sound on the computer desk before he can finish.
     He looks at his aide. She says, "Okay? Did you hear me? You have to listen, okay?"
     "Okay," says Carter. He can smell the candy when she speaks. He turns back to the computer and quickly finishes typing the date.
     "Good," says his aide, and then adds, "Your teacher is right, Carter. You are a master of hunt and peck typing."
     "I sure am a stickler," he says.
     "You sure are," his aide laughs.
     Carter moves the curser to the next section of the form. Underneath "Interactions With Aide / Teacher / Classmates," he types, quickly, letter by letter: "Carter, look at me." "Carter, look at your teacher." He hums lightly as he highlights, "Carter, look at me" and then points the cursor to the top of the screen. Under "Edit Options," he selects "Copy."
     He returns to the form, and pastes, "Carter, look at me."
     Paste, paste, he clicks.
     "Okay, Carter, we get the point," says his aide.
     Paste, paste.
     "Alright, now you're just being a wisenheimer," she says.
     Carter laughs. "To hell with the Celtics t-shirt, right?" he says. "Let's go with the scarf."
     Carter looks at his aide. He removes his right hand from the mouse, puts it in his lap, and folds his left hand over it. He hums.
     He sees flashes of that red candy again when his aide speaks. "Let's move on, now, buddy. We only have a little more time. Let me type in the work you need to finish at home tonight. You need to finish those social studies definitions, including the Stamp Act, okay?"
     "Your breath smells like strawberries and mint," he says, waving his hand in front of his nose.
     "It's a eucalyptus cough drop, Carter. I don't think there are strawberries or mints in the cough drop. I'll have to check the label."
     "Strawberries and mint are two things I do not like," Carter says, looking for the red flashes in her mouth.
     "Don't be rude," she says. "It's not nice to be rude."
     "I do not like strawberries or mints or eucalyptus," says Carter.
     "Got it," she says. "Look at me, Carter. Tell you what, I'll throw the cough drop away, and you scoot the chair over for a minute so I can type in your homework. Then you can do the last section, and we'll call it a day. Does that sound good, Carter?"
     "Yes, that sounds good, thank you very much for asking," says Carter.
     "Good job," says his aide.
     Carter moves his legs to the right, pushes off of the floor, and glides away from the computer desk. No squeaky wheels and no flutter here, he notes. Not like the chair at home, which is still not very happy, even though they added washers to the swivel joints. The wheels on the small stool in his grandfather's workshop used to squeak and groan, too, but not from flutter. They squeaked because they were old. "Nothing a little WD-40 won't fix," his grandfather had said.
     While he waits for his aide to throw away her cough drop and type in the homework assignments, Carter opens the social studies book to page 125. He reads, again: "Boston's Faneuil Hall: The Cradle of Liberty, The Home of Free Speech."
     It is very hot near Faneuil Hall, and sometimes very crowded and very noisy. Carter says, "And now, from your World Champion Boston Celtics, give it up for Rrrrrrrrrray Allen!" It is very hot, very noisy and very crowded near Faneuil Hall when the Celtics win the NBA Finals. That is all there is to it.
     He looks at his aide, who says, "You can finish the last section now, Carter."
     Carter slides the chair back to the computer desk. Smoooooth. He sees the cursor blinking under "What I Learned Today." He watches the cursor blink, blink, blink. He looks at the picture of Faneuil Hall, and laughs. He begins typing quickly, letter by letter: "The bell on Faneuil Hall did not work for a long, long time. Not even when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. Today, it works. They got the bell to work by spraying it for one week with WD-40."
     Carter laughs and flips his sweatshirt hood over his head. "There are over 2,000 uses for WD-40," he says, hopefully.
     Carter folds his hands in his lap and looks at his aide. She pulls the hood back down to his shoulders. "Carter," she says, letting out a long strawberry-mint-eucalyptus sigh. "Carter, you are going to have to stop being silly. Why don't we put in the math facts you memorized? You sure had those down. Do you think you still remember them from this morning?"
     Carter watches as his aide places her finger on the backspace key and erases the words WD-40, with, week, one, for, it, spraying, by, work, to, bell, the. He first whispers, then says loudly, "blink, blink, blink, blink," but his aide only stops when Carter shrieks, grabs her hand and pulls it away from the keyboard. He hums, and his ankle itches but he will not scratch it because he does not want his aide to touch this computer, does not want her to touch his words. Faneuil Hall, he knows.
     "I know Faneuil Hall," he says.
     There is no snow on top of Faneuil Hall. And its bell rings. "Faneuil Hall is the Cradle of Liberty, the Home of Free Speech," he says, covering the keyboard with his left arm and pointing at the picture with his right hand.
     "Okay. It's okay, Carter," says his aide. "Oh my goodness. I'm so sorry. That was rude of me, wasn't it?" she says.
     Carter quickly retypes with his two index fingers, "They got the bell to work by spraying it for one week with WD-40." He adds, "This is true."
     "If you say so," his aide says. "You know what you're talking about, don't you? I'm so sorry, Carter. Really, I am."
     Carter hits the "Enter" key and then types: "9 x 9 = 81. 9 x 8 = 72. Etc." He laughs and flips the hood of his sweatshirt over his head. "That WD-40! What can't it do, huh?" he says.
     The school bell clicks twice and then rings like the alarm at a fire station. It is what it is.

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Sheila Hanrahan received her BA in English from the University of Iowa, where she was a member of the Undergraduate Writers’ Workshop. She received her JD from the University of Wisconsin—Madison, where she also taught legal writing.

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