Words By Jason McCormick, Art By Enrica Angiolini
I have purchased 28 boxes of chalk over the semester, and that is simply too much. I am convinced that neither the other teachers nor my students are responsible for the theft. I have been watching them carefully and asking questions. My students do not seem to care, but my fellow faculty all complain that they are also missing a piece or two. I do appreciate their efforts to empathize, but my situation is quite different. I am missing more than 300 full-size pieces of chalk. Most are white, but there have been other colors along the way—blues, reds, purples, and even a limited-edition box of neon colors.
When it became clear that this was more than forgetfulness, I had a recollection from childhood. Squirrels stole seed from my father’s bird feeders. Rather than traps, my father spread seed, bread, and dried out pieces of cake across our yard. The squirrels ate it all and still ate the seed in the feeder. After two weeks of doing this, my father went to the yard with his rifle. “They’re much larger and slower now,” he said. “Remember son, the best way to catch a thief is through an abundance of evidence.”
My father wasn’t an educated man, but I have taken this advice to heart and left numerous pieces of chalk behind after every class. It is obvious that this is a compulsion on the part of the thief, but no one can hide this amount of chalk forever. Eventually, it must fall out of a pocket or desk drawer. But it is now nearly the end of the semester. There are no signs of fat squirrels. My students’ essays need grading and I have office hours to fulfill, but instead I spend my days either in my classroom or the hallway outside it, watching. I only leave the room so my fellow faculty can teach their classes.
My wife wonders where I go at night. She may think I am having an affair.
A few nights ago, as I was rifling through the A/V supply closet, I noticed that my left shoe had split at the seams. Everything is falling apart, but I must find the responsible parties.
After my class, I fill the trays with deluxe dustless chalk and plant myself in a desk in the corner, a new therapeutic pillow underneath me. I have packed a lunch and will not leave the room. Other faculty members still need to use it, of course. I am not here to stop them, but they will not stop me, either. I cannot help but fall asleep during a lecture on geological formations and I dream of icebergs on misty lakes. I feel myself become a part of both. I consider if I am iceberg and water, am I floating in myself? Do I surround me? I awake, shivering. I have slept too long, and the classroom has emptied. It’s nearly midnight and the board is clean. The chalk is gone.
I run from the room and see a tall man in blue coveralls turn the corner from the hallway into the open foyer leading to the cafeteria and elevator banks. He is pushing a cart with two squeaky wheels that cannot find harmony or rhythm. I follow him to an elevator. I could call him out now, but the area feels too open and empty for a quality confrontation. Instead, I must find out why he has stolen my chalk. He gets on the elevator, and after the door closes, I rush to watch the counter above the door mark his ascension.
13, 14, 15, R.
When the elevator returns, I try to follow, but roof access is restricted to those with a key. I sort through my keys. The office and house key are too large, but my mail key is close. I shove it in. I know there is no chance of turning, but I hope. Either the lock or my key will give. There is a struggle and a groaning. I feel my hand feel the metal of the key and for a moment I believe that if my hands are soft enough and my wrist is firm, the key will align. And it does. The lock gives.
The elevator opens again under the city sky. The moon hangs high and the cold creeps across my neck. There are approximately two inches of still black tarpaper on the ground in front of the elevator. The rest is chalk. My chalk. There are brilliant starbursts and swirls. I recognize maps of long dead nations and my childhood bedroom. It is the universe decontextualized and reconstructed, the Big Bang spilled across the rooftop.
I want to call out, but words feel tiny. What is chalk, anyway? Scribblings on the wall to be nodded at by a captive student body? No. Chalk is never erased. It is laid in lines and then violently spread beyond its limits, leaving shadows and dust. It may be washed away, but then it turns the water opaque. The dust is suspended but it remains.
Then I see them—two janitors on the far side of the roof, their hands still covered in pink, blue, and white dust. They have drawn themselves into a black corner. Without a word, they disrobe completely. Man and woman, but only bodies in the vastness of this art. They are oblivious to me. The smaller of the two bodies holds up a stone, as if to absorb gossamer light, and then tosses it underhanded into the air. It lands on a white square. With a nod, the larger body leaps to the spot. There is no sound upon landing.
The second body launches into the air, seeking the same spot. Just in time, the first body is in the air again, finding another white square. They leap over and over, landing on one foot, then two feet, then one and then the other, always finding new white squares buried in the pattern. The second body follows the first exactly. The routine is not planned, but it is ordered.
The moon moves closer. The stars cast spears of light. For a moment, I consider joining them, but I feel as obscene as a crashing plane. I turn away.
As the elevator descends, I want to cast out the memory of what I have seen. To think on it would be to invite madness or devotion and I don’t think I can invite either into my life now. Tomorrow, I will buy more chalk and leave it, but I will never come to the roof again.
I remember the squirrels—fat, happy, and completely unaware of their fate. The night before my father went out there with his gun, I laid awake at the window, listening to them chatter. I remember thinking the noise seemed almost like language, and if I listened long enough, I could distinguish between the clicks that meant “cake” and the chirps that meant “bread.” I imagined that I would be the one to translate and begin interspecies communication. When I was young, I could imagine just about anything—except what my father was going to do to those squirrels. I looked down at my torn shoe.
The elevator door opens, and I go home to my wife.