August 03, 2015 11:44:24 PM





The sun rose and everything fell. The sentence sat under a fat header. A red pen flew down upon the paper and went to work. When finished, the controller of the pen-holding hand looked up at the boy.
“What is a sun rose?”
“What is a sun rose? Is it a type of flower?”
“No, it’s, a… a sun rose isn’t a thing. The sun is rising.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s a sunrise. I’m just talking about, you know, that.”
“So a sun rose isn’t falling right here, along with everything?” The hand-controller’s mouth salivated.
“No… there’s, uh, a sun rising, and, uh, everything falling. That’s what I was thinking, maybe, how I would start it.”
“Hm. How curious,” said the controller.
The boy, who was not holding a pen, let alone a red one, forced small bits of air and dust out his nose in an impression of a laugh. “But, um, what do you think of it?”
“Well, I was confused, you see, by the first line. What was it, again?”
“The sun rose and everything fell?”
The second hand, without the pen, snapped before the boy had finished. “Yes, that one. I was confused because your manner of phrasing led me to believe ‘the sun rose’ and ‘everything’ were compound subjects of the predicate ‘fell.’”
“Huh? I’m not sure-”
“You see, had you meant to detail the rising of the sun and the rather--let’s call it literary, why don’t we--collapse of ‘everything,’ you would have known that, in a sentence with two subjects, two verbs, and a coordinating conjunction, one is required to separate the two independent clauses with a comma.”
“Well, yeah, but-”
“Had you begun with something like ‘the sun rose, and everything fell,’ including a comma before ‘and,’ perhaps I would have interpreted your words to mean both the cyclical pattern of our planet’s sun and an all-encompassing burst of gravity.”
“Wait, could you slow-”
“But you didn’t. And I was sure you would never be so base as to make an error of this pedestrian ilk, especially not in your midterm essay. Besides, ‘the sun rose, and everything fell’ is a horribly contemporary beginning, and you, surely a smart pupil, know to mimic only the Great Works.
“By process of elimination, then, the only possible meaning for the sentence was the true fall of everything, including a mysterious noun you call a ‘sun rose,’ an object of which I have never heard. Now, I have an insatiable desire for knowledge, and, delighted at my discovery of a new term, I asked you, ‘What is a sun rose?’. You responded, in inarticulate grunts, that my reading was, in fact, incorrect. But, as I have just described to you, that cannot be. So, allow me to reiterate. What is a sun rose?”
The boy coughed. “It’s, uh, yeah, it’s a type of flower. Yeah.”
The controller dropped the pen and clapped. Quietly, the pen rolled off the desk, landing with a muted thud on a number of grammar-bereft papers in the recycling bin. The controller was far too engrossed in clapping to notice. “How perfectly botanical of you! Do you grow sun roses yourself?”
“No, um, my mom does, though.”
“Delightful. Well, now that that’s sorted, let’s move on.”
“I mean, maybe we should wait until-”
“Nonsense. Let me edit.” The man, no longer holding his instrument, decided to control the manuscript instead. He cleared his throat. ‘Having watched the sunrise, the one I just described, the one in the sentence right before this one, we went back the cabin.’ Hm. You know, I enjoy your ambitious use of the first person, but you also refer to a previous description of a sunrise, of which I find no trace. Perhaps you can explain.”
“Um, that’s probably in there from, you know, an earlier draft. I’m really not sure how that got in there, but maybe you should ignore it.”
“Ah, forsooth. Rather disappointing. I had hoped you would read through your essays before bringing them to me.”
“Maybe I should take another look at it, then, and, uh, just hand it in after that?”
“Yes, that does seem appropriate. You may see yourself out.”
“Thank you, Professor Whitney,” he mumbled.
The boy shuffled out and shut the door. The professor sat in a rare moment of quiet glee, imagining the taste of the tear likely rolling down the student’s cheek. He slid the boy’s papers into the waste bin and grabbed a stack of exams. Soon, he observed the absence of his pen on his desk. He began searching the floor.
Across the transom of the classroom, Alex emerged, not nearly as humiliated as Professor Whitney would have liked. Having mistaken the disgusted invitation to leave for clemency, he deduced with great effort that he was in good favor with the teacher, who was likely overlooking the syntax error out of the goodness of his heart. Looking at his watch with similar effort, he also deduced that he should go home. Boy, the professor sure was nice.

The custodial staff of the professor’s employer and the student’s alma mater, Forrestbrook Elementary, prided itself on its efficiency and power, both in cleaning and in school politics. Many of the workers’ children attended Forrestbrook, and they whispered of the strings their janitor parents could pull in the Development Office, the Dean’s Office, and the Principal’s Office. The group’s influence was shadowy and mystic, and while great authority was possessed by all custodians, the identities of the master puppeteers were unknown.
Such was the competence of the janitors that trash and recycling were collected once a day, at 3:30, by an organized team that combed through each classroom on the school’s four major hallways in a web formation. More incredible was the staff’s ability to remain almost entirely hidden when performing the task: at Forrestbrook, seeing a janitor was like seeing an endangered eagle.
The phantom custodians reached Mr. Whitney’s room after Alex’s conference. The trash bags were removed, new ones were placed, and the door was closed, each movement performed in silence so as not to disturb the small, bespectacled man crawling on his hands and knees.

At Forrestbrook, recycling and garbage occupied the same room in the basement. Trash was tossed in the dumpster, bag and all. Recyclables, however, had to be sorted into paper and plastic in-house. Once the Janitorial Corps had finished collecting, they emptied the blue bins onto the floor and moved them into piles before placing them in the receptacles for their respective materials. Although the school bylaws instructed the Corps to rotate this duty, the same two janitors had volunteered to handle it every day for the past two years. The task was so unsavory, the basement so stuffy, that no one spoke out against the duo’s decision. At the same time that Mr. Whitney tore through the cabinets of his desk, at the same time that Alex marched home, the pair sat in the trash room, surrounded by documents and empty bottles.
“Hey, Iris, I’ve got another letter to the Principal. This one’s juicy, too. About a cheating scandal,” said one of the two, David.
“Well, file it with the others, then,” said Iris.
“You sure you don’t want to read it? It’s pretty good.”
“I don’t have time tonight. Jerry won’t be home until late tonight, and I’ve got to make dinner for the kids.”
“Okay, okay. But remind me tomorrow. I mean, with the details on this thing, we might be able to get new mops and napkin dispensers.” He poked around another bin. “Wait, isn’t this your son’s?” He pulled out three stapled sheets of red ink.
Iris squinted at the papers. “Alex doesn’t take drawing.”
“No, it isn’t a picture. It’s an essay. It has his name on it.” David handed her the assignment. “Here, look at it.”
Up close, Iris understood what David had meant; holding it up to her eye, she could make out faint words from behind the wall of pen. “Jeez, his teacher really ripped into him.” She paused, noticing multiple usages of the word “imbecile” in the professor’s notes.
“This must be the pen he used, too.” David produced the instrument and tossed it to Iris, who tested its shade of ink against that on the essay.
“Yup, must be.”
“Are you going to show it to him?”
“You mean Alex? Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“It’ll motivate him. And if he returns the pen, the teacher will like him a little more.”
“Huh. I guess you’re right. Maybe I can bring it up tonight. But no more getting sidetracked. Let’s just find what dirt we can, and we can talk about the mops tomorrow.”

The marked up paper turned dinner into uneaten leftovers. Blindsided, hurt, and betrayed, Alex left his family at the table and retreated to the bathtub to sulk about Whitney’s comments alone. The second and third pages were even more vicious than the first: the professor had labeled the prose as “immoral,” “without any decency or style,” and “reflective of a lifestyle reminiscent of a Gallic peasant preceding Roman occupation and the instillation of proper Classical manners and customs.” He sat in the tub as his mother explained her discovery of the pen and the great benefits he would enjoy upon returning it through the door. He emerged after she finished, but still remained silent and downcast all through the next morning.

“When you give it to him, smile. When he says ‘thank you,’ say ‘you’re welcome. And tell him how glad you are he’s your teacher, okay?” Iris said to her motionless son at breakfast. “Come on. It’s time to go.”
“Talk about the Ring of Gyges, if you can. But stay humble, don’t explicitly talk about how virtuous you are. Just hint at it,” she said on the drive to school.
“Good luck! Remember, knock twice on the door at a medium volume, and wait until he asks you to enter before you do,” she said as she kissed him goodbye, slipping the pen into his pocket. “Do it now, before your math class. I love you very much.”
“Thanks, mom,” he croaked back. “I have a good feeling about this.”

Mr. Whitney heard the knocks from the opposite corner of the room as he searched behind the books on the shelf. It was probably there, behind one of the books. If not, he would just check the floors again.
“Come in,” he commanded, turning around. “Oh. Hello, Alex. Do you have another draft?”
“No, Professor Whitney. Not right now, but-”
“Stand up straight, please. You look like a degenerate.”
Alex straightened his shoulders and continued. “Sorry, sir. Anyway, as I-”
“Tell me, have you seen a red pen? I swear I had it when you were with me yesterday.”
Alex looked into Whitney’s eyes. He felt the pen in his pocket with his right hand, and wiped his temple with his left. He took a step towards the door. “No, sorry. I haven’t. I was just, um, stopping in to say hello. And, you know, good morning.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be wasting such important time. Your first class starts soon, I’m sure. Ciao.”
Alex stared at the door handle and slowly turned the knob.