When Mason Arnold Williams III walked into our classroom we all stopped what we were doing and stared at him. "Who's that?" we said. It was late January and we were all wearing shabby sweaters, waffle weave, shrunken pants. Not Mason Arnold. He stood in the doorway like a young judge. A black dress shirt flowed down his arms. His hair was bowl-shaped and even. His slacks were straight and neat; light shone in his shoes. Miss Eckhardt put him next to Eleanor Grundley, and at lunch Eleanor told us that his mother was an actress. "An actress," we whispered, awed.
Soon we learned other things about Mason. With his hands in his pockets, leaning casually against the swingset, he told us that he had a tarantula. "A tarantula!" Eleanor said. "Aren't you afraid of it?"
"No," Mason said. "He has a cage."
"What if he gets out of the cage?"
"He won't get out unless you let him out."
"What's his name?"
"He doesn't have any tarantula," Bruce interjected. "They don't even have tarantulas in the United States."
Mason shuffled his feet and adjusted his lean on the swing set. His eyes went to each one of us in turn. "His name is Doom," he said. "Tell you what. Maybe I'll bring him sometime."
Doom! We gathered at lunch every day and made up stories about the spider. He had hatched from the terrible roost of a spider queen, in the fury of a desert sandstorm. He made his way east on the railroads, chasing snakes across smoky train yards. Scuttering up cactuses, lizards trailing from his hoary maw. Giant.
"He's not that big," Mason said, coming up behind us. He extended his hand, smooth and pink, before us. "He's this big. Perhaps the size of my palm."
Doom! Dread monarch, making his rightful life as a ruler in a vast desert! We pictured Doom atop a peak of sand, waving his paw towards the scrambling ants. Creeping over the seas in the holds of great ocean liners. Coming to Mason's call like a falcon to the falconer, a great predator.
"Doom comes from a pet store in Texas," Mason said. "My mom got him for me when she was shooting a film there."
Every morning we waited for Doom. Every morning we watched Mason step out of a sleek car and walked past the battered Volvos and Chevys in the driveway, lunchbox in hand, Doomless. Every afternoon he sailed away in the backseat like a prince. We thought there was no outside where he went. Mason never came to school with dirty hair or with Band-Aids on his elbows. We thought he lived in a windless house where mess was tamed and arranged: plants tucked into pots, water murmuring in fountains, breezes routed into vents and pipes.
Over time, this tidiness made us a little ashamed of ourselves. It was hard to say why. Maybe it was the way he sat quietly on the swings that made the rest of us want to stop running and shouting and sit quietly too. Or maybe it was the way Mason played games with us. Mason always won, but he never gloated and sang, never slapped hands with anybody, never danced a champion dance around the checkerboard. He just thanked his opponent, folded the checkerboard, and put it away. Fearless. Calm.
December came, and the wind beat against the windows. Outside, the tree branches began to ice and crack, and the playground was covered with frost. One morning Mason came to school with a blanketed bundle in his arms, set it on his desk, and uncovered it with a little flourish.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "I present to you Doom, my pet spider."
We stared. A small hairy tarantula limped around a pink castle in a small plastic terrarium. There was a heap of earth against one wall, with a cave carved into it. Pink strings decorated the little cave, making a sort of pale cushion in the dirt.
"Doom can spin silk with his legs," Mason explained. "He uses it to line the inside of his burrow."
We exchanged glances. Silk was what our grandmothers wore to family holidays, silk pastel shirts with rhinestones and shoulderpads, from the shopping channels on TV.
"What's the matter with his leg?" asked Eleanor.
"Doom pricked his paw on a cactus plant my mom put in there," Mason said. "We had to take the cactus out."
Bruce raised his hand. "Can Doom swallow a snake?"
"Sure can," Mason said. "We don't give him snakes, though."
"How do you know he could swallow a snake, then?"
"Any tarantula can. Go find a snake and I'll feed it to him."
"What does he live on now?"
"He eats this stuff," Mason said, jabbing his finger in a corner of the cage. "Tarantula feed." We leaned in and looked at Doom's little dish of pellets.
"Is there crumbled snake in it?" Bruce asked.
"That's enough, guys," Miss Eckhardt said, coming over. "Let's all sit down. Your spider is very nice, Mason. Everybody thank Mason for bringing Doom to show us."
"Thank you, Mason," we murmured. Mason put the cage on the windowsill and went back to his desk. The spider folded his body into a little pile of legs and went to sleep in his silken burrow.
Outside it began to snow, white flurries dusting the windows. The wind rose like an angry whisper. Mason was still talking as he went to sit, saying he would bring his famous mother to show us. No one paid attention. We were done with him then, Mason and his shabby Doom.
II. The Acting Lesson
Every morning when Mason came in Miss Eckhardt said "Hello Mason" and sent him to sit in the front with Eleanor. But when Bruce came in, Miss Eckhardt sent him to the back and told him to settle down. When he got up again, windbreaker fluttering, his bulky body rising from the desk, she said, "Bruce. Sit. You have to know when it's right to stay down or get up, Bruce. You have to know when you get up because you need something, and when you get up just for the sake of getting up." Bruce tried to think about it, but he struggled as he sat in his chair, not knowing if it was right for him to move. We could hear him in class, fidgeting in his chair, trying to stay put, and it was horrible.
The truth was, the teachers were trying to get Bruce to stay in the chair because he was large and he had too many impulses. Wherever Bruce went, things fell down: ketchup bottles, chairs, exercise books. People fell too. They tumbled down on either side of Bruce, knocked in the shoulder, tripped at the heel. Each of us had progress folders in a metal box on the bookshelf, and Bruce's folder had a sheet that said, "Have I been too impulsive today?" Every afternoon Bruce had to sign Yes or No and Miss Eckhardt had to write about it.
Every day we looked at the back of Mason's head and listened to Bruce's feet. Outside the winter days grew colder. The wind blew against the window and made a tree branch tap the pane, ever so slightly, in time with Bruce's shuffling legs. One morning Miss Eckhardt brought a woman to the front of the class and smiled at us.
"Today we have a visitor," she said. "Everybody say hi to Mason's mom, Ms. Williams. She's going to give us an acting lesson."
Ms. Williams waved at us. She was tall and thin like Mason, and she stood very straight and tilted her head down as she looked at us. She was wearing a slinky black dress with a red scarf around her neck that swayed and trailed whenever she moved, and her high heels clacked on the classroom floor. When she spoke we saw that her teeth were perfect, even and dazzlingly white.
"I'm here because I want to talk to you about acting," she said. "Would you like to learn about that?"
"Yes," we chorused.
"Good!" she said. "Now, the first thing I want you to know is that acting is about emotions. And people. It's about your character, about what kind of person your character is. You have to know how your character feels and what your character does. Once you know this, you must show it with your face and your body."
She waved her arms to demonstrate this. Her bracelets jangled. Bruce shuffled and thumped behind us. Outside the tree branch tapped at the window, a low, even beat that grew faster, like a gathering army.
"We're going to try an exercise," Miss Williams said. "Here's how it will work. I'll call out a feeling, and you try and show me that feeling with your hands and his body and face. Use your body language. Really show me! Are you ready?"
"Ready," we chorused.
Ms. Williams raised her arms and cried out:
We slumped over our desks, yawning and rubbing our eyes. We made our limbs wilt with tiredness. We looked up at Ms. Williams with drowsy, half-shut lids.
"That's very good," she said. "Now, get ready for the next one." She raised her hands, sprang forward:
We made our mouths thin and looked sideways at one another. Some of us pointed. We mumbled and crossed our arms defensively. "You guys are looking really green out there," she said. "Get ready."
"Impulsive!" she cried.
There was a terrific crash at the back of the room as Bruce jumped out of his desk. He leapt and kept leaping, his windbreaker rising and falling, trampling his chair.
"Bruce! Stop!" Miss Eckhardt yelled.
Bruce didn't stop. He ran to the bookshelf, grabbed the pencil sharpener, and hurled it at the wall. Pencil shavings whirled around him. He threw his head back and yelled. He grabbed the metal box of progress reports and slammed it through the window, breaking the glass. Papers stormed over the playground. The wind blew in and puffed Bruce's clothes as he stomped and hollered.
Ms. Williams was hurriedly getting her coat on when the principal and the P.E. coach came running in behind us, calling out to Bruce. No one paid attention. We were all rooting for Bruce in his endless dance of freedom, as if that one moment could be suspended forever: Bruce in a frenzy of impulses, the pencil shavings drifting around him, the shards of glass singing under his feet.
Mason got his coat on too and left school early with his mom. "You should bring her again sometime," we said.
III. The Pink Rose
On February 14 we made battered valentines. Glitter rained to the floor. Glue slid down the construction paper hearts and dried into white icicles. Mason came to school with a black silk sack of roses. He went around the class, silently, and laid a white rose on the desk of each of the girls. When he got to Eleanor he laid a last rose on her desk and took his seat beside her. Eleanor stared straight ahead and swallowed. We all nudged each other excitedly. "He gave her a pink one," we whispered. Eleanor's ears were very bright.
After school Eleanor said she didn't know what to do with the rose. She said it made her scared. "Mason loves you," we teased.
Eleanor began to cry. "But I don't love Mason back," she wailed, wringing her hands.
We were dumbfounded. "If you do not love him back you must let him know," we said.
The truth was, we had never seen Eleanor cry before, and it made us all afraid. The oldest child in a family of seven, Eleanor always knew what to do. Every morning Eleanor got to school early and sharpened all of the pencils to just that right fineness, thin but not so thin the tips broke. At lunch she wiped off the desks. In the afternoons she helped us with the math. She had scrubbed, sharpened, and studied her way to the top of the class. This is how we thought of her. Eleanor with the cleanest desk. Eleanor with the answers. And now, Eleanor was afraid of the valentine. It was terrible to see.
And then the rose was indestructible. When the white roses began to brown and curl, the pink rose seemed to grow fresher every day. It was larger than the other roses, with lavish curling leaves twirling down its stem. The thorns were snipped, made round and kind. Tiers of buds burst from the stem. Like flowers in the wild, each petal seemed to curve in a different way. And then there was the ribbon: trailing and choking the stem, hurling itself into the curliest flounces and bows.
It was a horrible rose, a laughing and thriving rose.
It spilled from the sides of Eleanor's desk, as if there were vines and wilds within.
So Miss Eckhardt was only echoing our thoughts when she stood still and looked at Eleanor's empty desk one morning, and at Eleanor sitting empty-handed behind it. "Why, Eleanor," she said. "What happened to your pretty rose?'
"I don't know," she said, solemnly.
"How could you lose it?" Miss. Eckhardt said. "A big rose like that can't just up and walk away by itself."
Eleanor blinked and looked Miss. Eckhardt straight in the face. "I just don't know," she said. "I just don't know what happened to the rose."
But Eleanor did know what happened to the rose. In the grey morning, sharpening the pencils, Eleanor took the rose and sharpened it too, stem-first, grinding the buds and the petals and ribbon into a great heap of debris. Then she stood in the guilty shadows of the early light, in the empty classroom, the mess of petals in her hands. The janitors had taken the trash cans, and there was nowhere to hide the shattered flower. Panicked, Eleanor dragged a chair over to the heating duct, climbed up, removed the vent, and threw the pile of shavings into the pipes.
Eleanor whispered this story of the rose at lunchtime, and we never asked her to tell it again. But for days afterward, when the heat came on, little pink dots puffed out of the vent over our heads. Light darts of thorn settled in our hair. Bits of stems, like dusty bullets, sailed towards the blackboard, right over Mason Arnold Williams III. Mason in the rosy heat. Mason in the green rain.
IV. Mason's Finale
When Mason said he was leaving we followed him around the classroom like unhappy siblings. "Why do you have to go?" we asked. He looked straight at us, the same way he looked at us on the playground when he told us about the tarantula.
"I'm going to a different school," he said. "A private school."
"A private school!" we said. "Why would you do a thing like that?"
Mason went over to his desk and began moving his notebook and pencils into a black backpack. We followed him. His mother waited at the door, her car keys jangling in her hand.
"It was nice to meet all of you," Mason said. "But I am going somewhere where people believe in what I have to share. I'm going where people will appreciate me."
"No one appreciates you more than we do," we said. Mason zipped the backpack shut and turned away to go. We sighed and watched him walk away. His mother gave us a disappointed look as she pulled the door shut. We ran to the window, with its plastic covering the gaping hole that Bruce had made, and watched as Mason and his mother got into the car. The playground and the car looked wavy and dim.
"Just try to remember," said Miss Eckhardt, coming up behind us. "He's from a different place."
And then we thought of the place where Mason came from, that still house, with neat checkerboards, with clean hands, with rows of black silk shirts and an actress mother. Where the lamed tarantula hobbled in and out of its fortress, and where people gave pink roses to the people they loved.
the wind had stopped, and the leaves were gathered in little piles against the
playground fence. We watched the sleek car pull away for the last time, with
Mason in the backseat. We waved. If he noticed, he did not give any sign of it.
The car turned out into the road, past the row of trees, all of their branches
perfectly still. It was as if he took the wind away with him, back to his
BIO: Barbara Barrow's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The GSU Review, Zahir, theNewerYork, and NANO Fiction.