Place Values by Nicole Nelson

Didier Weemaels

 

“It’s Day 100, kids!” Mrs. Kroll said, reaching deep into her belly for enthusiasm that they expected of her by now. On the days she wasn’t feeling it, she could usually fake excitement with ease. In her ten years of teaching for the one-room preschool, this was the first time that she felt entirely not in the mood.

The children were silent, and looked around for Zero the Hero. Since Day 10, Mrs. Kroll had talked about him, building up the anticipation for the 100th day. Each student brought 100 things to count—marbles, pinto beans, Lego bricks—so they could work in groups and count to ten again and again, for a good twenty minutes. The mom who had snack duty that day counted out ten grapes for each kid, and ten fish-shaped crackers, each in disposable Dixie cups. Peering out the window, the four-year-olds bounced up and down on the balls of their feet, waiting to catch a glimpse of Zero.

The front door to the classroom flung open. Zero looked like Superman, but wore a mask like Robin’s, a little too small, and had a “Z” instead of an “S” on his chest. The kids squealed and pointed. He had a paper sack in one hand. He leapt on a low round table, looking at all the kids as they laughed with big eyes. He looked at Mrs. Kroll, who was the only one not smiling. William stood right in front of the table and wiped his hands on his pants, then pointed at the stack of bills in Zero’s hand.

Zero launched a fist full of fake $100 bills printed on colorful paper—yellow, red, and blue into the air. He gave a cartoon villain laugh, and reached into the paper bag, throwing burst after burst of money rainbows into the air. The children clapped their hands together. Some crawled around on the floor, collecting the bills as fast as they could. Others remained standing, watching the small, stiff rectangles turn spirals in the air before touching the ground. A boy and a girl bonked heads, but didn’t cry. They kept reaching for more money.

Mrs. Kroll folded her arms and turned her back to the scene. Just the night before, Lars told her the truth—that he had been sleeping with Fay for the past year. She had suspected as much, but the confession drained her of energy, and of most of her feelings altogether. She struggled to harness her inner compass, to figure out what her next move should be. He swore it was over, that he regretted it, and he was ready to try for another baby if she wanted.

The stress of the miscarriage, the pressure, the grief—several excuses about why he turned away from the marriage tumbled from his plump, chapped mouth. He apologized, with plenty of tears, and swore he loved only her.

She turned around and focused on the red “Z” on his chest. It was replaced this year with a freshly cut felt one that had been somehow sewn on, if crookedly. It was an improvement from the safety pinned-on construction paper from the years before.

She crossed her arms more tightly, and squeezed her hands into fists. Zero held one last bill in his hand, and held it out to Mrs. Kroll, his electric blue arm fully extended. The children looked up from their positions on the floor and around the table.

“Mrs. Kroll, why don’t you take it?” asked William. Zero stood there, holding the crumpled empty paper bag to his side with his other hand.

She looked at the children, their smiles fading, and the bouncing having subsided. Then she looked at Zero. The red briefs over the tights hid little; nothing she—and Fay—had not seen before. The first time he put on the outfit, bought on sale at Party City, she wore her Wonder Woman costume. She said his butt looked great, peeking under the cape as he modeled it for her. He couldn’t get her bodice off fast enough, and he had groaned into her neck more loudly than on their honeymoon.

Mrs. Kroll had pretended she didn’t see Fay that morning at drop off, just kept her back to her and let her assistant usher William in, putting his sweatshirt on top of the pile in the laundry basket they used to contain the extra clothes from home.

Fay would likely pull him from the preschool, once Lars informed her that their little secret was not a secret anymore. Last night, Mrs. Kroll pressed Lars for details. As she feared, Lars and Fay had screwed during her school day, in her home, more than once.

Her eyes burned. She held her jaw in the palm of her hand. Then she felt all of the children’s eyes on her, in silent stillness as the tights-clad super hero stood there, his arm getting tired. The students scrunched their faces at the rudeness, unable to understand.

“Say goodbye to our guest,” Mrs. Kroll said. The children murmured good-bye, looking from the classroom visitor to Mrs. Kroll.

“And ‘Thank you,’ … Right, Mrs. Kroll?” William asked.

“Yes, of course—a big ‘Thank you’ to Zero!”

“Thank you, Mr. Zero!” the kids all said in a louder, uniform singsong.

He left, his head down, the blue cape catching on the lock as he slumped through the doorway.

Mrs. Kroll smoothed her hair, watching Zero leave, out of the corner of her eye, through the classroom window. He threw the balled-up paper bag and the remaining blue $100 note in the passenger’s seat and yanked his cape inside their Prius before closing the door and throwing the car into reverse.


 

Nicole Nelson is a co-host of Writers on Writing on KUCI-FM in Irvine (@WoWkuciFM). She attended the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference in 2010, where she worked with Curtis Sittenfeld. Her story ‘Passengers’ appeared in Blue Lyra Review in 2014.