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The Paper Eater
Gary Fincke

Ronald Haverstruck had either eaten the milk carton he’d carried into study hall or made it disappear as if he were some sleight-of-hand expert. I was five weeks into teaching high school, and here was my first serious discipline issue because there were fifty-nine other students in the room, and half of them were laughing and pointing at the freshman in a Kiss t-shirt with an empty desk.

“Ok,” I said, mustering up some volume, “it’s all over, people.” Miraculously, they quieted, at least into a sort of hum of whispering. I was sure everyone had toned down because they wanted to see more from Haverstruck, that they hoped he’d brought something else along, maybe an algebra book he could make disappear, all the Xs and Ys vanishing while they cheered.

Ronald Haverstruck just smiled for a half hour, but when the bell rang and the students filed out, I noticed that nobody ran up to him to give him a high five or ask how that slick cardboard tasted. That night, when I told the story to my pregnant wife while our two children, ages two and five, played together peaceably for once, she said, “You mean he took a bite out of it, right?”

“No,” I said, “the boy ate the milk carton like an apple.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“You’re right,” I said. “It wasn’t quite like an apple because he ate everything. It was like a giant seedless grape. There wasn’t a core left over. After there was nothing at all is when I started thinking he’d put one over on me and hidden it somehow.”

“Well,” she said, “a sick boy he’ll be.”

“This boy is fourteen years old, and he’s new in school,” I said. “Ronald Haverstruck has been sitting there with nothing in front of him since school began, and now this. It’s not a good sign.”

 

The following day Ronald Haverstruck, still wearing the Kiss t-shirt, brought a Newsweek to study hall. I watched him pull the staples from the side and remove the cover before he began to eat. I thought Haverstruck was staring at me as his mouth moved, that he was about to spit the soggy paper into his hand and smile, but he swallowed four pages, then tugged another sheet free and stuffed it into his mouth. The study hall began to murmur, and by the next four page sheet, the room roared.

I fought the impulse to yank the magazine out of the boy’s hands and slap his face with what remained. What would I do if Haverstruck fought back?

I gave him eight more pages before I said, “What’s going on?” The room was so loud by then that I was sure every class on the third floor was wondering which teacher had so little control.

“I’m hungry,” Haverstruck said, reaching for the magazine, and I yanked that magazine away from him, cover and all, and asked him to step outside. “You wait here,” I said, and Haverstruck nodded in a way that made me believe he wouldn’t bolt.

“Ok,” I said, stepping back inside the room, “I need everybody to be quiet now,” and they settled into an undertone while I used the emergency phone to call for an escort.

The principal himself appeared a minute later, Haverstruck still standing just outside the door. The room, I was thankful, was quiet by then, except they were straining to see how Haverstruck was doing. I picked up the Newsweek. It felt skeletal, anorexic. I summed up the problem by showing the principal the remains of it and stepped aside like Pontius Pilate while the principal dropped the remaining half of that Newsweek into the trash can and led Haverstruck away.

“I have to tell you,” the principal said at the end of the day, “I witnessed something today I hope never to see in this school again. That boy was your responsibility. He could have harmed himself.”

“Yes,” I said, “I agree,” and I felt so lightheaded that the principal looked quizzically at me before he walked away to whatever else needed his attention.

 

That night I woke just before 1:00 am, my chest so tight I thought I might be having a heart attack. For a few minutes I breathed like a dog chasing sticks, and then I poked my wife awake and told her my diagnosis.

“You’re thirty,” she said, as if that number were irrefutable evidence that I was in no danger.

My chest became even tighter, my breath more rapid and shallow. In despair I lurched up and walked into the living room where I sat on the couch and waited for my heart to explode. A few minutes later my wife appeared.

“I’ll have to put the kids in their car seats,” she said. “I’ll have to wake them.” I nodded and made my way to the car.

“Try it for a minute,” an emergency room nurse counseled twenty minutes later. “You’ll see.” She had just finished sticking her face into a brown paper bag and breathing.

Five minutes earlier, I’d grown angry, and the nurse didn’t believe I was having a heart attack. And now, when she suggested putting a bag over my nose and mouth before breathing, I was prepared to drop dead to prove how right I was before I’d raise that bag to my face.

“Suit yourself,” the nurse said, but she was clever enough to leave the room, giving me a chance to try her medieval medicine unobserved. I took a deep breath and stuck my face in the bag. I had to tell myself to breathe again. I had to remind myself there was such a thing as a breath that wasn’t a drowner’s gasp. I inhaled. I exhaled. I inhaled again. I kept it up for another minute before I yanked the bag away and stared at the nurse as she re-entered the room.

“Feel better?” she said.

I took a breath and evaluated. I took another and nodded.

“Fear makes us see our symptoms like children. You’re thirty years old. The odds in your favor are wonderful. Use the bag for another minute. You’re doing fine.” The nurse walked behind a partition, and a small child began to scream. Whatever was wrong with that child had nothing to do with lungs and air. I breathed in the bag for another minute and felt so enormously better I began to appreciate the wisdom of witch doctors, the value of ritual dances and the tossed bones of small animals.

“Ok now?” she said, returning a few seconds after the child stopped screaming.

“Yes,” I had to admit.

“You know,” she said, “don’t think you’re a special case or anything. You’d be surprised how many people have to use these bags. So many I bet you see some every day, and they act as if there’s nothing wrong.”

Ten minutes later, settled beside my wife in the car, the children groggy in the back, I said, “I never once thought of prayer,” and tried to force a laugh. My wife kept her eyes on the road as if we were traveling in a blizzard.

 

The following week, Haverstruck returned from suspension in the Kiss shirt I hoped had been washed.  I watched as he walked into study hall with what looked to be twenty or thirty sheets of blank paper, tamping the stack down on his desk as if he intended to write on it. While I took the roll, Haverstruck began to eat the paper sheet by sheet, and I lost my place three times on the seating chart, looking up and then down so quickly the names and locations swam into nonsense. “Ronald,” I finally said, the boy six sheets into eating, and I was astonished when, without my asking, the boy walked into the hall where he stood while I used the emergency phone to call the counseling center.

An escort came within minutes. “Let someone else intervene,” I told my wife after school. “Study hall duty is something to survive, not excel at. And who could do anything with this lunacy?”

“This guy won’t get you fired,” she said. “It’s the kid who says you’re the weird one because of something you say. It’s the parent whose daughter comes home with stories. This is a public school. You have those students like that right now.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You have a paper eater. You can be sure you have those others.”

 

At 1:38 the following morning, according to the clock radio, I sat up silently, measuring the seriousness of my symptoms—shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, even a tingling in my left arm. I counted on everything adding up to one more anxiety attack and stood as if my feet on the carpet could charm away the pillow-on-the-face of fear. If I was having a heart attack, I was going to die believing I was fine.

I lifted the brown bag the nurse had given me off my dresser. When my wife didn’t stir, I carried it into the living room. I needed nothing but the common sense of calm and the brown bag for panic. I breathed in, breathed out, and when I felt myself beginning to recover, I smoothed the bag flat and held it for a few minutes just to be sure.

The desk Ronald Haverstruck had sat in stayed empty for six days until it was filled by a new student who opened a book and didn’t eat even one bite of it.

When one of my classes read Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” the following week, someone brought up Haverstruck. “He’s crazy, right?” the girl said. “You could die or something, couldn’t you?”

“I doubt it,” I said, “but you could make yourself good and sick.”

“What happened to him?” she said. “You don’t get kicked out for eating a magazine, do you?”

It turned out you did. “Chronic disruption” was one reason. “Psychiatric evaluation” was another. There was an alternative school ten miles away. Haverstruck, the principal said without a trace of irony, would be among his peers.

The next day somebody in that study hall threw a ball bearing the size of a large marble. It struck the wall two feet above my head, and I watched it ricochet and bounce before I turned toward where I was sure the thrower sat.

No one admitted it or said they’d witnessed the throw, so I knew the reincarnation of the young Biblical David was almost certainly a boy named Kent who was waiting for his sixteenth birthday so he could quit school. “I didn’t do it,” he said. “Ask anybody.”

I called the office anyway. Even for just twenty minutes, I wanted him out of there. He was back the next day, but I didn’t turn my head for the two weeks that passed before his birthday arrived. I used the brown paper bag three times during those weeks, each time between one and two am.

After my third episode, my wife threw the bag away and handed me a white paper bag that was folded and flat as if it had never been used. It was wax-coated and smelled faintly of bread. “I brought home dinner rolls in it,” she said.

“My mother used to fill these with doughnuts and sweet rolls when she worked in the bakery,” I said.

My wife knew all about my father’s bakery and how my mother and sister and I had all worked there. “I wouldn’t keep a doughnut bag for you,” she said. “It would be all coated on the inside with sugar and icing.”

“Maybe I won’t need it,” I said, and she grimaced. After she left the room I put the bag under a sweater in a drawer as if it were a porn magazine.

 

Christmas vacation relaxed me. My January teacher evaluations settled me even more. The principal came unannounced to two of my classes, and though he seemed surprised, he commended me both times in writing.

I didn’t have an anxiety attack for a month. The worst thing that happened at school was a boy calling out “Woo-hoo!” after every question I asked. He was a senior, and when I asked him what was up, he answered, “Woo-hoo!”

Two woo-hoos later, I sent him to the office. “Woo-hoo!” he said as he left.

“Don’t you know what’s wrong with him?” another boy said after the door closed.

“No.”

“He’s drunk.”

“Really?” I said. I looked at the clock. It was 10:45 in the morning.

I slept through the night. The boy, who received three days detention, apologized when he returned.

“You’re learning,” my wife said, not specifying.

 

My five year-old son snored. He had ear aches and sore throats so often that they arrived as regularly as weekends. His adenoids and tonsils need to be removed, the doctor explained, sounding like the one who’d spoken to my mother as if I wasn’t sitting there when I was five years old.

Suddenly I recalled the miserable enema a nurse had given me without explanation. Worse, I remembered the smell of ether, how I’d been proud I could count backwards from one hundred. “Ninety-nine,” I’d said and gone into darkness.

“It’s routine,” the doctor said.  “It’s nothing to worry about,” an assurance that made me want to cancel the surgery.

I woke at 1:42 am the night before my son’s surgery and walked off the attack without touching the white paper bag. I convinced myself that I was glad to be teaching while the operation was performed, a conviction that lasted until the following day when every time the door opened to my classroom I expected a summons to the office to take a bad news phone call.

Three times the door opened—a supplies delivery, the absentee list, and a note for a student. By the last period, I was ecstatic with relief.

When I arrived at my son’s hospital room, my wife was spooning ice chips into his mouth. In the other bed was Ronald Haverstruck. The paper eater had gotten his tonsils out too. He was alone, but he looked so much the same I thought he might be wearing his Kiss t-shirt underneath his hospital gown.

He recognized me and smiled, pointing at his mouth, and for a moment, until I realized he was telling me he couldn’t speak, I thought he was reminding me about the milk carton and the Newsweek.

“It’s worse when you’re older,” my wife said, and when I didn’t answer immediately, she added, “That’s what I’ve heard.” I squeezed my son’s hand. He looked as if he’d shrunk.

I patted his head, turned, and walked over to say hello to Haverstruck, who beamed. “How’s your new school?” I said, and he made a thumbs-down sign in the air. When nothing else came to me, I said, “School’s school” and shrugged. Then, ready to escape, I pointed toward the other bed and said, “My son” as if that boy would think I was visiting a five year-old stranger.

After I returned to my son, I stood so I was facing away from the paper eater. I promised my son all the chocolate ice cream he could eat. I promised him pizza in a week and being allowed to stay up past his bed time to watch the special upcoming two-hour episode of the Six Million Dollar Man. Until we left, my wife’s hand never stopped touching him as she spoke. She would be coming back to pick him up in the morning because I had classes to teach. “That was the kid who ate the Newsweek,” I told her as we walked to the car.

“In the other bed?”

“Yes.”

“I thought he was just another kid from your school. He didn’t look weird.”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s pretty much true,” and I meant it because Haverstruck had looked like somebody who could barely swallow, like somebody who would let ice cream melt down his throat and reach by the half hour for the ice water on the stand by his bed.

My wife glanced up at the second floor windows of the hospital as if she believed she might catch a glimpse of Ronald Haverstruck and said, “He looked like anybody else.”

 

 

Gary Fincke is the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing and Director of The Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.  

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