That made me think of Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. Yes, I know his pet is supposed to be a worm, but what if he got a dog, maybe a junkyard dog.
It started feeling like it would fit into the Big Messy Project, yet I didn't feel like my protagonist would actually fall into the Sesame Street world, or even kids' collective imagination of it. OTOH, maybe she could watch it, perhaps during the first part, when she's revisiting her childhood memories.
Oscar's New Friend
As I walked down the main drag, I considered how many of my childhood stories began just that way, with the footloose protagonist walking into town and encountering someone who needed something. The Inciting Incident, they called it in literature classes.
On reflection, a lot of those story beginnings were pretty silly. But I was in my teens and tweens, so the very fact that I was writing stories with multiple chapters and complex storylines was remarkable in itself.
A lot of those stories were probably still boxed up somewhere back in Gninnell. But that was a long way away, and that was assuming I was still in the same universe. Given some of the strange things I'd gone through since arriving in Henning to find the Primary Building still standing, looking like it had when I went to school there, I was no longer confident on that count.
So quite honestly I wasn't all that astonished to arrive at the Bismarck Grade School and find the old tower section still standing. It was the original building, and when I was there it was already rundown and grubby. Sometime around the turn of the millennium that section had been torn down, leaving the building all on a single level. The bell that had once been in the belfry on the roof had been mounted on a concrete stand near the main entrance.
Seeing everything as it had been brought back all the old memories, and not all of them were pleasant. The year I had attended here had been a difficult one – but I'd always been a difficult student, especially for teachers who valued biddability more than actual ability. And in retrospect, I could now see that many of my teachers in those days felt threatened by my intelligence and the breadth of my knowledge. They'd rather cut down the tall poppies to make themselves feel bigger than cultivate my mind so I could attain my full potential when I reached adulthood.
How much of that experience had shaped the long, meandering path that had finally led me to a modicum of success as a history professor at a small liberal arts college in central Iowa? I might never be a big name in my field, but I'd finally found a place where I was no longer toiling in fear of being hauled into the boss's office and told my work was not acceptable because I didn't fill every moment with Visible Busy, that my contract would not be renewed, that I should tender my resignation.
And then a routine trip to my old hometown had turned everything topsy-turvy. Unless I was just in some altered state of consciousness, sitting by the side of the road or even still in my own bed at home and dreaming this whole mad journey. I had to face the possibility that I was stuck here indefinitely.
In stories the protagonist just had to solve the puzzle or vanquish the villain, and then they got to go home again at the end. However, just because this world featured a bunch of stuff from my story worlds from the time I was going to school there, it didn't necessarily mean narrative logic would be applied to my presence here. For starters, back in those days I wasn't that good at endings. Quite honestly, a lot of my early stories didn't have any ending condition for the simple reason that reaching it would mean having to say good-bye to a world and characters I'd come to know so well.
Now that I was actually here, with a good reason to believe that Sly Fox's goons were hunting for me and the Crowned Inspector was not my friend, however much she might talk of law and order, I could really use a clear ending condition I could work toward.
And the longer I stood out here, the longer it would take to find one. On the other hand, did I really want to just go walking in and looking around? Maybe this was as much of a time of innocence as my childhood memories recalled, a time when safety was simply assumed in a small town, so I could go into a school without immediately becoming suspect.
However, much of that assumption rested upon the ability of everyone knowing each other, so that troublemakers were known quantities and outsiders immediately recognizable as such. Which left me in an awkward position. Although this was my hometown, everyone here would know me as a little kid, not a college professor, so I would be seen as a stranger. And with all my ID burned up with my car in the K-mart lot in Danville, there was no way to prove otherwise.
Things would've been easier if I'd been transported here while on my way to a professional meeting rather than an informal gathering with friends. If I were in professional attire, I could just look like I had business here and no one would challenge me.
Maybe acting like I belonged here would be the best course of action. By the late 70's things had gotten a lot less formal. I remembered some of the teachers wearing slacks rather than skirts or suits, so maybe I could brazen my way through by claiming I was from some kind of research institute, maybe from California, since they were already pretty laid-back about dress codes even then. Maybe Berkeley or UCLA, since both of them were sufficiently well-known to be recognized.
If I was going to look like I belonged here, I'd better come in through the front door. Take hold of that handle and pull it open like I had every right in the world to come in.
The principal's office was right by the entrance, with big glass windows that gave a clear view of everyone coming through the entryway or the main corridor. The secretary looked up at me, but only for a moment before returning to her work.
Glad to have passed that challenge, I took a look around, recognizing so much from days gone by. There was the entrance to the tower, with the teachers' lounge to the right. Ahead were the gymnasium and lunchroom, and the secondary entrance where school buses picked up and dropped off kids. It also served as our milk break area, where we would stand around and chat.
To the left ran the long corridor that led to the rest of the classrooms. How many times had I walked it on the way to the playground in the one year that I went to school here? As I walked past the classrooms with the windows onto the hallway, I could see the students all bent over some kind of worksheets. Math, perhaps, or maybe spelling words to write over and over until your whole arm cramped up and your brain went numb from the unutterable tedium of it all. In the decades since those days, I'd forgotten how much I detested that chore, but now it all came back, the battles of wills over those repetitive tasks I considered pointless, but my teachers considered essential.
At least now nobody was going to stand glowering over me until I ground out the necessary spelling words or math problems. Heck, I was probably older than most of my old teachers, including the ones I'd thought were so old.
However, I was unlikely to meet any of them, since this was back in the days when the two grade schools were still running a full K-6, rather than having all classes of each grade together at a given building.
Much as I remembered from my one unhappy year here, the younger grades were at the far end of the corridor, closer to the exit onto the playground. Even here in the hallway I could feel the restless energy of first and second graders struggling to sit still and remain attentive on their lessons.
And then I heard music from one open door. Wasn't the music room in the tower, on thee second floor?
After a moment I recognized it as a song from Sesame Street -- not the title theme music, but the music that went with one of the segments where they cut away from the titular city street to do some stuff to teach reading in context. One about traffic signs, if I remembered correctly, and it sounded like they were already winding it up.
I paused by the door, positioning myself where I could see without being seen. Yes, it was a class of first or second graders – how tiny those desks and chairs looked from my adult perspective, although they'd seemed much larger when I was that age. And over the teacher's desk was a television – I still remembered how the Henning grade school parents thought it shocking that every classroom in this building had its own television set , and didn't see much value in the argument that it was to watch educational programs – and yes, it was tuned to Sesame Street.
The segment on reading street signs ended and they were back to the main set. One of the human characters was lifting the lid on the trash can by the entrance to the trash can, apparently not realizing it was the home of Oscar the Grouch.
I thoroughly expected Oscar to pop his head out and start yelling about the interruption. Instead, out popped a dog Muppet, growling at the human character.
I blinked in astonishment. Although it had been years since I watched Sesame Street, I was pretty sure that Oscar the Grouch never had a dog in his trash can that was bigger on the inside (did Jim Henson ever see Dr. Who, or did he come up with the idea independently?). In fact, I don't think they'd even given Oscar his pet worm Slimy back in those days.
I also managed to get a story written for the latest Indies Unlimited Flash Fiction Writing Challenge. My effort takes us to the Grissom Timeline, to the early days of the Expulsions, as Jen Redmond struggles to keep the settlement fed.
As always, if you'd like to participate in Odd Prompts, just send your prompt in to firstname.lastname@example.org to be assigned a prompt of your own. Or if you're not up to the commitment of trading prompts, you can always check out the spare prompts and see if any of them tickle your creativity.
There will be a new word and picture prompt up at Indies Unlimited on Saturday. Until then, the polls will open tomorrow for voting on the Readers' Choice Award, and will close at 5PM on Thursday.
In the meantime, keep writing