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“The Metaphor Game” by John Francis Istel

March 9, 2021

The Academy for Teachers' Stories Out of School 2021 Flash Fiction Contest Winner, selected by Jonathan Lethem

Judge's Citation: Out of a superb batch of teacher-short-shorts, I finally had to settle on “The Metaphor Game”. It has verve, compression, surprise, and courage on its side—everything you want, in barely three pages. The irony is deft, and it makes a fierce commentary on its social-justice theme and also the current state of disrepair in the world of metaphor.

Everyone in class is scribbling furiously. The topic on the board: “Love versus Hate.” We’re about to begin Romeo and Juliet and the timer is ticking down toward the last two minutes. Now something’s wrong with Rafael.

“My head hurts,” he mumbles.

I squat down next to the mass of black wavy hair and whisper, “Maybe you’re dehydrated. How about a trip to the water fountain?” Rafael suddenly sits up and arches back until his black tee reveals a band of pale skin, just above his black jeans. He shakes the hair off his cheeks. His mascara has smudged over his right eye.

“Go on. Grab a drink of water.”

Rafael swivels out of his seat. “What’s with the agua imagery?” He waggles his lip ring with a finger. “What am I to you, Joseph in some parched desert in Canaan?” I know Rafael’s head aches partly because it’s literally painful for him to read and write. He’s dyslexic but also the most intellectually curious in the class; thanks to the glut of graphic novel versions of the classics, he’s the most literate. Plus, he’s great at The Metaphor Game.

“You’re a beached Greek boat,” I suggest, “waiting for wind.”

“You’re the Grim Reaper, penciling kids their fates.” He winks and snaps off a shot with his index finger, peering into my eyes with a weird pity. It’s the same look Crispus gave me just before I drowned him in the bathtub.

I euthanized Crispus, my two-year-old Rottie, about a month after he jumped out of an Uber on the Major Deegan. We’d been sitting in the stifling car for about thirty minutes in traffic around Yankee Stadium. Two cars hit him before I dragged him to the shoulder. The vet said he’d need expensive reconstructive surgery. For weeks, I carried him down four flights twice a day so he could hobble around the newly planted gingko saplings on the Grand Concourse and do his business.

Rafael’s headaches arise from various sources: from his Dominican grandparents, with whom he’s in constant battle; a school system that makes a sixteen-year-old dyslexic freshman, starting his third high school, sit at a desk six hours a day; the two cute K-pop fangirls who visibly flinch when his bulky shadow skulks by them out of the room.

For our creative writing project, Rafael’s working on a manga version of Odysseus’s encounter with Circe. In his retelling, his dad, currently serving time in Dannemora, struggles to get home to Mott Haven but gets waylaid by a sexy drug dealer outside of Troy, where Rafael’s mother is now in rehab.

I had never killed an animal before. So, like when my fridge broke or I needed to know how to broil salmon, I found online videos describing how to euthanize a pet. Rafael was the only person I told. In retrospect, that was a mistake, but I felt he would understand the immensity of the dilemma. He confessed he had once watched a kosher butcher’s video demonstrating how to slit a cow’s throat so it didn’t feel any pain. He offered to share the URL.

After our last class before Christmas, Rafael stopped in and slipped me a couple pieces of folded loose leaf. He looked me in the eyes until he was sure I was listening. “It’s my final masterpiece.”

While our teacher-student choir caroled “Dona nobis pacem” in the hall, I read Rafael’s story. It described the narrator, who always wore black, glorying in a revenge slaughter with a machete and bottle of hydrochloric acid of a class of ninth graders, complete with exploding eyeballs, sheared ponytails, severed tongues.

I knew Rafael would never hurt a living creature. I also knew he’d just read the manga version of Sophocles’ Ajax. I recognized a metaphor when I read one. But these are the end days of literature. Literalism rules.

I shared Rafael’s story with the principal, copied his guidance counselor and the social worker. Two weeks into January, I was told Rafael had been officially transitioned from our school roster.

There are several DIY ways to put down a pet. Apparently using a gun is most common, like Candy’s dog in Of Mice and Men. But I don’t live on a farm so I chose drowning. Why not have my vet euthanize him? I guess I felt obligated to use my own hands, and I wanted him to know how much I loved him.

John Francis Istel teaches 9th grade ELA in the New York City public schools at New Design High School on the Lower East Side. His writing on theater, short fiction, and poetry have appeared in a variety of print and online journals. He lives in Brooklyn and supports Arsenal.

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