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He watched the sky across the lake--gray, drippy, irregular line of low hills beyond the lake barely discernible, just slightly grayer than the flannel sky.
He sighed heavily. Another Monday. Another of the all too frequent Mondays and Tuesdays and every other days it had rained that spring, and he felt as dismal and gray-spirited as the view from the window. The softball field below the hill looked sodden, home plate and base paths shiny with standing water. The tennis courts to the north glistened, and one of the three nets hung limply where it had come untied from the right post. A handful of robins were busy gobbling drowned worms on the sidewalks leading from the parking lot to the three front entrances.
Making hay while the sun didn’t shine, he thought wryly. Stick it where the sun don’t shine. Stick this day where the sun don’t shine. The ancient children’s chant ran through his mind: “Nobody like me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms.” But he wasn’t making any hay or any headway--or even catching any worms. His classes were grinding to a halt. His students were sullen and unmotivated, their mental motors on idle. Hell, he thought, they were well below the speed limit most of the time. But now, with less than a month to the end of the school year, they were just waiting for their green light into summer.
So was he.
He was sitting in the faculty room, the dingy cell the administration had designated as the smoking area. He never went in the other faculty room now that he’d resumed his old habit, and he didn’t miss most of his fellow teachers who pursed their lips and twitched their noses at the disgusting few who still chose to kill themselves with cigarettes. Who needs ‘em? Who needs any of that sanctimonious bunch? He hadn’t much cared for them when he wasn’t smoking, so why should it be any different now?
He stubbed out the cigarette he’d been smoking and immediately reached for another. He lit it and inhaled deeply. God, how awful it tasted. He might as well suck pennies. And he’d begun to notice students backing away from him lately, backing away from his breath when he shouted at them, away from the smell of his clothes when he got too close. Smug little bastards! He always used to be able to sniff out the ones who stole a few preschool puffs in the lavatories, the ones who were late to class from hiding out in the nooks and crannies inside and outside the school. And he’d always tried to make their lives miserable. But now his olfactory nerves were too dulled from his own smoking to pick out the offenders. Little turds! All of them were his targets, just as he was theirs. The hatred was mutual. He couldn’t remember when he’d first begun to hate them so. It couldn’t have been that way from the beginning. Certainly not from the beginning or he’d never have stayed in teaching. He tried to remember the good times, way back at the beginning. He couldn’t. And now, twenty-three years had passed, slipped away from him when he wasn’t looking. Two to go until he too could slip away, slink away, run away screaming. Two years and three weeks and four days not counting this day. He never counted the day he was in as a day yet to go, not even if it was only eight in the morning. That day was gone, scratched off his mental calendar. Somewhere down the road, down that seemingly endless road of days, stepping stones on the calendar, the sun was shining.
But not here, not now.
He drew in another lungful of smoke that caught somewhere deep, and he coughed once before he could exhale. The smoke burned his nose and throat as it exploded from him. He coughed again and again, phlegmy rasping bursts that hammered his temples and brought tears to his eyes from the hunched effort. The spasm ended and he went into the small adjoining bathroom to splash his face.
Then, just as he was sitting down at the table again, the door opened and Mike Battle came bustling in, reaching for a cigarette from his shirt pocket even before he sat down across the table from him.
“Jim, ol’ buddy. How’s it goin’? I hear you had a little tussle with a student this morning. You win, or the kid?” The question must have been rhetorical because he continued with almost no pause. “These damn kids just don’t know when to quit, ya know? I remember back in . . . ‘78, or maybe ‘79, ‘kay? I had a kid named Charlie Siperak. You remember him, don’t you? Short little guy with arms like an ape.” He dragged at his cigarette, then tapped ashes into a dirty yellow plastic ashtray. “Used to pump iron all the time, an’ he thought he was so damn tough.”
Jim nodded, although Mike was not one to need encouragement. You could never afford to ask Mike how he was for fear he’d tell you, at great length. Jim tried to make it clear by keeping his eyes on the book he’d brought with him that he didn’t much care to hear the story of Mike and Charlie’s confrontation, but Mike was oblivious and went on as though his captive audience was enthralled.
“Yeah,” he continued, “I found him one morning in the boys’ john shootin’ water all over the place. Ya know, had his finger over the faucet sprayin’ his buddies, ‘kay? I came in, water flyin’ all over the place, and I caught him red-handed . . . red-fingered, I guess.” He chuckled at his wit.
More like half-wit, Jim thought.
“I hollered at him and he backed away. I said to him, ‘Charlie, what the hell you think you’re doin’?’ Okay? And he had the balls to stand there and tell me he was just washin’ his hands. I slapped him a good one and you shoulda seen his face, okay? He went red as fire and came at me swingin’, those ape arms goin’ like a windmill. I stepped in and gave him one in the gut and he went down holdin’ himself and coughin’ and groanin’. Started cryin’, bawlin’ like a baby right there in fronta all his buddies.” Mike paused for a moment to drag at his cigarette, remembering fondly the picture of Charlie Siperak lying on the floor of the boys’ bathroom holding himself and weeping.
“Damn, that felt good!” He knocked a long gray ash from his cigarette and then butted it out. “But I’d have my ass in a sling if I did that now. Damn kids. They’re all a buncha jailhouse lawyers. It’s got so anymore, we’re just babysitters. Gotta coddle ‘em along and put up with just about anything they wanta say or do. Not like the good old days, huh, Jim?” Jim looked up from his reading and nodded. He hadn’t registered a single word from the book, but he thought Mike would take the hint and shut up. No such luck.
“Yeah, teachin’ just isn’t the same as it used to be, right, Jim? I remember when kids used to respect us and keep their damn mouths shut, ‘kay? And if they didn’t respect us, at least they were afraid of us, ‘kay? Not anymore. Nosiree. Not anymore.” He paused and his gaze went vacant, back to the good old days. They sat there together in momentary silence, Jim pretending to read and Mike still gazing back in time.
“Well, gotta get goin’. Hope everything works out all right for you about what happened this morning. You just hang in there and show ‘em who’s boss, okay?” Jim looked up and mumbled a thanks to Mike’s back, and then he was gone.
What an ass, he thought. Things were probably not going to work out all right. So, what else was new. Nothing much had gone right for the last five years, ever since Marilyn had decided to walk out on him. Bitch! How could she have done that to him? And now this. No, nothing much was going all right anymore.
He carefully opened the mental door he’d been keeping shut ever since it happened. He hadn’t wanted to think about it, but maybe it was time. Maybe he’d better begin to figure out what he was going to do about it, how he could cover his ass for this last in a long line of confrontations with one student or another.
He had arrived at school at his usual time, five minutes before his first class began. Terry Jones was there waiting for him. Terry Jones, the bane of his life. Or at least one of them. Jim hadn’t slept well the night before and his eyes were sandy from tossing and turning through wild half-dreams, dreams about school and chaotic classes.
“Mr. Denker, I need to talk to you about that test we took on Friday.” The boy said it flatly, a challenge suggesting he wasn’t there for arbitration.
Well, we’ll just see about that, Jim thought. He fumbled the key into the lock and then opened the door, clicking on the lights as he went in. The boy came in on his heels.
“You’ve got to pass me on that test, Mr. Denker. It wasn’t fair and you know it.”
Jim whirled and stuck a finger like a stiletto in the boy’s face, punctuating each work with a stab aimed at his nose. “Listen, you! You were cheating on that test and you know it and I know it, so don’t give me any crap about the grade being unfair!” The words came hissing out in a half-whisper. No need for the whole damn school to hear him.
“But I wasn’t cheating! I was all done with the test and, and I just whispered a joke to Amy. That’s all I did! And, and . . . you shouldn’t have failed us. It’s not fair!”
Jim turned away from him, saying over his shoulder as he went to his desk at the front of the room, “Well, the joke’s on you and fair is what I say is fair. I’m in charge of what goes on in here, not you.” Terry had followed him and then reached out to tug at his arm to get him to listen to his argument. Jim jerked his arms away and whirled to the boy, grabbing the front of his shirt with both hands. He shook him as hard as he could, lifting him nearly off the floor.
“Don’t you ever!” he screamed. “Don’t you ever touch me, you puky little bastard!” His face was apoplectic and his head was pounding. He heard as well as felt the shirt tear in his hands. He held on and backed the boy to the wall, holding him against it, still shaking him, the boy’s head banging into the wall with dull thuds. Then he stopped when he realized exactly what he’d been doing. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the shocked faces of several of his first period students and Mrs. Arnold, a fellow department member from across the hall. They all seemed to him to be frozen there for a moment, the scene etched in his mind, the silence heavy and foreboding.
He released his grip on the boy and backed away. The boys’s eyes were wide with fear and embarrassment. And then the boy rushed past him and out of the room.
Jim stalled away his first three class periods like a man drugged, not knowing or caring what he was doing, going through the motions in a daze.
Then finally he was free for a period and made his escape to the faculty room where he sat smoking copper cigarettes.
He sighed. The sun was starting to break through the heavy clouds and the rain had stopped. He hadn’t even noticed. Ten or twelve girls were outside on the tennis courts, fulfilling their gym class obligations. He watched them for a moment as they tiredly lobbed soggy tennis balls back and forth across the net, most often into the net or caroming at right angles off the edges of their rackets.
Look at them, he thought. They play tennis just like they do everything else--quarter-heartedly.
A wind was beginning to bend the upper branches of the maple near the front entrance, and the clouds were splitting up and racing off to the east. One, still dark and heavy, had broken away from the pack and was rimmed with blue and silver, the sun at that moment directly behind it.
Maybe it’s a sign, he hoped. Maybe the little bastard won’t file a suit against me after all.
He sighed again, thinking of the two long years that stretched ahead of him before he could make his escape. Long, endless days of anger and frustration.
Then the bell rang calling him to his fifth period humanities class.