Green Hills Literary Lantern

The Geography of Ridicule 

 

 

            The second week of school, a few seconds after every teacher in the faculty lunch room finished laughing at Steve Wharton’s “Ho Chi Minh is still dead” joke, Frank Stepnowski smiled.  No, not like somebody a little late to get it, but like somebody who was either drunk or simple-minded or telling himself a different story altogether, pleased by a secret punch line.

 

            I was happy to time my polite laughter correctly.  It was my first year on the job, and it was easier to oblige lousy jokes and lunch time gossip than to let somebody know I was bored.

 

            It was Stepnowski’s first year, too, so two weeks of seeing him smile late like that at the lunch table was teaching me how quickly somebody could be tagged an oddball.  Worse, he kept to himself in his science classes.  Students said he taught on mute.  “You know,” they said.  “His lips move, but he doesn’t say anything.”

 

            So he was the first new teacher to get a nickname that stuck.  Chemo, his students called him, and that name swept through the school, all the way down to the ninth graders, like cheerleader sex rumors.  So what if it was chemistry he taught, not chemotherapy.  Students laughed at the name in unison.  Every day during the third period study hall duty I shared with Stepnowski, boys blurted that name aloud from the back of the room, sounding as if they were calling a dog.

 

            I had the front for my share, two thirds of the room to watch over because of where the break came among the rows, so I left it up to Stepnowski to deal with it because those voices always came from the last four rows of the twelve by ten desk room.  Stepnowski never spoke.  He stared at the forty seats he patrolled in a way that didn’t focus on anyone, and then he’d open one of those super-size candy bars the band sold, peel the foil, and break off two squares at a time to hold in his mouth like a chocolate cough drop.

 

            I figured that chocolate for going soft in the pocket of his sport coat, but he never wiped his fingers, so I got to guessing how those candy bars held up in a crowded room.  I decided he kept them refrigerated, had them on ice in his lab somewhere.  Sooner or later, I thought, students would tell me they’d discovered his cold cache of candy the way they told me they knew Miss Blatty, who taught seventh grade math across the hall from me, kept a flask in her top file drawer that was always locked.

 

            What I couldn’t figure was why those shouts of “Chemo” stayed spotty, only once every ten minutes or so, almost always adding up to five times per forty-five minute study hall.  It was as if five boys—it was never a female voice—had a plan to each shout once a period.

 

            My students loved to tell me stories about Chemo.  Whoever came in early from his ninth grade science class would describe how Stepnowski faced the blackboard when he talked, how he called on people by name without looking at them, and inevitably, how there would be an extended, hilarious silence when he named someone who was absent and stared out the window for half a minute until, without turning, he’d call on someone else.  I told them to keep the stories to themselves, and then I let them finish as long as the bell hadn’t rung.

 

            But by October I’d heard so many “Chemo” shouts, the number creeping up to eight or ten different voices per period, I started to worry that our study hall was being secretly observed, that Mr. Gloff, the vice-principal, could listen through the speaker system supposedly meant to send messages one way.  I thought of how I’d be evaluated after the bursts of “Chemo” were never reprimanded.  Somebody eavesdropping wouldn’t know which part of the room those voices came from.  For all the listener would know, I might be standing close to those shouters and letting my colleague be humiliated.

 

            There was something on every teacher’s record called “large group discipline.”  Half the questions Mr. Gloff had asked when I’d interviewed in June had been about discipline, my ability to punish and the means I intended to employ to make those punishments stick.  I didn’t want a “must improve” penciled in on my form because I needed to keep that job.

            And so did a dozen other guys my age on our faculty of fifty-five.  In the fall of 1969, all of us under the age of twenty-six were taking advantage of the still-available teaching deferment.  This way out of Vietnam, we all agreed, was nearly perfect.  “Sweetness,” Alex Cole, a second-year teacher, told me the first week.  “Sweetness,” Steve Wharton and two other young guys standing nearby agreed, and so did I after a while, at least to myself, no matter who I had to teach or how many desks were crowded into my classroom.  And Stepnowski, five seconds after Cole or Wharton or somebody like them had said it to remind everybody of his appreciation for that draft loophole, would smile.

 

 

***

 

            Mr. Gloff had recommended Miss Blatty to me during orientation.  “You talk to her, and she’ll set you straight,” he’d said.  “Take it as in-service: Rely on the good judgment and established habits of a long-time teacher who you have the good fortune of being across the hall from.”

 

            Miss Blatty was short and gnarled and a veteran of thirty-six years of junior high school math, beginning, she told me, in 1933, “when you didn’t have to put up with any lip.”

 

            She was a stickler for the female student dress code.  She measured skirts for the number of inches they rose above the knee; she examined each new style to insure the design was really a skirt, and when she noticed a threat, she acted.

 

            In early October, one of my students, dressed in culottes, was dragged out of her chair by Miss Blatty before the bell rang to start class.  “If you won’t do your job, I’ll do it for you,” she said, while I watched and immediately regretted not slapping her face in a great gesture of relinquishing my protection from the draft.  That girl left my room in tears; she reappeared, just before the end of class, smiling and wearing a skirt, but I said nothing to her and vowed “never again” to myself.

 

            I’d seen worse spinelessness than mine in the face of Miss Blatty’s wrath.  The second day of school, when I’d settled into a chair in the faculty lounge at the beginning of fourth period, Miss Blatty walked in just as Wharton lit up.  “Just because there’s smokers in here the rest of the day doesn’t mean there’s smokers in here now,” Miss Blatty said.  “You can’t wait, you go to the men’s room.”

 

            “And then what?” Wharton said.

 

            “You’ll think of something to keep you busy,” Miss Blatty said, and then she laughed one of those cackles belonging only to witches and spinster school teachers.  Wharton looked my way, but I shrugged.

 

            “I don’t smoke,” I said.

 

            “Well,” Miss Blatty said, “there’s a blessing.”

 

            Wharton looked at his cigarette as if it might counsel him on what to say next.  “Maybe I should have my schedule changed,” he said at last.  He flicked his lighter on and then off.

 

            “Have Gloff give you another hall patrol.  That will take your mind off it,” Miss Blatty said.

 

            Wharton flicked the lighter on again, stood, and then closed it and walked out, leaving the door open as if that was some sort of statement.

 

 

 ***

 

            Miss Blatty, after I kept showing up every day for a month to sit with her and Mrs. Benn, the ninth grade history teacher, asked me about the “Chemo!” taunts in my study hall.  When I told her about the geography of ridicule, she snorted.  “You can’t let it fester,” she said.  “Whatever you do, you do it right away and right there on the spot.”

 

            “It’s better to be tough right off the bat, and then ease up,” Mrs. Benn agreed.

 

            “Or don’t ease up at all,” Miss Blatty said.  “That Stepnowski fellow should crack one of those smart asses across the back of the head.  That would be the last time he’d hear Chemo spoken aloud.”

 

            Mrs. Benn shook her head.  “Some men are like that.  They can’t raise a hand to anybody.”

 

            “Not like yours,” Miss Blatty said.

 

            “No, not like mine.”

 

            Mrs. Benn went back to her book, but I’d already heard the stories about her husband, how every year, on the first day of class, he stripped off his coat and challenged his students.  “Anybody who thinks he’s tough enough, you walk up here now and take your best shot,” he said to each class.  Because he taught general math to juniors and seniors, he had almost all of the worst students in the school.  But no one, twenty years and running, had stepped up.  “Ok,” he’d go on.  “You don’t say a word in here or look at me funny for the rest of the year.”

 

            Nobody did, and I’d seen the proof.  Walking into an assembly with him the week before, the auditorium filled with a thousand students talking among themselves, I’d heard the room go quiet row by row as we moved from the back to the front, every one of those students shutting up as we passed.  I knew they weren’t going quiet for me.

 

 

***

 

            Every day at lunch Wharton and Cole reported the war news for the rest of us 26-and-unders who didn’t read a morning paper or changed the station when the news came on while we were driving to school.  “Escalations,” Cole said, sounding as if he was pleased to have the war going badly for those without deferments.

 

            “Nixon the expedient,” Wharton said.  And finally, while the first marking period was winding down, both of them started in with details about an upcoming protest march in Washington, D.C., one that sounded as if it was going to be huge.

 

            “Nixon will look like he’s making a concession,” Cole said.  “Just enough so they don’t burn him out.”

 

            “And when everybody goes home, he’ll hard line again,” Wharton said.

 

            I mentioned another year of teaching there, and then more after that until I passed twenty-six.  “Right,” Cole said.  “We don’t have uniforms, but we’re in the reserves here.”

 

            “We have uniforms,” I said, lifting the tie I was wearing, touching my sport coat.  We weren’t allowed to leave our rooms without putting our coats on.  The mandatory tie was so much a part of each day it didn’t seem strange to be dressed up for a cafeteria lunch of macaroni and cheese and fish sticks.

 

            Wharton and Cole and the other young guys laughed.  I looked around for Stepnowski, but he hadn’t come to lunch yet, or maybe, I thought, he wasn’t coming at all.

 

 

***

 

            There were more chances for Miss Blatty to inspect my troops.  The school had a no T-shirt rule, and she paddled boys in her classes for wearing them before she sent them to the office.  “Somebody from home brings them a change of clothes, or they sit down there all day,” she said.  “I’ll give your T-shirters a hiding if you give me the say-so.  You know what kind of boys wear them.”  She’d point when a boy would walk through my door in a T-shirt, but she didn’t pull any of my ninth graders from my room, even when I finally told her I thought logic and reason were the ways to an errant student’s heart. 

 

            And then, in mid-October, as if she preferred less time with me and Mrs. Benn, she started to show up ten minutes late for free period, fine with me because I’d hear one less story about how she was the last teacher who had enough guts to enforce the hair-forbidden-over-the-collar rules for boys, distinguishing between the sexes just like the teachers did for faculty clubs—a women’s “society” and the men’s Marching and Chowder Club, which met, for the first time, the Saturday before Halloween.

 

            The night out was full of beer and spaghetti and a choice of gambling games—pool, poker, or shuffle-baseball.  By the time we’d finished eating, I’d poured from half a dozen pitchers, helping myself and five of the other draft dodgers to the sort of glow that made us think we might stay high school teachers for the rest of our lives.

 

            When each of us was expected to stand up and say something to introduce ourselves, I joked about feeling a Mr. Chips premonition, that I’d be sitting here with a beer in my hand in 2009 as long as somebody forty years younger went to the bar and got it for me.  Everybody laughed and clapped.  When the next table started its turn, Mr. Gloff stood up and declared that this was his thirty-first season, and what made his job so wonderful was being able to see, each September, a renewal of “all those young tits walking toward me.”  Everybody laughed at that one, though I was a beat behind.  Just before the room quieted, Stepnowski, sitting three tables away, smiled.

 

 

***

 

            The Monday after that party Stepnowski fell into step with me as soon as study hall ended.  “You married?” he said.

 

“Yes,” I automatically answered.

 

“You don’t look it.”  A group of girls in tight sweaters coming toward us made me think of Mr. Gloff.  “My mother always checked me for ticks when I was a boy,” Stepnowski went on.  “She thought they were up to something.”

 

            We’d received a memo that morning about a head lice scare.  I thought maybe Stepnowski was using it as an icebreaker.  “My mother thought telling us to stay out of the woods was preventive medicine.”

 

            “Mothers are wives who got old,” Stepnowski said.  “There are two kinds of ticks, did you know that?”

 

            “No,” I said, beginning to believe this had nothing at all to do with head lice, that Stepnowski had saved this up to test my good will.  A moment later I began to decelerate because we were nearly to the intersection in the hall where I’d turn to the faculty room and Stepnowski would head straight for his next science class.

 

            Stepnowski didn’t slow down. He was already three steps away when he said, “Ticks are all deaf and blind, but both kinds smell you coming.”

 

            The next day, during study hall, I watched to see if I could pick out the boys who hollered “Chemo!” and noted, when I saw their mouths move, where three of them sat.  When the time came, I thought, I’d tell Stepnowski, and he could deal with them or not.

 

            As soon as I stepped out of the room, Stepnowski was beside me.  “Ambush ticks and hunter ticks,” he said, re-entering the story as if the arm of a record player had been raised and held overnight before dropping back into the groove from which it had been lifted, and I nodded like a man stuck in suspended animation since the day before.  “Ambush ticks just sit there in the weeds and wait for something to brush against them,” he said.  “Hunter ticks track you down.”

 

            “Really?”

 

            “Makes you think, doesn’t it?” Stepnowski said.  “You know how many ticks grow up to be adults?”

 

            We were coming up on my left turn to the faculty room.  “No idea,” I said at once, because I wanted to know the answer before the next day.

 

            Stepnowski kept walking, taking six more strides before he answered, “One in a million,” making it sound like the odds for the success of our students.

 

 

 ***

 

            Stepnowski was absent for the rest of the week.  With a substitute in study hall, there was more chatter, but nobody shouted “Chemo!” for three days.  The woman who was filling in paced around her forty desks so quickly I started counting her rotations.  Thirty-seven, I got to, and I added on three to make a round number because I hadn’t counted until she picked up speed.  The second day, she slowed to thirty-five, and when I got to the faculty room and Miss Blatty wasn’t there again, I hurried back to my room as if I needed something.

 

            I closed the door, walked to my desk, and laid my grade book down, acting like I had something to do.  Then I stood right there to watch Miss Blatty through the windows of our two closed doors.  She moved toward the file cabinet without even glancing around, and I inched closer to the door.  It was all I could do to keep from pressing my face to the glass, hoping to see her unlock her file drawer and drink from a hidden flask.

 

            What she did was lift out what looked to be a folder of pre-printed tests, the sort of exam a professional agency uses to see how students match up all across the country.  She slid that folder inside her grade book and turned so quickly, looking my way, that I had to open the door at once to keep her from knowing I was spying.

 

            I was eight steps down the hall before she called out to me.  “Forget something?” she said, and I immediately touched my sport coat as if I could forget I was wearing it.  I stopped and looked back, substituting gesture for my voice because I thought it would crack.  She patted her grade book, and I smiled, walking back to retrieve it.  “You get more than wrist slap for that,” she said.

 

            Because she didn’t wait, I had to follow her up the hall and open the door she closed behind her even though she must have heard how close my footsteps were.  “Young Larry Ennis here just about committed a mortal sin,” she announced to Mrs. Benn.

 

            Mrs. Benn looked me up and down.  “Grade book not in his possession?” she said, and Miss Blatty cackled.

 

            “I had a mind to steal it off his desk when he left it,” she said, staring at me instead of looking at Mrs. Benn.  “But then I thought I’d give him grace this once.”

 

            “Listen,” she went on after I sat down.  She dropped her voice, but didn’t move closer.  “Do you want to be a fool for kindness?”

 

            I had to tell myself not to lean toward her as she nearly whispered.  Mrs. Benn didn’t look up from the newspaper.

 

            “Psychology,” she said, “is for those who can’t fend for themselves.”

 

            I held myself still.  It was up to her, I thought, to insert some significance into the lecture.  “Bob Benn,” she said.  “Ralph Dutton.”  She paused.  “Got those?  Now---Tom Vargo, Len Grace.  What do you think?”

 

            “I don’t know,” I mustered, and she snorted.  “Yes, you do,” she said.  “You go stand outside their doors and listen.  You’ll hear what I’m saying.  There’s teachers and there’s pansies.  It doesn’t take Noah to recognize a pair.”   Mrs. Benn looked up.  “Kate means those last two can’t control their students.”

 

 

***

 

            The next week, when Stepnowski returned, we walked out of study hall together, but he didn’t seem to have another nature lesson to offer.  Half way to where I turned left, though, I heard my name being called from behind us.  “Eeniss,” I heard.  “Eeenisss.”  There were only another ten steps before I could turn, pretending I didn’t hear whoever was calling “Eeeenissss,” that it wasn’t my name at all.  I was Ennis, a short e, one quiet s, but I knew that voice was one puff of air from “Peeeenissss.”  Stepnowski kept his eyes focused directly ahead.  I started to expect him to reach into his pocket for two squares of chocolate.

 

            I wheeled and looked straight at a boy who not only had hair over his collar, but wore the start of a mustache.  He was walking between two boys from one of my classes, choking off another “Eeeenissss!” when I laid both hands to his chest, grabbed his shirt, and drove him back against the wall.

 

            Surprised, he stumbled, and his head smacked into the cinder block with the sound of dropped melon.  His eyes teared, and then he swung a roundhouse right, my extended arms just long enough to have his fist drive through my paisley tie, snapping the tiny chain of my tie tack.

 

            I slammed his shoulders this time, bending my arms for leverage.  I was all rage.  If he had a mind to drive his fist into my stomach or under my chin, he had the opportunity. 

 

            His arms dropped.  “I don’t even know you,” he said.

 

            The boys from my class were gone.  “Let’s walk,” I said, but I didn’t let go, pushing him backwards through the crowd.  When we cleared the circle, I dropped my hands, and he turned to walk ahead of me, not another word between us, even after he sat down in Mr. Gloff’s office before I told him to.

 

            “Mr. Gloff will be back in half an hour,” the secretary said.  “I’ll keep an eye on your problem child.”

 

            I nearly ran back to the faculty room, happy to postpone whatever reprimand was coming my way.  When I asked Miss Blatty and Mrs. Benn how my case looked to them, they were sympathetic.  “I’ve only lost my head one time in thirteen years,” Mrs. Benn said, “and all over a silly dance.”

 

            Miss Blatty sat up like she hadn’t heard this story before.  “I walked in and this little black boy Jerome was dancing beside his desk even though there wasn’t any music.”

 

            Miss Blatty nodded.  “They don’t need music,” she said.

 

            Mrs. Benn took a breath.  “‘What are you doing?’ I asked him, and he answered ‘Doing the Mashed Potato,’ his feet still sliding, so when I grabbed him they went out from under him, and I went down right on top, slapping his face with both hands.”

 

            Miss Blatty cackled herself into a short bout of coughing.  “That kind can drive you crazy, all right,” she finally managed to say.

 

            Mrs. Benn didn’t smile.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “I think it was the name—the Mashed Potato.  I thought he was making it up, that he was making fun of me somehow.”

 

            Mr. Gloff came to my door while I was clearing my desk at the end of the day.  He closed it behind him, and I could see Miss Blatty move into her doorway as if she had to check hinges.  I told my story to Mr. Gloff, who nodded throughout and said “Ok” three times until the account ended with that boy outside Mr. Gloff’s door to wait for his return.

 

            “You give out punishment now, not take it,” Mr. Gloff said.  “You can personally intervene when you see fit.”

 

            The next day Stepnowski left as the bell rang, slipping out ahead of the students.  “He’s in a hurry,” I thought, but he left quickly the day after that, and I understood, the following Monday, that he meant to avoid walking with me, that he must have turned and watched me grab that boy.  And then I imagined him breaking off two squares of chocolate and putting them in his mouth as I shoved that boy.  Worse, I imagined him smiling five seconds after I’d disappeared down the hall.

 

 

***

 

            The protest Wharton and Cole were hyping turned into the March Against Death, something that would stick in history books.  Half a million people, the two of them reported, talking as if they had a source on site because even the rest of us avoiders of the news had heard a quarter million offered as the size of the crowd.

 

            “The police estimate,” Cole said.  “Just double it, and you’re in the ballpark.”

 

            “Of course,” Wharton said.  “If it had been a ‘kill more gooks’ rally, they’d have it pegged at a million or more.”

 

            They were talking during the early minutes of the second Marching and Chowder Club party, just after we found out the rule for the night was every new teacher had to pay two dollars to enter the shuffle baseball tournament to fill out the brackets against the veterans and boost the winners’ share.  “You have Chemo on your team,” Cole said.  “We’ll see you in the losers’ bracket.”

 

            I stood beside Stepnowski as the two of us took our three warm-up shots, the first time either of us had ever touched the smooth plastic discs players directed by hand.  One of mine and all three of Stepnowski’s dove off the end of the board into the trough labeled OUT.  “You’ll learn,” our opponents, two guys with cigars, said.  Stepnowski didn’t smile.  He filled two cups with beer and carried them to where the game stood, drinking fast from the first as if he had a thirst that needed drowning.

 

            By the time I got the feel for distance and strategy, the merits of easy singles versus the rewards of difficult home runs, Stepnowski and I were down seven to two, fourth inning of a five inning game.  He slid his discs carefully, but he aimed every one for the tiny home run that was so unlikely to be hit, it was for desperation—two on, two out, down three—or for the single-minded.

 

            I had the top of the fifth inning to play for our team, at least, and I bunched three singles and a double, another single before there were two outs and I had one shot at the home run, leaving my disc just outside the target where OUT lay large and definitive.  By the time it was our turn again an hour later, I couldn’t find Stepnowski.  “Too bad,” Wharton said, claiming the forfeit for him and Cole.  “Tell Chemo he owes you two bucks on Monday.”

 

            I stepped outside to breathe something besides second-hand smoke and found Stepnowski standing at the curb, holding a cup of beer in each hand.  From where I hesitated in the shadow of the entranceway overhang, I could see one was nearly empty, and I used it as a clock, figuring him for being out here maybe five minutes.  “How long have you been married?” he said without turning.

 

I kept my place behind him, but I answered, “Four months” in what I hoped was a matter-of-fact tone. 

 

He drank off the rest of the first beer and tossed the cup aside just as a car pulled up alongside him.  “Yep,” he said, and took a swallow from the fresh cup and lurched off the curb as the driver-side window rolled down.

 

            A woman leaned out, her dark hair tumbling down the side of her face.  “Frank,” she said, “don’t bring that in the car.”

 

            He stopped, took another swallow and poured the rest on the hood of the car, holding the empty cup upside down and aloft so long I thought she might jerk that car forward just enough to nudge his knees to buckling.  Instead, the window rolled up and Stepnowski, with nothing left to do with the cup, dropped it and opened the passenger side door, saying something that began with “Next time” and ended with a door slam.

 

            Stepnowski’s wife, I figured, and she must have dropped him off and then come back for him as a safety valve for his drinking.  I wondered how far she’d driven, tried to imagine my wife doing the forty-mile round trip twice in one evening because she didn’t trust me to drive.

 

 

***

 

            The day school reopened after Christmas vacation, I heard Miss Blatty yelling at a boy in the hall during her first period accelerated class.  “Jail’s too good for you,” she said, but I didn’t hear the smack of her paddle against the seat of his pants.  I didn’t hear the boy say anything, but a moment later she walked him through my door and sent him to an empty seat in the back.  She looked my way and nodded before she left.

 

            The boy had let his hair begin to creep over his collar during our two-week break.  He was wearing a T-shirt that said Woodstock Nation above a peace sign, and I wondered if he had an older brother or sister who’d given him the shirt for Christmas.  He listened as I played the recording from the newest movie version of Romeo and Juliet; he moved his desk close to a girl who was reading along, following the words as if he’d just joined our class.

 

            Just before the period ended, he raised his hand.  “Can I come back tomorrow?” he said, getting a laugh loud enough to bring Miss Blatty to her door.

 

            By the time I reached the lounge for free period, Miss Blatty, early for once, was already complaining about her “peace boy.”  “You can’t enforce those dress codes anymore,” Mrs. Benn said.  “As soon as good boys come to school with long hair and silly shirts, that’s the end of it.”

 

            Miss Blatty stood up and walked out, leaving Mrs. Benn and me together.  “It’s so hard to be like that,” she said.  “My Bob has an ulcer.”  She brightened.  “Or maybe that’s from living with me.”

 

            “He never gets off work,” I said.

 

            Mrs. Benn laughed.  “That’s funny,” she said.  “I’ll have to tell Bob you said that.  He’ll get a kick out of it.”

 

            “Or take his coat off the next time he sees me in the hall.”

 

            I expected her to laugh again, but she seemed to darken.  “That’s just it,” she said.  “It’s having to be the person you’re expected to be.”  She glanced at the door and then back at me.  “Like Kate,” she said then.  “She’s been hateful so long she doesn’t have a choice anymore.”

 

 

***

 

            In early February, the Marching and Chowder Club held an over-the-hump party to celebrate passing the half way mark of the school year.  There were some frowns among us during the night, older teachers worrying about contract troubles, the talk of a possible strike in the spring, and by the time we’d pushed back our emptied spaghetti plates, the beer had loosened up everybody, even Stepnowski, who seemed to be interested in the union talk.

 

            Wharton was laughing.  “You know what old man Manucci called the strike talk?  Manure.  Can you believe it?  Like a wood-shop teacher from the city who couldn’t tell a cow from a horse would say manure instead of shit.”

 

            “You’re forgetting Manucci’s been here so long he came on horseback when he started,” Cole said.

 

            Not smiling, but holding only one cup as if he was trying a makeshift diet, Stepnowski interrupted.  “You know what fertilizer can do besides make your garden grow?”

 

            “Smell up Manucci’s neighborhood?” Wharton said.

 

            “Blow it up, more likely, if it’s ammonium nitrate.”

 

            “Sweetness,” Wharton said, and laughed like something funny had been said.  He saluted Stepnowski by raising his beer to eye level.  “But we don’t have to worry about any of your young Einsteins blowing us all to hell, do we?”

 

            Stepnowski looked at his beer so long I expected him to pour it on Wharton as if he was the hood of a car, and then he put the half-filled cup to his mouth, waited a moment, and swallowed it down in one gulp before walking away.

 

 

 ***

 

            By March the strike threats from both the school board and the teachers’ union had taken on the tone of college campus war protests.  Six hundred dollars was the distance between settlement and the school’s first ever teachers’ strike.  Not much for a thirty-five year veteran like Miss Blatty, but that difference was ten per cent of my current salary.

 

            Just before the end of the month, the strike promised for April 15th as if tax day was a symbolic deadline, Mr. Gloff called “all draft-eligible teachers” to the lunch room for a meeting at 3:30.  “There’s talk,” Mr. Gloff said at once, “that the school board will refuse to sign the forms for your draft deferments if the union goes out on strike.”

 

            Gloff had everybody’s attention.  I was weighing the $600 more we were asking for and the $300 more we would probably get against having to look for another job where the school board rubber-stamped my draft papers.  Nothing about the war had slowed down since September; my lottery number had come up low.  Of all of us, only Alan Warfield was sitting pretty at #341, but he knew enough not to gloat.  “What does ‘There’s talk’ mean?” I said.

 

            “‘There’s talk’ means they’ve made up their minds already.  It’s as sure as taxes.”

 

            It sounded like the equivalent of contract negotiation biological warfare.  It sounded illegal.  It made me eager to vote against the strike.  Gloff waggled his head as if he was trying to express sympathy.  “The board thinks young male teachers are behind the strike threat.”

 

            “That’s where they have it all wrong,” Wharton said.  “Money’s not the issue.”

 

            I watched Stepnowski slide a chocolate bar out of his coat pocket.  “Sweetness,” I heard myself think, the word disappearing into a maze of tracer fire, and then he said, “Vietnam or no Vietnam, tell the board I’m voting to strike.”

 

            “Ok,” Mr. Gloff said, as if he’d just heard something reasonable.  Stepnowski crammed what looked like four squares into his mouth, crumpled the wrapper, and smiled.

 

            After the meeting ended, I walked back to my room to close up and get my coat.  It was nearly April, but winter hadn’t slacked off yet in western Pennsylvania.  I lifted my coat off its hanger and heard somebody follow me into the room.  When I turned, I saw Stepnowski toss the candy wrapper into the wastebasket.

 

            I thought he’d come to ask me what attitude I had toward the draft, or maybe he finally wanted to confront me about how I’d slammed a fifteen-year-old against a wall, but he stayed quiet while I pulled each window blind to half mast, lining them up like every teacher did at 3:30 unless you wanted a note in your mailbox the following morning.  I waited for him to get around to what he’d come for, but he acted as if he was interested in the bulletin boards I’d covered with student essays, slipping from one to the other as if they formed a gallery.

 

            There were six cork boards, three of them across the back of the room, and by the time he passed them all, finally stooping to stare through each half-covered window, he had me thinking about grabbing him by the shoulders and saying, “What’s wrong with you?” 

 

            Before he could slide along each panel of the blackboard behind me, I said, “If I’d gotten married three years ago, I wouldn’t have to worry about the school board.  How long have you been married?”

 

            Stepnowski pivoted away from the last window and walked past me.  He stopped by the first bulletin board and peered at the essays like a father at open house.  I gathered papers and books as if it was important to stack them neatly, letting him decide why he’d chosen my room to haunt.  “You cunt,” he said at last, turning and walking through the doorway.  When I looked in the wastebasket, I saw the wrapper was for a candy bar filled with almonds, something that made me think I hadn’t been paying attention.

 

 

 ***

 

            The FM station I listened to during my twenty-five mile drive to school didn’t bother me with news, so it was my home room students, the following Monday, who told me Stepnowski had killed his wife the night before.  Beaten her to death.  “Chemo offed her,” a boy said, and the girls told him to shut up.

 

            “How could he do that?” one said.

 

            Because he was drunk, I thought at once, but I kept everything I had to say about Chemo to myself even though both of my morning classes couldn’t stop talking about it, arguing the details from the radio or the newspaper like a jury.  There were bruises on her arms.  She had multiple rib fractures.  Her skull was fractured, which was what had apparently killed her.  Only one boy suggested Chemo hadn’t meant to kill her, that she’d probably hit her head when she fell.  The class screamed at him in unison.  “He was kicking her,” a girl insisted.  “That’s how he broke her ribs.”  The boy looked around a room of nodding heads and shut up.

 

            When I went to study hall, I expected a substitute for Stepnowski, but nobody showed up.  I circulated, the only strategy I could think of, but study hall had never been more orderly.  The students whispered to each other when they talked, and when I approached, they stopped.  Large group discipline, I thought.  I wanted Miss Blatty to see how I could handle a room.  I hoped Mr. Gloff had the speaker system on two-way.

 

 

***

 

            Wharton was sitting in the lounge when I walked in after study hall.  He’d lit up a cigarette as if he had a point to make, but Miss Blatty wasn’t noticing it.

 

            Mrs. Benn had a copy of the local newspaper, and she acted as if she’d been waiting for me before she read it aloud, finishing with “According to a police spokesman, ‘Alcohol does not seem to be involved.’”

 

            “Sweet Jesus,” Miss Blatty said.

 

            Mrs. Benn looked stricken.  “I feel awful,” she said.  “Here I was telling those hitting stories like they were entertainment.”

 

            “What you did and he did have nothing to do with each other,” I said.  “You don’t need to apologize.”

 

            Miss Blatty waved a hand in front of her face as if she’d just detected Wharton’s smoke.  “Some things deserve a beating,” she said.  “We don’t know his side of it.”

 

            Wharton stared at his cigarette.  Mrs. Benn folded her newspaper and began to roll it tight.  “Nobody hits somebody without a reason when they’re sober,” Miss Blatty went on.  “All these years, and every one of those pipsqueaks I’ve hit deserved it.”  She looked at all of us.  “Go ahead.  Tell me I’m wrong.”

 

            The long ash on Wharton’s cigarette broke off and fell to the floor.  “Well,” Mrs. Benn said.  “We’ll never know her side, will we?”

 

            She glanced at me as if it was my turn to offer something sensible, but I kept quiet because what I wanted to know, right at that moment, was how Stepnowski’s expression had changed.  What he looked like just before he took the first swing at his wife.

 

            He’d been gripping her arms, twisting bruises into them, and what I imagined was his spitting chocolate as he suddenly screamed curses at her, spotting her blouse with stain specks she’d looked down at, disgusted, ignoring his threats, saying something like “This won’t wash out, Frank” just before his face turned the mottled red of rage, his mouth working soundlessly until he stepped into that first punch, shifting his weight so her head snapped back and her legs buckled.  The rest, I thought, was him kicking her until she stopped moving.

 

            Of course, what did I know about rage except my own embarrassing performances?  And those not even rage, just saving face, intent on not being the man who could be humiliated by teenagers, regardless of whether they were good or bad.

 

 

                                                                       

Gary Fincke’s fourth collection, Sorry I Worried You, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was published by Georgia in 2004.  Other recent books are Standing around the Heart (poems), Arkansas, 2005, and Amp’d, a nonfiction account of his son’s life in two signed rock bands (Michigan State, 2004).  Other stories are currently in Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Texas Review, and Witness.