“First agenda item is the loyalty oath,” Mr. Gloff said. It was 8:01, the morning after Labor Day, and I stood with fifty-five other teachers at Liberty High School and raised my right hand. The oath was a repeat-after-me, a wedding vow for allegiance to the United States in our words and deeds while our students could see and hear us. I said the phrases out loud, and so did everybody else.
The second item was the time clock, new this year because the sign-in sheet didn’t work the previous year. “Some days there were thirty signatures at 7:59,” Mr. Gloff said. “We all know that’s impossible.”
Nobody objected until after the meeting. “It’s a factory now,” an older man walking in front of me said to the woman beside him. “And everybody knows why.”
She nodded like she knew. When they passed a pair of guys my age, the man said, “Happy now?” to them, but kept moving.
“Draft dodgers,” the woman said, and I slowed down before I had to pass them and hear myself, the new teacher, judged by a pair of strangers.
The second week of school, a few seconds after every teacher in the faculty lunch room finished laughing at Steve Wharton’s “LBJ’s still not running” joke, Fred Stepnowski smiled. Not like somebody a little late to get it, but like he was drunk or simple-minded or telling himself a different story altogether, pleased by a secret punch line. I was happy to polite-laugh, relieved to have my job, and it was easier to oblige lousy jokes and lunch time gossip than to let somebody know I was as bored as Nixon choking out “Sock it to me” on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In because his campaign manager thought it would make him look human.
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.”
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 I had for English. Students laughed at the name in unison. I had enough of it after two days. “He’s not teaching chemotherapy,” I said.
“But it’s perfect,” a girl in my best class said.
“High achievers” was what Liberty called her and the other twenty-nine during second period. I was grateful for them. My other five classes were two middles and three lows because I had all 176 ninth graders. “Anywhere but in here,” I said, the first thing I’d demanded since school began. But 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. 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 decided he kept them refrigerated in his lab. 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 during that forty-five-minute study hall. It was as if five boys—never a female voice—had a plan to each shout once a day.
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 could listen through the speaker system supposedly meant to send messages one way. I thought of how I’d be evaluated after bursts of “Chemo” were never reprimanded. Somebody eavesdropping wouldn’t know which part of the room those voices came from. For all Gloff would know, I was standing close to those shouters and letting Stepnowski be humiliated.
There was something on every teacher’s record called “large group discipline situations.” Half the questions Mr. Gloff had asked when I’d interviewed had been about discipline, my ability to punish and make those punishments stick. I didn’t want a “must improve” penciled in on my form. In the fall of 1968, I needed the teaching deferment. “Sweetness,” Alex Cole, a second-year teacher, told me the first week, and I nodded my agreement. Stepnowski, five seconds later, smiled.
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 judgment of a long-time teacher 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 seventh and eighth grade math, beginning, she told me, in 1932, “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 October, one of my high achievers, dressed in culottes, was dragged out of her chair by Miss Blatty before the bell rang. “If you won’t do your job, I’ll do it for you,” she said, while I 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, wearing a skirt.
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 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, stood, and walked out, leaving the door open as if that were some sort of statement.
The word about my study hall got around. Miss Blatty, after I kept showing up to sit with her and Mrs. Benn, the ninth-grade history teacher, asked me about the “Chemo!” taunts. When I told her about the geography of ridicule, she snorted. “Can’t let it fester,” she said. “Whatever you do, you do it right away, 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.
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.
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.
The school had a no t-shirt rule, and Miss Blatty 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. “You want me to smack your t-shirters? And the ones with hair over their collars—they get a day to be rid of it. It’s in the rules for those who give a damn.” She looked at me in a way that declared I was one of those who didn’t.
That was the week of the first Men’s Marching and Chowder Club meeting, the Saturday before Halloween. The night was full of beer and spaghetti and a choice of gambling games like pool, poker, or shuffle-baseball. By the time we’d finished eating, I’d poured from half a dozen pitchers. When each of the new teachers was told to stand up and say something to introduce himself, I joked about my Mr. Chips premonition, that I’d be sitting here with a beer in my hand in 2008 as long as somebody forty years younger went to the bar and got it for me. Everybody clapped, and Mr. Gloff jumped up and declared that this was his thirty-first season, and what made his job so wonderful was being able to see, each September, “all those young tits walking toward me.” Everybody laughed. Stepnowski, sitting three tables away, smiled when Gloff sat down. By the time things settled, nobody remembered to demand his new-guy’s speech.
On Monday Stepnowski fell into step with me as soon as study hall ended. “You married?” he said.
“No,” I said.
“Good for you.” 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. Maybe Stepnowski was using it as an icebreaker. “My mother thought telling me to stay out of the woods was preventive medicine. 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, a girl’s voice squealed “Chemo!” A minute later, a second girl called out. I watched to see if I could pick the next girl out, but that was it for the day except one boy near the period’s end. When the time came, I’d tell Stepnowski which seat, and he could deal with it 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. “Ambush ticks just sit there in the weeds and wait for something to brush against them,” he said. “Hunter ticks track you down.”
“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.
Two minutes later, instead of going directly to the lounge, I went back to get the anthology I used for my middle achievers. I closed the door, walked to my desk, and laid my grade book down. Then I stood right there to watch Miss Blatty through the windows of our two closed doors because she was fishing in her file cabinet. 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 a 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 Corey Gillis 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 significance into the lecture. “Bob Benn,” she said. “Ralph Dutton.” She paused. “Got those? Now listen. 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.”
Mrs. Benn looked up. “Kate means those last two can’t control their students.”
“I counted four t-shirts in your first period class today, and two with hair as long as mine.”
The next week, when Stepnowski returned, we walked out of study hall together, but he didn’t offer another nature lesson. Half way to where I turned left, though, I heard Chemo being called from behind us. “Kee-MOH!,” I heard. “Kee-MOH!” This one a girl’s voice squealing it. There were only another ten steps before I could turn, pretending I didn’t hear whoever was calling. 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 laughing girls and pitching another “Kee-MOH!” 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. 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 girls were gone. “Let’s walk,” I said, but I didn’t let go, pushing him backwards through a small, gathered 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.”
In the faculty room, I told my story and 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’d 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.”
“They don’t need music,” Miss Blatty 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, but 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 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.
“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 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. That maybe he hadn’t smiled five seconds after I’d disappeared down the hall. What I did know was that not one student called “Chemo” on either day.
With Nixon winning and Johnson on his way out, nobody talked about politics at the next Marching and Chowder Club party. Instead, every new teacher had to pay two dollars to enter the shuffle baseball tournament to fill out brackets and boost the winners’ share. “You’re with Chemo,” Cole said. “See you in the losers’ bracket.”
We took our three warm-up shots, the first time either of us had ever touched the smooth plastic discs players directed by hand. 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 he’d swallowed bugs that needed drowning.
By the time I got the feel for distance, Stepnowski and I were down seven to one, fourth inning of a five-inning game. He slid his discs carefully, but he aimed only for the tiny home run that was so unlikely to be hit, it was for desperation that came with 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. “Tell Chemo he owes you two bucks.”
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 come you’re not married?” he said without turning. “You find out about girls before you got trapped?“
“What?” I said, but I stepped up beside him.
“You know what I mean. You should have grabbed the bitch that was screaming.”
“I knew the boy was shouting. I didn’t know which of the girls had.”
“Bitches know they’re immune. You know that, right?”
He drank off the rest of the first beer and tossed the cup aside just as a car pulled up alongside him. “Here we go,” he said. “Twenty miles of bad road.” He 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. “Fred,” she said, “don’t bring that piss in the car.”
He stopped, took a 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 dropped the cup 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. She’d made what sounded like a forty-mile round trip twice in one evening or else sat in a movie theater waiting for whatever hour they’d agreed upon. I tried to imagine doing that trip even once in an evening because I didn’t trust someone else to drive.
The day school reopened after Christmas vacation, I heard Miss Blatty yelling at a boy in the hall during first period. “Jail’s too good for you,” she said, but I didn’t hear the smack of her paddle. 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 Summer of Love above a peace sign, and I wondered if he had an older brother or sister who’d given him the shirt for Christmas or maybe just handed it down after they’d found out the truth. 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 class 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 was already complaining about “peace boy.” “You can’t enforce those dress codes anymore,” Mrs. Benn said. “I know that boy. As soon as good ones like him 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 grew an ulcer from it.”
“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 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 Frank 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 were trying to diet, Stepnowski interrupted. “You know what some fertilizer can do besides make your garden grow?” Nobody said a word while I counted to five. “Blow up the school, if you had a mind to.”
“Sweetness,” Wharton said, and laughed like something funny had been said.
Stepnowski looked at his beer so long I expected him to pour it on Wharton as if he were 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.
“Fucking Chemo,” Cole said and looked straight at me. “A basket case, right?”
“Maybe,” I said, not sure what to say next, but then all of us saw Stepnowski stop because his wife had just come inside as if she’d overheard us. She lifted the cup from Stepnowski’s hand and tossed it in a trash barrel. After he followed her out the door, the voices and laughter seemed louder, as if everyone had watched and had an opinion that needed to be heard.
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 were 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 would rubber-stamp my draft papers. Nothing about the war had slowed down since September. “What does ‘There’s talk’ mean?” I said.
“’There’s talk’ means they’ve made up their minds already.”
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 were trying to express sympathy. “The board thinks young male teachers are behind the strike threat.”
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, “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, 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 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 looking for a weapon in his hand.
“Cole and Wharton and those others, they’re fools,” he said. “Nobody needs to care what happens to fools.”
Stepnowski pivoted away from the last window. 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 were important to stack them neatly, letting him decide why he’d chosen my room to haunt. “They’re fools, but you’re a fucking 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 rock station I listened to before I began my half mile walk 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 they’d learned from the radio or the newspaper. She was heavily bruised. Bones had been broken. A fractured skull was likely, but an autopsy was scheduled to decide that. Only one boy suggested Chemo hadn’t meant to kill her, that all he’d done was smack her around, and maybe she’d hit her head when she fell. The girls screamed at him. “He was kicking her,” a girl insisted. “That’s how you kill somebody.” 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. She 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 were 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 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, Fred” 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 agreed on with my student, was him kicking her until she stopped moving.
Of course, what did I know about rage? All I knew, so far, was saving face, intent on not being a man who could be humiliated by teenagers, regardless of whether they were good or bad.
Gary Fincke is the recipient of multiple awards for his poetry, including the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine and the Rose Lefcowitz Prize from Poet Lore. His collection Writing Letters for the Blind (2003) won the 2003 Ohio State University Press/The Journal poetry prize. His prose work has also earned him various honors, including the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2003, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Prize, a George Garrett Fiction Prize, a Lewis Prize for Nonfiction, and two Pushcart Prizes, among others. Fincke is a professor at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, where he is also the director of the Writers Institute. He lives with his wife in Selinsgrove.