Authors: Elaine Wolf
“Just for the record, it wasn't Liz who told me about the problem in the locker room.”
“Well then, who did?”
I got up to leave. “What difference would that make?”
I looked at the posters by the art room while I waited for fourth period to end: A
RT IS FOR EVERYONE
HE PURPOSS OF LIFE IS ART
. My God! I really should talk to Callie again about spelling, I thought.
At the bell, students flooded the hallway. Bold-colored tops bobbed on a sea of denim. I heard Tina call, “Hey, Mrs. M. What's up?”
I turned and saw the hot pink shirt that gloved her chest.
“Hi, Tina. How's it going?”
“Fine, Mrs. M. See ya!” She blew a giant purple bubble and waited for it to pop before she moved on.
Callie didn't notice me when she came to the door. In her jeans and clunky shoes, she looked ready to merge with the teens racing to Burger King. Her hand rested on the shoulder of a student I didn't know. “Great work today! Let's put that piece in the art show.”
“Cal,” I said when the student passed, “I need to talk to you.”
“Hey. I thought we were meeting in the faculty room. Are you all right?”
“Sure. But it's just … just that …”
Callie held open the door to the art room and waved me in. Her eyes followed my gaze to her arm. A streak of yellow paint circled her wrist. “So now you know why I could never look elegant like you.”
“Oh, come on. You look fine.”
Callie picked crumpled newspaper off the floor. “One of the kids on the prom decorating committee's doing paper-mache. Never has enough time to clean up, though.”
I pulled out a stool and sat at a large worktable that looked like Jackson Pollock's ghost had paid it a visit. Around me, construction paper spilled from open cabinets. “Cal, sometimes I wish I had your job. Maybe I shouldn't be in guidance anymore.”
“How can you say that? You're the best counselor we've ever had.”
“I don't know what to do. Bob and Peter read me the riot act again.” I picked up a clean paint brush and feathered the thin bristles. “Tina Roland's mother complained about my meeting with Tina.”
I told Callie what Bob and Peter had said. “But you know, Cal, I still can't stay out of it, because if I do, then nothing changes. And kids get hurt. And …” I didn't want to cry, but tears came from a place so deep I couldn't stop them. “And then Joe's right, dammit! Everything we taught Danny means nothing at all.”
We got to the faculty room twenty minutes into fifth period. “Where've you guys been?” Denise asked as we opened the door. Mr. Rat wriggled on her shoulder.
“Sorry, folks,” Callie said. “Beth came by my room to help with clean up.”
Joanne smiled at me. “Please tell me you don't do windows.”
I ignored her and opened the refrigerator to take out the yogurt I'd put in the day before. What I found didn't surprise me: an open container of cottage cheese crowned with green mold; lunch bags crammed onto shelves; an uncapped two-liter bottle of Diet Coke; and rotten bananas, pungent and brown. No yogurt.
I sat down empty handed while Callie talked. “You should see the paper-mache volcano the kids are making for the junior prom. The theme's Hawaiian Luau, you know.” She looked at me. “Come on, Beth. You can't live on air. Eat something.”
“I know I had a yogurt in there. Guess someone's been hungrier than I.”
“Well, well.” Joanne stepped into the spotlight. “The backward Robin Hood strikes again, robbing the thin to feed the fat. Any guesses?”
Callie moved half her peanut butter sandwich toward me. Skippy mingled with the scent of broccoli. “Thanks, but I'm not really hungry.”
“I got it!” Callie slapped down her lunch. “I know who our Robin Hood is. I'll bet it's Peter Stone. Sure looks like he eats everything. Probably hunts for food here every day.”
“Hmm, you might be right.” Denise tickled Mr. Rat's back as she spoke. “He certainly has plenty of time to sneak around. Doesn't seem to do much of anything around here.”
“So how many administrators does it take to change a light bulb?” Joanne asked as she left the table.
Callie elbowed me. “How many, Joanne?”
“Three,” Joanne called from the ladies’ room door. “One to call a custodian, one to supervise him, and one to tell him he's changing it too slowly.”
“Gotta go,” Denise said. “Wake up, Mr. Ratsky!”
I gathered the tin foil from Callie's sandwich, scrunched it into a ball.
“You okay now?” she asked me.
I nodded as Joanne's voice boomed from the ladies’ room. “Damn! No toilet paper again. I can't stand this stinkin’ hell hole!”
“Rat hole, you mean,” I muttered. Callie smiled and tossed me a mini Snickers bar.
Back in the center, I took my phone messages from Sue. “This must be a mistake,” I said when I saw one from Mrs. Stanish, Zach's grandmother. I'd hardly seen Zach since that first day when Callie and I passed the baseball team as we pulled out of the parking lot. “Zach's not mine, Sue. He's one of Steve's.”
“I know that. And believe me, Mrs. Stanish knows it too. She's called here before. But she asked me to make sure
got the message. She wants you to call her. Wouldn't tell me why.”
I shut the door and punched in Mrs. Stanish's number. Zach's grandmother picked up the phone. I told her that if there's a problem, she should call Zach's counselor.
“No, Mrs. Maller. There's no problem. I just want to express condolences on your tragic loss. And I've waited awhile, thinking you might want a little time to get back into your work before talking with anyone.”
“That's very kind of you. I appreciate it.” I reached for a photo of Danny and touched his face. “But I'm quite backlogged at the moment. Thank you, though.”
“Wait a second, dear. I won't keep you long.” Her voice, with its hint of English accent, pulled me in. I leaned back in my chair. “I just
thought we ought to talk. You know, I lost a son too. Zach's father. Eleven years ago, when Zach was six.”
“Yes, I know.” Everyone in Meadow Brook knew Zach's parents had died when an eighteen-wheeler plowed into their car on the highway. Zach was staying at his grandparents’ house that night. He never left. “And it's so kind of you to call, Mrs. Stanish. But talking won't help right now.”
“I know it feels that way. And please, call me Kate.”
Something about the way she said that, the softness in her voice, I think, blanketed my sorrow. Maybe this stranger, this woman who had raised the only boy in Meadow Brook who reminded me of Danny, really did know how I felt and how I wanted to scream at everyone else who said they did. I put Danny's photo back on the bookcase.
“We don't have to talk now,” Kate went on, “if you're not ready. I do understand. But please keep my number because you know, dear, people like us need each other.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Stanish. Kate.” I folded the “While You Were Out” slip with Kate Stanish's number and tucked it in my wallet. Then I called Gary Johnson's mother, who'd left a message about Gary's problems in math.
Home from work, I phoned my father, keeping the routine I'd established at the end of my first day back at Meadow Brook: let Moose out, make coffee, check messages, call Dad.
“You sound tired,” he said after we'd chatted for a minute. “I'm worried about you, honey.”
“I'm okay. Just worn out, I guess.” I breathed in the comforting coffee scent. “I'm not sleeping well, and school's getting to me.” I used to be good at protecting Dad from worry, but fatigue had torn down the fence around my emotional minefield. “And Joe's so busy we hardly even talk anymore, and I just … I just don't know what to
do. And all I really want …” I felt the tears too late to check them. “All I want is to stand at the tennis courts and watch Danny play.”
Dad let me cry, long and hard. He didn't speak until he heard me blow my nose. “I miss him too. But no one misses Danny more than you and Joe. And you've been terrific, Beth. So strong.”
I blew my nose again and searched for my M
mug. I didn't see it in the cabinet, so I picked up another, one with N
written in squiggly print around the middle. I'd bought that mug for Danny the year before on Valentine's Day, when he was in tenth grade and started drinking tea and sleeping past noon whenever he could.
“I'm not that strong, Dad,” I finally said. And this isn't supposed to be happening to me, I thought. I'm supposed to be waiting for my son to get home from tennis practice. Dammit! Why Danny? “I'm not that strong,” I said again. “And Joe … well, he's working so hard now, he's not home much. And sometimes after work, he hangs out with Mike. Joe's having dinner with him tonight.”
“When Joe's home does he talk about Danny?”
“Not much. And he gets angry ’cause I always want to.”
“Well, there's nothing wrong with that. So whaddaya say I bring dinner to you, and we can talk about Danny all night if you like. Just tell me what you want to eat.”
Dad unpacked the bagels while I hung his damp windbreaker over the shower curtain rod. “You're so much like your mother,” he said when I came back to the kitchen. “I look at you and I see her taking my jacket when I'd come home from work. Sometimes she'd even open the door with a hanger in hand. She took such good care of us.”
I glanced at my father and saw the man my mother had married, a man with warm, green eyes and a wide smile. A man who melted worries. A rare breed: a salesman you could trust.
I set the table in silence. Dad put fruit salad in the blue ceramic bowl I'd left on the counter. He cut a sliver of cheese and held it out for Moose. “You know, your mother liked dinners like this.”
“Breakfast at dinner. That's what she liked all right.”
I poured a cup of coffee. “I thought we had meat, potatoes, and vegetables every night.”
“After you were born, your mother insisted on balanced meals. So you'd grow strong and healthy, she said. But before then …” Dad looked away for a moment, perhaps at a scene only he could see: maybe my mother and him newly married, sharing dinners and intimacies. “Before you were born, honey, her favorite dinner was pancakes.” He smiled and reached for a bagel.
I didn't eat much that night, but I talked plenty. My father and I laughed about the time Danny was on the first grade Little League team, when he slugged the ball off the tee and raced around the bases, passing the boy who'd been on first and rounding home while the other child froze on second. We remembered one Halloween when Danny went out as Superman, got hit with shaving cream after two houses, and refused to trick or treat anymore. We talked about how proud we were when Danny won the Athletic Leadership Award as a tenth-grader. How the whole team stood and chanted: Mal-ler! Mal-ler! Mal-ler!
While my father drank his Earl Grey, he asked about work. I told him about Ann Richardson. Six weeks had passed since that sign had gone up on the door to the phys ed office. Dad grimaced when I spoke the words that had been posted.
“So, what's the school doing about that?” he asked.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Dr. Sullivan, the superintendent, told the administrators not to let us do anything. We can't even talk to our students about it. We're just supposed to keep this whole thing quiet, like it never happened.”
I poured another cup of coffee and let Moose take a nibble of cream cheese from my fingers. As I stroked his head, I remembered
Danny's words about Matthew Shepard. I had thought about him more in the last month than I had when Shepard's death hit the papers.
“I wanted to start a sensitivity program,” I told my father, “meeting with students to talk about their attitudes. That sort of thing. But the administrators wouldn't let me.”
“I guess they're scared, Beth. They don't want to open a can of worms.”
“But it's not right. Not doing anything, I mean. Ann's a great teacher. She really cares about the kids, and there's never been any trouble with her. But now, all of a sudden, they look at her differently, and all the good she does doesn't count anymore. All that seems to matter is that she's a lesbian.”
Dad reached for the oatmeal cookies I'd put out, dipped one into his tea. “You're right, Beth. That teacher's private life shouldn't make a difference. But you're wrong if you think it won't. Because some people feel threatened by anyone who's different.”
“But how could Ann be a threat to anyone? It's not like they don't know her. She's been in Meadow Brook forever.”
“Come on, honey. People are threatened by what they don't understand. They think what they've been taught is right and anything else is wrong. And when they think something's unnatural, well … they just want to protect their children from it. They just think it's wrong. Plain and simple. Maybe some parents think that gym teacher could influence their kids to be gay. And that's not okay with them.”
Dad unknotted my thoughts the way he used to fix my mother's thin gold chain I once wore. Listening to him that night, I was a little girl again, asking Daddy to make the chain smooth.
“So you know what you have to do, Beth?”
I shook my head and waited for Dad to finish taking out the knots.
“Just keep doing your job the way you always did, because Meadow Brook's the same as it always was. That gym teacher's no different than she was the day before that sign was posted. And all those people who are scared are the same as they've always been too. That sign didn't change them one bit. And you know, honey, it didn't change you, either. So, like I said, just do your job the way you always did, because you're the same person you always were.”
The moment my father said that, I knew he was wrong. I wasn't the same person at all.
Dad left just before Joe got home. I heard the crunch of gravel on the driveway a minute before Joe opened the kitchen door. “Was your father here again? I thought I passed his car at the corner.”