I’ve been thinking while working on a new short story about my tendency to splinter my stories into sections, and into multiple points of view. I hardly ever write a story anymore that behaves itself and remains within a single protagonist’s experience. I’ve never cared for the word “protagonist,” or should I say the idea of it, and for more years than I want to admit I wasn’t even precisely sure what a “protagonist” was, in the same way that I’m still not sure how one pronounces the word “pedagogy” (peda-GOD-gee or peda-GO-gee?). I was beginning to wonder whether my tendency to break short stories up in this way was an avoidance of the hard but necessary work of conveying a single character’s experience. But, being in a more forgiving mood towards myself tonight, I see that this approach to the story (and, by extension, the novel, though the device is perhaps much more common in the novel, for the sheer fact of the novel's length) operates like certain Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer poems do (no coincidence in putting these two poets together, as they were dear friends, correspondents, co-translators). Bly and Tranströmer's poems are often divided into discreet, Roman numeral-numbered sections, making of the body of the poem a tripartite being. I think that something about this splintered structure must have appealed to Bly, what with all his proselytizing about “leaping poetry,” poems in which the poet (and, it follows, the reader) makes courageous jumps, like kids trying to get across a creek by jumping from rock to tipsy rock. Bly argued that American poets didn’t do enough leaping, but that European and South American poets were veritable frogs. Now if poetry can leap, why can’t fiction?
The stories that bore me the most at the moment are those which portray a single consciousness, a consciousness that usually dwells in the same literary center (New York, LA) that the writer does, and that features any of the following: a subtle, epiphanic (sorry Joyce) realization of either the failure or the grandiosity of their life; references to academia, writing, prizes, New York, The New Yorker, the literary world in general; and a sense that the best way to experience fiction is to experience it while being straightjacketed in the circumstances of a particular character on a particular day. My favorite short story writers (James Salter, Alice Munro) resist this: Salter because, no matter who Salter is writing about, he’s Salter; Munro because her stories are so ambitious (and long) and tend to proceed not from character but from a particular detail (just read the beginning of “The Love of a Good Woman," which begins with an object in a museum, the significance of which only becomes apparent much later in the story).
Anyway, instead of working on my short story this morning, I was thinking about all this, when I realized that “leaping fiction,” for lack of a better phrase, is much more familiar to us than we may think. Isn’t every Shakespeare play a piece of writing with many points of view? If we remained with Hamlet and Hamlet alone, how dreary a play it would be! I like that what is being offered is the freedom, as readers or as theatergoers, to view the whole story, across space and time, while each character is hemmed in by circumstance and by what they do and do not know. This is the effect of certain novels also, such as ANNA KARENINA. Every time we leap from the Anna-Vronsky story to the Levin-Kitty story, we make the kind of leap Bly is describing. There is a sense of simultaneity and, why deny it, of power on our behalf, for having made the leap, and for being capable of keeping the characters of one storyline frozen like they’re in a mannequin challenge while bidding the characters of the other storyline to please proceed. In a short story with a traditional protagonist, the character is hemmed in by circumstance (as all characters are), while we are hemmed in by the character. Anything we learn will have to be learned via that single character, the way that anything that sustains a fetus must first pass through the mother.
In thinking about all of this instead of working on my story, I was reminded of when I attended a very well-known writers' conference a few years ago. I was in a workshop being overseen by two famous writers. I turned in a short story, which I’ll paste below, which one of the two famous writers seemed to truly despise, not because it was poorly written, but because, this famous writer said, it lacked any moral point. It was simply cruel. There was no redemption, no sense of levity, nothing for the reader to walk away with aside from having witnessed a tragedy and the resultant grief. If you’re interested in reading the story without first hearing me say too much more about it, you can scroll down and read it now, because I’m going to mention the very final image. That being said, because it’s not a traditional story, with a single protagonist who begins in one place and ends, after a subtle revelation or epiphany, in another, it probably doesn’t much matter that you know how the story ends (and perhaps this was the famous writer’s point).
The story, called “The Lion and the Lamb,” is about the death of a schoolgirl and the effect her death has on those surrounding her (her classmates, her teacher, the son of the bus driver who ran her over, her father, etc.). I had the idea of a tragedy that would radiate out like ripples from a stone dropped in water, touching a diverse range of characters whose connections to the girl all differed in kind and in intensity, demonstrating something about how a single death is really splintered into precisely as many deaths as there are people whom it touches. But what I think this famous writer was saying was that this revelation of mine (not really a revelation at all, just a fact) was not enough, that the job of the fiction writer is to make the senseless world make some sense, and that this was something my story failed to do, perhaps because so much of the word count (it had to be a short story, after all) was occupied with making leaps between characters.
In my defense, I believe that the story does transcend mere tragedy. Though the famous writer didn’t reference Keats, they might have been arguing something similar to what he argues in a letter (I’m paraphrasing): that we resent any art that has a palpable design upon us. It seemed to the famous writer that my palpable design was to inflict pain on the reader, to make them feel bad, without giving them anything in return. That the story was based on the death of a 2nd grade classmate of mine named Rebecca, whose death was the first death I experienced, the first time of knowing one who one day is and the next day isn’t, should be of no significance here, because I would never defend the quality of my story by arguing that it’s based on fact, as if this would necessarily mean that there must be something solid in it. Instead, I would reject the famous writer’s implication that the story is merely tragic. The last image of the story is of an apple tree that the school planted in memory of the girl. The tree is fruiting out and the girl’s teacher, older now, walks out and picks an apple. If that’s not a moment of resurrection and redemption, I don’t know what would be.
Again, I think it all comes back to this splintered approach to point of view. Had I behaved and remained in a single character’s experience, the teacher’s, for instance, the reader may have been better guided in how this tragedy effected the life of a single individual, and how they survived it. But I kept leaping from one character to the next, oftentimes not returning to them, leaving them alone in their grief and bafflement. I had hoped that by doing so, these characters would, in total, suggest more than I could say through any one of them alone, the way that a suspension bridge is held aloft over dark water by hundreds of cables that themselves lack the strength to hold it, but manage to make it effortless when joined together. Now, for a harsh statement: if we imagine that this famous writer I’ve been talking about (who only seemed to have the energy to tell me what was wrong with the story, rather than suggesting ways to fix it) crossed the bridge of the story but never for one moment trusted it to hold them, I feel no blame ought to be placed upon the bridge or the bridge maker. But I leave it to you now: here it is: once you’ve made it across (assuming you do), feel free to let me know how sound you found it.
THE LION AND THE LAMB
He was on the playground with a group of boys who were shaking young trees to dislodge the ice. It laved the branches, encasing them in a translucence that was like glass. He himself did no shaking. He had thought what the ice had done beautiful when he woke that morning out in the country. At breakfast, when he was asked to come to the window to see it, he pretended not to have noticed it yet to give his father the pleasure of showing him. Now, he pushed his sleeves up to his elbow and picked up a piece that fit perfectly over his forearm like a cast. The sensation was the same as when he plunged his arm in cold milk to make up the bottles for the calves. Inspired by his idea, a few of the other kids who weren’t around the trunk did the same, but their pieces didn’t fit as well as his did.
Evan Johnson was one of the few kids at Jane Addams Elementary who still lived on a farm. His life was divided between the country and the town, the two halves not quite fitting together, like the halves of a broken plate. Hence his shyness. The teachers loved him. He possessed all the qualities they yearned to see in their students and in their own children. He never caused trouble and answered when called on. Working on an assignment, his tongue would loll out in concentration. His mother came to every parent-teacher conference, holding her chapped hands under the table. Her son smelled faintly of the barn. He was one of the few kids whose lives the teachers would follow. Years hence, he would still receive carefully penned notes from Miss Wilson, congratulating him on graduation, or a job. Sometimes there would be a lilac-colored check tucked into the card, “a little something to help you get started.” But somehow he wouldn’t grow up to be the sort of man who would write back to thank her.
This morning, despite it being strictly forbidden, Evan had followed the boys off the parking lot and into the grass, stiff as gelled hair. He couldn’t afford not to. They would make fun of him if he started towards the school, where the girls and the kids in the younger grades stood in little clusters, sliding tentatively on the slick black ice, waiting for the door to open. They would tease him about Rebecca Johnson. The fact that they happened to share the same last name meant they were always next to one another in the seating chart, their names paired in all announcements. He knew what was in her desk, she knew what was in his. In the late morning they heard one another’s stomachs growl. When one of them sneezed, the other blessed the other under their breath.
Valentine’s Day had reminded the boys to make fun of Evan and Rebecca. All the valentines were supposed to be handed in to Miss Wilson, who would then hand them back out along with those she herself had made so no one would feel left out, but Rebecca had passed a note to Evan directly. Evan and Rebecca, sitting in a tree, K I S S I N G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage. To so much as go near her now was to risk having to hear this chanted. They were living like young lovers forbidden from marrying. But he was always aware of her, and she of him. The fact that they couldn’t talk to one another openly made their affection more poignant. It was indirect and oblique, like looking at the sun.
The kid who gave Evan the hardest time about Rebecca was named Francis. In his brutishness he seemed to anticipate the days when he himself would be bullied for having a name that could be spelled Frances. His mouth was large and red and glistening wet, already lecherous, all tongue and gums. One of those boys the teachers told their spouses about over supper. “I could’ve strangled him,” they said. By middle school he would be called Frannie the Fannie. Only in high school would he regain his elementary school popularity by becoming one of the most trusted drug dealers at Pearl City High.
As Francis approached the group shaking trees, he called out from a distance, as if unable to keep the sentence from slipping out of his wet mouth: “Your girlfriend’s dead!” The kids who’d heard him turned. Others were still shaking the tree, stepping back out from under the falling ice like a wrecking crew.
Nearer now, he said, “Evan, your girlfriend’s dead.”
“No she’s not,” said a boy named Derrick, his hands around the black trunk of the sapling.
“Yea she is. My dad says she got run over. Flatter in a pancake.”
He clapped his hands together when he said pancake.
“If she’s dead then why’s she right over there?”
They all looked towards where Derrick was pointing. A group of Rebecca’s friends were standing obediently near the door in long coats, each of a single, strong color: blue, pink, yellow. Evan looked in vain for the red wool coat he knew her by, with its brass buttons shaped like sheep, one of which had fallen off, and which Rebecca had given to him along with the valentine, saying, simply, “He likes to travel.”
“I just saw her. She’s over there,” Derrick said doubtfully. They moved as a group towards the next ice-laden tree. Sensing that he wasn’t being believed, Francis looked around for someone to confirm the fact that Rebecca Johnson was dead. A black boy named Darius, who rode the same bus, was off at a distance, in his own world, as always.
“Darius. Darius!” Francis said, but Darius was preoccupied, having withdrawn his arms into his gray sweatshirt to whip the sleeves around. The school kept giving him donated coats, but he kept coming back without them.
Dizzy, he stopped and looked at Francis, the sleeves dangling down.
“Isn’t Rebecca dead?”
“Yep,” he said, and resumed whipping his sleeves. “She died. My brother say she got run over by a bus. By a bus, by a bus, by a bus…” He said it over and over, in rhythm with his sleeves, which he whipped harder and harder as he sang, flailing his back and sides.
The doors had opened. Kids were being sucked into the school as if against their will. The boys gave the tree one last hard shake and started in slowly in subconscious protest at school not being canceled. Evan walked ahead, trying to get away from the group, but Francis appeared alongside him, muttering, “Flatter in a pancake, flatter in a pancake, flatter in a pancake…” clapping his hands together in the rhythm learned from Darius.
Mrs. Avery was on door duty. Evan hadn’t had her yet, she taught fourth grade, but everyone could feel her power, the way a fishing village feels the first gusts of a hurricane still far out at sea. They called her Mrs. Gravery. Her breath smelled. There was something wrong with her hips. Every summer she had another surgery, but she only seemed to be getting more and more hobbled. She limped down the hall, yelling indiscriminately. Most mornings she would have said, “I told you boys not to step off that parking lot,” or, “Don’t think I didn’t see you shaking those trees,” but this morning she said nothing, just stood there counting kids, like a farmer counting hens after a fox kill, her jowls swaying like a waddle. Evan ducked under his number and went in.
The hallway was loud with squeaky shoes and voices, but as they entered the classroom they fell silent. Miss Wilson was standing at the blackboard with a man in a rumpled suit. He was bald. His hands were behind his back. He leaned over slightly, looking alternately down at the floor and up at them, his forehead furrowing and unfurrowing, the two parts of his tie scissoring apart.
They took their places at their desks, but there was confusion because Rebecca’s was gone. Evan was standing next to a girl named Marcy May.
“Good morning, class.”
“Good morning, Miss Wilson!”
“Today we have a visitor who’s going to talk to us about something very important. Let’s have a seat on the magic carpet.”
Evan still believed Miss Wilson when she said that every night the magic carpet rolled itself up and slipped through the window she left open for it and flew all over the earth, having all sorts of adventures, before returning to the room just before they walked in in the morning. She claimed that if you put your ear to the carpet you could hear it trying to catch its breath. When Rebecca had told him that the sheep liked to travel, he’d suggested they put him on the magic carpet so he could see the world, but she’d worried he’d fall off somewhere over the sea.
“He can’t swim,” she’d said.
“Good morning. My name is Mr. Hartman. As Miss Wilson said, I have something very important to talk to you about. But first, I have a few questions for you. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a pet…”
II. Miss Wilson
The call came late at night. She was already in bed, reading. It was Principal Moss. One of her students was dead. Their faces hovered in her head, the students she loved most, Evan, Marcy, Darius. For a moment, all twelve were in danger, as if cowering in a closet. When he said, “Rebecca,” all faces but hers disappeared. Around this face appeared others, some distinct (her mother’s), others vague (her father’s and older sister’s). It was like turning a kaleidoscope. She heard herself ask how. He seemed reticent to tell her, then told her she’d been run over by the back wheels of the bus. She must have slipped on the ice after getting off. She was the last kid to be dropped off on that route. The driver didn’t even know what had happened until that evening.
“She almost made it,” Principal Moss said. The line fell silent. No one would say it, but this almost made it worse. He told her a counselor from the high school named Mr. Hartman would come to her class in the morning to talk to the kids, then wished her goodnight and hung up.
The book was still splayed open on the bed. Memoirs of a Geisha. She dog-eared the page, but she would never finish the book. She moved from room to room, crying violently, as if she were vomiting, sitting down at random, now in the living room, now in the kitchen. Spread over the kitchen table were cutouts of lions and lambs for the March calendar. So far it had been lions, lions, lions. She had drawn them so they growled in cartoonish ferocity. Without thinking she covered the lions with the innocence of the lambs.
It was only her second year teaching. After she was hired Mrs. Avery had cornered her in the teachers’ lounge to urge her not to get attached to the students or the school, to leave it all behind when she went home for the day. Mrs. Avery had bragged about never working in the evenings or on the weekends. Her summers were given over to surgeries and soap operas. It was as if Mrs. Avery had suspected that Miss Wilson would approach teaching not just as a job but as a calling, and was afraid of looking bad in comparison.
Pearl City was far from the Chicago suburb where Natalia Wilson had grown up. She was still trying to establish a life for herself, living in an apartment above Luedecke’s Jewelry & Pawn on Main Street, aware always of all those rings glowing in glass cases below her. Every Sunday, when they talked on the phone, her mother asked her playfully when she was going to get married. When, to change the subject, she started telling her mother about how the other teachers didn’t seem to like her, her mother told her that it must be jealousy. It was her beauty they resented, a comment that allowed her mother to ask her if she’d met anyone since the last time they’d spoken. She’d never told her mother about the photographer who’d come to the school to take class pictures in the gymnasium back in the fall. A nervous, mousy man who couldn’t keep his hands still, he had asked her afterwards if he could take her out for dinner some night. She’d said yes, though he wasn’t attractive. On that first date she’d had too much wine, and told him that she’d learned clear back in high school that she could never have kids. Her students would be her children. She told him that she imagined herself growing old in that town, thousands of kids passing through her grade and disappearing until their kids appeared, and then theirs. She would be like one of those characters in an Alice Munro story, living a life both courageous and provincial. He hadn’t read Alice Munro.
When she couldn’t cry anymore, she washed her face and brushed her teeth, then lay in bed with the lamp on, remembering. She winced at something she had said to Rebecca that day, only hours before she died. She’d been writing on her desk again, her only bad habit. A woman from the school district had been in the room at the time, supposedly to provide feedback, but Miss Wilson had had the sense all day that she was being judged. In her past evaluations she had been cautioned not to be too encouraging of the kids. Catching Rebecca writing on her desk was an opportunity to show this woman, who she disliked, and whom she sensed disliked her, that she could wield authority in the classroom.
Even as the girl looked up she was already flipping the pencil deftly in her small hand and inaccurately erasing what she had written. Miss Wilson could have walked away right then, but she had to let the woman from the school district see her act as a disciplinarian. Introducing an edge into her naturally warm voice, the way one runs cold water into a scalding bath, she said, “Rebecca, how many times do I have to tell you not to write on your desk?”
“Sorry, Miss Wilson,” Rebecca said, looking down, erasing more accurately now, the words smearing on the laminated wood, the rubber rolling up in little pills, a faint smell of burning. When she glanced over at her, the woman from the school district was making a note, a satisfied look on her face.
The morning after Rebecca died she got to school early, before the magic carpet was supposed to have returned from its journeying. The lot was empty. The janitors weren’t even there yet. She loved the janitors, solemn in their blue shirts, their names scrawled in cursive with red thread on white patches. Most had been laid off by auto body repair shops and factories, or had had to find new jobs after selling their herds. They spent their days replacing light bulbs and mopping floors, while their skills as mechanics and machinists and farmers atrophied. She gave them gifts at Christmas, which they tried at first to decline, then shyly accepted. They called her Mrs. Wilson, as if they couldn’t believe she wasn’t married.
It was so early the cafeteria workers weren’t there yet, either. It was strange to pass the doorway to the kitchen and not hear the clanging of stainless steel bowls or smell that odor, always the same no matter what was on the menu, of steamed carrots and stewing meat.
Once in her room she locked the door behind her and went straight to Rebecca’s desk. Through the blur of erasure she read what she had written: I love Evan. I love Evan. I love Evan. On another part of the desk, she had written love backwards, evol, adding a little tail to the o so it looked like an a, drawing a little hook at the top of the l so it resembled an n, finding his name in the word for what she felt for him.
Picking at the tape with her nails, she peeled off the name tag Rebecca had written herself, the tops of the e’s and c’s and a touching the notebook-like line perfectly. She set it sticky side up on the blue chair that was attached to the desk by stainless steel bars covered in fingerprints and opened the desktop. She felt strange, going through her things. She tried to do it impersonally, the way you transfer someone else’s clothes from the washer to the drier. Going through the contents of the desk seemed like something her parents should be doing. She knew they were divorced, because depending on which parent she was staying with, Rebecca would get on a different bus after school. She had heard that her mother lived in an apartment on the east side, while her father still lived out on the western edge of town, on the rambling, messy, quasi-farmstead Rebecca had grown up on. He repaired chainsaws and weed whackers and lawn mowers. Miss Wilson passed the place every time she went to Galena. There were piles of wood everywhere, Stihl signs jabbed in the yard, various outbuildings engorged with rusting metal. She realized for the first time that there were two possible places where Rebecca might have died: outside that apartment on the east side, or out on Highway 20. She assumed it had happened out in the country. It seemed crueler that Rebecca might have gone to the other house. It introduced an element of flexibility into the tragedy. One would always have to wonder what if she’d gotten on the other bus that day.
When the desk was empty, she dragged it out into the hallway for one of the janitors to take away, then moved the other desks around to fill the absence. She opened the blinds. The sky was lightening but the day would be overcast. The classroom was on the west side of the school. She could hear the ice-covered branches tapping along the windowpanes like the canes of the blind. She took a folder out of her bag and went up to the board where the calendar hung. At the top it read: Will March Come In like a Lion and Go Out Like a Lamb? It was March 7th. Despite the gray skies and the wind, she pinned up a lamb.
III. Mr. Hartman
He had no illusions. He knew the school district had only called him because Mrs. Kubotsky was on a cruise in the Caribbean. His office was in the high school, where he worked mostly with adolescent boys. Boys whose families had escaped the gang wars of Chicago, their cheeks tattooed with black teardrops in memory of people they’d killed. Boys from the country who wore the same clothes every day, their forearms leopard-spotted with cigarette burns, their families cleaved in internecine feuds that went back generations. And he worked with the toughest girls, the ones the other counselors had given up on helping. Girls who came to his office swallowed up in hooded sweatshirts, kitchen knives sheathed in cardboard in their pockets, some with scratches on their left wrists like a rash only they could catch, and only in that one spot. He was like an interrogator whose methods are controversial but inarguably effective. His daughters had escaped to college like rabbits flushed from a warren. If they were having problems, they didn’t tell him. They had suffered through the indignity of having to see their father coming down the hall of the high school, slightly stooped because his back was bad. His back was bad because he’d been born with legs of drastically different lengths. The left had done some catching up, but there was still enough of a difference between them that he had to wear a special shoe with a six-inch rubber sole on his left foot.
His reward was when kids who he had struggled to help came back to the school years later to find him. Just the day before there’d been a message from the main office. A Mr. Irving was there to see him. “Send him right down,” Mr. Hartman said, then sat waiting in that little office they had given him, no larger than a closet, the chipped walls blank save for a poster of a sailboat struggling in rough seas, the word PERSEVERANCE airbrushed against the bruise-colored clouds, remembering the day Maurice told him he could go fuck himself, then ran down the hallway, reaching back to hold his sagging pants up. When Mr. Irving appeared in the doorway in a suit, Mr. Hartman rose and shook his hand like they were old friends. The three teardrops had faded to where they could easily have been mistaken for scars from oil spattering out of a pan, or a dog bite. They talked for a full hour, even as the bell rang and the classes let out and the halls filled with shouting and swearing, Mr. Hartman recognizing the voices of kids he was struggling to help now the way he had struggled to help Maurice Irving a decade before.
When Mr. Irving told him that God had given him the strength to follow the right path, Mr. Hartman nodded as if in agreement, despite the fact that he was a fervent atheist, even subscribing to a few publications. He believed that there was nothing beyond this blue eggshell of atmosphere but spheres and stars moving in accordance with inflexible laws, the same laws that had made this little girl slip on a patch of ice canted at just the right angle to make her slide under the bus just as it was pulling forward, the driver not even noticing the little bump of her body. There was no power watching over her in that moment. By stepping off the bus she had entered a matrix of facts: the fact that her shoes were old because her parents were divorced and poor and they had no tread left in the soles; the fact of the ice storm, which was the result of a thousand quirks of weather, and the position of the earth relative to the sun; the fact that the driveway sloped up from the road; the fact that the driver didn’t wait a moment to make sure she was clear of the bus because he was old and distractible and wanted to get home before the weather got worse.
He had no illusions. He knew he was not the right counselor to talk to these kids about the death of their classmate. He could point to a teardrop or a track mark and make kids tell him everything they had been holding in for years, but he couldn’t explain the death of an eight year-old girl. He cursed Mrs. Kubotsky, who was sitting on the deck of a cruise ship with a drink in her hand, staring out at the impossibly blue sea, while he was standing on a magic carpet in front of a group of third graders, their arms raised so high it was as if they were straining to touch the ceiling.
“Ok…Ok. Now raise your hands if you’ve had a pet who’s died.”
IV. The Superintendent
The superintendent was a meek-mannered man, hired just that fall in the wake of the ugly firing of the previous superintendent due to sexual harassment allegations that were never substantiated, but that everyone who had known the man and his accusers knew to be true. One of the things the new superintendent, whose name was Byron Richter, was told upon being hired was that the school district had to cut down on snow days. At the appearance of the first flakes the previous superintendent would call school off so he could stay home with his mistress, a secretary at the middle school, while his wife, who worked at an insurance company, had to go to work. To make up for snow days, the school year had to be extended deep into the month of June, which was torture for the students and the teachers because there was no air conditioning in the classrooms. At the first school board meeting the members had lectured Superintendent Richter on the fact that school should only be canceled in events of the very severest weather. It wouldn’t make him popular with the students, but this was irrelevant. It might not make him popular with the bus drivers and the teachers, either, but they’d forgive him when school let out on the day it was scheduled to. In his meek-mannered way, he had raised his hand like a boy at a desk and asked, “But what kind of weather would be considered severe enough to cancel school?” to which an older man, who had been on the school board for thirty years, said: “We don’t get those kinds of winters anymore.”
Now, sitting in his office the day after the death of Rebecca Johnson, he was certain that he would be blamed for not letting school out early so the buses could get the kids home before the roads turned to skating rinks. He had arrived at the school district offices early, earlier than the secretaries and staff, in order to avoid running into anyone. Now it was late morning, and he was feeling a strong need, approaching an urgent one, to pee. He had already ignored one knock on the door, and he knew that as soon as he walked out of his office his secretary would barrage him with messages from concerned parents and questions from the press. He recalled that scene in Shawshank Redemption, when the corrupt prison warden, hearing the sirens in the distance, opens a desk drawer, takes out a revolver, slips a bullet into the chamber, tilts his head back, and pulls the trigger, the bullet crashing through his brain and out the window. Then he told himself what his wife told him last night: that it wasn’t his fault. It was an accident. And even if it could have been avoided by letting the schools out at noon, the school board was as much to blame as he was for pressuring him not to cancel school.
Still, he couldn’t help but imagine her father showing up one night at his house on Pearl Street, the nicest street in Pearl City, a gun in his hand. It would be just like me, he thought, to die in my pajamas.
He laughed and shook his head. It was just another movie scene. He’d seen too many. He looked again at the screen he’d been staring at all morning, the cursor blinking pleadingly at the end of the phrase: By now you must have heard… Even the salutation seemed awkward: Dear Parents of Students at Jane Addams Elementary. He stood up and went to the window. His office was on the first floor, the window blocked by a row of evergreen shrubs that reminded him, in their color and coarseness, of steel wool.
Suddenly inspired, he turned back to the desk, found a travel mug his wife had given him for Christmas (#1 School Superintendent!!!), poured the old coffee out into the wastepaper basket, and filled it to the brim with urine. Sitting back down, he deleted the phrase, By now you must have heard, the words disappearing letter by letter backwards, to start over again, the mug steaming as if full of fresh coffee.
V. The Bus Driver’s Son
The manager of the bus barn found Jason Whittaker’s name under, “Who to contact in case of emergency,” on the form she had her drivers fill out when she hired them. If she hadn’t called him it might have been weeks before his father mentioned it casually, in passing, during one of their rare phone conversations. He would have said, “That was some ice storm we had a few weeks back, did you see that one coming?” Then, so softly his son would hardly have heard him: “Lost a little girl here one night. Slipped under the back tires…” When he asked the manager how his father was doing, she told him it was hard to tell. She was glad he could come stay through the night.
He was supposed to be on air at six and ten, and again in the morning. He was the head meteorologist for Channel 23-WKPX. When he knocked on the producer’s door an hour before he was supposed to go on, already wearing a suit and the makeup that barely hid his age in the bright studio lights, and told him there was an emergency at home, his boss seemed understanding, but underneath his calm demeanor was frustration. His hand shook as he reached for the phone to call the substitute, a good-looking kid who everyone liked, and who Jason increasingly believed was going to be brought up to replace him permanently. Soon, no makeup would hide the wrinkles, no dye the graying temples, and Jason would be relegated to the back room, staring at radar and coaching the kid who it was clear already needed no coaching. The day was nearing when Jason would only appear on TV in severe weather situations as a kind of senior advisor, urging people to seek shelter in cellars, in closets, in interior rooms away from windows.
Outside Peoria, he saw firsthand the havoc the ice storm had wrought. PG&E crews were working to clear downed trees. He saw a severed line sparking blue with voltage, and was surprised by the casualness with which the men worked around it in their orange vests. But the further north he drove, the better the roads were. When he crossed into Pearl County, the landscape had a drenched appearance, as after several days of rain. The woods were dripping black. Redwing blackbirds crouched miserably on the fences, crows clutched the power lines. He turned down roads with green, bullet-riddled signs, passed houses that hadn’t changed since he was a boy, and pulled down the long farm lane, laid with fresh gravel. He knew his father had asked for permission to keep the bus in an empty shed on the farm to save himself trips to and from town in his own car. But the bus, which was usually sticking out of the shed to the fourth window, like a horse standing half-in and half-out of its stable, was gone. A car he didn’t recognize was parked in the drive, blocking his father’s truck in.
They were sitting at the kitchen table. His father was so focused on the cards in his hand he barely glanced up to see who had walked in, but a woman with frizzy gray hair turned and welcomed him, and a large man who seemed pinched between the table and his chair offered a folksy, “How do you do?” All three were smoking cigarettes, the smoke unraveling like yarn and pooling at the ceiling. There were containers of Chinese food on the table, grains of rice sticking to the undersides of the lids and to the little wire handles. After years of refusing to eat rice, his father had finally had some by accident and now he loved Chinese food.
He took his shoes off out of respect for his dead mother and sat down across from his father, who was still focusing all his attention on his hand, moving cards around to make runs. They were playing gin rummy.
“I’m Linda,” the woman said, and he knew it was the manager of the bus barn he’d spoken with on the phone. “There’s plenty of food left if you’re hungry.”
He was but he shook his head and pretended to be very interested in the game.
“There it is,” his father said, picking up a card that had turned up and putting another facedown on the pile. He laid his hand out on the table so they could lean forward and see how he had won. Jason knew that his father had never been good at cards, and from the deftness with which the large man handled his hand he wondered whether they were letting his father win.
“We’ve got four,” his father said, “we can play euchre now.”
“I think we better head home, Jim,” Linda said, standing up. With difficulty the large man extricated himself from his chair, setting his losing cards facedown on the table.
“I’ll be in Monday,” his father said, as if testing the waters.
“I think you should take a week off, Bill Whittaker,” Linda said, using his full name with a tender authority.
When they were gone, his father scooped up the cards and tried to shuffle them in a bridge, but they vied stiffly with each other and wouldn’t form an arch. Then he cut the deck and handed half to Jason and without saying a word they started playing war, the first game his father had taught him when he was a boy. It was something to do.
“You didn’t have to drive all the way up here,” his father said in the midst of a rash of victories. “Shouldn’t you be on TV?”
The station he worked for didn’t reach Pearl County, and Jason had always had the feeling that his father didn’t quite believe that he was on television.
“No, I’m off for a few days. I’ve been sick,” he lied, introducing a hoarseness into his voice.
There was a tie. They each laid three cards face down and flipped again. He winced when he saw he’d won two of his father’s aces.
“Can I have one of those?” Jason said.
“You don’t smoke. And anyway I thought you said you were sick,” his father said as he handed him one.
They smoked together in that dingy kitchen in that old house far out in the country. Jason was thirsty, he would have loved a drink, but he was glad that there was no alcohol in the house. It was a night reminiscent of the winter night his mother had died. The same interminable hours, the same west wind howling at the west-facing windows. They finally began to tire of the game and gave up playing, like two elks with interlocked antlers dying together in the woods.
“It wasn’t your fault, you know.”
“I know that.”
“I wanna hear you say it.”
“Say, ‘It wasn’t my fault.’”
“It wasn’t my fault. There, you happy?”
They were quiet for a long time, and he could tell his father was mad at him for making him say it, but also comforted, somehow.
“You didn’t eat your fortune cookies,” Jason said.
“I don’t want ‘em. Never liked ‘em.”
Jason opened the bags and broke the cookies in half in a priestly way and pulled out the little slips of white paper with their symbols and lucky numbers written in plum-colored ink.
You already know the answers to the questions lingering inside your head, one said. The other said, Keep your eye out for someone special.
His father picked them up and read them without interest, dropping them into one of the to-go containers.
Lying in his boyhood bedroom, Jason couldn’t sleep. He lay there wondering what his father would do if the school district rescinded his bus license. He knew that driving bus was what gave him a reason to get up in the morning. His father had told him that he bought big bags of candy at Farm & Fleet to hand out to the kids if they were good. When Jason asked which candy was their favorite, his father said, “Dumbbell suckers. They like the variety. They like that they might get any kind.” And though his father would never admit it, he seemed to have made friends with the other drivers, many of whom were retired farmers like himself. He assumed the big man who had lost in cards was one of them. From what he understood, his father spent his days in the shop at the bus barn, drinking coffee with the mechanics, giving them advice they hadn’t asked for.
The wind was picking up. He knew a storm was coming, a worse storm than the one that had just hit. Lying in bed, he was reminded of the great storms of his childhood, the thunderstorms and blizzards and, on at least one occasion, a verified tornado. He remembered the thrill he would feel when whatever soap opera his mother was watching cut away to a green radar aerial of Pearl County, breaking out in rashes of yellow and red. Sometimes his father would come up from the barn and tell them to go down into the cellar, though he would never join them himself, as if he were immune to danger. It had all contributed to his fascination with weather, and his desire to be a weatherman, despite the fact that all his childhood his father had railed against the stupidity of the profession. There was a godlike prescience about it, this ability to predict the weather. And the idea that he might save a family one day by alerting them to the fact that they were in the path of a storm gave the job a certain valor.
It hadn’t turned out to be as romantic a life as he’d imagined, but it was a life nonetheless. Still, he found himself being drawn home, first for the auction, then for his mother’s rapidly worsening illness and death, and now this. At Christmas, the last time he had visited, he had promised himself that the next time he visited he would come out to his father, tell him what he couldn’t imagine his father didn’t know already: that James was not one of several unnamed and fictitious housemates, but his lover, his entire reason for being. It wasn’t so much that he was afraid of telling his father that he was gay. What he was afraid of was dashing any last hopes his father may have been harboring that he would have grandchildren to play with one day, a daughter-in-law to flirt with and admire. But he couldn’t tell him now, not in the wake of what had happened.
He was woken in the night by sleet hitting the window, a scattering sound like chickenfeed. Under the noise of the weather he heard steps in the hall. Imagining the worst scenario possible, he went downstairs and waited in the kitchen, listening to his father urinating weakly, intermittently. When he came out Jason occupied himself at the sink, filling a glass of water.
“What?” his father asked, his hair tousled, backlit by the bathroom light.
“I didn’t… I thought you were going somewhere.”
“Where the hell would I go in this?”
“I don’t know…”
“Can’t a man get up in the night and take a leak?”
VI. Her Father
The door of Morton Saint’s Tap slammed open violently as if from a gust of wind and Cecil Johnson walked in. As soon as he entered the demeanor of the place changed. What had been a jovial if quiet Friday night crowd grew quieter. Conversation died. People looked down into their glasses as if suddenly doubting what they’d been drinking, or started playing with coasters. Mort was drying pint glasses with a yellowing rag. He was a big man, with big hands, and he could only reach halfway into the glasses. As he set them upside down on the shelves, the bottom halves of the glasses were still wet.
He was already drunk. Mort guessed that he had walked all the way from Burke Funeral Home. Near the end of the wake some relative must have forced him to hand over his car keys. He was wearing a suit and tie, but the knot had come loose, his shirt untucked in the back. His suit coat was flung over one shoulder. He stood there a moment, as if challenging anyone to say he couldn’t be there, then walked up to the bar, swaying this way and that, as if crossing the deck of a ship. Those who knew who he was whispered sympathies as he passed, but he seemed not to hear them. He sat down, nearly falling off the stool before achieving a precarious balance, like a bird of prey alighting in a pine sapling. He leaned down and tried to hang his suit coat on one of the hooks under the bar but it didn’t catch and slipped to the floor. He didn’t notice.
“What’ll you have, Cecil? It’s on me,” Mort said.
“Double of Jameson, no ice,” Cecil said, brandishing a crisp bill as if to tell everyone he didn’t want drinks bought for him, didn’t want their sympathy.
Mort poured a little less than a double. It was closer to a shot and a half. Without touching the glass, Cecil leaned down to look at it like a chemist measuring out solution, his fingers curled back into his palms, and laughed. The laugh said My daughter gets run over by a bus and I can’t even get a double shot when I order one. Mort came back over with the bottle and topped the glass off so it brimmed. Cecil leaned down and sipped the whiskey down half an inch, then picked up the glass and downed it in two gulps.
People tried to pick up the conversations they’d put down when he walked in, but it was impossible to ignore him. A man no one seemed to know but who seemed to know who everyone was leaned over and said, without preface, “Had a big pine go down in that storm but my damn saw keeps cutting out. I’ve tried everything. Changed the filter, adjusted the idle. Could you take a look at it if I brought it by Monday?”
The inanity of this remark, the callousness of it, made everyone turn as suddenly as if Mort had dropped a glass. It would have been forgivable had the man not known why Cecil Johnson was wearing a suit and tie, but it was obvious that he did and was only trying to break the silence. Cecil said nothing. He made no sign that he had heard the man at all. The man finished his beer and slapped the bar in silent thanks and left. Cecil had pushed his empty glass towards Mort.
“I can’t give you another,” Mort said.
“I’m not driving.”
“I still can’t.”
Cecil stood up and went around behind the bar as if he worked there. Mort held his hands up to let him know he wasn’t going to interfere, and went back to drying glasses. A man at the other end of the bar had his head in his hands, watching through his fingers, like a boy watching a horror movie. Another man had laid his head on the bar. Cecil took the bottle of Jameson by the neck and carried it back to his stool. He poured out a shaky shot, then kept the bottle close, like a dog guarding a bone.
He wanted to drink enough to pass out, so that when Mort carried him outside in the dead of night he wouldn’t wake up. He wanted Mort to drive him senseless through the dark town and out into the country, to fumble through his pockets for the keys, trying all the wrong ones before finding the one that fit the lock, only to find that the door had been open all along. He wanted Mort to take his shoes off and his tie and tuck him into bed like a child. And he wanted to wake in his bed in the morning, with a splitting headache and no memory of the night before. He would be hung over but sober at the funeral so as to bury his daughter in clarity. Then he would leave town. He would move somewhere where no one knew him. He would be that man who suddenly appears in a town in the spring, who buys a house before he finds a job, a mystery for women still single in late middle age to solve. He would only allow one of them into his life. And only after months of keeping it from her would he tell her about Rebecca. While she was getting dressed for dinner, one earring in her ear, the other in her hand.
VII. The Tree
The saying proved true that year: March went out like a lamb. The days turned tender. The trees leafed out. Instead of the tapping of canes, there was a rustling along the windows like the train of a wedding dress. The janitors, who were also the landscape gardeners, were working around the school in the slow but steady way of unsupervised men, their sleeves rolled up past their elbows, their blue shirts unbuttoned, reveling in the warming weather. When they noticed her standing there, they said, “Morning Mrs. Wilson.” Some stood up, dusting their knees off, while others paid more careful attention to what they were planting, as if she was their boss.
“Is Lawrence around?”
“I think… oh, here he comes.”
She turned to where they were looking. Lawrence was coming around the corner of the school. Of all the janitors, she trusted Lawrence the most. His shirt was unbuttoned as well, and over the white undershirt he wore a thin gold necklace, the links so tiny that, cupped in your palm, it would feel like golden sand. He was carrying a shovel like a walking stick, letting the metal point clack loudly on the pavement, trying to make it spark. When he saw her, he picked the shovel up.
“Is it all ready, Lawrence?”
“Should be, Mrs. Wilson. If it isn’t deep enough we can always go deeper.”
“Was that a good spot, you think?”
“Oh yes. You’ve got plenty of space there, plenty of light.”
“What kind of tree is it, Mrs. Wilson?” one of the other janitors, a huge man they called Tiny Tim, asked as he struggled to his feet.
“An apple tree.”
She had bought the tree herself, from Demeester’s Nursery. When she told Mrs. Demeester what she was looking for, she nodded and suggested an apple tree. They were beautiful when they blossomed. The only thing was to make sure someone picked the apples so they didn’t foul the ground with rot and attract bees. She drove home with the sapling on the seat beside her, the seatbelt fastened. The white roots were reaching through the holes in the bottom of the plastic, as if in desperation for the earth. She brought it into her house and watered it. Getting up in the middle of the night to pee, it spooked her, standing in the middle of the kitchen floor.
Before picking the tree out she had had the man who owned the dusty trophy shop downtown make a plaque that would be set in the ground next to the trunk and had sent announcements to the paper and the local news stations that all were welcome to come to the playground behind Jane Addams Elementary at ten in the morning on Wednesday, March 24th, for the planting of a tree in memory of Rebecca Johnson. She had sent personal notes to Rebecca’s parents. The letter to Cecil Johnson went unanswered. Mary Johnson wrote back that she appreciated the gesture, and would be there with her daughter. In the p.s. of her letter, she requested that she remain in the crowd, and not be asked to come forth in front of everyone.
As soon as Miss Wilson led her class out the door held open by Mrs. Avery, she saw that it was going to be a small gathering. She regretted not scheduling the memorial for Saturday morning. There were only a dozen or so people standing awkwardly around the hole Lawrence had dug, the sapling standing beside it in the silence and remove of one about to give a speech. But as the school emptied, and teachers who had seen Rebecca Johnson in the hallway but had never had her in class gathered with their kids around them like ducklings, she was assured that the memorial would be remembered as a success. As she took her place between the tree and the hole prepared for it, she recognized a few faces in the crowd: Superintendent Richter, Mr. Hartman, the photographer, who was taking pictures, the woman from the school district who had evaluated her, and, near the back, Mary Johnson and her daughter. Aware of the gravity of the moment, her students were behaving: Darius was swaying slightly, his empty sleeves dangling down; Evan was turning something slowly in his hands; even Francis was standing still. They listened to Miss Wilson say a few things no one would remember, including Miss Wilson herself, and when she asked for volunteers to help her, the entire class rushed forward, forming a ring around the tree, straining to touch the slim trunk. When it was settled in the hole, they got down on their hands and knees and pushed the dirt in. Lawrence stood by, kinking the hose that ran all the way across the parking lot from the side of the school. He let the kids take turns watering the tree in, until he had to take the hose back, saying, “That’s enough now, that’s enough. Don’t wanna drown the poor thing.”
Since that day a quarter century has passed. Miss Wilson is fifty now. As she predicted on her first and last date with the photographer, she is teaching the children of old students of hers. They come to parent-teacher conferences now in the role of mothers. They sit there in the very classroom where they sat as third graders and don’t so much as look around, so fixated on what Miss Wilson has to say about their children. And when they look at their old teacher, they see only that she has aged. Their memory of her as a young woman is so vague that they leave the room believing that she always looked this haggard. Still, they wonder why she never married. It’s sad, really. Sitting in that same classroom for twenty-five years, calling kids to sit on the same musty old rug, all that stuff about the lion and the lamb.
As for Miss Wilson, the presence of these women in her room cannot eradicate her memory of them as girls. It is as if they exist simultaneously in two worlds. But for the life of her, Miss Wilson cannot remember Rebecca Johnson’s face. All she has to do is open the bottom drawer of her desk and flip through a few manila folders to find the class photograph, but for twenty-five years she has successfully repressed this urge.
Rebecca’s tree has never really taken hold. Maybe the kids really drowned it that day Lawrence let them take turns watering it in, or maybe the hole was a little too shallow (she’d thought this when they set the root ball in, but she couldn’t interrupt the memorial to tell Lawrence to dig it deeper). The tree blossoms, but it blossoms like a convalescent who feels well enough to take a short walk, then has to be helped back to bed. No one even knows what the tree stands for anymore, except for Miss Wilson and the handful of teachers who were here back then. The plaque has been forgotten and overgrown, dinged by lawnmower blades, the copper oxidizing, the raised font of her name traced in green.
But in the past few years the tree has finally started to produce a few apples it holds out hesitantly at the ends of its branches like a child whose hand a firefly has alighted upon. Some days, in the fall, after the buses have taken the kids away and the younger teachers have gotten into their cars with their vanity plates and furry steering wheels and boxes of tissue in the back window, Miss Wilson crosses the parking lot and walks across the grass to Rebecca’s tree. The apples are small and astringent and make her mouth dry, but she picks them all as they ripen, as if it would be shameful to let even one fall to the ground. Read More