By Scott Miles
I didn’t pull the school fire alarm, but everybody has their doubts; the faculty, the students, our principal, even that fuzzy-headed hall monitor with the otter-sharp teeth believes Rodney’s wrongful accusation against me.
“Sharon Mays was crushed in that stampede because of Rodney,” I explain to Pulaski. “He pulled that fire alarm—not me!”
Rodney is the janitor who claims I pulled the fire alarm. Pulaski is our unwitting and dumpy principal. Pulaski doesn’t know what happened, never does. Me? I’m just an English teacher with a bleak future and a paltry salary. Is there any other kind?
I’m in Pulaski’s office. He has a paddle on the wall with a clever saying: “The ‘board’ of education.” It’s an ode to the golden days; a retired implement of child abuse. I don’t know why Pulaski keeps it around. It’s not like he ever had the courage or the authority to use it. There’s also a misshapen globe in the corner, and above that a framed, yellowing diploma from a second-rate college in the Midwest.
“The poor girl!” Pulaski tsks. He’s heartbroken, obviously. His face is pursed tight as a walnut shell. I watch him knuckle down, suppressing his gas, his dyspepsia. He then blows a steamy one into his hand, releases it into the air like a dove that hints of chili beans. “Oh boy,” he groans.
Amid the gaseous fumes, I’m here to explain my situation. An accusation like this could ruin my career. “I feel terrible,” I say. “Just terrible.” It’s true. I feel awful, and I put on a good show to boot. I squirm. I wring my hands. I care. I really do. But I also feel I’m overdoing it to convince my principal.
“Poor Sharon!” Pulaski says again.
Sharon Mays. She’s a damned good student. Last semester she aced my accelerated English course with ease. Bright future. Cornell is interested. Georgetown. Rutgers. All the snooty east coast schools. She’s black. Some say that helps. Some say it doesn’t.
“The last thing she needed,” I admit. “Right in the middle of her senior year!”
Sharon’s lungs had been crushed in the stampede that followed the faux five-alarm fire. I can still see her busted, purplish mouth, the bottom lip chalky with linoleum dust. Sharon’s a thin girl, too. Binge-thin. No-more-enamel-on-the-teeth-because-I-puke-too-much thin. I wince now thinking about all those Nikes stomping her midsection, crushing her trachea, squishing her tender insides.
The shop students, the ones who’ll end up working at Jiffy Lube after graduation, helped me clear the crowd of students that hovered in our space as I knelt beside her. If you give those shop kids an opportunity to engage in violence, they’re usually up to the task.
“Give her some air! Back up! Back up!” I’d yelled.
Sharon realized she had been seriously injured. She was scared. Through her bloodied lips, she said, like an old man about to croak, “I can’t breathe.”
I held her hand, told her everything was going to be okay. Then the paramedics loaded her into the ambulance with as much care as one would load a frozen pizza into the oven. She had an oxygen mask covering her mouth, the plastic fogging up with every exhale.
“You’ll be fine!” I said.
She knew I was lying. She wouldn’t be fine.
One of the cheerleaders then screamed from the back, “We’re with you all the way Sharon!” It was that kind of atmosphere. Everyone murmured in agreement. We’d all be there in spirit. We’d all pray for a speedy recovery, construct glittery posters. We’d never forget—at least not until Sharon misses so much school that she has to finish her senior year in the GED program adjacent to our high school. But certainly the pregnant students and knife-wielding flunkies will welcome her with open arms!
The entire school was there, watching the ambulance tear through the parking lot, the lights flashing but the siren silent, leaving us empty, deflated.
I certainly didn’t see this in my horoscope this morning!
“John,” I say. “You know I didn’t pull that fire alarm, right?”
My principal stands before me on his ham-hock legs and ponders. As I’ve told you, he’s a portly fellow; full-figured with cannon-ball breasts. No belt in his belt loops. Clean shaven. I see his left nostril flare. I can’t tell if he’s going to let me off the hook or not.
“You know that, right?”
Just as I think I’ve corralled him to my side, he hedges and tosses another dagger into the mix. “Bowden, I don’t know how to tell you this,” he says, an uneasiness filling his eyes. “But there’s a student who claims he saw you pull that alarm, too.”
This stuns me. “This is a joke, right? To break the mood?”
“I’m afraid not.”
I curdle at Pulaski’s seriousness, fly off the handle.
“Corroboration!?! Who saw me? ‘He’ who, John? What is this nonsense?”
I think about who could’ve seen me when that alarm went off. There were a few faceless students milling about. This was during fourth period gym.
“Never mind ‘who’ saw you, Bowden,” Pulaski says.
“I was down there. I admit. But I was only near the boiler room to make a phone call to my wife. It’s the only private place in this school. You know that!”
Pulaski contemplates. “That’s true,” he says.
“I know it looks bad, John, but you have to believe me.”
He taps his chin, presses his brain to think harder. I can smell the dirty socks from his gym bag on the floor, some sort of leather cane protruding from its zippered mouth, the scent of the bag like sauerkraut gone to pot. Our principal works out during his lunch period, though it doesn’t help his meatball figure much.
“It’s more for the ticker,” he says to me these days.
When I first started at Thomas Merton High School, five years ago, I thought Pulaski was a pederast, or, at the very least, a closeted gay man. It must’ve been the ascot he wore every Friday that tipped me off, as he’s too rotund to wear a tie. Over the years of getting to know him, Pulaski’s proved himself a fine, upstanding gentleman; fair, philosophical, lenient on behavior, yet demanding of his students academically. Turns out we have much in common, regardless of sexual creed or orientation.
“Well, it looks like it’s their word against yours,” Pulaski says.
“Yes. And I’ve told you my story.” I get up to leave, reach for the door handle. “It’s the only story you need to hear, John. Now it’s up to you to believe me.”
Pulaski turns away. “You do know that Rodney has tenure, don’t you Bowden?” My principal says this to the wall behind his desk, a corkboard full of incoherent scribbling, thumbtacks, and coupons to the local submarine shop.
“How does tenure figure into this?”
“You don’t have tenure, Bowden, which is exactly how it figures into this. Rodney is a well-respected man in this district.”
“Yes, yes,” I say. “The Janitorial Hall of Fame, I know.”
I imagine a Cooperstown statue with a bronzed mop bucket at Rodney’s feet, an awkward ceremony with bad cake. I picture Rodney drinking cheap champagne out of a plastic flute, streamers he would inevitably have to clean up after the party.
“This is serious, Bowden. You know full well Rodney’s mother formed the first janitor’s union in this district.”
“And I also know his father was the president. So what?”
I’m starting to get snippy. I’m losing the battle. Before I realize the phrase ‘He doth protest too much’, I shout, “Listen to me, John: I did not pull that fire alarm!”
Pulaski grimaces, laughs a bit.
“Is this really the time to laugh?” I say.
“I’m sorry, Bowden.” His belly jiggles, and I start to hate him.
“I was just remembering those days is all,” he says. “Riots, tear gas, police batons, fire hoses. It was the 60’s, man. Rodney’s mother was a tough cookie. That crowd stood their ground.”
“I remember those days, too, John,” I say.
I was in college at the time, in a small, dreadful Wisconsin town, gritting out my thesis. How could anyone who’s associated with education forget the raggedy video clips of those janitors and how they marched proudly through the downtown streets? They held sit-ins. They made signs that said “We Clean the World!” The whole country was behind Rodney’s mother and father. They were destined to coin the phrase ‘custodial engineer.’
“There was triumph, celebration,” Pulaski says, starry-eyed.
“It was a good time to be in Detroit. It was a good time to be in the educational field.”
“It still doesn’t change the fact that Rodney pulled that fire alarm,” I say, pulling my principal back into the present. “I saw him with my own two eyes.”
Pulaski harrumphs. “Come back at the end of the day, Bowden.” Now he’s aloof and carefree like I have nothing to worry about. “We’ll talk some more. Settle this for good.”
“As you wish,” I say and step out of his office, closing the door behind me.
In the hall, I can hear the secretary’s phones gurgle with computerized rings. All the lines are lit up. Concerned parents, no doubt, worried about the safety of their children. There’s also the clacking of school lockers in the background. It’s the end of fifth period.
I walk down the hall, every student staring at me, their squinting eyes burning holes into my tweed suit coat. Word gets around quick at Thomas Merton High School, and though they’ll only think me a bigger asshole than usual, I have to hold up the image of authority. “Let’s get to class, people,” I say. “We still have to learn!”
The kids scatter like frightened gulls from a trash heap. Some are on their way home to latchkey life, or maybe a drive out to Belle Isle for a joint, a cold beer. Some will stay for basketball, badminton tournaments, student council yak-a-thons. Me, I have my sixth period developmental English class, which is the last place any of us wants to be, frankly.
I’d stolen away from my freshman Comp class to call my wife, Erin, as I had the ill feeling she was again setting up Internet dates for her dominatrix fetish/business. She’d picked up this dominatrix hobby years ago in Kenosha, a nasty habit she’d sworn to quit when we moved here to suburban Detroit.
Like most spouses unaware of their loved one’s indiscretions, if you could call it that, I had no idea until I caught Erin in the act. In retrospect, I should’ve been wary of the websites in our browser. I should’ve been more curious about the boatloads of leather lingerie she was buying and not wearing to bed with me. I should’ve paid more attention.
But I didn’t, and therefore had no idea my wife was beating the living shit out of men in the basement of our home for cold hard cash.
I’d arrived home early from parent-teacher conferences that day and found a naked, older man strung up by his toes, his hands handcuffed, his balls tied up like a knurled, beet-colored pretzel. The man had seen me creep down the basement stairs, his wide eyes poking through the leather mask. “Rarrrgghghghh!” he yelled at me through his ball-gag.
It wasn’t until my wife unhooked the gear and led the culprit out of our home that I was able to calm myself. As I watched the man slink past me through our kitchen, the greasy bottom of the oven in my nose, I realized the man’s name was Ronald, the crossing guard who worked 7th and Maple. This is a man I passed every day to school, a man I imagined so caring of the young children to make sure their passage to school a safe one.
“How long has this been going on?” I later asked my wife.
Erin’s only defense was to shrug and pout. She looked so innocent, injured even.
“About a year,” she said.
“More importantly, why do you do this?”
“I enjoy it,” she said.
My wife is tall with long legs and blonde hair, not exactly chesty but ample. When I married her, I thought her low-cut blouses were something I might have to address later on. Men leer, I understand that. But this?
After an hour of quarreling, trying to get her to explain so that maybe I could understand, I shrugged the incident off as best I could. “It’s a phase,” I told her. “Whatever this is will eventually pass.”
This ticked Erin off. “It’s not a phase, Edward,” she’d scoffed. “It’s a lifestyle!”
Erin said ‘lifestyle’ like she was forced to carry eleven toes or a prehensile tail for the rest of her life. When I demanded she stop, she then began to fight for her right.
“This is who I am. Plus it’s good money.”
“How good?” I asked shamefully.
“$500 just to beat them with a whip!” she said. “There’s no penetration or anything.”
I tried to adapt. Meanwhile Erin bought more leather instruments, penetrative toys. Once I even let her tie me up and smack me with all sorts of gadgets: leather straps with chicken feathers, medieval spikes, dull cleavers. I figured out quick that pain still hurts, and when she charged at me with that pink jelly dildo wiggling between her legs? I broke through the restraints, shucked my leather mask and called it quits.
“I tried,” I told her. “But I can’t”
“It’s not for everyone,” she said.
Without my blessing, or participation, Erin continued this ‘lifestyle’ of hers. Whenever I suggested she stop, she’d turn it around on me, which seemed unfair. There’s no way any normal man would want their wife beating the hell out of other strange men, but Erin threatened to leave me if she couldn’t express herself.
“It’s what I’m destined to do,” she said. “It’s the only time I feel really alive.”
This hurt. I felt I was no longer man enough for her. Sex was never the same. Not only that, but she took over as bread winner of the family, pulling down much more money than I could ever imagine teaching the kids of Kenosha the intricacies of Animal Farm.
I was a cuckold and an English teacher.
“I assure you,” my wife promised me early on, “you’re the only one I ever have sex with, Edward. I only make love with you.”
Thus, my wife transformed herself into Misty the Dominatrix, where all your screams come true. She turned our basement into a dungeon with layers of dirty black paint. She installed cages, pulleys, tarps. She even created business cards with a crude, cartoonish drawing of a castle, a pair of shackles, a naked man on a bed of spikes.
I soon tired of this double life. Kenosha is a small town. I felt the stares, fought off the whispers. I also got tired of the phone calls in the middle of the night, of the men begging for humiliation while I graded papers, of the men yearning to be urinated upon while I chopped shallots for dinner. Everybody knew. Or so I believed.
When the opportunity to teach in suburban Detroit presented itself, I jumped, and we moved here, Erin more reluctant than me. She’d built up a steady clientele.
I thought the answer might be a metropolitan city like Detroit. Perhaps culture would cure Erin’s disease, her itch. But it seems she’s grown tired of the café’s, the museums, the shopping malls, the daytime soaps. She’s been disappearing during the afternoons, too. Not answering her cell phone, getting strange phone calls in the middle of the night. It’d be easy for her to rent space from a local dungeon, get her pain on.
I’d given the kids a ditto on The Red Badge of Courage, tiptoed down to the gymnasium. To keep an element of surprise, I avoided using my cell phone, and I couldn’t use the phone in the teacher’s lounge because it’s usually like a raucous jazz club on Friday night—the screeching and honking, the cocktail glasses tinkling, the stale clouds of smoke. Only aspect lacking is a bouncer and a cover charge.
Erin didn’t pick up on the first set of rings. I hung up and sat where I could see Rodney sitting in the boiler room twenty yards away. When he isn’t scouring the garbage receptacles for soda cans, this is where Rodney spends his time. Most of us only venture down when a fluorescent lamp goes dead in our room, or like the time it rained for three days straight, the ceiling leaking yellow water, feeding the kids of Detroit a dose of asbestos.
The boiler room is Rodney’s world, and it feels like trespassing whenever I knock on his door, his hazy eyes peering up from the daily betting lines. Inside is a fine maze of pipes, ductwork running along the walls like the hull of a ship. You can feel its warmth, the heavy breath steaming from the doors as you approach.
I dialed Erin again, lost myself in the drone of the phone ring. I was convinced she was searching the chat rooms for the sex-fiends of Detroit, the vermin, setting up one of her beat-down sessions to keep her alive. I almost envied her thirst, her deception.
When voicemail kicked in, I coughed-up a message. “It’s me. Just wondering,” I treaded lightly, careful not to assume. I also watched Rodney out of the corner of my eye as he tipped a can of soda to his mouth, downed the remains, smashed the tin can into the recycle bin and stood, the mess of keys jangling on his hip.
Rodney is a slim, wiry man with dirt-red hair, always the same dungarees, a smallish gut that slouches out of his shirt like a mound of droopy bread dough. He seems like a simple man; quiet, earnest, and I admire that from afar. His voice is gravelly and hoarse, and there’s usually a whiff of marijuana when he breezes by our classrooms.
Without noticing me on the phone, or the few sweaty students ducking into the locker rooms, Rodney locked the boiler room door, and wheeled his garbage can down the hall in the opposite direction. At the end of the hall, he bumped into Charles Foreman. Or so I thought. The student was tall, husky, wearing a varsity jacket. The two talked briefly. Then the student handed over what appeared to be a thick wad of money. Rodney clamped his hand onto the roll, tucked it into his pocket, nodded over and over.
I hung up the phone and scrambled behind a set of abandoned lockers that haven’t been used since the Reagan warp. In the corner was the skeleton of an apple, dust motes, and an unused tampon, its string dragging behind like the tail of a white lab rat.
When I looked back, Charles had disappeared. Rodney was still there, swiping at his beard, unsure of himself. Then he stepped toward the fire alarm on the wall and pulled the lever, breaking the tube of glass, the screeches of the electronic alarm whipping around the halls, echoing throughout the school like a frazzled hawk.
Rodney then bolted down the hall in the opposite direction. I ran after him, but before I could get halfway, a slew of kids pushed through the gymnasium doors, plowing into me. I tired to work my way through, yelling in Rodney’s direction, but just as I was making headway, a surge of bodies began moving more furiously toward the exit.
That’s when Sharon Mays went down. That’s when the kids started screaming.
I stopped smoking years ago, but in times of trouble, I’m easily driven to indulgence. In the lounge, before heading to my developmental class, I burn down two menthols I bum from Evans, a fellow English teacher. We sit on the gruff, plaid-colored couch, sucking ‘em down. We don’t talk. “Thanks, Evans,” is the only thing I say, heading out the door.
I enter my developmental class, wheezing from the carcinogens. Ross Mantha is at the chalkboard scrawling a host of words. The class notices my presence, settles into a doomed silence. Ross continues to dot and cross, his penmanship remarkable. I let him finish. When Ross moves to the right, I see the words: Mr. Bowden sucks the high hard one.
“I’ve been outed,” I say, stomping to the front of the room where I grab Ross, lodging my hand underneath his pit, squeezing like a Florida orange. He’ll have purplish marks on his flesh by dinner time, I’ll have a lawsuit by breakfast tomorrow morning.
“What the hell?” Ross says as I sling him back toward his seat. The kid stumbles down the aisle, gains his balance.
“Sit down!” I say through gritted teeth, jaw clenched, the claws of a headache digging into my brain. This isn’t the first time I’ve caught a student writing bawdy profanity on the chalkboard, but something inside me has snapped. Ross is a decent student, too, if a bit preoccupied with his older brother’s incarceration. He’s lent some unique insights to modern literature, has shown considerable acumen when reading the passages of Brave New World.
Ross skulks to his seat. The rest of the class gets the hint: I’m a grouch, jilted, a depraved dog with rabies. It’s clear, even to a group of 16-year-old developmental kids, I’m taking out my personal problems on a flock of innocents.
“I’m sorry, I just”
My face grows flush. I get dizzy. My stomach is a mess of burbling acid, my lungs raw and tarry. I shouldn’t have smoked those two menthols. But self-destruction is often the best reaction to frustrating days like this.
I fall back into the chalkboard, lunging with my left hand for the metal lip. I miss, my nubby fingernails scraping the wall on the way down. I hit the ground hard, look up at the ceiling, and see darkness swooping like a huge black crow. Swoop. Swoop. Swoop.
I awaken on the floor. The school nurse—a man with no medical training whatsoever—is prying open my eyelids, jamming a miniature flashlight so close to my cornea I’m afraid it might burst. I see nothing but a fantastic fireworks display; pinwheels of red, blue, and green.
“What the fuck is going on?” I say.
“Just relax,” says a voice. There’s an echo, the fuzzy outlines of humans.
I can feel the ugly carpet making out with the fat ripe apple swelling at the back of my head. I imagine the wound is open, wet, breathing heavy. My vision returns. Pulaski is standing over me. The school nurse has a thin moustache, a slippery grin like a fugitive.
“You all right, Bowden?” Pulaski asks.
“Kids say your face went red. Then you blacked out.”
“No mention of anything else?”
My assault goes unreported. The school nurse shuffles his instruments in and out of his bag. He balls up some empty gauze packages, tosses them toward the wastebasket. He misses, addresses me warily. “Do you have a history of passing out, Mr. Bowden?”
“Taking any heart medication? High blood pressure? Diabetes?”
“You sure? Somebody close die? Wife leave you?”
The nurse smiles in jest. Young bastard looks like a budding porno star. Or maybe a fill-in when the stars can’t pony-up for the money shot, a designated juicer.
“What’s this guy talking about?”
“Never mind,” Pulaski says. “Bad joke.” He puts his hand on the nurse’s shoulder in a familiar way. The stand-in has done all he can do. The young buck stands, towers over me, strapping, tall. He twists an instant ice pack, the chemicals hardening, freezing.
“Put that on your bumpity bump.”
I grab the cold pack, placing it gingerly to the back of my head.
Then to Pulaski, the nurse says, as if I’m not there, “I don’t think he’ll need stitches, but he should get to the hospital. He may have a concussion.”
I sit up, the blood thundering from the top of my head to the bottom of my heart. “Thanks for your opinion, doc,” I say. “But I don’t think that’s necessary.”
The ice pack snaps me back into sobriety. The classroom is empty. Evans is at the door standing guard, his thick arms crossed over his chest. Except for recklessly feeding my weakness as an ex-smoker, Evans is a stand-up fellow. The third time we went out drinking, after he’d gotten comfortable in my presence, Evans rolled up his arm sleeves, which he never did at school, no matter how hot it got in his classroom.
“Get those in jail?” I’d said, nodding at his ink. His forearms were covered with tattoos of skeletons, spiders, headstones, swastikas, maniacal pumpkins, death shrouds.
“I was a skinhead in my formative years,” Evans had said.
Evans’ father was pure German, died young, and thus began his romance with ignorance. Evans eventually fell in love and married a black girl, so the SS paraphernalia disappeared and his arms have since found the shelter of cloth.
“I’m getting ‘em lasered-off this summer,” he’d told me. That was five years ago. The wife is gone but the tattoos remain, and I suspect he has a deep-down affinity for the racism deep within his historical background.
In some manner of camaraderie, Evans nods at me from across the room. Pulaski walks the young nurse to the door, conferring with him as if they were brunch-time buddies. Pulaski mouths the words “call me” to him before the door closes.
Now it’s just me, Pulaski and Evans inside the classroom.
“Look Bowden,” Pulaski says, and in his voice I can tell he’s hesitant to speak to me in front of Evans.
“Please speak freely, John. We’re all friends here,” I say.
“Very well then: I think you should take a few days off. Get your act together.”
I imagine fiddling around the house in my skivvies, drinking coffee, ruining Erin’s opportunities to slip out for her sessions. I can see her out on the patio, calling one of her tricks, politely letting him know she’ll have to reschedule inflating his balls with saline.
“For the first time today, I think you may be right,” I say.
“Evans will take you to the hospital. Come back Monday refreshed and ready to go.”
I attempt to stand. Pulaski and Evans rush over, each grabbing an arm.
“I still need to talk to you,” I say. “About…”
“Forget about that for now, Bowden,” Pulaski says. Evans keeps his mouth shut. He’s not the prying type. The two men drag me over to the corner of the room. “I’ve got him from here, Evans. Go pull your truck around.”
Evans ducks out. Pulaski and I inspect each other. Feeling weak, I back up and sit on my desk, knocking off my copy of The Scarlet Letter. Bitch deserved everything she got.
“Where are the kids?” I say.
“School store,” Pulaski says. “Chips and a pop will cure all.”
“I saw him with a student, John.”
Pulaski jams his hands into his pants, jingles the change at the bottom of his pocket. “Who was the student?” he says.
“I think it was Charles Foreman.”
“You’re not sure?” he says. “Charles Foreman is a good kid, Bowden. He’s one of our top athletes.”
I explain to Pulaski the scene down at the boiler room as we wobble down the hallway to the front entrance. When I’m done, I’m out of breath again, the smoky heartburn burbling up into the back of my mouth.
Pulaski stops, squares me up, looks into my eyes and says, “Why didn’t you say anything about this student earlier?”
“Forgot. I didn’t think I’d have to defend myself here, John,” I say. “I’m no lawyer.”
“Ok, ok. Let’s not get any more riled up,” he says, patting my shoulder.
Before I can further (or hinder) my case, Evans pulls up in his turquoise truck.
“This is his new toy,” Pulaski says, grinning. “Already in mid-life crisis.”
“There’s no such thing as a mid-life crisis,” I say, hocking a goober onto school grounds. “Life is always a crisis.”
“The torque on this truck is amazing,” Evans says, revving his engine.
I ease into the comfortable passenger seat, which is leather and rubs my ass the right way. The blur of our high school rumbles by in my periphery. “Let’s go to Eugene’s,” I say.
Evans’ truck smells like a kid’s lunch pail—orange peels, the dry dust of animal cookies, spilt milk. “I thought we were going to the hospital?” he says.
“I need a drink, Evans. Do you want to join me or not?”
“I’ve got time for one, sure.”
“Just one?” I say. “You got a hot date or something?”
“Matter of fact, I do.”
We exchange glances. “I didn’t know you were dating,” I say. “Good for you.”
“Not just dating. Online dating. It’s opened up many doors,” he says. “And vaginas.”
“Vaginas are nice,” I say.
Eugene’s is a dumpy refuge from the technology-driven world we’ve come to inhabit. There’s a television set that doesn’t work, a jukebox with real 45’s, and a vending machine should you get hungry for the stale flavor of potato sticks and off-brand candy bars. The bar is also in Melvindale, which is a few districts over from ours in Southgate.
I plop into a booth while Evans orders at the bar, the POW-patched patron beside him intently watching the broken television set. Except for the video poker game in the corner burping an occasional bleep, the burning of brain cells is our only din.
“Gin and tonic. Just as the man ordered.” Evans slides the drink across the dusty table top, the lime wedge slightly bruised, the pulp a bit dry, the juice seeping into a recent paper cut. The bubbles and gin do a dance on my sobriety, quelling the concussion.
“You on good terms with your ex-wife, Evans?”
Evans drinks from his light Mexican beer. “About as expected,” he says. “Except for the sex, we never had much in common.”
“Is that because she’s not a skinhead?”
A coy smirk slips from his mouth. “Something like that.”
“Was divorce the only option?”
“No, but it was the best option.”
I don’t tell Evans about the suspicions I have about my wife. I don’t tell him about the daydreams where I’m happily divorced. I don’t tell anyone about the jealousy or the sting of her betrayal. I keep the hurt inside like a scream from a ball-gagged man poised on a spreader bar.
We drink for a good hour—talking about nothing deeper than playoff hockey and weather—before Evans gets up to leave, who’s had much more than one.
“You sure you don’t need a lift to the hospital?”
I hold up my drink. “This is my nurse, Dr. Evans. Go score some vagina!”
Mere minutes after Evans saunters out the door, after a glimpse of the night defeating the struggling sun outside, I see our janitor walk into Eugene’s. At the bar, Rodney orders a drink with a maraschino cherry in it.
The leaden steps to the bar take forever. My mind is a healthy blank.
“Manhattan?” I ask.
Rodney looks at me with those cat-like eyes. “You don’t know your mixology.”
“If it involves more than two ingredients, I get confused.”
“It’s a Rob Roy.”
“Ah. The Scottish Robin Hood.”
The bartender is an edgy gal wearing a tight heavy metal t-shirt. There’s a rack of cloven hooves near her breasts, a satanic scrawl illegible to most of the population. I don’t ask Rodney why he or Charles Foreman accused me for pulling the fire alarm. I know why.
“What’s he got over you?”
“Who? Charles?” Rodney shoves his grubby paw into the nearby nut bowl, thinks twice, withdraws. “He’s been doing some work for me.”
“Don’t tell me you guys are rigging cameras in the girl’s locker room?”
“No, of course not!”
The earnest and hurtful look I get back from Rodney shames me for suggesting something so lewd. But, I’ve heard stories about kids posting such footage on amateur porn sites. I might’ve even watched a clip or two. Just for research.
“Don’t make me guess,” I say. “I hate guessing games.”
“I told you, he did some work for me.”
“I understand if you don’t want to share.”
“Thanks,” he says.
“Though I hardly think helping you push dope to the rest of the Merton students is something to be proud of.”
I don’t know why I’m needling, but I can feel the brink of Rodney’s confession.
“Man, that’s not it at all with Foreman,” he says, nipping at his drink.
“I got another kid who does that for me.”
The girl behind the bar bends over to grab two beers. Both Rodney and I notice that the crack of her ass is sparkly, and I imagine the girl awkwardly a-squat in her bathroom, strategically dusting her cheeks with a salt shaker full of glitter before work.
“Foreman helped me,” he says.
“What? Build a deck? Put up dry wall?”
“No. He helped me spy on my wife.”
“You mean like a private investigator?”
“In a way,” he says. “I wanted him to follow her around for a couple of days.”
“Follow your wife? Why?”
“Why else? I thought she was cheating on me.”
It’s easy to keep a straight face because this saddens me and I can empathize. I plunge my finger into the tonic, giving it a swirl. “Was she?”
“Tell me about it.”
“Did you mention anything to her?”
“I’m not stupid.”
“No,” I say. “You’re not stupid.”
“It was a mistake to have her followed, though.”
Ready or not, I then unleash my story to Rodney. I tell him everything. My fears, my regrets, even my fantasies about catching Erin in mid-act again so that maybe I could finally find the courage to stand up for myself.
“I could ask Charles to follow her around,” he says. “If you’re still worried.”
“No,” I say. “It hardly matters. Though I know it does matter.”
“You’re better off having faith in her decisions, whatever they are.”
“But I need to have faith in myself first,” I say.
We drink throughout the night, trading stories about our wives. I don’t know about Rodney, but I get top-five drunk. We get high in the back alley on his dope. We chuck cinder blocks into empty Dumpsters. We chase cats. We break glass. We act like men who are still mischievous boys on the inside. We act like men who’ve gotten hurt or disillusioned or confused by the women they love.
Toward the end of the night, before the bar closes, when I ask Rodney about Foreman and the fire alarm, the story is simple: Charles needed an opportunity to cut class and had asked Rodney for a solid favor in return.
“The money?” I ask
“The money was for weed—the kids have to get it from somewhere!”
The country ballad on the jukebox goes dead. The girl behind the bar flips on the lights. She doesn’t glare at us to leave. She doesn’t acknowledge us at all. She returns to dunking pint glasses into a sink with water that’s only fit for a mop bucket.
“I just hope Sharon is ok,” Rodney says, his eyes glassy with worry. “I feel awful.”
“Me, too,” I say and put my hand on the man’s shoulder, but because I’m so drunk, it slides down to his clavicle, then even more awkwardly as my fingers graze his man-breast.
“Think she’ll ever forgive me?”
“Sharon Mays won’t ever forgive you, Rodney,” I say. “But maybe she never has to.”
The gritty kernels of vomit are still in my throat on the drive back to my house early in the morning. I’d passed out and slept in the car. Thankfully, my pants are still on.
At a stop sign, I throw out the passenger side window the empty bottle of bourbon Rodney and I purchased after closing the bar. The bottle lands next to the bus stop shelter. No one is waiting for the bus. The bottle does not break.
I pull over to the curb, get out, and finish the job properly. I stomp and stomp and stomp until the glass is nothing but sparkly dust grinding into the cement.
Moments later, I wheel onto my street, noting the strange car in my driveway. My stomach flutters as I coast by, afraid to even enter my own house. And maybe the car isn’t so strange because it’s Pulaski’s hybrid. I recognize the bumper sticker:
“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
I drive around the block, then aimlessly around the city. While doing so, I imagine throttling Pulaski after I unhook his restraints, riding him like a horse into the backyard where he passes out, purple-faced, on my lawn, his flabby haunches tickled by patches of crabgrass. I imagine unfurling all the unfinished business with Erin, explaining all my unfair resentment of her chosen lifestyle, and then packing my bag for a long hotel visit.
When I look up, I’m parked in front of the school, the quiet spring sunshine illuminating the sidewalk to the front entrance. Bushes are starting to sprout their colorful buds. But the birds are now dancing in the dirt. Storm clouds are on the horizon.
Inside the school, the students are safe in their classrooms, learning a curriculum that will teach them absolutely nothing about adulthood. The hallways are quiet, the rest of the school at a low murmur. I pass through the main thoroughfares of Thomas Merton, unnoticed. I walk along pretending that no longer conducting a classroom won’t bother me.
Pulaski’s office is empty because he’s being fleeced by my wife. I enter, close the door, and sit down, unsure of who I want to hurt and why. While I wait, I notice Pulaski’s gym bag on the floor again, his disgusting leather sex gear hanging out like it was the other day. Or maybe he never took the bag home.
I crouch down closer to the bag to see what kind of twisted kink the fat fuck is into, and I realize that it’s not leather sex gear at all. What’s hanging out of his gym bag are hooks and anchors and harnesses with handle grips for resistance. What’s in his gym bag is portable workout gear for strengthening and toning.
Pulaski’s door opens, but it isn’t Pulaski.
“Pulaski isn’t here,” says our district Superintendent Gary Daniels, a properly primped fellow with the hue of a ripe tangerine, the body of a retired athlete.
“Can I help you with something?”
“Yes,” I say. “You can help me with something, Superintendent Daniels.”
There is no letter of resignation. There is no calling of union reps. No lawyers. No media. There is no dramatic stomp out the front door of Thomas Merton High School. There is no jaunty drive into the majesty of sunshine. There is no redemption.
Instead there is a quick but nerve-wracking confession to pulling the school’s fire alarm on Wednesday. There is the confused but morally superior look upon the Superintendent’s face while I explain it all. There is also the sopping, solitary walk out of the school to my car, the cold rain coming down in clumps. There is maybe a meaningful pause in the parking lot. There is definitely the unlocking of the car door, and then, finally, there is the clumsiness of dropping my car keys into a puddle of rain water collecting underneath my car where I reach down to pick them up.
Scott Miles is from Downriver Detroit and lives in Chicago. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, he’s had short stories published in magazines such as LIT, Cimarron Review, Atticus Review, and Beloit Fiction Journal, among others. He is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago and is the author of the short story collection The Downriver Horseshoe.