--- M A R Y K . H A L L
The first grade teacher, a young woman in a flowered sundress, picked up a box and headed toward St. Gregory's Church. The principal put her hands on her hips and whistled after her. "Aren't you planning on closing your trunk?" She looked about forty, and she was wearing a red t-shirt, red stirrup pants, and bulky white sneakers with complicated plastic moldings.
The young teacher turned, startled, and a little peeved. "We're coming right back," she said.
"Even in this neighborhood, you never know," said the principal, slamming the trunk shut herself and picking up a box. She sounded brisk, impersonal, no t pressing her point too hard, but not going out of her way to soothe the young teacher either. The two of them went into the building.
Michael waited, crouched on the hot asphalt, until they took the last boxes inside. He worked his fingers into his left front pocket to check on the folded-up resume.
It was Michael's calling to teach. He had sent St. Gregory's his resume. They had not responded. Probably it had been lost in the mail. No one could rea d that resume and not respond. Two years in the Education Department at Center U niversity. True, he had not finished the program, but the resume clearly explain ed how that was unavoidable and also irrelevant. He had been careful to be succi nct so as not to appear hysterical. It was in fact a blessing not to complete th e program, because it would have been simply a waste of time that could be devot ed to his vocation. He had already learned everything it had to teach. He had ta lked to all the professors, visiting them in their offices. He recalled how Prof essor Cheswick had put down her pink ceramic mug with a clank onto a short metal filing cabinet. The sound reminded him of the clacking of pebbles or wooden bea ds, rosary beads. He would like a rosary made out of pebbles. He once tried to m ake one, collecting pebbles from the neighborhood flower beds until his brother Ben came and marched him home. "Come on, St. Francis," said Ben. Michael assumed one of the neighbors had phoned Ben. Ben always received his information via no rmal channels, never paranormal ones. If only Ben would be more attentive. It ta kes a long time. They start not even as voices but as a nagging in the back of t he mind, the sudden knowledge from out of nowhere that, say, if he touches the d oorknob with the left hand instead of the right, Ben will die.
Michael did not want Ben to die. He wanted Ben to live, to marry, to be happy. But Ben rarely dated.
Michael knew Ben would be looking for him. He pictured his brother, over weight, in his bulky, speckled brown sweater with pockets, glowering, or perhaps merely sulking. "There's no such saint as St. Gregory," Ben had told him. "Look it up." But St. Gregory himself had appeared to Michael, waving at him from be hind the drive-through speaker at a fast-food restaurant. When Michael crossed t he street St. Gregory had disappeared, but it was nothing less than a calling. A nd there was the school named after him, and there was the statue of him in fron t, in his gray cement robe, arms stretched upward at either side, his left hand holding the sword by which he was put to death, his feet surrounded by red- and white-starred petunias. What more concrete evidence could Ben require? Ben's her mit-like habits had distorted his thinking, turning his empiricism into obsessiv e suspicion. If only Ben would get out of the house more. Well, he would when Mi chael had moved out and started supporting himself the way he should. Who knew? Perhaps when he got to know the other teachers, he could have them to dinner to meet Ben. Ben might even marry one of them, probably not the little first-grade teacher, she seemed a little bouncy for Ben, but perhaps the principal. That wou ld be wonderful. With this interview Michael might free Ben from supporting him and get him married all in one stroke.
Across the parking lot, the school playground was vacant. Four swings, m ade of foot-long strips of black cloth hanging from chains, hung unevenly from a n unimaginative thick crosspole. These were the kind of swings, Michael recalled , that pressed his thighs tight together and angled out his lower legs awkwardly . The heavy chains of these swings tended to catch strands of hair, especially i f he twirled the swing around, winding up the chains so that they would unravel and spin him. Such swings were also notoriously difficult to jump out of. Also o n the playground were a plain, serviceable slide and a dome of crisscrossed meta l, like an oversized soup strainer, or the framework for a hut of some kind.
Michael felt the urge to play on the equipment, but there seemed to be s ome debate as to whether this was a good idea or not, a distant dialogue like a television turned on in another room. If he paid careful attention, he could fol low the argument. Some felt there was no harm whatsoever in it. Some thought he should bypass the playground altogether and just go get his interview started. S ome worried that if anyone saw him on the playground, particularly the principal , this would weigh against him in the hiring decision. On the other hand, wouldn 't it make a good impression on the principal, if she were watching, to see a te acher in touch with the essence of childhood? What clinched the argument was a g limpse of St. Gregory, beckoning from atop the slide in a flash of light. St. Gr egory seemed to have blood pouring from his side, but otherwise he appeared quit e gleeful.
There was a similar playground at the park where he and Ben occasionally went to play tennis. Recently, more modern equipment in bright plastic colors h ad been added. Children played there all the time, their parents watching from a bench. Occasionally Michael tried to talk to them, but Ben always stopped him. Ben couldn't stop him from waving, though. The children, if they were young enou gh, usually waved back.
It was this park he had tried to convince Professor Cheswick to come to. If only he could get Professor Cheswick and his brother there at the same time, he was certain they would hit it off, possibly even get married. She had the sa me meticulous streak Ben did, though hers manifested itself differently. She alw ays looked perfect in her silk pastel blouses and cameos, while Ben tended to be unkempt. His hair was seldom combed and he rarely bought new clothes. But he li ked his things to be organized, and glowered behind his glasses when Michael mov ed things which had to be moved. He particularly objected when Michael moved ite ms on his desk, like the pencil holder wrapped in corrugated, brick-patterned ca rdboard. Sometimes it had to be moved to the bookshelf on the other side of the room. Michael never knew ahead of time when it needed to be put there. Sometimes it was perfectly fine on the desk. He simply had to check several times a day. Sometimes the feeling was so strong he had to take the pencil holder out of the room altogether, usually to the bathroom.
Ben did not understand Michael moved items for his benefit, to protect h im. Ben had no faith.
When Michael asked Professor Cheswick if she would meet him at the park, she put her pink ceramic mug down with a clank and excused herself, smiling kin dly. He graciously scooted his chair back to allow her to pass. While he was wai ting for her to return, a man in a uniform came to her office, his hands on his belt, and asked Michael what he was doing there. Michael explained that he knew he looked suspicious, a strange man lying in wait in Professor Cheswick's office , but there was no need for concern. He was one of her students and he was in th e midst of a conference with her. The man in the uniform seemed to listen patien tly, but apparently did not understand, just kept repeating that Michael must le ave the building. Puzzled and a bit angry, Michael gathered up his jacket and bo okbag and left.
He tried to contact Professor Cheswick several more times to explain the misunderstanding. She must have been surprised to come back to her office and f ind he had disappeared for no reason; it must have seemed terribly rude. He even went to her apartment, but she wasn't there. After he sat down on her rubberize d welcome mat with his back to the door and waited some minutes, the manager of the apartment came across the lawn and told him he was trespassing.
The manager seemed less patient than the uniformed man in Professor Ches wick's office, thought Michael as he went to the dome and climbed to the top. Th e metal was hot, and he had to snatch his hands away from the bars as he climbed . At the top he sat hugging his legs, careful not to let his skin touch the meta l. The sun felt good on his face, even though the air was muggy and sticky. He s tretched out his arms on either side of him, palms upward, like St. Gregory's but without the sword, and higher, beatific, exalted.
He felt a sharp pain in his side, lost his balance, tumbled to the groun d. Stigmatized? Stabbed like St. Gregory? He lay on the ground, disoriented. His chest felt tight, and his breath was coming in quick shallow gasps.. A face was looking down at him. It was impish, cherubic, pumpkin-wide. A very bl ond boy with red in his cheeks was standing beside him. He looked about seven, a nd he was dressed formally, long pants on this hot day, white shirt, plaid bow t ie, perhaps the St. Gregory school uniform, although Michael didn't know why a c hild would be wearing it two weeks before school started. The boy smelled sweaty , in a child's way, at home in its smells, unconcerned about its farts. He was h olding an egg-sized rock.
Michael struggled to sit up. This was no doubt one of his future student s, and if the principal were watching, here was a chance to show the kind of tea cher he could be. He raised himself to one knee, so as to be at eye level with t he boy. He picked up a rock himself, remembering a television program about mimi cking people's movements to communicate with them better. Actually, the program had been about human mating behavior, but logically the premise should extend to general communication as well.
"You can't throw that," said the boy, suddenly agitated.
"Says who?" winked Michael.
"Who's Miss Adlish?"
"Well, she's not my teacher," said Michael.
The boy scowled. Michael knew he was being perverse. He had begun by try ing to make a joke, and then felt somehow compelled to stick with it. It wouldn' t behoove a prospective teacher to back down from a student. Discipline was impo rtant. Rules were there for a reason, an infinite web of unseen rules, extending like tiny capillaries through the fabric of life, and it was this tissue, ultim ately, that was the nature of God. That's what the voices were: tiny reverberati ons along the veins in the translucent skin of God.
It was suddenly obvious to Michael that there was something terribly wro ng with this boy. This boy was unhappy. Michael felt a warm upwelling of love, a nd pity. He knew exactly what he had to tell him.
"Do you know the story of St. Gregory?" he asked, grasping the boy's fre e hand with both of his.
The spell came on him more quickly than usual. The sky turned purple and yellow and upside down. He saw the future. He would have a long, tender friends hip with this boy, like a monk and a novice, he kind and firm, the boy like a co lt prancing into the world, oblivious to the invisible silken tie that stretched back to his teacher, until he had a child himself and began to feel some inklin g of what it was like to hold an invisible silken cord tied to a prancing, obliv ious thing.
The purple and yellow blocked out almost all immediate sense of the boy. He felt the boy wrench away, but he did not hear the footsteps beating softly i n the dust. Then the spell pulled away like a sheet of water, leaving clarity. M ichael caught a glimpse of the boy disappearing around the corner, his boxlike p ants not quite moving with his body.
This was bad. His first real teaching opportunity, and he had failed. Th e principal had surely seen. Feeling panicked and cowardly, he cast about for so me explanation, some excuse that would sound plausible in an interview. Well, th e boy was troubled after all. This was no more than the truth, at least. It take s a long time to win over a troubled soul.
It had taken Ben a long time to win Michael over, or win him back. In Mi chael's first year of college things had started to become very bad, and the pur ple and yellow spells came without him being able to understand them or ride the m like a wave toward the saints, toward God, toward the negligibly curved face o f God. He had mistaken these spells for something demonic. He tried to obey all the rules and signs as they appeared to him, but they jumbled and reversed and s econd-guessed him, and third- and fourth-guessed him, until he inevitably trippe d up and succumbed. Demons are notorious for their inconsistency; indeed, that i s the essence of evil.
Eventually, nothing he did was right. In the hospital, he became torment ed and paralyzed. On one of Ben's visits, he crossed into the dayroom only to re alize that he had put the wrong foot over the threshold first. He saw a paper cl ip on the floor and couldn't decide whether to move it. He put his hand in his b athrobe pocket, touched some fuzz, started to pull the fuzz out, froze, let the fuzz drop back to the bottom of the pocket, froze, and ended up keeping his hand in the pocket through Ben's entire visit. Ben had brought a checkerboard, and M ichael had to play with one hand.
Ben set up the checkerboard. His glasses were smudged, and he was wearin g that inevitable speckled brown sweater. "Red or black?" he asked.
First red, then black, then red, then black seemed right. Finally Michae l whispered, "You pick."
"Why don't you be red?" Ben was looking at the board. "You always used t o be red."
"You always used to win," said Michael.
"Not always," said Ben. "Anyway, I've gotten rusty since then."
As they played, Ben seemed to be setting up more and more obvious openin gs for Michael. Either he really had gotten rusty, or he was trying to let Micha el win. But this just made it more agonizing to decide what to move. It seemed t erribly wrong to make the obvious moves, and soon every move seemed obvious. Aft er long moments of staring at the board, he would finally make a sudden, despera te move with a feeling of doom, like jumping off a cliff. After ten minutes of p lay, he started weeping.
Ben started kneading one of the buttons on his sweater. "What is it?" he asked.
"I try so hard," wept Michael.
Ben did not bring back the checkerboard, but he continued to visit, and it was during one of his visits that Michael had his revelation about the benevo lence of the universe. His therapist had been asking him what would happen if he just followed his first impulse. Michael had explained that he never knew what would happen, and that was the problem; there were simply dire but uncertain thr eats associated with everything. Nevertheless, the therapist suggested that he e xperiment just once with following an impulse. The next time Ben visited, Michae l followed the sudden urge to embrace him. Ben smelled of wine. Michael hugged B en tightly and kissed him behind the ear. Ben hugged him back tighter than he ev er had. And then Michael knew he had found a way to cut through the static.
It was that experience that gave him the certainty to do what he now had to do.
Michael followed the boy up a row of houses. A plane passed overhead, an d in its engine he heard a fountain. Turning the corner, he jogged along the sid ewalk peering between the houses into back yards, and he spotted the boy, swingi ng hard on a swingset. The boy jumped out of the swing at the top of its arc, la nded off balance, and crumpled to the ground. Sitting up, he cradled his elbow, rocking and whimpering. His bow tie was askew, his white shirt stained green, hi s elbow bleeding red. His low, whiny sound seized Michael's chest.
Michael rushed to the boy and gathered him up. "I'm going to take you ba ck to St. Gregory's," he said in a soft, joking, comforting tone. "The principal will have a first aid kit, and who knows? Maybe St. Gregory himself will heal y ou." He also wanted to bring the boy to St. Gregory's for a selfish reason -- to save his job. But then again, he did not want the job for selfish reasons. He w anted to help children; he wanted to help Ben. So if in helping this boy, he ben efited himself, where was the harm in that? A small chorus of instant resistance warned against this rationalization, and for an instant Michael worried that he was indeed being dishonest, but he cast this off and ran toward the church. If he was not confident enough to act, he did not deserve to be a teacher.
The boy was struggling, wailing for his mother, his pale, pumpkin-wide f ace twisted in the middle. Michael tried to run as smoothly as possible. He kept up a stream of soothing patter in the boy's ear:
"In his younger days, St. Gregory was a hermit. That means he lived all by himself. He lived on an island in the middle of a great big river in Scotland . This was a long time ago, during the Middle Ages. One day, a king washed up on the shore. Can you imagine? Just like that! The king had been in a shipwreck an d almost drowned. St. Gregory nursed him back to health. So to reward him, do yo u know what the king did? He built an abbey, right there on the island. An abbey is a place where monks live. The king started a whole order of monks and put St . Gregory in charge. I always thought that was a funny reward, don't you? I mean , he was a hermit, and his reward was to get his island cluttered up with a lot of new people! Don't you think that's funny?"
Michael reached the school with the kicking, crying boy and went to the cafeteria door. He leaned against it and found it open. Odd that it should be un locked; the principal must have left it that way by mistake, or maybe as an invi tation.
The cafeteria was grayish and shadowy, the shades admitting only a long, low block of August sunlight across the tables. In almost every uncovered cross -wired windowpane, there were one or two BB holes, so that the row of windows re sembled a line of music. This was undoubtedly a code, but Michael had no time to decipher it. He made his way through the cafeteria and into a darkened hall, he aded toward the front of the school, and found the principal's office. Unable to knock without dropping the child now clawing his face, he kicked gently on the door.
The principal answered, looking surprised. Reading glasses dangled from a brightly striped cord around her neck. Perhaps she was little too old for Ben, but then again, her red clothing and bulky sneakers seemed to indicate a certai n youthfulness. She had probably appreciated Michael's earlier activity on the p layground.
Michael tried to explain over the child's squalling his dual purpose in being there: to render aid to the boy, whether medical or spiritual, and to tend er his resume, which he had tried to send her by mail but which had unfortunatel y been lost.
She nodded, frowning, and held out her arms as Michael tried to hand her the boy.
But the boy wriggled free, dropped to the ground, and ran.
Michael wasn't sure what to do next, but boy needed attention, so Michae l chased him down, nearly tackled him, and carried him once more to the principa l's office. Michael tried to reassure the boy that it would be okay, the nice la dy was just going to look at his elbow, and he promised that if any bones needed to be set, he, Michael, would stay with him and hold his hand -- his other hand -- every second.
When Michael got back to the principal's office, he put the boy down, an d the boy ran again, screaming at the top of his lungs. Exhausted and exasperate d, Michael took a few steps toward the boy, then let him go, watching his little body turn black and be enveloped by light when he opened the door at the end of the darkened hallway.
Michael felt stricken. This was a crushing blow to his interview, surely .
He turned back to the principal's door to see it slam shut. He knocked, quietly. The door did not open. The resume had been crumpled; he smoothed it out as best he could, folded it in thirds, and slipped it under the door. He talked , wondering if he was saying too much, about his training and qualifications, an d managed to mention, quite casually and skillfully, considering the awkwardness of the situation, that he had observed she was not wearing a wedding ring, and that he had an unmarried brother. So that there could be no misunderstanding, he added that he himself was married to his teaching vocation.
Later, in the police station, when Ben came to pick him up and the princ ipal was waiting to give her statement, Michael exulted that he had been able to bring them together, the circumstances notwithstanding. As the principal watche d Ben lead Michael past her chair, Ben said to her, gruff and apologetic, "I oug ht to keep him on a leash." Michael was hurt, but it was uncharacteristic of Ben to say anything to a stranger, so Michael took it as a sign. The principal put on her glasses and said, "That hardly seems civilized." She and Ben were married the following spring.
© crossconnect, inc 1995-2002
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |