Beginning with this issue of The Great Smokies Review, we are privileged to present the work of a Creative Writing student or graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts Program, offered by UNC Asheville.
The MLA program is an interdisciplinary, part-time course of study for college-educated adults who are interested in broad-based learning at the graduate level. Throughout, the MLA program fosters critical thinking, creativity, and effective communication.
It offers four areas of concentration: Climate Change & Society, Globalization Past & Present, Humanities & Creative Writing, and Science & Human Values. The quality of work produced by MLA Creative Writing students and graduates equals the best of the MFA programs, and we are pleased to include these works in our publication.
Early October, 1983, in the fictional town of Holly Springs, South Carolina
Man, I just should have left well enough alone, thought Sawbuck. Messing in other people’s business never pays, not ever. I don’t know why I can’t get that through my thick ugly skull. He laughed to himself. My mama was right. Again. She’d be real happy about it too, if she knew. He thought she probably did know, was probably raising her eyebrows at him right now, with that cheese-eating grin he’d never see again in this lifetime. He pushed his dark glasses against the bridge of his nose with the back of his wrist, and leaned into the door behind him. Leaves skittered into the open door, leaves he’d have to sweep out later. The cart bumped against the broken asphalt he’d forgotten to dodge, nearly toppling the cans. He took a breath, made sure the cans were as well against the cart as he could get them.
Sawbuck tipped the last garbage can into the dumpster, humming Monday, Monday to himself. Can’t trust that day. Past the dumpster’s rusted angles, he could see back across the parking lot towards the field. Kids were running silent laps around the track, while others sat on the bleachers or moved around the back of the arena like starlings. The smell of freshly baked rolls came from behind him, through the open cafeteria door where Mattie and her crew were finishing up for the day. The sky was a gray wash over the trees against which every leaf burned brightly. Every now and again an evergreen poked between the bare limbs of the other trees. The dark sky, the shifting colors, the scattered leaves, bare limbs fleshing out again with leafy green come March.
This is what he’d missed out west. Nothing keeps you close to this earth like trees changing, his mama used to say. Out west, he thought, you might as well be in one of those new shopping malls you could stay in all day and never see the sky. The weather never changed inside there, that’s for sure. Sawbuck stood still a minute, leaning the empty can against his thighs. His coveralls were damp from carrying spilt things. An old feeling came over him as he scanned the trees on the other side of the field. He’d once bunched up there on the bleachers with the other starlings, only because he’d learned how to make them give him a place. He’d learned to make them laugh, kids and teachers too. Gave his own self the name Sawbuck. I never been anything ‘cept an old crow, he thought. His mother continued to call him Alexander, but outside of this kid now, she was the only one who’d done so.
“Coming in,” he shouted at the girls’ room. Propped the door open with his foot, then waited, listening to the reverb of his own voice through the empty room. No answer. “Coming in,” he called again, automatically, then carried the can between the rows of benches between the lockers where he set it down. Man, place a mess. Girls worse than boys, if you wanted to know the Lord’s truth. Even now he saw a ripped up t-shirt hanging between the lockers and the bathroom stalls, a trail of toilet paper strung across the floor between the stalls and the sink. How’d he missed that before? He pulled out a fresh bag, stretched it around the circle of the can, then picked up the paper with his bare hands and threw it in. Took the t-shirt, threw it over one shoulder. He’d hold onto it for a day or so, but it was so trashed that probably the kid that left it here wouldn’t want it back. But you never could tell. Might be her favorite one.
He carried the last can to the boys room, ready for the day to be finished. It was almost getting cool at nights now, and he’d soon need to get a fire going of the evening. Stop by the store, pick up some things. Dog food. Light bulbs, to replace that one in the kitchen. Maybe some ground beef for supper. Chili. He had some green peppers still. Onions, garlic, he had those. Maybe get some cheese to grate on top. Give Charlene a call, see if she had plans. Or, on second thought, maybe just enjoy the evening alone. Watch some TV. It was Monday Night Football tonight. He might see what she was doing for supper tomorrow. Chili always tasted better the next day anyway.
“Coming in,” he called. He didn’t pause at this door, just went on in, the can bumping gently against his leg as he walked. The florescent lights buzzed, flickered over the urinals. He’d need to get a replacement for that before he left. He set the can down. That was strange, one of the stalls was closed. Someone inside.
“Hey, you all right in there?” Sawbuck knocked on the door. “You got to come out now, we’re closing up. You don’t want to have to spend the night in here.” He heard some snuffling, and what sounded like the toilet seat creaking against the porcelain bowl.
“You all right?” he asked again.
“Yes, I’m all right,” said a strangled but familiar voice.
“Ben, is that you?”
“Hi, Alexander Hamilton,” the voice said.
“Come on out of there, son. It’s time to get going,” Sawbuck said. “What you doing in there anyway?”
There hadn’t been an answer, but a few snuffles and then the click of the metal lock opening. Ben stood there, his face red and swollen. His long hair fell away from his forehead, showing the dull paste of a scab, and his pants hung crooked against his frame.
“How was your day?” he said.
“Fine, Ben. My day was fine. Look like you had some troubles, though.”
Ben’s torso rocked gently back and forth as his fingers curled into rigid arcs. “I had some troubles, though, sir,” he repeated in a whisper.
“What happened, son? You can tell me.” Sawbuck watched the boy attentively. He could almost feel the sudden flush of anger rising from older times, but he was careful to keep it from his face. “It’s okay.”
Ben didn’t bother to answer, and Sawbuck’s words hung in the air. Ben’s face closed in on itself and his eyes went blank. His lips moved as if he were talking, but no sound came out.
Sawbuck knew somehow that he needed to get this kid out of here, find someplace quiet where he could collect himself. He wasn’t going to find out what he wanted to know by grilling him with questions, that much was a fact. Where could he go? Hated to take him to the office. Besides, it was a long walk from the gym. All those swarms of kids. The steps of the school, where maybe his mom was going to be picking him up? No, people would be walking past, asking questions. He just needed to calm down someplace. He’d done pretty well for himself already, sure. It was tempting to just leave him here, in the bathroom, but the kids would be coming back from the track sooner or later. Probably sooner.
“Come with me,” Sawbuck said, quietly. “I’ve got a place for you.” He opened the door, and turned off the bathroom lights again. The open door cast a path of dull gray light from the door to the kid. Ben slowly shambled through the door, and into the hall, and the janitor saw that the boy’s pants were twisted almost halfway backwards. The janitor’s cart was parked at the end of the hall where he’d left it before he’d done the trash, and now he thrust the cart in front of Ben. “Take this,” he said. “We’ve got to push it back to where it goes.” He put his own hands briefly on the bar. “Like this,” he commanded.
Ben’s hands steadied to push the cart. Sawbuck took hold of it by the front and started to pull it along, and Ben shuffled obediently behind. His lips continued to move, but his face calmed. Together, they made their way down through the hallway, the trashcan bumping across the wooden floor between them. When they reached the closet, Sawbuck opened the door with a grand sweeping gesture. “Welcome,” he said. “Come in.”
Inside the small room, a stool was propped between shelves of cleaning supplies. “The Taj Mahal it ain’t,” Sawbuck said. “But you go on ahead and sit down, Ben. You stay here for a little while.”
Ben released the cart, and went into the little room. Sawbuck stood for a minute in the doorway, seeing what the boy would have if he’d looked around. Stacks of toilet paper rolls and boxes of paper towels against the back wall, a rolling mop bucket beside a steel sink. Ceiling-high shelves held vats of blue, green, yellow, pink chemicals. A couple of stacked boxes beside the stool that served as a table, and a few MAD magazines he’d collected in his rounds lay open from where he’d been reading them earlier, together with a crossword he’d brought from this morning’s paper, about half finished.
Sawbuck tapped the stool. “Here you go,” he said. The boy sat. He already looked better, Sawbuck thought, but still not quite right. Sawbuck busied himself cleaning up the cart that they’d left in the hallway outside the closet. He’d left the door open, but he didn’t talk. The stool creaked, loudly at first, then more slowly, until at last it was quiet.
Finally, the boy said, “I have to go get my backpack, sir.”
Sawbuck leaned into the frame of the door, and Ben looked up at him expectantly, as if he needed confirmation to be released. His long curls looped over his forehead, his eyes still swollen but now dry. “Where is it?” Sawbuck asked.
“It might be in front of my locker, sir, number 154, on the first floor,” the boy said.
“Well, then, the thing to do is to go find out.” Sawbuck said. “But if it’s all right with you, first thing we need to do is get your pants back on you. Is it all right with you if I give you a hand with that? Or you want to do it yourself?
“It’s all right with me if you give me a hand with that, sir.”
It was, Sawbuck knew, another moment he could have let go by without getting involved. He had no business helping this nearly grown man put on his damn pants. But, another part of him argued, there it was, the undeniable fact of the boy, filling his closet with his man’s body, his pants twisted around him like he was a plaything. It weren’t right. “Let me help you fix your pants,” he said.
Ben stood up, his fingers rubbing the fringe of his long scarf. He was nearly as tall as the janitor, and when he stood up he and Sawbuck were uncomfortably close in the small room. Sawbuck quickly moved back into the hallway, feeling his face heat up. Ben followed, his eyes bright again.
Together they walked through the wide, empty hallway. There was a break in the clouds, what his mama might have called Jesus-clouds, with sunlight streaming straight down from the heavens through that little break onto a patch of land somewhere that wasn’t here. At the end of the halls, the janitor turned off the lights, and the windows that had been dark instantly became bright.
“So, you going to tell me what happened today?” Sawbuck asked. He didn’t look at the kid, just kept walking beside him.
“What happened today, sir?” Ben repeated blankly.
“What happened today that made me find you in the locker room where you ain’t never been, in my memory,” said Sawbuck.
“I go there sometimes,” Ben said. This seemed to be sufficient, for he didn’t continue.
“I go there sometimes too, my friend,” Sawbuck said patiently. “I go there because it’s my job to clean up. How come you were there, though?”
Ben looked towards his feet, and kept rubbing his buttons. “I go there, sometimes,” he repeated.
None of my business anyway, Sawbuck thought. He don’t want to talk about it, he don’t have to. Lord knows he has to do enough he don’t want to do. I remember high school. I know how it is. They turned towards the central office, and down the hall to Ben’s locker.
“It’s not here, Benjamin fo-Fenjamin,” Sawbuck said. “Let’s check the office, see if someone turned it in for you.”
“Yes, sir, let’s check the office,” said Ben. His voice was brittle, his lips beginning to move as if he were whispering again.
Carol was still at her desk in the front of the office. “You almost out of here?” she asked, smiling up at him with those sparkling eyes. Sawbuck could never quite tell if she was flirting with him, or if she just smiled like that.
“Almost,” he said. “You ain’t happened to have seen this boy’s backpack anyplace, have you? He thinks he left it in the hallway, just right out there, where his locker is at.”
“Well, let me think,” Carol said, pursing her lips in a pretty way. It would be all right if she were flirting, Sawbuck thought. Maybe that would be all right. He watched as she sauntered over towards the rear of the office, bent to open a cabinet door. Yeah, that would be more than all right. “Not here,” she said. “Or here.”
“Carol, have you got a minute?” Principal Scoggins appeared. “Oh, hello, Mr. Hamilton. And hello, Ben.”
“Hello, sir,” Ben said.
“I think I may have something that belongs to you, Ben,” the principal said. “Just a moment.” He disappeared again, and returned clutching a limp black backpack in his hand. “Is this yours, by chance?”
“Yes, sir, thank you, sir,” Ben said. He held his hand out to take the pack, but his face started to work itself and his lips pulled in over his teeth.
“Did you have anything in this pack, son?”
“Yes, sir,” Ben said quickly. “I had my notebooks, and I had Biology and Algebra One and Language Arts, and I had Typhoid in the 19th Century, and I had Nerves and Personal Power. And probably I had some pencils. And a calculator,” he added anxiously. “Because we’re allowed to use calculators now.”
“And is this your notebook?” the principal asked. He reached down and showed Ben a blue binder crammed wide with papers.
“That is my notebook, sir,” Ben said, his voice flooded with relief.
“Just a minute, young man,” the principal said slowly. “There’s some things in here that I think we need to discuss.”
“Discuss, sir?” the boy started.
“Discuss,” the man repeated sternly.
Sawbuck saw Ben chewing on his bottom lip, and how white the fingers that rubbed up and down his scarf had become. Lord have mercy, he couldn’t help himself. “Hey, Mr. Scoggins, sir, now, I don’t mean to interrupt here, but I want to tell you that my man Benjamin here just had a bad day, and I mean one of those rotten, no-good, very bad days. Can I talk to you for a minute?”
The principal looked at Sawbuck sharply. “Ben, have a seat. Mr. Hamilton, step into my office, please, sir.”
Sawbuck followed Principal Scoggins into his office and closed the door, but neither man sat. “Listen, I just think maybe you should know,” Sawbuck began, and paused to consider. He looked towards his old friend. “Man, I found this kid holed up in the locker rooms just a little bit ago. He’d had a pretty rough time of it. I can’t get him to say exactly what it was that done happened, but it don’t look pretty, whatever it was.” Sawbuck spread his hands out wide in an appeal to the man.
“That student is a puzzle,” the principal murmured, shaking his head. “A genu-wine puzzle. You want to know what we found in his pack?”
Sawbuck shrugged. “You looked in his pack?”
“That boy’s carrying around a list of ways that people die. I mean to tell you, thousands of ways.”
“Well, hell, Bill,” Sawbuck laughed softly. “Even pushing broom, I could tol’ you that.”
The principal didn’t laugh. “He listed the body parts that would have to be affected so that the person would die. What would happen to bodies after death. How death was transmitted one to the other.” He paused. “Of course, you know that his father died in a car wreck.”
Sawbuck shook his head. “I didn’t know that. Oh, man. When did that happen?”
“Eight, nine years ago, long time. He was a boy, only six or seven at the time. The parents already split up when that happened. He was living with his mama. But still.”
“I had no idea.” Sawbuck shook his head, took a deep breath. “Damn, that’s rough, that is truly rough.”
“I don’t mind telling you, he tests out with some of the brightest students we’ve got. I’m tempted to give him a little leeway when I can. But reading this notebook is…well, it concerns me.”
“Hey, who turned in the backpack?”
“Who turned it in?”
“You know, I don’t even know. Carol might be able to piece it together, but she was away from her desk when the young man–I think Debbie said it was a young man–brought it in.” The principal leaned forward on his desk, his face weary.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sawbuck said. He shook his head. “I guess all I’m saying is that the kid is wiped out, and I don’t think you’re gonna be getting anything from him this afternoon. It’s late in the day. We all need to be getting on home.”
“Well, I can’t simply let this go, Sawbuck. But I will not press on this afternoon.” Sawbuck grinned to himself.
“Press on” had been something Bill’s AME minister father might have said. Bill and he had known each other since they were little enough to hang out on the Block without being accused of getting into trouble. Once they became big enough, Bill Scoggins stopped hanging out there. Sawbuck didn’t.
“Doesn’t he usually ride the bus? How’s he gonna get home? Busses long since gone.”
“Well, his mother works up at the Waffle House by the highway. I’ll give her a call, see if she can come pick him up,” the principal said. “Shoot, and Carol already gone for the day. Well, I don’t mind staying here with the boy ’til his mama can come.”
“Where does he live? Maybe I can give him a lift,” said Sawbuck. Three times now, butting in. Third time’s the charm.
“They’re out 321, I think. At least, they used to be. That still out your way?”
“That would be great, Mr. Hamilton,” said the principal, opening the door. “Ben, son, you about ready to go home?”
“Yes, sir,” Ben said softly.
“You missed your bus, didn’t you? Or is your mama coming to pick you up today?” the principal asked.
Ben looked at the men without meeting their eyes, nervously flicking the ends of his scarf. He didn’t answer.
“Your mama coming this afternoon?” Sawbuck repeated.
“I don’t think so, sir,” the boy said. He rocked gently in the chair.
Principal Scoggins had managed to fit Ben’s books back into his pack, but he was struggling with the zipper. Finally it caught, and the principal heaved it towards Ben. “You’ve got to have the strength of a young man to carry this many books around,” he chuckled. “Better you than me, son.”
Ben put one arm through the pack and then the other, pulling his shirt sideways. “Yes, sir,” he gasped.
Sawbuck watched the kid strangle himself with this backpack, embarrassed for him. “Ben, I’m heading out 321 on my way home. You live out that way?”
“Yes, sir. I live at 45 Blanton Hill Church Road.”
“Well, then, come on. You can give me directions, right? I’ll ride you on home.” Sawbuck opened the office door and stood back while the kid staggered through. He’d get home eventually. That chili wasn’t going anywhere, and the game didn’t start till eight.
They took a left out of the parking lot, drove down towards the center of town heading west towards Route 321. The clouds were bright down towards the horizon, diffusing the sun where it was lowest. Sawbuck squinted hard, even through his dark prescription glasses. They drove up Independence, past the Dairy Queen, Hardees, the Second Broad Baptist, NCNB bank, Don’s Pancake Palace. Ben riding shotgun, quietly watching the power lines loop alongside the road. At the Pontiac dealership, Sawbuck swung the car right onto 321. The pavement here was smooth, recently covered with a fresh coat of asphalt.
“This sure beats the way it was,” Sawbuck said to Ben. “Used to be that you couldn’t hardly take this road, it would tear up your car.” He glanced at the boy. “You going to take up driving now? You’re sure almost old enough.”
Ben didn’t say anything. He scanned the right-hand side of the horizon. Sawbuck was having a hard time seeing this kid behind the wheel of a car. The highway dropped from four lanes to two.
“You know, I was thirty-five years of age when I got my first car. It was an old beat-up Dodge Dart. Got it for five hundred dollars and some change, ran that sucker into the ground. It finally gave out on me, little over a year ago, and I got this here thing.” He glanced at the kid again. Still watching out the window, his face fierce with concentration.
“Hey Ben, what do I need to be looking for?” he asked. “Where we turning to get to your place?”
“Take a left at Ledford Creek Church Road, sir,” the boy said. “There is a big transformer there, on the right, serving power lines across the whole Binion Pine Creek community.”
Sawbuck nodded, thoughtfully. Ledford Creek, huh. That was out a ways. The two rode in silence for a while, then Sawbuck asked, “Ben, who was with you in the locker room before I got there?”
“Nobody was with me before you got there,” the boy said. He paused, his fingers rubbing the frayed edges of his shirt.
“That what they told you to say? Who was that, Ben?”
Ben looked out the window. He licked his lips.
Sawbuck drove on in silence. It started to rain, large drops of water hitting the windshield one at a time. He saw Ben’s road coming up ahead, and turned on his blinker even though they were alone on the road. Click-TICK, click-TICK. He made a guess. “Ben, who told you to go in the girls’ room?”
“My friends told me to, sir,” the boy said. “I am sworn to secrecy. I’ve said too much already.” His voice filtered through the dark German overtones of Hogan’s Heroes or late-night television.
The car turned smoothly to the left. A waste of pine trees lined both sides of the road beneath the power lines that Sawbuck wouldn’t even have noticed if it hadn’t been for the boy riding beside him. “Binion Pine Hill Church of God,” Sawbuck read out loud. “Gashes Creek Church of God of Prophecy.” A road turned to the right up towards a trailer park.
“It’s up there,” Ben said suddenly. “There it is.”
Sawbuck veered the car sharp to the right, and heard gravel rattling deep round in his tire wells. Slowly, the crest of the hill rose over the flat expanse of the rusted navy metal hood of the Skylark. “Ben, who are your friends?” he asked.
The boy smiled out the window. “My enemy’s enemy is my friend, sir.”
“Man, you are a real mess.” Sawbuck said. The road turned to red clay with an occasional hard gravel scrim. A trailer pitched up on cinderblocks beside a trampoline, guineas squawking in the yard. The car’s tires bumped over a cow grate, while cows on either side stared at the car impassively. A dirty orange plastic pumpkin, size of a tennis ball, lay grinning in the middle of the road. Rounding the bend, Sawbuck saw a little gray asbestos-shingled house with a sagging roof and a porch tacked on front above mossy concrete steps.
“That’s my house,” Ben said. “Home again, home again.” He sounded happy.
Sawbuck pulled up between the chain link fence decorated with plastic pumpkins and a bare-limbed mimosa. “Your mama home?” he asked.
“No, sir. She will get home after Doctor Who, when it’s time for supper.”
“Doctor Who. Doctor Who.” Ben turned towards the door, so that Sawbuck could hardly hear his quick words. “Today is episodes one and two of the Logopolis series, Tom Baker’s last episode. Where he regenerates into the Fifth Doctor.” He stood up, his backpack settling in the dust at his feet, and turned back towards his benefactor. “You can come watch Doctor Who with me,” he said rapturously.
Sawbuck looked at the kid, so suddenly animated, and was reminded again of the kid he’d known out west. He wondered what had happened to that kid. He’d heard, maybe, that he’d OD’d. But he didn’t hear much from those years anymore. It might not have been him. “See you tomorrow, Benjamin fo-Fenjamin.”
The boy’s scarf dragged on the ground as he walked along the worn path through the tall grass of the yard towards the back of the house. The front door didn’t look like it saw a lot of use, he thought. Those steep steps. Wind caught the boy’s hair as he walked. Lord works in mysterious ways, Mama. Just here now how I was thinking about how I didn’t know this kid, and here you go and give me this. Well. Now I know. Still, though, not much. My enemy’s enemy. Man.
Sawbuck shook his head to himself, grinning. He turned the Skylark back onto 321, headed towards the A&P. Light bulbs, ground meat, dog food. It would be dark soon.
Ben pushed open the back door, walked into the kitchen. He didn’t turn on the lights. He struggled out of his backpack, losing an arm of his coat. He pulled the other arm out, left the whole mess on the floor beside the kitchen table, and hurried into the living room. Channel 18. The electric throb of the show’s opening music was still playing. Ben could hear that music in his head if he listened, sometimes he would play it as the power lines ran by. They seemed to match each other.
He did not think about what happened earlier that day, or about the ride home with Alexander Hamilton. He did not think about what time his mother would be home, or whether she would wonder how he got there. Ben watched the television, watched the plot unfold as it had before. Each plot was part of another plot rather than just being something in itself, though no one said so. Other shows, other Doctors, and Ramona, and Susan, and the Tardis, and the way it was infinitely large inside, yet still looked liked a blue British police box, stuck in that form due to an unidentified internal malfunction. He supposed that if the malfunction were fixed, it could appear in any form, but it was protected by a perception filter that made it look ordinary in any circumstances.
Already the Tardis could instantly transport the Doctor to any time or place. When Ben was younger, he worked very hard to try to understand how to make a time machine of his own, but now he was less interested in building things than in understanding them. For example, the Doctor, who looked human but was not.
Ben sometimes wondered how to tell whether a person was human or not. For example, now the two humans were gasping for breath while the Doctor remained calm, attempting to reconfigure the circuitry of the spacecraft. Ben breathed, wondering what it would feel like if the room were suddenly devoid of oxygen. If he were human, his lungs would require two mass pounds of oxygen per day to survive. But if he were not, he might not, like the Doctor, even notice the difference. He might simply continue to watch television, while all around him creatures dependent upon oxygen for their life’s blood gasped and wheezed and slowly dropped to the ground. The heat of his body would gradually dissipate into the room and disappear. Disappear? Surely it would be conserved somehow. As his body settled in to room temperature, he would provide that much food for those who remained, that much more space.
Fire met all the criteria for life, Ben knew. It had a life pattern, started with a spark; it consumed, metabolized, died. But it had no set form. That was the thing about fire. It could appear in an infinite number of sizes, shapes, and grew in ways that could not be predicted. Viruses multiplied in unusual and unpredictable ways as well. They were also alive, living organisms that consumed, metabolized, died. A virus could only reproduce within the cells of another organism. If the earth were an organism, we might all be viruses, Ben thought. Any living thing would meet those criteria. He might have any number of living creatures within his body right now, he knew. If he were to die, they’d be affected.
The telephone rang, but Ben didn’t move to answer it. Next it would be dinner. His mother would make it and it would be there at the end of the shows. Dinner would be one of many variants. Then the end of the first episode, the music that evaporated all extraneous thought. The list of names appeared on the screen, and something deep inside Ben puddled and spread. It was still there when the music ended, and he wondered, as usual, what to call that feeling of puddle, wondered if maybe this was the word called “happy.” But happy wasn’t supposed to be a puddle. Another episode would start next and the music would return. His eyes closed, focused on the feeling of puddle. His face felt puffy and warm, but not hot, and no part of him seemed to want to move. The smell of himself rose from his open shirt, and Ben breathed it in, yarn, salt, something else. The music began again.
The bell rang, and kids spilled out from all directions. Momentary patterns of movement were briefly discernible before dissipating into the whole. Bodies poured onto the oaken floor where they pooled, eddied. Stairwells filled, fed by all three floors of the school. Ben stood beside the lockers and watched the hall like a fly fisherman, waiting for the moment he would move.
Mrs. Olsen watched the boy with amusement from the doorway of her classroom. Ben was one of her favorite students, so different from the other kids. He was brilliant, she’d often told her husband, once her own two children were safely tucked into bed. Adult time: she spent it worrying over the kids she taught every day. Ben was one of her favorite topics this year. Periodically, she’d have qualms. “He’s going to get lost in the cracks,” she’d lament. Then her husband would laugh at her, tease what he called her Superwoman complex. “I don’t see a cape on you, yet,” he’d grinned last night. “Not unless that principal gave you a raise you ain’t yet done told me about.” Now, watching Ben watching the hallways, she was already rehearsing the story of the incident so that she’d be able to tell her husband later.
Ben was writing a play based on the Black Plague that had stretched across Europe in the Middle Ages, and the Good Lord knew he knew more about that subject than anyone else in the school or maybe even the world. His play was a masterpiece of factual information in which no one actually spoke, she told her husband.
“Then how is it a play?” her husband would ask, later that night.
“That’s the thing,” Janet would answer, laughing helplessly. “I don’t have any idea. He starts by writing a name–I can’t remember who, and it doesn’t seem to matter–but then he gets so interested by what he knows about the plague that he can’t stop! He was fifteen pages into it before I caught him! I made him put another person in–‘Look, Ben, they have to talk – you know, to each other? Remember? Dialogue?’ And he was completely blown away!” Mrs. Olsen laughed a little to herself in anticipation of her husband’s reaction. She could hear him now, teasing, “Hey, Janet, remember–dialogue?” The bell rang again, and the next class of students shuffled past her and settled into their seats.
Althea Bennett, known to the school as Mrs. B., watched the boy stumble late into class again, and silently handed him the quiz that the rest of the class was already laboring over. A few students rustled in their seats, she saw, trying to catch the attention of others who saw an opportunity to laugh at him again. Althea walked briskly to the front of the class, her high-heeled shoes making her presence known, and the rustling stopped. The quiz was a short one, and the boy would finish quickly. In fact, he was the first student to put his pencil down. It would be perfectly done, she knew. For that reason, she allowed him to bring his books to read during intervals when he was waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. She’d heard the usual complaints from the others about what was fair, but Althea had been teaching a long time and knew from years past that fairness wasn’t anything but a person’s idea of what they thought they wanted. Other kids scratched the last of their work onto their algebra quizzes.
“Remember to put your name at the top of the page,” Mrs. B. said. “Please, everyone, pass your papers to the front. Pencils down. Down, Carleton, Pencil down, Anthony. May Beth. Quiz finished. Thank you.”
Papers were handed from person to person. The moment was an opening for insurrection in any other class, but Mrs. B.’s room maintained a sleepy unfocused silence. Mrs. B. was not known to suffer fools gladly, a reputation she announced herself during her annual introduction at the beginning of the year. Those students who were inclined to laugh at the description soon learned what she meant by it. Rumors about Mrs. B. ran deep within the school system, passed down from older siblings and neighbors, and by the end of fifth grade most students dreaded being assigned to her class. An alternate truth–that many students secretly looked forward to sitting in her quiet classroom, anticipating the quizzes delivered like morning newspapers on their desks three times a week, relaxed during the careful explanations that she provided, her formulaic this, therefore, that illustrated in logical sequence upon the blackboard–was cherished in secret.
Carleton Dixon cherished it anyway. He’d have sooner had all his fingernails pulled out one by one in front of Sandy Wells than to say it to another living soul, but he liked the class. He figured he’d done okay on the quiz, partly because he’d learned to study for them ahead of time, and partly because he sat next to Freak-ola Boy who always but always made a hundred. Carleton didn’t copy, exactly, but he’d learned to check to make sure that his answers matched Ben’s, and when they didn’t it was usually because he’d made some dumb mistake that he could only see once he knew what the real answer was. The world was funny like that: if you didn’t know the answer, you could work and work and work until you got something that seemed right. But if you did know the answer, the way to get there kind of flowed. This, therefore, that. It was so clear, once you knew the ending.
Ben walked into biology just as the bell rang. He took his seat by the window. The teacher was writing on the board: Wonderful Wednesday Quiz. Ben watched a squirrel, his mouth round with an acorn, skittle through the branches. He wondered again about the relationship between squirrels and mice, mice and rats. Whether squirrels carried the plague as did the rats, and if not, why not? The squirrel stopped for a moment on the very end of one branch. The limb bobbed up and down beneath the squirrel’s weight with a lovely arc. Ben didn’t notice the collective groan, almost a formality, or that the kids had started to work on their weekly quiz. Mr. Wilson had written down three questions on the board, and he turned now to Ben.
“Take out your paper and pencil, boy. Quiz time.”
Ben opened his backpack. Papers spilled everywhere, worksheets and loose leaf. He struggled to pull out his notebook, but hadn’t quite unzipped the backpack enough, and when the pack finally released it, papers and pens flew out as well, skittering across the floor. A few kids giggled. Ben grunted, then blushed, hard, and started to move to clean them up, but Mr. Wilson said, “Nope, leave it. It’s test time, buddy.”
So Ben sat back down, found a piece of paper, and worked at copying the first question. In the back, one girl whispered to another something he couldn’t understand. Her voice was stiff, like pieces of sandpaper rubbing together. Boys started moving restlessly in their chairs. A few pencils still scratched at paper. Occasional footsteps echoed through the empty halls, pointy shards of noise, and buttery thuds of shoes that were loafers. Loafers. He was still writing. The first question was finished, and he started to copy the second question. The pencil was stubborn, not moving as quickly as his thoughts. He’d known the answer to the test question as soon as he’d seen it, but writing it all down was exhausting.
Mr. Wilson stood quietly at the front of the class, his eyes moving from Ben to the rest of the class and back again. The boy didn’t look like he ever got enough sleep. His grades weren’t great, even though he was bright enough. He just wasn’t living up to his potential. It was a real shame. He was becoming a drag on the rest of the class. Mr. Wilson considered the midterm science fair coming up, precursor to the regional science fair in which his class had taken honors for the past fifteen years. This year, the students hadn’t yet formed a strong group. Ben’s behavior might have been all right in earlier grades, but by tenth grade, all the kids should be farther along than this group was.
“Pass your papers to the front,” he told them. “Now, now, now. Time’s up, boys and girls, friends and neighbors. Time is now up! Pencils down. Pencil down, Ben. Everybody, papers please! Pass them to the front.”
Papers were handed in. Mr. Wilson gravely collected them all from the front row. Ben was still writing. “Please give me your paper, Ben. Now.”
The boy looked up, faking surprise. His straggly hair fell in a dirty mess around his shoulders. “What?”
“What?” Mr. Wilson imitated. “Where’ve you been at, son? Turn her in, she’s all done, it’s over, kaput!” The class rustled with smothered laughter and anticipation.
“No, I’m not finished. I need to finish.” The boy’s voice was thin, furious. Defiantly, his pencil started moving again on the paper. Mr. Wilson held his breath for a moment, then put his hand on the boy’s test paper and with one smooth tug he pulled it from the boy’s desk. The pencil made a long scar down the middle of the paper where the boy had been holding it.
The class fell absolutely silent and airless. Ben stared at his desk, blinking desperately, his face the color of blood. Then, with a kind of fierce single-minded deliberation, he threw his pencil at Mr. Wilson. “Shut up! Shut up!”
And so he sat, again, in the guidance counselor’s office. Ellen Macintosh considered the boy. The brief note that had come from Dr. Sloane confirmed her ideas that there could be troubles at home, and he was going to see if he could get the boy to open up to him over the next few sessions. The Department of Social Services might need to be involved. It hadn’t been ruled out. Dr. Sloane felt that the boy was simply shy, awkward. An abnormally nervous disposition, he’d written. Puberty, he’d written, almost an afterthought, the word floating in the margin like a bird. Ben, tall and broad-shouldered, slumped in his seat. His gaze refused to meet hers, and he never expressed the least remorse for any of his multiple infractions. His head was bloody, and he looked filthy, like something wild. And yet, for all that, there was something sweet about him, something that was yearning to be better. Of this she was certain.
Ellen decided to open gently. “So, Ben, maybe you can tell me what happened?”
“Yes, I can tell you what happened.” Ben’s voice was toneless. He paused, seeming to gulp for air, his head bobbing like a horse would shake off flies.
“What happened in class, Ben?” Ellen prompted.
“What happened in class was I wasn’t finished with my test and Mr. Wilson took it away from me. It wasn’t fair. I wasn’t finished with the answer yet.” His face darkened as he talked. “I wasn’t finished,” he repeated, in a louder voice.
“But it was time to turn the papers in,” Ellen said, reasonably. “All the other students were turning theirs in. Surely it’s fair that all students turn their papers in at the same time, Ben?” She paused, but when Ben didn’t even look up to meet her eyes, she continued in a more serious tone. “This is the second time you’ve been asked to leave Mr. Wilson’s class this week. That’s too many.”
“I wasn’t finished,” the boy repeated again. He rocked rapidly in the chair, his breath coming quickly.
“Ben, everyone had to turn their papers in. At the same time. Everyone took the test, just like you, and everyone turned in their papers. It wouldn’t be fair to let one student have more time! How would you feel if you were having to turn in your test, and another student didn’t? You wouldn’t like it very much, I bet!” Ellen grew more confident as she spoke, although she felt like this was a scenario more appropriate to her six-year-old daughter than to this half-grown man sitting on the other side of her desk. She smiled as she talked, her eyes seeking out his. “You’d think, ‘Gee, that guy gets more time! I have to turn my test in and I’m not finished yet! This isn’t right! That teacher is playing favorites and it’s not fair!’” Her hands waved in the air as she spoke, her voice shrill in mock outrage.
The pitch of her voice connected with the heat in his head like an electric current. He wasn’t sure what Miss Macintosh had just said, but the injustice of having his paper taken away blurred his vision and made a hard heat in the back of his head. His eyes, fixed on a spot on the carpet, cut beneath the weight of the room’s overhead light. She was laughing at him. He could feel the air from her waving hands sting his arms.
Ben stood up, not even knowing how to move anymore, but he couldn’t think how to go, how to leave. The woman was still laughing, shaking the air with her arms. The desk between them. He couldn’t sit back down. He stood. The desk was there, and then it tipped over. He turned it over. Everything on the desk fell off. It fell on the floor. The woman stood up too, and then she ran out of the room. Everything on the desk was quiet on the floor. The room was quiet. The hallway was quiet. He sat back down.
Bethany had given me a grin when I’d asked her to cover for me. This kind of thing never got easier, and this was a good job. I wasn’t ready to lose it yet, so I tried to put it in a good light when I explained about having to go pick up Ben.
“Oh,” Bethany laughed easily, “My mom was always having to go after one or t’other of my brothers.” I didn’t want to talk about her or her brothers, but she’d been happy for the extra shift and didn’t keep me. The new girl was chatting up the cook and barely noticed when I stuffed my apron back in its cubby. I clocked out and grabbed my purse.
The afternoon was dark. Streetlights were already buzzing, and cars coming off the interstate burned their headlights like it was the middle of the night. Traffic lights blinked their silent warnings. Yellowish leaves blew through empty side streets, littered the roads and gutters. I was on my way to pick up my son from school.
Ellen Macintosh was waiting for me in the main office. Her cheeks were swollen and her eyes red, but her lips held in a firm little line, red as a child’s crayon drawing of “happy.” Only that my son had lost his temper in her office for no reason, and turned over her desk while she was still sitting there. Otherwise, we were just two grown women, talking. I remembered why I didn’t like her. My chest was tight, even while a spoon of pity stirred in my heart. I didn’t like the feeling, neither one way or the other.
“This is the second time in a week he’s been sent to me from Mr. Wilson’s class,” she was saying in a bright voice. “He refused to turn in his science quiz. That’s what we were talking about when he–well, he got aggressive.” She paused, looking down at her lap, then up at me. There was something hurt in her eyes.
I took the cue. “I’m so sorry.” I found my head nodding up and down, encouraging her to agree with me, that I was sorry, to accept my parental apology for my son’s behavior.
She nodded back at me, silently accepting my apology, then tilted her head side to side in wonder. I had a vision of her in thirty years, making the same gesture, her sigh conveying the burden she carried, things she’d rather not understand. “I’ve left a message for Miss Wassermyer, and she’ll convey the incident to Dr. Sloane. I hope that he can help Ben.”
There was a pause. I think I was supposed to agree that I also hoped the doctor could help Ben, but by agreeing I felt complicit in whatever had happened that morning, complicit in this woman’s pitiful helplessness and fear. Guilt uncurled itself from my stomach and shot up my throat, choking my breath. I should have done better, I should have done something different. I should have protected you from this, should never have sent you here, should have kept you with me.
“The school has rules,” she was saying. “The principal is out of town today, but he will probably determine that Ben needs to have out-of-school suspension for the rest of the week. That is the school’s policy.”
“I understand,” I said, but it came out wrong, like I didn’t understand at all. I swallowed, and tried again. “Do you think—do you think that’s really necessary? I mean, there wasn’t any real harm done, right? No one hurt. I promise I’ll talk to him. He’s really working so hard at doing better. Can he do in-school suspension instead?”
But her young mouth held a grim line. “I’m sorry, it’s the high school’s policy. We have to consider the example for the other students.” She paused. “I understand there may have been a little more…latitude in previous years. But we’ve found it more beneficial to have a strict standard for our students here at West Cleveland.”
The phone calls it would take to get the shifts covered at work, how I’d have to figure out the bills later this month. “I can figure something out, of course.”
“Please let me know if I can do anything to help,” Ellen Macintosh said. “I’d be happy to help in any way I can.” Her smile showed relief all the way through, and she reached out to lay a gentle hand on my arm before pulling back as she met my gaze.
You were still sitting there when I walked in, alone in the dark room. A large wooden desk lay on the floor, its legs pointed towards the door. The scarred wooden floor was a mess of pencils, pens, thumbtacks, erasers, plastic flowers. A spray of papers with thick purple lettering. That things had once been tidily arranged on the desk was manifest in the fact of them not being that way now. Bits of broken things were scattered onto every surface of the room. Something crunched beneath my shoe, and jerking my foot away I stumbled over a bright green beanbag ladybug. I bent to pick it up, always helpful. Always ridiculous.
You were calm, entertaining yourself by looking out the dark window. “Hi, Mom, how was your day?”
Behind us, Mrs. Macintosh turned on the lights. They buzzed, only half on, flickering until they finally caught. “My day was great, sweetheart. Let’s go home now.”
You stood up, your eyes turning to the floor in a manner that I hoped Mrs. Macintosh would interpret as shame. You weren’t ashamed, of course, only turning away from the lights. You’d been furious, and now you were calm, nothing more. Now with the lights on, I could see how pale your face was. You’d chewed your bottom lip until it was swollen and bleeding, and your tongue regularly slipped out to lick off the blood.
As we began our familiar exit, I felt the eyes of a hundred students peering from open classroom doors, their teachers’ tightlipped stare as they closed their doors. Behind us I heard Mrs. Macintosh’s sigh echo through the empty middle-of-the day hallways as she knelt to the floor gathering broken things, and felt my jaw tighten, teeth clenched. The hallways smelt sweetly of chalk, bleach, but I couldn’t breathe. Everything in me focused on one aim: pushing open the heavy doors that would let us leave this place.
A strange-looking man with a light orange Afro and pale skin wheeled an enormous trashcan down the other end of the hall, clattering across the ridged oaken floors. He smiled as we got closer, and said, “What’s happening, my man? This pretty lady your mama?” His eyes, hidden behind dark glasses, might have been kind.
Your grin surprised me. I heard you say, “Yes, this is my mama. You didn’t know my mother before today.”
“Nope, sure didn’t. Alexander Hamilton,” the man said, holding out his hand to me. “Formerly president, currently currency. They call me Sawbuck.”
I shook his hand politely, the silence of the hallway loud in my ears. We shouldn’t stay. And then I remembered.
“Mr. Hamilton. You gave my son a ride home last week?” I could hear the sharp edges of my voice cut through the quiet hall, and swallowed to keep from saying more.
“Yes, ma’am,” he acknowledged, easily. “And call me Sawbuck, if you care to. Most folks do. Fact, I don’t think anyone but Ben here calls me by my given name anymore, not since my mama passed.”
“Mr. Hamilton, I appreciate your giving Ben a ride. But I’d rather him take the bus,” I said. “You understand.”
“I gotcha,” he said. He had a nice smile. “He tell you about that afternoon?”
“Not much,” I admitted, before you broke in, saying, “Alexander Hamilton, and another thing was that the Kaposi Sarcoma, that’s what they said was happening in San Francisco. It’s part of what the doctors are calling the gay plague.”
“Ben!” I’d never heard you talk like this before. The word “gay” rang through the halls of that small school, echoed against the lockers, the rough wood floors. But Mr. Hamilton didn’t seem to mind.
“I used to live out west,” he said to me. “And Ben here tries to keep me filled in on any little plagues or epidemics that might show up out there. And,” he said, leaning in just a little, “you might want to ask Ben what happened the other day. Just, you know, see what he’ll tell you.” In a louder voice, he asked, “You fine people taking off for the day?”
“Yes, we’re going home now,” you answered. I’d never heard you talk so much to another person before. I wasn’t sure if I liked it.
“Well, that’s fine, that’s fine. It’s a fine day for home. Me, I’ll be here for a while, making sure things stay ready for you when you come back. You expect to be back this week?” He glanced in my direction.
“We’re still waiting for word on that,” I said carefully.
“It is what it is,” the man laughed. “Oh, Ben’s mama, it is what it is.”
Power lines carry electric currents all the time, Ben thought. Words in his ears from the inside, nowhere close to his mouth, like electricity running alongside the road inside those long black curves. He turned to watch the power lines’ familiar arcs, their rise toward the sentinel poles. Each thought had been thought many times before, and echoed now like parts taken from separate familiar litanies: There are birds there, birds who don’t die because they don’t touch another line. If they did, they would become a skeleton. Never touch a power line when you are standing on the ground. Lightning is different from electricity. If there’s lightning, stay in the car. Power lines are in the air between the poles that are made of wood that would burn. Wood that would. Wood that would. The place where they connect to the silver, where there is sky. Almost home. Almost home. Jiggety-jig. The turn where the power lines go little. There is a pole, apple, and another. The power lines go to the houses. And home.