Discover more from Other Duties (as assigned)
Who Are You Today? (short fiction)
"There seems to be a communal shift, like white blood cells sighting a tagged invader. "
CW: some language and brief mention of violence.
I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I know what they’d like, they’d like a blank they could fill in. A person already filled in disturbs them terribly.
-Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt, or Carol
Every glistening egg is a memento mori.
-Annie Dillard, “The Force that Drives the Flower”
It’s too early in the morning to be doing anything, but here I am. As I walk down the worn concrete path, the building starts to loom, two stories of utilitarian brick, like a corporate hospital mated with a church annex. A flock of geese flies overhead. As they fly, they are ungainly, like snakes stapled to ducks. I feel the same.
I push through the doors and find the main office. Two receptionists are chatting.
“Good morning!” one says, and then clocks my ID. “Who are you today?” I see what seems to be a squint of disapproval as she looks me over. This look is not uncommon out here, although I don’t know what it is specifically. Maybe my short hair, or the way I dress, though I tried to dress professionally today. Something about me doesn’t fit.
I feel myself staring at her blankly.
In the hallway, their pungent bodies surge around me.
Oily and reeking, moving in a mass, as if activated by unknown laws of fluid dynamics, rather than by souls or consciousness. Perfect hair. Confused skin. Perfume and sweat, shampoo and body spray, smoke and food, fear and rage.
At first they don’t seem to notice me—maybe I’m still too young to stand out. Then, maybe noticing my slacks or my cardigan or my ID card, I feel them become aware of my presence. There seems to be a communal shift, like white blood cells sighting a tagged invader.
Will they recognize me, devour me, destroy me?
The moment passes.
In the room, I set my water bottle on the cluttered desk, sit in the cheap, scuffed plush of the office chair, and swivel back and forth. There is no comfortable position. I continue to swivel until I’m a little dizzy and the noise of students in the hallway outside the door grows.
The bell chirps, like an angry electric bird, through the speakers set in the ceiling. The students pulse into the room, sent coursing like white blood cells along predetermined passages, as if by a heart at the center of the school.
Will I be consumed?
I wait for them to sit down, quiet down. As I wait, they gradually focus into distinct shapes: browns and tans and pale pinks, red hair and black and brown and blonde. Eyes behind glasses, mouths full of clear braces, shirts with logos that mean nothing.
They never sit down, never quiet down. The late bell rings.
“Ah, shit—” a tall, gangly kid says as he lunges into the room. His hand flutters up to his mouth momentarily, then drops. “Y’all, we got a sub! This is the seriously best day of my whole life!”
I decide to stand up, strike a pose of what I hope will look like authority, and wait.
Their behavior does not change, and most are not looking at me.
I tell them my name, the way the district handbook urged me to say it. I will be their teacher for the day, I inform them, while Mr.—I check my notepad—while Miss Sanders is out.
“She sick?” somebody yells.
“Man I hope so,” says the gangly kid, who, I notice, is not wearing an ID card. The district handbook says I should respectfully command him to produce his ID.
“Excuse me,” I say in his direction, and his eyes flicker over at me. I see a hard gleam there and make an executive decision not to command him to do anything just yet.
“Hello! Who are you today?” asks a smiling, magenta-clad woman as I fumble open a door marked Faculty Workroom.
The grinding, Red Death sound of children pumping throughout the school is still in my head. The woman waits, moist lips quivering open slightly, for me to respond.
She frowns, the red-painted lips curling downward.
“Which teacher are you in for, honey?” she offers, speaking slowly.
“Uh, Ms… Smothers?”
She frowns again, a deep ravine appearing between tired and caffeinated eyes, but she gestures to an empty metal chair next to a foldable table.
“Please,” she says. “Make yourself at home.” Like the receptionist this morning, she gives me a very quick once-over. Her lips part as if to say something, but she doesn’t. “Have a nice day, sweetie,” she says, and goes over to the refrigerator.
It’s dark outside when the phone rumbles on the coffee table. And even though it isn’t the vibration pattern I set for your number, I’m asleep and I dream that it’s you. Then I open my eyes and struggle up from where I have sunk into the sofa.
The windows are sheets of gray, and the living room is full of dusty porch light. The house creaks, as if annoyed at the buzz of the phone. I reach toward the coffee table with cold-numbed fingers, but of course it isn’t you calling. Instead, it seems to be a drunk-dialing android.
“He-llo,” the drunk-dialing android intones, “This. Is. The. Sub. Call. Sys-tem for… Ridge. Land. Dis-trict. Four.”
I blink and wait.
“En-ter PIN,” the android commands.
I feel I have have no choice but to obey.
As my car cuts like a submarine through the gloom on the highway, I see your face projected on the murky sky, and on other backgrounds. It has been twelve days since the last time I saw you.
“Who are you today?” asks the puffy-eyed sub coordinator at the desk. He looks back at his computer screen before I can answer.
I check my notepad. “Bill. Uh, Sturn.”
I blink and shake my head a little as he rummages in the drawer behind the table for something, imagining that my own district-issued ID badge has changed to show Mr. Sturn’s name, and that the features of my face in the picture have rippled and deformed into his.
“Welcome to our school,” he says, and slides a fuzzy, photocopied map across the table. “Someone on the hall will let you in Mr. Sturn’s room. You have a nice day.”
“Good morning,” I say to the class.
“Goohmurrig,” several students murmur. In the two-day training, the district HR representative said the key to getting students On Your Side was to Use Your Best Smile™. Beam at them, she said, and they won’t be able to help falling in love!
“Hey now,” I say, trying to beam at them, to trap them in a tractor beam of cheery good will. “Can we try that again?”
“G’muhrg,” one kid grumbles, kindly.
“Who are you?” somebody yells, more as a helpful prompt than as a real question.
I scrawl my name on the board with a dry erase marker that is rapidly coming to the end of its journey.
“How you pronounce that?”
I write my last name out phonetically.
“Anyway,” I continue, “I’ll be your teacher today while Mr. Sturn is out.”
“Where’s Mr. Sturn?” a student demands.
I don’t know if I’m allowed to share this information, so I pretend not to hear the question. “Mr. Sturn left a lot of work for you today, so let me take attendance and we can get started.”
“If we ain’t finish it, is it homework?” asks a small boy wearing a hat with a tractor logo on it. I remember that school policy doesn’t allow hats, but I decide to finish taking attendance first before Addressing Problem Behaviors with Firmness and Kindness™.
“Shut up!” hisses the girl next to him, trying to elbow him from across the aisle. Her arm isn’t long enough, and she nearly tips her desk over. The desk is wobbly because one of the metal legs is bent slightly.
“Uh, let’s settle down,” I say, with what I hope is Firmness and Kindness. “And please take your hat off.” The kid with the hat stares at me blankly. I keep looking at him, set my mouth in a firm smile, and he smiles back.
I frown and nod, preparing to turn back to the board to complete writing the plans for the day, as required in the manual, when I feel again, suddenly, as if I have been tagged. I have been branded an intruder, and soon the protectors of the community will appear to deal with me.
Turning back toward the class, I feel real and irrational fear. These adolescents are staring at me, and this must only be taking a few seconds, but I’m sure their anger will rise up, a thing, to actually murder me.
(Maybe that’s where you are.)
Instead, the moment passes. I remind the students about the work Mr. Sturn has left. A girl in the front row wearing a violet hoodie, the hood slumped carelessly over one shoulder, drags out a school-issued laptop with a sigh. Others pull out their phones, put them in their laps under their desks, and gawk at them. One kid at the back wraps a very thick coat around himself, pulls a faux-fur-lined hood over his head, and lays his face on the pitted faux wood as if it were a plush hotel pillow.
The class settles into a serene boredom, some kids chatting in the back, the sound of typing on laptop keyboards insectile, like cicadas chirping, the sound of the HVAC system like a wheezing, narcoleptic moan.
I walk around the room, monitoring, as the district handbook urged me to do, but after a while the sleepiness becomes contagious, and I sit back down at the teacher desk.
Overhead, the school’s metal roof creeks and the air ducts ping softly. I find my mind drifting out into a cosmic fog, and begin to feel that you are in that fog somewhere, your warmth like a distant, dying star.
There is a loud bang in the hallway, and shouting. Before I can think much, I’m at the classroom door, stepping out into the hallway. Other doors on the hall open, and I see other adults.
Two students are struggling, their limbs twisted together. The larger student slams the smaller student backwards into one of the rows of metal lockers with another loud bang. A young woman with a teacher ID card is running towards the fight.
“You’re supposed to push that button,” says a voice from behind me— the kid with the tractor hat. I turn and he’s standing by me, indicating a black, square button mounted on a switch-box on the cinderblock wall. I hit it. There is a vague crackle from the speaker overhead, almost drowned out by increasing sounds of yelling in the hallway.
“What—” a metallic voice begins to say from the speaker, but then then bell to end class cuts the voice off, and the hall is almost immediately filled with the rustling and excited chatter of students leaving their classrooms.
“Fight!” someone shrieks through the din with what sounds like pure joy.
I step back into the hallway, and it is full of students crowding around the fight. Adults are screaming at the students to back away, and some do, but others are running full speed down the hall to take their places as spectators.
A student screams and runs away from the fight, and I see that the smaller student’s hand is covered in something red.
Administrators from the front office come running down the hallway, yelling for students to step aside. “Back! Back! Back!” a man with a radio and a clipboard is yelling, his tie fluttering as he runs.
“—Hello? What room?” the metallic voice is saying from the ceiling.
My phone jitters almost imperceptibly on the thickly lacquered surface of the bar, any sound annihilated by your favorite song pumping spasmodically from the speakers in the ceiling.
“Aren’t you popular tonight?” Dave says. “What’s this one’s name?”
“SubCall,” I reply.
“Niiiiice. Is that French?”
As I tap the screen to answer, I see you at the other end of the bar. You glare at me, and your eyes are black and infinite.
Of course, this isn’t happening.
I consider telling Dave about the fight today, about the ambulance that came to retrieve the student who was stabbed. But Dave, I realize, will not understand any of this. So instead I let the events of the day become a blurry haze, something that the other me, the Mr. Sturn me, witnessed. I let myself think of you, instead.
That night, as the bed slowly oscillates beneath me, I shut my eyes and dream about you. About the plane splintering around you in a torrent of flaming fuel and human limbs. The train crash. The blast site. The mine collapse. The nuclear winter and the heart attack .
The sniper sitting in a cubicle in some empty office, screwing together the parts to a rifle.
The stabbing and the handful of blood.
In my dream, I’m talking to you.
The handle is painfully cold, and the door won’t budge.
“Hold your badge to the camera,” says the speaker by the door in a voice that tastes like copper. I look around for a camera and can’t see one, so I wave the substitute ID around above my head until I hear the big metal door click unlocked.
As the door opens, a stale-hay smell crowds in around me. The carpet in the office is stained, threadbare. Pastel flowers adorn the walls.
“Who are you today?” asks the receptionist, smiling. Her lipstick is crooked, and the color of a muscle car.
“Mr. Jennings,” I say, holding up my badge.
The police-style radio on Mr. Jennings’ desk crackles as the students enter the room.
“Good morning,” I say to the first kid through the door. He is wearing the school uniform—green polo, khaki pants— but a brightly-colored undershirt peeks out of the collar. He sits down, grimacing, at the back of the room.
“Who are you?” he asks, an unreadable expression on his face— somewhere between a smile and a grimace.
“I’m your teacher today—”
“You ain’t my teacher.” He says this without any real menace, but as a statement of fact that. He picks up a pencil from the floor and begins to scrawl something on the desk. “Hey!” he shouts to another student who has just entered the room, “We got a fucking sub again!”
“Please watch your language,” I say to him, feeling that by saying this out loud I have stepped into a trap. The kid doesn’t acknowledge me or respond.
“Where’s Jenning?” asks the kid who just came in. This kid’s eyes droop almost to the point of being closed.
“Mr. Jennings is—” I start.
“Who are you?” the second kid yells. By now, four or five other kids have shambled into the room, some getting out notebooks or laptops, some sprawling in their desks, a few mumbling to one another or shouting further questions at me. One girl with sleepy eyes wanders over and pries open the dingy blinds to peer out at the gray morning.
“Shit,” says the colorful shirt kid, who has taken out a pencil to draw a large geometric shape on his desk, and is now adding ornate flames, glyphs, and other symbols. “Sub looks scared.”
He looks at me. “Don’t worry, baby, I won’t hurt you,” he says, turning the pencil to make a darker and darker circle on the desk.
One kid chuckles; the rest seem to ignore him as much as possible, staring down at phones, adjusting earbuds and headphones, chatting with one another in voices that feel too loud.
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s get started.” But my words seem ghostly.
The receptionist told me to use the police radio to call for help if there was something I couldn’t deal with. Is this kid with the pencil and the colorful shirt someone I can’t deal with?
Am I here? Who am I today?
I don’t remember anything the district handbook said to do about feelings of derealization, so I wait. I pick up the attendance printout, and ask one of the quiet students near the front of the class to tell me who is absent.
“Um, let’s see… Brittany, Lexi, Sam… Trav…”
“Yo, mark me present, bro!” says the kid with the colorful undershirt. I feel that seismic shift that always comes, that feeling of being seen, tagged. They’re watching me now as if I just came into the room.
Sometimes, the district HR person had told me, you’ll need to set a gentle example to Get Control of the Situation™.
“And what’s your name?” I ask the kid, telling my voice not to waver. It wavers.
“Man, Sheldon! Everyone knows me!” A few other students laugh. The girl who’s been telling me names covers her mouth politely as she joins in.
“Nice to meet you, Sheldon. Go stand in the hallway, please.”
“What? ‘Go stand in the hall-way, pleeease…’ What?” He does a fairly passable imitation of my voice, high and soft, with a whining edge.
I smile at him, walk over to the desk, pick up the police radio. I hope he can’t see that my hand is shaking a little.
“Shit, you don’t have to do that, baby, I’m going,” he blurts.
I depress the button on the radio, and a crackle of static silences the whole class. It is the sound of power, but not my power.
“Bitch, I told you I was going!” Sheldon shouts, slinging his mesh backpack over his shoulder with one hand and thrusting the other into his pocket. “Fuck you!” He takes two steps toward me, as if to simply demonstrate that he can go wherever he wants, and then he turns to leave, walking with an unnatural slowness.
The rest of the class is chattering excitedly, and he glares around at them to no avail. Some seem happy that he’s leaving; others try hard not to make eye contact. Every line in Sheldon’s face somehow melts away as he looks back over his should at me, and he seems much younger.
He throws his pencil aimlessly across the room and storms out of the door, tucking in his uniform shirt and buttoning the top button at the collar as he does so, and glancing very quickly both ways down the hall before slamming the heavy metal door behind him.
There is a harsh click, like a robot’s jaws, as the lock engages.
The class doesn’t stop talking, but quiets down enough for me to finish take the attendance.
At lunch, I sit looking at the contents of the Styrofoam tray. Some kind of brown meat, fluorescent beans, yellow sauce.
“So, you’re Mr. Jennings today, huh?” asks the school cop who sits at the next table. She pulls back an errant black strand of hair and leans toward her fork to take a bite of the meat stuff. “How’s things going? Kids treatin’ you okay?”
“Yeah, they’re okay.”
“Heard you sent Sheldon out this morning.” She grins at me me in a loaded way.
“Good call,” she says, taking a bite. “He’s a little shithead. Watch out, though. He’s connected.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just watch yourself, baby,” she says, grinning. Then, after a pause. “We’re pretty sure he’s a major distributor in the county. That’s probably why he’s here.”
I look down at the uneaten food on my tray, and realize I don’t really know if I believe anything she is saying to me. She’s leaning toward me a little too much, as if trying to impress me. I know that there is something hard and frightening in some of these kids, and I know that this place has the feeling of a prison island, or a place made entirely of forgotten things.
After lunch, the fire alarm goes off, shrieking like a huge alarm clock with a dying battery. Nothing here seems to work.
I walk with my afternoon class down the corridor and outside. The students and staff from the main building and the nearby trailers are congregating on the cracked asphalt of the parking lot.
I see Sheldon holding court with some kids nearby, and one of them, another kid with a colorful shirt partly visible above his collar, is slapping his knee and laughing.
“Hey!” Sheldon exclaims. “What’s up, sub?” There is a new residual smile on his face from whatever he and his friends are talking about.
“Hi, Sheldon,” I say. His gaze focuses on me, something more complex there that I can’t read.
After a pause, with the other kids watching his face, he says, “I’ll be good tomorrow.” He smiles. “I gotta graduate.”
“Why?” I ask, because I can’t think of anything else to say.
“I promised my moms,” he says, his voice solemn for the first and only time. “She’s been through a lot.” He frowns, then winks, then turns back to his friends.
As I’m signing out in the main office, the principal leans out of his little room. He cradles a phone between neck and shoulder, and beckons to me.
“Okay,” he says into the phone as I sit down on the other side of his desk. “Well, we’ll talk tomorrow when you come to register him… Okay, you, too. Bye.”
He turns off the phone and drops it on his desk with a clunk. “Hey, reach over and shut that door, willya?” He has a thick northeastern accent that sounds out of place after a day spent with the students.
I close the door.
“So how’d it go?” he asks me.
“Fine, great,” I say, unable to find a comfortable position in the plastic chair.
“I’ve heard good things about you,” he says, looking at something on his desk, scratching the back of his head without much commitment.
A flake of dandruff floats down languorously toward the scratched polish of the desk, like the first snowflake of winter. I’m mesmerized by it as he continues to talk.
“You stuck it out,” he says. “That’s a good sign.”
The flake ends its slow descent on the edge of a pink sheet of carbon copy paper.
“Thanks,” I say.
“Look, Mr. Jennings has decided—for health reasons—that he needs to take a sabbatical for the rest of the year. You’ve done a great job today, and we really would like the kids to start off the rest of the year with someone who’s shown some good management in the classroom.”
It takes me a second to see what he’s getting at.
“Well, I may not be able to start tomorrow. Can I have the night to think about it?”
“Uh, sure,” he says, running his hand through a limp sheaf of hair, emitting a minor shower of flakes. “Just let us know ASAP. We gotta get a long-term sub in there—you’re certified, right?”
“Well… that’s okay. You’ve shown some initiative, that counts for a lot.” I notice that his pink hand is creeping, slow and spiderlike, across the desk, just a little step or two, with each word.
I get up more quickly than I should and tell him I’ll call him in the morning.
The next morning, driving through the darkness, I see earthmoving machines stalking across a barren field. The trees are all gone, leaving a sparse stubble of stumps. The machines digest the trees. They are white blood cells, too: murdering to digest, or digesting to murder. On the other side of the field, they vomit answer sheets and workbooks and young adult novels.
Twenty days since I saw your eyes.
“Who are you today?” asks another receptionist in another school. I chuckle and thank her as I take the classroom keys and the school-issued laptop.
The class is quiet, anesthetized. They raise their hands as I call the attendance and input the absences into the online attendance program. They dutifully copy the instructions from the board and begin to work on tremendous stapled packets of worksheets. All the words on the worksheets are in Latin.
“Teacher,” a slender girl named, I think, Janice slurs at me. “Can I go to the bathroom?”
“Write a pass, please.”
“Ms. Cooper doesn’t make us. She just lets us go.”
I smile. “Ms. Cooper isn’t here, so please write a pass. Thanks.”
I glance back down at the book I’ve been reading.
When I glance back up, Janice is stalking toward the door.
“I don’t need a pass,” she hisses. “She just lets us go.”
I stand up.
“My name isn’t Janice!” Her eyes are suddenly furious, round, all pupils, in a way that can’t really be about anything happening in this moment.
I open my mouth, make a croaking sound, and she’s gone. The door slams behind her, and the echo of its slamming emits somehow from human mouths. It sounds like, “Ooooooh…”
During Dr. Cooper’s planning time, I sit in the empty classroom, lodged in the space between Dr. Cooper and myself.
I think about you, although not on purpose. The image of your black eyes from my dream makes it hard to remember the color of the real ones. Your face floats and ripples, bodiless, across the desks, the dingy carpet, the whiteboard.
The air conditioning guns overhead link a jet engine.
Wrapped in this stultifying blanket of feeling, the boredom of the empty room and the plan-less planning period overcome me.
I sleep until the bell at the end of the day ignites the loud riot of teenagers. Their job, I know with the certainty that never comes to me when I’m awake, is to destroy everything. They are carnivorous larvae, programmed to kill the world and make it new in their image. Only by digesting the old and the weak, and especially the uninvited guest, will they ever grow.
The vibrating phone inches across the lacquered wood, striking my vodka and orange juice and shuddering there like a half-killed insect.
“You working tomorrow?” asks Dave.
I lie and say I’ve met someone, and then take the phone to the bathroom to punch in my PIN. I tap the screen with a shaky thumb.
“He-llo,” SubCall says.
“For a good time,” someone has started to scrawl on the stall beside me, but never finished.
Sitting beside Dave again, I pick up my drink and put it to my lips. It’s cold, and sweet, and bitter, too. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow—up before the sun, which should rise in seven hours or so. Across the bar, I see the girl who looks like you.
She smiles, but her eyes aren’t black.
“Doppelganger,” I say to the drink, seeing Dave’s glance slur its way over in my periphery. The girl looks at me and smiles, tugging at a strand of hair. I try to smile back, but she looks too much like you.
I win an argument with myself and look down at my drink, and make no further eye contact with anyone, ever again.
The sun peels open the sky, the gray sky-meat giving way in slow, clammy layers. My hands are numb on the wheel. The car struggles reluctantly into the country and I’m twenty minutes late, stomach empty and rubbery. The road becomes rougher and gravel sings industrial music against the undercarriage, increasing steadily in frequency until I scarcely hear the phone’s morphine-tinctured instructions from the passenger seat.
“Turn. Right,” it offers listlessly.
The school is squat, sprawling. Faded tan buildings dropped from space in no discernible pattern, and more of those white portable classrooms that make me think of FEMA trailers. It’s been twenty-six days since I heard the crinkling of your stupid windbreaker, and things keep repeating.
“I’m Ms. Miller today,” I say as the receptionist glances up from her sausage biscuit, the wax paper crinkling loudly. I smile, but she doesn’t smile back. I wonder if the sharp, sour smell is still leaking out from under eight applications of deodorant. “Sorry I’m late,” I offer.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” she says, frowning distantly. “We’re just glad you showed up.” She hands me the keys. “You have a nice day.”
The teacher has left an ancient DVD for the students about the digestive system, along with detailed instructions on how to set the old flat screen TV to the AUX channel, and how to operate the remote control. I read the instructions and chuckle, alone in the room, as if someone has told a hilarious joke. When the kids begin to trickle in, I still haven’t figured out how to work everything.
The first two kids in the room are laughing and shoving. The larger boy glances off a desk, cackling. More students swagger and stumble into the room together, yelling at one another across tiny spaces, as if in a downpour heard only by adolescent ears. I’m getting used to many things, but I can’t get used to how loudly most of them seem to talk all the time.
I stand up as the tardy bell rings, introduce myself. The words don’t seem to be making any sound, and none of the students look at me or respond.
The bell rings and the kids immediately stop taking. One of the kids gets up, unbidden, and helps me get the TV set up.
As the kids go on a computer-animated journey through the mysterious oily tubes and hoses of the body, I idly shuffle papers on the teacher’s desk.
“Grrrrrr-oss!” one of the kids hisses. I look around for something to do, maybe to save my roiling stomach from watching any more tubes and hoses. There is a small bookshelf next to the desk with rows and rows of old yearbooks.
I pull one out and set it on the desk. It’s from the year I would have been in eighth grade here, if this had been my school. I thumb through the pages, eyes glancing across black and white reproductions of kids in polyester clothes, in shirts with puffy shoulders, in haircuts they would later disavow.
In the middle of Page 38, there you are, ten or eleven.
You squint at the camera, out through the pixel dots that make up the picture. Probably concealing thick glasses in a hand outside of the frame.
Your face is round and puffy, like you’ve been stung by something. I glance across the room as a hissing sound emits from the students. On screen, they’ve entered the gall bladder, and are swimming in some kind of green fluid.
In the picture, you’re wearing a sweater with a heart on the lapel.
Sixth Grade, it says at the top of the page.
How did you ever make it out of here? How does anyone?
What must they have done to this ridiculous, sad child in the picture, and how did that child grow into you?
I love you. You know I do. At this moment, it doesn’t matter where you are; I love you more than possible. I want to scoop you through the years into my arms, watching the braces and the terrible sweater and the deadly chipmunk cheeks fall away to leave you as you left me, cold and dark and wiry, selfish and beautiful in your way.
Wherever you are, those callow staring children who surround you on every part of the page can’t hurt you anymore.
I look up at the kids, the TV light flickering across their features, the gleam of tubes and hoses in their attentive eyes. The boys are all your sons and the girls are all your daughters.
“Shut up,” somebody hisses to no one for no reason, and a paper ball bounces off the corner of the teacher’s desk.
I think about trying to explain it to Dave as we float through the eleven o’clock miasma of cigarette smoke on a sea of vodka and OJ. But I can’t describe it any more deeply than a “Hey, you’ll never guess what happened today” kind of joke.
And then, as you know, I see you again, across the bar, and this time I’m almost sure you’re real.
I wobble up from my seat and around the bar, managing to miss all the high, empty stools but inexorably pulled into the one tired dude smoking his cigarette and absently tapping ashes into his gin and tonic or whatever.
He curses as I leave him behind.
I’m sure that when I arrive at the other side of the bar you’ll be gone, but you aren’t. I want to ask you if you’re really here, but I don’t.
“Hey,” I say, instead.
You turn your head away toward some other people, friends I guess.
“Does it have to be like this?” I ask, not sure if words are really coming out, not sure if you can hear me across the invisible infinitude of space. “Does it have to be like this?” I repeat.
You say nothing. And I know you’ll always say nothing, so I’ll ask you again, anyway: Does it have to be like this?
Is this eternity?
Have I been devoured?
But you can’t say that kind of stuff out loud, so I just stand there, and I weave unsteadily on my feet, and I stumble.
I stand there for a long time, and the people on the other side of the bar start to stare at me. Beautiful girls and boys whispering to one another, giggling, sipping drinks. They all look vaguely like you.
I find the handle of the bathroom door, and I stay in there for a long time. When I come back out, I know you’ll be gone.
I’ve lost track of how many days it’s been.
The next day, sweating what feels like thick petroleum in the hot cafeteria, I’m feeding peas, one by one, to Luther. The cords on his neck twitch and dance as his tongue searches for each pea. Pea juice glistens in his coarse black beard.
Luther coughs. His eyes roll from left to right.
“Hey, you okay?” I ask, looking away so he won’t smell the alcohol I imagine is lingering on my breath, even though I showered and brushed my teeth this morning.
I don’t know if he understands, but he grins and looks back at the peas, so I feed him some more, the loose plastic glove crinkling. This is only weird for me, I guess. Luther is accustomed to eating this way, of course.
“Havin’ a good lunch, Luther?” one of the full-time aides or teachers or whatever they are asks. Luther grins at her and makes a sound I take to be happy.
It’s so clear outside that it has to rain, every bit of moisture hovering high above, only the pungent smell remaining. As I get into the car I’m tired. My muscles refuse to unclench. The car seat is warm and I lie back, pulling the visor down to block the shards of sunlight that find their way through the massing clouds.
Imprinted on the insides of my eyelids are fading afterimages of you, of your brown eyes, of your pixilated chipmunk cheeks, of Luther, and the peas, and the kid in the wheelchair they fed through a tube in his stomach. I hear kids laughing and one thumps off the outside of the car, but I keep my eyes closed and the car is a ship floating on a sea of youth deep enough to drown me.
Stupid tears begin to leak out of my eyes, and it’s good to be a sub. I’ll be someone else tomorrow, and it won’t matter that these kids saw me crying in my stupid car. The phone jitters, and it’s SubCall, and I don’t answer.
Acceptance, I think, without really knowing why, is overrated. I don’t know what it means— acceptance of reality, acceptance shown by others— but it feels true anyway. The phone continues to move in my hand, like a trapped bug, a weak and nonvenomous one.
When the phone stops jittering, I open up my contact list. I delete your number and your picture. While I’m at it, I delete Dave’s, and several others.
I add the number for SubCall into my contact list and take a haphazard picture of one of the school buses through the back window of the car to go along with it.
I scan through the contacts, again and again, like an adolescent. Some of them bring to mind faces I haven’t seen in a while, people I left behind when you left my life. Some of these faces make me smile a little.
The rain begins to fall, immediately a downpour, drenching the car and the school and the kids running for buses. The rain smell creeps in through the vents. And instead of closing me off— from all of them, and from you, and from the drunks at the bar, and Dave, and the people whose numbers are in my phone, and the teachers who stand looking out through the big glass doors of the office, and the bus drivers, and the custodians, and the million broken and groping and clutching hearts— it doesn’t.