The copy machines at the school where I’ve been since the storm are situated back-to-back, their blue and gray brainwires intermingling, so if another teacher is making copies, it’s difficult to avoid a conversation. But the thing about teachers is that they’ve spent so long perfecting the characters they play that they don’t have conversations, they deliver lines. The few that are capable of conversation are so consumed by their profession that they never know anything worth discussing. Which is why when James Poché walked in and fired up the other machine with his religion teacher’s relentless positivity and blurry sense of personal boundaries, I glazed my face and held abstractedly still.
But inevitably: “Gary, are you coming to the Christmas party?”
I squinted with wakened annoyance, as if I’d only now noticed him: “Sorry—what?”
He smiled at some perceived humor. “Daydreaming?”
There’s something squeeby about James; he has a big immobile belly and shiny fingers that move slowly, as if restraining impulses.
“I was asking whether you’re coming to the Christmas party.”
“I don’t know.”
James told me why he was or wasn’t as I wondered where the promise of a paperless society had gone. Then: “Do you and your wife have children?”
The fact that I answered his question at all, with a quick No, suggests the extent to which teaching wears away your right to offense. Or maybe it was delayed offense—or simply a desire to ruin the pleasure of what James, in his dull Catholic simplicity, thought he had learned about me from my answer—that made me add, “We did have. A little girl, a long time ago. But she died when she was one.”
I watched the lie spread its horror across James’s face.
“My God, Gary. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
I tapped my copies flush and unwristed a rubber band. The logout button, a wordless nod, and I was gone.
My wife and I have never wanted children. The subject has never even come up except with relief at a purgatory averted. People with children don’t believe us—their stiff smiles reveal that they think we’re concealing a secret wound or meanly choosing the unnatural over the natural. But wanting children is like believing in God, you either do or you don’t, you don’t really decide; and just as the fact that many people lack an instinct to faith ought to be enough to disprove God, the fact that many people remain contentedly childless ought to teach those who have children to stop thinking they’ve done something more exalted than any soulless fox, shrew, or bat. But human language encourages parents to work and rework the subject until it glows, and those of us outside the light are bound to look shadowy.
Woolgathering down the long main hallway, I heard three seconds of math, Spanish, study skills, and English II, and then I was back in the department office where Travis was bent over a set of essays I knew he didn’t want to grade.
“Poché tried to grab my dick in the copy room,” I said.
Travis pulled an ear bud and spoke over his shoulder.
“He tried to pull me into a toilet stall yesterday. It’s sad.”
In the mythology we had made out of people in other departments, James Poché was an out-of-control clandestine dick-sucker. He had a weird habit of staring at people during faculty meetings, people who were often Travis.
“A middle-aged man should not have a goatee,” I said when Travis pressed the ear bud back in.
His voice rose with the submerged and satisfying exasperation I get when I interrupt him.
“Or be dumb as shit.”
“Or always be drinking those double-size energy drinks.”
“Or be cruising the halls for dicks to suck.”
And then that particular type of fun was over because Frances walked in with her own copies and more her traditional ideas of propriety. Except that they weren’t ideas because they weren’t coherent and didn’t extend to things like not being racist and not salaciously repeating gossip, especially about other female faculty. They were instead notions, expedients, pieties—for example, that it’s OK to say Good God but not God damn—most of which, like all cheap scruples, could be massaged into forgetting themselves if you cared to put the work in.
There was a full minute of precious silence, and I should have left it undisturbed because this was the week before exams, and we were all fighting off enormous piles of work. But I heard myself say, “Have you ever . . ?” and Frances growl out an Oh, no of anticipation.
The idea of this game is to affect an ingenuous, best-practices voice for questions that inadvertently reveal stunning irregularity and negligence.
“Have you ever left a set of ungraded essays where there was a good chance the cleaning crew would throw them away? Like, for example, in a garbage can?”
Travis laid his pen across his papers and swiveled.
“And when the kids asked about them, you said, ‘Guys, I graded those, but you all did terrible. Do you want them back, or should we pretend like they didn’t exist?’”
This popped open the ginger ale of Frances’s giggle.
“Have you ever”—I tipped my wooden chair against the wall—“confiscated Spencer Guernsey’s calculator because he wouldn’t stop playing Tetris, and when he asked for it back, you lost your temper a little and threw it at him? And it bounced off his head and broke on the desk behind him? And you were like, ‘We’re saying I dropped that, right? If the administration asks, we’re all saying I dropped that?’”
Travis let his flop-eared laugh lope around the room and then heeled it back in. “Have you ever gone to first period still drunk after spending all night at a gentlemen’s club? And when you woke up, it was two o’ clock and the room was empty?”
“And the garbage can was full of puke?”
“And you were like, ‘It must be Monday.’”
Frances’s voice fluttered out of her reach: “You two are so bad!”
A teacher is not one person. A teacher is the many voices he speaks and the quicksilver changes among them: the things he says to administrators and the things he says to parents; the things he says to ninth graders and the very different things he says to juniors; the farce and praise and kowtowing and congratulation, all those necessary notes across the register of human speech. We are whatever we are saying.
It was a different Frances whose gasp chilled the room.
“Have you heard that Jim may have cancer?”
Our faces did what hers was doing.
“Jim Prieur?” I said. “Our Jim?”
“He’s having a biopsy today. That’s where he is. He had a prostate exam three days ago, and this is how quickly they got him in.”
Jim was the chair of the department and, Travis and I agreed, an enormous blowhard and fraud. He had been named to the position because he had been at Bevolo for thirty years and could be counted on not to try to change things, but he had turned out in practice to be an erratic little despot who threw books at meetings and harassed his enemies in the department with repeated classroom observations. He ran from or yelled at the women in the department, often both at the same time, because he had never married and hadn’t the first idea what women were made of. He loved Funyuns and his smart phone; I had never seen him read a book. My first thought when I heard he was sick was that he wouldn’t have the energy to mount one of his arbitrary campaigns against me.
“He hasn’t looked well for a couple years,” I said.
“That cough.” Travis and I had both taken it for a nervous affectation. “Could that be related?”
With a solemnness that struck me as genuine in spite of her dislike for Jim, Frances intoned, “That poor man. He is going to need our prayers.”
I closed my eyes and rode the balance of my body in the chair. Always that same silence of the mystery of the self.
In spite of the fantastic speed it achieves, I can’t say, having always been a teacher, whether gossip moves more quickly in a school than it does elsewhere. But there’s no doubt that it is made more thrilling by its movement through an intellectual medium, by the way it recalls the mind so suddenly to the first things of the body. Because real gossip is always about the body: who’s got cancer, who wears too much cologne, who doesn’t wash his hands in the bathroom, whose Facebook page includes a bikini shot, who hugs the boys too often. So I knew Poché would carry his copies back to Theology and, after waiting long enough to feel certain he still had control of himself, reveal the news of my dead child. Minus the waiting, I would have done the same thing. There were several teachers in Theology I didn’t care about and whose names I pretended to forget, but there were a couple others, both men, who I knew disliked me, and the rumor could not fail to confuse their animosity, which was fun to think about. And both of the women on campus I was in love with in that easy, breezy workplace way were in Theology: Christine Aquilo, who knew I liked her and was deft enough to keep the plaything of my affection volleying harmlessly in the air between us, and Catherine Mouton, whom I found intriguing because she had no verbal boundaries I could discover and because she often touched my hand or arm in a world where few women choose to touch me—but who, for those reasons, wasn’t the first person I would have selected to approach my wife Alice and me as we came through the doors at the Christmas party.
“So this is the lucky woman,” Catherine said, already working an undertone of carnality.
“You mean unlucky,” I said or something else stupid; Catherine already had an arm around my waist, and my brain was scrambling. Alice and Catherine traded remarks designed to demote me to an object of cuteness, which I welcomed because it absolved me of responsibility for the conversation.
“She is such a fucking slut,” Catherine said in a fake-lowered voice, fake-looking away from where Julia Clark, our new Spanish teacher, was wearing tight jeans and saying or doing the next awkward thing in a string of ten thousand awkward things she would say and do that year.
“Catherine is our Campus Minister,” I told Alice in the spirit of information.
Catherine conceded the fact with a regretful “Yeah,” though whether regretting the title or her failure to live up to it in thought and speech, it wasn’t clear.
“Which one is your man?” I said.
I had been wanting to meet Catherine’s boyfriend because she has a beautiful face but a strange body, and seeing him would help me understand how attractive she was.
“He’s working. So I’m looking to commit some sins of the body.”
“What are you two waiting for,” I said, trying to rein things in, “you should be married by now and making a bunch of Catholic babies.”
Catherine said something about anal sex that went way beyond the pale, and then, “How about you two? Are you ever going to try again?”
There was a white din of voices in the cafeteria, plus the obligatory terrible music, and I leaned forward with a squint to suggest that there was no way a person could reliably hear another person in this kind of noise. I yelled, “I’m going to get a drink.”
“You’re not too old,” she called after us. Teachers are the absolute worst at knowing when to let a point go.
“No way!” she said, drinking in my retreating body as if it were anything but grizzled, slumping, brittle, and overhairy.
The same catering company as last year, the same roughed-up woman making drinks, the same me in her line.
Alice used her faculty-spouse undertone: “What did she mean about us trying again?”
“I told James Poché? Who’s that douchebag standing under the clock, don’t look now, with the white guayabara and the dumb look? That we had a one-year-old kid that died.”
“I don’t know.”
Alice wouldn’t blame me for any lie I told at work. We both saw work as a goonscape populated by blabberers, enthusiasts, and delusionaries, people with “ideas,” people who wanted to hug you as they fell, and any sharp object you used to ward them off was fair game. But my fondness for Christine Aquilo wasn’t a lie, and I knew that if we sat with her and her husband, who were waving us over to their table, I wouldn’t be able to hide it.
I got through the first five minutes by looking only at Christine’s husband, who parted his hair with banker’s grease and never smiled. He was uncomfortable talking about himself, so I asked him a bunch of useless, earnest questions about his job, learning and as quickly forgetting which restaurants he sold wine to and the market share of his distributorship and the hours a wine salesman keeps. And when I had said wow about twenty times and we were both thoroughly miserable, I turned to Christine and said, “So, how’s being preggers?”
“Good,” she said, and then something about how her legs had swollen up like water balloons. But I was replaying that good, its note of restraint and a sting around her eyes telling me that she’d heard about my dead child and making me feel that death was roughly what I deserved. But I didn’t die, I just suffered a slow split down the middle as Christine leaned in with her pretty pale freckles to tell me about the student she had caught cheating on her exam. Despite my looking mostly at the tablecloth and training all my animation onto the details about the student, Alice couldn’t have failed to see that I had been suddenly lit from within any more than she could have failed to see lamplight through a shade.
However tangled the teachers’ feelings about each other were, we all hated Mike Deluca, the principal, so there was a moment of pleasing faculty unity when he grabbed the mic and tapped it. Unconsciously palming the Blackberry on his hip, a nervous gesture that neatly summed up most of what was wrong with him, he thanked the Social Committee for organizing the party and announced that there was a prize taped to the bottom of someone’s chair. The whole room reached between its legs as Mike chortled at the humiliation of the body so popular wherever Catholics gather, and Alice shot out of her seat waving an envelope.
“It’s a hundred-dollar gift certificate to Commander’s Palace!” Mike said before Alice could get the envelope open. “No more excuses, Gary, take that woman to dinner!”
“Can I get Family Medical Leave for the anguish he causes me?” I said to Christine as Alice ran up to get her picture taken for the website.
“Let’s get it at the same time,” her eyes funning into a glint. We had done a lot of this triangulated flirting when we had shared a lunch duty the year before. “We’ll get manicures and stuff.”
“There’s no cure for this man.”
Alice and I talked to a dozen people after Christine, but in the car Alice returned directly to her, as I’d known she would.
“Pregnant for the second time in two years. My God.”
“She believes all kinds of boring things about Jesus that probably make it easier.”
“I thought you liked her.”
“She’s one of my favorites. But very Jesus-y.”
And then, because we addressed most of the difficult subjects of life not by meeting them together but by leaning the same way around them, Alice said, “I love it when Jesus comes down the chimney with his elves.”
“And rides that cunt Rudolph across the sky all magic-like.”
Why this was funnier in a dimwit English accent, I don’t know.
“And he turns a leper into a bleeding iPhone. A Christmas miracle.”
“And shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly, innit.”
Which is what we were doing, cackling an hour past our bedtime. Alice got us started again as we pulled up at the house by saying, in all seriousness, “Holy shit, I just realized that ‘Jesuit’ comes from ‘Jesus.’”
I have never hated my job the way Alice hates hers, the way the dead eyes of some of my colleagues suggest that they hate theirs, but my highest sentiments about teaching do tend to wear down as the semester grinds to a close, and for me the miracle of Christmas is that it sends me back to class restored and shining, able again to see that shine in my students, the light of the fact of their existence. This belief that what my students and I do together is important without a corresponding belief in God—how do I manage it year after year?
Travis was wearing a new shirt and the neatened satisfaction a new shirt brings.
“Have you ever,” I said when Frances left for coffee, “like five minutes ago in the Faculty Lounge, agreed to go on a sophomore retreat because the Campus Minister held your hand when she asked, and you forgot over Christmas break how pretty her eyes were?” Travis let his laugh off its leash. In the blush of the new semester, my volunteering for a religious retreat didn’t especially surprise him. “Am I going to have to lead prayers and shit? Have you ever been on one of these?”
Our school has been around for 170 years and has a typical Jesuit insularity, and even after four years I still felt like a newcomer, with that newcomer’s sense that his presence isn’t registering. The storm had made ghosts of a lot of things I thought were solidly real, and finding myself among them wasn’t a surprise, and I wasn’t exactly in a panic about it. There are advantages to invisibility. But all things being equal, I decided it might feel nicer to be recognized as fully human, especially when your job requires you to fulfill the roles of a human, especially when you teach in the humanities. There were teachers for whom the news of my dead child sealed me off utterly behind a barrier no language could cross; but for more of my colleagues I had been brought forward and given color by my tragedy, had entered reality in a way they could put words to and answer with sympathy. Mike Deluca, the principal, had in the past occasionally looked up from his phone and shot me a “Hey, big guy” as he texted his way down the hall, but on the first Friday back he called me to his office and, in a voice with the huzzah removed, asked me to serve on a summer reading committee.
At the same time, they were cutting parts of Jim away. His surgery was scheduled for the morning we boarded the bus for the sophomore retreat, and I knew we would be adding him to the list of things we prayed for; and as Catherine ticked the retreatants off her clipboard, I got distracted wondering whether our other prayers would lack so much force for being diluted with Jim—would we, for example, be unwittingly adding two or three minutes onto the legality of abortion? If we prayed at midday for Jim’s surgery but the surgery had happened in the morning, would our prayers retroactively guide the surgeon’s hand, or would the effect of our prayers be automatically forwarded to his recovery? These trusting kids, I thought as they filed onto the bus, the ones I had taught before sending out their fists for a bump or exclaiming Mr. Wilkins, you’re wearing jeans! or ignoring me as scrupulously as they would a stranger because their teachers aren’t real to them. I marveled for the ten thousandth time at minds so flexible they could both Tweet and pray, go to the midnight showing of Iron Man II and the next morning close their eyes in meditation on Jesus’ vigil in Gethsemane, which is how we began the day after a dieselly bounce through the sugar cane and solitary McMansions of rural Louisiana. We had one sweet old Jesuit who was considered a specialist at this sort of thing, I’d never heard him talk except for when they stood him up at faculty inservices to paint the Annunciation out to twenty times its original length as we bowed our heads and fought sleep, which, when you passed his class, was what most of his students were doing.
The theme of the day was, generally, taking up our crosses or putting them down or giving them to God—it doesn’t pay to think too precisely about these things—and when the kids started volunteering up to the microphone, the stories they told crazed out to all points of the compass, from Dylan Bonadona’s about caring for a grandmother with Alzheimer’s to Chase Rodrigue’s ten-minute disquisition on the weeklong headache that had ended with an E.R. doctor extracting a roach from its lodging deep within his ear. I stood in the back of the room and reminded myself that the real point of a retreat is to get the kids moving through space, speaking and listening, restraining the urge to fall upon and kill the weak among them. A few minutes before noon, as I was wondering how bad the retreat-center food was, Catherine went to the microphone.
“Thanks to all of you who were brave enough to share those personal testimonies from your lives. It is not easy to open yourself up in front of peers.” She turned from the lectern in her COOL TO BE CATHOLIC T-shirt and led them in applause for themselves. “The takeaway lesson? Is that God never gives us more than we can handle. We might think He does? But if we go to Him in prayer, every challenge is manageable. . . .” Or something like that; my mind had gone off into the same soft blur it does during school masses. But somewhere below me, my skin woke as she continued: “You may not know it, but your teachers face hardships just like you. You all know Mr. Wilkins as the English teacher with the thrift-store ties who knows like a hundred monkey jokes. But I want to ask him to come up here and talk about a difficult time in his life that I only recently found out about.”
I thought too late and rather ridiculously of slipping backward through the canvas divider and hiding on the bus, but all fifty kids had turned to look at me. I lowered my eyes and waved off the request, a gesture they could take as modesty or as evidence of a wound too deep to speak of, whatever would get me out of the moment. But Chase Rodrigue jaunted up out of his seat and grabbed me by the wrist. “Come on, Mr. Wilkins!”
“You crazy nut,” I mumbled as he delivered me up the aisle through a crackle of clapping. My hands found a place on the lectern. Most of teaching is not knowing what you’re going to say until you say it, and it generally turns out OK. In that spirit I looked up at the boys.
“Something people don’t know is that I once had a child,” I said, language with just enough of an opening that I could still step through it to the truth. “A little girl who died when she was one.”
And then my mind, on scavenge through its store of cheap materials, stumbled upon the year I played house with the girl across the street and the battered doll we used as our baby, a hard-faced thing with stained bas-relief curls and eyes that tinked closed when you tipped it. We poked tea-party spoons at its mouth, praised and scolded it with the momentarily popular girl’s name we had given it. It was a world of plastic—much like the actual world—given life by our attention.
The boys waited. I reminded myself that the truth is always whatever people most want to hear. My dead child was already out there in the world, where we needed her. I was only putting a word to what we believed when I took a breath and said her name.