Pass/Fail

Not that it mattered now, but the kid had this coming a long time. Disrespectful, mouthy, slouched in his desk chair and checking his phone every three minutes even though there is a clear policy in the student handbook prohibiting the use of phones in the classroom. Try to be polite to him and he blows you off, gives some passive-aggressive backtalk. And of course everyone was going to think that he was the bad guy—Ray Candle, Mr. Candle—even though at fifty-three he’d been teaching for over twenty years without incident, twenty-two to be exact, and not only without incident but a damn near stellar record: faculty advisor for the debate team, perennial dance chaperone, a headline-grabbing trip to Nova Scotia with eleven AP seniors back in 2002. A Saturday given up every October for Fall Festival, another Saturday in May for the car wash fundraiser. And so on and so on and et cetera et cetera.

And Jeff Trobo was the victim? Talk about an ass-backwards world. Jeff fucking Trobo.

“Jeff, put your feet down, please.” This is what started it that Wednesday in March, the longest stretch of the year, devoid of holidays or even half days, February vacation distant in the rear-view mirror and April too far away to even think about.

Jeff Trobo didn’t put his feet down, of course. Not after just one request. He never did. Heads turned to look at him in the back of the room. His greasy hair coming down across one eye, flannel shirt untucked and unbuttoned, sleeves rolled tight over his elbows, a Black Sabbath T-shirt even though Ray doubted he knew very much about Black Sabbath. If Ray had to guess, Jeff had bought the shirt at Old Navy or something. If the kid knew anything about Sabbath at all, it was from the Iron Man movies.

This was part of the dance. Jeff wouldn’t react on the first request, and only on the second or third would he sigh and roll his eyes, and then finally stamp his foot on the floor in some dramatic overture. “So stupid,” he’d usually mutter. Ray would look at him an extra beat or two, swallowing that little shot of adrenaline-laced anger, and then go back to subordinating conjunctions.

“Jeff, I said put your feet down.” Ray turned away from the board the rest of the way, fully facing him. “Now.”

The kid hadn’t taken a single note. His book was closed, and not only was it closed, but the hardcover corner was bent and cracked, the pages rippled with water damage. Ray stepped into the aisle.

“Your fly’s down,” Jeff said, almost bored. Ray felt the faces shift in his direction but he kept looking at Jeff. He considered casually checking his pants but everyone was looking at him, and of course his fly wasn’t down anyway. He wouldn’t let Jeff score points in front of his hometown crowd that easily.

“I told you to put your feet on the floor.”

Jeff glanced at Kyle Abbott next to him and pushed one side of his mouth up in a cocky grin. Kyle’s hand went over his mouth, and then Jeff turned back to Ray’s crotch. “Seriously, pull your fly up, dude.”

Now Ray was right next to him, hovering. He could smell a hint of B.O. but couldn’t really tell who it was coming from. He had a red whiteboard marker in his hand and he pointed it at Jeff, realizing a little too late that the pen was actually shaking a little bit. He squeezed it in his fist and lowered it.

Jeff dropped his gaze and snickered, trying hard to make sure that the rest of class thought that he found it amusing. Then he shook his head, actually looked away from Ray and shook his head, and, turning back at Kyle again, said, “I’m so uncomfortable right now.” Ray noticed that he had put his hand up, flat, a gesture he guessed was meant to block the view of Ray’s crotch. There was a quiet tittering from the front of the class, not quite laughter, but it was enough to trigger what Ray did next. Somewhere in that synapse of time it occurred to Ray that this would not have happened ten years ago, or maybe even five. That this was about, to some extent, the fact that he had gone mostly gray and thinned out almost completely up top, his jowls fallen slack, a slight beer belly sitting on top of his belt. More than that, though, it was probably his eyes, tired and defeated from years of shoveling shit against the tide, as they liked to say. Kids like this, kids like Jeff Trobo, sensed a vulnerability in him that hadn’t been there before.

Ray lifted his loafer from the floor and kicked Jeff’s boot from the desk’s crossbar. The boot slapped the linoleum and the two front legs of the chair banged down, jerking Jeff forward with a jolt. Jeff, his grin gone and suddenly pissed, opened his mouth to try to save face, and suddenly Ray found himself bent over him, the red marker dropped to the floor and his hand now clutching Jeff by the back of the neck, driving his face down against the desk. “What’d you say to me, you little shit?”

The kid didn’t really resist, just sort of went slack, arms hanging at his side and cheek squashed against the desktop. Ray thought it must’ve been the surprise of it all. Jeff exhaled hard, drooling, the sound of spit sucking through his teeth. Ray watched him blink, eyes flicking side to side. The room fell silent, Ray noticed, most students just sitting there, looking at Jeff and then at Ray and then at each other. No one said a word. Ray took a step, planting his foot a little better, more leverage to drive against Jeff. His foot landed on what felt like the dry-erase marker and it shot across the floor, then caught some backspin and began to roll back their way.

When he let go of him—a few seconds later? A full minute?—he saw that the back of the kid’s sweaty neck was flush red in the shape of Ray’s hand. Jeff braced his palms against the desk and started to lift his head. He looked dazed, unsure what the hell had just happened to him. Ray stood upright, growing more aware of the class as the moments passed, feeling their stares and constrained energy fueled by their confusion. Now Ray saw that Kyle Abbott was standing too, his smartphone in his raised hand, gazing almost cross-eyed at the screen. With his other hand he seemed to be reaching blindly for Jeff, trying to help him to his feet. He kept moving the phone back and forth between Jeff in his seat and then up at Ray, then down at Jeff again.

Over the next couple seconds, Ray felt himself rifling through a catalogue of possibilities. His first instinct was to walk back to the front of the room and continue with the lesson, pretend this never happened and hope, through some sort of subliminal conveyance, that the rest of them would fall in line and continue taking their notes: if, when, whenever, although, before, after. Act like it was no big deal and maybe, just maybe, they’ll all somehow believe it. But what else? Apologize? Make a speech? And what the hell was this Kyle kid doing pointing his phone all over the place like some kind of vigilante documentary filmmaker? While he kept shooting video he tugged Jeff to his feet, hooking him under the arm, saying, “C’mon, Trobo. C’mon…”

But Ray wasn’t about to let these two fucks just walk out of the room, backing out with that phone aimed his way like a couple bank robbers pointing a gun. In an instant Ray had closed the gap between them and, although Kyle stepped back in an attempt to keep him in the crosshairs of his phone, Ray slapped it clean out of his hand. It clanked off a back cabinet and cracked on the floor. Somebody at the front of the room gasped, a couple others muttering something Ray couldn’t make out. He pushed between Jeff and Kyle and stomped on it, grinding it under his heel, listening to it splinter like ice. From the corner of his eye he saw Janie Mulligan look at Gabrielle Cruz next to her, mouthing the words Oh my God. Gabrielle, Ray noticed—poor Gabrielle, fifteen years old going on about ten—watched all this with wide eyes filling with tears.

He went to take a step and slipped, stamping awkwardly before regaining his footing. He kicked at the phone, scattering pieces of black and clear plastic across the floor. In the long beat that followed he pulled his eyes from Gabrielle to Jeff, who was on his feet now but still looking dazed, like no one had ever put him in his goddamn place before. Ray had no idea at all what the hell to do from here. Everyone seemed to be waiting for him to dictate the moment. The fluorescent lights were brutal.

Ray swallowed, licked his lips. The whiteboard at the front of the room was a good ten, twelve feet away. His desk probably eighteen. The door—right there—an arm’s reach away. He couldn’t think of anything else. “Read quietly,” he finally said, his throat dry. Then he nodded, hesitated, nodded at them one more time, and left the room.

 

There were still ten minutes left in the school day, but Ray found himself sitting behind the wheel of his car, waiting for the defroster to heat up and clear the windshield. He’d left his coat draped over the back of his desk chair, and his lunch sack too, for that matter. It was cold, mid-March but spring nowhere in sight. His shoulders felt locked, jaw fixed tight, either a result of the cold or his body freezing up on him, trying to stop itself from making the situation even worse by leaving school grounds. He blinked and flipped the windshield wipers on, watching the layer of frost peel away in brittle flakes. Then, with his vision still partially fogged, he drove out of the lot and onto the main road, passing Wilma Stoudemeyer, the crossing guard, who raised her mittened hand at Ray, turning rigidly to watch after him, looking more slow and confused than usual. Ray didn’t wave back.

He tapped the radio volume up—a sports talk show—in an attempt to block out the growing voices telling him that he had fucked up in a royal way and may have just lost his job. May have? Who was he kidding? You don’t grab a kid by the neck and drive his face down into a desk and keep your job. Not in front of a room full of stunned students you don’t. Fuck. Fuck!

“Fuck!”

 There was that old cliché about your life flashing before your eyes. Instead, Ray found himself looking forward, rifling through different possible scenarios. What had happened was going to leave the classroom—that much was sure. Either Jeff himself was going to march into Gary’s office, or he was going to tell his parents tonight and they’d take over from there. Or someone else’s parent would call Jeff’s parents to find out the story. One way or another, this thing was going viral. Gary was going to be calling him tonight, or bring him into his office in the morning. Or else Jeff’s parents will call him. Christ, he was going to have to tell Nicole. There was no way around that, was there? As if things weren’t already already fucked up at home.

Last night had been his first official night in his new bedroom, which was really the computer room, the office. For weeks Nicole had been nudging him in the middle of the night, complaining that his snoring was keeping her awake. He’d tried some nose strips but that didn’t seem to help. So he’d been dragging himself, with pillow and blanket, night after night into the office, where he’d unfold an old, musty-smelling futon. It was just forty-eight hours ago that Nicole suggested making the move more permanent, something Ray reluctantly agreed to for some reason, and when he came home from school the next day, Mr. Mattress had delivered a bed in replace of the futon. A twin. Reminded him of a kid’s bed.

They hadn’t had sex in a year and ten months. He felt himself wilt with embarrassment every time he had this thought. Before that, hell, maybe another four or five months. Eight more weeks and they’d strike their two-year anniversary of accidental—or not so accidental—celibacy. They’d been married nine years; the second marriage for both. Ray’s first had lasted eleven years resulting in two daughters, 24 year-old twins living in Rhode Island near their mother. Nicole had been married for two and a half years but she had gotten married too young, at twenty-one. When Ray had first met her, she was a twenty-seven year-old bank teller and bartender with a five year-old son. Ray was forty-one.

He was surprised to find himself pulling into his own driveway, coming up behind the shitbox Nissan 280ZX that belonged to Tyler, Nicole’s kid. Technically, he was Ray’s stepson, but he never referred to him as such or thought of him that way, as if to distance himself from whatever responsibility that might entail. He wished Tyler hadn’t been home for once, so he could be inside his own goddamn house and think, figure stuff out, come up with some kind of strategy. But, hell, Tyler was always home. He’d graduated high school the previous year with D’s and since then hadn’t found a job, except for the video store position he’d had while in school. Part time. Once the place went under and he’d been let go, he simply came home and resigned himself to the couch. Ray suggested the army and Nicole lost her mind over it. “How dare you?” she’d kept saying, not just when he’d first said it but for days afterward. “How dare you, Ray? Ray.” She’d emphasize his name, as if this alone were some kind of insult. Maybe it was.

In the house he snapped the top of a can of beer and sat at the kitchen table, his leg bouncing. The clock on the stove said it was 2:19. He couldn’t remember ever being home so early. Then he thought of the kids he’d abandoned in the classroom. He wondered what they had done. Sit there until the bell? Get up and leave? Did they talk? Or wait in awkward silence? He should have stuck it out, he realized. Leaving had made this whole thing look like a big deal. Which of course it was, but any hope he’d had of downplaying this and tricking them into thinking it wasn’t had gone out the window when he’d panicked and fled. He slugged hard off his beer, pushing it down his throat and closing his eyes.

He thought he should probably call Al Stalls. He was their union rep. Let him know what happened, tell the truth. Or a version of it, anyway. But Al would have to know. It would be smart to get out in front of it. Hell, he should probably call Nicole’s Uncle Oscar too, a lawyer who Ray had used a few years ago for a D.U.I. Almost two thousand dollars and he still lost his license for ninety days.

By the time Ray finished his beer—not more than three minutes from first swallow to last—he was convinced that he would lose his job. Retirement was only a few years away, a nice early see-you-later. He took pride in that; one of the few things that he could boast about at a game of cards with the guys: “I’ll be retired and still in my fifties. So…” It was his ace up the sleeve.

He imagined Nicole coming home from work with him still sitting right here, stuck, working on his fifth or sixth beer, staring at the wall with that old wallpaper he’d always thought had tiny red dots all over it but now, looking at it, realized that they were actually small roses. When he’d have to tell her this story later on, sitting right here and talking to her back as she fixed dinner at the stove, it’d need to have some kind of resolution, a variation of happy ending that would keep her from crumbling with worry, saying, “I knew it, I knew it, I did. I knew it.” Because this wasn’t the first time he’d had an incident in the classroom. Not that the others were bad, but there were others. Of course, there had been. Twenty-two years of teaching. Everyone had stories. He’d just made the mistake of telling Nicole about them, sort of bragging in a way: the time he’d stood in front of a student’s desk—he’d since forgotten who—and saw that the student was working on homework from another subject instead of taking class notes. Ray asked him to put it away, but the kid just kept on doing whatever it was he was doing. Ray felt a sting of heat in his face and chest at this display of disrespect and snatched the paper from the desk, fisting it into a crumpled ball. Then, without really thinking about it, he’d flicked the wad of paper off his fingertips and it ricocheted off the kid’s face. The kid blinked and recoiled, and, funny as it was, not a single student laughed, the discomfort heavy in the room. Nicole’s only reaction to this at the dinner table that night had been to point her fork and tell him, “Don’t go getting yourself fired, Ray.”

He marched the length of the hall toward the breezeway. He passed a closed bathroom door, stopping short and stepping back to it, listening. He could see a thin strand of light at the seam between the door and the jamb. “You in there?”

There was a lengthy silence before he heard Tyler say, “Yeah.”

Ray stared at the door. For some reason he asked,” What’re you doing?”

“Um, taking a shit.”

More silence.

“All right,” Ray said.

He entered the garage and flipped on the bank of overhead fluorescent lights. Nicole had wanted him to clean this place up; he’d been putting it off for months. Boxes, bags, a heaping pile of clothes, two broken lawn mowers, four recycle bins filled with empty cans. It was cold in here and smelled musty, too. At one time Nicole had been able to park her car in here during the winters, but not this year. Still, he knew exactly what he needed and where it was. He hadn’t been fishing in years but had kept his tackle box for some reason. Maybe, he thought, this was the reason.

He remembered this stuff being in better shape, but what he found was a tangle of fishing wire, cracked bobbers, and even some dried bits of something he couldn’t quite identify: pieces of bait, perhaps, fish guts, something he should have cleaned a long time ago. He took the knife out, sheathed in brittle canvas that had split down the side. Beneath it he could see a sliver of a rusty blade. Good enough. Better than a steak knife from the kitchen; there were eight of them and Ray knew that if one went missing, Nicole would be looking for it. Once he had taken a spoon to work to eat a yogurt and had left it in the teacher’s room sink. Took Nicole all of fifteen minutes to realize there were four spoons in the drawer and three more in the dishwasher and where the hell was the other one? That weekend she bought him a box of plastic spoons to take with him.

He marched back into the kitchen, then thought better of it and retreated to the bathroom door. He listened, let his forehead lean against the wood. “You still in there?”

“Me? Yeah. I’m still in here.”

Ray nodded and left, then stopped and leaned back. “Okay,” he said. He yanked open the cellar door and hurried down the steps to Tyler’s makeshift bedroom, really just a section of the basement squared off with thin paneling, a donated area rug lying over a dusty and cold cement floor, damp and cracked. The walls, too, were concrete, and Tyler over the years kept trying to tape posters up, but they’d peel away and either hang half-folded or sometimes fall to the floor. Ray pulled the mattress up, then the box spring, looked under the bed, kicked through the dirty clothes on the floor. He stepped over a gym bag on the floor and pulled open the dresser drawers. He had no doubt that Tyler smoked pot—Nicole had caught him a couple years ago when she’d come down to do laundry and smelled an unmistakable waft of smoke. She started checking his jeans pockets whenever she’d do the wash and once found an Altoids case with three small roaches, squashed and flattened. Tyler had thrown a tantrum that had scared Nicole—Ray wished he had been there—and Nicole had pitched a box of fabric softener sheets at him and told him to do his own fucking laundry.

Ray figured he’d be able to find a joint or two and maybe even a small bag of weed, but he came across something else: nine green tablets—pills—wrapped neatly in cellophane. He picked the package up, moved it close to his face. Turned it over. Then pushed it deep into his pocket.

 

He had a list of locker combinations for his homeroom students, but it took him a long time to find it, long enough that a slick of panic sweat beaded on his forehead and the backs of his hands. He did find it, in the bottom drawer of his desk beneath a list of room extension phone numbers, a print-out of the fire drill protocol, and whatever other papers ended up in his mailbox as the year went on, stuff he wasn’t sure where else to put. Once he had the number he realized that this plan of his was half-baked. That putting the fishing knife and pills in Jeff Trobo’s locker wasn’t going to do a whole hell of a lot of good. Jeff was going to come into school in the morning, open his locker, and find these two Christmas presents left for him. Thanks for the drugs. And the knife. By the time Ray got called into Gary’s office sometime tomorrow, Ray assumed, there wouldn’t be anything in that locker more contraband than a pack of gum. Ray was going to have to beat Jeff to the punch.

The phone in the pocket of his fleece vest buzzed, startling him. He’d thought for a second that he’d set off some kind of alarm when Jeff’s locker door finally came open. He let it vibrate while he pulled the sheathed knife out of his pocket, then the wrapped pills, placing them neatly on top of the two or three hardcover textbooks on the bottom of the locker, none of them covered with a brown paper bag, or book sock, or whatever it was they used nowadays to cover a book. But then he thought they looked too neatly placed, so he grabbed a corner of the top book and gave it a shake. The knife and wrapped pills both slid. He tried to catch them but they fell to the linoleum floor, the baggie landing noiselessly but the knife clanging and bouncing. He took his phone out and closed the door. In the empty school, it sounded a little like a gunshot.

“Hey what’s up?” He said it too quickly, too pressured. He forced himself to swallow.

Nicole didn’t seem to care about the nuances of his speech—pressured, relaxed, or otherwise. “Tyler says you ransacked his room, that’s what’s up.”

He shouldn’t have answered it. That was dumb. He’d thought that answering her call would help reinforce this idea that all was well and under control. Just another afternoon. Taking care of some business but otherwise a normal afternoon.

“Ray? You there?”

“Uh, yeah, I’m here. He did what now?” He bent and picked up the knife and bag.

“He just called me and said that you ransacked his room.”

“He did?”

“Jesus Christ, Ray. Yes, he did. I got a million things to do right now. What’s going on?”

He used to call her on his way home from school, just to say hi and see how her day was going. But she always spoke too softly from her cubicle, and all he could really hear was the background noise behind her, ringing phones and a blur of voices, and she’d be short with him and distracted. He stopped doing it a couple years ago, he guessed. “I didn’t ransack his room, first of all.”

He heard what sounded like a rumble, and at first he thought it was coming from Nicole’s end—maybe thunder—before realizing that it was a trash barrel being wheeled by a custodian. A second or two later, Eli Duddy came around the corner, leaning his forearms on the barrel like it was holding him up, his gray pants hanging low the way the students wore them, though his weren’t intentional. Eli looked at Ray and Ray stepped away from the lockers, pushing the bag and sheathed knife into his back pocket. “Thought I heard some bangin’,” Eli said.

“Just me,” Ray said, trying to sound normal. Whatever that was.

“Just you what?” Nicole said.

Eli nodded and pushed the barrel by him. “Figured it was some kid forgot a book.”

Ray laughed, though there wasn’t much funny about what Eli had said. “Just me,” he said again.

“What the hell does that mean, just me?” Nicole’s voice sounded lower now, impatient, trying to measure herself. Ray imagined her looking around the office self-consciously.

“I’m talking to someone else,” Ray said. “I’m at school.”

“You’re at school,why? Tyler told me you’re home, and that you rans—”

“Ransacked the room. I heard that part. I had to run back to school. Look, I’ll call you later.” He thought she had started to protest, but he had punched the phone off by that time. He watched Eli waddle into a classroom and empty a trash can and realized that this was a problem. Ray took a few steps after him. “Just left my phone here, that’s all,” he said at Eli’s back.

He wasn’t sure that Eli had heard him. The metal trash can banged against the side of the barrel, like a drum, reverberating down the empty hall. “Came back for my phone.” He blinked lazily, trying his best to exude casual.

Eli’s wild, gray eyebrows, like quills, made him hard to read. Had he heard him or not heard him? Was he pissed off or half-asleep? The late sun carved through the window blinds in long blades, striping the walls and floor. He’d never been in the building this late. Back-to-school night maybe, in October. But not March.

“Yeah, okay,” Eli said. “I heard ya.” He pushed against the wheels and the squeaking continued.

 

Ray swung through a drive-thru and got himself a double-cheeseburger, large fry, six-piece chicken nugget, and a green shake in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Even with the windows cracked, he knew the heavy smell of grease would linger in the car for days after. Nicole would kill him, but fuck it. He ate behind the wheel, the raw wintry air keeping him rigid and tense, shoulders tight into his body. A few years earlier, Nicole had decided to go gluten-free, and if Ray wanted some dinner at night he had no choice but to join the cult. After he’d lost his first few pounds, Nicole commented on how good he looked and told him he must be feeling a lot better too. But he felt hungry all the time, and lacked energy. He missed his pastas and pizzas, and especially his breads. She’d buy gluten-free cookies and gluten-free spaghetti, all kinds of inedible shit that tasted terrible. To make up for this, he’d find himself hitting the drive-thru more and more often, sometimes without even planning to, sometimes after school, sometimes later at night when he’d tell Nicole he needed to run out for gas. One day she found a couple French fries on the floor of his Subaru and broke down in tears, swatting at his shoulder and even, accidentally, his cheek. She called him a fucking liar and a cheater and an asshole. He promised he wouldn’t do it again.

“The Blue Danube” played on one of the three classical radio stations that he’d programmed as presets. He turned the volume up and stabbed at a chicken nugget with the unsheathed fishing knife, then steered it into his mouth whole. Most people recognized the composition as from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the space plane docks with the space station. It was a fine enough film, he supposed, and he could appreciate its use to symbolize the dance-like grace and precision of the space docking, so reminiscent of a Viennese waltz. But beyond that it pissed him off pretty good. The piece belonged to Johann Strauss II, of course, written a hundred years before Kubrick’s film. How something so timeless could be rebranded for pop culture he never understood. He jabbed at another nugget. His ear ached from the cold, but he needed the window down.

To him the piece reminded him of exactly what it was supposed to: the Danube River, snaking through some of the oldest cities in Europe. There had to be five or six brochures and travel books with the river featured on their covers next to his bed right now, tucked into the lower part of his nightstand, no doubt powdered in dust, stale with neglect. The trip to Europe had been on his radar for years. Nicole had vetoed it again and again, an annual argument when the topic of summer vacation came up. She said Tyler wasn’t interested in that kind of stuff but was too young to leave home alone. Plus Ray’s own girls were still in school. He was sending their mother extra money for college expenses even though both girls had done pretty well with scholarships and financial aid. He supposed he could have forced the issue—pushed to have Tyler come along with them whether he wanted to or not, and who the hell lets a teenager dictate the family summer fucking vacation anyway—but in the end he decided he didn’t want that little prick with them. Ray knew he’d sulk and stare down at his phone and be an anchor on the whole experience. In the end, they’d decided to push it off until retirement. What’s another few years, Nicole would say.

The truth was, he’d been starting to think that maybe Nicole didn’t really want the trip at all. The two of them together—alone all day and all night—probably sounded like hell. All those romantic cities like Prague and Vienna. The expectations that would come with such settings. Maybe that was why no summer had been the right summer.

Moot point now, Ray thought. Moot fucking point now.

He put the Subaru in reverse and pulled up tight to a trash barrel. He’d crumpled everything back into the paper bag, but found he couldn’t quite reach the lip of the barrel from his window. He stretched, grunting, and then tossed it. The balled-up bag hit the side of the barrel and then the pavement. “Bitch.” Sighing, he shouldered the door open but in the process banged the door against the concrete corner of the building itself. He recoiled at the noise and allowed his foot to come off the brake. By the time he realized this, the car had rolled several feet forward, the door panel grating against the concrete with a long, metallic scrape.

“Bitch!”

Heads turned at the noise, customers walking across the parking lot with their food—a man in sweatpants and an unkempt beard, two middle school-aged kids he thought he recognized, a woman in a navy blue business suit—all wrinkling their brows at the unpleasant sound. His phone rang in his pocket. He pulled the door shut and steered into the open, left hand reaching blindly into his inside jacket pocket. Probably Nicole, he figured, wondering where the hell he was.

By the time he wrangled the phone out, it had stopped ringing. With it, he’d pulled out the folded scrap of paper he’d stuffed in there with Jeff Trobo’s address and phone number on it, something he’d looked up on his classroom computer a couple hours earlier. He didn’t quite recognize the number, but it was local: the school, or, more likely, the district’s administrative building.

He drew a deliberate breath. Puffed his cheeks. The call was hardly surprising, of course, but it gut-punched him anyway. His foot still on the brake and the car idling in the middle of the parking lot, he stared straight ahead at the streaks of winter grime on his windshield and held on to the moment as long as he could, knowing that a beat later, an exhale later, he’d cross into some dark next chapter that he wanted no part of. He pulled the car back into a space and cranked the gearshift into park.

He sipped what was left of his green shake, suction rattling through the straw, waiting for the phone to beep with a message. In the rear-view mirror he could see the corner of the building’s foundation he had just scraped, a pine green dagger of a line aggressively carved into the gritty concrete. It looked like a child’s attempt at drawing with a fisted crayon. Ray stepped out of the car to assess the damage, detached and indifferent. He thumbed the phone to retrieve the voice mail.

“Ah, yeah, Ray. This is Gary over at the school. Look, can you give me a call as soon as you can? We’ve got an issue here on our hands. You probably know what I’m referring to.” Ray listened to him clear his sinuses right into the phone. Gary had a gross habit of doing that every time he paused to think of what he was going to say next. Faculty meetings were brutal. “I’m at the home office right now but I’m leaving in a few. Call me at home.”

Not good. The home office meant he’d been talking to Bill Thatch, the superintendent. Trobo’s mom, Ray guessed, must’ve called. He imagined Jeff didn’t hesitate five goddamn seconds to run home and blab about how Candles had put his hands on him. With D’s and F’s on his report cards and countless suspensions, Jeff probably trudged home bearing the weight of bad news half his life. And now to float home with this juicy piece of news? The chance to play the victim, throw someone else under the bus? And a teacher? What a lottery ticket for this prick. Ray wondered who his mother was, whether he’d met her before. Probably some sweatpants-wearing piece of shit puffing cigarettes on a crusade about how her shithead son can’t get a fair shake at that school. Ray knew the type. He put the phone in his pocket, standing in front of the driver’s side door, looking down at the scab of exposed metal where the paint had been sheered away. Jeff’s father probably wasn’t in the picture, if Ray had to guess. Little pricks like Jeff rarely had to come home and face Dad. It’s why Tyler was such a fucking mess.

A year and ten months. He huffed a laugh. Said it out loud: “A year and ten months.” They’d gone down to the Cape for a funeral. Nicole’s next door neighbor growing up. She hadn’t seen her in years, though they’d reconnected on Facebook. Now Ray couldn’t even remember her name. Martha, or Gretchen, or maybe Henrietta. Something old fashioned and ugly. He did remember her young children, a boy and a girl, looking small, lost, and empty at the funeral parlor. Like ghosts. Ray had kept his hands pushed into his pockets and his eyes down. He knew no one, but their pain had been palpable. A video montage played in the back, Gretchen or Evelyn smiling and tan, crooked with a child locked on her hip, looking little like the woman, pale and puffy, in the casket. It was hard to believe that she’d been the same age as his wife.

Later, back at the hotel, they’d had sex. The first time in months. Ray had had a couple whiskeys at the bar downstairs while Nicole showered, one of her long ones when she was upset. He’d found her sitting on the tub floor a few times before, shower running and curtain closed, weeping into her knees. After a fight, perhaps, or trouble with Tyler. At the bar, he imagined her doing the same. She was still crying when he returned to the room, in bed on her side, knees drawn into her chest like they had been in the shower. He undressed and slid under the covers, guilty at how disappointed he felt to find her still upset like this. It had been a long time since they’d stayed in a hotel, and during the drive down earlier that day he’d been holding out hope that they’d put the room to proper use. He pushed up against her and put his hands on her ribs under the guise of comforting her. She sniffled, softening against him, but when she realized a moment later what he was up to she cried harder. The whiskey felt warm inside him, everything filtered and distant. Thinking about it now, he remembered telling her that the distraction would do her good, that they both needed this, especially tonight. But she just cried and seemed to ignore him, and Ray had felt a charge of anger flare somewhere within him, and he squeezed her breast and pushed her underwear down with a thumb. He said “Okay?” in her ear, and he didn’t remember that she’d said anything back, but she nodded and cried into the pillow, and Ray aligned himself to her and entered her from behind. He sucked his cheek between his teeth and pressed his forehead into her shoulder blades. The four or five month layoff, though, had been too much of a hurdle, and he’d lasted just a few seconds. He tried to stay there, on his side and still inside her, but she’d nudged herself forward, sniffling and shoulders hitching with grief, and he’d slipped out. Nicole withdrew into an even tighter ball, and Ray rolled onto his back and turned on the TV. There was an infomercial on for yellow-lens sunglasses that eliminated glare. He didn’t bother changing it.

 

He reached for the green shake now but found it empty, the paper cup soft and flimsy. The sun had fallen low in the sky and lit up the windshield, highlighting a hundred small scratches and dead bugs. The phone was ringing again and he thought it was in his left hand, but when he looked down and opened his fingers he saw only the white pills wrapped in cellophane. He wasn’t sure what they were, exactly, but ‘OC’ was branded on one side of them and ‘80’ on the other. He thought it might be oxy, but that was just a guess.

He wedged the phone between his jaw and shoulder and listened to the voicemail, freeing his hands to unwrap the pills. “Ray—” Nicole’s voice, higher than usual, sounding alarmed. “—where are you right now? Gary just called here looking for you. He said if I talk to you to call him immediately. What happened? What’s going on? Tyler called you an asshole and stormed out of the house.” Ray pinched one of the pills in his fingers, held it up close, in the light. It fell, and for a moment he thought he’d lost it but then saw it resting between his thigh and the seat. He picked it up and put it in his mouth. “Call me back, Ray. Don’t avoid me. I know you.”

I know you?

Bullshit she knew him. Bull-fucking-shit. He swallowed the pill dry, eyes squeezed and watering. It felt like it might have caught in his throat but he swallowed three or four more times and was pretty sure it was down. He wondered where Tyler got this stuff, what kind of shady derelicts he was hanging out with. He’d often stand out in the driveway talking in a circle with friends, three or four of them, hands in their pockets, slouched, too disrespectful to come in the house and say hello to him, or at least Nicole. One night Tyler had gone out to meet them in the driveway and took a box of Cheez-Its with him. Ray watched from the living room for close to an hour while they talked and shot baskets with a soccer ball. They polished off the entire box. Ray was close to opening the window to tell them to get their asses down to the grocery store and replace that goddamn box, but something stopped him.

Last night, unable to sleep in his new bed, he found himself thinking about the girls—the twins—wondering when the last time he’d talked to them had been. Sometimes weeks went by, a couple months. It occurred to him that he’d essentially traded Emily and Maeve for Tyler. It wasn’t really fair to think of it that way—there were a lot of years between his divorce and second marriage—but still, it was late and he was tired and feeling especially self-loathing, and it’s where he went. He’d traded them away for this. For Tyler, for Nicole. For this tiny computer room-slash-bedroom, and another marriage that, he now knew with a sickening pit of certainty, had shriveled and died a long time ago.

The second pill didn’t go down any easier, and this time he definitely thought it’d gotten caught in his throat. After that, he started chewing them.

He’d written down the address hastily, but he could still read that it said West Piedmont Street. Piedmont wasn’t exactly the nicest part of town, and Jeff Trobo, Ray was sure, wasn’t the only shithead who’d come through his class from this neighborhood. He backed the Subaru to the drive-thru window and ordered another green shake for the road. His mouth was gritty with the dust of the pills, turning wet and pasty between his cheek and gums. “You’re supposed to drive up the other way and order back there,” the girl at the window told him, a high schooler with bad skin and globs of eye makeup who Ray recognized. Might be a junior, though he’d never had her in class and didn’t know her name. Ray nodded at her and smiled, but never offered an explanation or apology, and instead held a five dollar bill out the window until she finally turned away to pour the shake.

It must have been trash day on West Piedmont Street, the sidewalks lined with metal and plastic bins, dented and cracked, all of them mismatched. Pigeons poked around the curb, fluttering out of the way when a kid on a bicycle or scooter coasted by. The house was ahead on the right, but on his immediate left he saw the backside of a guy holding the hand of a little girl that caused him to look twice. There was something familiar about his shirt—long-sleeved flannel, gray and blue and untucked. It was too cold out to wear just a shirt without a jacket, even a flannel, especially with the sun almost down. The cuffs of his jeans were skimming over the dirty winter sidewalk and they looked spattered with mud. Ray lifted his foot from the gas as he came up alongside the pair, tilting his head slightly to get a better look through his grimy window. He could tell it was Jeff Trobo before he even got a clean look at his face. Something about not only the flannel shirt, but his narrow shoulders and poor posture, something about the way he dragged one of his legs just a little. Ray never could quite tell if it was just the way he walked, lazily scuffing the soles of his sneakers, or if there was something really wrong with him. Seeing him now, it seemed clear that he did in fact have a little bit of a bum leg.

The little girl walked in shiny pink boots and a small, pink backpack hitched on her shoulders. She scurried along to keep up, short legs working twice as hard as Jeff’s, bum leg or not. When she glanced Ray’s way he saw that she wore glasses so thick he nearly laughed. Her eyes looked huge.

Ray let the car crawl slowly, foot on and off the brake, hardly looking at the road in front of him. Did Jeff Trobo have a kid? He tried to do some quick math—maybe eighteen years old, possibly nineteen he supposed at the oldest, and the girl looked no younger than four. Did this nitwit knock someone up at fifteen?

There was a space just ahead on the left and Ray jerked the wheel toward it. He jammed the shift into park and popped out of the car. Jeff Trobo didn’t seem to notice him at first but then, when Ray took another step into the middle of the sidewalk, their eyes engaged. Jeff stopped. The girl, looking down and singing to herself, shuffled another couple steps before running out of slack and being tugged to a halt.

She stopped singing and looked up at Jeff. Ray willed himself wide, legs spread and arms jacked outward, trying to consume as much space as he could, not only to make it tough for Jeff to pass, but also to make himself bigger and more intimidating, like a puffer fish. But Jeff only looked at him with a blank gaze, like he was unsure of who Ray even was. Like it wasn’t immediately registering. Then, blinking: “Mr. Candle.”

His voice sounded hollow and young out here in open space, away from the loud confines of the classroom. There was no way he was nineteen, and come to think of it Ray was pretty sure that Jeff Trobo had never been kept back a grade. Looking at him, he looked all of seventeen but no older. The girl, now holding Jeff’s hand with both of hers, might have been as old as five, or even six. She stayed close to Jeff, her face partially obscured by his arm, her eyeglasses, heavy and bulky, sliding down her small nose. She licked her popsicle-stained lips and stared at him. Ray realized, with sudden certainty, that this was Jeff’s little sister.

“You know what you did?” Ray said, lifting his hand and pushing an accusatory finger in his direction. “Do you?”

Jeff kept looking at him, still blank, confused even. He lifted his elbow and the girl slipped inside his arm, pushing her cheek into her brother’s side. His arm came down protectively around her.

Ray sensed her discomfort and tried to check his voice, to distance himself from being mistaken as a threat. He just wanted to talk. He went to take a casual sip of his shake but found his hand empty. His mouth, open for the straw, fell closed as his hand dropped back down. Embarrassed, he stepped toward them and pointed more aggressively. “I’ve been teaching twenty-two years, you know. Twenty-two. Longer than you’ve been alive…”

Jeff looked down at his hand. “I need to get by you,” he said.

“What? No. Listen.” He stepped forward, pointing. “Listen.”

“Mr. Candle—”

The little girl slipped behind her brother. “Jeffrey…” Her voice was small.

“Mr. Candle.” Jeff kept glancing down at Ray’s pointing finger. Then up at his face. Then his finger again.

“I know what you guys are all up to. Pushing my buttons like that on purpose so you can tape it on your phones and shit, put it on Spacebook. You think that’s right?” He pointed at him, again and again in a dramatic, aggressive gesture, growing angry but trying to measure himself. The girl, he noticed, stared at his finger too.

“I wasn’t—”

“The fuck you weren’t! The fuck you weren’t!” He lurched forward another step and this time Jeff backed up and deliberately swept the girl behind him with his arm. Ray heard a quiet but high-pitched whimper from the girl. But Jeff, the little shit, wouldn’t react. Instead, he stepped calmly sideways, toward the street, his eyes flickering from Ray’s face to his pointing hand, back to his face.

In the distance Ray noticed others, stopping to watch, their faces blurry and anonymous. He dragged his eyes back to find Jeff, moving left, but Jeff, too, looked out-of-focus now. Ray heard himself still talking, still yelling, but couldn’t even follow what he was saying. Something about Jeff being a chickenshit, something about being a bad example for that little sister of his. He stumbled toward him, almost lunging, trying to cut him off from escaping into the street, shaking his finger at him, pointing, the little girl staring through her crooked glasses, her face wet and pale. Ray couldn’t focus on either of them, both smudges, and instead his eyes fell to his own outstretched hand which wasn’t pointing at all but was clutching the fishing knife, jabbing the air not with his finger but the short, rusty blade.

Jeff and his sister were in the street now, moving quickly passed him on the other side of the parked cars. Ray turned to follow but couldn’t keep his eyes on them, everything streaked and frozen in the air like an afterburn. He thought the sidewalk might have actually tilted, and he tried to compensate the other way but thumped hard into a telephone pole and landed, with a sobering jolt of electric pain, on his tailbone. He heard the knife clang on the cement sidewalk, an almost pleasant sound, like music, and he tried to focus on that but it was gone, just his breathing now, fast and hard, and somewhere in the fading distance a little girl crying. His guts tightened and then with little warning came another noise: a loud retching and heaving. Vomit, warm and shamrock green, spattered across his forearm and lap in two violent convulsions, leaving his sinuses burning with the sting of mint.

He felt only vaguely aware of people staring. He saw their shoes but not their faces, pausing to consider him, some muttering to one another before moving on. Someone had kicked away the knife and now stepped on it, covering it with a loafer while pulling out a phone. Ray pushed the back of his hand across his nose, wiping away mucus, then rolled onto his hands and knees to try to regain his feet. From here, he craned his head and looked between the parked cars. Jeff, he saw, was walking away at a brisk clip down the middle of the street. He’d scooped the girl up and carried her, her thin arms locked tight around his shoulders and her head resting in the crook of his neck, like he was the safest place in the world.

 

 

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