I've submitted my next novel "Dry Heat,"to my publisher and have started work on my 5th novel (tentatively titled "Freedom's Just Another Word..."). I was doing research and I came across this short story that I wrote back in 2015. I really liked it (I usually do, of course) but I never submitted it for publication. As I recall, some of the folks I shared it with didn't like the ending, but I get that a lot.
I thought I would share it here and I would love to hear from readers who want to suggest a different ending, or a longer story. My original concept was for a novel, but I went another direction with my novels. Hope you enjoy it.
I taught freshman English at Henry Adams High School in Lincolnwood, Illinois for thirty years. When I announced last month that I was taking the retirement package the school board had ginned up to get rid of the old farts like me, I’m quite sure it was not met with a lot of long faces among my colleagues or my students.
No one would ever assert that I was beloved. James Bradford would never be mistaken for Mr. Chips. Nor was I one of those irresistibly irascible old curmudgeons with a bark worse than his bite. Truth be told, I was not even a very good teacher.
Be that as it may, a discovery I made while cleaning out my desk has led me to believe that in one respect I am not unlike like my favorite movie actor, the late, great Paul Newman. Obviously not in appearance – my physique could most kindly be described as paunchy. Moreover, I’m very bald and I wear thick black-framed glasses for my acute short-sightedness.
In Newman’s later years he was dismissive of his accomplishments. He seemed to think being an actor was a trivial pursuit. Of course, that is certainly not how we are similar as I have no significant accomplishments to dismiss. My connection to Newman relates to his memory. Or perhaps I should say his amnesia.
A few years back I was watching Mike Wallace chat with Newman on Sixty Minutes. Wallace replayed an interview they’d had sometime in the early ‘50s. Young Newman, handsome as all get out, with that magic smile and crinkly eyes, was a studio actor on the rise who hadn’t hit the bigtime yet. Wallace was working for the ‘50s equivalent of Entertainment Tonight. His questions were every bit as lame as anything John Tesch ever offered up to the starlet of the week, but young Newman answered every one of Wallace’s creampuffs with unironic sincerity. He was literally bouncing in his chair with enthusiasm. It was deliciously, nauseatingly, fascinating.
Wallace stared sardonically as Newman studied the grainy black and white image of that effervescent younger version of himself. When the clip had run its course, Wallace (who, truth be told, except for the wrinkles and the grey hair, didn’t seem to have changed one iota) just said, “Comments?” And then he arched his eyebrow and smiled in that assholy way that
Wallace perfected over the decades.
Newman could only shake his head in disbelief. “I don’t know that young man. God bless him, he seems like a likable guy, but I don’t know him.” And then he offered a distracted, wistful smile and said, “I hope it all works out for him.”
As I sorted through my file drawers and desk, I found few items, other than my reference books and my dogeared copy of “A Separate Peace,” worthy of accompanying me into the retirement afterlife. I had kept John Knowles’ classic coming-of-age novel on my desk for the last twenty years as a silent protest over the English department’s asinine decision to replace it on the freshmen curriculum with “A Catcher in the Rye.”
I dumped all my old lecture notes. When I was a young zealot, I used to prepare detailed summaries for the class, but I abandoned such nonsense years ago. The students never read them. I gleefully jettisoned the tedious department memorandums and with a tad of bemusement, I tossed all the class essays I had accumulated. I just couldn’t imagine myself sitting down with a nice chilled Sancerre and reading, “The Importance of Symbols in the Scarlet Letter,” (David Parker – Class of ’95.)
It was when I extracted my middle desk drawer to dispose of all the dusty old paper clips, inter-office envelopes and half-used post-it notepads, that I had my Paul Newman epiphany. Pushed way to the back was the commemorative plate I had been awarded by the Class of 1989 when they anointed me their “Teacher of the Year.” I winced, remembering how I’d sprinted to the stage (back then I could still sprint) to accept their tribute. I have a vague recollection of my speech, which was full of self-effacing earnest goodwill. Discovering that long forgotten plate was a painful reminder, but not especially troubling. However, tucked underneath the plate was something much more unsettling – a composition notebook with a label written in a surgically precise cursive that identified the notebook as the “Writing Journal of Robert Carlisle.” Paper-clipped to the notebook was my progress report to Mr. Carlisle on his first four months in my creative writing class:
December 15, 1989
Fantastic job! You’ve made great progress this semester. Your essays are first-rate, your book reviews are spot-on and your poetry is lyrical. I think you have the true soul of a poet! Keep up the good work and I look forward to your return in January!
My god. Three exclamation marks? And did I really write “spot-on,” like some effete transplant from the United Kingdom? I had founded the creative writing course at Henry Adams in the late eighties, convinced I was going to nurture and inspire a budding John Cheever or perhaps a midwest version of Flannery O’Connor.
Of course, that never happened. It wasn’t the fault of the students. That enthusiastic young teacher didn’t know how to inspire students, and he never learned. I’m not being falsely modest. The numbers don’t lie. That first year my creative writing class had a waiting list. By the fifth year there were more empty chairs than students. When the school board finally, mercifully cut the funding, I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It is one thing to fail and be done with it. But my Sisyphean walk to that remote third floor classroom to face those empty seats day after day after day had become pure torture.
The fact that this young man’s journal had been tucked away in my desk drawer suggested he had never returned after the Christmas break. For me to have been so effusive in my praise – I’m sure that three exclamation marks was not my norm – he must have been a very special student. It seems I should have remembered Robert Carlisle. But truth be told, I had no more recollection of him than I had of that enthusiastic young teacher who had written those encouraging words.
I tossed the notebook and the award plate into the trashcan and was about to close up my file boxes when something inspired me to pluck the journal from the rubbish.
Now I am not a sentimental man. I still drive a 1992 Buick LeSabre, not because it was a gift from my mother (her final gift as it turned out), but because it has been perfectly adequate transportation for my three-mile drive between the bungalow on Kostner where I have lived my entire life, and the high school where I work. Keeping that car has been prudent, not sentimental.
A sentimental man wouldn’t have gutted his parents’ old bungalow after they passed away and transformed their cramped immigrant castle into a modern, spacious bachelor pad, equipped with a state-of-the-art open kitchen, Bose-sound system and gleaming oak floors.
Certainly, a sentimental man would be bringing home more than two cardboard fileboxes after thirty years. I daresay an inmate paroled to live out his final days would have more personal effects. And without question, a sentimentalist would not have jettisoned that cheesy plate from the long-forgotten Class of 1989.
It must have been old-fashioned curiosity, not sentiment, that compelled me to pluck Robert’s notebook from the trash. I was about to open the journal, perhaps hoping to be inspired one final time, when my dear friend and colleague, Maggie Wainright, appeared like a vision, at my classroom door.
“Knock, knock, James. Can I come in?” Maggie marched into my classroom, not waiting for me to reply. She wore a summery cotton dress, the color of butter, with a cinched waist that accentuated her fine figure. I couldn’t help but notice her open-toed sandals and her bright red toenails. Maggie was ready for summer vacation.
“Hello, Maggie,” I said, standing up and grinning like an idiot. Something about that woman just made me smile. When I was a younger man, I envied Cyrus Wainright. He and Maggie raised four children. They’re all grown up and moved away and Cyrus has been dead five years now. Heart attack. “Please, sit down.” I made an expansive gesture toward the student-help chair next to my desk.
“You weren’t planning to sneak off without saying good-bye were you?” Maggie stood in front of my desk, her eyes darting from file box to trashcan as though I were one of her less trustworthy students.
“Of course not. You know I would never leave without your permission.”
Maggie had been at Henry Adams longer than I had. She was nearly sixty, but had a lithe trim figure and distractingly mesmerizing light brown eyes. When I first met her in the teacher’s lounge back in the fall of ‘77 she reminded me of Patricia Neal playing hard-luck Alma Brown in the movie Hud with my soul-mate Paul Newman. She was a strong woman full of sass and attitude.
She looked at the two cardboard boxes on the desk. “That’s all you’re taking?” She crinkled her eyebrows, which accentuated the character lines around her eyes.
“Memories, Maggie. I have so many lovely memories.”
She gave me the fish-eye. “Why didn’t you let Grimes give you that going away lunch? Now I’m going to have to hear her bitch about you until I retire.”
I held up my palms in a gesture of helplessness. “So, no change. She’s been complaining about me for the last five years.”
“Yeah but now I’ll have to actually defend you.” She sighed dramatically and gave her head a little shake. Then she reached into the wastebasket next to the desk and retrieved the plate.
“What the fuck, James? You can’t throw this away.” She held the plate out at arms length squinting to read the inscription.
“Why don’t you take it?” I said. “Although you probably already have enough for a full dinner party.”
No lie. Maggie had been Teacher of the Year at least a dozen times. She’d have won it more, but the teacher’s union had come up with a rule that you couldn’t win two years in a row. Sort of a term-limits for excellent teachers. Wouldn’t want the mediocre teachers like me feeling left out.
She set the plate on the edge of my desk and gave me her disappointed teacher look. “You should keep it James. It will remind you that at one time you were a teacher. A very good teacher.” She pushed her lips together and held up her hand like a stop sign. “Don’t. I don’t want to hear it.”
True. I was going to lapse into my cynical, self-flagellation mode, but I quickly changed gears. “What? I just wanted to ask if you knew this boy.” I handed her my progress report on Robert Carlisle.
She read it and smiled, no doubt at my giddy prose.
“Do you remember him?” I asked.
Maggie laughed. “James, that was twenty years ago. I can’t even recall what I had for breakfast.” She flipped through the journal and an envelope slipped from the pages of the notebook. Maggie picked it up from the desk and looked at the address, written in the same precise cursive. “This is for you…Mister B.” She arched her eyebrows as she handed it to me.
The envelope was sealed and marked “Personal and Confidential for Mr. B.”
“Hmm. I wonder what happened to young Robert?” I thought about dropping the envelope in the trashcan just to get a rise out of Maggie, but instead I just set it on the desk.
“The same thing that happens to all those kids. He grew up.” Maggie frowned at me.
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
“Not right now. I need to finish my packing.”
“You’re no fun,” Maggie said, jutting her lip out in sort of a faux pout. “A bunch of us are going over to Gulliver’s. Why don’t you join us?”
“Pizza and beer are not on my diet,” I said. Gulliver made a great deep-dish pizza and they had a more than passable selection of draft beers. I used to go there with my colleagues all the time. But for some reason, I stopped.
Maggie put her hands on her hips. “Stop being such a dick, James. Finish packing and join us for a beer. You can have a light beer. I’ll buy.”
I did not like to disappoint Maggie. She looked especially lovely when she was angry. Or pretending to be angry. I held up my hand in a gesture of surrender. “Okay. I’ll try. Let me finish up here and I’ll do my best to stop in for that free beer. But don’t wait for me.” I gave her my most winning smile, but I doubt that Newman would have been impressed.
Maggie wheeled around and started for the door. “I’m not saying good-bye, James. I expect to see you later.”
And then she was gone and my classroom felt exceptionally empty and a little sad. I opened Robert’s letter.
December 17, 1989
Dear Mr. B:
You were wrong about Gene.
Gene, of course, is the narrator / protagonist of “A Separate Peace.” His best friend Phineas is the proverbial golden youth – handsome, athletic and popular. Gene believes he has achieved some level of parity with his good friend by virtue of his academic excellence. But there is no rivalry. Phineas marvels at Gene’s unattainably good grades but does not covet them. When Gene discovers that the rivalry is a figment of his imagination, he becomes distraught and in a moment of insanity destroys the noble Phineas.
When I taught the book, I was, justifiably, hard on Gene. Phineas was noble and pure and I felt a personal loss at his death. The story is Gene’s confession, his return to the scene of the crime. Perhaps I had been too zealous in my brief against young Gene. Most of the creative writing acolytes were not the athletes and popular kids in the school. Robert had probably expected that I, of all people, would be more understanding of Gene. More compassionate. Well, that was probably a good life lesson for him.
Sorry, Robert. I hope it all worked out for you.
I picked up the plate and Robert’s note and thought again about just dropping them in the trash, but in the end, I stowed them in the box on top of my copy of A Separate Peace.
It only took two trips to load my car. As I drove east on Touhy Avenue headed home for the last time, I stopped at the light on Lincoln. Gulliver’s Pizzeria was waiting there for me on my right. I spotted Maggie’s faded blue BMW in the corner of the lot and there was an open space next to her car. I thought about joining her, but then the light turned green. It wouldn’t take me long to unpack the car. Maggie would be there for a while. I could join her later.