Fiction, Vol. 8.1, March 2014
Andrew’s new boss noticed him staring at her calf tattoo while she searched her file cabinet for school policies on hazing, drug use, and food allergies. The tattoo was a jumble of letters in a language he didn’t speak.
“You like that?” Sherri said. “It means ‘I have hope’ in Zulu.”
Her whole office was an extension of her spider-veined calf, actually, a gallery of inspirational phrases. Andrew considered it a good omen. Above her desk, a framed picture of an empty canoe against the shore read, If the wind will not serve, take to the oars. A plaque hanging from her door declared, Don’t be afraid to stand for what you believe in, even if it means standing alone.
“Here’s some light reading for you,” Sherri said, handing him copies of documents with wrinkled corners and lipstick smudges. She laughed longer and harder than she should have.
The social worker in Andrew surfaced and he began his analysis: bulging eyes, skin hanging off her limbs, the fat in her body poking out unevenly like soup cans in a grocery bag. Some teachers came back from summer break with new hairdos. He surmised gastric bypass had been part of Sherri’s big summer plans. Her exaggerated positivity likely disguised deep-rooted insecurity. He wanted to comfort her.
“Get here early, leave late. Be visible. Trust me, people will warm to you,” she said. Andrew took notes. “Let me know if you have any questions, okay kiddo? I know you’re on a one-year contract and all, but if you do well and the powers that be like you, if you save some of our troubled youth that’ll be walking through those doors in about thirty minutes, there’s no reason you can’t stay with us permanently, all right?”
“I’m grateful to be here. I’ll do my best.”
A teacher popped her head into Sherri’s office for the next appointment. “Now go get ‘em.”
Andrew held the stack of papers to his chest, pamphlets on sexting and cyberbullying falling from his grasp, as he got up from the chair. On his way out, he rubbed the belly of her porcelain Buddha for luck.
Cole woke up to his mom smoking at the edge of his bed, ash peppering the carpet. “Get your ass up,” she said. “We’re not doing this. Get up—now.”
He was in the middle of a dream where he was hidden in bushes, staring through a bathroom window at a freckle-skinned woman lathering in a steamy shower. He was not happy to be awakened from it. And he was not happy to have his mom sitting on his bed while he sported wood. “Get outta here,” he said and kicked her in the ribs.
“I’m going to call your dad to come and beat the crap out of you if you kick me again.”
He kicked her again, not only because he wanted to, but because his dad hadn’t been around in eight months despite the dozens of times she’d threatened to have him storm over.
“When I come back, you better be up,” she said. “I’m not having you miss the first day of school so they can call and harass me about it.”
“Close the fuckin’ door when you leave my room!”
Cole’s bleary eyes opened to posters of Drake and Megan Fox hanging above old gold-plated Little League trophies and conch shells hiding the ocean’s roar. His mom’s big ass had left its imprint in the bed’s foam. He reached for his phone under the pillow. He checked Facebook, Twitter, texts: “Can I like not go back to school?” “Is it Friday yet?” “Waking up before ten should be illegal #schoolsucks #summerforeva.”
He slowly got up because he knew the deal. His mom had bought him new clothes, hats, and diamond studs, so he promised to actually try in school this year. It wasn’t beyond her to throw them all out if he didn’t at least pretend to cooperate. But the promise had come in July, when August 20 was in the distant future, and now it was August 20 already. He tweeted: “Wtf.” Back to his school full of Taylor Swift-loving biatches. He mulled over arguments for why there was no point in going on the first day: 1) You didn’t do shit on the first day, 2) Everyone he wanted to see he saw every day anyway, 3) He didn’t want to run into his ex with her new boyfriend because he’d probably end up smashing the kid’s teeth in, get suspended, blah blah blah.
“You remember our deal!” his mom hollered up the stairs. A Dr. Phil rerun blared from the kitchen.
By eight, the school bell was ringing and Cole was still sculpting his fauxhawk because if it didn’t look right there was no point in showing his face, even though he was going to wear a hat over it anyway. The yellow Hummer was idling in the driveway, Cole’s mom honking the horn with one hand, the other holding a lit Virginia Slim out the window. He put on his new True Religion tee and jeans and stepped into the car at 8:11.
“This is your last chance,” she said. “You hear me? If you screw this year up, you’re done. You’re off to military school.”
He put his Beats on and she yanked them off. “Are you listening to me, you little shit?”
“No, I’m listening to Lil Wayne.”
“That’s it, I’m calling your dad today.” She took a deep drag. “Consider this strike one.”
She dropped him off under the clock tower beside the palm tree at 8:17. He went inside the building and texted his boys: “YOLO.” When he saw the Hummer turn the corner, he walked back out and met up with them. By 8:22, they were high behind the Arby’s.
Andrew spent the morning in his cramped office with no windows putting up pictures, organizing his bookshelf, and devising an action plan. Now he was in the faculty cafeteria having lunch with the Special Educators. There was no better way to get the lay of the land than mixing it up with the locals. Tomorrow he would sit with the Social Science folks, Wednesday with Fine Arts, and so on. One of the teachers, Big Brad (self-proclaimed), had taken to him. He had sweat above his lip. He pointed to what was left of the coffee and scones, compliments of the administration, spread out across a folding table. “Don’t expect to get anything free from those fuckers again this year,” Big Brad said. He got up to wrap several of the blueberry-almond variety in napkins before stuffing them in short pockets veiled by his Hawaiian shirt.
The others at the table were talking about summer break, how it had gone too quickly, how the last thing they wanted was to be back at school, at this school. They complained about the heat, the giant mosquitos, the rain—the constant rain—and joked about how wrong it was to be so pissed off already when it was only the first day. Andrew, at the end of the table, nodded and smiled while he munched on a Cuban sandwich, trying to find an in, some common ground.
“Are you new here?” an older woman in a loose necktie, hair gelled back, finally asked him and Andrew appreciated her hospitality.
“Yes, yeah, actually, new to Florida as well. My wife and I just moved out here from Chicago a couple months ago. We thought a change of scenery would be good for us.”
“Wow, Chi-cah-go,” the woman said, her voice adopting a nasal quality presumably to mimic the accent Andrew never knew he had. The Special Educators laughed.
“So you came all the way from Chi-cah-go to work at this place?” someone else chimed in and there were more laughs and Andrew could feel red blotches colonizing his neck. He buried his face in his Cuban.
“The morale here’s a bit low,” Big Brad said.
Big Brad filled Andrew in on the new administration, a crackerjack principal the school recruited from the East Coast two years back who was tanner than any Floridian (rumor was he had a tanning bed in his office) and the cronies he’d slowly brought on board. The principal was a short guy who’d been given the unofficial nickname, “Little Napoleon.” Big Brad told Andrew about the new teacher contract that had taken a year for both sides to agree on, the near-strikes over salary disputes, the bad blood that lingered. About the unfair evaluation system that now rated teachers based on test scores. A lady with a Frida brow—sitting at the Foreign Language table, Andrew assumed—glared at Big Brad, but he could have cared less and kept spewing.
“Don’t let these fuckers fool you with the new football bleachers and freshly painted lockers,” he said. “This place is rotting from the inside out.” He cracked peanuts, letting the shells fall to the floor. “The social worker before you was a good guy, but he quit and took a job somewhere else. Apparently, some young chick was lined up to take the job before you, but she wised up and bowed out less than a week ago. No offense, brother.”
“None taken. I’m just happy to have a job.”
The bell rang. Andrew threw away half his Cuban and wished the Special Educators a good year.
“Watch your ass, Chi-cah-go,” someone said. “They’ll throw you under the bus in a heartbeat.”
He hoped the Social Science folks were a happier bunch, but he wasn’t optimistic. He lumbered back to his office and closed himself in. He scanned his bookshelf, lined with the wisdom of Jane Addams, Richard Cloward, Edith Abbott—all prominent social workers in American history. But when it came to really understanding the human condition, Paulo Coelho had become Andrew’s go-to. He pulled out his wallet and read the quote he’d scribbled onto the back of a plumber’s card: When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it.
Indeed, after everything he and Gina had been through, Clearwater was where they were supposed to be. He reminded himself of that. Water was the symbol of rebirth, of cleansing and baptism. That was all they wanted. A reset, a new beginning. He would never forget, on the night Gina miscarried, the young boy running around the hospital’s waiting room in a Clearwater Beach T-shirt, the setting sun behind a row of palm trees. And after Andrew found out he was losing his job because of non-tenure and budget cuts, his barber told him he’d just returned from a paradisiacal golfing trip there. They finally made their decision to move after waking up one morning and turning on the TV to a Clearwater tourism ad: “There’s a spot where the sun rises up to meet you with the morning kiss, where the sand is as soft as sugar and the water sparkles like an emerald jewel.” They were on the next flight. “Always heed the omens.”That was from The Alchemist. A cockroach scurried across the floor and Andrew jumped back in surprise. Sparkling Clearwater was exactly where they needed to be.
Gina sat on the toilet seat, underwear at her ankles, pregnancy test stick between her legs. Andrew paced in the family room. The TV was on, Cubs down four runs. It was a muggy night like most, but they kept the sliding balcony door open to smell the ocean.
“Anything yet?” he said.
“I’m still trying to pee, babe. But don’t get your hopes up. They say you’re supposed to use morning urine for the most accurate results.”
“Just try your best.”
This was their new life. An apartment with a tropical ceiling fan and a lushly landscaped community pool. It was a short drive to the beach. Andrew’s family questioned the move. Apart from his four years downstate for college, he’d always lived near Chicago. All his memories were laced with deep-dish pizza, bad baseball, and summer street fests. He wasn’t sure he would ever get used to wearing shorts in the winter or the anole lizards scaling walls and racing through yards. He’d now have to endure a horrible shellfish allergy in a city where shellfish were unavoidable. For Gina, transplanting was easier. She’d been heading east ever since birth—from California to New Mexico, followed by Missouri—then moved into an apartment with Andrew on Chicago’s north side after graduating college. The bad memories in Chicago outweighed the good: an office turned into a pink baby room that could never be an office again, no matter how many coats of paint they gave it; familiar neighborhood parks teeming with kids that weren’t theirs. So this was their new life and now, another pregnancy test.
Andrew heard the trickle of Gina’s urine in the bowl, then a flush. She walked out with the stick and they hovered over it, waiting in silence until two lines slowly materialized. They were unmistakably, irreversibly, solid and pink. Andrew climbed onto the couch and began jumping up and down. “I’m gonna be a daddy! Am I gonna be a daddy? I’m gonna be a daddy!”
“Maybe we shouldn’t get too excited. It’s early.”
It was early, but so what if it was? Last time they had kept their lips sealed for twelve weeks and, still, look what happened. So why not celebrate this time? Why not run down the street searching for alligators to smooch? It had taken Gina almost a year to even want to try again. A crack came from the TV; Carlos Beltran hit one into the gap, sending runners in from second and third, and the Cubs were down six. Andrew grabbed her face with both hands and kissed her anyway.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” he said. “It was meant to happen like this. It’s all falling into place. My job at the eleventh hour, this apartment. I love you.”
That night, he couldn’t sleep. He drove his red Volvo across the causeway to Gulf Boulevard and cruised south down the coastline past Sand Key and through the small beach towns. Windows down, half-moon above, country music (his guilty pleasure), humming. He felt energized. When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it. If he could get his new students to feel like that, without the drugs, without having to jump into pools from rooftops, what a gift that would be.He wondered if he’d ever need to sleep again.
By mid-morning the next day, Andrew needed a nap. On top of that, his nose was plugged and he was developing a cough. Life was good though. He opened his computer. Big Brad had included him in a mass e-mail: a YouTube clip of a fat Indian kid in underwear dancing like a Bollywood superstar. “Funniest video everrr!!” was the subject. A good part of the day, Andrew had been trying to track down the other social worker on staff—Hobson, his assigned mentor. He’d stopped by his office a few times but the lights were off, blinds drawn. When he was in the faculty bathroom, hands under the sink caked in pink powdered soap, an older gentlemen emerged from the stall, tinted eyeglasses and Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October under his arm. He smelled like bad aftershave, citrusy with a hint of wood.
“Are you Hobson, by chance?” Andrew asked, only because he looked like he could be a Hobson.
The man stared at him askance like someone confronted by a lover’s spouse, like he was weighing if he should clock Andrew or push him aside and run. He uttered a prolonged, “Yeah,” hesitant to let it go and with a hint of a question mark as it trailed off.
Andrew introduced himself, looking at his wet, pink hands, realizing he was in no position to shake. Hobson didn’t seem impressed.
“I was hoping we could split up our caseloads,” Andrew said. “Do you have any time this afternoon?”
Hobson said he didn’t. Said he was booked up. Said he’d call him. He brushed past Andrew without washing his hands. An hour later, Andrew got an e-mail from him with no subject. An Excel spreadsheet was attached with the names of a hundred fifty students in no particular order whom Andrew was presumably to work with. A column beside the names indicated the level of service: Individual—weekly, Social Skills Group—bi-weekly, Anger Management—as needed. Andrew wrote him back: “Great. Would you mind sharing your caseload with me too?” Hobson didn’t reply.
Andrew’s phone rang. He coughed into it. It was the Dean of Students. “Do you see Cole Sullivan?”
Andrew searched the spreadsheet. The name was on the list, midway down in bold with an asterisk next to it: Individual—weekly/as needed. Or in social work lingo, “as often as fucking possible.” “Yes I do,” Andrew said.
“Think I got a cold.”
“Well, Cole’s getting suspended. We caught him with cigarettes. Not to mention he’s gotten through the day wearing a shirt that says, ‘I Fuck on the First Date.’ We’re real big on language here. Are you free to meet with him? I’ll send him your way.”
Andrew walked out into the hallway. His throat tickled, eyes itched. Sweat pooled under his collar from the building’s heat. A boy approached, big for his age, hands like baseball gloves and a snarl that suited his face. The school’s resource officer hustled close behind him. “I don’t need to be escorted by some rent-a-cop,” the boy said. “What do you think I’m going to do?” He feigned springing for an exit. “Psych.”
“I’m Mr. Richards,” Andrew said, reaching out his hand.
The boy gave him a wet noodle. “What up, yo?”
“I’m guessing you’re Cole. Come into my humble abode.”
Andrew closed the door to his little office. Cole sat down. Their knees almost touched.
“I should go over confidentiality before we get started,” Andrew said.
“I know all about that. You can’t tell anybody what we talk about unless I’m gonna blow my brains out or kill somebody.”
“Essentially.” His Zen fountain ran in the background like a saloon piano.
“I’ve been seeing shrinks since I was in fourth grade. I don’t like them.”
“I don’t like most of them either. Rough start to the year?”
“Not really.” Cole grabbed the stress ball from the table, fumbled with it.
“Look, I don’t know anything about you,” Andrew said. “I’m new here. So can you tell me about yourself before I hear it from other people?”
“Like where you come from, what you like to do, what makes you tick.” Andrew spotted another giant cockroach crawling up the wall. Cole followed his gaze, but by then it’d disappeared into the ceiling tiles.
“Well, my mom’s a crazy bitch. My dad’s a dick. I haven’t seen the guy in like a year. I hate school. Is that what you’re looking for?”
“More or less. I’m curious what you hate about school. It gets you out of the house, doesn’t it?”
“I can’t concentrate on any of it. Like Geometry. How am I expected to concentrate on Geometry when I’ve got all this shit going on in my life?”
The resource officer rapped on the door. “His mom’s here to pick him up.”
Andrew acknowledged him with a nod. Cole stood up. “You know, believe it or not, all life’s battles teach us something,” Andrew said, “even the ones we lose.” That was from The Fifth Mountain. He considered putting his hand on Cole’s shoulder, but thought better of it. “I want us to meet once a week if you’re cool with that.”
Later that afternoon, Big Brad cracked peanuts in Andrew’s office, rainbow-lensed Oakleys chilling on his forehead.
“There’s not a lot of direction here,” Andrew said, “but I’m happy to have this job. I think I can do some good things. And my wife’s pregnant.”
“Congrats. How far along?”
“Just a few weeks.”
“Wait ‘til the second trimester. She’ll be hornier than a one-eyed billy goat.”
Little Napoleon interrupted with an announcement over the intercom about football practice being moved to the gym because of thunderstorms. The building groaned. “Hope everyone is having a great first week,” he said and Andrew imagined he could hear his skin sizzle. “We’re happy to have the best students in Florida back with us—the future of America. And we hope you know you have the most dedicated teachers in all the state too. Have an awesome first semester. Go Tornadoes.” Big Brad made the universal gesture for masturbation.
Gina had scheduled an appointment with the OB/GYN. On his way out for the day, Andrew ran into Sherri. “How’s things so far?” she said, eyes about to pop, smile ready to wrap itself around her head and devour it.
“Awesome, great. Met some of my victims today.”
“Fantastic. Just do your part, kiddo. You’re not alone, all right? It takes a whole village to raise children. Any of your own yet?”
“One on the way.”
“There you go then.”
Andrew stopped by Hobson’s office. Lights off, blinds drawn. He sniffed him out by the bathroom—the citrus and the wood. Andrew popped his head in. He hadn’t gotten a good look at his outfit before, but the shabby lace-up dress shoes under the stall, the slacks pulled down to the ankles, screamed Hobson. Andrew heard a page turn. He waited outside for a minute, got a drink of water from the fountain, paced up and down the hall watching kids shove one another and hug one another and steal hats and iPods from their friends. Hobson never came out.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Cole’s mom said. “Suspension in the first week? Strike two.” She grabbed him, digging her claws into his bicep. He shoved her into the bedroom door.
“Get off me.”
She scowled at him like she would scowl at his dad when he spit in her face or when she would confront him about a scandalous text message she’d found on his phone. “Like father, like son. Like father, like son. I’m changing the locks.”
Cole grabbed her wad of keys with all its stupid key chains, like the poker chip from her Girls Weekend in Vegas and the gold bull for her zodiac sign. He ran down the stairs and slammed the front door behind him, taking off in the Hummer. She’d call his phone fifty times, threaten to bring his dad into the picture, threaten military school. He’d dare her to do something. But she’d get over it in a couple hours anyway because she’d be out on the lanai with her slutty girlfriends, drinking wine, listening to Gaga, getting ready for another night of bar hopping. Then she’d come home drunk, shake him out of bed, and ask him to have a smoke with her by the pool. At some point she’d cry about his “asshole” dad and beg him never to leave her.
Cole picked up his friends, the Polish Mafia. That’s what they called themselves. Paul, Marek, and Damien. They were smoking menthols in Marek’s driveway. They all looked the same: skinny, tight T-shirts, hair spiked.
“What up, wankstas?” Cole said, window down, Drake kickin’, phone vibrating on the dash.
“Awe, look at you trying to flex in the Hummer.” The Polish Mafia made fun of the zebra seat cover. They giggled like little girls.
Mom hated the Polish Mafia. She said Cole had changed ever since becoming friends with them. She said he was a perfect kid, an “A” student, before they started coming around. Total bullshit. The Polish Mafia liked hanging out at Cole’s house because he had PS3 on a wide screen, the biggest pool of any of their friends, and a foosball table. Mom thought they were stealing stuff from the house. Any time twenty bucks went missing, a pair of earrings, she blamed the Polish Mafia. She said they were using him because his family had money. At 3 a.m., though, wasted and cross-eyed, she was all about sharing her cigarettes and unloading her grief on them. At 3 a.m. they were her mains.
It was Marek’s idea to get high and egg cars at the beach. He got the urge every few months. He rode shotgun. They cruised down Mandalay, lined with palm trees, past surf shops and T-shirt emporiums. Paul climbed over Cole’s shoulder to yell out the window at girls with sarongs wrapped over bikinis and couples dining at outdoor cafés. His knees pushed against the back of the seat. “Yo, I’m trying to drive,” Cole said. His phone vibrated for the tenth time.
They picked up a carton of eggs at the Pick Kwik. In the North Beach lot, they launched them at the nicest rides they could find: a Ferrari F12, Porsche Boxster, some old dude’s Jaguar. Between tosses, Marek was on his phone trying to find out where the party was. Damien kept turning, looking out the back window, for cops or good Samaritans calling 911. Cole didn’t care. A part of him was daring to get caught. Daring for his dad to come and try beating his ass now that he was bigger. Daring to be sent away. He whipped the last egg at a Benzo.
“Your mom’s going to be pissed,” Marek said, cackling.
Cole went home at the end of the night only because he had nowhere else to crash. His mom got home after him with a bag of chili cheese fries, smelling like cigarettes and booze. Her eyes rolled. She grinned.
“I should kill you,” she said.
“But you won’t.”
Outside, she lit two smokes and gave him one. Frogs croaked. The underwater lights illuminated the kidney-shaped pool, first green, then purple, then red.
“You know how much trouble you’d be in if I called the cops?” she said. “Stolen car. Driving without a license.”
“Whatever. Why didn’t you?”
“’Cause I love you, you little shit.”
“No you don’t.”
“Oh come here.” She hugged him. Buried his face into her.
“All right, all right, I love you too, Mom,” he mumbled. “I love you too.”
It was just before Winter Break when the buzz started. Sherri stormed into her office with puffy eyes and slammed the door shut. Her weight had slowly been coming back, filling in like an inflatable tube. The Special Educators broke the news at the cafeteria table. The school district was in a hole, a giant hole, like a fifty-five million dollar one. It was no secret falling property taxes had been cutting into the budget. The district had been tapping federal stimulus money and reserve funds to make ends meet. That could only last so long.
Dee, the older woman with the necktie, which was now inadvertently resting in the sauce of her Mediterranean-style grouper, leaned in toward the middle of the table and spoke in a hush. “You just knew they were going to rock the classroom at some point.”
Little Napoleon darted into the cafeteria. Short people always looked like they were walking fast. “Shhh,” someone said, “Rice Dick’s coming through.”
He glanced at Big Brad as he passed, hands in pockets. “Hiya, Bob.”
Big Brad nodded. “Fucking guy doesn’t even know my name. You believe this?”
“So you’re saying they’re going to cut jobs?” Andrew said. The table turned to him, eyes down, no answer. “Well that can’t be good for me.”
The state increase in teacher pay and higher enrollment wouldn’t help. Even without the budget cuts, all new Florida hires were on annual contracts and a merit-based pay system. Sink or swim. Motivate some of the worst-paid teachers in America.
“You’ll be fine, Coach,” Big Brad said. “You work with the crazies. They’re not going to get rid of the guy who works with the crazies. Plus you got your hands in all kinds of pots.”
“I just have to keep doing my thing. Stay focused.”
A Warrior cannot lower his head, otherwise he loses sight of the horizon of his dreams. Yeah, Warrior of the Light. Each day with his morning coffee, Andrew would sit for ten minutes on his patio visualizing their future life, trying to burn it into reality: school football games with the family, weeknight sunsets on the beach, kid stumbling through the sand. No village, just them. He had steered his destiny. In the past few months, he had volunteered to be the Asian Club sponsor, despite knowing little about Asianculture aside from what he’d learned from briefly dating a Vietnamese girl in college. He became the Gymnastics coach because that’s what the universe had dropped in his lap. He took on the Chess Team too. Gina complained that he was never home, that she was tired, that she needed help. “I’m doing this for us,” he said. “You think I like staying up all night trying to figure out how to teach a back handspring?”
After lunch, Andrew went to his office and flipped through his schedule. Back-to-back students all afternoon. He never turned anyone away. It hadn’t taken long to realize Hobson had dumped the most difficult cases on him. A girl whose father had been locked up for child porn. A boy whose dad lit himself on fire outside his mistress’s house. Another kid whose mom accidentally ran over his little brother in the driveway. And there was Cole, oddly his favorite, who didn’t go a day without getting into some kind of trouble: swearing, fighting, cutting, stealing, lying, being. Hobson, on the contrary, spent his days between the faculty bathroom and talking to parents about fostering good homework habits.
Andrew’s office was hot and sticky, but that’s how it was every Monday. Most mornings too. To save money, the school would turn off the A/C after three p.m. and on weekends. Andrew found a dead cockroach, legs up, next to the floor lamp. He was convinced his office was infested with them. He’d often find droppings under his desk or their brown, empty cases behind the bookcase. The janitors had put out baits and traps, insecticides in cracks and crevices. But just when he thought they were gone, he’d spot one in the morning scurrying into the wall as the lights went on. And there was the smell—the musty smell that never went away.
Before his next appointment, Andrew stopped in to see Sherri. She’d been getting bigger and sadder, her mouth starting to collapse under her cheeks. Andrew caught her walking into her office. He coughed into his sleeve.
“You sick?” she asked.
He felt awful every day. Stuffy nose. Skin rashes. Wheezing. “The doctor can’t find anything wrong with me. I’m supposed to go see a specialist but it’s kind of hard to fit anything in between Gymnastics practice and OB/GYN visits.”
She nodded, then heard her phone ring and moaned.
“Hey, listen, are you okay?” Andrew said. “Do you want to talk?”
She pointed to the picture of the canoe, now hanging crooked on her wall. “Just gotta keep paddling, kiddo, right? Take to the oars.” She forced a smile and closed the door behind her.
Before heading home for Christmas, they had their twenty-week ultrasound. Gina laid flat on the table. The nurse rubbed gel on her growing belly, a dark line running down it like a skid mark. “Oooh, that’s cold,” she said. Andrew held her hand.
It took all he had to keep from falling back into that dark place. To smother the fear clamoring to be let out. The fear that when the wand was placed onto her belly, the heart wouldn’t beat. The fear that maybe the universe wasn’t conspiring on their behalf after all since it obviously hadn’t the last time. Where was Paulo Coelho a year ago? He tried shaking it off, cherishing the moment, because it was wrong to take it away from this child. This child that could be, that would be. He knew Gina was fighting the fear too, worse than him, so he rubbed her knuckles, kept on a big plastic smile, made wisecracks. “I wonder if you’ll be able to see that giant cheeseburger Gina wolfed down before we got here.”
The ultrasound tech put the wand on Gina’s belly and glided it across her skin, up and down the hump. Gina was silent. She stared at Andrew. He stared back, stuck out his tongue, kept smiling, rubbed. A newborn wailed from another room. The tech finally pointed at the screen. “There’s your little one,” she said. “Head’s there. Spine. Looks like a railroad track. And there’s the heart beating. You can hear it. Sounds perfect.”
Baboom, baboom, baboom, baboom. Andrew exhaled and fixated on the tiny heart flickering.
“Do you want to know the baby’s sex?” the tech said.
They looked at each other. “Sure,” they said in unison.
“I’m searching between the little legs for something. Yup, I see boy parts. It’s a boy. It’s definitely a boy, guys. Congratulations.”
“Oh my God,” Gina said. “It’s a boy.”
Back in the Midwest, in snow boots and wool hats, they spent a few days with Gina’s parents and a few with his. Late night under the Christmas tree with everyone else asleep, Andrew’s mom asked him if they’d thought about moving back to Chicago.
“We like Florida,” he said.
“Do you? Or is it just too hard to be here?”
She reminded him how difficult it was raising a kid, especially with full-time jobs and no family around. “It takes a village,” she said. “We can help you.”
He hugged her, kissed her wrinkled forehead. “Thanks, Mom. We’ll be all right, though, I promise. We’ll figure it out.”
He crawled into his old twin bed, beside his high school diploma on the wall and the dresser stacked with baseball trophies and model cars. He pressed against Gina and put his hand on her belly. The little man was probably asleep too, but Andrew tapped his finger lightly against her, hoping maybe he’d give a kick back.
“Did you see your dad on Christmas?” Andrew asked Cole over the whir of the fan.
“Nope. He texted me.”
“Did you respond?”
From the outside, the kid was well put together. He’d grown six inches since the start of the year. He was shaving. His bronze biceps strained his sleeves every time his arms bent. Looked as much a man as Andrew. He was a big oak, rotting from the inside out.
“You never told me what happened that last time you saw your dad,” Andrew said.
“The last time I saw my dad, me and my mom walked in on him banging one of his hookers. Then my mom tried driving off in his Benz so he pulled her out by her hair and beat the living shit out of her. That’s the last time I saw him. And my mom was begging me to call him on Christmas. Do you believe that? ‘Call your dad,’ she kept telling me.”
“How did that make you feel?”
“She’s fuckin’ cray. Why would I listen to her? After everything he’s done, she won’t even divorce the bastard. Probably because he still pays for all the expensive crap we’ve got. She’s that pathetic.”
Two teachers chatted outside Andrew’s office. Their voices were muffled but he made out buzzwords like “Little Napoleon,” “narcissist,” “demoralizing.” Cole sat back with his ankles crossed. Andrew leaned in toward him and lowered his voice.
“I understand why you’re angry with your parents, I do. But you’re the one who’s going to have to live with the consequences of your actions. You failed all but one class first semester.” Andrew raised his index finger and shook it for emphasis. “The school wants to do an evaluation and put you in Special Ed. for an Emotional/Behavioral Disability. Is that what you want for yourself?”
“Whatever, yo.” Cole unzipped his backpack and pulled out his Beats.
“I know you don’t mean that.”
“I do. Nobody can make me do shit. I won’t show up.”
Before lunch, Andrew called Cole’s mom from his desk. He dreaded those calls. He reached for the framed 3D ultrasound photo and brought it closer. His screen saver popped on, a frozen Lake Michigan rolling out to the Chicago skyline. Cole’s mom answered. Her voice was raspy; a cough loosened the phlegm.
“I’m sorry if I woke you,” Andrew said.
“I’m a realtor. I make my own schedule. What did that little shit say to you now?”
“The bottom line is we’re doing all we can here to help him, but he’s still struggling. He avoids doing any work. He’s constantly roaming the halls. When he’s in class, his language is horrendous. And you know how much we stress appropriate language here.”
“So what do you want me to do about it? I ground him. I yell at him. I take away his video games. He doesn’t listen to me.”
“Have you ever considered family therapy?”
Andrew could hear her take a long pull from her cigarette. “Please, we don’t need that, okay? No family’s perfect. Cole’s biggest problem is he’s lazy. And spoiled. Kid’s got everything you could want. He’s got nothing to be rebelling over.”
“With all due respect, my professional opinion is there’s more to it than that.”
“Andy. Can I call you Andy? Do you have any kids?”
“No, well, not yet. A little one on the way.”
She laughed; her phlegm rattled. “Do me a favor and call me when you have a teenager then, okay? You’ll see for yourself. They’ve got minds of their own.”
That afternoon, Big Brad sat in Andrew’s office slurping down a Diet Coke Big Gulp. He cracked peanuts.
“Hey man, be careful with the peanut shells, will ya?” Andrew said. “I’m really trying to keep this place as unappealing to the roaches as possible.”
Andrew told Big Brad about Cole. Big Brad said kids like that were hopeless. That they ended up in jail or dead. Andrew argued that he was only fifteen. That he was actually pretty sharp. That he had his whole life ahead of him and, believe it or not, had let his guard down once and admitted wanting to be a cop or lawyer when he grew up. Big Brad scoffed. “All the dipshits want to be cops or lawyers when they grow up.” Through the door crack, they saw Hobson pass, shoes squeaking, hardcover under his arm.
“See, that guy’s got it made, Coach,” Big Brad said. “They can’t touch him with his seniority. While you’re slaving away hoping not to get laid off, he’s spending his days on the shitter, collecting a paycheck.”
Big Brad reached around the fake palm tree and closed the door, which usually meant he wanted to talk about young teachers he wished he could bang. Big Brad was on a long-term contract.
“C’mon, tell me about your break,” Andrew said.
“Break? It sucked. Took the kids to Disney for like the tenth time. Stood in lines like an idiot all week.” He pulled out his phone and showed Andrew a picture of himself, the family, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger as bookends, at the Splash Mountain exit. “I guess that’s what dads do though, right?”
Cole ambled into Spanish class one morning, hat on his head, books against his hip. He was wearing his pajama pants, hair matted to his forehead. He crossed the threshold just as the Taylor Swift passing period song cut out and the bell rang. “Take off the hat, Señor Sullivan,” his teacher said. “You know the rules.”
He rolled his eyes. He was pulling a seven percent in there. She was pissed because he was bringing her average down. She was pissed because she was old and ugly too. She took him aside.
“I’m glad you decided to join us,” she said. “But where’ve you been the last four days?”
Behind Arby’s. In my basement playing video games. Couldn’t she just appreciate that he showed up? I was with those fuckers, Cole wanted to say, nodding to the Polish Mafia as they passed, late to class themselves. “Ahhh, busted!” They cackled. Cole flipped them off.
“Let’s keep moving, guys,” his teacher said. She glared at them. They weren’t trippin’. “So what’s your explanation? ¿Dónde has estado?”
He didn’t know what that meant. He avoided making eye contact, shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” He didn’t answer. She waited. “Do you even care if you pass my class?”
These were the triggers his shrink talked about. He was supposed to count to ten now. Take deep breaths. Visualize himself on an island beach. He was supposed to shut up and care about her class even though she didn’t give two shits about him. Teachers hate kids, Cole would say. His shrink would tell him he was overgeneralizing. “See, this is why I hate coming to class. Because I have to get harassed every day about not doing my homework or not being here or wearing my hat. It’s bullshit.”
“Take some responsibility for your actions, Señor Sullivan. You’re a young man now.”
“Screw this. I’m outta here.” He put his hat back on and marched toward the stairs.
“I’m calling security,” she said.
As he walked out the doors, he saw the rent-a-cop running down the hallway, keys jingling, huffing into his walkie talkie. The guy was going to have a heart attack. Cole started trotting, jogging at best, because he knew the loser would never catch up to him. He cut behind the football bleachers, over the fence, and darted between cars across Gulf to Bay Boulevard. He lit a smoke in the shopping center lot and kept walking. It wasn’t long before his mom was blowing up his phone. He ignored the first ten calls and her text messages: “Pick up the damn phone NOW!!!” She called again.
“What?” he said.
“Where the hell are you? The school called me.”
“Get your ass back to school or home, I swear.”
“What else did you do, huh?” she said. “Why don’t you tell me? The cops came by this morning. Were you egging cars from my Hummer again, which you should’ve never been driving in the first place? What, with your stupid little loser friends I told you not to hang out with? Do you know how much trouble I can be in? Strike three, you little shit. You’re out.”
“Whatever.” He hung up.
Andrew knocked on Sherri’s office doorframe. “I have an important appointment this afternoon,” he said. “Is it okay if I leave a little early?”
She glanced up at him, then went back to playing with her cell phone. “Yeah, sure, whatever you gotta do, kiddo.”
Sherri had buzzed her hair and taken down most of the posters and framed art from her walls. The room was bare. “It just doesn’t feel right keeping ‘em up,” she’d said. Her Zulu tattoo had grown illegible, stretching across her ballooning calf. The sun on her shoulder blade was now swelling into a fiery red giant, forecasting the Earth’s demise.
The job cuts were imminent after all. At best, Sherri would have to lose staff. Good, young, enthusiastic staff that she’d helped hire, helped mentor. If the rumors were true, though, she’d be gone too with a handful of other department heads. They’d be replaced by cheaper lead teachers. By robots, by more of Little Napoleon’s cronies. Divide and conquer.
The night before, parents and students had protested at a school board meeting. The board was considering cutting two hundred teachers, guidance counselors, library specialists, secretaries, teacher assistants, and others. New staff would perish first. Last ones in, first ones out. The future of education, the future of America down a sinkhole. Andrew was leaving school late after a chess meet in which his boys bravely fell 5-63. The crowd was marching through the parking lot holding up picket signs, chanting, “Save our teachers” and “What about our kids?” and “Sí se puede.”
Andrew looked out Sherri’s window at the “Wet Paint” signs taped onto lockers. Curiously, the building had been in the midst of a massive makeover. Everything was being re-painted in crimson and gray—the school colors—from the bleachers to bathroom stalls. Old, rustic wood walls along hallways with their knots and dings and history were replaced with new, shiny faux paneling. Janitors were working overtime. “We need more school spirit here,” Little Napoleon was going around preaching. State-of-the-art LED TVs were being erected around the building, running round-the-clock clips of pep assemblies, sports highlights, and choir concerts. Little Napoleon made broadcasts each morning inviting students to various school events (“Come out and bring your swag!”) that he never showed up to himself. He wore makeup for his broadcasts. He filmed them next to a dusty American flag with frayed edges. He was growing a weak goatee. The Special Educators sat around the cafeteria table calculating how many careers were killed for those TVs.
Still, the staff had a chance at heroism, at saving lives, saving America. The union put it to a vote. Everyone could sacrifice a cut in pay in exchange for at least some jobs or let fate run its course. They voted unanimously to keep their pay.
“Hear anything about the social workers yet?” Andrew asked Sherri.
She kept playing with her phone. “Not yet. You should be okay though. The world will always have people with problems. Just keep doing your part, saving America’s youth.”
That afternoon, Andrew sat in the allergist’s office talking history with the nurse.
“I’ve always been allergic to shellfish,” he said. “My throat starts tickling the minute I walk into a seafood restaurant.”
The nurse pricked his arms with various allergens: mold, pollen, peanuts, seafood, mollusks, crustaceans, cats. Within minutes, different spots started lighting up, inflaming, itching. Numbers two, seven, eight, twelve. Christ. He waited, staring at pictures on the walls of sinus cavities and people sneezing in fields of ragweed and sunflowers. The doctor knocked and came in. She had an elephant pin on her lab coat that read, “No peanuts. I’m allergic.”
“What’s the verdict?” Andrew said.
“Well, you’re definitely allergic to shellfish. You’re allergic to cockroaches too. They have the same major allergen, a muscle protein called tropomyosin, if you want to get technical, so a lot of people who are allergic to one react to the other as well.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
The doctor cleaned Andrew’s arms. “Nope. Why, been around many roaches lately?”
Swarms of love bugs crashed against Andrew’s Volvo as he drove home. It was spring and they’d descended onto Florida. They invaded twice a year. For weeks, his coworkers had been warning him to coat his car. Dee swore by PAM cooking spray for the nose and mirrors, Big Brad by baby oil for the hood, grill and bumper. Andrew never got around to it. Carcasses of the little black and white bugs were now crusted across his windshield. “You gotta wash that shit off ASAP too, Coach,” Big Brad had cautioned, “or it’ll start eating the paint.”
At a red light with the A/C blasting and country music twanging, Gina called. “I haven’t felt him move all afternoon,” she said. “I’m scared.”
“I’m sure he’s fine. He’s probably in a food coma. Did you eat turkey for lunch again?”
The third trimester had so far been brutal. Backaches, swollen ankles, and hemorrhoids. There was the anxiety and the mood swings. Gina would sob to episodes of the Kardashians, laugh hysterically any time the E*TRADE talking baby commercials came on. Big Brad called it Third Trimester Freak-Out Syndrome. She was petrified of getting listeriosis from contaminated food, made Andrew barbeque meat until it was bone dry, avoided processed lunchmeats and soft cheeses (“Is that Brie in this sandwich? There’s Brie in this sandwich!”). She suspected gestational diabetes anytime she felt thirsty. But Gina never complained of the little man not moving. If anything, she complained of him kicking too hard, worried he’d crack one of her ribs. So Andrew buzzed home, hand on his horn, rolling through stop signs.
Gina was pacing at the door when he got there. “We need to go to the doctor.”
Back on the OB/GYN’s table, hair fanning from her head, Gina held back tears. Her lower lip quivered. Andrew smiled, rubbed her knuckles, kissed her forehead.
“Something’s wrong, Andrew,” she said. She stared at him without blinking.
“Everything’s okay, honey, trust me. You’re worrying yourself sick for nothing.”
Andrew’s fear tried crawling back in, but it was no match anymore for the dream. They’d look back on this and laugh. They’d laugh at this just like they’d laugh at the time during the second trimester when Gina bent down to pray and farted in church or when she sneezed and wet her pants at the movies. They’d laugh while they sat on the beach watching the sunset, the little man stumbling through the sand.
The doctor greeted them with handshakes and said, “So what’s going on?” with a little grin that read, You poor, overemotional woman in your third trimester with those rollercoaster hormones. Andrew winked at him. Gina shared her concerns and the doc said, “We’ll take a listen,” and pressed the Doppler against her bump. There was the familiar whooshing like the inside of a conch shell but nothing more. He hopped from one spot to another, but still nothing. No beating, no pounding to be let out. “He’s probably curled into a ball,” the doctor said. “Hiding from me.” But his grin was gone. Don’t give in to your fears.
The tech came in and lubed Gina’s belly. The womb lit up the screen, patterns changing, a kaleidoscope as the wand moved across her abdomen. She found the little man’s face. Nose, lips, chin. “There he is,” Andrew said. Gina craned her neck to see. The tech clicked buttons on the keyboard. She looked at the doctor. They seemed to be communicating something awful with their eyes. They didn’t speak.
“What’s happening?” Gina said. “What is it?”
The doctor ran his hand through his hair, exhaled, then bent down to sit beside Gina. “No,” Andrew whispered. He felt the dream tearing away from his head and chest and down his limbs, out from his tingling fingers. The room began to spin and the last thing he remembered before blacking out was the doctor putting his hand on Gina’s arm, the muffled sound of her repeating, “No, no, no, no, no,” and the doctor saying, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. There’s no heartbeat.”
Cole cruised by the house. His mom wasn’t home yet. He slid into the basement, lit a smoke, and played Dead Space on the big screen. He was using a plasma cutter, wasting necromorphs, when he heard the front door slam shut. Keys clanked onto the marble counter, then footsteps stomped through the kitchen, into the bedroom and bathrooms. The basement door swung open. The footsteps marched closer. He kept playing.
“You think you’re a real tough guy now, don’t ya?” Cole spun around. It was his dad. An Infector took advantage and pounced him, jab after jab from its talon booming over the surround sound.
Cole tried standing his ground, showing he wasn’t afraid, but he’d seen his dad move like that before. With purpose, crazy in his eyes, sweat on his balding head. He’d seen him move like that all his life: at his mom, at umpires, at cops. So he dropped the controller and shuffled around the leather couch.
“C’mere. What do you think I’m gonna do? C’mere.”
Cole let up. He kept his shoulder turned to shield his face, his knee bent to run if he had to. It didn’t help. When his dad was within arm’s reach, he cracked him upside the head. The cigarette fell to the tile, still lit. Cole’s ear rang. His dad twisted his arm behind his back.
“You’re smoking in my house?”
“Whatever, yo.” And another crack, this time to the lip, busting it open.
“You don’t fuckin’ ‘yo’ your father. Who do you think you’re talking to?” He dug his nails into Cole’s neck and dragged him up the stairs. “Where does your mom keep the trash bags?” He flung open cabinet doors that snapped back like overextended joints. If Mom was home, there’d be a brawl over that for sure and Cole would’ve taken advantage and bounced. Where the hell was she anyway? His dad finally found the bags in the pantry, tossing boxes of pasta and cereal onto the floor. He yanked one out. “Grab your shit. You’re moving in with me. Whatever fits in this bag is all you get.”
He pulled Cole through the hallway, banging him against the walls, knocking down old wedding photos and family vacation shots. “I ain’t going anywhere with you, man,” Cole said. And another smack to the jaw. A pop to the temple.
“Fine, then I’ll pick your shit out for you.” He grabbed wrinkled T-shirts and boxers from the floor, threw them into the bag. He crumpled an empty pack of smokes from the dresser and tried shoving it in Cole’s mouth. He hauled him out of the house toward his black Escalade. Cole’s bare feet burned on the pavement. He worked to pry himself away, but his dad’s grip only got tighter, nastier. He propped his foot against the side of the car to keep from getting forced in. And more chops to the back of the neck. A woman walking her dog gasped and then hurried off.
His dad’s hand was getting sweaty, sliding down his arm, losing its grip on his neck. Cole took another crack to the eye and could feel it swell. The weight of his dad pressed his ribs into the door frame. He writhed and flailed and kicked until his dad couldn’t hang on or didn’t bother to anymore or figured he’d gotten his point across. When he broke loose, he took off running.
“You got no place to go, son,” his dad said. “You’re running for nothing.”
By then Cole was halfway down the block, arms and legs heavy, eye throbbing, blood in his mouth tasting like pennies. Even when he turned the corner, his chest heaving, lungs burning, he could still hear his dad hollering: “You got no place to go.”
Andrew and Gina’s baby boy was delivered that night. Six pounds, twelve ounces. He had ten fingers and ten toes, dark hair. Hello and goodbye all in one breath. The explanation was that it was an umbilical cord accident. A rare occurrence. A one in two-hundred pregnancies occurrence. The cord had somehow become knotted, cutting off oxygen to their little man. “Plenty of people go through this,” the doctor said, “and go on to have big, beautiful families. I know it’s hard to think about now, but if that’s what you two want don’t let this stop you from trying.”
It was 3 a.m. and Gina was asleep in the hospital bed, tubes running from her arms, various machines beeping and humming. Andrew couldn’t get comfortable in the cot they’d given him. It was too small, too cold, too hard, too real and he wasn’t ready to admit any of it was real because it wasn’t part of the dream. He paced the dimly lit hallways past the nurses’ station, sleepy as an all-night diner. He needed to go for a drive.
His Volvo was still crusted with love bugs. After days of baking under the sun, their acid had started leaving pits and etches all over the hood. He had never cared about anything less. He wouldn’t care if they ate through its flesh, down to its bones. If they came back to life and carried it away. Andrew drove to the school, maybe because it was the closest thing he had to home out there. Why was it whenever communities had tragedies, people always gathered around schools? He parked in the empty south lot, turned off his ignition, and cried for the first time. The school understood. The school gave him comfort. The football field, bleachers, tennis courts, flagpole, cockroaches, crickets all hung over his shoulders, swallowed him.
Andrew collected himself when he heard a noise: feet shuffling across the pavement, the rattle of the chain-link fence. He looked into the rearview and saw a tall figure approaching, shirtless and barefoot, staggering. Andrew recognized him. It was Cole. He turned the ignition, thought about leaving, put the car in reverse. He didn’t want to be seen. He didn’t want anybody else’s problems. But then he watched Cole bend over and hurl and he got out of the car.
“Hey Cole, you okay? It’s me, Mr. Richards.”
When he got closer, Andrew could see that parts of his face were puffy and bruised. He was pale, eyes vacant, pupils big as nickels. He stared through Andrew and swayed. “Yooo, Mr. Richards,” he finally slurred. “That palm tree is following me. I think we should go to your office next period.”
The lamppost lit him up like a Broadway lead. He was having a substance-induced psychotic episode. Maybe a mixture of too much alcohol and pot. Maybe worse. There were too many stories of intoxicated youth falling and drowning in pools or stumbling into traffic.
“Do you have your phone on you?” Andrew said.
“Uh…” he patted his shirtless chest for pockets.
“Why don’t you hop in the car, buddy?”
“Totes. This your new office? It’s sick, bro.”
They drove in silence, windows down. Andrew turned on the country music station and handed Cole a bottled water.
“What happened to your face?”
“My dad showed up and beat the shit out of me,” Cole said in an apparent moment of clarity. His head bobbed.
“Stay awake, pal.”
They floated down Gulf to Bay through green lights. The breeze whirled doctor’s papers around the backseat.
“Dude, you’re the only guy who actually gives a crap about kids at this school. I’m gonna get my shit together for you. I’m gonna run for class president, yo. Haha.” Cole took a swig of water and it dribbled down his chin and onto his bony chest. He stuck his head out the window and let the wind tousle his hair. He was just a kid. “So where we going anyway?” he asked.
“We’re taking a little trip to the Morton Plant Hospital,” Andrew said. “We’re going to get you checked out.”
When Andrew returned to work several days later, he was called down to the principal’s office. It was his first time in there. Little Napoleon sat behind his mahogany desk, slouched back in his black leather chair, legs crossed, but like a woman, a fairly typical principal’s posture. The desktop was lined with expensive fountain pens. Sherri was there too. Her ass now hung over either side of the chair. All that was left of her face were two bulging eyes and a mound of flesh. She stared at the ground. Andrew eyed the picture hanging behind Little Napoleon, a tiny baby hand nestled into an adult palm that read, “INTEGRITY. We Make a Living by What We Get. We Make a Life by What We Give.”
“Any idea why you’re in here, Andy?” Little Napoleon said.
Andrew wanted to believe that maybe he’d be given a sympathy card, a bouquet of chrysanthemums, a shoulder to cry on. He’d lost ten pounds. He was pale and weak. By Little Napoleon’s tone, Andrew knew better.
“Cole Sullivan’s mom called me a few days ago, infuriated, threatening to sue,” Little Napoleon said. “She told me you picked him up in your car one night and drove him to the hospital. Said you called the police and DCF with some story about how his dad beat him up.”
“Holy crow,” Sherri uttered.
“Yeah, that’s all accurate,” Andrew said, “except the part about it being story.”
Little Napoleon spun in his chair, arms folded, looked up at nothing in particular, and let out a condescending laugh. Like a Joe Biden laugh. “Allowing a student into your car, Andy, is highly—highly—inappropriate and it puts the district in quite a predicament legally. You must know that, right?”
“With all due respect, what was I supposed to do? Leave him there?”
“What if he died?”
“Not your responsibility. Or ours either, for that matter. He wasn’t on our watch.”
“I reacted,” Andrew said. “I did what I felt was right.”
“Well, it was wrong. I spoke with the superintendent. We’re going to have to suspend you while we investigate the matter.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“If you choose to resign, that may save us all some headaches. This could get ugly.
I’ll write you a letter of recommendation. You decide.”
“What about the students I work with, the clubs I sponsor?”
“Good question. We’ll need all hands on deck.” Little Napoleon closed his eyes for a second, then shot them open and pointed to Sherri. “What’s his name—Hobson—can coordinate our efforts, right? Isn’t he our head social worker?”
“Yes, uh-huh,” Sherri said. “I can talk to him.” She jotted down a reminder. Contact Hobson re: damage control, Andrew read from her lap.
Andrew stared out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the courtyard. It was bathed in sunshine. There were mango trees, songbirds, and tropical plants. How great it would be, Andrew thought, to have a view like that every day. The best view in the building. It was no wonder Little Napoleon never left his office.
A giant moon was beginning to burn its image into the sky. Andrew and Gina sat on the beach gazing into the Gulf, seaweed against their feet. Storm clouds were moving in. Seagulls circled and squawked overhead, then skirted across the sand to pick up leftover cigarette butts and potato chips. Waves broke as they reached the shore.
“We’re all alone again,” Gina said, her eyes welling with tears. “We have nothing to lose anymore.”
Andrew pulled her in closer. “You’ll always have me.” His love would be all hers if that’s the way it had to be.
His mom’s voice echoed in his ears, pleading for them to stop the nonsense, to come back home already to their family and friends. Maybe that was the right idea.
The last few beachgoers collected umbrellas and towels as the first drops of rain began to fall. Andrew stared at the sand and pictured their lost children, a boy and girl, stomping in the pools that were starting to form, leaving vanishing footprints, laughing at the castles turning into mudslides. When I had nothing to lose, I had everything. Eleven Minutes. He never understood what that meant. He waited for the sea to pick them up and drag them in, for it to have its way.
Andrew’s reinstatement came unceremoniously a few weeks later via an e-mail from Little Napoleon. He was unshaven at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, hunting for jobs. “I’m going back to work, honey,” he said.
At school, he found an unsealed envelope in his mailbox with a letter:
The Board of Education of Clearwater School District 264 has approved the continuation of your contract for the 2013-14 school year.
He read on. The excitement was short-lived.
“I’ve been reassigned to Clearwater Elementary next year,” he told Big Brad as they bowled through the crowded hall, a mess of backpacks and ear buds. Taylor Swift sang of breakups and heartache, of failed love. The sound of lockers slamming and students complaining about exams and prom dates and summer jobs all ran together, rumbled.
“That’s bullshit, Coach,” Big Brad said. “That’s just Rice Dick trying to show you who’s boss.”
“Maybe it’ll be all right. Who knows?”
Andrew heard Cole coming before he saw him. At the end of the hallway, he and the Polish Mafia were pushing and shoving, preserving their reputation as the loudest and most obnoxious kids in the school. Andrew had been forbidden to counsel Cole any longer. He nodded to him and pulled him aside.
“Hey Mr. R, sorry about my crazy-ass mom. She was pissed for about a week then forgot about it like she always does. ”
“No reason to apologize. You okay?”
“I’m cool. Got a restraining order on my asshole dad. And it looks like I’m going to military school next year after all. My mom’s got some meetings lined up.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“I don’t know. It’s all right, I guess. I heard you work out there every day, so at least I’ll get ripped.”
The better bet was that Mom would pull the plug on it. That Cole would be right back in school there come August. That his dad would be in his life again before long. That the kid would eventually have to fight the waves or sink. Or sink trying to fight the waves.
“I hope everything works out for you one way or another,” Andrew said.
“I’ll come back to see you, yo.”
“I’m actually being transferred to the elementary school.”
“No, for real? That sucks. You’re like the only cool person in this school.”
“I appreciate that. It’ll figure itself out though. You be well, buddy.”
When Andrew got to his office, Sherri’s framed picture of the empty canoe on the shore rested against his door. There was a post-it on it: Keep paddling, kiddo—S. He looked for her but she wasn’t in sight. He dragged the picture into his room; it was heavier than he’d thought. When he flipped the light on, there were no cockroaches to greet him, no cockroaches scuttling back home. He peeked under his desk. The dead bodies, the feces, the egg cases—they were all gone too. He turned on the Zen fountain and checked his schedule. He breathed in, exhaled, and waited for the next appointment, the next young life he’d do his best to save.