Turned-down thin lips, square jaw, pushed up nose: not good.
The eighth grade substitute for Sister Crucifix—some second grader’s mother—spent the beginning of Friday’s English class pointing out to the students in so many crabby words who the boss in the room was going to be for the next 45 minutes. Greg was late, and she sent him to the office for a pass, stuffing his completely lame excuses right back in his face with a steady stream of “I don’t cares”—the “care” pronounced without the “r.”
From his seat Steve shuddered when she got her twisted face into Wilson’s face after he called attention to the lightly falling snow outside and suggested that the class therefore do nothing all period. Not soon after, she warned Carmen not to act like a little snot when Carmen asked without raising her hand why the assignment wasn’t on the board. “Just rememba what I’m tellin’ ya, that’s all. Listen with your ears (no “r”) open, and don’t youse all think you can just do whateva you want ‘cause I’m a sub, okay? I know all the tricks. I been up the block and back, I know what youse are all up to.”
Steve frowned down at his hand that flipped the pages of his English book, but looked up again when she yelled at Greg, who’d just returned, snickering. “You tink I’m some kinda joke? Is dat what you tink?”
There was silence in the room. Everyone looked at her twisted face. Steve’s lips pressed tightly together. He tried not to laugh, tried to think of baseball so he wouldn’t laugh. The way that she’d said “is dat what you tink” repeated in his mind like a taunt. Laugh, laugh, laugh, his mind urged him, but he won the battle, helped by the sub, who slammed Mindy’s science book closed almost on Mindy’s escaping fingers and told her to get out into the hallway. “You tink I doan know da diff’rence between a science book and a English book? Get outa heah and sit in the hallway. And the rest of yuz get to work and I doan wanna heah ya.”
After fifteen minutes of writing sentences and including the correct irregular verbs, Steve stopped to watch the sub go to Cristina, who’d had her hand raised and whispered a question. “Don’t worry about it, honey,” the sub said. “Just do the best you can.” Steve and some other students looked coldly over at Cristina for being called “honey.” Steve looked back down at his paper. “No, no,” he wrote, again and again, above his heading, to the left of the red margin, and then on the bottom of the paper.
“No, no,” she’d said at her locker after recess when he asked her to the movies on Saturday. “No, no,” she’d said, almost sobbing it, still looking into her locker, until he turned, his body numb, and walked to class.
He looked up to watch her carefully writing sentences from the beginning again, having crumpled her paper, and he turned over his own paper of no’s and pulled a new sheet from his binder. The sub gave him a thin-lipped frown from across the room.
The class, subdued by having written one irregular verb exercise after another until the bell, broke out gradually into lively talk on the way out. Steve turned away from Cristina, who’d turned toward him, and he pushed ahead of the crowd on the way out while the sub glared at them from the doorway.
In the hallway he drifted just ahead of the crowd, while nearby Howard and Greg and a few others were talking about the weekend. Within hearing distance of Steve, and maybe Cristina, whose red shirt he spotted behind them, Howard remarked to his chuckling followers that he’d heard how easy it was for a guy to get into that brown nose Cristina’s pants.
Steve turned. “Hey. Shut up,” he said, not heated, the words almost mechanical, like the cocking of the fist at his hip, and as soon as Howard smirked, it shot up and slammed into Howard’s cheek. There was no fight, just the punch, and then there was the sub, who screamed, “Freeze, all a yuz’!” Everyone froze except for Howard, who bent over to hold his face, and except for Steve, who stormed away when the sub cried, “Get to the office, you!”
Mrs. Morro, the vice-principal, told Steve that she had no choice but to call his parents about his Tuesday in-school suspension for fighting.
“Don’t call my parents,” Steve said. “Please, let me tell them over the weekend.”
She paused and thought and then stood up. “All right…You’ve never been in trouble before…but if you don’t have this sheet signed by Monday, then I have to call them, Steve.”
“You still don’t want to tell me why you hit Howard?”
Steve looked to his left, at the carpet next to her feet. “I don’t know,” he shrugged.
On Saturday Steve’s father left early for Brooklyn, and Steve decided to walk alone to town, his mother sighing when he wouldn’t tell her exactly where in town he wanted to go. He wore his heavy down jacket and slid along some of the ice patches on the sidewalk. The in-school suspension letter was jammed deep into his front pocket.
He passed the closed bowling alley and the donut shop and the closed pizza place, and then cut through the gas station and the baseball field until he reached the library. His hands were freezing without gloves, so he went in and stared at the magazine rack for a while and blew into his hands, before giving up and going into the stacks. Early in the fall, his father had told him about a baseball book written by a guy named Lardner, but he’d forgotten the title until he found only two Lardner books in the stacks, and one of them was that book, You Know Me Al.
He sat with it at a cubicle, his coat still on and his hands getting back their feeling. The baseball player’s letters to his friend were filled with spelling mistakes, and the player was stupid without knowing it, so after four or five pages, Steve began to like it and kept reading. On the tenth or twelfth page he laughed aloud at one of the character’s comments, and he couldn’t stop. He dropped his face into one arm and laughed into his coat sleeve, not even laughing at the line in the book anymore, only laughing because he couldn’t stop laughing. No librarian shushed him, but when he finally looked up, drying his eyes, he saw an older man at another cubicle leaning backwards to look at him, and a woman near the magazine rack threw him a cold stare.
Steve went back to reading more about the conceited, stupid, immature baseball player, and he laughed some more, despite the woman’s sidelong glances. He read as much as he could, because he didn’t have his library card, before he left for home.
Shivering on the way back, he wondered why his father—his serious, silent father—had suggested that great funny book to him.
They all visited Brooklyn the next day, for a Sunday breakfast with his grandmother, to be followed by another visit to his other grandparents’ apartment blocks away. From the back seat of his father’s Chevy, Steve watched the white line that separated the shoulder from the parkway, hearing again Cristina’s almost sobbing “No, no,” and feeling again how it was to punch Howard’s cheek. He watched the white line and then looked up at the back of his mother’s head on the passenger side and at the smiling profile of his father, driving with one hand. There was a fog in Steve’s mind, and deep inside the fog were the re-runs of how fast his heart had beat as he approached her at her locker. He looked down at the white line again, at only the line that separated highway from shoulder, and he wondered if his heart was broken.
“No day should be a waste,” his father was saying, and Steve broke his gaze away from the white line to look at his father, who smiled at his mother and to Steve in the rearview mirror. “That’s why your mother and me thought we should go visit all your grandparents today. Maybe we’ll shop for a new baseball glove, too.”
“Mine’s all right,” Steve said.
“You’re going out for the Babe Ruth team.”
“That’s in March, Dad.”
“We have to break it in,” his father said, and Steve nodded. “We’ll break in the new one right this time,” he said. “A string and a ball and a bucket of water.”
Steve broke a brief grin.
“And linseed oil, or neat’s foot oil, or whatever it is we can use. We’ll find it and rub it in there.”
Steve looked out the window again, at the white line near the shoulder, at the cars ahead, at the Long Island Expressway’s entrance ramp, and at his father’s face in the mirror, which looked thoughtful while he eased into the left lane and passed three cars in a row.
When Steve was six or seven, his father had gone up a wrong parkway ramp, cursed and cut across the grass to the opposite ramp, and raced down it in reverse, his mother yelling all the while. His father had cursed then, but he smiled now about the glove and the linseed oil and the Babe Ruth league and the day ahead.
Maybe shopping for a glove and eating over at his grandparents’ places wouldn’t be so bad, and he wouldn’t have to think so much, but the next day was Monday, and he imagined having to pass Cristina in the hallway again and see her in English class. He remembered how miserable she looked at her locker after 9th period class when, just released from the office, he walked past her out of the school.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the in-school suspension letter, unfolding and then folding it again. Behind closed eyes, he saw his father calm behind the wheel or not calm behind the wheel, smiling or cursing; he imagined talking things over with that idiot Howard, as Mrs. Moro had suggested, or punching his face all over again; and he pictured himself glowering at Cristina, or smiling and falling into step with her in the hallway.
His father headed for the exit to the BQE, and Steve pushed the letter back into his pocket and leaned his head against the window and looked at the sky. His mind was fogged in on a clear Sunday morning, and his father was smiling from the driver’s side about the day ahead in boring Brooklyn.
[Refer: This story refers to the poem “Live Your Way to the Answer” by Sue Swartz.]
Image by Robert Couse-Baker
Lou Gaglia’s fiction has appeared recently in Main Street Rag, Pithead Chapel, Hawai’i Review, The Ostrich Review, Forge Journal, Blue Monday Review, and many other publications. His first story collection, Poor Advice, is now out from Spring to Mountain Press (May, 2015). He is a long-time teacher— first in New York City and now in upstate New York. His website is lougagtcc.wordpress.com.