Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 8 — Sore Knees

Mystic Island High SchoolContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 7 — Housekeeping

“She’s on the line again, Steve. Sounds pretty fired up.”

The guidance secretary stood in the doorway while Steve Bender appraised his telephone. The tiny red bulb affixed to the console was blinking and he imagined his wife—the shrew, his rancid life companion—on the other end. He could almost hear the curses that were challenging the on-hold Muzak. It was the seventh time she’d called that day, and it was only noon. He’d taken just one of the calls, brushing away the rest of them via his secretary, leaving her on hold while he conferred with a student. She had tired of the wait after fifteen minutes and finally hung up.

“Okay, Dolores,” he finally conceded, “I guess I’ll take it.” The secretary managed a smile and it was apparent that she was relieved.

The receiver was cold in his clammy hand and he wedged it into the space between his ear and shoulder. “Steve Bender,” he spoke jovially, almost mocking her by pretending he didn’t know who was calling.

“What are you some sort of goddamn head of state? Why is it so hard to get a hold of you?”

“Oh, why it’s you dear. How nice to speak with you, as well.” His mouth stretched in a grin and he took a pinch of chewing tobacco from the tin that he kept in his top desk drawer.

“Don’t give me that shit, Stephen. I know you’ve been avoiding me. Why is it that you are so conveniently busy every time I call? I need some help over here, too, you know?”

More so than you’d ever admit, he thought. “Well, dear, it just so happens that I have a job and the principal, the superintendent, the entire friggin’ school board . . . none of those people would probably be too excited if I were to spend the entire day on the telephone discussing personal issues. Now, what is it that’s so important this morning?”

He squirted black juices between his teeth and into a ragged Styrofoam cup at the edge of his desk. Teeth marks stared back at him from the rim of the cup while he awaited her response.

“Well, Jesse has a soccer scrimmage tonight at five o’clock, and I have Garden Club with the girls at four-thirty. So, I’m not going to be able to make it to pick her up. I’m wondering if you’ll be out of there on time today so that maybe you can share in some of the responsibility of having a family. Can you pick her up?”

There was a brief silence as he worked up another gob of tobacco juices. Damn shame they keep outlawing public smoking, he thought. I wouldn’t be forced to resort to this bullshit. He picked up the small plastic snow globe on his desktop, gave it a shake and watched fake snow fall onto a fake plastic village.

“Well? You still there? Can you do it?”

“Yeah. I can do that. Will that be all?”

“Yes. That’s all. So you’ll do it. Good. Thanks, babe, I appreciate it.” She turned bubbly in a hurry, reinforcing his previous notion that there was something-not-quite-right with her. He didn’t really have a handle on it, but he had his suspicions that there was no Garden Club meeting that afternoon.

He rehooked the receiver and gave the mini-village another shake. “I’ll find out what’s up when I give a shit,” he said, like God, to the nonexistent villagers.

Bender picked up the phone again and buzzed Dolores. “No more calls, please,” he told her. “Tell them I’m at a meeting, and if they don’t buy that, then tell ’em I’m on the crapper.”

Meanwhile, in another part of the school, Cooper’s eyes chased a runaway fly around the classroom. It sputtered across the teacher’s desk, bouncing from a stack of papers to a folder file before settling on the end of a long pencil. From his desk, only two rows deep, he could read the emblem scrolled on the oversized pencil: “Pobody’s Nerfect”. How fucking stupid, he thought. One look at Mrs. Bradford reinforced his negativity. She was perched at the front of the class in her swivel chair looking as if she were ready to charge from the seat at any moment. Cooper hadn’t liked her from the first day of school when she proclaimed that today’s youth were so apathetic to learning, they alone could even make the absolutes of mathematics a forgotten art. That statement had scribbled “copout” in his mind, and she hadn’t done anything to erase the idea.

“Where is your book, Mr. O’Neil?”

She was standing now and staring at Roy O’Neil, a bubble-headed boy who wore hand-me-downs from his older siblings and looked just plain embarrassed to be alive. He began to tremble, and pulled at the cuff of his Genesis tour tee shirt. Mrs. Bradford stood beside his desk and stared down at him with her bulging, chameleon eyes.

“That will be a zero for the day, Mr. O’Neil. How hard is it to remember a book?”

Roy O’Neil’s embarrassment dissolved and made room for shame. His head hung limply on his shoulders like a lollipop on a broken stick. With hands clasped on the desk, his shoulders shrugged lightly.

Cooper shielded himself behind his own book, and he re-read the graffiti inscribed on the desk for the zillionth time. ‘Suzie Becker has sore knees!’ Cooper stole a glance toward the back of the room at Suzie. She slouched in her desk, fingers busily twisting through her hair. He’d known Suzie since fourth grade and had even danced with her a few times back at the middle school dances. His chin propped on her shoulder, scents of fresh fields of flowers massaging his imagination. Her arms were laced around his shoulders as some sappy Def Leppard power-ballad crackled through the undersized speakers. Soft red light wrapped around them like vapor. He wanted to kiss her. Imagining her plump lips mushed up against his own. But he just didn’t have the balls. What if she backed away and smacked him? Or ran? Could he stand the possibility of humiliation? The song ended. He walked away. Maybe too abruptly. They never quite became friends, but he thought he knew enough about her to know that she wasn’t one of the slutty girls. A bit ditsy, maybe. But not a slut.

Cooper pulled the eraser from his pencil and flattened down its metal holder, creating a tiny blade. Mrs. Bradford sat back down at her desk and he watched her for a moment. She tightened the sweater that draped around her wide shoulders and wheezed like a bulldog. He wondered about her life for a moment: boring, impotent husband, cats mewing about her house, the rote rituals of her daily life to and from school, nights spent with her face buried in math texts. Come to think of it, she actually struck him as a closet literature junkie, the Emily Dickinson type, maybe. He read a few Dickinson poems during his eighth grade English class. ‘There’s a certain Slant of Light’ was the line brought to mind while he imagined Mrs. Bradford’s domestic surroundings—sitting in a rocking chair, faded pictures of her aging children swarming around her in cheap frames, homely cat coiled in her lap as she massages behind its ears.

“ …think that you’re doing? Hellooooo?”

Cooper snapped from his daydream and cringed at the sight of her. He looked briefly down at his own guilty hands, which were busy saving Suzie Becker’s reputation. He’d carved away “has sore knees,” leaving long trenches in their wake. A wrinkle of sweat beaded on his forehead and he felt a flash of anger. Not for getting busted, but for taking the rap for actually undoing the damage somebody else had done. He looked back up at her. Those bulging eyes burning down on him. She’d never believe him if he began with the truth. Just like in football, he thought, the guy who retaliates always gets the flag. Don’t even bother arguing. And so he didn’t. Instead, he stood up and headed for the door.

“Where do you think you’re going now, young man?”

He snapped his glare at her.

She took a step back, and he detected a slight bulging of her already impossibly bulging eyes. Amazingly, the teacher that kids had dubbed “The Bradasauras” looked as if she was momentarily afraid of him.

Cooper looked over at Suzie Becker. Her fingers were still twisting coils into her hair and she didn’t look alarmed to see a confrontation in the front of the classroom. I hope they ain’t sore, Suzie, he thought. After gathering his books, he walked from the room, wondering if Mrs. Bradford was going to read aloud what she assumed he’d written: Suzie Becker.

Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 9 — Guidance

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