Worked on an exercise from What If? and continued with “Ghost Dad,” the scene from that story that’s probably at least a novella. I’m calling the whole piece “The Conservator.” You can skip ahead to that scene here.
From What If?:
Pull out one of your stories that doesn’t feel finished. Have your main character do the following exercises – as if he had his own notebook. For example,maybe you write with a number 2 pencil, but your character prefers to use a Rapidograph [me – what the fuck is that?] Go with the pen. Remember, your character is doing this exercise – not you, the author!
The last story I workshopped is called “Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up.” You can read that story here.There’s definitely some stuff missing, so I decided to have the narrator, Anthony “Ant” Raduazo, write an email to his father. I feel like I have to mention how annoyed I was at the “your character is doing this, not you!” business. Little too acting exercise-y for me. But maybe I’m contradicting myself.
Thanks for your email. I should be able to come home for the baby shower, but I’m subbing on the following Monday, so I won’t be able to stay that long.
Still don’t have a sense of whether they’re gonna hire me full-time for the next semester, but the principal and the HR people seem to like me. I don’t know. At the moment, I don’t even know if I have it in me to teach full-time. I mean, I really believe I can make a difference, but it’s tough knowing that I’m not the only one with influence over them.
I don’t know. I guess today ended up unsettling me a bit. There’s this gang of sixth-grade boys, and I’m not using the word “gang” lightly. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were already selling drugs or something. Anyway, I was in charge of the afterschool thing today with another teacher, Jeremy. I think I told you about him – reminds me of Mark a little. Frat boy, ex-bartender, primarily concerned with having a good time. He stepped out to take a piss and a couple seconds later, two of the leaders of the gang came up and stood in the doorway. I think they must’ve gotten held back a couple years. They’re huge and one of them is growing a freaking mustache.
Anyway, I asked them if their parents had signed them up and they said no. So I told them they needed to move on. They kept standing there and I said, “Do you need something?” And they started cackling to themselves, not answering, so I raised my voice this time and asked, “What do you want?” Then one the kids elbowed the other and he said, “I just want someone to suck on my big ol’ dick!” And then he starts undoing his zipper. I got up from my desk at the same time Jeremy came back, yelling, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get the hell outta here before you get your ass kicked!”
And that’s what worked for them – threats of violence. And when they have kids, that’s the only kind of discipline they’ll know. Great. I mean, I don’t know what I was gonna do when I got up from my desk. Later, Jeremy said, “They’re not the kind of kids you reason with.” So do we let those kids just go by the wayside? Ignore them till they’re threatening another kid?
Do I sound like I’m getting disillusioned? I think maybe discouraged is a more appropriate word. I just think that if I had a full-time gig, I’d be more sure of my influence. I’d get to know the kids better, actually be a part of their lives, instead of just being the “nice sub.” I like being the nice sub, but I know that I could do more as a full-time teacher.
Now my earnestness is nauseating me. I better wrap this up. Send my box of books any time or if you want me to haul them home next weekend, let me know. Is Sheila doing OK? She hasn’t been in touch lately and I wanna know how my nephew is doing!
Love to you and Mom,
I think I lost his voice, his tone a lot in the email, but I got at the bad kids a little bit more. Got them doing something specific instead of just being described physically and called bad kids. I guess that’s what the call “show, don’t tell.” Yay?
Most if the class was falling asleep, and I wanted to join them, but Lou-lou kept on reading anyway:
The two soldiers had almost reached the King carrying the package from America. If their plan worked, then the evil King who wanted to make everyone slaves and take all their money, would change his mind and make peace. When they finally found the King, he was surrounded by guards carrying swords and guns and knives and baseball bats and shields. The two soldiers lost all their weapons in the desert, but when the guards came up to them, the soldiers just opened the package. All of a sudden, this made the guards put down their swords and smile. One of them wanted to touch what was inside, but the soldiers wouldn’t let him.
The two soldiers marched up to the King who was about to tell the guards to chop off their heads, but then the soldiers opened the package. All of a sudden, the King sat down and smiled and clapped. He called in his most trusted advisor and whispered in his ear. The adivisor walked away bowing and smiling. The King stood up and said, “Free all the slaves! Give everyone a million dollars! Let us live in peace!” The two soldiers returned to America and were elected president and vice-president. World peace lasted forever and ever.
Are you wondering what was in the package?
Well, silly, it was a box of puppies, of course.
When Lou-lou said the end, like a Pavlov’s dogs, the rest of the second-graders applauded even though most of them had been too busy scratching their crotches and playing with their hair to pay attention. And then, me, the hairy substitute teacher with the MFA in creative writing from Northwestern who ended up in Troy, Michigan, me, I can’t turn off my workshopping mind. Well, Lou-lou, even though you’ve done a good job of plotting a clear beginning, middle and end, you only tell us how evil the King is. His transformation at the end will be even more effective if you show us through scene (as opposed to summary) how evil he is. This is a solid first draft and I look forward to reading it as it develops.
“Very nice, Lou-lou,” I said.
She rocked back and forth on her feet and smiled, but her lips were so chapped that a vertical sliver of blood seeped to the surface. She swayed back to her desk, sucking on her lip and crushing her report against her chest. She had a round belly that stretched out the muzzle of the dog silkscreened on her t-shirt. Today it was a Rottweiler. Yesterday, a bichon-frise. I had been her sub for eight days and she’d worn five different doggie t-shirts. They were all just a little too tight for her eight-year-old body that had already grown tiny boobs, poofy and triangular like the corners of a cushion. She was at least six inches taller that the tallest boy in class, and she stood in a permanent backbend, with her hands on her hips and her butt sticking out: a gymnast at the end of a shitty performance. The school told me they held her back a year because she was unfocused. But, let me take my own advice and show instead of telling.
Once, when I shuffled the class off to the bathroom for a pee break, a boy stole the stuffed animal poodle she kept under her desk all the time. When we got back to the classroom, she let out a scream so wretched that I ran to her hoping there wasn’t too much blood. She grabbed at my flabby belly and wept, “She’s gone! She’s gone!”
The other kids were tense and terrified. I don’t think they’d ever seen such naked grief. They watched from their desks, sucking on their t-shirt collars and breathing with their mouths open. Except Josh. He sat next to Lou-lou. His head was down and his hands lay flat on his desk. Ah. The culprit reveals himself in his hidhing I kept one hand on Lou-lou’s trembling back and with the other, opened up Josh’s desk and pulled out Lou-lou’s toy. She threw her body around it, sat at her desk and moaned, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She had to be taken to the nurse’s office till her dad could pick her up.
In my undergraduate college career, focused on early education, I learned that finding the pariah and deciding in an unspoken manner to “gang up” on one kid was a necessary and forgivable way of bonding for children in grade school. Lou-lou didn’t know it, but she was helping all of the other kids with their developmental process.
In school, I loved the theory of education. The idea that we could study kids until we figured out the perfect way to raise and teach them so they would no longer need the Lou-lous of the world aligned itself with my love for school and my heritage of teachers: my mother, my father, my maternal grandmother, my paternal grandfather. Teaching was my calling until I started to teach.
I assisted Mr. Barbu at Kilgour Elementary School in Hamilton County, close to Cincinnati, my last year of undergrad at the U of C. He was a year away from retirement, and I couldn’t tell if his red nose was from drinking or from his year-round allergies that had him constantly reaching for a moist, translucent shred of cloth that he kept in his back pocket. He wore black-rimmed glasses with frames he had not changed since he got them in college, or so he told me. His short-sleeved, button down wouldn’t button down over his belly. His hairy navel stuck out for all the kids to see.
During my semester review with him, I blabbered on and on about how much the kids had impacted me and that it seemed like the kids had enjoyed my being there with them. They had. Back then I was funny at least in comparison to Mr. Barbu who only cracked a smile when a kid didn’t know the answer.
“I think we laughed a lot together,” I said, blowing my wad of earnestness all over his face.
He took off his bifocals so he could look me in the eye. “Remember. Whenever they’re laughing, they’re laughing at you.”
I squirmed through the rest of the evaluation and condemned the man as old, bitter and burnt out on the car ride home. But when I looked at myself in the mirror, all of 22 years old, shaving my head already because most of my hair was gone, love handles that no one held onto and bow legs that belonged to a jockey, I realized I was the pariah all the kids bonded over. I gave up the idea of changing the world one kid at a time and got an MFA in creative writing. Writing graduates don’t ever actually get paid so I ended up taking sub gigs so I could eat. And maybe somehow make a difference in some kid’s life.
When Lou-lou’s dad came to pick her up after her freak-out, he stopped by the classroom where I was monitoring the would-be latchkey kids. It was the first time I’d met him, even though I’d seen him gather up Lou-lou in the parking lot and take her away in his Ford truck. He reminded me of a gorilla. He didn’t look like he’d stood up straight in years, which might have been the case because he worked as a machinist in the car parts plant. He was wearing the same uniform I always saw him in: Carhartt jeans and one of those beige work jackets that college students like to wear. A Tiger’s ball cap over his head. He took it off when he apologized for his daughter, worrying it in his hands the whole time he was inside.
“Sorry ‘bout this,” he said. “Her and her dogs.” Then he covered his bald spot with his hat and apologized again before leaving with Lou-lou who had been talking to her poodle during our conversation. She was the last kid left so I packed up my stuff and went to happy hour to meet up with some of the other subs.
The after-school program was reminiscent of happy hour. The administration set it up because of all the studies they did on latchkey kids and how they ended up being more fearful and insecure than kids who had adult supervision after 3pm. Two teachers monitored each session, but most of the regulars swapped their shifts with subs because they knew we were always looking for extra money.
It was do-nothing money. The rigidity of in-school hours relaxed, the division between grades was erased and the two teachers in charge only had to make sure nobody got beat up. So, groups of guys and groups of girls clumped together, gossiping, telling stories and lies, laughing, while keeping an eye out on the opposite sex to see if any of the opposite sex were keeping an eye in return. A couple times each session, someone would defect to the other side, usually a girl. She would confront them about why they were laughing so hard and they’d all say, “Nothin’,” until she pressed them hard enough to tell her. When they did, the information was so gross, probably something about penises or pubic hair, that she’d flap her hands up and down and holler, “Ew. Ew. Ew,” and run away to the girls. After this came a few moments of quiet during which the boys stared at the girls’ group and waited till she imparted the newly-learned information to the rest of the ladies. Following this was an avalanche of exclamation and outcry.
Who said that?
That can’t be true.
If it were a real happy hour, the defector girl would finish the night at some strange guy’s house with her feet in the air.
When I got to Bailey’s, Jeremy, another sub, was sitting with two others, shout-talking over everybody else. He went to a Florida state school on a baseball scholarship and graduated with a degree in Communications and a shoulder that could never take 162 games a season. He was my partner in monitoring the kids’ happy hour that day, but it had been a small group so I told him he could leave and get a head start on drinking.
“I stay the fuck away from the girls, though,” he was saying when I sat down with my gin and tonic. I had just taken a shot at the bar so I could catch up. “It’s not like I don’t like them, I do, they’re cute as hell, but their parents, forget it, man. They’re just itching for someone to come along and molest their daughters so that something interesting actually happens in their stupid little lives. Fuck that, man. I’m not getting dragged through the mud just because I hugged a little girl on her birthday.”
“It’s not that bad!” This came Carol, older than me and Jeremy, subbing to pay for her Master’s in psychology. “They just want to protect their children.”
I nodded at Carol and finished half my gin and tonic. I nodded and may have grunted some sort of sound that indicated that I wasn’t agreeing with Carol, but could see her point. Then I took care of the rest of my gin and tonic and went to the bar to get us another round.
“I don’t need anything,” Annabel called after me. She was a tiny, pale, Nordic-looking girl barely out of college who claimed she couldn’t hold her liquor. But she only said that so she could go home with Jeremy or whatever other jock sub got her attention and then insist she didn’t remember anything the next day.
I ordered a Guinness for Jeremy, a midori sour for Annabel, and the house white for Carol. When I got back to our table, Carol was waving her hands at Jeremy and saying, “You can’t condemn them for the rest of their lives for who they are now. They’re not even making their own decisions yet. You can’t tell who they’re gonna be.”
Jeremy leaned back in his chair, pulled his hat down lower on his head and said, “Oh, please. Anne Lager is gonna be an emotionally neglected, pill-popping housewife in Grosse Pointe and everybody knows it.”
“No, we don’t!” Carol said. Her voice was getting more agitated and the diphthongs in her accent even more liquid. “How do you know that?”
“The way she bosses her three little boyfriends around,” he said. “Tony Payne, Brandon Dowley, and Chris Doss. They do whatever the fuck she wants and she still cries at least once a week.”
I made another grunting sound. Annabel turned to me while sipping on her neon green booze. “I told you I didn’t need anymore,” she whispered to me, leaning in and patting me on the knee. I lifted the corner of my mouth on the left side and edged away from her slightly. She was cute, but what’s the point if she was only going to pretend to not remember fucking me?
In any case, I was planning on leaving after the drink I was working on. I was close to achieving my goal of getting buzzed enough to loosen the day, but not so drunk I couldn’t drive – or write. I was also drinking to loosen up myself enough to write. I’m not Hemingway or Dylan Thomas, but alcohol and writing are a time-honored tradition that I feel obligated to uphold.
“A lot can happen between now and Grosse Pointe,” Carol said.
“Yeah,” Jeremy said. “She could take a turn for the worse and become somebody’s bag bride in Flint.”
Everyone but Carol laughed, including Annabel, who leaned toward me and said, “What’s a bag bride?”
“You all are awful,” Carol said.
“I think we’re just tired,” I said. “I mean, none of us grew up wanting to be substitute teachers.” I leaned in toward Carol, which meant I had to lean into Annabel who gave me more of her weight. “I mean, the valedictorian of my high school is delivering pizzas in Jackson while he waits for construction gigs.”
Carol opened her mouth, looking as if she was going to say something, but then finished off her wine. I did the same with my gin and tonic, se the glass down on the table and stood up. “I gotta get home.”
As I turned around, Annabel swung her arm out to catch hold of my elbow and started blabbering, “Can you take me home? I got drunker than I wanted to and then you bought me that other drink on top of that and you don’t need to pick me up in the morning or anything because I can take the bus and just walk here after work tomorrow, I mean, it’s kinda your fault with the last drink and -”
“OK, OK,” I said, getting her to her feet. I bade goodnight to the other teachers who were looking at their drinks, at the table, at the floor. As Annabel fell into the passenger’s seat of my car, I tossed around ideas about who her teachers thought she was going to become. How did she tease boys back then?
We had a few more drinks at my place. Maybe I was hoping I would get so drunk I wouldn’t be able to fuck her, but I could. Afterward, she wanted to stay the night, but I had to write and called her a cab because I ended up to buzzed to drive. When she was gone, I lay in bed still naked with my laptop on knees, but I couldn’t write, either.
The rest of late winter was pretty much wash, rinse, repeat for me. I ignored writing and subbed whenever they needed because that was the easy money and I was having a positive influence on children or something. But there was this group of sixth-grade boys, all from the remedial class, with precocious mustaches and jeans hanging down way below their Hilfiger boxer shorts, all enormous for their grade because they’d been held back more than once, The kind of kids who terrify the teachers. None of them ever signed up for the after-school program, but they would flock around the classroom, grabbing their dicks and talking about how much pussy they fucked. Jeremy handled this by running them down the hallway and screaming about skull-cracking and ball-breaking. Because of my undergraduate degree, I knew he was going about it all wrong. In cases like those, it was essential to involve the family as soon as possible, the early educators would say, because the biggest obstacle was often the parents’ refusal to recognize the gravity of their child’s behavior, which would only get worse. So if we can’t get the parents to wake up, we just have to get through the year without a knifing and then they’re somebody else’s problem. As a sub, I had no obligations so if I ever got a call for the slow kids’ class, I turned it down.
It rained a lot that spring. During kids’ happy hour, they sat at their desks, holding their chins in their palms and looking at the rain wash the windows. Then, out of nothing but boredom, some little boy would smack some little girl upside the head, just to get something to happen for a few minutes. I always let the little girl scream for a while to keep something happening.
On the first day of warm, sunny weather, halfway through May, Jeremy and I were taking care of the afterschool kids. He watched the ones who chose to play outside, the majority of them, and I watched the others, the ones like me who didn’t understand what the big deal about nice weather was. They all sat happily clicking away on the school’s laptops, keeping up with their social networks, but even I appreciated the warm breeze coming in from the open windows and the sound of children laughing and screaming. I liked how their laughter and their terror sounded the same.
I opened up a story I had been working on and began typing. The words flowed, as they say, and I felt like it was because of the connection I had unwittingly developed with the children. It was good for me to be around them, to charge myself on their raw potential, to put my preconceived notions away again and again day after day. And I couldn’t help feeling that this relationship was reciprocal, that I did, after all, manage to have a positive influence on these kids, maybe not in a quantifiable way, maybe not in a way that could be measured for years, maybe not even in a way that most of them would remember, no, probably not. But at that moment, I was content to exist as a seed in the forest of all that would be good in their lives.
Then, I heard whistling. The wolf-kind, the whit-whew kind that construction workers do in old movies. After that, a cacophony of male voices howled: “Ow! Ow! Ow!” I slammed my feet onto the floor and sat erect. If I had been a dog, my ears would have perked up. Finally, I heard, “Take it all off!” and I dashed (Yes, “dash” is the right word to describe what I did.) to the window. I saw the back of Lou-lou’s body, wearing an undershirt and her underpants. Those cocksucking fucker sixth-grade hoods were trying to persuade her to take off her bottoms. I shouted, “Lou-lou! Get in here. NOW.” One of the boys said, “Oh, shit,” and they scattered, hooting and laughing away to safety.
A moment later, Lou-lou came skipping into the holding room still in her underthings. The indoor kids, mostly boys, good kids, but boys, looked up from their screens and stared. I shot over to Lou-lou and whispered, “Honey, where are your clothes?”
“Outside, where I left them,” she said, clasping her hands in front of her privates. “Do you want me to go get them?”
“Yes,” I said, and then realized that would she would go off skipping again half-naked into the playground. “No. No. I’m gonna take you to the girls’ room and I’ll go get your clothes. Don’t come out till I get back. OK?” I turned to the boys and told the oldest one that he was in charge for a few minutes.
“OK,” she said, skipping slowly. “I wish you were our sub more often, I missed you, you were always my favorite, everybody liked, everybody liked you and thought you were cool.Do you remember the time we built the universe out of styrofoam?”
“Thanks, Lou-lou,” I said, opening the bathroom door for her. “I’ll be right back.”
I went outside to the patch of dirt that had served as Lou-lou’s stage and retrieved her K-Mart jeans and her t-shirt. It had a blue cartoon dog on it. No particular breed, just the floppy ears and hanging tongue that signify “dog.” I felt like a cop returning a girl’s clothes after she’d been raped.
After Lou-lou put her clothes back on, we sat outside the girls’ bathroom, leaning up against the lockers with our knees hugged to our chests. I didn’t say anything. I think there’s some child psychology technique that encourages the adult to stay silent so as not to lead the conversation, but really, I just didn’t know how the fuck to approach it. Finally, Lou-lou, tapping her feet and looking at her knees, said, “I feel like I did something wrong.”
“What do you think you did, Lou-lou?” I asked.
“I don’t think I was supposed to take my clothes off in front of those boys,” she said. Her eyebrows were smushed together and her eyes were all crinkled up, as if she were understanding her mistake for the first time.
“‘Cause you’re supposed to keep your private parts private,” she said. This was a direct quote from health class. “I forgot.”
“That’s OK,” I said. “Lou-lou, can you tell me why you took off your clothes in front of those boys.”
She scrunched her lips together and sat on her hands. “They told me they had a puppy.”
I felt like my heart was leaking out of my body and taking my lungs with it. What was I supposed to say? If she’s eight and giving it away for a puppy, isn’t it already too late to stop her from becoming an eighteen-year-old who gives it away for her tuition? Or her rent? I didn’t even know if it was my place to stop her. I wasn’t her dad, wasn’t even a real teacher, just a sub who usually came in hungover or stoned. Maybe Jeremy was right. Maybe it wasn’t too early to condemn these kids for the rest of their lives based on their current behavior. Maybe some little girls were supposed to grow up to be strippers.
I took her to the prinicipal’s office to report what happened. The secretary gasped, pulled Lou-lou away from me and said, “I’ll handle this from here on. We’ll have to get a statement from you tomorrow morning.”
On the way back to kids’ happy hour, I saw her dad getting out of his truck. I imagined how he would be in the principal’s office, taking off his cap, crumpling it in his hands and saying, “Her and her dogs.”
“I miss you,” I said. “So does Mom.”
He held out his hand and patted my cheek with his cigar fingers. It wasn’t exactly a touch, more like cold water touching my skin, then instantly evaporating. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Let’s take a walk.”
He led me into the bathroom. “This is where I ended up after you arrived.” Then he drew back the curtain and opened the window, saying, “Take a look.”
I did but I couldn’t see anything. I should have been looking at the east side of the neighbor’s building, illuminated by the street lamps, but instead it was as if someone had put up a blackboard. “What?”
He peered out the window. “You can’t see anything?”
I shook my head.
He shook his. “I wonder how long it takes to know all the rules.” He turned to the right and to the left as if searching for something. “You must have a lighter on you.”
I pulled the elastic of my shorts. “Boxers. No pockets.”
Grumbling, he moved past me and opened the linen closet to pulll out a flashlight. Before he closed the door, I caught a glimpse of my old Star Wars sheets. A click came from the flashlight and my dad directed its light toward the open window. “Now do you see?”
I saw. Replacing the neighbor’s home and who knew how much of Florida was a shallow cave. The ground and the walls appeared shiny, wet and black, like an oil spill. At the far end of the cave, piled up and stacked like a game of Tetris, were boxes, cardboard boxes, the kind you used to move. Familiar handwriting announced such contents as “shoes,” “Brian’s,” “Dad’s books,” “kitchen.” At the top of the stack, a few rows had been removed, revealing that there was another layer of boxes behind that one. A ladder rested on the ground.
“What the fuck?” I said. I hadn’t used that word since I arrived; Dad had always been the parent you could cuss in front of.
My dad sighed. I could feel his breath on the side of my face. It was so cold that ice crystals formed on my cheek. They melted against the heat of my head. I went to wipe away the condensation, but the moisture had already dried up.
“I’m not sure what the fuck,” he said. “But no matter what window or door I open, this is where I come out.” Then he handed me the flashlight and jumped out the window. “Remember, I don’t know what all the rules are.”
He took one my hands and led me out into the cave. It was like being held by water, though his grip was firm. The ground underneath me had that feel, too, like water solidified without being frozen. The cave seemed bigger and taller than it had from the other side. I heard my dad behind me, chuckling.
“What?” I said, facing him. I was 16 when I passed my dad in height and then kept growing another 3 inches to 6’1, but in the cave I had to look up to him again, something I’d only done figuratively in 18 years.
He ruffled my hair. “My boy,” he said.
I observed my body. From the look of my skinny arms, my hairless legs, the acne on my chest, this must have been me at 11? 12?
“What the fuck?” I said.
“Like I said, I don’t know the rules,” he told me. “And don’t swear. You’re too young.”
Despite everything, I was happy death hadn’t killed his sense of humor.