Issue (Autumn 2007)
seethes when Sharon insists that mixing green beans with cans of
fried onions and cream of mushroom soup is Southern. As if
calling it Southern somehow keeps the Northern world at bay. As
if being Southern is the ultimate exotica. As if green beans and
mushroom soup isn’t Good Housekeeping recipe American Style
Number 1A. Ben recognizes his green bean anger marks a downhill
slide in this relationship. He can no longer be treated as an
alien interloper. He wasn’t born in Iceland. / /
bean casserole is plain American,” he patiently explains in
the tiny kitchen with the peeling linoleum, the rhododendrons
outside catching the drizzle. Sharon is making grits and red-eye
gravy and country ham, his favorite breakfast. She isn’t
wearing a bra and she looks good. She won’t meet his gaze.
"Try South Dakota, Indiana, even New Jersey. They
know green bean casserole served with hot dogs wrapped in
crescent rolls and fucking patriotic Jello." What he is
saying is her family’s hard-scrabble backwoods existence
messing with a wilderness far beyond control has left them
stupidly provincial. They aren’t the first family to work
the land. His ancestors crawled into the wilderness further west
without ever clamoring to be called Daniel Boone. Where he came
from, people traveled north, south, east, west./ /
tired of tobacco and chickens, of sleeping with his feet exposed
to the air in her too-short bed, of her old house with the
curtains keeping the sun light at bay, tired of the black bog of
family dinners at her mother’s. He has put in his time
fishing for bass with Papa Ray in the quiet morning in green
water rich with moss and minnows. He isn’t unappreciative.
He has learned everything he knows about gardening, livestock,
catfish, hush-puppies and peaches and gooseberry pie from her
But the time has played out. Three years of
traveling back to her North Carolina roots from college has given
them a history. Three years of playing house and taking care of
each other. Three good years with nakedness and oblivion. But a
degree is meant to open doors. To move and shift. This argument
is about staying or starting over with a clean slate. What he
wants is to go west of the Mississippi where he can teach.
weeks later Ben leaves the bottom land of sweet potatoes,
mosquitoes, and earth mother knowledge of crystals like a wounded
sixteen year old. In his hurry his tires spin at the mud
searching for solid ground. Halfway through Tennessee he is still
fumbling through tapes and mumbling half aloud, like if he finds
the right music, life will make sense. A hundred miles back he’d
pitched the bluegrass out the window. The Mississippi River lies
300 miles due west. Two months later he is in a rental trailer
perched on the fringes of suburbia in Kansas City, Missouri on
the edge of plains in August humid heat three days before he is
due to teach English to ninth graders. After three weeks of
flooding the teaching market in cities he knew little
about--Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, he took the first job
offered. The chaos of the U-Haul cross country plunge still
lingers, his world relegated to boxes and organizing categories,
not to mention the nagging worry about becoming a full time
professional teacher.A toaster still sits in the back seat of his
He is pared down, and a little mean—he’d
celebrated his twenty third birthday a week before in his new
world where he knew no one to call. Missing Sharon lying close
and her Southern silliness, he had called her. But she was out.
Friday morning two days before school starts, the
half-working air conditioner does not dent the heat. Ben is
working feverishly. He goes through the last of the boxes,
finding more to throw away then to save, determined to be settled
before teaching starts. He needs a hammer. He needs to check the
oil in his car. He needs to understand the complicated school
schedules, the health plan, the pension, what he will wear and
where he will park. He needs inspiration for speaking to 9^th
graders every day for the next year. He has made this choice. He
stifles a desire to try Sharon again. This train is moving
forward, not backward. The phone rings and he leaps to life, and
it is his brother, Don, insistent. He is in town in a last minute
layover. Can Ben pick him up?
Ben listens all the way
from the airport to Don’s frustrations with his new San
Francisco job, from Ben’s point of view a cushy enough
situation. But Don, at thirty, is on his fourth meteorologist
position in his fourth city. In his new suit he is used to the
bright lights. He hasn’t yet mentioned home in St.
Genevieve. With Cardinal baseball wafting from the dusty dash,
Don’s world seems a universe away. Don doesn’t know
his panic facing his new responsibilities. Don would already have
completed what needs to get done since he knows airports and
schedules, and responsibility; he has been to Stockholm, Bangkok,
and London. Being lost on the plains, where the sky dominates and
dust kills trees isn’t any place Don would choose to be.
"They don't even make postcards." Don says. Ben
grips the wheel hard, facing down a barreling tractor-trailer
with headlights at eye level. This VW is too old to be nimble,
and pretty much a death-trap, but Ben drives fast through a
landscape of car dealers and hardware stores, unsure about the
routes to get to him home. All his choices lead to mean edged
highways he would hate to die on. Past a Knobtown biker bar with
lurid neon and three police cars in the parking lot with red
lights flashing, Ben remembers Don’s first glory when
everyone in town knew he was going to California to be on TV.
While Ben was closing out high school and working at the
neighborhood grocery story, Don was formulating polished, linear
plans for a successful life. /Nothing just happens overnight/, he
told Ben. All Ben knew was that Don had never worked double
shifts, never smoked cigarettes or stood bored on a Friday night
waiting for closing as cars drove by in a swish, fueled by the
rumble of music in the humid night.
Don isn’t sure
even now if he can stay at his new job. "New York is the
center of the universe for this technology." He will go to
Italy in July if he finds the time.
When Ben lights a
cigarette, Don looks over with disdain. "Why are you still
And Ben feels stupid like he is ten again,
like he has been caught at the county fair hanging out with
tattooed carnival workers. He has felt this way before.
not that big of a deal," he says, aware of his younger
brother whine. He wants to tell Don to fuck off. Instead, he
drives faster. There is nothing to say.
Ben knows there
is no reason to fight. Don’s life is a green trail
stretching to the mountain top. He will breeze out tomorrow. They
are in the river bottom wasteland of concrete plants and
abandoned plant stands, and Don talks on about his California
friends who own property and play with stocks. In the distance
the bright lights of the shopping center are busy in the suburban
They purr up the gravel drive and see the trailer
bathed in the streetlight. Ben jokes. "I always said
everybody should live in a trailer at least once."
lived in better places," Don replies.
takes a hard look at the plaid sofa, the twenty year old
refrigerator, the ironing board propped in the living room. He
said nothing. Ben is exhausted. This is his brother and he is
glad to be with him, but he feels the pressure of all he needs to
do. “I need some sleep,” he murmurs. “Yeah,”
Don answers, “me, too. I think I’ll read the paper
and then hit it. Thanks for getting me.” Ben nods, smiling.
Don will be sleeping on his pull out couch, not twenty feet from
each other like they’d done as kids.
closes in. Don snores in the next room, and Ben is wired into the
movie of himself breaking down under the pawing needs of
energetic fifteen year olds. Out in the pasture behind his
trailer, the train comes and goes, already a bumping squealing
night ritual. Beyond the track is the Pfizer fertilizer plant, a
mere half mile away. Ben feels alone watching factory smoke drift
past the full summer moon. How could he let Sharon go? He
remembers dancing on the river bank to the light of a campfire.
So exotic now in this concrete suburb where all is uprooted
before it becomes old, like nothing is good enough to keep just
the way it was. He isn’t going to cringe and look for an
At four Ben stands on his porch smoking and
studying the late night cranking business at the pesticide
factory as lights from the railroad yard sweep over in a surreal
haze. Across the field of thistle and rock and burrs, the truck
traffic is nearly constant. Out the front window headlights from
early morning traffic on the highway outline the trees. Across
the gravel and the four lanes of highway is the high school where
he will teach come Monday. He can see the huge Tiger head
implanted on the front looking his way. Ben feels the prairie,
the black sky and days of dust stretching ahead. He just wants to
feel at home. He watches the five thirty train roaring through
his back yard. An hour and a half later he wakes to the sound of
the football team practicing, hitting the dummies.
and early twenty four hours later on Sunday his last day of
freedom, Ben bursts through the door. He has been up since five.
He has been to the airport and back. So Don can wing his way
westward once again. He immediately attacks the last of the
unopened boxes, serious now as he feels snake-like obsessive
whispers (like a father) about school time discipline and work
and sacrifice. He will address the world tomorrow--no matter what
condition he is in. He has one day to get there.
Ben’s worries, the first week of school is exhilarating. He
is passionate enough, and the students listen and like him. He is
the youngest English teacher, and the only male, of course.
Together he begins to find who these 9^th graders in five classes
are as they write and negotiate classroom rules and vent over
school policies. Mostly though they talk to learn each others’
needs. It will take weeks just to know their names. Already he is
scrambling to make the day run smoothly and to hide his
He calls Don three days into his first
week. It feels as if Don’s visit was a month before. Even
now Don is clueless Ben is awash in his first professional job,
that dealing with fifteen year olds might be overwhelming. Don
repeats his whining unhappiness, his vows to find the perfect job
where he gets the respect he deserves. Ben ends the call silently
Saturday morning with one week under his
belt of all round success, and Ben, used to give and take of the
crowd, can barely contain himself as he eagerly straightens the
chaos of the brainless, all go week. He takes three hits off an
old joint he has carted all the way from Alabama. He picks at the
high school yearbook he had dutifully carried from apartment to
apartment. There is Jackie Sommers in black and white looking
adventurous and fresh—with a smile, her eyes seeing
everything. She was a friend, on the side watching. He barely
knew her. Once only they had been alone. He in her house in the
summer when the air conditioning insulated. Sitting on a basement
couch close enough to touch working on college applications with
Ben wondering whether the electricity could cause something to
happen. Ben wondering whether she felt the same headlong impulse
simply to let go.
They remained the kind of friends that
didn’t need to talk—the memory of energy feeding
still. Ben stares again at her photo, seeing her beauty. He
starts then the letter to her to right what had never been said.
A letter assuming Jackie is far away and married with two kids
and a lawyer husband in Houston Texas. He writes, thinking of her
breasts underneath the white oxford shirt on that quiet afternoon
with only the family dog as company. That house where they met in
St. Genevieve is where this letter will go—if he sends it.
The windows are open and a light rain hits the tin roof;
off in the distance is the humming of the highway. In Jackie’s
yearbook smile is the knowledge of what could have been. He
wishes now he had spent more time with her. When he finishes the
letter he walks to the mailbox and sends the letter back to the
home town which seems a thousand miles away.
Monday morning, the teachers’ lounge swirls with activity.
Ben stands in a corner reading the fist-full of office messages
from his mailbox. He has seven hand outs he needs to copy before
class begins in 17 minutes. He feels a tap on his shoulder and he
turns in panic. His principal, Dan Hurley, looks at him intently
and not too sympathetically. Dan as usual is immaculate in his
shiny suit with white shirt and tie. He wears his hair in the
flat top he has had since he was a boy. In Dan’s office,
Ben has seen pictures of Dan as a boy scout in Olathe, Kansas.
Looking at Ben now is a bloated version of that open faced
Catholic boy eager to please. Dan pulls Ben aside. He has
something to say. /There’s a meeting at Central Office at
eight thirty. A substitute has been hired for you./
/Ben is confused and he nods, looking to Dan’s eyes. But
Dan has no time for questions, he is already turning to leave. As
Ben watches Dan’s receding suit, he is unsettled. He shoves
his hand-outs in his mailbox. What about his kids and the poems
and writing and jokes to make time flow? He wants to believe this
is a normal Dan interruption, that it is standard practice to
pull teachers out of class. He enters the crowded hallway with
students banging at lockers and laughter and talk signaling the
start of the school machine. There are friendly calls from
students as he moves to his room where a substitute already
scribbles directions on the board. Christy, already his
unofficial helper, is there in the front sit doing her homework.
"I thought you weren't going to be here."
He moves on, heading for the
front door and the parking lot. How can anyone take his place?
Ben drives into the bright sun tasting something
metallic. Now that he isn’t teaching, he feels like taking
the detour to home and sleeping. Is Sharon already at work
drinking her coffee? Does she feel him thinking of her? Those
mornings waking and clinging, her arms reaching bringing him
awake, her stretching, naked and lithe. Before it all got tighter
and tighter like jeans shrinking in the dryer. He thinks about
Sharon all the way to the Central Office.
The entry way
and the secretaries are cheerful enough. Ben sits, wondering if
it is all a mistake, on a couch bought from an educational
catalogue. The secretary who motioned him to this seat wears
bright red lipstick like a too cheerful Sunday school teacher.
What do others know that he doesn’t? His contract maybe,
his choice of health plans, a missing transcript. No other
teachers are milling about waiting to be interviewed. Stifling a
feeling of doom, Ben moves to a plastic seat closer to the
secretary feeling like a junior high boy ready to be disciplined.
Ten minutes later she motions to Ben with a kind smile,
and he shuffles into the superintendent’s chambers—the
name in gold plating on the door—Bernard C. Uhls. The sun
comes into bright from the window, on Ben and the bear-like,
friendly Superintendent he met once before for a ten second hand
shake. Ben’s smile is tentative, still seeking the clue for
meaning. Bernard’s gray suit doesn’t hide his
expansive stomach. He seems friendly as he motions Ben to a chair
before his clean and polished desk.
“Ben, I am glad
you are here. I wonder if you would answer some questions for me?
“Sure,” Ben replies, knowing now something
beyond his teaching is behind this meeting.
like to write?” Bernard asks.
something about stories, poems, film sketches, letters, a
half-done novel. He is blushing. How to explain a journal? He
makes no apologies for his talents. He talks about a paragraph
published in the newspaper when he was in third grade. And about
his journal writing emanating from the National Writing Project.
“Why do you like it?”
Ben talks about
the need to get something down, to leave evidence and record
stories, and the value of writing in learning about his students.
About the power of practice and learning from his mistakes. He is
becoming increasingly nervous, his voice quavers. He slips a hand
to cover a twitch in his chin.
“How often do you
“Not enough. I try to make writing a
habit, but sometimes school gets in the way.” Ben looks
down under Bernard’s steady gaze. He doesn’t know yet
what he has done and his energy is draining.
are classes going?
“I like my students. They have
energy. The first week has gone better than I expected. I have
only been in town for two weeks. I have much to learn, sir.”
"Call me Bernard," the superintendent says. He
pulls at his desk drawer, peers within, then holds up
triumphantly a thin grey book Ben quickly recognizes as his
journal, his chronicle and history. He is numb, the game is
over--he is ready to give the fat man his fingerprints.
"How...?" Ben stammers in a weak sense of
Bernard reaches for his phone. Ben struggles to
understand the journals travels to this office. Did Dan Hurley
pry in his desk searching for contraband? (Was he suspicious all
along?) Who knows about Sharon across the volleyball net like a
predatory cat, the rides down from the mountain while she pawed
at his pants? About Tom in his acid trance howling with the
coyotes? He wants to bolt. But he sits quietly as Bernard talks
on the phone with Ben’s journal still in his hand.
Bernard looks at the journal. "A girl
in your class found this in her homework."
washed up on the beach, jellied and beaten.
District Principles—nine in all—enter, and Ben
realizes they are here for him. Next to him sits the Assistant
Superintendent, Clyde looking like a western horseman with
evangelist slicked black hair. Clyde who enthusiastically
welcomed Ben after the first interview now scowls and avoids
Ben’s nod of recognition. The other Assistant
Superintendent, Jim Brockman, a Baptist deacon and former coach,
meets Ben’s eyes. Next to him, looking tired is Dan Hurley,
who two weeks before shared his intimate boy scout stories.
thinks of brother Don, newly awake, with a toasted bagel and
cream cheese and an espresso, reaching for his Wall Street
Journal, oblivious of what is going on. Brother Don feeling the
golden cool California sun. Ben is freezing in the
air-conditioning. Bernard clears his throat. “Ben, tell us
Ben stumbles first. His mother the
school teacher with decades of unselfish giving. His father’s
work ethic and quiet strength. The family passion for travel and
seeing how others live. His work history from paper route at
twelve to working through college. His confirmation in the
church, the 7th grade championship softball game, the writing
award in 10th grade, being an Eagle Scout. His new teaching
profession, the desire to give students voices, make them
life-long readers who question. Ben gains confidence as he takes
stock. If they are going to fire him anyway, they need to know
who they are letting go.
When he stops Ben looks for
signs his frank and modest overview has had an effect. He knows
well enough that the attitudes in the journal (which are
everything) do not fit the role of high school teacher. He has
broken a code and allowed the hidden to mix with the air. He
scans faces. Who has read the journal, and how much have they
read? Who has read the sections describing his Dan Hurley as an
Clyde has a question. “Ben, do
you have designs on any of your girls?”
Appreciation maybe, but not designs. How to explain his love for
their beauty, how they tower above the boys with their still
growing just firm half-womanly breasts, with the potential they
don’t yet realize? He has written about his girls in his
journal, describing in detail their innocent beauty, their clear,
"I don't go for girls on the brink of
puberty. I prefer the older ones." He stops. Anything more
is trouble. “The bottom line is I would never
inappropriately touch one of my students.” His look to
Clyde challenges any hint he might do otherwise. Clyde nods. This
is what he wants to hear. He has enough womanizer in his veins to
appreciate Ben’s appreciation of beauty and grace.
your journal go home on purpose?"
"No. I didn't
know it was gone." His voice trails off, thankful this is
the truth. What he knows is that his personal life—something
only his—has slipped into the public domain for these men
to take home.
Then he waits--the hard questions about
marijuana, wild life on St. Simon's Island, Georgia, grits and
nakedness hang in the air waiting to devastate. He waits for the
journal to drain into the air. Sharon in the garden harvesting
dill and thyme. April abandon at the beach. Descriptions of the
size of Dan Hurley’s head. A week’s lust for a fellow
teacher. Nakedness and drugs and more. Maybe Clyde sees only
pitiful, unfinished fiction that can easily be dismissed. Maybe
Bernard has not read closely. In the quiet air no questions
appear. Barnard hands over the journal. "Let's try to keep
this out of school."
Then Ben is excused. His
directions: Go home. Wait.
On Ben’s way from the
room, Dan Hurley takes him aside.
"We'll wait and
see what the group says." He is still cold, unconvinced of
anything. Dan Hurley has read every word.
Outside in the
wild air Ben knows the artifice of stability he has cultivated
since he took this job is gone, blown away in the hot breeze from
the highway. In the car the plastic upholstery is boiling, it is
not even noon and already his week, month, year has been
brutalized—his devious adolescent nature exposed. He
drives, numb, past the high school and out to the country
hedgerows of hawthorn, sumac and sassafras. The cows in the
fields are oblivious to his fate, and he contemplates never
By a creek sheltered from the sun he
watches early fall leaves in slow drift downstream. He wants
Sharon, her gentle reaching for his hand, her music and food.
Where is she now? Can she feel long distance his horror? He
stands feeling shaky. He hasn’t eaten. He is not teacher or
lover, he is a child waiting a decision. He slides on sunglasses
and drives back to the trailer in the baking sun. At three he
sees the kids free of school walking the railroad track,
backpacks on shoulders. He waits, feeling his sins.
phone rings at four fifteen and Ben jumps, startled back into
"Jim Brockman here."
minutes later Ben sits in Jim’s office. Jim has his feet up
and as he talks he watches the band practicing on the football
field. Trophies sit behind his desk along with pictures of his
family. Ben notices a cross on his lapel. Jim is all business.
"I was impressed by what you told us this morning.
It took bravery.”
Ben shrugs. “I put myself
there by being stupid.”
Jim continues. “When
I was young I did a lot of wild things, riding trains, working
out West, sometimes without any money. I don’t regret those
experiences. They helped make me what I am. The bottom line is
that I see a good person behind your experiences. Because of
this, I have voted to keep you with us.” He looks to the
window again and smiles. “Would you pray with me?”
Ben nods. Of course he would do anything.
Father, bless this young man and lead him to the path to
righteousness. Show him the goodness of your mercy. Aide him in
instructing minds. And help him live up to his abilities. In
Jesus’ name. Amen."
Ben isn’t back in
his trailer ten minutes before the phone rings. This time it is
Dan Hurley reporting his latest news. The iron in his voice is
gone, though the old boy scout affection hasn’t returned.
"Ben, I'm not sure what went on today. I was ready
to let you go. But you convinced people of your worth, and I
respect those opinions. So we want you back at work and we will
treat this like it never happened. The girl, Caroline, is being
transferred from your class."
Ben broke in. "I'd
like to talk to her parents and apologize."
that wouldn't be good. They are fundamentalists. They read the
journal. They gave the journal to the superintendent.”
"No, it would not be good
to talk with them. That is my job.”
way. I read the journal,” (he pauses), “and parts of
it are good. We'll talk more tomorrow. Let's put this behind us."
Ben sits with head on his desk. Act like nothing
happened? As if anything can be turned off. He reaches for the
phone book and calls Caroline. He takes a deep breath and
introduces himself to Caroline’s mother. A half hour later
he drives into an endless neighborhood of new ranch homes.
Caroline and her mother are waiting and Ben feels driven.
class Caroline had been quiet, sweet, pretty and smart. Surely
the journal confused her. Enough so that she took it to her
mother. Who took it to Bernard. Ben wants only to wipe away the
stupidity of it all. Then Caroline smiles in the opened door as
if he has done nothing wrong. Her mother is just behind the door.
Ben gives them no time to start. He blurts out his
"Dan Hurley told me not to come by. I’m
sorry to bother you. I just needed to tell you in person. I'm not
really the person in that journal. I can’t leave you with
the wrong impression."
By then the mother is hugging
him and Caroline is crying like it is her fault. And she is hurt
to hear she will be moved from his class. They drink tea and
talk. And he stays for supper. Afterwards Caroline and her
sisters play gospel songs on their guitars. Caroline’s
mother hugs him again as he leaves promising to come back soon.
It is eight o’clock and Ben feels nauseous driving
home. An hour later Clyde calls to say Ben is “a fine young
man,” and Ben thanks him and apologizes again.
spends the rest of the week with his one and only responsibility
-- more than a hundred ninth graders. Preparing for theater and
oral reading and asking for opinions. Feeding writing and reading
every day. Scouring anthologies of literature and planning themes
and writing assignments. Discovering by trial the pulling
together of classes, he spends nearly every waking minute on
teaching for he is only days ahead of his students in planning.
Vocabulary tests and Romeo and Juliet. The lady and the tiger and
the most dangerous game. Maya Angelou and Jimmy Santiago Baca and
Sharon Olds and William Faulkner. He is surviving school and
almost thriving. He draws looks in the hall even from those he
doesn’t know. His students come to talk before school
begins. He works to meet expectations of his colleagues and new
friends--Marylou, a thirty year old divorcee with a ten year old
daughter, and Jim McMillen, the yearbook newspaper advisor and
one of the most popular teachers in the school. There is talk of
faculty basketball games, of drinking beer. All in all Ben has
had a successful week (if he forgets his day of vacation).
When Ben wakes at four
to the train he reaches for Sharon. After a month of school he
knows well the factory smoking in the dead of night with a
freight train loading--/ugly/ showing its face like
road-kill along the highway. He smells cat urine in his closet
and he knows the cat has peed on his laundry pile again. He
closes his eyes and tries to bring Sharon close. She knows things
no one else does.
He wakes again at six feeling a
reprieve. It is Saturday morning. The last train echoes in the
distance, out into Kansas now following the river bottom into the
dryness. He has work to do. Within an hour Ben is setting up a
fish tank stocked with koi. A pile of school work lies ready to
be read. Ben thinks of calling Sharon but he doesn’t.
hours later in the middle of his oatmeal the phone rings. He
hears the quiet voice and feels the shiver from the past. It is
Jackie. She just received the letter (forwarded from her
parents). She has read it twice, unable to believe he sent it.
Ben listens for evidence she understands the letter’s foggy
message--"I always was interested in you and have wondered
often what it would mean to spend time with you." And that
is the message she has received and she is flattered and
interested. She is happy. She lives twenty miles up the road in
Independence, and she is a dental hygienist.
At seven Ben
is pawing through his new wardrobe. He is dressing casual—a
shirt and jeans—for Jackie. The same outfit he wore for his
first visit to Sharon’s catfish pond home. He remembers
sitting in his car watching the lightning bugs drift skyward and
Sharon quietly unbuckling his jeans and taking him in eagerly
with her mouth. He cringes, seeing again Sharon’s brother
leaning on the barn sixty feet away.
Surely all that and
more was in the journal. He doesn’t have time to check. He
grabs his keys, heading out for Independence and Jackie.