My Father always referred to the bulge of kids crowding out of the twin elevators in the morning and charging down the upper hallways at Dalton toward their “Houses” (home-rooms, to you) as “the thundering herd”. -- something out of a wildlife documentary. All those pounding feet made the floors tremble. It wasn’t enthusiasm for learning, exactly -- just pent-up energy. Those elevators were slow, and most of the Houses were in the classrooms above the sixth floor. Each House Advisor had kids from all four grades under his care. Emily Traherne and Pat Brinkley, from my life-drawing and art history classes, with in my House, with three other seniors and an assortment from the rest of the high school.
I walked in and inventoried the room.
Tim Cullen, a tense pudgy ninth grader, was sitting in a corner by the window that looked out over 89th street, absorbed in a book. A bunch of sophomore girls were texting their friends and laughing. Wayne Pratt, my TA, was bent over a map of Africa with Kara Melamo. She was explaining Bostwanian democracy to him in sharp didactic tones and emphatic gestures. She was a lovely girl, a poised, perfectly turned-out little blade of a person with sharp features and astounding self-confidence. She had been home-schooled for a while in Venezuela, a class and a school of one; maybe that had something to do with it. Her Dad was marine biologist and her Mom had a specialty involving dry land ecology. Of course she’d be smart. She spoke three languages and already seemed poised to take over the student government. She didn’t even glance up as I walked by.
Mark Donohue, a rangy blond skateboard genius and his absurdly handsome but uncoordinated pal Sam Poland were bent over an issue of Surfer magazine, two blond heads making a sculpture of studious probity as they compared the rip tides and rock outcroppings at Maverick’s and Shipstern’s Bluff. It was all fantasy for Sam, but Mark might actually be paddling -- or being towed, more likely -- into those massive waves some day. His family had a ramshackle house in East Hampton and he was already making a daredevil reputation there on the biggest days.
Pam stared at me urgently as I pulled my coat off, but I held up one finger and walked over to Tim Cullen. Paul Benedict, his English teacher, had expressed some concern about Tim. The boy’s homework was sloppy or non-existent, his reading barely at grade level, his class participation “Ghostly at best.” Very literary: you could tell Paul was working on a book of his own, some big novel that he hoped would become the voice of his generation; but you could also tell that he’d been working on it for decades and he was never going to finish.
As for Tim Cullen, he was reading 1984 this morning, and he was almost done.
“Hey,” I said. “Cramming for a test?”
“I’m not reading this for school, Mr. Mallory. We’re reading The Pearl this week in English class.”
“Ugh. Sorry, but he’s just bad. He even admits it. I read this diary he wrote. That’s all he talks about -- what a bad writer he is.”
“All writers feel that way sometimes.”
“But Steinbeck was right.”
I pulled up a chair. “So you prefer Orwell.”
“Yeah.” He turned the word into a two-syllabled, stupidity-stunned statement of the obvious.
“Okay,” I said.
“Like this part. Winston -- he’s the hero … have you read the book, I mean recently? Because everybody should.”
“I think I read it in high school,” I said.
“Well you should really read it again, Mr. Mallory. People say he got everything wrong but he got everything right. The constant war and the lottery and even the machine that makes up stupid songs.”
“Well, we don’t have telescreens,” I offered.
“No. Just cameras with facial recognition programs everywhere, and key-stroke trackers on your computer and those On-Star units in people’s cars. It’s a total surveillance state, Mr. Mallory. If you say the word ‘bomb’ on the phone the NSA starts recording the call, and the next thing you know you’re on a terrorist watch list. Then you’re gone. The government can kill you now, like that Awlaki guy. All they have to do is say you’re a terrorist.”
“Whoa. It’s a little early in the morning, Tim,” I said.
He looked down. “Sorry. Anyway … this part I’m reading? Winston is thinking about the proles, the working class people and how they managed to sort of, I don’t know, stay human? Because they’re below politics. All they have is their personal lives, so … they still feel things, I guess – and Winston doesn’t. He has to kind of teach himself how to be human. So listen to this sentence -- hold on …” he ran his finger down the page, stopped at the end of a long paragraph. “Okay -- ‘And in thinking this he remembered, without apparent relevance, how a few weeks ago, he had seen a severed hand lying on the pavement and had kicked it into the gutter as though it had been a cabbage stalk.’”
Tim looked up at me with a harsh glitter of victory in his eyes. “What do you think of that?”
“I think I have to read the book again.”
“But you also have to finish The Pearl and write a book report on it.”
“But it’s so bad.”
‘So say that. Rip it apart. Paul -- Mr. Benedict -- would love that.”
“Sure. Just back up what you say -- lots of examples. You might even have some fun with it. Lead with that quote from Steinbeck’s diary.”
“Cool. Okay. Thanks, Mr. Mallory.”
Pat Brinkley had walked up to me; she took my arm now. “I have to talk to you.”
I let her lead me a few steps toward my desk. “What’s going on?”
“It’s Pam. I’m really worried about her.”
“What’s going on?”
“She’s just … she’s acting so crazy lately. Like she hates everything and nothing matters and everyone sucks. You know?”
“It’s a mood. It’s part of being a teen-ager.”
“Yeah, but she’s … I don’t know. I think she’s doing drugs now. She’s like who cares if It feels good? She hasn’t even started her college applications and she never does homework. Can you talk to her?”
“Have you tried talking to her?”
“Right, that’s what she wants, a scolding from Miss perfect. She’s been in trouble all year. If they catch her with drugs or cutting class or anything like that she’s going to get suspended and then she’ll never get into a good school. She’s just out of control and I can’t do anything about it. It’s like I let her drive drunk or something. And now she’s going to crash.”
She seemed winded by that last speech. No one was paying attention to us. Three kids were playing a game of hangman at the blackboard: thirteen letters, with four “o”s. Show-offs.
I’ll try but I should probably talk to your parents first.”
“They know. They spend half their life in the Principal’s office! Just – she respects you, okay? If she knew you were worried she might – might get through to her.”
‘Okay,’ I said. “It’s worth a shot.’
Kara Melamo darted up to us. “I’m trying out for Our Town,” she said. I want to be Emily but I’ll probably just get Rebecca.”
“Rebecca’s a good part.”
“But it’s small.”
I thought about the ardent, greedy little girl who loved money and new dresses, and day-dreamed about the mind of God.
“Rebecca is perfect for you,” I said. “You’ll have plenty of time to play the leads.”
“I’m sick of being a kid.”
“There,” I said. “You sound just like Rebecca. You’ll be perfect.”
I was free first period and I ran into Ray Tarses on my way to the teacher’s lounge.
“I’m still waiting, Robert,” he said.
Right -- I was supposed to have been mulling his promotion offer. I felt bad: it was an honor and a privilege to be considered as head of Art Department at a venerated private school like Dalton. The prospect should have sparked a quick grateful acceptance. At the very least it deserved a period of thoughtful consideration; but the job hadn’t crossed my mind since Carla moved out. No need to tell that to Tarses, though.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. Just give me a few more days.”
He raised one bushy eye-brow. “Something in the works?”
He didn’t miss much. We were standing by the water fountain. I leaned over for a gulp: tepid as usual. “Maybe,’ I said, straightening up. “I hope so.”
He smiled, patted my arm. “Well I’ll be honest and say I wish you well and at the same time fervently pray that this opportunity comes to nothing and that all your most cherished hopes will be crushed.”
I brushed the water off my lip with my sleeve. “Uh thank you, sir. I think?”
“I’ve built this faculty on the ruins of wrecked ambition, Robert. But I have no regrets and neither do my teachers.” He gripped my upper arm. “Just remember: not getting what you think you want and getting what you think you don’t could be the best thing that never happened to you.”
I had to laugh. “That would be a great bumper sticker, sir. If you had a really big car.”
He released my arm, and nodded as if I was serious. “Maybe I’ll get one made for our school buses. Plenty of room. And it would give people something to think about while the red lights are flashing.”
He took the elevator down to the second floor after that and I strolled back along the corridor toward the faculty lounge. First Period was well launched by that time and Enid Grimble’s trigonometry class was taking a spot quiz. I paused to look in through the glass panes of the door.
I felt a swift craven clench of dread and regret. I didn’t want to see what I was seeing. I didn’t want to have to deal with it. Best to just walk on, but I was afraid any sudden movement would draw attention to me. Bedsides, I needed to be sure.
It didn’t take long. They were so obvious, it was like a Kabuki play: The Cheating of Noah-san and the Bulajic. All they needed was face-paint. Noah had tilted his paper over so that Max could read it easily and Max was leaning half-way over Noah’s seat-desk for a better look.
As for the famously oblivious Miss Grimble (she disdained the ‘Johnny-come-lately feminist cant’ of the “Ms.” Designation, though the term had been around for almost three hundred years and in universal use in America since the 1970s) -- she saw nothing. She was scribbling in a moleskine notebook -- rumor had that she was writing her own popular history of mathematics -- glancing up occasionally with the sightless gaze of inspiration.
Nearing eighty, now, many people thought Enid should have retired long ago, but she was the last hold-out from the glory days of Jack Creedon and Donald Barr. Eisenhower was president when Enid began teaching in the late fifties. There were no boys in the high school then, and the girls wore blue uniforms. Enid was treated with a cautious reverence -- she had been invited to tea with Helen Parkhurst! -- and her lapses were over-looked. She could be stern and ruthless with students when she caught them misbehaving. She had famously yanked Sadie Carmichael back into the building by her waist-length blond hair the year before, when she caught the sophomore girl trying to slip out of school for a cigarette between classes, She pulled Sadie off her feet and dragged her half-way across the main lobby screaming and crying. Sadie’s parents had insisted on confronting Miss Grimble, but their anger had withered under that famous Puritan stare.
Still, Enid noticed less and less these days. Her mind was on her book, or her cooking club, or the King Charles spaniels she still entered into dog shows: anything but the kids right in front of her who were cheating with a kind of blasé insolence that made me want to stride into the room, confiscate their test papers and drag them down to Tarses’ office by the waistbands of their baggy blue jeans.
Except that one of them was Noah Lewis. That part made no sense at all. Why was he of all people doing something like this? Various answers came to mind, ranging from bad to awful: a bid for popularity? A dare? Was it just bullying? Or some kind of creepy adolescent blackmail? Or did Noah really have a connection with the scariest kid in school?
I was still mulling it over when I hit the teacher’s lounge for coffee. Paul Benedict and Mike Tonkin who taught history were riffing on the difficulties of getting published.
“So I’m too ‘out there’ for the sales reps?” Benedict was saying. “Fine. My next book is gonna be about multiracial boy scouts who learn about each others' cultures and become friends, and someone gets cancer and gets cured through the power of prayer Okay? And the gay kid turns straight and marries the ugly girl for her personality. How's that, ass face? Bland enough for ya?”
Tonkin laughed. “Sounds great.”
“And in the end everyone but the villain gets taken up to Heaven in the Rapture.”
“All you need now is vampires dragon and wizards. Plus you gotta set it in some kid-centric dystopia. Gotta have the dystopia.”
“Yeah, yeah, this good. I’m liking this. Teen-age wizard dragons get cured of vampirism. It's a metaphor! And it happens in the future when all the grown-ups are dead! The Road meets Beyond Thunderdome meets Lord of the Flies. With dragons! Ugly dragons with good personalities. Crap. I need some more coffee.”
“No you don’t. You need a sedative.”
I poured my own as Nora Felleman came in with an essay test blue book in her hand. Nora was the Head of the English Department, the youngest ever at forty, and managed to survive somehow without even a speck of humor. The affliction ought to be fatal, but I thought of the kid with no immune system, living in a bubble. Maybe that was all you needed. Nora had an excellent bubble, but something seemed to have penetrated it this morning..
“Excuse me,” she said, calling a meeting to order. If she had a glass she would have clinked it with a knife. “Everyone? Could I have a moment?”
We all turned to her – six teachers, none of them quite awake yet.
“This test paper was turned last Friday.” She lifted it, to clarify things. “The quiz concerned the last act of Hamlet. Like all the others it consisted of a twenty-five quotations, which required both attribution and context. Some people feel this is an unduly stringent and arduous way to absorb the meaning and value of a Shakespearean drama.” She sniffed. “Most of those people went to public school. In any case … one student has given me … a challenge, I suppose. With a quotation of her own at the end of the paper.”
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Emma Traherne. I believe she’s one of yours.”
I wasn’t sure whether she meant my home room, my art class or my pernicious influence. I didn’t ask.
“Read it to us,” Benedict said.
Nora shifted a few pages. “All right. ‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow from this stony rubbish? Son of Man you cannot say or guess for you know only heap of broken images where the sun beats’.”
Paul Benedict breathed out a low whistle. “Wow.”
“Any ideas? Anyone?”
I felt like saying poetry is your department – aren’t you supposed to know this stuff? I could tell a Pissarro landscape from a Cezanne, even when they were painting the same hay field from the same angle.
“Sounds like Eliot,” Tonkin offered.
“Or Blake?” Benedict attempted.
No one else said anything. The school was quiet. A distant siren whined, the big old radiators clanked. I could hear the elevator grumbling upstairs.
“I’ll tell you what I think,” Nora said, finally.. “It does sound like Eliot. You’re right about that, Mike. But here’s the thing. Here’s what I think. I think It’s just plain not good enough to be Eliot. I think the Traherne girl just made it up to embarrass me. She’s very clever, very… facile. But I’m not fooled.”
“Good for you,” Paul said.
I had to smile – I wished this was my ‘pernicious influence.’ Emma could have written an editorial in The Daltonian, criticizing Ms. Felleman’s spirit sucking pedantry. This was better. Speaking truth to power is brave; but cracking wise at it shows some style.
I asked Emma about the quotation later, when we were painting the rusted skeleton of the lighterage pier on the Hudson at 68th Street. I had made sure all the kids had full watercolor color palettes for the field trip – I wanted them to catch the red streaks of rust, the bizarre prarie ochre of the weedy grass, the matching gray of river and sky that seemed to leech from the crumbling steel caterpillar of the pier. That meant a lot of material to lug, but the kids were game. They always liked getting out of the building during the school day.
“It’s the first lines of the second stanza of The Wasteland,” Emma said.
“You’re going to love this.”
“Tell me. Mr. Mallory -- !”
“She thinks it’s you, imitating Eliot.”
She put both hands to her mouth, shrugging wide-eyed. I could sense the delighted smile under her fingers.
“OMG. This is unbelievable.”
“Enjoy it while you can. It’s over as soon as she googles the quote.”
She dropped her hands. ‘Stupid google.”
“I bet you could really mess with teachers when you were a kid. Before the internet.”
“Hey – we had the internet when I was a kid! I was in high school when the dot com boom started. My Dad was one of the first artists to have his own website. So there.”
“I was in ninth grade when everything started taking off. I remember wondering, is Jeff Bezos a billionaire? Or is he broke? No one seemed to know. Then the bubble burst.”
“Well, he’s a billionaire now, Mr. Mallory.”
“Yeah, I guess. Anyway … I was in Miss Grimble’s home room. What do you think of that? Miss Grimble. And I thought she was old then. We couldn’t text, we had to actually talk to each other in class to annoy her, and pass notes and stuff. Penmanship was required.”
“That’s a scary thought.”
The others caught up with us, and we started unpacking and setting up easels in the litter strewn weeds. A rift in the clouds was showing a glimpse of pale blue sky. I stepped out between my students and the crumbling pier, with the river at my back. It smelled like low tide and diesel.
‘Okay,” I said. “Your mission today is to view this scene as if you were painters of the Hudson River school. Emma, Pat, Travis – you’re in my art History class. Tell everyone else what I’m talking about.”
Emma cleared her throat; of course. I tilted my head at her.
“I wrote an essay about this,” she said. “I’m thinking of trying to get it published somewhere. Some journal – maybe Art Forum or The Brooklyn Rail?”
“You need to do a little more work on it, before that.”
She glared at me indignantly. “You gave it an ‘A’!”
“It deserved an ‘A’. You’re in high school. It was an excellent piece of high school writing. The Dalton Tigers are a good team. But they don’t play in the NFL.”
“Fine, whatever. But I’m still submitting it.”
“Good for you. Just do one more draft first.”
“Or ten,” Haddon said. She turned on him; he raised his hands, palms out. “You can never have too many drafts, That’s what Mr. Benedict says.”
“Anyway,” I put in.
Emma released an irritated breath. “Well. On a day almost exactly like this one in early October, eighteen twenty-five a tall, balding rather stern young man with a totally freakish comb-over took the ferry up the Hudson to West Point. New York was tiny then – less than two hundred thousand people. That’s about the size of Scottsdale Arizona, just for perspective. Or Jersey City.”
She glanced across the river perfectly expressed the native Manhattanite’s blithe contempt for the Middle-America that began on the other side. “Anyway, he wound up sketching in the Catskills and the paintings he did from those sketches started the movement. The Hudson River school tried to give a sense of harmony with the natural world – lots of waterfalls and light breaking through clouds. Big lush gaudy kind of cheesy pictures, at least to modern people. To me, anyway. But also kind of beautiful. Awesome actually. I mean, literally ‘awesome’ – meant to inspire awe. The idea was to paint God without all those sort of … European logos? The stuff God would put on a t-shirt. Crucifixions and Madonnas and mangers and all that. We didn’t need all that. We had waterfalls. It’s kind of a good point, actually.”
I nodded. “Nature was fearsome.” I swept my arm across the view of the Palisades, and the boat traffic moving north and south – a couple of barges, a big yacht heading for the Tappan Zee bridge, one crazy kayaker. “Nature was the visage of God!,” I exhorted them. “Paint it that way.”
“You mean new Jersey?” Travis asked.
“Exactly. And the rusted-out pier and the polluted river in-between.”
I did some sketches of my own and left them to themselves. Sue Jelleme looked pinched and miserable, and I could see the tension between the twins, though if I had to guess I would have thought that Pam was the one who had it all together. Dressed in expensive jeans and a cashmere forest green cashmere turtleneck, her long blond hair in an elaborate braid, she seemed cool and fashionable and relaxed. Pat, wearing a plaid shirt and ratty barn jacket, suffering through the aftershock of severe haircut with a pale complexion untouched by her sister’s expert make-up, gave the overall impression of sleepless nights and a diet of popcorn and black coffee. She looked worried and knew exactly what she was worried about. She wanted me to talk to Pam but I didn’t see how I could do it: anything I said would just slide off that cool reflective surface like rain on chrome.
Still for what it was worth I had been planning to give it a try, during the break. But Haddon walked up to me, pulling a sketch book out of his backpack.
“Check this out,” he said
He showed me a page in comic book layout: six square panels. They showed a law officer where some sort of homeless man was pleading his case to a well dressed woman lawyer. There were word balloons but no dialogue. The draftsmanship was impeccable and detailed but uninspired. This was exactly what I didn’t want Haddon wasting his time on.
He was at my shoulder. “The guy is asking for help because they were married before the rising.”
“The zombie rising.”
“Right. The zombie comic.”
“But he’s blowing it. She reminds him of what he said before their divorce hearing – he had all this evidence on her, emails and cancelled checks and credit card receipts and he said ‘I’m going to eat you alive in there.’ Bad choice of words … I mean, retrospectively? Turn the page.”
The next page was one giant panel that showed the woman leaping over her desk and pouncing on her ex-husband, her teeth in his throat, blood spraying everywhere. This drawing had a disturbing raw power and intensity.
“She says, ‘Well -- now it’s my turn!’”
“Holy crap,” said. “So she’s a zombie? She doesn’t look like a zombie.”
“That’s because she’d been dead for like five minutes when the Rising happened. She’s the new ruling class. The ones who’ve been dead for years, the rotting shambling ones like you see in the movies -- they’re the lower class, they’re miserable all they want to do is really die. Some of them think they really are dead and this is purgatory. They don’t get to eat real human flesh. There’s not enough to go around, even though humans are sort of ranched? Like cattle. So all the lower class zombies get to eat is this processed human spam called ‘ChewLean’ Max even wrote ads for it. ‘ChewLean makes death worth living.’”
I laughed. “Max Bulajic came up with all this?”
“He’s a genius.”
I studied the page again. “How’s his parents’ marriage?”
Haddon shrugged. “No one’s eaten anyone else. Yet.”
I nodded. “This is good, Paul. The drawings make it work.”
“It’s brilliant. He’s figured out the whole zombie. World. He says that places like the Post Office would actually run better if there were actual zombies working behind the counter. But you can’t call them zombies. You have to say “the Risen’. They hate word ‘zombie’ -- it ‘stigmatizes them as the undead.’”
“He’s hitting all the bases,” I said. “Political correctness, class warfare – do the rotting zombies occupy Wall Street?”
“Maybe they will. If Dark Horse sells enough comics and we get to do more.”
“Bullshit,” Said Noah Lewis. He had come up from behind us. “Boring pretentious bullshit. Plus it’s gross.”
“Are you kidding?” Haddon said. “Zombies are the new vampires.”
“I hated the old vampires.”
I turned to Noah. “Walk with me a second,” I said. “I want to show you something.”
We strolled through the high weeds toward the boxy skeleton of the ruined pier. Circle Line boat was passing by, full of tourists taking pictures; but not capturing the fearsome beauty of nature, I was willing to bet.
Noah looked around. ” He’s totally wasting his time with that crap,” Noah said. I was watching the water. He was right, but I had other things on my mind. “What it is it?” he prodded me.
I turned to face him. “I saw you this morning.”
“What? What do you mean? Saw me what?”
I sighed. “I watched you cheating on your math test with the pretentious bullshitter.”
“Wait a second, I never -- ”
Something in my face must have stopped him. “I don’t get it.” I said. “You hate the guy. Why do this?”
“Are you going to turn me in?”
“Not you. Him.”
“Mr Mallory -- ”
“What? Why shouldn’t I?”
“It – I … can’t we just drop this? Just forget about it and …”
“And what? Are you telling me it won’t happen again? Because I can’t believe that unless I know why it happened in the first place. I mean … If he has some – I don’t know, some leverage, some way to force you -- then … ”
He said something so softly I couldn’t hear it above the wind from the river and the mutter of the West Side highway traffic.
“Excuse me? I couldn’t -- ”
He spoke up. “Max is going to out me.”
“He’s – I‘m sorry. What?”
“He caught me in the basement with another kid and he says -- ”
“Noah -- ”
“He says he’ll tell everyone.”
“Noah, hold on -- ”
“And he’’ll do it, Mr. Mallory. He doesn’t care. It would be fun for him.”
“Noah, listen to me. I’m not sure how to tell you this. But everyone knows already. Okay? It’s kind of obvious. And no one cares. It’s fine. This is 2012. It doesn’t matter.”
He laughed, a short laugh like a cough. “People always say that, Mr. Mallory., People have been saying that for like two thousand years. You can look it up it their diaries and articles. ‘This is 1077! Such things do not happen any more!’ Or – ‘This 1400! The dawn of a new century! We have surely left such ignorance behind!’ Or -- whatever. It’s always the most modern moment in history, like, by definition. All right? And things are always fucked up. And nothing changes. There were almost two thousand anti-gay hate crimes last year. There’s an FBI report. Gays are the only people it’s still okay to hate.”
“But that’s Kansas and Alabama, not New York City. It’s different here.”h
“Not at my house.”
So that was it. I took a breath. A couple of gulls were circling their feeding grounds, waiting for us to leave. We were the intruders in this place.
“Look,” I said. “This isn’t something you did. It’s who you are. Your parents are going to find out eventually.”
“But I wanted to choose when.”
We stood watching a pair of yachts racing south toward the tip of the island. A sunfish was tacking against the wind.
“After you leave home?”
“After college. After I’m successful. After – I don’t know. Just after. When I’m old, when it doesn’t matter any more. When I’m forty.”
I pulled a smile back. I remembered when forty seemed old. But I knew Noah would misinterpret any change of expression.
“You don’t have that option any more,” I said. “But the situation has some advantages.”
“No, seriously. First of all, you get it over with. And maybe your parents surprise you.”
I shrugged at his sharp look. “Or not. But when you finally want to bring a boy home to meet them, it will be old news. That’s something. And secrets are exhausting. They make you weak and vulnerable. People like Max Bulajic can take advantage of you. Just admit everything and tell Max Bulajic to go fuck himself.”
Noah laughed – more in shock at my language than anything else, I think. Teachers weren’t supposed to swear.
“Then he can do his own math homework,” I went on. “Maybe he’ll even learn something. It’s a win-win.”
“Except I’m disinherited kicked out of the house and living in the street.”
“It’s just so embarrassing. I’m supposed to be perfect.”
I patted his shoulder. “You’re all right. My Mom always said, “Don’t let the perfect ruin the good.’”
He shook his head hard, like a dog shedding water after a swim. “I don’t even know what that means.” He dug his finger into his face. “I hate everything.”
I didn’t have an answer for that one. But as we started back, a thought occurred to me. “I’ve generally found that dreading things is worse than the things themselves,” I said. “Plus it takes a lot more energy. Maybe my imagination is just too good, but I always find the actual catastrophe kind of disappointing. I’m like – so this is it? I expect degradation and shame and I wind up mildly embarrassed. So finally I just stopped dreading stuff. You know?”
Noah blew out a long breath that puffed his face into a false smile.
“You met my Mom and Dad at parent’s night.”
“How did they strike you?”
I made him wait for it, then gave it to him: “Dreadful.”
That tricked out another short laugh. “Thanks Mr. M. I guess I’ll just have to deal with it.”
“It’s like puking. You always feel better afterward. Not that it’s much comfort when you’re sitting on the couch for an hour, sipping water and trying not to move, hoping dinner will stay down.”
“Ugh. That’s gross.”
We got back and everyone else was already working. Haddon had turned the Palisades into giant cliffs complete with cascading waterfalls; the twins had gone for roiling clouds and shafts of sunlight. Travis had turned the landscape into the aftermath of a battle, with floating corpses and churning blood-red water, craters and smoke. Emma had chosen to send a fleet of sailboats up-river, with crowds holding banners lining the bluffs.
I offered a few comments, but the canvases were still in the earliest stages, some with details sketched in, some just patched in by color – dark river mottled sky, beams of light connecting them. My critiques were mostly technical: perspective and proportion. Mostly I made positive noises and left the kids alone.
Sue Jelleme’s painting was by far the best one, at least to my taste. She worked fast and it was much more complete than the others’. That was part of it.
She had widened the river and darkened it, raised the far banks, lined them with gnarled giant trees instead of condominium apartment houses -- the cliff edge of a primordial forest. Then she’d added the grey black churn of a thunder storm, complete with spiked bolts of chain lightning and a full-rigged clipper ship on fire, mid-stream.
It reminded me of late a later Turner canvas, full of foreboding and drama, with the tiny garish light of the blazing frigate pulsing a muscle of smoke upwards, picking up the thin smudge line of dusk in the western sky.
It struck me that Turner could have easily have belonged to the Hudson Rover school; and so could Susan Jelleme. That was the moment I decided: Sue was getting the Graeme scholarship.
I knew Oliver would approve.
Of course the scholarship wouldn’t mean much if she never actually applied to college. I brought it up on the bus later, as we jolted through Central Park on the 72nd street transverse.
“How re the applications going?” I asked, leaning down from the chrome bar. She looked up at me, then away.
“Fine. They’re going fine.”
“Did you send them off?”
“Mister Mallory. Please.”
“Did you even finish filling them out?”
“I will, okay?”
“You’re stuck. You have to unstick yourself.”
“People are looking at us.”
“This is New York. No one cares. This is your time. You get to be this age just once. Remember that cabin in Vermont your Mom rented? Before she met Roy?”
Now Sue just seemed irritated. “What about it? I can’t believe I even told you about that.”
“You did those waterfall paintings there. The gouaches that got you into my AP studio class.”
“Remember how you felt those summers? Like you’d always have the place. Like you’d always come back, just the two of you. Then your Mom sold it. The place is gone. The cottage has probably been torn down by now. You’re never going back. Your Mom remarried. Boom. That’s it.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“To make you see. This time is like that cottage. It’s going to be over. You don’t have to burn bridges. They collapse behind you. You can’t go back, you can’t fix things, there’s no do-overs. That’s the worst feeling in the world, knowing you wasted your time. Don’t waste this time, Susan. It’s going by so fast. Just like those summers in Vermont. You don’t feel that, you’re probably not even supposed to feel that at your age. But it’s true. This is your time. Grab it before it’s gone.”
People were looking at us now. I guess I had raised my voice.
“Okay, okay,” she said, mostly to shut me up.
The bus rumbled along. Finally we stopped for the red light at Fifth Avenue.
“Sorry,” I said. “I got a little carried away there.”
“It’s okay, I’ll finish the applications.”
I didn’t quite believe her but I took it as a draw. My attempt at confronting Pam Brinkley had been considerably less successful.
“Are you feeling all right?” That was my first move.
“I’m great. How about you? Because you’ve worn that same shirt two days in a row, Mr. M. And you could really use a haircut. You’re starting to get a mullet back there.”
I gave up. I admit it. Was any of this even my business, anyway? I was just her teacher. This was putting the ‘loco’ into ‘in loco parentis’.
Time to back off.
Of course I broke the resolution half n hour later, on the bus. But Pam Brinkley had never shown up on my doorstep after a night in the street. And I couldn’t imagine it. If anyone was ever ‘too cool for school’ it was that girl. She was more like or someone’s friend from college, or a visiting teacher.
We did accomplish something in our little talk though: I wore a different shirt the next day. And yeah I got a haircut, too.
That ‘mullet’ line struck a nerve.
We got back late and the kids missed most of lunch. The lobby was deserted when we finally straggled in and Tarses was waiting for me. “lying in wait” might have been a better phrase but he was standing up, pulled stiffly to his full five feet six. He still managed to pounce, though.
“We need to talk,” he said. He snagged Travis arm as he hurried by. “In my office after school, young man. Three forty five. On the dot.”
“Yes, sir,” Travis said and ducked away.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“My office,” he said. “Now.”
I took the stairs and beat him to the second floor.
He pushed out of the elevator before the doors were all the way opened strode down the hall pulling his keys out of his pocket. Why he felt he had to lock his office, I had no idea. His secretary was always in the next room with the connecting door open. She’d probably notice if unruly students started ransacking the place and plundering his first editions.
I followed Tarses inside.
“I know these kids smoke pot and hook up. I smoked pot, so did you, Maybe you still do. I don’t care. I think the stuff should be legal. You know my politics. But I have to draw a line somewhere, Robert. There have to be lines – boundaries. I can’t just look away and pretend nothing is happening.”
“What is happening, sir?”
“I think you know very well.”
No insistence that I use his first name this afternoon. I stared him down. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He walked to his desk and picked up a small sketchbook. “We found this in Travis Blake’s locker an hour ago.”
“Myself and Alan Young from building security.”
I stepped forward. “What were you doing searching Travis’ locker?”
“I had reason to believe there were drugs inside. Probably of sufficient quantity for illegal distribution.”
“Drugs? You think Travis is selling drugs in school?”
“And he’s black. So case closed.”
An angry silence seethed between us for a few seconds.
“Are you calling me racist?”
“What else would you call it?”
He handed me the sketchbook. “Look at this.”
I started leafing through the pages and the crazy argument with Tarses vanished, up and away like grease smoke into an exhaust fan. The book was filled with charcoal sketches of a crack house: addicts sprawled on rotting mattresses, trash strewn floors and peeling wallpaper, crack pipes, vials of rock, crushed glass on mildewed linoleum … and the faces, the ravaged bony, hollow eyed faces. You could feel the cocaine burning through their nervous systems, frying the synapses, aging them into a ruinous dotage of numbness and need.
Travis sketched fast with a strong angry line. I thought of Goya – that righteous indignation in the face of human misery, an outrage that steadied the hand. Accuracy and precision were his only weapons here, along with the stump of charcoal in his fist.
“These are amazing,” I said, handing the book back.
“They are indeed. They also constitute a criminal confession.”
“You’re insane. They’re drawings.”
“Done inside a crack house!”
The bell rang for the first period of the afternoon session. “If you really think Travis Blake is using crack cocaine, blood test him. He’ll come up clean. Both his parents are lawyers. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the litigation. They’ll hit this school like wrecking ball, Ray. And they’ll be right because you’re dead wrong on this one. No one doing crack could draw the way Travis does. All you can do on crack is crack. Look at those faces. Then look at his. My advice is slip the book back into his locker now, while class is still in session and never tell anyone else and let’s both try to forget this ever happened.’
He gave me his best shot: “We have a serious drug problem at this school.”
Not good enough. “So the solution is arrest the artists? You’re starting to sound like Vladimir Putin, Ray. And you don’t have the physique for it.”
That seemed like as good an exit line as any, so I got the hell out of there, and shut the door behind me.
I had a free period and a lot to do. On my way to Deb Perlmutter’s office, I noticed the cast list had been posted for Our Town. Kara Melamo had indeed been chosen for Rebecca; and I noticed that Max Bulajic, of all people, would be playing the Stage Manager. Gay bashing, blackmail, comic books --and now acting too? He was a real Renaissance man.
“He plays blues guitar, as well,” Deb told me a few minutes later. “And he’s studying classical technique with someone at Mannes. Not to mention the Tai Chi.”
I grunted in annoyance. “Come on. He’s a Tai Chi master now, too?”
“Well, he’s not a master, Bob. He’s only seventeen years old. But he does teach some of the faculty after school. You should check it out.”
I could see why Deb liked Max Bulajic – he must have been a Guidance Counselor’s dream, though enough kids like him would put her out of business. He needed no guidance. His grades were good, for whatever reason, and he had managed to stay out of trouble – so far. Plus he’d applied for an easy early admittance to something called Friends World College – he wanted to study anime in Japan. If he didn’t get expelled for cheating, he was pretty much squared away.
But I wasn’t in Deb’s office to talk about Max Bulajic. I was there for Sue Jelleme. I had an idea that might help her.
We were sitting in Deb’s cluttered office on the third floor. Towers of files had taken over her desk, like the teetering skyline of a ruined city. The FAX machine was spitting out pages and the printer was running, but Deb closed her laptop to create a gap. “Computers were supposed to make us paper free,” she said. “But look at this mess. It’s worse than ever.”
“There’s some huge principle at work here,” I said. “I’m just not sure what it is.”
“Progress is bad? Leave well enough alone?”
“Or maybe… complicated systems tend to get more complicated. Especially when you try to simplify them.”
She smiled brightly between her columns of paper. “I’d ask you to explain, but it would probably just get more confusing.”
I laughed. “Good one.”
She sat back, pushing against the desk, stretching her back. “So let me guess. Is this about Susan Jelleme?”
I nodded, “Did she ever finish her applications?”
“Everything but the essays. I have everything on-line, I’m just waiting for her e-mail.”
I glanced around. “Everything?”
“Paper files don’t crash, Robert. We had a virus last year. We would have lost everything. I had to spend six weeks scanning paperwork back into the system, but -- ”
“It could have been worse.”
“Exactly. Much worse. And I like to hold a sheet of paper in my hand.”
I sat forward. “Susan has a blog.”
“But hers is good. Three Chairs.blogspot.com Check it out.”
She opened the computer and tapped away. She worked with two fingers and hit the keys hard, as if the keyboard was a typewriter. “Got it,” she said.
“Scroll down to the post with the picture of Starry Night.”
She found it and started reading. I looked around the office: floor-to- ceiling particle board bookshelves crammed with paperbacks and old yearbooks, framed diplomas, a window looking out on the grimy interior courtyard between buildings … and a print from the Met’s Van Gogh drawing show – a sketch of someone’s garden. Sue had a kindred spirit here.
Deb looked up at me. “I love this post. I just love it.”
“Highlight it, copy it, paste it. And we’re done.”
“Is that legal?”
“Robert -- ”
“I’ll clear it with Sue, no problem.”
“Well it is kind of perfect.”
I got up, said “Thanks, Deb,” and left before she could change her mind.
The rest of the day felt like waiting on line for the new iPhone, in a different city, where you could remain anonymous. But I was waiting for something much more exciting than a new gadget. A new life? Maybe – the iLife, 5G, with the success, freedom, money and vindication apps pre-installed. And the anonymity felt good. No one knew about my appointment at the Natalie Crane gallery, none of the students and faculty, the friends and familiars of my high school world could have guessed or appreciated the new future poised to begin, a hundred blocks downtown. Dalton seemed cramped and suffocating as I pushed through two more classes and a faculty meeting on “writing across the curriculum”, reduced to a biographical note in the gallery catalogue for my first show, just an item in a list: “Mr. Mallory held various jobs before he started painting full time, among them, cleaning houses, selling encyclopedias and teaching school.”
Finally, the day ground to a close. I pushed out onto the sidewalk and let the cold air rinse the stuffy, overheated hours off me, like a rainstorm in August. I took a couple of deep breaths, feeling the energy of the school, all those extracurricular activities, the SAT prep, science projects and theater productions humming behind my back. None of it had anything to do with me today.
I was a free man.
I treated myself to a taxi and got to the gallery exactly on time.