Authors: Gillian Roberts
Two lost boys who felt at home only on a computer.
“It pisses me off,” Jake said, “because he’s ruined her life, too.” He was still talking about his mother. “Not just the crap he preaches, but…the other stuff.” Jake looked as if he were struggling with a decision to reveal or hide something else. “Like with her,” he blurted out.
He inhaled jaggedly and shook his head.
Mother Vivien. She and Harvey…the
Harvey…everybody knows about them. Even if it’s over, it’s disgusting!”
The workday hadn’t begun and I was tired of what made the world spin.
“My mother knows, and all she does is cry about it. And then Harvey tells her she’s crazy.”
Whenever he spoke, I saw the flash of his braces, as if to underline his malleability. More than his teeth were being pushed into, or out of, alignment. He seemed so young and vulnerable. He needed reassurance and a hug. But a female teacher does not hug adolescent male students unless she wants not only to further confuse them but also to face a sexual harassment suit. So I made sympathetic noises, hoping Jake regained his equilibrium before my first-period class barreled in.
“When I realized he was there, I felt crazy. I had to get out, like I couldn’t breathe that air. So Griffin took me for a ride in Mrs. R.’s Jag. It was seriously fantastic.”
I exhaled. From despair to “seriously fantastic” in less than a breath. Nothing like wheels, or even the memory of them, to anesthetize a young man’s pain. “But Griffin has his own car,” I said. The junker was infamous, resembling camouflage with its dulled-out gray patchwork and rust stains.
Jake shrugged. “They check his mileage but not their own. Besides, their cars never need gas. Grif always forgets that stuff, runs out a hundred miles away. Easier to take one of theirs.”
It didn’t sound like the most ethical solution, and I would have said so, but I suddenly became aware that Caroline Finney was at the open door. Our Latin teacher was a whisper of a woman, her skin aged into crumply silk. She smiled, put her finger to her lips so I wouldn’t interrupt my conversation, and mimed writing on a board, then pointed at the chalk pieces resting on the board’s ledge, her eyebrows raised. I nodded. Taking mine would spare her the pain of begging Helga, the Office Witch, who guarded supplies as if they were endangered species.
She tiptoed to the board, then stopped to read the Twain quote.
Jake, his back to her, seemed oblivious to Caroline. “What does your Dad think of your writing?” I asked him quietly.
“I e-mailed the column to him,” Jake said. “He’s a newspaperman, you know. Used to do crime reporting.”
Nowadays he covered real estate. I suspected that to Jake, this reportorial fall from glamour was his father’s only flaw.
Jake’s latest column hawked a Web site that (fruitlessly, I thought) discussed unsolved crimes. Every subject from Lizzie Borden to the missing Russian princess’s whereabouts. I’d enjoyed the column, especially lesser-known cases with alliterative nicknames worthy of Dick Tracy. “The Two-Headed Homer,” a pyramid scam that began with cabbages. “The Devil’s Dishpan,” in which a woman had been drowned in her kitchen sink. “Gretchen of the Green Feet,” a headless corpse, female, found nude and frozen in a lake, remarkable for the odd color of her soles. “The Cheshire Cat,” in which a pale and pudgy balding man (Jake included his photo in the article) embezzled millions and disappeared into thin air. “The Recycled Romeo,” who married seven times, extracted all the money from each wife, misplaced three of them, and was still missing. If only his intended had talked to my mom and hired a detective.
Jake thought it would give his schoolmates a sense of the possibilities of the Web, and he was probably right. Even Neddy Roederer had said the column made him realize the computer’s potential as a research tool.
Jake planned to discuss a different Web site each issue. Next month’s dealt with sports.
“My dad must be away,” Jake said. “Not picking up messages.”
Behind him, Caroline nodded her appreciation of Twain’s biting commentary, then carefully considered the chalk. I could almost hear her mentally gauge my total stash and estimate what amount would be fair and proper to commandeer. Caroline was nothing if not civilized.
“After all,” Jake said, “Dad’s a journalist. He’d be interested.” It sounded a lot like a plea.
E-mail traveled by computer. Why hadn’t Jake’s father bothered to respond? Did the man have any idea how unhappy his son was? How much he wanted and needed him? Did he care? Or was it a matter of out of sight, out of mind?
If only missing and fantasized parents would reappear long enough to cure their children of illusion. A reality-based wound could heal. Chronic yearning merely festered.
In the brief silence, we heard the chanting outside. “Don’t pollute minds!”
Jake walked over to look out the window. “The books from the Roederers piss him off, especially the art books, especially the Appleby photos.”
These were a collection by the controversial Rocco Appleby, whose body of work included bodies, and not always perfect, Grecian-godlike ones, but instead, acutely human ones.
“Look what he’s doing!” Jake waved in the general direction of the street. Apparently Harvey hadn’t been able to let Mother Vivien hog the spotlight. “Why do people listen to him? He’s…sick, twisted. He’s what’s polluted.” His voice had flattened out, as if all the emotion were worn off his words. Its calm, musing tone made his words chilling. “You read every day about people getting killed. Good people. Little kids who never hurt anybody. But never people like him, even though they hurt other people. And he
doing that. But monsters like him—they’re never touched. Why is that?”
Caroline looked at me, her eyebrows raised.
“I think about it,” Jake said in that frighteningly calm voice. “How if something happened to him, I could be with my real father, and my mother would stop going crazy, and Mother Vivien—well, she could go to hell.”
“Jake,” I said sharply.
“No point in daydreams, is there?” he said.
Caroline waved and left, her hands filled with chalk, and the room filling with first-period students.
time. Another saga of a sad child.
“Thanks for listening,” Jake said. “Guess I needed to blow off steam.”
I nodded, and he, too, left.
I sat at my desk, heart pounding, well aware that whatever portion he’d blown off wasn’t enough. He was still full of that steam and I couldn’t blame him at all. And the bottom line was that I’d been of no help to him.
From outside, I heard the rhythmic chants. “Don’t pollute minds!” Over and over, the
sound pierced the windows.
I wondered what that did to Jake’s nerves, stretched as they were against his red-hot resentment. I had worried about him for a while now, tried to be the friend he needed. Now, that wasn’t nearly enough. I saw him in my mind, a flailing figure in the dark sea, going down for the third time.
I made a note to arrange a conference with his mother and the school counselor.
I wrote. I underlined it.
As if that resolved anything.
Betsy Spiers had been so phlegmatic Saturday night, and so unsure of herself on the phone, I thought she’d wobble when she walked. When I’d called to suggest a conference, her voice quavered, then grew shrill as she stammered out a string of half sentences. “Oh, no, is anything…? Has Jake, has something…? I could never forgive myself if—”
Like a leaf that quakes so hard it creates its own windstorm and blows itself off the tree. She didn’t leave air-time between questions, as if the last thing she wanted was an answer. What if she paused long enough for me to say that yes, her son was having serious problems?
Given her level of incipient hysteria, it was heroic of her not only to agree to come in, but to urge that our conference be the next day, Tuesday, after school. Most likely, her motive was to get the terror over with, but that still constituted a form of bravery.
Particularly since, as it worked out, she had to cross her husband’s gang to gain entry. There were still more picketers, their numbers fueled by the interest the media had shown in Monday’s demonstration. As city schools went, we were exceptionally photogenic, housed as we were in the nineteenth-century beer baron’s mansion across from the Square, and this was true even on a grumpy gray day when the air was chilly and the light so flat nothing had color. Plus, we were new—that is, news. The public schools had long been under siege, but we were private, small, elitist, the administration basically one pathetic man and a board who okayed whatever he said. We were an easy target and easier, too, to summarize in a news bite.
“I—I lied,” Betsy said. “I told Harvey I was coming here to help the cause. That I was going to talk with you about curriculum choices.” Tears welled up. “Vivien called me a liar and a traitor.
We sat in the school counselor’s office concluding the Jake-excluded portion of our meeting. He’d not been pleased by this format. “What am I, a pariah?” He shrugged. “Just kidding. Don’t get me wrong, but I don’t like being talked about behind my back.”
“It’s more likely a chance to let your mother talk about herself,” I’d answered. “You’ve said she’s unhappy, and doesn’t seem to understand how you feel about your living conditions, so she needs private time.”
He shrugged and said he’d watch the protestors while he waited. Given that the source of his miseries was the leader of the protestors, or, more accurately, the two leaders, I was surprised. Given the weather, I was even more surprised, but Jake and the picketers were obviously of heartier stock than I.
This infinite winter was becoming the stuff of seasonal legend. This is the sort of thing that makes us loathe Floridians and Californians—anyone who hasn’t recently slammed his coccyx on the ice, or remortgaged his house to pay the heating bill, or ripped his hands putting chains on his car.
It was not a year or a day when anyone sane would voluntarily carry a sign up and down a pavement, which is why the less-than-sane were hard at it.
The Moral Ecologists had apparently decided on permanent residency. They had permits, they had pickets, they had student hecklers, and they were attracting gapers who felt in need of a complaint, any complaint. Some of the less clearheaded parents had heard that something bad was being forced on their kids—and they, too, hovered outside or phoned the school demanding conferences. Our principal, Maurice Havermeyer, was in a record-breaking foul mood.
Maybe Alex Fry had been right. If we’d burned the books—all our books—these people would have gone away and Havermeyer’s level of anxiety would be nearly bearable.
But we hadn’t, and at the end of this week loomed Philly Prep’s annual Open House, the yearly big deal when we preen like birds in mating season and try to attract yet another freshman class.
Competition between private schools may be bloodless, but it is nevertheless serious. To headmasters and admissions committees, this time of year is the equivalent of the Miss America pageant, and nobody wants to be Miss Congeniality, or even First Runner-up.
Havermeyer’s nervousness index could be calculated by the number and inanity of the directives he stuffed into our mailboxes, conveying that it was imperative to shine, become what we only dreamed of being, eradicate our warts, be sure our knowledge was encyclopedic—and deliver it with the pacing and style of a stand-up comic.
Also, we were to change the personalities of most of our students, raise their IQs, and lower their apathy. Above all, we were to attract, to emit scholastic pheromones, bookish musk.
Problem was, he didn’t know, nor did we, precisely how to do it. That increased the per diem memo flow. As did the fact that ten percent fewer souls had applied to date than had a year ago. There were rational reasons for this: The economy stunk, the city kept losing employers and revenue, and Philly Prep wasn’t much to write home about in the first place. But Maurice Havermeyer didn’t care about socioeconomics. He knew how to point his finger in only one direction—at the easiest scapegoat. In this case, his woes were caused by some unidentifiable but lethal deficiency on the part of the staff.
With pug-faced Harvey Spiers and Mother Vivien of the golden tresses hurling their invectives and demanding that every last “tainted title” be removed, beginning with the photography collection that included the unclothed human body, there went Havermeyer’s vestigial sanity.
Betsy Spiers had a tentative voice and she didn’t try to project it. “It isn’t that he’s hard on Jake,” she said of her husband. “It’s that he cares.” Then she burst into tears. “No, he doesn’t! He doesn’t at all! Not about me, either! Not the way he should!”
Her voice changed, took on an aluminum coating and a cutting edge. “Jake
Harvey, and there I am, caught in the middle, and that hideous Vivien, tugging at his loyalties, undermining his leadership, when
was the one who brought the group up from obscurity!” Rachel Leary, Jake’s counselor, kept her expression impassive and handed Betsy the box of tissues.
She pulled out a handful and blew her nose. “Harvey’s beliefs are biblical. He’s spiritual. Jake doesn’t understand.” She pulled out another tissue and shredded it for a while, then looked up at us and shook her head. “When I met him, he was ordinary. An insurance clerk, not a reverend. That’s what I liked. My first husband couldn’t stand being ordinary. Always expected to become a star, the Woodward-and-Bernstein of Canada. Ambition made him thoughtless, a bad husband, never around to help me. His ego, you know…didn’t care about anybody but himself. What was I supposed to do?”