I didn’t mind school when I was a kid. The other kids didn’t care if I was smart or not. I always was one of the first ones chosen for football at recess; and the puny kids hid behind me when the older kids picked on ‘em.
I didn’t get very good grades. Most of the teachers got my number pretty quick; they let me get what I could get and didn’t give me a hard time about the rest. It was OK.
Only my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stephenson, had it in for me. She made me stay after school almost every day. I didn’t know why she hated me so much.
My old man let me have it every time I was late coming home from school. I didn’t think to tell her that. I guess when I was a kid, I just figured she’d know it. I think I figured that was the point. It didn’t occur to me that she might not know my old man.
It also didn’t occur to me until I was an adult that every minute I spent after school reciting my multiplication tables until I could remember them was a minute she had to sit and listen to me. Every minute I spent sweating my way through that day’s reading---over and over until I knew every word---was a minute she spent listening and correcting.
I decided she hated me. I hated her back.
But at the end of that year, I could read lots better than at the beginning; and I could add and subtract; multiply and divide. Still wasn’t a genius, but I could get by. Thanks to Mrs. Stephenson.
I didn’t have any reason to think I’d have a problem with Charles’ teacher. She called Lynn and asked if both of us could come for a conference. I was kinda looking forward to meeting her.
I asked Charles if she was pretty, and he said no. “She talks pretty, though.” He couldn’t tell me what he meant by that. “You just hear it, and it’s pretty,” he said. OK. I was interested.
Plain face, brown hair, drab clothes, sensible shoes; but young and bright-eyed. Kinda reminded me of Patty if you took away all the interesting stuff. And the temper. She had moved to Bisbee just before the beginning of the school year.
Drab or not, she was pretty sure of herself; maybe that’s what reminded me of Patty.
“It’s so good to meet you both, Mr. and Mrs. White. I’m Miss Robideaux.” She had a little Southern accent. We shook hands and Lynn said all the polite things. I noticed she talked to Lynn. She didn’t look at me any more than she had to after that first glance. When she did look at me for a moment, her eyes would slide off right away.
“You wanted to talk to us?” I asked. “Is there a problem with Charles? The papers he brings home look fine.”
“Yes, his work is excellent, he’s a very bright child.” Of course, I couldn’t help feeling a little proud of that, even though I figured he didn’t get his brains from me.
“He has lots of energy,” she went on, “and it’s difficult for him to sit still, but we’re dealing with that.” I nodded. Lynn nodded. “No, the problem concerns the stories he tells.”
“You lost me,” I said.
“He tells some really preposterous tales, most of which seem to center on you, Mr. White. He tried to tell us the scars on your face are actually bullet wounds, for one thing.” She looked away from me when she said that, like she didn’t wanna look at ‘em, and I supposed that’s what it was.
“He also said you scared away a mountain lion with both hands tied behind your back. Oh, and you had a broken leg at the time.” She chuckled a little.
“Miss Robideaux,” Lynn said, “the part about the mountain lion is common---“
“The lie that worries me the most, however, is the one concerning his mother. He has told some of the other children his mother was killed by a man with shotgun. I had to reprimand him for that. I couldn’t let that pass.”
A rude, stupid woman. I stood up. “How do you think his mother was killed?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, but the idea of a murderer with a shotgun here in Bisbee is just--“
“You want me to get the police report? You wanna see a picture of the body?” I leaned over her desk. “Maybe you oughta find out the facts before you start mouthing off.”
“Sit down, Mr. White, there’s no reason to get agitated.”
She hadn’t seen agitated yet. But she might.
“You’re calling my son a liar. How am I supposed to be?” I mighta been talking loud; I was steaming. Lynn put her hand on my arm. I said, “She’s calling Charles a liar,” to Lynn. After a second she took her hand off my arm and sat back.
“I don’t know how Charles found out, but his mother was murdered by a shotgun blast right here in Bisbee. That’s not a lie.”
She wasn’t backing down. “Then I suppose that’s what has stimulated his imagination in unsavory directions. And there’s no need to raise your voice. I can hear you.”
“I’ll raise my voice if I want to.” And I did.
She stood up and raised her voice, too. “This is my classroom, Mr. White, and I do not allow shouting.”
We were facing each other across the desk.
“The bullet went in here,” I jabbed at my right cheek with my finger, “and came out here,” my left cheek. “That’s not a lie. And as far as the goddam mountain lion goes—“
Her eyes blazed; she came pretty close to shouting herself. “And I do not tolerate profanity!”
“---As far as the goddam mountain lion goes, my leg was broken.” I could shout louder than she could. “My hands were tied behind my back. And the lion was there. And then it went away. The only thing I don’t know about is the scared part.”
“Oh, really, you don’t expect me to believe that, do you?”
I saw red.
Lynn tried to interrupt. “It’s common knowledge, Charles probably heard it—“
“Are you calling me a liar, now? You wanna see the claw marks?” I started trying to rip my tie off, and unbutton my shirt at the same time. “I’ll show you the fucking claw marks, you—“
Lynn put one hand over my mouth, and the other over my hands. “Bud. Honey.” She waited till I looked at her. Then she kissed me on the cheek. “You don’t want to take your clothes off in Charles’ school.”
She was right about that.
When I looked back at Miss Robideaux, she wasn’t looking at my face again. She was staring at the open front of my shirt…….
I didn’t care where she was looking; I was still mad. “Before you start calling anybody a liar, you better know what the truth is.” I said. “And besides that, I shouldn’t have to stand here and explain anything to you. It’s none a’ your goddam business.”
She wasn’t paying attention to what I said. She was still staring. She reached a hand toward me, like she was gonna touch me, there where my shirt was open. I backed up a step.
She frowned. “Where did you get that?”
I looked down, and realized the symbol Arliss had carved right there was visible. I closed my shirt up.
“I haven’t seen one of those in a long time,” she said. “It’s crude, but……did you do that yourself?”
Right at that moment, I hated her. “None a’ your fuckin’ business.” And I walked out.
I had to wait for Lynn; she didn’t come out right away. As soon as she got in the car, I started it up, and drove away.
After a few blocks of silence, she said, “That was supposed to be a simple conference.”
“You heard her. It wasn’t my fault.”
She sighed. “I suppose this means I’ll be going to conferences by myself from now on.”
I had a copy of one of the police photos of the motel room and Rhonda’s body made, and I sent it to Miss Robideaux. Lynn was kinda mad when she found out. She said it was unnecessary.
It felt necessary to me.
We found out later she apologized to Charles in front of his whole class. So I couldn’t hate her quite as much.
And she knew what Arliss had put on me. She knew what it meant.
I couldn’t ask her about it. But it nagged at me.
We didn’t need Miss Robideaux to tell us how well Charles was doing, how smart he was. He loved reading and writing, learned new words all the time, and liked to show us what he could do. It was fun to watch him.
One Saturday afternoon, while Lynn and Becky and me were out in the yard, Charles practiced his spelling upstairs…….
I was sweaty and dirty, ‘cause I’d been digging up a patch of dirt where Lynn wanted to put some new flowers, so I went upstairs first to take a bath. So I saw it first.
Words, written in red in the hall, on the walls in the bathroom, in his room, words and more words. Hundreds of ‘em. It musta taken him all afternoon.
He hopped down the hall toward me, grinning. “Look, Bud, I know how to write lotsa words!”
“Uh-huh. I see that.” I could hear Lynn coming up the stairs with Becky. “Do you know how to spell trouble?”
Lynn’s mouth dropped open as soon as she stepped into the hallway.
“I think you’re gonna find out,” I said and took Becky outta Lynn’s arms.
She walked down the hall, looking as she went.
Charles was round-eyed. “Am I in trouble?”
Lynn walked into the bathroom and a moment later we heard a little shriek.
“Yeah, I’d say so.”
From the bathroom, “This is lipstick! This—is—my—lipstick!”
“I don’t think Lynn likes writing on her walls.”
Lynn walked back toward us. She had a gold lipstick case in her hand. She was trembling. “How am I supposed to get this off?” She threw the lipstick case, it whizzed past us, hit the wall and clattered down the stairs. “Tell me that! How am I supposed to get it off?”
Charles ran past her into his room. He came back with an eraser in his hand. Went to work, trying to erase the words, but it just smeared the lipstick. He looked up at me, worried.
“Go on down to your room, pardner,” I said. “Go on.”
I won’t say Lynn’s never been madder than she was then---I can make her pretty mad sometimes---but she was mad enough. I’m not sure she’d ever been angry with Charles before. I’m not sure Charles had seen her when she was this way.
His shoulders slumped. He walked down to his room without looking back.
Lynn went the other way, down the stairs. After a minute I could hear her banging the skillets on top of the stove.
Becky hadn’t said much. She was almost as round-eyed as Charles. She was chewing on her fingers, drool running down her arm. She took her fingers out of her mouth and patted me on the cheek.
It’s too bad Lynn hadn’t seen the smile on Charles’ face, I thought; how proud he was of himself. I thought maybe I’d wait until she cooled down, and then say something to her……
Charles didn’t come down for supper. Lynn didn’t call him. I took a sandwich up to him after we were done eating.
“Hey, pardner, you hungry?”
He shook his head. He was sitting in his chair, kicking his shoes (which didn’t touch the floor) against the legs. Elbows on the arms of the chair, his chin was propped in both hands.
“It’ll be OK. She’ll get over it.”
He let his head fall back against the back of the chair and kicked his feet harder.
Becky got cranky after supper, didn’t want Lynn at all, so at bedtime I took her up to put her in bed.
While I was putting her down, I heard Lynn talking in Charles’ room. Yeah, I shouldn’t have eavesdropped, but I couldn’t resist peeking in when I left Becky’s room.
Lynn was sitting on the edge of Charles’ bed. Charles was crying.“I ain’t good anymore. I know it. I’m bad, now.”
“I didn’t know that was so bad, I just wanted to write.” He wiped his nose with his pajama sleeve. “Nobody wants boys that ain’t good. Mrs. Anderson told me so.” He sounded desperate. “And you’re not my real mama, so you don’t have to keep me if I ain’t good.”
“You could spank me if you want to. Maybe that would make it better.”
“I don’t want to spank you---“
“That’s what Mama used to do when I made her mad. So it’d be OK, you could spank me real hard. And I’m gonna try hard to be good---I’ll never do anything bad ever again. Ever, ever, ever.”
Lynn reached for him, pulled him onto her lap. She put her arms around him and held him against her heart. He sobbed. “Sshhh,” she said. “Hush now. Everything’s going to be all right.”
She held him and rocked him, and after he quieted a little, she wiped the tears off his face and kissed him. I almost couldn’t hear what she said.
“I love you, too,” she said. “I’ll never, ever send you away. I’m going to be your real mama from now on.”
He looked up at her. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew just what he was feeling like, anyway. I’d felt like that myself a time or two, wrapped up in Lynn’s arms.
“Promise?” he said.
There was something between the two of them right from the start. It was like……fate, maybe. Lynn shoulda been Charles’ mother. And now she was. It was good for both of them.
Becky, of course, was a different story. Lynn and Becky never could seem to get comfortable with each other. Becky wouldn’t give Lynn an even break, and Lynn…….I don’t know, she didn’t seem to understand Becky like she did me and Charles. I couldn’t figure it.
In the last year those two things are just about the only things that happened that were out of the ordinary…….things were pretty calm.
After all the fuss about Rhonda---or Roxanne, or whoever the hell she was---died down, we did all the things a regular family does. I got up and went to work everyday. Charles went to school, Lynn worked in the shop. At home for supper, and some time with the kids before bed. Do it again the next day.
I don’t know about everybody else, but I was bored shitless.
It made me feel like a jerk. I had a pretty good job. If delivering drunks home to their wives, and writing citations for barking dogs, weren’t the most exciting things in the world, at least I got to come home to my family every night. I got to watch my daughter learning to walk. I got to listen to my son read his first books. I got to sleep with my wife every night. And I hadn’t been in the hospital for a long time.
So I shoulda been just happy as a clam.
I guess after a while of doing the same things over and over again, no matter how important all those things are, you stop appreciating it quite so much. Get used to it. Take your life for granted a little bit. Until something shakes you up and reminds you…..makes you remember who you really are.