Julie remembered watching the Apollo astronauts being helped from helicopters after being plucked from their oceanic landing pads. She’d thought they needed assistance because of their spacesuits which were awkward and heavy, not being designed for the burden of Earth’s atmosphere. It wasn’t until her junior high school science teacher explained the effects of weightlessness on the human body that Julie understood. They had to get used to the oppression of gravity again.
During Jimmy’s illness, Julie lived in a vacuum where only the only things that mattered had to do with getting from one hour to the next all day long. When he died, the world collapsed like a black hole around her and slowly it became apparent that she could either allow herself to be pulled steadily towards its eye and swallowed or fight the gravitational pull and move on. But like the astronauts, Julie was used to the rarified atmosphere of caregiver and wife of the walking dead. It took different emotional muscles and as oppressed as she had felt, she realized that in focusing on Jimmy, she’d neglected to prepare herself properly for life after Jimmy was dead. Gone was the iron will and Wonder Woman strength that drew praise from the peanut gallery and left in its place was a widow without the proper sea legs.
She’d worked sporadically since the first of the year. Never having need of her sick days for babies, Julie had over a year’s worth of accumulated days and a principal only too willing to let her bend the rules and use it in the care of her husband. But she’d gone back to work a week after the funeral.
“Work is good,” she assured her sister and Karen and Brecca, and their doubtful looks just made her more determined to prove she was every inch the strong woman.
She came back in time for spring conferences. Two solid days sitting on hard wood chairs under the blinding glare of flourescent lighting in a cavernous gymnasium under state tournament banners that dated back to the Great Depression. It was cold. It was pointless, as the parents she needed to see rarely showed up and those who did were spoiling for fights. And worst of all, it meant hours of time all alone in a crowd with her thoughts.
As school nurse, Karen had little to do but help the office staff with the distribution of report cards at a central table just outside the gym doors. Her contempt for this misuse of her talents manifested in frequent breaks to visit Julie in her corner near the north doors.
“Did I really spend four years earning a degree to hand out report cards and collect overdue school fees?” she complained to Julie.
Julie said nothing. The question was nearly rhetorical.
“No,” Karen continued, “I did not. If Gremmel hadn’t been so kind to you these last months with the leave thing and all, I would’ve told him to stick it up his …”
“Parent at twelve o’clock,” Julie interrupted.
Karen turned, grimaced and asked, “Should I stay close?”
Julie shook her head. This was one of three conferences she knew she could count on. The first one had been Beth Allen’s parents. Older and profoundly grateful for their daughter, they asked thoughtful questions that demonstrated their clear interest in Beth as a person as well as a student. They were also the only parents Julie would see who’d also attended Jimmy’s funeral and asked after her and Gemma. Next up was Elvin’s mother, a frazzled young woman no one would have guessed had a 17-year-old son.
“I don’t know what to do with him,” she told Julie as she handed her the report card. As usual, Elvin was failing nearly every class but Julie’s.
“How do you get him to work?” she asked. “Can’t you teach the others your secret?”
But there was no secret and she knew it. Julie liked Elvin and he liked her and English. Elvin didn’t have time for anything that didn’t appeal to him. His life was taken up with his writing, girls and shoes.
On the first day of school that year, Julie had encountered him in the hallway a good ten minutes after the tardy bell for first hour. He shuffled slowly towards her with his eyes targeted squarely on his toes.
“Elvin,” she said, “you need to hurry up. You’re late.”
“Can’t Mrs. C,” he replied without looking up. “These are brand new shoes and if I walk too fast the toes will crease.”
Mr. Timm the journalism teacher overheard the conversation that day and for the rest of the year, he tortured Elvin with,
“Yo, El, are those toe creases?”
And Elvin looked every time.
But huffing towards her now was Ms. Vickie Skye. Julie had taken her daughter, Leslie, as a mercy transfer late in the first semester when Carmen Tate, the other English 11 teacher had taken Leslie by the arm, goose-stepped the girl out to the hall and then locked the door on her, refusing to let her back in her classroom ever.
“The only thing I want to see of that girl is the back of her head walking away from me,” she told the vice-principal and because she wasn’t the only member of the staff that felt that way, Mr. Harvey had come to Julie and asked if she could please accomodate one more special case.
Julie was the special case expert, but where once it had been a point of pride, she had come to feel that it was being used against her.
“She’s failing again,” her mother said as she dropped the report card on the table in front of Julie and herself with a whoosh of compressed air on the tiny wooden chair recently vacated by Karen.
“I know,” Julie said, trying to find the right measure of concern and warmth. Ms. Skye was the tree that Leslie hadn’t fallen far enough from.
“If you know, then why have you done nothing about it?”
Julie paused, measuring her words carefully in her mind.
“I’ve been away for a while and the substitute didn’t have much luck collecting homework or even classwork from Leslie,” Julie explained. “Now that I’m back, I am sure we can work together and get her caught up.”
“Yes,” Ms. Skye dismissed her with a wave of the hand, “I am aware that you have been off on some leave, but I thought you’d have kept back track of things. Don’t they pay you to monitor what goes on? Leave instructions for the subs? Leslie told me that man who was in for you didn’t know what he was supposed to teach and had to make things up most days?”
“Mr. Carr was left with the appropriate plans and I was in contact with him,” Julie heard her voice rise a bit and she bit her lower lip. “Leslie simply took advantage of my absence.”
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t plan vacations during the school year.”
“I had a family emergency to attend to,” Julie’s voice rose as her eyes flattened and her teeth clenched.
“We all have families, don’t we,” Mrs. Skye had mastered the art of unbalance. She counted on her opponent losing their cool and skillfully stoked the embers. “I can’t imagine what kind of an emergency a woman living on the west end with a husband and house and a cushy 9 month a year job could possibly have. Try being a single mom working full time with a child to raise and bills that always need paying. Maybe then you’ll know what an emergency really is.”
She sat back with folded arms, waiting for the reaction she could sense was coming. Julie took one deep breath and then another. She sized Mrs. Skye up from her jelly rolled waist to her platinum mullet, stopping to note that she was wearing the leather jacket with the chain-linked epelets instead of the usual fringe.
“My husband was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and I took time off to watch him die as he slowly suffucated in the sludge that was left of his lungs,” Julie told her as she methodically gathered up her papers and grade book, stacking them neatly in front of her. She delibrately avoided eye contact as she spoke more because she knew she’d cry than because it was an effective way to show contempt.
“I didn’t know,” Mrs. Skye blinked and foolishly reached out to pat Julie’s arm.
“Of course not,” Julie said. “You don’t know anything. If you did, your daughter wouldn’t be the annoying little bitch she is.”
And with that, Julie stood up and briskly marched across the gym to the table where her principal sat with the basketball coaches discussing a NCAA brackets.
“Julie,” he greeted her. “You look like you’re on a mission. Mrs. Skye giving you trouble.”
“No,” she said, “but I think I’d like to take you up on your offer of arranging leave through the end of the year.”
He nodded to the coaches who didn’t need any encouragement to leave and glanced past Julie to see Mrs. Skye in a fury with the vice-principal.
“I’ll see you in the fall,” he said.