From Coffee Cans to Green Dresses

“I can’t believe we have to report back to school this week,” Karen lamented. She had talked Julie into coming with her while she ran back to school errands.

Julie hadn’t wanted to. She’d done her own back to school shopping at the beginning of the month. Unlike most teachers, she was one of the few who enjoyed opening up her classroom in the early part of August and performing the types of basic housekeeping and readiness activities that everyone else saved for the first days before the students arrived so that they had all in the ready but the actual lesson plans. Julie preferred to gear herself up for the inevitable with cleaning, unpacking and organizing so that when the first day back for teachers arrived, she could devote the little time there was between meetings to preparing to teach something substantial. She had a reputation for being one of “those” teachers, who spent a few minutes on the rules before plowing right into the work and who might even give homework on the first day. In truth, Julie assigned homework on a needs basis. She didn’t believe in it and was so dismissive of its necessity she didn’t even argue the point anymore. Her rules were simple in any case,

“Don’t piss me off,” she told each class. “I’m an easy person to get along with so long as you understand that I have plans and subverting them irritates me.”

But Karen dangled Target and a non-fat chai from Starbucks in front of her and like Pavel’s dog she responded, rationalizing that a teacher could never have too many boxes of Kleenex and economy sized boxes of number two pencils.

“Do you remember that boy a few years back whose nose ran constantly. Thick, green and as constant as a leaky faucet?” Karen asked after Julie shared her theory on tissue.

“And he’d wipe it on the back of his hand and then spend the next thirty minutes rubbing it to paste with his index finger and dust it off onto the floor after?” Julie asked for clarification purposes. Nose picking, she’d discovered to her disgust, was a life long habit for some.

“That’s the one,” Karen confirmed. “He used to get sent to me just about every class period during the cold and flu season because no one could believe the kid was simply a walking snot spigot.”

“I had to train him to use tissues,” Julie said. “I thought he was embarrassed to use them at first and call attention to the chronic snot stream, but the playing with boogers thing suggested otherwise.”

Karen nodded. “Do you remember his parents?”

Julie did. She’d seen more examples in support of Margaret Sanger’s birth control theories than she cared to recall over the years. There was the 26 year old man with the twelve year old son who she encountered during her first years as a middle school teacher. The twin boys who were about as close to being raised by wolves as she had ever seen. Their mother was a schizophrenic that social workers thought could be trained to be a good parent. She kept those babies locked in a bedroom closet for the first 18 months of their lives until family members were finally able to secure custody of them. One truly memorable parent encounter occurred at her very first parent/teacher conference. She sat across the table from a shaggy haired boy who seldom produced anything other opportunites to be sent to the vice-principal, although he did a credible job for her, and his Hell’s Angel mother. Jet black hair cut in the obligatory mullet of the working poor, her Hank Jr. concert tee was hacked at the shoulders and the neckline so her red bra-straps could peek out. Her right arm sported a full-sleeve tattoo of a thorny vine climbing up to culminate in a rose. On her left shoulder was the picture of a very little girl with nothing to identify her but the dates of her birth and her death. She sat stone-faced while Julie walked her through the reports from the various subject area teachers and the boy did a slow slide down the folding chair until he was just about eye-level with the table. After she finished, Julie asked if she’d any questions and the woman turned to her son and with a disgusted sneer announced, “Well, that’s it for you. No more cigarettes until these grades come up.”

But Snot Boy’s parents were a horror on another level. Julie understood where Cigarette Boy and his Biker Mama came from, and why they were likely to never rise above themselves or their circumstances. Snot Boy’s parents were nice people. They wanted to be good parents, but they just weren’t smart enough. Julie wasn’t sure just how mentally disabled the couple was, but it was more than evident that they were. She suspected that the boy was not, and he would go on to prove her right, but sweet as they were and try though they did, Julie couldn’t help but wonder what this boy might have been and could have done in the hands of more capable parents.

They were each pushing carts, but Julie’s was a prop. When Jimmy had been first ill, the only outings she had aside from the time she spent at work was when she needed to go shopping. For groceries. For household necessities. For clothing. Once Jimmy’s illness forced her to take an extended leave from work, shopping was sometimes her only brush with humanity at large aside from the few friends Brecca had who would brave their hospice-like home and, of course, Karen and her sisters, who barely counted as at large.

She followed Karen around from one aisle to another without much enthusiasm or even feigned interest. Karen noticed but pretended not to. She could be hard on Julie. When she felt her friend was slipping too far into herself which, in Karen’s opinion, was not good for her or for Brecca, she could be as brutally edged as Gemma, but she recognized that there were times when Julie just needed to be a widow, addled and absent. Karen, however, did not think she needed to allow Julie to do this in the cloistered atmosphere of her home all the time and coaxed and prodded her into the world as much as she was able.

They rounded a corner, passing the pet aisle. Decorative pet food containers caught her eye and she stopped for a moment.

“Thinking about caving and getting Brecca that purse puppy?”

“We looked for urns here.”

“You were going to bury Jimmy in a doggy dish?”

“The woman at the funeral home mentioned that some people saved money through cremation and that we could use containers that could pass as urns, so we came over here one evening and looked around. Jimmy thought that the doggy treat canister was about the right size, but we couldn’t figure out how to get the dog image off the side. I mean if we had a dog, we could have just said the dog was representative of Jimmy’s great love of dogs, but he didn’t even like dogs. He thought his mother would have gone for it anyway because she’s just that dense, and you know, she collects anything with a dog on it. She would have thought it was …… I don’t know, something sugary and hard to keep down. We almost bought the coffee container at the Starbucks but in the end I just couldn’t see myself burying my husband in the yuppie version of a coffee can.”

“He did love their mocha lattes,” Karen pointed out.

“Yeah, but I think people would have noticed the Starbucks’ logo at the wake and judged me. I mean, aren’t we supposed to pull the credit card out of ice and spend money we don’t have to bury the ones we love? Lavish funerals are representative of our love for someone, right?”

“Not everyone thinks like that,” Karen assured her.

“Most everyone does,” Julie disagreed. “And if it’s not money, it’s the number of times you choke back tears or break down completely or it’s how often you visit the grave later and decorate it with crap that just gets ruined in the rain or the snow if it’s not blown away by the wind or stolen by teenagers who think it’s funny to steal knick-knacks from the dead.”

“Let’s check out clothes,” Karen suggested in such an obvious attempt to change the subject that Julie smiled in spite of rising irritation, allowing herself to be led to the women’s department where designers trolled for dollars from women they secretly deemed too fat and frumpy to wear their knock off’s. Julie had lost enough weight from her already slender frame over the months that she could wear just about anything she took from the racks, but she hated clothes shopping with Karen. She could mix and match a hundred outfits in the time it took Karen to second-guess her way to a single shirt or pair of pants. She was grateful that Karen would listen to her talk about things like having considered burying her husband in a coffee can without cringing or telling her she shouldn’t be dwelling on it any more. Past is past, Gemma would say. Let it be and think happy thoughts was the general response of most others she might encounter. And with a pinch of pixie dust, I could fly, thought Julie. Like a pig.

“Do you have anything summery casual yet not mommish?” Karen broke in.

She was rummaging through a rack of skorts, rearranging as she did so. Karen was a store employee’s dream. She put things back where she found them and tidied up after other customers who dropped or reshelved items without regard to where they’d found them or in what state.

“I need something like that?” Julie asked, wrinkling her nose at the selections Karen held up for her approval. “And does anything say ‘mom’ like a skort?”

“I am not toned enough for shorts and little skirts and dresses screams out denial,” Karen said. “And yes, you do. You agreed to go to Summer Fest this weekend, remember?”

She didn’t and couldn’t imagine what state of weakness she was caught in that prompted her to acquiesce to such a thing.

Summer Fest was a weekend long ritual marking the end of summer. The downtown came alive for a weekend with morning farmers’ market and a day long craft and arts market, punctuated with street performances ranging from puppet shows to juggling troubadours reciting Shakespeare and magicians who lured children with balloon animals and pulled chocolate covered coins from behind sweaty little ears.

In years past, Jimmy and Julie would stroll the farmers’ market in the morning, studiously avoiding  the throngs in the afternoon by hanging around the marina on the only asset of worth Gemma walked away from her marriage with – a boat that served as the family’s equivalent of summering in the Hamptons.

“I’d have wrestled that worm I was married to in a blow up pool of jello for that boat,” Gemma declared.

And when the sun would begin its stealthy descent behind the bluffs, they would all make their way to the Clock Tower Square for the live bands and dancing.

“I don’t need anything new,” Julie said.

“I can’t imagine how you couldn’t,” Karen said. “Everything you own hangs on you like bad wallpaper.”

She dove into a nearby rack and emerged with a Marilyn Monroe over the subway grate dress in a pale green that Julie knew would pull the muddy grass color out the hazel mish-mash of her eyes. Not wanting to, she wanted the dress anyway. Like many random things of late, it tugged at dormant dreams and wants and needs.

“This is perfect,” Karen declared, holding it up against Julie’s slumped form. “You have great shoulders and you’ve always looked great from behind – even when you’re so thin, you are covergirl ugly.”

“How could I not be sold with such a winning sales pitch?” Julie asked, taking the hanger by the neck but holding it away from her as though it smelled bad.

In the fitting room, Julie craned this way and that. She was too pale. Too skinny. Her hair was in need of an expert and not her customary sheering on the fly in the en suite with whatever pair of scissors she could find. But all those things aside, Julie liked the way the skirt flounced around her knees, brushing her bare thighs in a way that reminded her it had been a long time since anyone had seen them.

Later that evening, alone again because the newly single mother of a teenage daughter spends a lot of time being envious of the latter’s social life, Julie danced around her bedroom in the dress. Slowly she swayed like a little girl pretending Swan Lake until she ran out of space and fell backwards on the king-size bed, the blades of the ceiling fan shadowing her in turn.

The Other Wife

Memorial Weekend when Julie was a little girl meant a long Sunday afternoon drives that looped through the countryside ferrying her grandmother from one church cemetery to another. Her favorite was North Garryowen. The church was long shuttered, even when she was a child, but the cemetery teemed with a shadowy life that reminded Julie still of a children’s novel she’d read in the fifth grade. The story took place in an abandoned castle where the inhabitants still lived though the only evidence of their existence were their shadows. Julie regarded her long lost relations as shades still casting influence through the stories their names pulled from her grandmother and sisters.

Even as an teenager, Julie loved walking through the cemeteries with Granny Fagan on her arm, the old woman pointing her cane at this petrified tree or that granite angel, chuckling and gossiping as though they were strolling among relatives at a reunion and not a garden of stones.

Bluffs topped with a gaudy metal crucifix that cast an alien green glow over its western edges at night on the far southern edges of town, overlooking the highway and over shadowed Mount Olivet. The cross was all that remained of a Baptist bible camp that never stood a chance of catching on with the mostly Catholic locals. Abandoned to its fate in the woods, the cross was the subject of regular fundraising drives in an effort to keep it glowing like some cheap dashboard decoration. Jimmy had loved the idea of its cheesy neon light illuminating his eternal resting place.

The late May air was a bit cooler than usual and Julie hugged herself inside the red and black plaid flannel she’d inherited from her husband. The elbows needed mending and two buttons were missing, but Julie wore it anyway, dreading the warm weather because she didn’t know how she would cope without its soft comfort wrapped around her.

The stone bench near the gravesite radiated with the kind of cold Julie expected from a cemetery where everything resided in stasis. The granite chilled her backside and she was glad she’d opted for sweatpants instead of jeans.

Jimmy’s grave was still bare but for the memorial tokens strewn over the last few week by family and friends who’d come by out of respect, longing or simple curiosity after hearing the news of the headstone’s arrival. Not knowing the proper etiquette for such an announcement, Julie opted for emails and phone calls to anyone she thought might care to know.

“Why don’t you just put it in your Facebook status?” Brecca asked when a spate of phone calls left Julie too teary and choked up to eat supper one evening.

“Facebook?” Julie asked. “Seriously? I might as well go to the party store and grab invites to the unveiling then?”

“Don’t be snarky, Mother,” Brecca said. “It’s just everyone we know is our Facebook friend and if you are going to get all weepy every time you need to let people know something about Dad, it’s a better way to go. No face to face.”

Julie didn’t bother to point out that everyone she knew was not on Facebook unless they’d been coerced during a high school reunion drive or driven to sign up in a parental form of self-defense, but she bowed to the wisdom of youth when it came to angst and posted the status of Jimmy’s new status on her status bar.

In fact the strategy worked so well that it became her default way of dealing on days when she simply couldn’t deal in fleshy encounters.

“Perhaps you should just register an account for Jimmy and be done with it,” Gemma remarked in the comment box when Julie had updated the status of her grief for the third time.

Julie was offended and wouldn’t talk to her sister for a week after but Brecca thought it was funny.

“Dad always said it would be over his own dead body that he signed up for Facebook,” she chuckled, and Julie was struck yet again at the differences between her and her child’s grief.

Grief dogged Julie from the first rays of morning consciousness through her dreams every night, but Brecca lived her fifteen-year-old life the same as she had before and during her father’s illness. Her tears were brief like late afternoon summer showers that arrived without warning and flooded the side-yard before disappearing over the rainbow and draining away into the storm sewers. She grieved like she grew, suddenly and always at the most inopportune time.

Memorial Day coincided with Jimmy’s birthday that year. He loved it when that happened. The weekend would be one long gathering that ebbed and flowed from one meal to the next and one day over to another. Maggie had wanted to commemorate the day with a barbecue at her home with family and friends.

“And a pony keg,” she complained to Karen.

“It is Jimmy’s family,” Karen said, as if Julie needed reminding.

“But she expects me to pay for it!” Julie said. “Cater it too. She wanted to know if I could talk to my brother-in-law about a discount at the store.”

Julie’s younger sister worked at the local Hy-Vee grocery as a butcher and her husband was the assistant manager. They’d arranged for the funeral dinner and Maggie had guilted them into providing Easter dinner for the immediate family through their employee discounts and connections, but Jen had complained to Julie about it later and Julie found herself in the uncomfortable position of having to set her mother-in-law straight about limits and the propriety of using one’s loss for monetary gain.

“Well, let’s just have a little party of our own then,” Karen said. “You, me and Gemma. Brecca if she wants. We’ll have a picnic at Jimmy’s place. How does that sound?”

Jimmy’s place had become the euphemism for his grave.

“I spent the afternoon at Jimmy’s place,” she would say if anyone came around the house looking for her on the rare occasions that anyone aside from Karen or her sisters looked at all.

She was not always at the cemetery but found it a useful alibi when people pried or harangued her about needing to “get back out there” or “pull herself together” with all the boot strappy connotations that usually rode shotgun with such advice. Well meaning as it was, Julie found it irritating and having a handy catchall phrase to put people into an ill-at-ease frame of being was a surprising comfort.

Since going on leave, Julie spent her days in a life of Riley limbo. Once Brecca was seen off to school, she might head back to bed for nap as it was easier to sleep during the day than at night or she would walk over to the health club for a swim and sauna. Afternoon diversions included errands or yard work or she might wander the mall with a Starbucks in hand, shopping in her mind’s eye for things that she’d always meant to acquire but now that she had money suddenly wondered why she thought she needed them in the first place. But at least once a week, Julie found herself perched like a little wren contemplating flight on the stone bench near her husband’s grave, watching spring slowly overtake the bare earth as tufts of new grass fought with the weeds for supremacy.

A simple light grey granite marker marked the spot now. It matched the weathered one just to its right, lined up as perfectly as x’s on a tic tac toe board which reminded Julie of her own unmarked grave on the other side. The inscription was plain. Jimmy had insisted.

“Nothing Shakespearean or biblical,” he said. “Just the facts. Here lies James M. Cox. Husband, father and son.”

“No mention of your beloved nature or extraordinary love and devotion?”

“No,” he said, his voice flattening with emotion and the mounting effort it took to breathe while remaining on his feet. “I wasn’t practically lovable and my devotion, being a given, hardly needs mentioning.”

“Why the change?” Julie asked.

“Change?” he said and then followed her gaze before nodding in understanding. “Mary E. Cox, Beloved wife and mother.”

He began to cough and Julie held him close to her side as he struggled to expel a blood tinged wad of mucus which he spat on the ground in front of him before pulling a tissue from his coat and wiping away the evidence from his lips.

“Wives deserved no less,” he wheezed a bit as he spoke. “If I’d been fixed better, there’d be a boulder with a short novel on it sitting there.”

“What would you put on mine?” Julie asked. She struggled with curiosity where Jimmy and Mary were concerned, and for the bulk of their nearly eleven years of marriage, she’d resisted comparing herself or asking Jimmy to do so, but the likelihood of a threesome for eternity was right there in front of her and hard to ignore or rationalize.

“Julie Ann Cox, beloved other wife,” he said without cracking the smile she could hear over the wheeze in his voice and see in his dancing blue eyes.

Julie back smacked him flat across the chest, forgetting for an instance that he was twenty pounds lighter than he’d been just six months earlier. Horrified her hand flew to her mouth and tears welled, but Jimmy laughed and hugged her around the waist.

“You couldn’t damage a fly with those weenie arms of yours,” he assured her and kissed her cheek. “About as lethal as a sparrow’s kneecap, those guns of yours.”

“Where are you?”

Julie started at the sound of her sister’s voice. Before looking up, she wiped away tears that had somehow dripped the length of her face and hung like droplets on the eaves on dewey mornings.

“Remembering,” she said.

“Productively too I see,” Gemma remarked, pointedly eyeing the salt tracks on Julie’s cheeks.

“So, I cry,” Julie shrugged. “It’s what widows do.”

Gemma ignored her and waved her over to help with the portable camping table.

“Didn’t this belong to Dan?” Julie asked as she grabbed an end and steadied it while Gemma crouched underneath.

“Yes, I got all the camping stuff and he took the electronics,” she said, “and that I feel screwed goes without saying because I would never have spent a millisecond in the outdoors but for him, and in the end, it was all a façade. He hated camping as much as I did.”

The table was up and she dragged it back and forth in search of the most level part of the ground. Not finding it, Gemma gave up and sat down. Julie slid in across from her.

“I brought cake and your favorite wine despite the fact that they clash from a gourmet perspective,” Gemma said. She reached over into a small red cooler and produced a bottle of Riesling and then a small cake box. “And I can see you brought nothing.”

“Karen told me to just show up,” Julie said.

“And you’re getting really good at that too,” Gemma replied.

Julie felt the earlier sadness lift like fog as the heat of her anger rose to claim its place. She bit back a reply because she was beginning to suspect that her sister deliberately baited her in an attempt to force her out of the comfortable funk widowhood was becoming.

“I hope Karen is bringing cups, plates and the like because I can share a bottle but eating with fingers is just too gross for me.”

While she was pontificating, Julie saw Karen’s minivan pull up behind her truck. She waved and Karen returned it, emerging from the vehicle with a picnic basket that Julie didn’t doubt was the Martha Stewart interpretation of “always prepared”.

“So, what have I missed?” Karen asked as she plunked down the basket and began unloading plates, flatware and green plastic wine glasses from Target.

“Julie was grieving as usual,” Gemma informed her as she set the table.

“And Gemma was being a bitch about it,” Julie said.

“Wow,” Karen said, “you guys are a Dr. Phil episode and that is scary on levels I don’t want to explore. So, Gemma put your jealous inner rat terrier back in its cage, and Julie? Suck it up and have some cake.”

“Jealous? Moi?” Gemma asked as she placed a slice of white-layered cake drowning in butter cream on summer themed paper plates.

“It’s the widow thing,” Karen explained. “Speaking from a hierarchy standpoint, widow trumps divorcée just like married trumps single and stay at home trumps working mom.”

“Hmmm, but having been married at all trumps spinsterhood,” Gemma said.

“I don’t think spinster is the sensitive person’s term,” Karen corrected.

“Which is why Gem used it,” Julie pointed out.

“Exactly,” Gemma agreed through a mouth full of cake, “if I can be a cunt to my poor widowed sister what do I care about lonely cat ladies?”

“My point is,” Karen said, pouring the wine as she continued, “that you are jealous because Julie is looked upon with sympathy and you are scorned as a failure.”

“Julie’s pitied,” Gemma said. “I’d rather have people cluck their tongues and whisper about what a mess I’ve made of my life than have to put up with poodle eyes and sympathy that’s just one step up from horror.”

“It’s not pity,” Karen said.

Julie shook her head and put down her fork. The cake was too sweet and she wasn’t sure she could gag down a second mouthful.

“It is pity. They feel sorry for me and are glad it is me and not them,” she said. “It’s all over their faces and in the way they pat you like you were covered in something smelly and step back quickly afterward as though you were a plague carrier.”

“I’ve never done that,” Gemma said with a smugly prideful note.

“Well, you’ve never been nice to me a day in my life,” Julie said.

“And I never will,” Gemma assured her. “Isn’t it a comfort to have one real person in your life?”

“Gemma, down,” Karen said.

Julie didn’t reply. In some ways her sister’s refusal to be other than herself through the last months was as welcome as it was maddening. Gemma was the last to offer a shoulder but her shoulder was more authentic and interested in Julie than just about anyone else.

“Oh, Julie knows I love her,” Gemma replied without looking up from the rapidly disappearing cake on her plate.

Karen broke the silence that followed with a nod towards the graves.

“We haven’t toasted the birthday boy.”

“Can you technically be said to age once you are dead?” Gemma asked.

“His mother seems to think so,” Julie said.

“Well, Mags is a fountain of wisdom,” Gemma conceded. She lifted her glass. “A toast to Jimmy. Happy birthday brother and a long eternity to you!”

Julie smiled and raised her glass. Jimmy would’ve wanted a dark ale and one of those oversized cookies they made at the mall, but his preferences didn’t matter anymore she supposed.

“Happy birthday, beloved,” she said because she decided it really shouldn’t go without saying after all.

Time Out

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.