I woke up and rolled to the right side of my bed. My skin brushed over the rumples of my fitted bed sheet. I pulled a corner from the edge of the mattress sometime during the night. While digging through the corners of my eyes with my pinky finger, I turned off the alarm set on my iPhone, which was laying on dresser drawer. I pushed myself out of bed, one foot touching the hardwood floor, another stepping on the pair of dirty boxers.
The gray shine from the street light outside my window skated on my oak vanity mirror as rain pecked my window. I heard the faint buzz of Mom’s alarm down the hall. I stood up and walked to her room. When I creaked opened her door, the buzz turned into a horn. Her window overlooking the back porch was open with a whistle of wind pouring into the room. She said she opened the window because the outside noises helped her sleep.
I knocked on the side of her door. Mom didn’t wake up. In the dark, she looked like she wasn’t even breathing.
“Mom,” I said.
“Mom,” I said, more aggressive.
She responded with an abrupt “Hm.”
“Time to get up.”
“Okay,” she muttered. “Thank you, Honey.” She stretched her arm and pushed around the pill bottles and used tissues on her nightstand. She grabbed her alarm clock, shutting off the horn. Then she put her arm back under the covers and curled back into her sheets.
“Okay,” I said and closed the behind me.
Mom needed help waking up in the morning. She had trouble falling asleep for more than an hour at night. Over the past year, her psychiatrist had prescribed her a cocktail of antidepressants and sleeping pills: Lunesta, Zoloft, Ambien, Trazodone, Cymbalta, and Seroquel. Nothing helped. I thought Seroquel would work, since I took it to help me sleep, but she said it just made her feel dead in the morning, so I became her extra alarm. After taking a shower, I walked back into my bedroom and turned on the ceiling light. I was debating on hitting the sheets for a few more minutes until I heard my cats in my closet. They began scratching when they heard me walk into the room. I opened the closet door to see two pairs of black eyes staring up at me. Both were female. One was older with striped fur and dirt colors, like a raccoon. The other was smaller, all white with a pink nose and pink ears. I leaned down and put my hand between their heads. They purred and licked my fingers with their sandpaper tongues. I adopted them from the pound after my first week on the job as a high school English teacher. Mom was resistant in the beginning, because her sole desire was to sell the house. But after I brought them home, she couldn’t stop gushing over them, especially the white one.
“Let’s name them ‘Shipley’ and ‘Rose,’” she said, stroking the white one’s neck. She wanted to name the frail, white one Shipley.
“I want to name them ‘Alice’ and ‘Dorothy,’” I said with the bigger one in my lap. They’re the names of my favorite literary characters.
“Let’s call this one ‘Shipley.’” She rubbed her thumb under the white’s one chin. I was reluctant with her suggestion. “Shipley” was the first name of my sister who had died in a car wreck on Mother’s Day, two years ago. “Rose” was her middle name.
“I didn’t adopt them to make things worse” I said.
“I’m happy you got them,” she said then laughed at the white one stretching its claws. It wasn’t like her laugh around people, outside of the house. It sounded different and rare. It almost scared me, but I surrendered on the names. Mom said they had to stay in my room, so they wouldn’t cause a mess in case the house was being shown to perspective buyers.
I opened the closet doors enough for me to grab one of my work shirts. No surprise, all dark, collard, and short sleeve. Less on aesthetic appeal, and more on comfort. The cats tried to rub past me, but I blocked them like a goalie. Clumped lilac liter was sprayed all over the hardwood floor, and two octagon patches were scratched into the walls. Mom would not be happy to see the mess, but she mostly stayed on her side of the house, in her room. It was my space, smaller than the apartment I had before I moved back in to help Mom, but it was okay. Then I noticed the pair of pants I wore to work draped on my wicker bowl chair. The dark, navy pants I wore five days a week because they were the only pair I could hunch all the way up my legs. The rest only reached two inches above my knees. Even the pair that did fit at the waist was too short in length, but it was all I had. If I bought more clothes, than I had to admit I gained weight. I was like Mom, using food as a Band-Aid. One night she drank a gallon of chocolate milk, because she couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t tell her to stop, because I hadn’t eaten anything in the last year that didn’t come from a drive-thru window. But I didn’t have the energy to face or fix the problem. It was easier putting on the same pair of pants every day and avoiding mirrors.
Before I left the house, I went into the kitchen and grabbed a Diet Mountain Dew can out of the fridge. I checked to see if there were more. Mom hated it when I took the last Dew before she went to work. I spotted two on the middle shelf next to a jar of dill pickles and an empty packet of Swiss cheese slices. On the counter was a manila envelope with “Investigation Photos” written in black marker on the flap. They were the pictures of my sister’s wreck. Mom brought them home. She wanted to study them, to understand why it happened. I didn’t understand her reasoning. My sister died in a car wreck. She was in the passenger seat. Her friend was driving and lost control. Her friend survived without a scratch. My sister didn’t. I had looked through them once out of curiosity. It was a mistake. They tarred her in my mind, defaced her gold hair and copper skin with blood-stained flesh and broken bones. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t burn those pictures out of my head. I blamed Mom for bringing the pictures into our reality. I wanted to get rid of them. Pushing back the urge to throw the folder in the trash and risk Mom’s wrath, I grabbed my car keys and walked out of the house.
Bradley Central High School was less than five minutes away from the house, which was good for the gas. I shuffled into the line of cars driving through the back entrance of the building. It was 8:05 a.m. Kids were being released from the gym and the cafeteria and heading to their first period class. I didn’t have any classes first period, which gave me time to prepare for the day. I stepped out of my car and walked across the parking lot. A few of my fellow teachers waved to me. I didn’t who they were, but I waved back.
First period planning allowed me to eat breakfast, usually a sausage biscuit I picked from McDonalds, make copies for class, and double-check the lessons for the day. Most importantly, it helped me shake off the morning drowsiness that always hung on my shoulders between seven and ten a.m. The planning room for the language teachers was the size of a walk-in closet, cluttered with wooden cubicles, boxes of textbooks, a broken printer, and a fridge.
Mitzi, a Spanish I and II teacher, was checking her grade book in her cubicle sitting opposite of mine.
“How was your weekend?” I asked as I sat down with my laptop and suitcase.
“Too short,” she replied, not looking up. “Yours?”
“Same,” I said, turning on my laptop and taking a pile of vocabulary quizzes I hadn’t graded yet out of my suitcase.
“How’s your dad?” I asked.
She turned around to face me. She had a tiny, sharp nose and marble eyes, like a canary.
“He still can’t get up,” she said. “We tell him to try to move as much as possible, because movement is good. If he doesn’t work his muscles, it will just get harder.”
“Is it just bad arthritis?”
“We don’t know. One doctor said it is arthritis. Another said it’s just old age and fragile mentality.”
“How’s your classes going?” she asked.
I glanced at a quiz on top of the pile. The first question called for a synonym for the word “Delayed.” The answer was “Belated.” The student wrote down “Retarded.”
“I have some challenges,” I said.
“First year teaching is always a beast.”
“A beast with a migraine.”
“And you know where they get it?” she asked and then paused for the answer. I didn’t have it. She continued, “The parents.”
“Of course.” I felt stupid for not guessing.
“And we only get them less than two hours individually.”
“Just us and all of them” I said.
Mitzi didn’t offer many terms of endearments on teaching, but I didn’t care. Two fellow teachers griping about the trials of the high school classroom. It was therapeutic, not ideal.
“They act like they’re bulletproof,” she said. “Like they can say and do anything they please.”
“And then the next day, we hear they’re suspended for fights or in jail for stealing, or dead for turning the steering wheel the wrong way.” She stopped herself and raised her hands to her chest as if she was about to pray. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It was a stupid remark.”
“It’s no big deal,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.” I went back to grading, marking out three wrong answers in a row.
Before second period started, I took a deep breath, checked all that I needed to bring to the classroom, and waited for the initial rush of students to leave the hallway. After a few minutes, I pushed my little cart carrying my laptop, my suitcase, my file case, and my mini speakers across the hallway. I didn’t have my own classroom. First-year teachers never get one, unless they had connections. When I walked in the room, I didn’t see any of my students. It didn’t surprise me. When the final bell rang, they flooded in at the last minute. When I finished writing the lesson on the chalkboard, with the daily standards for it, most of my students had taken their seats.
“How’s your day been Randal?” Dillon asked, a junior with shaggy blond hair and a smile that showed off his upper gums.
“It’s Mr. Buckner Dillon,” I replied.
“Nah, its Randal,” he said.
“If you want to take a trip to school suspension, keep calling me that.” In the beginning of the school year, some of my students had asked me what my high school nickname was. I knew if I had told them, they would never refer to me as “Mr. Buckner” again, so I told them I would reveal it at the end of the semester, when they will be walking out of my classroom for the final time. But a few of the clowns and slackers decided that was too long for them, so they made one up. With their combined intelligence, they had come up with “Randal.”
“Get your journals out,” I said to the class. The class groaned. They hated journal writing. They hated writing in general, but I had to prepare them for the TCAP writing assessment test in February. I couldn’t force them to come up with a cohesive argument for thirty minutes a day, but at least they could try to sew a couple of loose thoughts together on a page.
“Here is your topic for today,” I said and wrote it on the dry erase board. It was a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.”
“I have no idea what those words mean,” said Ashley, a junior with long strawberry-blond hair that touched the sides of her seat.
“Why do you try to be good?” I asked the class.
“Because we have to be,” Dillon said.
“Who says?” I asked.
“Our parents,” said Ashley.
“Our parole officers,” said Dillon. The class laughed. I rolled my eyes and grinned.
“But maybe Thoreau is talking about more than just your conduct,” I said. “Yes, we follow the rules and laws of society because if we didn’t, we’d get into trouble. Maybe he wants you to thrive to be good just because you want to be, not because you feel you have to be.”
“Why would we want to do that?” asked Ashley.
“For many reasons,” I said. “So you’re parents and teachers can be proud of you. So your coach will let you play in the big game. So you can stand out at your job and maybe get a promotion.”
“Mo’ money,” Dillon said, causing a few slackers to laugh.
I ignored him. “So for thirty minutes, write about some personal reasons on how this quote could relate to you.” I walked over to my desk and picked up my iPhone. There was a text from Mom: “Love you. Very proud of you.” I switched from the texting app to the digital stopwatch and set it for thirty minutes. “You have half an hour. Begin now, please.”
Four days later, I dreamt Mom had died. No images or details. No rooms or family members or past acquaintances. Just a feeling I couldn’t label: a mixture of panic and sedation. And then relief when I woke up. I opened my bedroom door and saw that Mom had left for work. Relieved, I walked into the bathroom and took a shower. Later that day, in my second period class, I assigned my students to read Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker.” When they read to themselves, I could enjoy an interval of silence. No back talk, no eye-rolling, no disrespect for almost half an hour. But when most of them started finishing the assignment, they became restless, like babies who finished napping and needed their parents’ attention. I assigned them a one-page response on the symbolism of the story, but there were still a few who didn’t to make the effort and chose other avenues for their time.
“Guess what I’m gonna do Mr. Buckner?” Jesse asked, a junior with a buzz cut and brown-rimmed glasses. He got up and walked over to the shelf next to my desk.
“I don’t know Jesse,” I said. “Sit back down in your seat?”
“No, I’m going to get you in trouble.”
“And how are you going to do that?” I was typing in grades into my computer, not even looking in his direction.
“I’m going to staple my arm and say you made me do it.”
I looked at him then. He held a stapler and was pressing it on his forearm. He eyed me like he wanted me to dare him to do it.
“That’s going to hurt,” I said and went to my grades.
“I’m a master of pain,” he said. Then I heard two grunts. “See, I told you.”
I turned and looked at him again. He had two staples punctured into his skin. Little droplets of blood gushed out of the pierced flesh.
“I’m going to tell the principal you did this to me,” Jesse said.
“Dude,” Dillon said from his desk. “Does it hurt?”
“It’s starting to,” Jesse said. “Can I go to the nurse’s office Mr. Buckner?”
“Yes,” I said and he left with a few students giggling. “Show’s over, get back to your reading.”
That night, I picked up dinner at Arby’s for Mom and me. Her choice was a super roast beef sandwich, a side order of potato cakes, and a Diet Mountain Dew. My order was the same, except that I switched potato cakes for seasoned curly flies. I also added a cherry pastry to my order. They never tasted great, usually cold and hard on the sides of the crust while the cherry jelly was hot and sticky. But it was sweet and satisfying.
At home in our kitchen, I prepared Mom’s meal on a plate and took it to her in her bedroom. Mom was sitting up in her bed, watching Castle on TV.
“Thank-you Baby” she said.
“You’re welcome,” I said and pushed away the pill bottles on her nightstand for her Diet Mountain Dew.
“Just move those,” she said, even though I wasn’t waiting for her approval. Laying on a pillow next to her was the manila envelope with the pictures of the accident.
“I wish you wouldn’t look at those,” I said.
She glanced over to the folder, “They help.”
“Help with what?” I asked.
“They help me understand.”
“You already do,” I said, my agitation increasing from the exhaustion of the day. “They just bring you more pain.”
She clenched her right hand, closed her eyes, and exhaled.
“Sorry,” I said and walked out of her room, closing the door behind me.
“Thanks for getting dinner,” she called out.
My third period class was packed with thirty-five seniors who didn’t want to be near the school anymore. I understood their slow crawl towards graduation, but some of them didn’t get the concept they had to pass English 12 to reach the finish line with a diploma in their hands. I had to remind them of that fact at least once a day.
Just like with my juniors, I started my senior class with a journal entry. It fits in for the thirty minutes they had in class before they head out on their lunch break. It takes most of them the entire time to write a descent paragraph, even though I asked for a full page.
“For today, just write about your experiences with the research process,” I said.
“You mean how it sucks,” said Tim in the back of the class, a senior who had to take English 10 twice.
“Sure,” I said, “but be specific. I want details.”
When the bell rang and they left the classroom, I locked the door and walked across the hall into the language department. I grabbed my lunch out of the freezer, a pasta meal from Healthy Choice. On the first day of school, I tried the cafeteria. After surveying the menu, I believed the salad bar and a baked potato were the only safe picks the kitchen had to offer. I’d been bringing my lunch to work ever since.
I had the room to myself during the break. Usually the rest of the teachers either went to the cafeteria or ate in another room. I liked the solitude. I could enjoy a few minutes with my thoughts before I finished the rest of the workday. As I ate, I watched TV on my computer or listened to music. I also checked my phone for any voice messages or missed calls. Only one text from Mom this time: “Please pick up my medication from the pharmacy.” I texted her back saying I would.
After lunch, the students came back to class. I assigned them to read James Joyce’s “Araby” and then write a one-page personal essay on their biggest disappointment. Five minutes after I gave the assignment, I realized one of my students hadn’t come back to class.
“Where’s Monique?” I asked them. No one answered. A few shrugged. I waited, watching the clock and hoping that she would come in with a note or something. Ten more minutes passed. I decided to ask one of the girls I knew she was friends with.
“Tayla,” I said. “Where’s Monique?”
“I think she’s in cosmetology,” Tayla said, a senior with five piercings on her left ear.
“Why?” I asked.
“To get her hair done” she said and lowered her head to hide her giggling.
“Thanks,” I said and walked out of the classroom and into the department. Regina, another English teacher, was online shopping on the room computer.
“What’s the extension number to cosmetology?” I asked, grabbing the phone.
“349,” she said.
“Thanks.” I didn’t understand the irritation building inside me. Usually, if a student skipped, I would have said “screw it” and refused to make a fuss over it. But today, I felt if I had to be in the classroom, begging my students to try to attempt to read a five-page short story, then all of my students had to make an effort by showing up to class.
“Hello,” a woman answered, “This is Mrs. Langley speaking.”
“Hello. This is Brandon Buckner. I’m Monique Walter’s English teacher. Is Monique there?”
“Yes, she is,” said Mrs. Langley. “She said she was cleared to be here.”
“No,” I said. I bit my lower lip and then sucked. “She wasn’t. She needs to come back.”
“I’m so sorry Mr. Buckner. I’ll tell her to go back immediately.”
“Thank-you very much. Hope you have a good day.”
“Thanks” I said and hung up the phone.
“Monique huh?” Regina said. “Had her last year. She’s a headache.”
“A migraine,” I said and walked out of the room. Most of the kids were reading. A few hadn’t even opened their books. I wasn’t going to force feed them. A few minutes passed when I spotted Monique walking toward me in the hallway.
“What?” she asked. “I had an appointment to get my hair done.”
“Are you kidding me?” I asked. The irritation escalated to anger. I wasn’t in the mood for fake-ignorance.
“Don’t you like it?” She bobbed her hair back and forth. Her hair was in a bee-hive bonnet that was already starting to fall apart.
“It looks like crap,” I said. “Get in here.” I opened the door and was welcomed with laughter.
Monique pouted and walked passed me. “I’m telling my dad you said that.”
“Don’t forget to tell him why I said it.” I closed the door and told the class to resume their work.
Four days later, the rain poured. It was a day I enjoyed inside, whether at home or at work. I always felt agitated under clear skies and the bright, sun. After work, I drove to the video game store and bought the newest Super Mario Bros. game for my Nintendo 3DS. When I got home, Mom called.
“Son, Son,” she said through broken sobs, “I’ve been in a wreck.”
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“Yes,” she sniffed. “I’m soaked…My car…I wasn’t thinking…I need you to come pick me up.”
“Where are you?”
“Keith Street, next to the Krystal.”
“On my way.” I hung up and grabbed my keys. Rain was splashing my window, like I was in one of those automated car washers. I was about to leave my room before I heard scratching noises coming from my closet. Not really thinking, I opened the doors and picked up Shipley. She always gave less resistance than her sister when picked up. I tucked her under my arm and walked out of the house. Raindrops pelted my head and shoulders. Shipley squirmed a little when the rain touched her. I got into my car, placed Shipley in the passenger seat, and then backed out of the driveway. Shipley managed to keep steady with all the movement. When I spotted Mom’s car, it was being lifted onto a tow truck. Mom was sitting in the truck. When I parked in front of the truck, she got out and ran to my car. I picked up Shipley and put her in my lap.
“Thank-you so much,” Mom said when she opened the door and got in. She flicked of the hood of her red jacket, sending water flying all over my back seat. It was the jacket she always wore when she watched my sister cheer at her high school football games.
“Look who I brought?” I said and gave her Shipley. Her whole expression changed. Comforted. Warm. I rarely saw these emotions from her anymore.
“Hello baby,” she said. “Are you scared of the car ride?”
Shipley put her tiny front paws on Mom’s cheeks and licked her nose.
“Ah,” she said. “That would be more adorable if I didn’t know you lick your own butt with that tongue.”
“Destination home?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said, “Now I have to worry about how much to get the car fixed.”
“We’ll get through it,” I said as her car was towed away.
“You’re right,” Mom said, playing with Shipley in her lap. While I drove use home, I kept my thoughts on my new video game. And then the assignments I had to grade before tomorrow. And then get dinner for Mom and me, maybe Krystal tonight. They were small distractions. Just enough to create a chain and bridge the gap a little longer until I found more distractions. Chained together, as we pulled ourselves through the storm.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ralph B. Buckner is working on his PhD in English, with a concentration in creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His academic research is focused on the dissonance of language when confronted by grief and trauma and enjoys studying the works of Flannery O’Connor and Edgar Allan Poe. Before going back to college, he was an English teacher for five years in Cleveland, Tennessee, where he was born and raised.