Progress Toward a Proof

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Alone in the math hall, scrunched in a one-armed desk, I prayed that if my dad swept by, he’d think I was taking a make-up test. As the janitor’s son, though, I was never allowed to be absent, so what would I ever need to make up?

Praying to God made me a hypocrite, since I didn’t much believe in Him.  I sure believed in the Father, though.  Nobody doubted my dad’s existence.  The opposite of our Catholic God, whose invisibility irritated me, my father showed up everywhere, enormous despite his small stature.

Still, I didn’t worship at Dad’s altar like many of the faculty and students.  I did not seek his esteem with small offerings of expensive whiskey in gift bags, or bleed gratitude on fancy note paper (“Oh, dear Willie, muchas, muchas graciasfor helping with the skeletons for our Day of the Dead celebration!  I don’t know how I could ever teach Spanish without you! –Muchos, Muchos Abrazos, Senora Johannsen”).

I spent a good deal of my energy that fall trying to avoid my dad’s laughing, bustling omnipresence. I envied other high school juniors with normal fathers, remote paycheck providers who disappeared into the redwood mill for double shifts or worked at sea on salmon trawlers for days at a time. Instead, each day began with my father bursting through my bedroom door first thing in the morning (“Gitup, damn it!  You’re already late!”).  Often, I ended the night with him, too, helping out on his moonlight-janitor jobs.  Smelling like cleaning solvents, riding shotgun in his rusted Ford pickup, I’d fall asleep on the short drive home, only to wake, his elbow jabbing my arm (“Gitup, Frankie!  We’re home, and it’s already past your bedtime–”).

In between those “Gitups!” Dad could be in my company or in sight every other hour of our day.  If I weren’t so desperate for an extra minute of sleep in the morning, I’d have walked the mile to school in blessed solitude.  Instead, I only had time for a swig of coffee and a slice of cold toast.  (I’m not even going to mention how my mom set up the coffee before she hustled to the five-thirty shift in the high school cafeteria.  Who would believe that my mother also worked at the school?)  I’d dash into the cold dark Pacific damp to catch my shotgun seat in Dad’s pickup and stumble into my Commercial Art class just in time to hear Ms. Packer greet me with, “Did your dad mention anything about my big acrylics order arriving yet, Frankie?”

For those of us taking zero period’s before-school electives, it was still dark when class started at 6:55.  As that November progressed, I’d catch my reflection in Packer’s windows, my miserable, sleepy face caught in buzzing fluorescence.  Would I ever wake from this hellish, daily nightmare?  Of course not.  My dad would swing into class, his short trunk hidden behind packages, then await his reward: Packer clapping with happiness over tubes of paint, then squeezing his arm and patting his wavy copper hair.

His pleasing ways at school didn’t quite match his temper at home, where he’d fly into a rage if I jammed a gear while he was teaching me to drive, or raise holy hell with my poor mom if she forgot to stock his favorite brand of cod-liver oil.

With his over-rewarded chore done, Dad wouldn’t hesitate to linger in class.  He teased the prettiest girls until they granted giggles, then praised the plain ones’ art techniques.  He couldn’t leave to do his real job, of course, until he’d stopped by my desk to critique my project, an anti-tobacco ad which–thank God he didn’t know–was already two days overdue.  “Good work, Frankie.  You know, I smoked my whole life until your mom got TB.  Her doc told me how bad it was for her, so I quit–”

“I know, Dad.  Cold turkey.”

“Yep, cold turkey.  So when you were born, my little turkey, you never had to breathe a breath of smoke…”  He squeezed the back of my neck and sauntered off, catching Packer’s blown kiss in his gnarly fist.

The kids beside me chuckled over that ”little turkey.”  I happened to be born on Thanksgiving, and Dad knew the phrase irked me.  He told that tale of Little Turkey’s miraculous holiday birth, along with a million other stories, over and over at family dinners and throughout our broom-pushing evenings together.

I’d long before notched the nuances of Willie Flannagan’s 20th Century epic onto a bronze timeline, beginning in Cincinnati with his parents’ deaths from the Great influenza.  He’d suffered his own bout with the illness, which rendered him comatose until he woke, at seven, parentless, with most of his hearing gone.  After that, he was shipped off to a Catholic orphanage, where he struggled in school because he couldn’t hear the nuns.  They finally kicked him out when he was sixteen, grown too big for the eighth grade class he’d flunked three years straight.  He went looking for work the very week the Stock Market crashed.  But Dad’s hard luck transformed into triumph when he wound up on the North Coast of California and married its most prized native daughter.

Dad had tracked me through much more than every hour of every day at the high school.  He’d already stalked me all through my schooling.  After failed businesses, he found a happy niche in the Redwood Coast Unified Schools, starting as assistant janitor at the primary school.  He gained promotions at exactly the same pace as I proceeded through the schools, so that when I finished third grade, he got a job at the upper primary, then followed me to junior high.  At my junior high graduation he congratulated me for having “already surpassed” him in education, then announced how he’d been promoted to head custodian of the high school.  “You and me, Frankie, we’ll go through all your years together!”

It hadn’t been so bad when I was a little kid.  I even remember working on my penmanship in my third-grade class and looking out the windows to see my dad pushing a handcart down the breezeway, whistling and waving to me.  I practically exploded out of my desk to wave back.  I gloried in his important missions at school and figured the other kids were just as impressed.

But now I was a big kid, cramped in a too-small desk in an empty high school hallway, disgraced,kicked out of Geometry for an entire week.  I tried to ignore the mud tracked into the foyer, just ten yards down the hall, and the inevitability of Custodian Flannagan showing up any minute to  scrub the linoleum.

Still blushing as I served the first minutes of my punishment, I cringed at the thought of anyone seeing me like this, let alone my father.  I’d never felt so idiotic.  I couldn’t even fault my geometry teacher, though he was my mortal enemy. With his fascist tendencies, Mr. Gottschalk could’ve killed me for what I’d just done.

I stared at our ugly yellow text of geometric theorems.  Gottschalk had marked my assigned chapters with a paper clip, the caught pages a bit thick for a single week of
class progress.  All we ever did, it seemed to me, was trudge through one theorem every period, without preface, without follow-up, without a glance at their meaning for the great boundless world. We were like recruits on a forced march in some chalky wilderness, knowing only that we’d slog for yet another forty-seven minutes.  We’d end up no further, no wiser, no closer to victory, never learning the point of the battle nor the cause of the war.

Gottschalk even had the manner of a demoted German officer assigned to hard duty in the
boondocks.  He snarled orders and demanded unstinting obedience.  Despite the rumors that his German-American roots had led him to spy for the Nazis, that he’d lost his left eye as punishment for helping the enemy in the War, I had to admire Gottschalk’s dedication.  He soldiered on every day at the blackboard when I was sure he didn’t know the purpose of our combat with this yellow book any more than we did.

I opened the text to the first theorem under Gottschalk’s clip and began to scribble my progress toward a proof.  The hall remained abandoned until Loreen Lucchesi, bearing a bathroom pass, popped out of Trigonometry.

Spotting me, she smirked.  I just stared dumbly ahead, too embarrassed to recover what little wit I had, and listened to the horrible music of girls and bathrooms; the swing of the metal door, the muffled flush, the too-long silence as Loreen washed her hands and diddled with her sticky hair and practiced her smirking smile just for her return trip back to my disgrace.

“Have you been a bad boy, Frankie?” she asked, a sweet lilt in her hushed tone.  She even dipped a bit, teacherish, to address me in passing.  “Or is even Geometry too much for you?”

“I’m doing advanced work, Loreen,” I announced, amazed I could invent the lie without a second’s hesitation.  “Gottschalk wants to me to fly ahead on my own.”

“Really?  Well, some of us are worried that you might fall to earth, sweetie.”  She stopped, nearer her classroom door.  “You were so smart in tenth grade.  Honors track.  We miss you, Frankie. Imagine, a junior taking a sophomore course.”

“I’m only off-track for math, Loreen, and you know it.  I’m still in Honors in every other class.”

“Oh really?  Since you never speak up in History or English–not on the subject, anyway–I guess we forgot you were still there.”  Her forehead knotted with fake concern, she slipped into class.

I noted her royal “we,” the affectation of her smug Honors clique.  Okay, I’d fallen behind in math since I’d struggled to earn the first C of my life in Algebra.   That’s actually what got me into this fix with Gottschalk, that I was the only junior, and almost the only male, in this particular Geometry section, dominated by brilliant and beautiful sophomore girls.

Even now I see those girl theorem-warriors as a flesh-and-blood tribute to humanity at its best, their powerful cerebral cortexes hidden under silken hair.  With perfect olive or peach complexions, most were the Portuguese- and Italian- and Finnish- American daughters of immigrant families I’d known my whole life.   A few of these sophomores formed the vanguard of the North Coast’s future, daughters of wealthy folks who built seafoam-dashed retreats on the headlands, daughters of artists and gallery owners, daughters of poor but hip Bay Area bohemians who’d followed Thoreauvian dreams to the redwoods–striking, slightly off-center girls named for lakes in the Cascades and Trinity Alps.  Sky would become an exchange student in Uruguay; Chelan gave forthright talks on birth control techniques in speech class;  Crystal represented Afghanistan at the World Affairs conference in Berkeley.   Shimmering among them was Gottschalk’s own demure daughter, Angelique.

At some point that fall these sophomore women had decided to adopt me.  Sent down from the heights of Junior Honors to fight the yellow book alongside them, I might be the janitor’s son, but I also became an object of tender pity, a project, and an older man–a kind of exchange student from the upperclassmen’s nation.

In the town where I’d been schooled in lockstep with most of my fellow students for eleven years, as a junior I felt strangely like a new arrival to myself.  I’d been one of those boys whose development goes backward all through junior high, who grows rounder and softer when the other boys are shooting up and gaining wide shoulders; instead of getting hairy at twelve or thirteen, instead of going from freckles to whiskers, my skin had become soft and downy.  Then, over the previous summer, I’d emerged from that extended, pudgy puberty and soared past six feet, losing all my baby fat.

As if a genetic switch got flipped, one day I was still glancing up to my catch my dad’s eyes, the next I was glancing down at the top his curly head.  Suddenly my older brothers’ hand-me-downs actually fit me, not their kid stuff, but the cool patched jeans and bled-out Madras shirts they’d been wearing to college classes the previous year.  I still couldn’t get used to my face, now thin and long, with a chin that jutted out instead of folding into my neck in triplicate.

The world’s impression of my new face, wonder of wonders, got signaled at a Finnish Hall summer dance when this beauty visiting from Marysville flirted with me all evening.  She’d forced me to clutch her close for the slow dances, then seduced me into walking her to her aunt’s after midnight.  She still sent me perfumed letters in pink envelopes, coaxing me over the Coast Range to visit her in Marysville.

All fall I’d dreamed of driving the whole distance by myself to seek the source of that Sacramento Valley perfume.  I’d sweet-talk my mom to let me take her Chevy Impala when I turned sixteen the day after Thanksgiving.

But by early November Angelique Gottschalk had been distracting my attention from distant Marysville to the desk just inches ahead of mine.  No, I didn’t dip Angelique’s imaginary pigtails into any imaginary inkwell.  I had other, more vivid diversions.

It started simple, back in October.  Shy, she’d smile when she passed back a quiz or worksheet. Angelique was as prim as any teacher’s daughter, but could make a knee-length navy blue skirt seem provocative.  She almost always wore white blouses, her bra straps clearly visible below her shoulder seams.  When she wore short sleeves, all I could do was stare at her smooth, tanned forearms; when she wore her hair up in a French twist, all I could do was stare at the back of her long, creamy neck, with the little birthmark just under her right ear.  While she worked obediently on a problem, she’d wiggle her ankles, and slip her feet in and out of her slip-on sneakers.  I knew this because I’d schlepped my desk a little rightward, out of the row line, to better appreciate Angelique’s
ear and study what her feet were up to.

“Mr. Flannagan?”  Mr. Gottschalk had cocked his good eye in my direction, while his glass one fixed straight on, toward the pencil sharper.  “I trust you’re keeping your eyes on your own paper?”

Even though I blushed hot while Gottschalk’s entire sophomore harem giggled at my reprimand, I’d actually been relieved.  I knew Gottschalk hated me and certainly didn’t think I had any integrity, but at least he hadn’t noticed that I’d been ogling his daughter’s neck, not her schoolwork.  I’d simply nod and slide my desk back into line.

Now, a month later, exiled in the hallway, I tried to make sense of what Gottschalk had assigned.  I stared at my scribbles so far, realizing I didn’t comprehend what I’d just copied from the text.  The single sentence that introduced the problem might as well have been in Old High Church Slavonic.  I flipped back to skim the boldfaced words that always marked new concepts or terms.   None of it rang the faintest chime in my brain.

Panicked, flipping further back, I heard no more chimes in earlier chapters, only muted thuds.  How had I missed so much?  When was the last time, really, that I’d actually worked on Geometry at home?  Was Loreen Lucchesi right, that I’d fallen from Honors-track grace into some dumbbell Purgatory?  Had that sudden growth spurt sucked the vital fluids out of my brain cells?

Suddenly there was more in the span of my gaze than defunct Geometry terms.   At desk’s edge, a glimpse of khaki.  Monkey Ward work pants.  In them–if I dared direct my gaze slightly upward– stood my father.   Unusually still, he even moderated his breath, which, because of his deafness, was usually louder than it needed to be.

I dared to face him, feeling my face redden, and waited for my father’s Irish temper to ignite. Awaiting his scorn, I prepared a strategy.  I would sweat-out the angry barrage, survive some torture like being grounded, then sit in the hallway for the rest of the week in peace.  The worst, I imagined, had already happened.  I had survived shame, degradation, and punishment many times before and bounced back as good as new; after all, I was raised Catholic.

But Dad remained impassive.  He placed his hands on his hips and stared directly into my eyes but said nothing.  From where I sat, squeezed into that little desk, he seemed a giant–a modern Goliath who required a hearing aid, its coil running from his ear to the battery in his front pocket, a Leviathan whose clutch of keys clanged from his belt rung.  I had never known him to be at a loss for words.  For that matter, I’d never known myself to be, either.  But we stared for what seemed like long minutes, wordless, tentative, as if afraid to discuss what was so obvious.

“So, Frankie,” he finally began, stepping back, a little more relaxed, even scratching his bare forearm, “what do you think you’re getting in Geometry?”

I breathed easier.  “I dunno.  Maybe a C, C-?  I can bring it up by the end of the semester.”

“You might be surprised.”

“Yeah?”  I was hopeful.  Maybe Dad believed I’d pull a B.

“Yeah.  I think you’re sitting on a D.  If you’re lucky.  It might have sunk to an F by now.  I talked to Fritz this morning in the staff room.  He’s pretty fed up with you.”

Dad always referred to teachers intimately, with first names or nicknames, as if I were pals with “Fritz,” too, or just genetically understood that “Gertie” meant our withered, kindly Senora Johannsen.

I didn’t know how to talk myself out of this fix.  I had just encountered the depths of my dangerous retardation in Geometry and had no argument against a D.  Or, bless me, Immaculate Mother of God, even an F.  But while I kept waiting for Dad to ask why I was sitting in the hall, he kept avoiding the issue, as if it were a long-established fact that I’d always belonged in solitary confinement.

My jailkeep appeared in at the doorway.  I could feel Gottschalk’s skewed gaze on me as he cracked the door.  I sensed the whole sophomore harem’s suppressed curiosity before Gottschalk slipped out and snapped shut the door behind him.  “Willie,” he said, “I hope everything’s as it should be out here.”

“It’s fine, Fritz.  But look.”  I followed Dad’s gesture to the muddy foyer.  “Helluva mess down there.”

“Kids sure track mud during the rainy season,”  Gottschalk said, severe yet chatty.  “A terrible design flaw, Willie.  They need to pave over all the paths from the playing fields.  Waste of your time.”

“Yeah.  Guess I better get the mop.”

“And I better get back to my students.”  Gottschalk deigned to glance down to me. “Any questions so far, Mr. Flannagan?”

I shook my head.  People who lack any comprehension rarely possess anything so honorable as a question.

Dad disappeared, off to his supply room.  Gottschalk returned to the girlish buzzing audible between the moments he wedged open the door and before he let it slam.

But I was glad that Dad’s unprecedented cool-calm strategy prevented him from interrogating me about the real trouble in Gottschalk’s class that morning.   At the period’s start, Gottschalk had us work in study groups, so Angelique had turned her desk around.  We were face-to-face as Sky, Crystal and Chelan pushed in to join us, so that without initiating any ruckus, I happened to be dead center among four brainy girls.  They’d all aced the homework; they’d confirmed the proof in about five minutes while I listened politely, nodding sagely at their elegant Old High Church Slavonic terminology.

While the other groups finished up, we discussed palm readings, which Chelan had just learned about from a Mendocino psychic.  It turned out that I had an unusually long life line, which curved under my thumb and  continued toward my wrist.  Chelan scratched her head, marveling that I might live “practically forever.“  The girls held my palm and passed it around as if it were a confounding rock sample.   But when Angelique’s turn came, last, she cradled my palm snugly and gently traced my long line with her forefinger.  An electric charge seemed to crackle under her gentle traces.

“Let me see yours,” I said, anxious now to enfold her small, smooth palm in mine.

The other girls exploded in giggles, a giddy blast that seemed too intense for the moment until I realized Gottschalk had quietly appeared beside us, poised above Angelique and me.

“Daddy,” Angelique said, her voice quavering despite her attempt at casual deflection, “you won’t believe how long Frankie’s lifeline is.”  She held up my hand, a specimen again.

“Look.”

“Yet if I trust more rational signs, Miss Gottschalk, I must predict that Mr. Flannagan’s life will be rather brutish and short.”  With a military about-face, Gottschalk took to the front of the room and commanded our attention by drawing a huge circle–or a zero?–on the board.  “As is our rule, one randomly selected person from each group will perform the solution and earn all the points.  Or, alas, receive a zero for his or her entire group.  Since your group finished first, Mr. Flannagan, would you please come forward and begin the proof for us?”

He scooped a piece of chalk from the tray and fired it to me as I shuffled to the board, clutching my yellow text.  The class buzzed with its normal, merry productivity, a mild curiosity arising as the sophomores prepared to compare their steps in the proof with mine.  I could read no inkling, no suspicion in anyone except Gottschalk of the bloody disgrace about to be smeared across that blackboard.

The first part was easy.  I simply copied the text’s introductory sentence, the conceptual statement, on the board, though I comprehended only its prepositions, articles, and the predicate, “given that…”  (It was a given that, other than a few tips on palm readings, I hadn’t absorbed a single fact from our study group’s discussion.)  After a long, lip-biting pause, as the class grew ever more silent behind me, I copied the text’s first diagram by intersecting a triangle through Gottschalk’s existing circle.  The class sunk into an even deeper hush.  I turned to see Gottschalk back himself against the far wall and hunker there, twirling a pencil between his fingers.

I raised the chalk to the circle, improvising.  I drew a little dotted arc between the topmost corner of the triangle, then, encouraged by this design, did the same for the other corners.  Where the circle’s diameter met the angle, I added a straight dotted line which sliced the circle in a pleasing third, like a peach slice.  Behind me, the hush broke into shuffling, whispers, and tapping pens–the unmistakable sound track of mass embarrassment.

“Well,” Mr. Gottschalk finally broke through, “Mr. Flannagan, please be aware we all understand the basic concept and diagram.  Although your artistry in dotted arcs is a
mystery, please proceed with the first stage of the proof, would you?  We await.”  He coughed. “Show us, as they say, yours.”

The rest went swiftly.  I sliced a corresponding peach across the other side of the circle, then stepped back to regard my imbecility.  I had nothing.  I surrendered and passed the chalk to another group designee.  Returning to my seat unable to make eye contact with Sky, Crystal, Chelan, and Angelique, I sat dumbstruck.

After the first student erased my dotted lines, to begin properly, and a relay of sophomore girls flawlessly executed the entire proof, I knew I had robbed my groupmates of all their homework points.  Angelique must have been casting me into the lowest pit of Hell to join Judas and Hitler.

When Gottschalk got class started on the homework, he quietly ordered me from my seat and into the hall.  He explained that I had demonstrated a sucking whirlpool of ignorance of all that he’d taught since the new quarter began.  I had needlessly injured my entire group; I seemed unable to concentrate on either lessons or group study without chatting or “pseudo-scientific distractions.”
The only solution was to separate me from my younger betters and see if I recovered in a week’s work of “independent study.”

I was asked for no justifications and offered no appeals.  Gottschalk left me in the hall after his sotto voce condemnations and returned to class to stage the grand gesture, hoisting my desk out of class, then setting it gently down beside the door.

While I ‘fessed up to my crime internally–even before I fully understood how far behind I was–I knew there was more going on than Gottschalk’s frustration with my math failures.  I could see how tribal, how primal his jealousy was.  He resented how the girls’ attention had shifted from him to me, that his manhood was sinking while I, fresh and strong, had been sent from the heights of Junior Honors.  Taller than Gottschalk now, I was literally rising to challenge his status.  If Freud and Jung had been there to plumb Gottschalk’s psychology, it couldn’t have been more clear.  Gottschalk’s decline, plus the fact that he’d caught me hand in hand with his precious daughter, formed the real motives for my exile.

I squinted at my meaningless jottings, hoping all I needed was to focus my fresh, strong powers. My dad appeared in the foyer with an enormous wheeled bucket and a mop, elaborately ignoring me. In no time, he’d restored the linoleum to its sparkling former glory.

*    *    *    *

The next week, Gottschalk allowed me back into class, but my relief got sabotaged when I realized he    was in deep cahoots with my father.  Instead of singling me out for more  public humiliation, Gottschalk adopted my dad’s silent treatment.  He handed back my latest “F” quiz to Angelique “by mistake,” so that she had to pass it back, her brow raised in wonder, her eyes crinkled in compassion.

At home, when progress reports came out later that week, brows were raised, too, but without compassion.  My parents’ eyes narrowed into simmering rage.

Dad had confiscated my down slips from the principal’s secretary and carried them home at lunchtime.  When I got in after school, each little square pink duplicate dangled from the kitchen ceiling in long tranparent-tape slithers.  Gottschalk had scrawled a “D-” on my the pink slip and, under Comments, added a cute “NO COMMENT.”  I wandered through the sticky, crude display–my own internal system failure–as if I’d been forced to examine unviable intestines in a field hospital.  I got “D” warnings in Chemistry, History, and English, and due to my anti-smoking ad’s lateness, even a “C” in Commercial Art.

One evening after that, I knew my parents–beyond being fed up with my sudden, spectacular decline–had other troubles they wouldn’t discuss with me.  At dinnertime, I went to answer little Jimmy Cortini’s knock as he made his usual neighborhood rounds, snacking at our table before he ate dinner with his own actual family.  But my mom abruptly stage whispered, “don’t answer!” and blocked my way.  She shrank back to the stove to stir the mush she prepared as that night’s dinner, while we waited, pathetic, until Jimmy stopped knocking and went away.

Ah, mush.  It was the middle of the month, and school district paychecks didn’t come out until the 20th, just before Thanksgiving.  When I was younger and the mid-month budget was especially tight, my mom would announce “breakfast for dinner!” and my brothers and I would all cheer, because we loved mush with margarine, warm milk and sugar, especially if the alternative was slimy casserole leftovers Mom brought home from school in big aluminum cans.  But Mom hadn’t resorted to mush or school leftovers for years, and I figured this relapse had to do with some sudden expense at my older brothers’ junior college in Santa Rosa.  Jimmyless, we ate the mush in silence. In hopes of cheering her up, or maybe just to be acknowledged, I told my mom it “hit the spot”, but she didn’t respond.

Later Dad prepared to take off for his moonlighting shift at the county courthouse, so I ran upstairs to get into my scruffy cleaning clothes.  But I practically had to sprint to catch up to him before he aimed his pickup into the street.  It was like he meant to take off without me.

We cleaned different floors, Dad in the courtroom, I in the upstairs offices, without a word between us the whole evening.

The next day, after school, carrying home my anti-smoking ad, I found a full pack of Marlboros by the side of the street, matches tucked into the cellophane.  I ducked into the adjacent patch of redwood forest, found a burnt stump with a comfortable top to perch on, and sampled a few.  Instead of the stereotypical coughing and nausea, I found the heavy, smoldering flavors compelling.

Friday, for the first time, I joined the smokers after lunch in their semi-outlaw spot behind the Continuation School’s trailers.  Some stoner senior girls invited me to a Saturday night party where older guys had set up a teepee on a backcountry lane.  The senior women even picked me up in a rusty Beetle.  I told my parents they were taking me to a school-sponsored dance, a World Affairs fundraiser for Cambodian orphans.

The next Monday, I met Angelique for lunch, who had requested a word with me via note in Gottschalk’s class:  “Meet me in the courtyard on the library steps, okay?  P.S.  Why weren’t you at the Honor Society meeting Friday or the dance on Saturday?”  After staying up late on Saturday drinking beer with two exciting wild-haired seniors in matching buckskin miniskirts, I felt a little embarrassed by Angelique’s white blouse and plaid skirt.  Why’d she dress like a Catholic schoolgirl when she didn’t have to?  She sipped milk with a straw, like a third-grader.  Under the breezeway roof, we sat with our trays on our laps, watching the cold drizzle on the concrete, inches from our feet.  “Your mom’s mac and cheese is so yummy,” she told me.  “This is my favorite lunch.”

“So, did I miss anything at Honor Society?”

“Frankie…would you like for me to help you with Geometry?”

“Angelique!  Wait a minute.  Is the Society kicking me out?”

“I don’t think they can, until semester grades come out.  But why don’t you let me help you?”

I excused myself, telling Angelique I had a headache, which I did, but lied that I was going off to bum some aspirin off my mom.  I carried our trays back to the cafeteria, then slipped through the woods to the Continuation School to find out if nicotine would stanch the pain.  I smoked with a lone stoner guy under the narrow eaves of the Continuation trailer, blowing smoke into the rain.

In History, Loreen Lucchesi led our small group.  Oral history topics were due that day, and Mr. Short wanted us to “test them out” on our peers.  I’d completely forgotten the assignment and strained to dream up a subject while Loreen duly noted our ideas.  When the circle was down to Loreen and me, I ignored her smirk and deferred to her, my mind still racing.

“Don’t think this is too weird, you guys, but I’m actually going to interview Mr. Gottschalk,” Loreen said.  “He’s our neighbor, and I’ve known him since I was little.  He’s seen a lot of history, and I’m good at coaxing him into conversation!”

Everybody chuckled but me.  Loreen went on, about how we all probably knew that Gottschalk had lost one eye in the War, but did anybody really know how?  At eighteen, serving as a medical assistant, he had been helping to evacuate Belgian civilians from a school they’d used as a field hospital.  Gottschalk’s unit had heard reports that the school might be booby trapped, then ambushed by a German battalion, so they were hustling like crazy to get everybody out.  But Gottschalk realized that in their panic, they’d left behind a village kid who was under anesthesia in the basement.

“That’s where Mr. Gottschalk was when the bomb went off,” Loreen said, “and, get this.  Even though a shard of blasted glass took out his eye, he still carried that kid up the stairs and into the school yard.  The boy was thirteen or so, not that much smaller than Mr. Gottschalk was, but he managed to get him out of the collapsing building.  Later–it’s so sad, you guys–he realized the boy had already been killed.  He’d been dead the whole time Mr. Gottschalk was risking his life to save him.  Isn’t that amazing?  He’s this incredible war hero with a million medals and citations and I think, a Purple Heart.  And here he is, teaching his heart out at our little school.

“And none of us know because Mr. Gottschalk will never, ever bring it up on his own.  Angelique says he keeps the medals in his tool drawer in the garage, just tossed there, next to the screwdrivers.  She’s never heard him tell the story to anyone outside the family.  But I’m going to try to get it out of him.”

Chrimony, what was left to tell?  While the group buzzed, awestruck, about Gottschalk’s valor, it shocked the hell out of me that I’d always imagined the wartime Gottschalk as he was now, a rigid, one-eyed, middle-aged scold.  I tried to imagine a teenaged version of my math teacher with two good eyes, only a couple years older than me.  I wondered if his wound had changed his life for good, if he’d always wanted to be a teacher, or if he’d had to settle for putting up with D students because his original dream was as dead as that Belgian kid.

When I heard Loreen calling my name, I felt like I’d sunk underwater for a dangerous, airless interval.  Everyone in the circle was staring at me like concerned spectators on the rim of a pool.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, glancing at Loreen’s paperback, Grapes of Wrath.  “My…mom’s family had a tough time in the Thirties.  They were, you know, immigrants.  So I’ve been thinking of  interviewing my mom about the Depression.”

~

At dinner the Monday before Thanksgiving, scarfing down spaghetti with a side of boiled potatoes, Dad suddenly turned to me.  Out of the blue, maybe because it was payday at last, I was suddenly worthy of his interest.

“So why’d Fritz throw you out, anyhow?”

He didn’t sound mad, which scared the hell out of me.  This was just the tone he used to dig for school trivia (”So where’d Gertie end up hanging that Mexican flag I saved for her?”) punctuated with an elaborate fork-mashing of yet another boiled potato.

“I was just talking, I guess…” I muttered, not even convincing myself.  But he wasn’t being straight, either.  In conspiracy with his buddy Fritz, I was sure he already knew the whole story.

“Talking, eh?”  He fiddled with a toothpick.  He adjusted the big hearing aid battery in his pocket.  “Just talking, huh?  I guess Fritz was having one of his bad days.”

“He seems to have bad days on a regular basis.  Like every day.”

This feeble sarcasm actually produced a giggle from Jimmy Cortini, welcome again at our payday table.  Maria Crnjac, an old Croatian widow who lived in the cottage behind the corner bar, had also joined us that evening.  (My mom was so used to cooking for five hundred that she thought nothing of it when half the neighborhood smelled her spaghetti sauce and wheedled their way to our table with feeble offerings like raw snap peas or a quart of Safeway jug wine in a Ball canning jar.)  Maria leaned toward my mother, mumbling something in Croatian.  My mom mumbled something back, pointing at me.

Maria just nodded, then stared at me with the open sympathy people feel for the mentally impaired.  There was no privacy in my life.  I felt just as exposed and ridiculous at our dinner table as in the hallway next to Gottschalk’s door.

“A whole week in the hall,” my dad said, “that’s a hell of a  punishment for just talking.  Well, I better get going.  Gotta do the county courthouse tonight.”

I rose, too, happy to escape being the evening’s clown act for Jimmy and Maria.  “Wait a sec, Dad.  Let me change into my scruffies.”

“You planning on coming?  You sure, Frankie?  Don’t you have homework tonight?”

“But don’t you need me?”

“I can get it done by myself.  I’d do the courtroom first to make sure it’s ready for tomorrow’s docket.  Meanwhile, don’t you have a project in History?”

I stared at him.  Since when did he take such a close interest in my History homework?  And what project was he talking about?  I didn’t dare admit that I didn’t remember.  “Yeah.  I guess.  You know Short.  He’s always got a project for us.”

“Yeah, well Sheldon told me about it this afternoon.  Sounds kinda interesting.  Oral history.  You told him you were going to interview your mom.”

“You are?” my mom piped up.  “About what, for Pete’s sake?”  Oh, yeah.  And sweet blessed Virgin, our reports were due tomorrow.  “About the Depression, Mom.”

Luckily Maria was already tugging at Mom’s sleeve for a translation of the goings-on, so I turned to Dad:  “How about if I stop by to help you after I finish interviewing Mom?”

“Thanks, Frankie.”  He cocked his head, tinkering with his ear-piece.  “But you’ll probably want to be catching up on your Geometry, too, won’t ya?”  With that, kissed my mom, praised her pasta, and waved goodbye.

Damn him, I thought, now he’s got me begging to help him clean the toilets in the county building.  I
had half a notion that he and Gottschalk, with their pensiveness and long silences, were deep into
some reverse-psychology scheme they thought I was naive enough to fall for.  Maybe they believed they might re-enact Gottschalk’s war heroism, only mine was the body they were hauling up from that basement.  Well, the hell with them!  I still had a brain, and I’d prove I wasn’t any damn Belgian cadaver.

“That was weird,” I told my mother after the prospect of helping with the dishes had chased Maria and Jimmy home.  She washed, I dried while I wondered, “Dad’s been acting so quiet.  And since when doesn’t he want me to help him with the county building?”

“Frankie, you’re supposed to be so smart.  Think about it.”

She gave me the chance as she hummed along with the oldie station’s Frank Sinatra hit, “I Did It My Way.”  Then, fighting with a sauce pot, she said,  “He’s worried sick that it’s his fault, your bad grades.  That he made you work too many evenings.”

“He never ‘made’ me, though, Ma.  And even when I subbed for him while you guys were in Santa Rosa, I still kept my grades up.”

“So, what’s the story now?  How come?  All the sudden, like this?  You used to have the best penmanship–”

“I was in third grade!”

“Well, now it looks like chicken scratch.  That’s a sign, they say.”

“Of what?  Sudden retardation syndrome?”

Mom sighed.  “Drugs.”

“Oh God!  Where would I get drugs?”

“Who were those older girls in that little Beetle?  Why did you lie to us about the World Affairs dance?”

I considered another lie while I stacked dishes in the cupboard, rattled by all the noise I was making in my mother’s deepening silence.  I feared that my mother’s mood would transmute from its amiable American Sinatra-humming norm into its Croatian evil twin, that old-country crone who scowled and sputtered about ancient blood feuds and eternal curses.  I told her I was sorry.

She didn’t acknowledge my apology.  “So, what’s this interview with me?  Am I part of history now?”

“No…well, yeah, but you know, recent history.  I always wanted to know about that legend.  You know, that you went over to Hopland when you were thirteen to pick hops and make your fortune.”

“Yeah, and when I came home, my poor father had to buy me shoes.  What’s so historic about that?”

“Well, it was the Great Depression, Mom.  And you were a migrant worker, just like the Grapes of Wrath.”

“I wasn’t a migrant worker!  It was an adventure with my big sister.”

“You were in a tent, picking hops for slave wages.  Isn’t that migrant labor?”

“Frankie, it wasn’t the Grapes of Wrath, for Pete’s sake.  I told you, I was a silly kid.  I was earning my fortune!”

“If it was that simple, why didn’t you ever return to school?  Why were you an eighth-grade dropout?

“Oh, first I’m an Okie, now I’m a dropout?”

“Well, what would you call it?”

“I just never started high school. When I got home, it was already the middle of September.  I was too embarrassed to enroll. I knew I’d be behind in all my subjects.”

“And that’s not dropping-out?”

“No, no, no!  It was different then, Frankie.  I had to help out at home.  Then, you know, in a few years, I met your father.”

“Yeah.  Then you became a teenage bride.”

“I beg your pardon!  I was almost eighteen.”

“And that’s not being a teenage bride?”

“You got enough for your report now?”  She dumped the soapy dishpan into the sink.  “Are we done?”

“You’re not an easy interview, Mom.”  I wiped down the dish drain.  “I don’t have a lot of material, here.”

“I’m sorry that my life is so boring, Frankie.”

“It’s not boring, Mom!  For God’s sake, your parents were immigrants, you lived through all these hard times, your brothers fought in the biggest battles in the Pacific during the War, half your family died from TB. You survived TB after years of treatments. You’re like a walking history of the twentieth century so far.  But you won’t tell me anything!”

“Well, you ask me silly questions, then call me names.  Dropout.  Teen bride.”

“Okay, okay.  It’s my fault.  But wouldn’t you be interested in asking me a few questions if I decided to quit school?  I’ll be sixteen in a few days. What if I do quit, then get married?  What would you ask me?”

“This isn’t funny, Frankie.”  She wiped her hands and headed into the den, where she picked dead needles off her prize Norfolk pine.  “It’s cruel even to joke about that,” she called.  “Does this have anything to do with that Marysville girl who sends you those stinky pink letters?”

“No, Ma, no.”  I followed her into the den.  “Look, I’m not gonna drop out.  I’m sorry.”

“If you want to prove you’re so sorry, you better get started on your schoolwork.”

That was that.  Upstairs, I had to pass through the little shrine my mother kept in the hallway that angled into my room.  The third-grade penmanship award.  Gold ribbons from my sixth grade “College Bowl” championship season.

I had once absorbed facts and trivia like a human knowledge filter, the weird kind of kid who knew the chief products of Ceylon and Willie Mays’ career batting average, the importance of Dred Scott, the 1965 estimated population of greater Atlanta.  On that wall, Mom had arrayed four framed Honor Roll certificates, grades seven through ten.

In my tiny room, I sat at the huge fold-down desk my dad had made for me.  I dropped my forehead on the calendar pad and sunk into a funk.  Even my stupid oral history interview had been a complete waste of time, not only because of my mother’s stubbornness, but because I knew I had
been taunting and disrespectful.

I thought about the night my mom had come home from tenth-grade open house, one of those parent nights where she’d been given a copy of my schedule and walked through my class periods at ten minute intervals, from teacher to teacher.  Giddy afterwards, she’d sat down in the kitchen, sipping Safeway burgundy out of a jelly glass, still dressed to the nines like Jackie Onassis home from High Mass.  Fragrant, her dark hair swept up, in her best gold earrings, she told me how scared she’d been to “go back to school,” not as a staff member, but a mother of an Honors student.  “Maybe I know the kitchen, but I always get lost in all those hallways.”  But wandering from class to class, as each of my teachers praised me, she began to relax and soak it up.  She kept telling me how proud of me she was, but I’d been more proud of her.  I’d hoped that teachers and parents who only saw her in her white uniform and hair net now realized how self-possessed and beautiful she really was, how hard she’d had to work to help keep our cash-starved family fed and happy.

I pulled my head up, staring at my window reflection against the high-lit, churning lumber mill, and the dark blurry horizon of the ocean and sky beyond it.  I realized I could write my project from memory, out of the vast, one-sided oral history that had been underway for the past fifteen years–the one about my dad’s heroic past and the woman he loved.  It wouldn’t be as dramatic as Gottschalk’s rescue of the Belgian boy, but my deaf Dad wasn’t allowed to serve in the War.

So I started to write my father’s World War II homefront narrative, more than a decade before I was born, when my teenaged mom was confined in a TB sanatorium down in Santa Rosa and my out-of-county dad had to pay full price for her room and treatments.  Coastal blackouts were imposed to foil Japanese submarines from bombing our harbors at night, so, to see his wife, to encourage her, my dad drove hours on twisting coast roads with just flashlights or moonlight to guide him.  His first business, a service station, failed because of gas rationing as the War wore on, so he worked three or four jobs and lived with his in-laws to support my mom’s recovery.  “I’m going to turn every ounce of my energy,” he’d written in a letter I’d once retrieved from a shoebox of old receipts, “into money for your treatments, my darling.  I’ll prove how much I love you. Someday I’m going to buy you every little thing you might ever need.  Then we’re going to start a beautiful family and by God they’re all going to be college graduates.”

Her response, tucked into the same envelope, after “Dearest Willie, you don’t need to prove anything.  I already know,” was followed by two sides of notebook paper with neat “X’s” and “O’s” repeated and repeated in geometric precision until she ran out of space.

Finished with my first draft, I pulled out the yellow book and started skimming forward from Chapter 1.  Tomorrow in study hall, I decided I’d ask Angelique for help.  Other men might bring her roses, but I would offer an aluminum canful of my mom’s macaroni and cheese and throw myself at her mercy.

I glanced across the few downtown blocks toward the county courthouse and watched the lights go in upstairs offices.  I thought of my dad’s route there, how he’d already finished the courtroom and would start with the Selective Service office and continue all the way down to the Records Room, emptying ashtrays, emptying trash, mopping the checkered linoleum.  Without my help, he’d keep scrambling until eleven or midnight.

I’d still be fighting with the yellow text when he got home. He’d scold me like he always used to when I was up too late with my books, and remind me–like I didn’t know–that I had school in the morning. But just so I wouldn’t be a complete fool in the face of Angelique’s tutoring, I kept on, determined to learn and re-learn every unfamiliar term, every principle, every method of proof.

 

Lee Patton, a native of California’s Mendocino Coast, lives in Denver. He received the Borderlands Playwrights Prize in 1993 (THE HOUSE GUEST) and the 1996 Ashland New Playwrights (ORWELL IN ORLANDO); “Not Headhunters” was featured in the 2004 Last Frontier Theatre Conference.  His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Massachusetts Review, The California Quarterly, Hawaii-Pacific Review, The Neo-Victorian, and, most recently, VS.  This story was composed during a residency at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota.

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