The Little Things

Joan Malerba-Foran, 2007 BLR Fiction Prize Winner

She stands sideways in the middle of the hallway, her bloated backpack blocking traffic from both directions. Today, however, I am in no mood. I’d spent the previous night grading eighty-one essays and, when I finally did make it to bed, it was for a slim six hours crammed between leg cramps and Technicolor nightmares.

“Shaniece.” I wave her toward our door: Room M059.

The rule of conduct for freshmen confronted by a homeroom teacher rarely varies. Shaniece chooses the most common move, which is the one-quarter pivot-away followed by the half-glance toward the ceiling. Students and teachers favor this maneuver because it allows for the maximum flexibility of interpretation: I could use cooperative pretending (act as if the student didn’t hear me and repeat the name), conciliatory patience (hold the door like an anxious host), or common spite (close the door). On this particular morning, repeating the name and/or holding the door are not options.

I close the door. Most likely Shaniece now has the impression that I hate her. The fact that the late bell has rung or that the principal’s froggy-voiced morning warning has already blasted over the PA is irrelevant. In the tiny sphere of her world and the gigantic universe of her emotional needs, none of that will matter.

Sighing, I reopen the door and lean out.

“Shaniece, come on. I thought you were in here.” An obvious lie, but like all fiction, it is designed to reveal a truth. Shutting the door will be a metaphor for her life and, as small as that gesture is and as right as I may be, it will only add to my nightmares.

I’ve never been what you would call a good sleeper. I make it through the night about twice a week, and those nights are never consecutive. I’ve been to counselors, therapists, and psychologists, but always for ancillary issues: a marriage that was on the rocks, a job that was on the rocks. The truth is, at forty-five, my world is on the rocks because (according to my ex-husband) I drink too much and too often. Whether this is true or not, my preference is—literally—for my whiskey to be on the rocks; at least it was until I had to sneak drinks. My husband detested the sound of clinking ice cubes coming from the bathroom or a walk-in closet. The solution, though, was simple enough: drink straight from the bottle. Of course, long term I’m left—like every misunderstood drinker—to grapple with the impossible dilemma of where to dispose of the empties. There aren’t enough recycle bins in any town to handle the yearly refuse of one heavy drinker.

“You don’t look good, Miss.”

Ah! My morning was now complete. Students may fail to notice a chalkboard filled with detailed directions on exactly what homework is due tomorrow, but they will never miss a sign of weakness in a teacher.

“Just tired. Get your seat. I have to take attendance.” I tallied them: 8 out of 15 were present. That was about right, since two were recently incarcerated and four were scheduled for court this week. Actually, I’m not supposed to know those details, but the kids tell me. They don’t want me thinking that they’ve skipped school. “I’m gonna give it to you straight, Miss, ‘cause I’m no chicken-head,” and they come right out with it: “I didn’t cut yesterday. I was with my lawyer.” Or, “I was coming to school but the Sheriff came for me.” Brash as it sounds, it is a tender offering; for an instant, something soft and virtually invisible peeks from behind the determined eyes and set jaw. It’s a flash—as rare as a hummingbird in the city—but at that instant, everything is straight: no hidden agenda, nothing personal.

I count heads once more. And then again. And then once more. I’m a fanatic about attendance, since it can mean more than a “P” for present or an “A” for absent; in some cases, it might supply an alibi; in others, it might register as a violation of parole or of group-home rules.

Standing on tiptoe, I turn on the overhead TV for the morning announcements. “Pay attention, people.” Shaniece and Tamarra flip their cell phones shut. “Fellows, du-rags off.” Michael, Lyonel, and Jerrad look up, confused. They can’t hear over their earphones, buried and buzzing like fattened bees in their ears. I swirl my index finger over my head. They unknot their rags with practiced fingers, slide them off, and sink back into their music. I nod and give a thumb up. I check the table next to the door, making sure everything is in place: Kleenex, hand lotion, scotch-tape dispensers, a pair of scissors, the daily newspaper, and flyers announcing writing contests or department news. I’m ready.

My left temple throbs; my tongue has acquired its own flavor. I slip a square of mint-flavored gum into my mouth and bite down. The coolness bursts open like a storm cloud, making my eyes tear. They notice.

“Miss, you got any more gum?”

I gingerly shake my head, trying not to arouse the sodden bulge of pain purring in my sinus cavity. “Just this one.” They don’t necessarily believe or disbelieve me; I’d come to understand that wasn’t the point of these exchanges. During my first year of teaching I’d never lied. One, I am honest by nature. Two, I will never lie when the truth will do, unlike some of my drinking buddies. If I was going to have a piece of gum, I made sure that I had another 140 pieces—one for every student plus homeroom. This isn’t, however, about fairness, honesty, or approval; it’s about survival. It isn’t the commodity but the transaction that matters. Students know that a new teacher doesn’t make much money, certainly not enough to satisfy the never-ending requests of growing teenagers. What they don’t know—and need to figure out—is a particular teacher’s biases. As the saying goes, “Guilt buys good presents.” Just how guilty are you, teacher? How much do you pity the inner-city child? You know the one—he’s walking around with more electronic gadgets being confiscated by security than a teacher will ever own; she’s walking around in a new outfit, her nails shellacked and cornrows redone every two weeks. My last haircut was four months ago. I tell everyone that I’m letting my hair grow out. Grow out from what? No one asks, thank God. No one cares.

I can feel the buzz from last night’s binge slipping away. It’s getting harder to keep the alcohol in and the pain out. How had my mother done it? In the past few years I’d reconciled myself to her dying drunk, but I’d never considered what living drunk had been like. Was this it? The wait for the next little thing that might—if just for a moment—make the day bearable? I glance at the clock over the door. It reads 8:45, which means it is either 7:43 or 7:47. The clock is off one solid hour, but I can never remember if it is also two minutes plus or two minutes minus that hour. Then again, the first period bell hasn’t rung so it must be 7:43…now 7:44…meaning the bell will—

The bell blasts and they drift out the door, lugging their sagging backpacks. They bounce against each other, crushed in a nimbostratus of over-inflated coats. I’d often wondered why they kept their coats on all day, since there is a rule against it, since every other classroom is hot as an August attic, since their clothes underneath are pristine. All I had to do to find out was to ask. The coats don’t fit in the slender lockers, and there is no other safe place to leave them. I don’t mean that they are stolen, but all the coats look alike—it doesn’t matter if the bulbous, midnight-blue down jacket is a Tommy Hilfiger knockoff or the real thing. Among the boys, there is one other jacket of choice, which is the camouflage style. Those jackets may replace my original “Irony Award,” something I haven’t reissued since 1976. I’d originally created it to bestow upon those women who rigorously shop in our local vegetarian store while nonchalantly wearing fur coats. I can’t get my mind around that concept. If memory serves, this particular irony was the focal point of my first drunken monologue; at least, I’d like to think it was. Call me elitist, but some things are more important than others to drink over.

Now, several decades later, I’m considering bestowing this award on those who intentionally wear camouflage clothing indoors. Ten years ago, I’d almost given the award away for this very reason. Newly divorced, I was working in the produce section of a supermarket while getting my bachelor’s degree. I was reloading a sale item: Buy one bag and get two free! The produce section was empty except for a couple of elderly women, when a man in his mid-thirties strode through the door. His hat, shirt, jacket, pants, and gloves were all camouflage patterned. He was completely drenched in the spattered colors of a summer forest plunged in four o’clock shadows. He strutted past me in perfect posture, utterly confident. In my slightly soused state, I couldn’t resist.

“Hey,” I called out. He turned, a puzzled look on his face. I had broken one of the unwritten commandments of aisle-etiquette: grocery clerks are to be ever-present but silent. Contact is reserved for fetching.

“Yeah. You.” I pointed at him, wiggling my index finger up and down to take in his entire outfit. “I can see you.” He started to frown, and then I saw the pink stain spreading up from his camouflage collar to the camouflage flaps of his hunting hat. 

I had to explain myself to my manager after the hunter/military/shopping man complained. Mr. Yagos tended to categorize employees as either mildly incompetent or stunningly stupid. I knew this was a problem for him, in my particular case, because I wasn’t either one. Over the years, I’d suggested to him that the tendency of Western philosophy to classify in binary categories was too limiting and that if he couldn’t fit people into just two columns, why not make more. I reminded him about this while he was reprimanding me about my “uncalled-for comment” and my “sassy demeanor.” He still wrote me up, blemishing an otherwise flawless work record.

Now, watching students swagger past me in full fatigue regalia, I make a mental note to rethink the Irony Award at a time when I am far less dry; most likely, I won’t even attempt it until I’m fully soused.

“Miss. Miss. Please. Miss.”

To my right is the ever patient and pleading face of Shamaylia. She is a sweet girl plagued by congenital tardiness. Her parents have yet to attend a single meeting that they have scheduled for their own convenience. Shay always needs the same thing: sign her into homeroom even though she is late. And, as always, the roster is on its way to the collection point.

I shake my head. “I sent the attendance sheet down already.” I have to catch myself and not offer to run down the hall after it. However, she must have noticed my upper lip twitch because I see hope flicker in her eyes. My throat tightens against a sudden welling of emotion. How is it possible for a fifteen-year-old kid to look younger?

What am I thinking, anyway? I’ll never get through the crowd. The halls are so packed that students move in a shuffle-hitch, as if shackled. “I can’t. Mr. Marken is watching.” The light in her face dims and goes out. She turns away.

I can’t help her because I have a job. Like all the other teachers, I have to supervise the area surrounding my doorway entrance between the ringing of the bells. It’s a vague space, a zone that only the principal—watching the monitors from his office—can accurately judge. If I look left, then I’m not noticing the crunch of students to my right. If I look right, then something is sure to happen on my left. Looking straight ahead seems to elicit the least number of undirected complaints over the PA.

“Teachers,” comes The Voice. “What is it you don’t understand about keeping our students moving? I see congestion in ‘The T.’ We must move quickly to our classes. We can’t teach an empty seat.”

“The T” is the cross section at the head of the third floor. The elevator and the stairway funnel all the students coming for English, History, Reading, or the Library at that point. Imagine sharing your driveway with the entrance ramp for several highways and you have “The T.” There isn’t a teacher in the world who can unknot that mess, unless you count Ricardo—a brassy mass of dedicated Mexican muscle. He commandeers one wing of “The T,” and he takes personally anything that comes between him and an orderly hallway. It isn’t a pretty sight or sound, and it sure as hell isn’t for anyone with a hangover. Fortunately, I didn’t meet Ricardo until my ability to have a hangover was two years in my past. There comes a point in a heavy drinker’s life when all one can do is stay wet. There isn’t anything else—no buzz, no high, no low— only the need for a steady supply. If drinking such large and frequent amounts didn’t kill a person, it would all be rather routine. People make a bigger deal of it than it is. As long as you don’t drive, sign a contract, or do math, the problems are minimal—at least, for the drinker. To be fair, the observer—such as someone’s boss, or friend, or maybe a daughter—does have some legitimate complaints.

I see it on the first student walking into Period 1. I put my hand on his chest and stop him at the doorway to get a closer look. Several students plow into his back. He doesn’t flinch. Raveius is a seventeen-year-old wall. He’s the student who has to sit in back or along the side because no one can see around him. He is also as kind-hearted as he is large.

“Did you know him?” I ask, peering at the tiny newsprint. My head is moving back and forth like a hen searching for millet. He is standing in the zone that my bifocals can’t quite cover. “Who was he?”

“Terrell. His name is Terrell. He is my cousin, Miss.”

Had I used the past tense? Damn! I had, and I know better. “Wearing the obits” is done on the first day. After that, it’s the large, pin-on buttons. Buttons—hundreds of them—the size of small sunflower heads, pinned to the straps of backpacks, banging against books, clattering like cicadas as the student-sellers dip into their manila envelopes and pull them out. On each is the smiling, disembodied face of an obscenely young person who was walking home on a Monday and dead on a Tuesday; or at work on a Wednesday and dead on a Thursday; or on a date on Friday and—you get the idea. The cause could be anything from a heart attack to a gang fight, from an innocent by-stander to a big-mouth asking-for-it. The buttons are made in the high school print shop and they cost a dollar. The money goes to the mother to help her cover the cost of burying her son. Always a son. Little girls are the victims of hit-and-runs, and those happen only about once a year.

The first time I’d witnessed this kind of behavior, I didn’t know what to make of it. None of my experiences in suburban schools had prepared me for this reality of urban life. I’ve since learned that this expression of mourning is what folklorists, anthropologists, and sociologists label “the phenomena of spontaneous memorials.” Raveius has cut out his cousin’s obituary and scotch-taped it dead center on the substantial expanse of his solid red tee shirt. The long column hangs like a grotesque tie. The photo is thumbnail size; the closed-mouthed smile of the young boy—seventeen at most—is probably last year’s school photo. By the end of the day, most of my students will be walking billboards for the deceased. They will lean in my doorway to ask hesitantly, “Miss, can I use some tape?” Others will borrow the scissors, and I’ll watch as they meticulously clip out the article. I have homeroom students who refuse to start the day until they can check the newspaper. “I got to know if somethin’ went down last night,” is the way that it’s been put to me.

Initially, I thought they were being superstitious. That was before attending eight funerals in one year, where the average age of the deceased figured at 14.875 years. I don’t know how I know that number, except one morning I found it scribbled on the pad I keep next to my bed. An empty bottle of Jack Daniels was on top of it. There was also a sheet of yellow legal paper inside the bottle. Try as I might, I couldn’t tap the paper free from the tacky inside. As the morning wore on, I became apprehensive. What had I written? And to whom? I didn’t want to break the bottle until I rediscovered my stash, because even an empty liquor bottle is usable; swish a quarter of a  cup of warm water around in it for a minute and in a pinch—like on Sunday—the residue will hold off the shakes. It’s more psychological than physical, but it does offer a cushion until the pharmacy opens and I can get NyQuil and Benadryl.

I knew that I’d stumble upon my stash eventually—under the folded clothes in the laundry basket, behind the radiator, inside a boot at the back of the hall closet—all the regular places Mom had used, plus a few I’d thought up while evading my husband’s search and seizure. Around noon, I found a full pint tucked inside a half-used box of Kleenex. I slugged back a couple mouthfuls, then grabbed the empty fifth and wrapped it in a towel. I placed it in the center of the bathroom floor and whacked it with the bathroom scale. Of course, I sliced several fingers picking through the shards and then bled like a newly tapped maple; there’s always enough alcohol in me to turn a bruise or cut into a blood bath. When I spread open the sheet of paper, there was a scrawl of loopy words in what must have been my handwriting: Oh that the everlasting had not fixed his canon against self-slaughter.

Shit. Why can’t I quote Shakespeare when I’m awake, when it might do me some good? I crumpled the paper in my bloody fist and lay curled on the floor for a long time. Truth-be-told, the reference made me queasy. Pick any act from Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, it doesn’t matter which one: thinking like Hamlet is not a good sign. 

It seems that, lately, I’ve been spending more and more energy trying not to notice that my Drunk Self is depressed and making noises about wanting to die. My Dry Self has some issues with this, although not as many as Sober Self would like. Sober Self never gets involved but then, she rarely appears and, like any infrequent guest, is never asked to do any real work. Drunk and Dry watch as Sober tries to clean up the mess that happens in her absence, gets frustrated, and hastily retreats.

When I finally stood, the dried blood had glued the paper to my fingers. I ripped it off, watching with satisfaction as the blood re-blossomed in ripe, red drops from my fingertips. It hurt, and it felt right. I never complain about pain that’s earned. Raveius, Camillia, Theira, Xavier, Carl, and so many more…they don’t have the solace of earning their pain. It comes with their territory. Losing family members and friends to disease or violence isn’t something they are shielded from. What’s the point? It’ll be on page two of the newspaper; page one if the police are involved. Yet, they never complain.

Raveius walks past me to his seat and his classmates stream by, button by button. Using the past tense is a small thing, all told, but it’s the little things in life that make a drunk. It’s the nick, not the amputation. Raveius is bunched in his seat, carefully tucking the strip of newsprint between his bulk and the edge of the desk. He’s just fine; right now, I’m the problem. Somehow, my pain always ends up center stage. Nearly-Dry Self hisses in contempt: How are you going to fix this one?

I look at Raveius, head hanging over his warm-up ditto, studiously filling in the blanks. He isn’t judging me. I scan the room; all heads are down. The only face I see full on is Terrell’s, a perpetually young face set in a perpetually patient smile.

I’ve yet to drink while in school, but I’ve come close on two occasions. The first is nobody’s business; the second, however…Ah! Here’s (there’s?) the rub. The second came during what is called “a teachable moment,” those extraordinary moments that occur when students take a carefully planned lesson in an unplanned—but far, far better—direction. One student starts by hurling questions sharp as a pitchfork’s prongs, and if I let them prick their fertile imaginations, I can’t miss. There is nothing I can do that’s wrong if I trust them enough to turn them loose in that orchard, ripe with…

…but the bell is going to ring and there are standardized tests to prepare for, and it will take us off task. What I miss most since becoming “a professional” is being able to explore those moments with abandonment. There’s no time to play. Learning translates into objectives that are assessed by measurable outcomes. All my students come and go; not one speaks of Michelangelo, or anything else having to do with art. And that makes me want to drink almost as much as the first thing does, which is no one’s business. Except maybe my mother’s.

I make it through the next two periods flawlessly. My temples have taken on a familiar and welcome sensation of tenderness. An amateur would complain. He’d ask the first person he saw, “Did you get the number of the truck that hit me?” To the friend gingerly asking Are you all right, she’d reply, “Stop shouting at me!” For me, it is an important marker in my personal desert. I won’t be drinking for another four hours. The pulpy feeling hanging like a deflated halo over my skull means I’m good for only about two hours more. From years of experience, I can white-knuckle it until I get home. I’ll just pop a few aspirin and keep looking at the clock for reassurance. It’s the two minutes plus-or-minus the one hour that worry me. Which direction do I go? I can never remember. Such a little thing, but I can only do this if I know exactly what time it is.

I’m doing the calculation on my way to the teacher’s lounge when Marcus catches me in the hall.

“Miss! Jarritt wants you to know that he didn’t cut class. He had went to court.”

If Shakespeare is right—that all the world’s a stage, and we’re all players performing our bit parts—then Marcus is a true professional. “Will he be in tomorrow?” I obediently ask, since I’m well aware of my part in all this. “We have a quiz.” He allows just enough hesitation to give the illusion of being caught off-guard.

“He said he’ll be back as soon as he can. That’s all I know.”

Marcus has what he needs for Jarritt. He’ll relay the information that there’s a quiz tomorrow and I won’t see Jarritt for a couple of days; at least, not in class. I’m certain to catch sight of him hanging around in the hallway, waiting for his friends. He’ll nod as I pass by. I’ll ask, “Jarritt, when will I see you in class?” He’ll answer, “Tomorrow, Miss.” Even on a Friday, the answer will be, Tomorrow, Miss.”

Most likely, Jarritt isn’t going to do any time and he can be in school today, right after court recesses for lunch. But he’ll take the day off and come tomorrow, not for class but to tell his friends exactly what happened. He won’t exaggerate; he’ll even do his best to capture any rumors and squash them. One of the greatest survival skills here is rubbing and refining a detail until it is no more noticeable than a smudge. That way, everyone can go to sleep at night. Unlike me, they can go to bed, and get up, and go to bed, and get up, and go to bed. Something that I haven’t been able to do in a long time.

It’s an English teacher’s dream to encounter irony in life. Paradox is for the science department, oxymoron is for the math and history departments, but irony belongs to those who barter in language—and alcohol. I drink to make the small things look big, while most everyone else stays somewhat sober, hoping to make the big things look small.

For example, take the obituary column and those buttons. It all comes down to the littlest thing after Here lies so-and-so: Born then died now. An entire life is represented by that dash. Everything a person has ever done is perfectly balanced on the thinnest thread of ink. Shouldn’t we at least get to choose the length and heft of it? I’m thinking I’ll ask the math department to work out the proportions. I’ll give them something easy to start with: maybe a 90 year-old grandmother with 23 grandchildren could get a quarter-inch thick line that is six inches long. We can make that the maximum and work down from there. What people need is a visual, something to make them pause and not skim through with a cup of coffee in one hand and a crumpled section of newsprint in the other. Granted, my coffee has a couple of thick fingers-worth of Lord Calvert in it, but I’m not the problem. I look. I notice. I take my time. They need to take time. They need to notice all those little things.

Better yet, I’m going to tell the math department to tilt the lines. Let them lean like fishing poles propped along an endless shore. And make it so that the more a person has done for others, the higher the tilt. Make it so it points right toward heaven. Yeah, as Frost wrote in After Apple-Picking. It goes something like, “My long ladder’s sticking through a tree, pointing toward heaven still…” Something like that. I can’t remember it exactly right now, but I will later. It’ll come right after the first fifth. Once again, irony in English and alcohol.

Right now, the only way I know to make up for any of the pain, any of the injustice, any of my cowardice, is to be strong. And that means I have to surrender my drinking time; my precious alone time, when it’s me, my bottles, and a few memories.

I’ll have to give that over to someone else and not drink for me. Tonight I’m going to do a planned drunk, the second hardest things any professional drinker can attempt. I’m thinking it probably comes closest to feeling like an alcoholic. That, I really wouldn’t really know, but I’m guessing I’m as close to being right as a person gets. I’m going to pace myself and hold off the blackout. I won’t vomit to get the poison out and grab a buzz. I’ll hang onto the feeling of disease, not allow myself that pale shimmer of a high that comes with the purge. I’ll make the whole thing hurt and I’ll think about Terrell the entire time I’m conscious. I bought a button so that I can lie on my bed and hold it up toward the west-facing window. Moonlight is all the light I’ll need; after all, he is dead. And as I drink and drift, I’ll spend the night stretching that dash farther than my eyes can see, or my arms can reach, or my legs can run, and Terrell will have all the time he needs to live his life. That’s the best I can do right now. And I won’t stop until the alarm clock goes off and it’s time to get up and start doing the little things all over again.