Vasant 2024 Stories - Serena Grant

 

After School

By Serena Grant

 

Calculus wasn’t what Michael hated. At age five, he had started doing the morning Sudoku alongside his mom’s crossword. She had cited that as proof of his “genius” when he was assigned to the owl group for math in second grade instead of the turkey group. By age fourteen, entering high school, Michael’s focus had shifted from imaginary numbers to the ones tallied in his mom’s bank statements.

 

Now, at eighteen, he was better at figuring out how to make time for what he loved to do and what he had to do. In between early mornings spent milking cows out in the barn and late nights packing frozen meat, Michael liked to work ahead in his calculus book. Problem-solving was an accomplishment that made the Sisyphean grind a little more bearable. However, Michael’s math teacher, Mr. Cooke, couldn’t be solved. He was just an ass.


On a Tuesday morning in January, when the predicted high for the day was in the negatives, the overworked heater in Low Lakes High School cultivated a warm oasis. After waking up in a two-room house heated by a woodburning stove and working udders two hours before school, Michael was falling victim to the siren song of a cozy nap. Cooke’s voice, which reminded Michael of a lazy fly, wasn’t helping either. He considered just resting his eyes, head down and hidden behind the sleeve of his sweater.


The thwap of Cooke’s yard stick against the chalkboard made Michael sit up right.


“Mr. Peterson!” he shouted. “Care to chime in?”


An integral function with a limit was written on board. Michael started flipping through his notebook. He recognized the type of problem from the homework, but not fast enough to evade the wrath of Mr. Cooke’s teaching assistant. The meter stick slapped the front of his desk. Michael involuntarily drew his hands back, losing his place in the book. The dollar store paper had left a chalky residue on Michael’s fingers.


“Mr. Peterson, if you don’t have the answer, then how someone would go about solving this problem?” The phlegm in his throat was audible.


Nobody else in the class was called Mr. Anything. There was Pam, there was Jerry, there was Lisa, and then there was Mr. Peterson. Mr. Peterson, the burnout, the dumbest kid in class, the target of a vindicative, depressed nobody stuck teaching high school in a town of less than two thousand.


“Mr. Peterson,” Cooke started, tracing the meter stick across the chalkboard. Michal’s gums stung at the dusty, crisp sound.


“Wake up!” The sanded down edge of the stick thwapped an inch shy of Michael’s hand. He looked up from his textbook to meet Cooke’s face, grim and heavy. Leering, the authoritarian turned back to the board and continued his lesson. He hacked into his elbow the same way Michael’s pack-a-day uncle did in between draws of his cigarette at barbecues.


Michael stood up, not hearing a word of his teacher’s lesson. He walked to the front, relishing in how smart he was just for knowing the word authoritarian, Cooke still facing the board.Toe to heel, right behind him, Michael noticed that he was a hair taller than his teacher.


Michael grabbed the meter stick from Cooke’s clenched hand. That finally got his attention.


“What on God’s green Earth,” he demanded in between coughs, “Do you think you’re-“


Michael snapped the meter stick over his knee. That shut Cooke up. The aged splinters from the broken ends floated to the floor.The two halves made a soft slapping sound against the tile when Michael discarded them.


“Principal’s Off-“


Michael didn’t wait to be excused before grabbing his backpack and leaving.

 

#

 

Principal Mackey had decided it best that Michael head home for the day. Michael had emphatically agreed that it was a fitting punishment. His mother had sighed over the landline in Mackey’s office and requested that he come straight back to her. Michael gave her a scout’s honor, one hand up in the air with three fingers, the other turning over his car keys inside of his pocket. Skipping after first period was his original plan, but getting sent home worked just as well. When he was dismissed, he made sure it was quick. His Volkswagen bus, complete with scuffed paint and wood paneling, was waiting for him at the front of the senior parking lot.


His first stop after leaving school was Bleu’s Meats, the factory where he had been working nights. His shift didn’t start until nine o’ clock that night, but there was an advance waiting for him with the floor manager. Walking in, the gravel of the parking lot crunched under Michael’s worn tennis shoes. Sully, his boss, was waiting inside the warehouse at a folding table covered in papers. When he saw Michael, Sully handed him an unmarked envelope, saying nothing and barely sparing him a glance. Michael took the advance and slinked back to his van. It was clinical and neat, exactly what Michael had come to expect from Bleu’s Meats.
His second stop was 3101 Buckley Court, the residence of one Bethany Job.

 

The single story house, long, flat, and secluded at the top of a long driveway, had its front door open when Michael pulled up behind Beth’s mom’s station wagon. He stepped out of his van and heard shouting. Figures in the living room’s textured glass windows were waving their arms at each other. Michael ran to the door. He was ready to separate Beth and Mrs. Job, but was stopped by a duffel bag thrown through the door, hitting him square in the chest. Beth followed after it.


She was wearing Michael’s hoodie, wrapped around her frame like a poncho. Her backpack was bulging out the back of it like a camel’s hump. The hood hid her most recent venture, what she had called a Joan of Arc bob, that was progressively growing out into choppy layers.


“We good?” she asked, pointing to the Volkswagen. Michael nodded. The piercing above her lip caught the light when she talked.


“Bethany LeeAnne Job! Stop right there!” her mom shouted. Mrs. Job was at the doorframe now, rollers tied up in taffeta and bare knees underneath her nightgown knocking in the cold. Mr. Job, tall and starchy, stood wordlessly behind her. Beth didn’t look back at them when she climbed into Michael’s passenger seat.


“You! You did this!” Mrs. Job started towards him, venturing as far as she could go without getting her slippers wet in the snow. Michael didn’t have a response. Beth’s mom was right. He wanted to say something to her, something snappy and clever to defend his girlfriend, but he couldn’t. Being at Beth’s house just made him too sad. Heloaded Beth’s overnight bag into the back of his van. He walked back to the empty patch of grass on the front lawn, hands on his hips, head tilted. Maybe the place didn’t depress him enough to keep him completely quiet. Beth’s eyes boring into the side of his head made his mouth sweat.


“I take it she’s not allowed home tonight?”


“I’m getting my bible,” Mrs. Job said, shambling back into the house, grumbling something about “the easy way out,” under her breath. Mr. Job stood for a second before shaking his head and closing the door on him. He looked back to Beth, who had her head pressed up against the window. She looked a million miles away. Michael joined her in the car and turned the ignition, sitting for a second to let the interior warm up.


“Everything okay?” he asked. “Besides the obvious,” was something implied whenever he asked her that.


“Did you bring your fake for cigarettes?”


“We’ll grab some once we’re in Duvall.” Duvall was another little town like Low Lakes, just about a hundred miles east of where he and Beth sat. It was his third stop.


“Then let’s hit the road.”


About a month ago, when the year was brand new, and Beth was sleeping over on Michael’s mom’s couch for a record two weeks, they had both been in the same van that was now speeding down the highway’s left lane. There was something electric about domesticity that had eluded Michael until experiencing it with Beth. When he was kissing her beneath the bleachers a few years ago with the other underclassmen, it had occurred to him that none of these other guys had made breakfast for their girls after a night of nothing. He didn’t think any of the girls had made coffee for their guys’ moms either. Beth knew that his mom liked it with a little cream and two scoops of sugar.


Late at night, when they really hadn’t had too much to drink, in the basement of a friend’s house, Michael and Beth had snuck away into his van. Wanting some semblance of privacy, that van had been driven to the parking lot of the church, Low Lake’s own methodist branch. In the back of his Volkswagen, in the dark, with a towel under both of them, Michael remembered three things distinctly from that hour and a half exit from the New Year’s party.

 

He remembered Beth’s dollar store perfume, the way the carpet was too rough on his knees, and a single moment of clarity that felt too important to forget. He had braced himself by placing his open hand against the window above Beth’s head. It had slipped, wiping away the steam, revealing the shadow of the chapel’s crucifix in yellow streetlights against worn out pavement. When he told her he loved her, the contours of her smile deepened in the warm glow cast down on her. Now, driving on the highway, he stole glances of her that inspired the same admiration.


“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked, a hint of that smile tugging at her lips.


“I love you.” He put his hand on the armrest between them, not looking away from the road, and she took it, squeezing, “I love you,” back.


“I’m just thinking about how excited you’re going to be when I tell you that I’m buying you lunch after this.”


“Are you sure?” she asked. “You’ll have enough money after?”


“I’ve got it covered.”


“Your mom will be cool with me spending the night?”


“I’ll tell her it was an emergency. She’ll definitely let you sleep on the pullout; I just might have to pick up some more barn work after today.”


“What happened today?”


He told her. She laughed.


They listened to the radio, Ace of Base singing “All That She Wants,” for the top forty, until getting off at Duvall’s exit. The FM station wavered, letting some static through, when they pulled into the Duvall General Store parking lot. When Michael walked in, he made a beeline for the front, eyes already fixed on a pack of Newports. He already had his fake out, the I.D. of a twenty-three-year-old Ben Ingstrom, when he pointed to the box behind the glass. The clerk hesitated, eyes darting between Michael and Ben, before handing the I.D. back with a laugh.


“Get lost, kid.” He did. Beth was disappointed, but pointed out that it was nice of him to not cut up the card. They talked about it on the way to their appointment.
The clinic was twenty-nine minutes away on the other side of town. The building was old, partially brick, with poorly washed graffiti along the side. It was easy to make out the phrase “Baby killers,” the pigment of the spray-paint leeched into the wall. The double leaf insignia on the yellowed sign was fresh, next to the peeling typeface that read, “Planned Parenthood.”

 

Michael and Beth didn’t hesitate to go in after parking, both with their backpacks, Michael with his advance and fractions of his last three paychecks. An older man with a frizzy beard and soft belly was out front, shaking pamphlets in the air and shouting about hell. His nose was red from the cold. Michael put himself between him and Beth, his only acknowledgement of the man being elbowing him away from his girlfriend.


The waiting room was clean to a clinical degree. Michael walked with Beth to the front desk where a receptionist that looked eerily like her mother handed Beth a clipboard when she said, “Bethany Job, I have an appointment at four o’clock.”


They sat together in the waiting room, legs touching and Beth leaning against Michael’s shoulder. She pulled out an annotated copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream out of her backpack and started at her dogeared page with a pen at the ready. Michael retrieved his Calculus textbook and started on the worksheet in the back. Fourteen minutes had passed before Beth was called back. She squeezed his hand again and he squeezed back before she stood up. In the same instant that she followed a nurse in puppy-dog-print scrubs to the back, the motion sensor doors in the front slid open. Michael looked at the sound reflexively. His nails dug into the arm of his chair when he met the gaze of the man walking in.


Cooke stood frozen, staring back at Michael, until his wife pulled him forward to check in at the front desk. Michael tore his eyes away from the back of the asshole’s head and tried to resume Cooke’s own assigned homework. He felt his teacher’s eyes, staring, from the opposite side of the waiting room. Mrs. Cooke was called back after the same amount of time that Beth waited.


Christ, was he still staring at Michael? He looked up, saw that Cooke was, and held his stare. Cooke glanced down at Michael’s lap. His brow furrowed when he saw what Michael was working on. Michael decided to pay him no mind, and- oh God, he stood up, he started walking over.


“Mr. Peterson.”


“Mhm,” Michael replied, staring at the floor.


“Are you doing that right now?”


“Mmhmm.”


Cooke sat down next to him, leaving a chair in between them. He looked between Michael and the door that Beth had disappeared behind, back and forth, over and over.


“Son, do you think now is the best time to do that?”


“I’m not your son, and I’m working another double at Bleu’s tonight, so I don’t have another time to do it,” Michael said, finishing the solution to the third part of the first problem on the page.


“Another double? You’ve been working double shifts at night?” he asked. Michael didn’t dignify it with a response. Cooke leaned over and looked at his work. Michael flinched when he cleared his throat.


“Do you want help?” he asked. Michael looked up at him. Outside of school and without the meterstick, Cooke looked like a human. He looked as earnest as one too.


“I guess, my grade probably needs it” Michael replied. Cooke pointed out where he had missed a step in the problemand walked him through the following ones. He didn’t snap, he didn’t raise his voice, and he didn’t call Michael stupid. The hard edges of his crew cut and starch straight shirts were softer, like something that had been lived in. It hadn’t occurred to Michael that Cooke had a life outside of being bitter in a musty classroom.


“So, uh,” Michael said, testing uncharted waters, “when’s your wife due?”


Cooke stopped, set down the pencil he had been using to point out corrections, and sat back.


“She isn’t.”


“Oh.” Michael thought about Beth’s aunt, Mary, and about murmurs of something ectopic and an unnamed procedure when Beth mentioned her name around her father. He remembered taking Beth to homecoming and seeing a figure cut out of all the group pictures on her walls when he waited for her inside. Beth had saved her number on a slip of paper in her copy of Wuthering Heights, and she had told Michael she was planning to use it after lunch.


Beth’s dad, Mary’s brother, had gotten real bitter after Mary was cut out. Mrs. Job, as sharp and as smart as a ruler, probably didn’t help. He thought of scraped chalkboards when he thought of Beth’s mom.


Cooke had his head in his hands now. Something in Michael that he couldn’t identify clicked.


“I’m sorry,” he said.


“You’re alright.”
“No, Mr. Cooke,” he said, putting a hand on his shoulder, “I’m really sorry.”


Cooke smiled at that, something small and soft that made the corners of his mouth crinkle.


“You know, Michael, you’re smarter than I give you credit for in class.” He looked at the clinic’s entrance, past the waiting room, when he said that. Michael chuckled to himself and relaxed.


“I mean, you know the answers, you just skip too many steps,” Cooke added.


“I had this idea of you for a while, that you were like, a hardass.”


“And?”


“That’s it.”


“Ha!” Cooke let out a short, loud laugh that startled the two other people in the waiting room. “I’m sorry, Michael. It isn’t you, it isn’t your classmates, I just-”


“Just don’t buy a new meter stick and I think you’ll be okay,” Michael said. Cooke got quiet again and nodded in agreement. His eyes stayed forward while Michael worked through an integral problem.


“Hey,” he interjected, “I don’t know if this is inappropriate or anything, but given the circumstances, you wouldn’t happen to have a couple cigarettes I could bum off you, would you?”


Cooke chuckled and held up a finger like a magician introducing a trick. He reached into the pocket in his jacket lining, and pulled out a blue, crumpled box of nicotine patches. The top was open when Cooke held it towards Michael. With a half snort laugh, Michael took two, and stuck one on his shoulder underneath his sleeve.

 

 

Serena Grant from U.S. is pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University. She has previously had work featured in "Volition", "Virginia Wildlife", and "The Diamond Gazette". She currently works at a library and enjoys spending time outdoors.

 

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