Teacher, Writer, Experiencer of Life
As the thesis for my MFA program, I'm currently hard at work on a novel, the working title of which I'm keeping under wraps (mostly because I think it's a really cool title and, so far, there are no other books on Amazon with the name). At any rate, it's a character-driven, psychological drama set in the mid-1980 Pacific Northwest. I've pasted the opening chapter below--not that it will look anything like this in the final draft. It is what it is, as it is.
Bobbie Luntz leaned against the door with arms folded across her chest, scratching at her sleeve and counting the seconds until she could leave the small room. Jerry thumbed nonchalantly through a stack of papers on his desk, his eyes never once leaving his hands. His desktop was a collage of invoices, student folders and yellow, half-sheet memos. A mug of sharpened pencils sat adjacent his brass nameplate, which Jerry—for reasons Bobbie could never fathom—always kept turned toward himself. Standing in the principal’s office had always made her sick to her stomach, and the fact that she was now an adult didn’t change that one bit.
Well, he said, finally looking up at her. What am I supposed do about it?
I was thinking you should know, Jerry, she said. She shrugged her shoulders. You know. Just in case.
Jerry Brewster dropped a heavy sigh and worked his fingers over his temples. So what are you saying? What? That he might just show up here after all?
Bobbie sucked in her breath and tightened her fingers over her arms. Jerry’s voice was getting louder, which meant that the conversation was about to spill over onto the other side of the wall.
I don’t know, she said. The whole thing was going in circles, now. She shook her head and stared sheepishly at her tennis shoes. I guess I don’t know what the hell I’m saying. Just never mind.
Bobbie Luntz turned and walked out of Jerry’s office in a nauseous fog. He didn’t follow her. She hadn’t expected that he would. He stayed in his seat, shifting his fat self from one cheek to the other and filling the space in his office with the sound of his own rusty springs.
Jerry’s secretary stood behind her desk and tipped her cocoon of hair to her shoulder, and raised a penciled eyebrow at Bobbie. She gave off a look that suggested sympathy, but Bobbie knew the look to be a lure designed to reel in a meaty morsel for her own coffee break. Secretaries were like that everywhere she’d ever been; Connie was no different. Bobbie pretended not to notice her.
She walked quickly to her own office, where she began the busy task of the Friday inventory. She pulled down the prescription bottles, and drugstore counter painkillers that crowded the labeled, plastic crates like pharmaceutical Easter baskets. In the ledger the names of various students fronted long rows of her own handwriting, and she ran down the midday column, scratching her initials into a half dozen boxes. She fought to keep herself focused, but the whole thing blurred to a blue haze as her fingers drummed over the page. Someone had come that morning for a Midol, she knew, and there were a couple aspirins that had gone out. But she had neglected to write them down, and now she couldn’t even remember whom she had given them to.
Jesus god. Your mind is all over the place.
Bobbie closed her eyes and sucked in her breath. She held it behind her teeth. Get it together, she told herself. There’s not a damned thing you can do about this now. Her fingers massaged at her eyelids, and she tried to force her head into the present day, to remember who had been to see her that morning. There was a girl in glasses and a red hair clip, but it wasn’t someone she knew. Who else?
Screw it, she said to herself. She grabbed the pen and simply wrote out the names of three girls she knew who played on the softball team.
She checked her supply of gauze, bandages and Ace wraps, and tampons and pads and then she looked up at the analog clock that was inset into the wall above the door. It was two minutes until second lunch. She refilled the cotton ball jar and took a couple Tylenol for herself, then re-tucked her blouse into her blue jeans. She pulled back her red hair and re-clipped her barrettes before locking the whole cabinet down and going to the door that opened from her second floor office out into the long hallway.
The bell was original to the building and it was mounted to the wall directly over her head. And even when she was ready for it she was never really ready for it, the moment the thing screamed at everyone to get into their classrooms or get out of their classrooms or go to lunch or go home or get to whatever lousy after school job might be waiting for them. Then at last there was the nerve-jarring alarm and piles of students poured out from flung doors.
They swirled all about in a river of flannel and denim, and moussed hair framing acne-specked faces and flashes of metal on horsey smiles. Bobbie stood on the banks against the wall with her leg now beginning to ache. Maybe it was the constant mist that had been embracing the mountain since last Sunday or perhaps it was simply that it was the end of a long day at the tail end of an especially hard week but it hurt like hell now; that was for sure. Even the air in the hallway had a certain quality that lent a distinct clamminess to her bare arms. The toes of her tennis shoes waited mere inches from the tumultuous flow.
From behind an opened locker door her son Patrick appeared and he glanced in Bobbie’s direction. Her stomach sank and the skin of her hands began to needle, and then they washed to numbness like they often did when she saw him in the hallway, in his element.
The boy was uncanny handsome, but with his noodle arms and legs, and the goofy puppet-like way he seemed to move as he went from one place to the next Bobbie sensed that most girls just didn’t see it quite yet. She’d tell him time and time again to just be patient, even though he seldom mentioned girls to her, not outright. Shock black hair with a custard-yellow bleached stripe down the bangs, and hard, steel cut cheekbones. Like his father, those chiseled cheekbones, and that was a fact that ripped Bobbie Luntz clean down her middle, straight from top to bottom.
She wanted to go to him, just bear straight through the thickness right there in the middle of the school hallway and take him into her arms until he disappeared from the world. Always, she wanted to bring him to her whenever she saw him at school. But the days of hugging and kissing Patrick had long since passed. Even in a context outside of school, such affection from her was unwelcome if not forbidden.
Still, today was altogether different. Today he was so helpless, so alone among the crowd of jocks and braniacs, and rockers with ratted hair and torn black t-shirts who passed by him as if he was nothing. She could turn away, she thought, but in the next second he might be gone forever. It was her pathological fear, to lose her boy Patrick and on this day it was worse than ever, as if a coming storm could suddenly appear and sweep him from her at any moment. She waved to him and he turned away quick and shouted down the hall to someone Bobbie couldn’t get a bead on. A round-faced girl with big, moon glasses and a stack of books mashed protectively against massive boobs stood next to him and elbowed his arm.
She said to him, Hey there’s your mom.
Patrick stepped off from the edge and braved the current, to cross the hall to where she was and Bobbie felt the joy of notice, and the needles in her hands calmed.
What’s up? She tried to be casual, shoving her hands into the pockets of her jeans.
I was going to go up to the quarry this weekend.
Are you asking or telling?
He tossed his bangs aside and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. Asking. Can I go to the quarry this weekend.
Seems like you just went. What was it, like two weeks ago?
Who else is going to be there?
He glanced over at his friend by the locker but by now she was talking to someone else and both of them were looking like they were ready to leave. Just some guys. Greg Hardeman and I don’t know. Vince Stewart, I think. You know em.
No I don’t know them, she said.
Bobbie wasn’t stupid. She knew the kinds of things that went on up the quarry. Beer and campfires, sometimes leftover fireworks. She didn’t like it. But these days she didn’t like asking Patrick too many questions, mostly for fear of finding too many holes in his answers. Sometimes, she’d decided, it was easier to deal with what floats to the surface, and keep the rest below, out of sight.
You’ll be back before noon Sunday this time? You know I don’t want you stretching it out into evening.
Yeah, I’ll try.
You’ll do more than try or you can forget about going back up there. And don’t forget you have Tin’s before you take off.
I won’t forget.
It’s a job and it’s important to be on time, every time.
Patrick’s voiced hardened off and he said, God Mom I’m not going to forget about Tin or the stupid minks. I been there every day all week already, why would I forget now?
Bobbie said, Alright, alright. Have fun and be good.
He gave her a smile that Bobbie knew was a charitable one at best. I’ll see you Sunday, he said. Then he broke from her to fall back into the current with the rest of the fish.
Bobbie watched the churning of bodies and sifted through a mental Rolodex of the various injuries, stomach and skin conditions, the heavy periods and the missed periods and all the generally nonexistent sicknesses that made up the menagerie of teenagers that moved past her. After ten years, she was still only a three-day-a-week nurse and even then most days amounted to little more than taking temperatures and writing gym passes for girls with cramps and boys afraid to shower in front of other boys. There was the occasional uncomfortable meeting with an unsuspecting parent or phone call to a jaded social worker but for the most part as far as Ash Falls High School was concerned, there were some days that Bobbie Luntz felt like nothing more than a glorified Band-Aid dispenser. And this was just fine by her.
She locked the door to the health room and walked down the hallway, between students who darted past her or simply moved to the side, or didn’t move to the side, until she got to the staff lounge at the end of the hall. Already she could smell the menthol 100s and her teeth took on a veneer of chalkiness even before she opened the door. It never failed to amaze her that people could eat their boxed lunches of warmed over spaghetti and flaccid iceberg lettuce salads while bundled tightly in a thick blue cloud of filth. But given the shortness of her lunch break and her reluctance to make herself an outcast, she found herself putting up with such nastiness without so much of a whimper of complaint. Christ, she thought. You think you’d have grown up by now, but you’re just as much a lemming as any one of those kids.
A swale of laughter rushed out from the lounge and then someone said, I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall for that one. Then Bobbie swung open the door and there was a hard freeze in conversation, and a half dozen faces bucked at her as she stood in the doorway. Fisheyed, all of them, perhaps caught in the act of something nefarious. Mike Walner, Tom Cowen and Tina Reitan and all the rest of the math and science team stared at her as if she might turn right around and run back down the hall to find the principal and rat them all out. Then just as quickly, faces set to neutral and everyone seemed to be interested in eating again. It was a scene she was used to by now. Dropped conversations. Averted glances.
Hey now. Don’t everyone shut up on my account, Bobbie said. She glanced at Tina who kept her back to her.
So yeah. I’m guessing we’ll get to the finals this season but there ain’t no way in hell we’re going to state. Tom Cowan was red-faced, jowly and gin blossomed as he sputtered through gobs of egg salad. Don’t tell Jerry I said so, though.
Since when did you get interested in football, Tom? Bobbie took a seat at a small round table by herself. Tina got up from the men’s table and carried the last of her lunch over to where Bobbie was.
Do you remember that night? Mike Walner said. When they actually took state?
Hell yes, I remember that night, Tom choked. I remember it like it was yesterday, and let me tell you that sonofabitch owes more to Troy Bonneville than any chalkboard diagrams he ever scratched out.
Bobbie tuned it out, just like she always did. The men jawing at one another and throwing around the inanity of day-to-day school nonsense. Sports and student officers, and debate team placements. Not that it wasn’t important, any of it, but it had nothing to do with her, or with Patrick. And it never would. For her, the interactions she had with students was nothing more than a constant recapitulation of the day after, the hangover of a foggy afternoon and a shameful admission, where the context of the nurse’s office and the trust and intimacy that exists in a single moment does not travel beyond those four pale blue walls out into the greater world of high school and community, and life. Even the mere act of hunching over a clammy toilet bowl while Ms. Luntz touches your back and then hands you a warm washcloth is something that carries with it a mountain of shame, and any acknowledgment of the memory must be avoided at all costs.
Tina reached to the clamshell ashtray and stamped out her cigarette. You going to The Flume later? she asked. TGIF, you know.
Naw. I’m not up to it.
You sure? If you don’t, I’ll be the only woman in the pack. You know how they can get.
There was an edge of desperation in her voice now and it was getting under Bobbie’s nerves. The woman wasn’t a friend, but she was probably the closest thing to one that Bobbie had at the high school. Now, anyway. Tina had come to Ash Falls from Seattle two years earlier, to teach both remedial math and beginning typing. By definition, she clearly had a greater need for Friday night darts and drinking than any of them.
*Bobbie had gone along with her, but before long patterns emerged. Bobbie suspected that Tina had brought with her a lot of bad habits, along with her overloaded Datsun. Perhaps she’d hoped—as Bobbie herself had—that a life lived in the woods would be cleansing and detoxifying. A place to start over. If she could have, Bobbie would have warned her that that kind of thinking was an empty pipe dream. Demons brought to the mountain, she found, only get meaner in isolation, under the heavy, dank canopy of such oppressive red cedars and knobby big leaf maples.
So. Is it true? Tina leaned in close to her, her lips barely moving as she spoke. About Ernie?
Bobbie glanced over Tina’s shoulder to then men, still mumbling to one another in the midst of all the blue haze. Her eyes settled back onto Tina. She tilted her head, and took a spoonful from her small yogurt cup.
Oh my god. Tina froze in her seat. So Connie was right after all. Ernie is out.
What the fuck? Tom Cowan piped up. Is that true? Ernie’s out? How’s that possible? It’s only been, what, four years?
Jesus Christ Tom, Tina said. Nobody was even talking to you.
She straightened herself and sat tall in her chair, and pushed her obtrusive chest out, giving the other men a quick distraction. Her rouged face cocked to one side, her neck craning to look out the window, toward the cars whose chromed grills jammed up against the curb in a gleaming line.
From where they sat, from the boxed in, smoke-sickened corner room on the second floor Bobbie accepted that there was no sense in fighting it. They were equal prisoners, all of them. Prisoners of the neglected two-story brick behemoth that contained them all, aged and grandly pillared and choked with a suffocating layer of untamed ivy and dying wisteria, and steadfast tradition and, too often (if you asked the right people) a small town’s general inability to see the horizon beyond its own cracked and rutted streets.
Tina asked, So what happened? They didn’t just let him out, just like that?
No they didn’t let him out. He ran off.
So the son of a bitch busted out. It was Tom Cowen again, and he looked back over his shoulder at the door into the hallway, maybe looking for a team of cops to come pouring in. God damn Bobbie, he said. When?
I got a call from the sheriff out in Monroe yesterday. He said somebody screwed up on work detail and Ernie just walked away. She imagined him leaning against a weathered tin shed, cigarette tucked into the shrubby beard over his mouth. The guard looks away, just for a second. Ernie turns, ever slightly. And just like that, he’s gone.
Tom mumbled something to the guys across from him, who now leaned in like schoolgirls who were taking in the best news of their lives. But Tom looked like a trout on the rocks, eyes bulging and chest straining against his shirt.
Damn Tom, take it easy, Tina said. Jesus Christ. She turned back to Bobbie. So you told Jerry.
Yes I told Jerry. And it sounds like that bitch Connie picked up the phone tree as quick as she could. Bobbie stood up from the table now and cut at the blue air around her with her hands. I guess it doesn’t matter. People are going to find out soon enough as it is. But you all don’t have to worry. Ernie’s a lot of things, but he’s not stupid. I can’t see him coming anywhere near here.
Bobbie could see now that Tom was full on sweating, tiny beads forming all down the slope of his neck.
Jesus Tom, she said. You look like you’re about to have a coronary.
Yeah, well I was right there when it all happened, Bobbie. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m still a mess because of it. My whole family is a complete and utter mess. My kid’s almost twelve now and she still wakes up at least once a week screaming. Now, I know you had plenty of your own shit to deal with, but goddamn. That son of a bitch better not show his ass back here, that’s all I can say.
Bobbie walked to the window and looked out over the parking lot. The morning drizzle was supposed to have burned off by now but yet here it still was, a stubborn, lingering annoyance that refused to loosen its grip on the mountain. Pelting the glass in tiny specks like Tom Cowen’s neck. Still, just across the street old Mrs. Gilman knelt on a yellow pad in her garden digging up bulbs and laying them in a tidy pile in the middle of her fractured walkway.
The sheriff said everyone and their brother’s out looking for him, so it’s just a matter of time before they catch him. She looked down past Mrs. Gilman’s house, down the long stretch of Main Street. I really doubt he’s going to set foot here in Ash Falls, she added. So you can all just stop worrying about it.
Bobbie worked to keep her tone measured and cool but the truth was, she didn’t have the slightest clue whether or not Ernie would show up there. What she did know was that it was only a matter of time before the news found its way to Patrick, and she was determined to stand in its way for as long as she could.
But now, here in the smoke-filled lounge, she was rambling. Now she was trying too hard, apologizing again for things that had come and gone, for things that hadn’t yet happened, things that likely weren’t going to happen.
Oh fuck it, she said. Just forget I said anything about it.
Tina stood up and brushed crumbs from her lap onto the floor. I know you’re not trying to blow this off, Bobbie, but he killed a man and put another one in the hospital, all right in the middle of half of this town, some of them still teachers right here in this school. And I don’t have to remind you of why he did it, and I’m not trying to lay guilt on you for that. You say he won’t be coming around here at all, but you don’t know that for sure. I know men, and I know men who have been away for awhile, if you catch my drift. She glanced at the raised eyebrows of the men staring back at her. I don’t want to scare you Bobbie, but you can’t be sure of anything.
Bobbie nodded. Her hair had broken loose from her barrette now and the pale orange hair was falling over her freckled forehead in long, grasslike strands. She was working her knuckles into her palm. I just don’t want to make a big deal out of it.
Tina walked over to the window. I don’t want to open another can of worms here, but have you talked to Hank?
Bobbie shook her head, and felt the pressure of blood against the back of her eyes. She glanced over at the men. Maybe they didn’t hear Tina. She took hold of Bobbie’s hand now, and pressed her thumb to her wrist.
Why don’t you just come out for some drinks later? We can talk more about it there, if you want. Believe me, you don’t want to be alone tonight.
The bell signaling the close of lunch drilled on the other side of the wall and the roar of disappointed voices washed through the door. Bobbie glanced at the men who were now sweeping their trash into their hands, eyes glued to their fingers and feet. She started to say something to them, to ask them to keep the news under their hats, but she knew it was too late. They pushed past her, out the door into the rush of teenagers streaming past.