Chapter 1: Things Fall Apart
If you wish to inflict the kind of pain that festers forever, consult an English teacher, rather than a psychopath. Not many people have access to the criminally insane, but few have escaped painful experiences in their English classes. And if I’ve learned anything from ten years of teaching English, it’s that emotional torture delivers slings and arrows that linger long after the initial attack.
I don’t mean to imply that the skills required of psychopaths and English teachers intersect to any great degree, but success in either profession requires similar strength, as well as a similar ability to compartmentalize. Dr. Marcia Deaver was a case in point. Of course, all she did was call me a thief and a liar. A pinprick, really—nothing fatal.
My feral colleague began her assault in the lobby of Valerian Hills High School. I was shocked to see her, but not because she was angry—there was nothing unusual about that. No, the surprise was that my fellow English teacher had executed a real life variation on the essay topic: What I Did on My Summer Vacation After My Husband Left Me. The overweight, gray-haired, elastic-pants-wearing Marcia had lost at least thirty pounds. My guess is that she invested all of the money she’d saved at the grocery store on a new wardrobe and an excellent facelift. Perhaps Botox.
Her expression was at odds with her appearance. While her smooth forehead seemed to advertise the latest in luxury bedding or Prozac, the look in her eye screamed Lady Macbeth on amphetamines.
I tried to compliment her, but Marcia cut me off, possibly to demonstrate that her physical makeover had not changed her personality. “Liz! Liz Hopewell! Stop blathering this minute!”
The two-word response that nature intended died a silent death inside my head. I never let my past life puncture the one I live now. I executed an about-face, so that Marcia had to address the rest of her tirade to my back.
“Someone stole my desk chair! My $700 chair is gone. Disappeared. Have you seen it? Someone has to know.” Marcia was never pleasant, but I hadn’t ever seen her so unhinged.
“Not guilty, Marcia.” Impressed by her passion, I held both hands wide to demonstrate my innocence. Unconvinced, Marcia continued to tail me as I ascended the stairs and entered my classroom. She examined the room, apparently to satisfy herself that I was not harboring her stolen property.
“Someone in this benighted excuse for a school is a petty criminal.” Although she stomped her foot with enough force to smash an atom, the delicate shoe survived. “When I find out who it is, I will press charges.”
Marcia was not at her best when dealing with human beings, but I’ll admit right now she was a gifted English teacher. Her lectures on Frankenstein made every listener feel the utter pain and isolation of the characters. When she talked about A Tale of Two Cities, the horrors of the French Revolution came to life. But I’m not sure she was capable of discussing anything that didn’t exist between the covers of a book.
I did not doubt Marcia’s capacity for making people miserable. But she’s like a heat-seeking missile—dangerous when headed in your direction, but capable of being diverted to a more appropriate target.
“Why are you bothering with me? Go find a custodian to harass. Or send out an email. I think all that weight loss has affected your brain.”
“It’s not my brain that’s the problem. I’ve already tracked down the custodians and cornered every possible suspect.” She narrowed her eyes and drew together artfully plucked brows. “Except for you. And don’t give me that innocent expression. I know you’re still angling to get my Advanced Placement classes. Like that’s ever going to happen. You’re not getting my classes or my Aeron chair.”
Okay, maybe I was guilty of that minor misdemeanor. Back in June, I answered an anonymous school-wide survey on what classes I wanted to teach. I knew it was a long shot, but I requested one of the Advanced Placement English classes and offered up my creative writing class to sweeten the deal. Someone blabbed, the change never happened, and Marcia and I ended the school year on very chilly terms.
I sat in my standard-issue chair and swiveled from side to side, to achieve maximum irritation. Marcia circled the room with the intensity of a latter day Magellan in search of the Spice Islands. She was near the door when I stopped her.
I knew I would regret doing so, but I couldn’t resist saying, “Before you go, I have to ask—what kind of diet are you on? And who did your hair?” I wasn’t trying to flatter her or distract her. I really wanted to know.
Marcia put her hands on newly slim hips. “I’m not on a diet.” She smoothed her hair, which a few months ago was the color and texture of Brillo, and now fell in soft brown waves. She pulled a few wisps in front of her ears and threaded her fingers through angled bangs that hid her forehead, which while now smooth, was still stern. “I did my hair myself.”
“Yeah, right. And I’m the new swimsuit model for Sports Illustrated.”
It takes a much cleverer response than that to slow Marcia’s caustic wit. She pointed a scarlet-tipped finger at my chest and shot back, “What size suit?”
I couldn’t let Marcia’s nastiness go unpunished. It wouldn’t be fair to her.
I strolled over to the window, did a double take, and gasped, “Oh my God! There’s your chair! In the parking lot!” She ran out of my classroom as fast as her four-inch stilettos allowed. In a war of wit no one conquers Marcia, but it’s nice to occasionally score a point or two.
Marcia made me late for our first staff meeting, but since I’d sat through the same dreary exercises each September for the last ten years I wasn’t worried. The only part about teaching I like is when I’m with the kids, and they would not arrive until the next day.
I hadn’t seen most of my colleagues since June, and while I could not compete with Marcia’s makeover, I didn’t want to be her foil either. I brushed a streak of dust from black yoga sweats, which from many angles looked like zip-up pants. I tucked an errant bra strap under my tank top and checked the mirror to see if my half dozen strands of gray hair had recruited any new members. Lastly, I swiped my mouth with some Barcelona Red lipstick. Without artificial help, my pale skin and dark hair and eyes tended to elicit queries about my health. Reasonably satisfied with the results, I locked the door to protect my belongings from the chair thief.
By the time I got to the auditorium the first part of our opening day program had already started, and the only open seats were in the front row. A motivational speaker, Mr. Pescarelli, (“call me Joe!”) leaped onto the stage, ready to enlighten us about his Pescarelli Program.
After thirty minutes of exhorting us to be the best we could be, Joe started a video of his Dickensian childhood and subsequent rise to success. The lights dimmed. I closed my eyes, positive that the presence of my colleagues and the loud voice over would prevent me from falling asleep. Nevertheless, a short time later a cop, a cowboy, and a biker dude shimmied into my subconscious and beckoned me to join the rest of the Village People on the dance floor.
I opened my eyes. The bare chested guy in a feathered headdress evaporated, and in his place red-faced Joe Pescarelli urged us to join him in a motivational team-building dance. What the hell. Only a dead person could resist the siren song of “YMCA.” As the lights brightened and the opening beats began echoing through the auditorium I poked both arms in the air, clapped my hands, and began singing.
The auditorium seemed a bit quiet. I peered behind me. Not one other person was reliving sweaty evenings beneath a mirrored ball that shot multi-colored laser lights.
Joe Pescarelli said, “Let’s give the dancing queen a big round of applause!”
Those who were not playing Candy Crush clapped. I avoided eye contact and took a bow. I wasn’t sure if Joe had finished motivating us, but I barreled toward the exit anyway. There’s no excuse so solid as one grounded in public humiliation.
The halls were deserted, except for Mrs. Donatella, the school secretary. Red-faced and perspiring, she stood guard behind a table filled with our back-to-school folders. I was surprised to see her, for she rarely moves from her throne in the main office. I was in no mood to tangle with her, since she makes Marcia Deaver look like Glinda the Good Witch, but I couldn’t ignore her. I initialed the checklist, grabbed my folder from the stack marked English Dept., and left.
Sunlight poured with brutal intensity into my classroom. I flipped through my folder, and to my horror, realized that in addition to grabbing the folder marked Hopewell, Liz, I also had taken the one marked Deaver, Marcia. I contemplated Marcia’s probable response to this gaffe, and for both our sakes I was grateful burning at the stake was no longer in vogue. I longed to fortify myself with a furtive cigarette and a fresh cup of coffee before facing the witch across the hall, but those restoratives were still hours away.
I peered into Marcia’s classroom, hoping she had found her chair. Her room is on the shady side of the building, and the sudden relief from burning sunshine gave me goose bumps. There was no chair behind her desk. No Marcia, either. Relieved that I would not have to explain myself to my combative colleague, I decided to leave the folder on her desk, rather than admit my mistake to Mrs. Donatella.
Marcia’s room, like Marcia herself, had undergone a radical alteration. Never neat, it was weirdly—and wildly— untidy. On the floor Marcia’s prized collection of vintage movie posters wound themselves into helpless spirals. Papers carpeted the area near her desk, and piles of textbooks were splayed on the windowsill, their bent spines protesting the rough treatment.
Was Marcia redecorating? I didn’t remember her ever changing anything in her classroom, but perhaps her personal makeover inspired her to change her physical environment. But that didn’t explain the mistreatment of the books. None of her students dared deface a book with so much as a single pencil mark or dog-eared page, and it was impossible that Marcia herself had treated those books so carelessly.
A breeze from the open window blew a few more papers across the room, and I retrieved them. Fearing that Marcia would walk in on me, I held the papers at arm’s length in order to demonstrate my innocent helpful nature. I noticed that, in addition to piles of books and random boxes, Marcia had left her shiny red-soled shoes on the floor. They really were beautiful shoes. I put the papers down and walked around the boxes and behind the desk for a closer look.
I stared, but the synapses that are supposed to fire when visual information is conveyed to the brain refused to spark. I looked at Marcia’s feet and at the undignified spread of her legs. Through a myopic haze I took in her gaping mouth and staring eyes. Underneath coral lipstick, the color of her mouth echoed the blue of her shirt. A thin stream of brown fluid trickled from an overturned coffee cup and landed, one drip at a time, on Marcia’s face.
The walls dipped and swooped. I tried to keep myself from falling, but my hasty grip on the keyboard panel caused it to slip forward, and I nearly pitched onto the top of the desk. In slow motion, I moved the panel back to its original position. A large yellow envelope, the kind we use for substitute lesson plans, dislodged itself from the underside of the desk panel and spit into my middle. I caught it just before it landed on Marcia.
Behind me, the door creaked. Finally, screams broke the tension. Mine, not Marcia’s.
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Copyright 2017 by Lori Robbins
Brooklyn-born Lori Robbins began dancing at age 16 and launched her professional career three years later. She studied modern dance at the Martha Graham School and ballet at the New York Conservatory of Dance. Robbins performed with a number of regional modern and ballet companies, including Ballet Hispanico, the Des Moines Ballet, and the St. Louis Concert Ballet. After ten very lean years as a dancer she attended Hunter College, graduating summa cum laude with a major in British Literature and a minor in Classics. Her first mystery, Lesson Plan for Murder, was published by Barking Rain Press in November. She recently completed Murder in First Position, the first book of a new mystery series, set in the world of professional ballet. She is currently working on the second book in both series. Robbins is a vice president of the NYC chapter of Sisters in Crime.
Visit her at http://www.LoriRobbins.com