On Monday morning, Wilson arrived at work with a chinstrap. A chinstrap is a narrow strip of facial hair running along the jawline from one ear to the other. It often appears on its own, without a complimentary moustache. Chinstraps were in vogue among young men many years ago. Wilson is not a young man, he is older than me. In the three years I have known him, he has never kept facial hair. There was a time in the office when four of the five male teachers, including myself, wore goatees. Wilson remained clean shaven. I assumed he could not grow facial hair and I imagined he did not own a razor.
When Wilson arrived at the office that morning, no one mentioned the chin-strap. We were too surprised and uncertain if it should be commented upon. It was much like the time Alannah dribbled spaghetti sauce on her shirt and no one said anything. Her blouse was white and the spot was perched directly on her left nipple, or perhaps a tiny pinch above.
I waited until lunch, when most of us were sitting at our desks. I got up, walked to the bathroom and drew a very thin, black line on my jaw with a white board marker. The result looked better than I expected and I made a mental note to attempt a real one next summer. I waited a minute and made a fuss of flushing the toilet and washing my hands. All sounds were easily heard through the thin door separating the office and toilet. I opened the door and walked back to my desk, at the opposite corner of the room, directly past Wilson.
Jack snickered and the others looked up. Spencer burst out laughing, and everyone joined in. Except for Wilson. He didn’t even smile. He stood up, looked around once, and walked out of the room.
On Tuesday of the following week, the chin-strap had evolved into a soul-patch. A soul-patch is a small tuft of beard directly under the lower lip and above the chin. I have never seen anyone wear one, in person. They look ridiculous and seem mainly to be favoured by musicians. Wilson is not a musician, he is a math teacher and he has very few hobbies except for perhaps poker. Many people who have soul-patches also have an earring.
On Wednesday, Wilson sported an earring. It was very small, dull golden in colour, and inserted through a new hole in his right eyebrow. He had also done some strange things with his hair, as the sides and back were now noticeably shorter and dyed lighter than the top. Or perhaps the top had been darkened. It was difficult to tell.
During this makeover, as my colleagues and I began to refer to it, Wilson’s wardrobe remained stubbornly unchanged. He continued to alternate his only two pairs of pants every two days. The hems were noticeably frayed and the pockets well worn. He still favoured button up short sleeve shirts. Oddly, on the last Friday of most months he would wear jeans, with a matching jean shirt. Around his neck on this day he would display a cowboy tie, one of those peculiar two string items fastened with a clip.
So we waited with great anticipation for the coming Friday. It would be the first month-end Friday since the makeover began and wagers were being placed on Wilson’s choice of attire. I bet Alannah five dollars that Wilson would come in his regular jean garb. Then, remembering a promise made to my wife not to gamble, I bet Jack five dollars that Wilson would wear something different.
On my way home from work on Thursday, I stopped at the mall and purchased a new jean shirt. I already owned one pair of jeans, slightly worn in the crotch but okay to wear for one day. Then I stopped at my parents and borrowed my dad’s favourite cowboy tie.
It is almost impossible for my body to get me to work before eight, and doubly difficult when I find that a new shirt I want to wear has been washed but not ironed. But on this particular morning my excitement propelled me through the school doors just after 7:45 a.m. Everyone enjoyed my new jean attire, and Jack said I looked lovely. It certainly did not come across as silly as I had hoped. By 8:19 a.m. the office was buzzing. It was sixteen minutes before classes started and one minute before Wilson arrived. Wilson always arrived at the exact same time every morning. Always.
Sitting at my desk, I heard the hallway door outside the office squeak on its hinges. All eyes were focused on the office entrance. The footsteps quietened, indicating a brief pause outside. And then Wilson walked in, and he was wearing a dress. Well for a brief moment anyway, this individual really did look like Wilson.
“Good Morning, is this the Math office?”
When no one responded, the lady took one step further in. “Excuse me, am I in the correct place?” Her eyes scanned the room and she watched us watching her.
“I’m here to sub for Mr. McGuire, and the ladies in the main office directed me this way.”
There was still no response, and she had now taken two steps backward to the door.
“Well, I guess I’ll look down the hall then...”
It was not until she turned to leave that someone at last tuned in. Jack, seeming to channel all our thoughts said, “A sub?”
It had been two years and one month since a substitute teacher had been called to our office. This was an incredible statistic, given the number of teachers in the department. For more than two years no one had been sick, caught in a storm, attending a funeral, or skipping. Neither had anyone been away for professional development at conferences or workshops, as our principal so often reminded us. We were conscious of our streak and secretly proud. No one, not even Wilson, wished for it to end. So it did not seem possible that a substitute teacher had now entered our domain.
“Yes, I am here to sub for Mr. McGuire,” repeated the intruder. She spoke in a singsong style that I found immediately annoying.
Alannah stood to greet the lady, and kindly invited her into the office. “Wilson’s desk is over here. We can have a look at his schedule, though he likely won’t have anything prepared for you if he’s just become ill.”
The two of them walked to Wilson’s desk, and found a neatly prepared package including not only a schedule, but seating plans, lesson plans, and a welcome note addressed to one Miss Lovedale.
“Oh,” Alannah said. “I see he was expecting you.”
“Well, yes. He contacted me after work yesterday. He said he would be away for a week.”
“A week!” It was the first time I had spoken since Miss Lovedale had arrived.
She looked over at me, where I sat at my desk wearing my Dad’s cowboy tie. “Yes, I’m booked till next Thursday.”
I studied her for a moment. She was about my age and it now seemed ridiculous that I had even briefly mistaken her for Wilson. She did have short hair, but I now couldn’t help noticing that under her black shirt she had significantly larger breasts than Wilson. Hey, maybe I could live with her disagreeable lyrical voice for a week.
I discreetly removed my tie. “Well, Miss Lovedale, it’s nice to have you here. Let me know if you need any assistance.”
At that moment, music began playing over the intercom, indicating the start of the first class.
Our school timetable scheduled early dismissal on Fridays, and as usual we were all in the pub shortly after two o’clock. Even Carlos, who does not drink and abhors the smell of smoke, made a rare appearance.
“Ok Alannah, what did you find out?”
Alannah is our curriculum leader or CL for short. She teaches, but also acts as a middle manager for our department. She has the authority to investigate this kind of personnel issue. She also has fewer classes and twice the prep time as any of us and she knew we expected information from her.
“Well, I called the sub office... ” Alannah paused, relishing the attention as we all focused in.
“And it turns out he is going to be away for a week.”
“Why is he away?”
“Well of course they wouldn’t tell me that!” Alannah punctuated her comment with a loud humph and an exaggerated shrug of her shoulders.
“Oh come on,” Spencer complained. “Of course they told you.”
“No really, they wouldn’t say.”
We all looked at her, each choosing whether or not to pursue the matter. I knew Alannah would not lie and said, “I’d say he’s got some kind of surgery booked. You know, like a prostate or something.”
Spencer rebuffed me, “No, he would have had more than a couple of tests before this. He hasn’t missed a day.”
Christine, the youngest member of our department, said, “I know Miss Lovedale has no idea. We shared a prep today and she didn’t tell me anything.”
“Gotta be a family funeral,” I said. “I’ll bet his mom died or something.”
“Must have died, if it’s a funeral,” Spencer chipped in.
“No, I mean his mom or someone. Don’t we get five days off for the death of a near relative?”
I was referring to our teaching contract, being that we were unionized and every possible outcome was written in detail in one of the hundreds of subsections.
“His mom and dad are already dead,” Alannah said. “I think his nearest relative is a cousin in the east.”
“Young or old?”
“It doesn’t matter, you only get two days off for a cousin’s funeral,” Jack stated with confidence.
As Jack said this I thought he seemed to have the contract a little too well memorized. I looked around the table. Only Carlos hadn’t spoken. He was busy shelling peanuts and had a slight grin on his face. He knew Wilson better than any of us.
“So Carlos,” I said, “What do you think?”
Carlos was never long on words. He was also quite difficult to hear sometimes due to his tendency to speak so damn quietly. When he answered, I thought he said, “Wilson’s unravelling.”
I laughed, “Well no kidding, Carlos. We all know that!”
He looked hurt, like I had spoiled his surprise or something.
Christine, who was sitting directly beside him, offered, “Travelling, Carlos?”
Carlos spoke up a little. “Yes. I found this on his desk.” And he held up the brochure for a travel company, chartering trips to the Caribbean.
“Shit Carlos,” barked Jack, “you might find a condom in my wallet but it sure as hell doesn’t mean I’m getting laid anytime soon!”
“Jack is just suggesting that a travel brochure isn’t evidence that someone is travelling,” Alannah added quickly when she saw that Carlos was looking hurt once again. There were a lot of reasons she had become our CL.
“No, wait. I found this inside the pages.”
Carlos opened up the brochure and a piece of letter-sized paper fell out. Jack and I grabbed at it, and Jack spilled his beer on Christine in the process. I got the paper.
Dear Wilson: I can’t wait to see you. Please meet where we agreed. Love, FC.
“Because. You can’t skip out for a week of travel and expect to have your job when you get back.”
I was speaking to my wife at dinner on Friday, letting her know why I believed Wilson was going to be fired.
She found the whole story incredulous. “And explain to me again how you know where he is?”
“Well, the plane ticket, obviously. Or I mean the brochure. He took the ticket with him, of course.” I wiped spaghetti from my mouth and sipped on some wine.
I knew what that meant. It meant Laurie thought my case was weak and wouldn’t hold up in court. Laurie was a lawyer when I met her and now works occasionally for a friend’s small firm.
“Why are you guys fighting?” Asked Tony, our six-year-old son.
“We’re not fighting, we’re sparring.”
“And your Dad is losing,” added Laurie helpfully.
“I know,” said Tony, smiling.
“Sure. He’s not travelling then. So how do you explain the email?”
I had taken it from Carlos when everyone left and it was now sitting on the table between Laurie and me.
“I don’t have to explain it. It shouldn’t even be presented as evidence.”
“What Why not?”
“Because it was sent to Wilson more than a year ago.” She reached out and pointed at the date with her fork.
‘Damn,’ I thought. ‘How can teachers be so damn stupid?’ Six of us studied a page with maybe fifteen words, and not one of us noticed the date. I finished my wine in silence. Laurie had a look like there was nothing left to discuss, and she and Tony began planning the weekend’s activities.
Later that night while Laurie was watching television, I snuck up to use the computer in the upstair’s office. Wilson’s email was still nagging at me and on the spur of the moment I sent my own email to [email protected].
I wrote, quite simply:
How is Wilson?
Spencer and I met early on Sunday morning at a coffee shop just west of the city. It was now late October and the snow would be arriving soon. This outing was likely our last chance to get some cycling in this year. Spencer is seven years younger than me, and has been an avid mountain biker since high school. He got me interested in the sport the first year I met him. He rides every weekend and I manage to join him once or twice per month. On most trips, his girlfriend would be with us, but she wasn’t in the truck when Spencer drove up.
Spencer went in to grab a coffee and doughnut, and I transferred my bike into the Ford. We then set off for a forest reserve thirty minutes further west. I expected the conversation to zero in on Willson, and was ready with my latest theories. But Spencer surprised me after finishing his doughnut.
“Sarah’s not coming with us.”
“Yeah, uh huh, I see that.” I pretended to look around the inside of the truck for her.
“Want to know why?”
I really wasn’t at all interested but I sensed Spencer was a bit sombre, so I didn’t respond.
Spencer’s lip actually quivered, and he quietly said, “We’re breaking up.”
I have never been good at consoling people when they are down. Spencer couldn’t have picked a worse person to be with on his first morning as a single. This was going to be a long trip. I sat quietly forever trying to think of something to say that would be helpful. At last, something came to mind.
“Park here,” I said.
As it turned out, it was a perfect morning. Spencer hopped on his bike and he took off. He is a much stronger rider than me, and while he is usually kind enough to wait every few minutes, on this fine morning he clearly had some energy to burn. He flew ahead of me and did not look back. For the next hour and a half I did not see anyone. I was thankful we were on a familiar trail and not one of the new routes Spencer had been speaking of. It would have been difficult for me to get lost even with the multitude of minor trails branching in every direction, and I let my mind wander freely as I enjoyed the gorgeous fall day. I thought about Spencer and Willson, and the rest of my colleagues at work.
Taken individually, you might not find any one of them especially entertaining. Spencer is quick with a joke, culled from the internet and memorized overnight. Joke telling is an art, for sure, but his sense of humour can be forced sometimes. Jack’s rudeness wears thin quickly. Carlos is funny only in the way he reacts to others. Being alone with him, it is difficult to laugh at all. Alannah is self conscious and does not easily take risks. Christine is all right. She is bright and has a great laugh. And Wilson? Wilson’s qualities as an entertainer are solely as fodder for the less kind folks among us.
But together, a chemistry has developed in the group that has brought out the best in all of us. Not only do we work well together, we laugh and have great fun too.
I paused to catch my breath at the top of a particularly steep section of trail. Higher up, I could see the fall orange and yellow colours of the larch trees made even more brilliant against a light dusting of snow. As I swept my gaze across the valley, I made out the red shirt that Spencer was wearing, and watched him power on ahead. It looked like he was going to have a long wait for me after the loop took him back to his truck.
Spencer and I were hired at the school at the same time, a little more than three years ago. I had been working at a junior high school teaching math and gym, and I was more than happy for the change. Spencer was an ‘admin transfer’ from another high school. An admin transfer is a polite way of saying your old principal hated you and made you go away. The school board rarely fires teachers, but instead transfers them around. I believe the only way to get fired, though I’d have to check with Jack, is to molest a student. I never did ask Spencer why he was transferred, and to this day he has never offered a reason.
When the two of us arrived at Milton High, the other math teachers were already present. Christine had been the most recent addition, arriving late in the school year just prior.
I had no idea that I was about to embark on the most enjoyable three years of my career. Really, as I recall, things got off to a rather dreadful beginning.
The fellow I was replacing had been fired quickly at the end of June, and I assumed not only his position, but his desk as well. Unpacking my belongings and settling in on that first day, it was immediately apparent that Mr. Kleskie had not had time to clean up his space. His desk was packed with personal items. I was in meetings most of the morning and was impressed with the negative feelings being vented from all departments with respect to the topic of Mr. Kleskie. Apparently he was not at all well liked. So when the math department agreed to meet outside the building for lunch, I seized this first opportunity to display my wit. I told them I had a few calls to make and would be a little late. Then, settling into my chair with the office empty, I quickly got to work.
First, I emptied the contents of my desk onto the central table. The table was ten by four feet and the three drawers worth of Mr. Kleskie’s stuff covered it completely. I quickly organized it into some sensible framework. I grouped it more or less into tools, food, wearables, and office supplies. The strangest item was a nutcracker with an engraving that said ‘Property of K. Kleskie, 1940-’. I threw it on the table with everything else. There was also a pile of photographs, which I scattered around when I noticed time running late. The last thing I did was print out in large font on a yellow piece of paper:
No Early Birds
I leaned this against the mannequin head that had been under Mr. Kleskie’ s desk and was now in the middle of the large table. I felt I really belonged. There would be no doubt I hated this guy as much as everyone else.
I left and had a great lunch.
When we returned to the school, I made a side trip and took my time getting back to our second floor office. Strangely, I now felt some apprehension as to how the others might react and thought it best if I gave them a moment to process my humour. I turned up about ten minutes behind everyone else.
The laughter I had been expecting was noticeably absent. The office was silent. Christine and Carlos were finishing off repacking all Mr. Kleskie’s things into a large box. Everyone else was at their desks, except for Alannah, who was nowhere to be seen. I walked carefully to my desk and found the yellow paper on it, with a handwritten message at the bottom. It was from Jack. It said he needed to talk with me ‘real soon.’
I looked over to where he was sitting and he got up, nodding at me as though I should follow him. I trailed out of the office after him and he said, “Come on, let’s take a walk.”
“Uh, Okay. Hey, what’s up?”
Jack waited until we were down the hall, well away from the office. “Not your fault, really. I guess someone should have told you.”
He didn’t exactly reach out and pat me on the back, but it felt like he was going to.
“I gather this has something to do with Mr. Kleskie?”
“Yep, and Alannah.”
“Oh.” I remembered that Alannah was conspicuously absent from the office.
“Ah, it’s not so bad really. It’s just that Alannah and Kleskie were lovers. That’s all.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Alannah’s tough. She’ll get over it. But for the time being you might want to steer clear of her.”
“Okay.” I thought for a moment. “Hey, I thought she’s married.
Jack stopped walking and looked me in the eye. “Yeah, that’s the worst part. She and Kleskie were having this torrid affair and she was going to leave her husband. But Kleskie’s life fell apart and Alannah had to beg her husband to stay with her. Real messy.” He pulled something from his pants pocket. “Here, have a look at this.”
I did. It was a picture of Alannah and Kleskie in an embrace, holding wine glasses up and toasting the camera. They were in the lunchroom in the back of the math office and looked very happy together.
Jack said, “Alannah was damn near hysterical when she saw that photo on the table.” Then he added, “Well, good luck!” And left me rather abruptly. I was standing at the top of the stairwell we had just entered.
I thought about jumping. I couldn’t imagine going back into the office. And this was my first day!
After twenty minutes I built up enough courage to return. The middle table was empty, and everyone was at their desks, including Alannah. She looked like she had been crying. No one said anything as I walked to my desk. I looked around, trying to make eye contact with Spencer, but it was impossible. I sat down quietly. It was then that I noticed the yellow page on my desk. Someone had added the comment:
‘You have a nice ass. I think I’m falling in love again. Alannah.’
I choked and looked up from the page quickly. Everyone was watching me. They laughed - a lot. It took a minute for me to realize I had been caught in one hell of a fine prank. To this day I am still amazed at how perfectly they set me up. Alannah has always denied any involvement. And it turns out she wasn’t married after all.
Most of my memories over the past three years make me laugh, even when they involve me as a target.
I felt like I could be a target now, as I unexpectedly exited from the bush and found myself on a back road. There was a pickup truck parked twenty metres to the south and a telescopic sight was pointing out from the driver’s window. A hunter. A deer was about to get a bullet in its head. I watched the scene for a second, and without thinking rang the bell on my bike. The deer bolted, and the hunter looked my way. I waved to him. Then I retraced my tracks and tried to figure out where I had gotten lost.
Spencer must have been waiting an hour by the time I found the parking lot. He is not the type of guy who stays happy very long without something to entertain him. I didn’t think he was spending his time writing poetry. When I rode up, he was sitting on the tailgate of his truck studying his watch.
“Hey, glad to see you finally waited,” I joked, skidding to a halt.
“Bout time,” he said. “What’d you do, stop for a pizza?”
“No, but I’d love a burger right about now.”
Naturally, we stopped at Pete’s burger shack on the drive home.
* * * *
It was late afternoon by the time I arrived at my house. Laurie was playing cards with Tony and I hurried past and jumped in the shower. When I had finished cleaning up, I found them on the deck enjoying an unseasonably warm day.
“Your principal called, and you really should take your phone with you when you’re out riding.”
I ignored Laurie’s complaint and said, “Called me, really? What did he want?”
My principal is Sharon Jackson, female, but she is big and strong. She may have once been an olympic weightlifter.
“SHE didn’t say what SHE wanted. SHE asked you to call her back.”
Laurie didn’t always appreciate my humour.
“Right, I’ll call him back now.”
It is rare for a principal to call a teacher on their personal phone. Usually it is a bad omen. If something can’t wait until Monday, it can’t be good. So it was with trepidation that I returned Sharon’s call.
The call was answered on the first ring. “Hello?”
“Hi John, is Sharon in?” As soon as I said this I knew my mistake. John is Sharon’s husband. His voice is nowhere near as deep as hers.
“This is Sharon,” came the reply, sounding a bit annoyed.
I thought about hanging up.
“Oh, hi Sharon. This is Stan.” I coughed when I said my name, thinking perhaps I could disguise it somewhat.
“Stan? Sorry to bother you today, but I have terrible news and I wanted everyone to know as soon as possible.”
“Oh, okay, what is it?”
“Stan, Cynthia Witherspoon is dead.”
“Who, Cynthia? You must be kidding.” I shook my head thinking I had misheard.
“Yes, the police contacted me this morning.”
I didn’t know what to say. I almost said, ‘Is she going to be alright?’, but instead I said, “Are you going to be alright?”
“I’ve got a job to do, Stan. Don’t worry about me.”
“Okay, well, I’m glad you let me know.”
“They’re calling it a suicide.”
I hung up the phone and sat down at the kitchen table.
Cynthia was an English teacher at my school. She was well liked by her students and colleagues. I didn’t know her very well, but I respected her and considered her intelligent.
This wasn’t the first time in my life that a close acquaintance had committed suicide. I knew of one other teacher five or six years ago who had done the same. And there were a couple of students. Then I remembered that Jack’s sister had killed herself two years ago. I stopped tallying them up. I was afraid I might run out of fingers.