The School on the Fens (9)
April 6, 2013
HILOBROW is proud to present the ninth installment of Robert Waldron’s novel The School on the Fens. New installments will appear each Saturday for thirty-eight weeks. CLICK HERE to read all installments published thus far.
Entering homeroom, I found it eerily quiet. A troubled-looking Tim stared at me.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“You haven’t heard?”
“Todd Blake is dead… took his life.”
I sped to the office to learn that Todd had hanged himself in his bedroom. Our secretary Helen was in tears, mumbling, “Such a nice boy.” No suicide note was found. He was an only child living with his father in Charlestown. His mother had died when he was an infant, and his adoring father raised him, never missing his son’s hockey games. Todd’s father was legendary in assisting hockey players, picking them up in his van, and acting as the team’s factotum.
The Headmaster announced Todd’s death through the PA system and requested a moment of silence honoring him. Girls unabashedly wept, boys surreptitiously wiped away tears. I sent the severely grief-stricken to the guidance department for counseling.
Tim sat stoically, his face cupped in his hands. Because Todd was his teammate, I asked Tim to step out into the corridor. Up close I could see that he had been crying.
“Are you OK?”
“Can’t believe it.” He thumbed away a tear at the corner of his eye.
“Was anything bothering Todd?”
“Only the usual worries about college.”
“Were you close to him?”
“Just hockey friends. He mostly hung out with kids from Charlestown.”
“He ever mention drugs?” I asked.
“He took his health too seriously,” Tim said, shaking his head. “He ran five miles a day and lifted weights. Nah, he wouldn’t touch drugs, didn’t even drink beer. Had to be something else.”
“He’s the last person I’d ever think would commit suicide.”
I stood in line for an hour before stepping into Sullivan’s Funeral Home in Charlestown. Waiting to greet Todd’s family, I had a chance to observe his father. A big, muscular man, he was over six feet tall with a red face, either from drinking or high blood pressure. His three sisters who had helped him raise Todd were beside him. When I identified myself, Mr. Blake recognized my name.
“You taught Todd in the ninth grade, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and he was a great kid.”
“It’s what all his teachers say, never gave anyone trouble. Don’t understand it, Todd was a happy kid.” He shook his head in disbelief.
I stood in front of the casket. Dressed in a blue suit, school tie and black rosary beads intertwining his fingers, Todd looked like himself: a handsome all-American young man. I had the spooky feeling he might open his eyes and speak his usual greeting, “What’s up Mr. Duncan?”
In my career, I had lost one student to suicide. Mary Norris was a beautiful girl who had suffered from depression when depression was still a closeted subject. At the end of her junior year, she came up to me after our last class to thank me for a great year, explaining that poetry had helped her with her personal problems.
I was touched, and it was my first inkling of the power of literature to help one to live. And ever since then, no matter how inattentive my kids may be when I teach, I’m comforted by the hope that perhaps one student in front of me is
benefiting from our literary discussions.
The sad part was that Mary took her life in her freshman year of college. Something more powerful than the beauty and wisdom of literature had overwhelmed her. I’ll never forget her father at the wake when he threw himself on the casket, wailing, “My little girl!”
The following day Todd’s teachers attended the funeral Mass; at the church it was standing room only. The pastor delivered a moving eulogy, describing Todd as a young man active in the CYO, a volunteer at St. Francis House for the homeless, a counselor at a Y camp for inner-city kids, as well as a coach of a kiddy hockey team in Charlestown. He concluded, “Todd was a townie we’re all very proud of.”
His teammates lifted Todd’s casket to their shoulders and carried it down the church’s middle aisle, weeping openly as did most of the people in the sanctuary. When the casket passed me, I happened to look across the way and saw Farrell with Murkin. To my surprise they both looked shattered, Murkin dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief handed to her by Farrell.
After Mass, Maureen Hines and I headed for coffee at Dunkin Donuts. She was Todd’s English teacher and red-eyed from weeping.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said, her voice breaking. “Such a happy-go-lucky kid, and everyone loved him. That lovely boy —I just can’t believe it.”
“Had you seen any changes in him recently?” I asked.
“I sensed he had something on his mind,” she said after a gulp of coffee. “Lately he just stared out the window, unusual because Todd always enjoyed participating in class discussion. He knew he wasn’t a scholar, but even if he hadn’t read his homework, he’d recklessly plunge into whatever we were working on.” She laughed.
“What is it?”
“His comments were sometimes off the wall, but I’d pretend to ponder them seriously, even though I could tell he knew I was just being kind. Humility was part of his charm, and he’d always remind me, ‘Don’t forget, Miss Hines, I get all the points for class participation.’ And he did. But I once saw him —”
“I saw Todd and Farrell after school. I was on my way out to the parking lot when I happened to look sideways into the headmaster’s office. Farrell was red in the face and yelling at Todd. Because the door was closed, I couldn’t hear anything. Later, I asked Todd if he was in trouble, and he said no. But he blushed. I knew Todd well enough to know that if he was fibbing, he’d turn deep red. He couldn’t fake anything.”
On the way to our cars, Maureen said, “God, John, teenagers taking their lives. I don’t understand it.”
Neither did I, but I suspected Farrell was somehow involved.
ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”