The School on the Fens (11)
April 20, 2013
HILOBROW is proud to present the eleventh 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.
When my kids were growing up, we ritually attended the annual football game between Classical High and Lincoln High, the oldest football competition between high schools in America. My kids loved the crowds, the excitement, and the jeering. Iris remained home preparing our holiday dinner.
Jason and Meredith were home for the holiday as well as my oldest son Leland who had not been home in two years. He had followed in my footsteps by attending Berkeley, but unlike me, he preferred living on the West coast, dismissing the East as too staid. He now owned and managed a gym in San Francisco.
We piled into the Ford and headed out to Boston University field. Our side of the stands was packed with parents, students and alumni, but the other side’s crowd was, as usual, meager. Once a fine school and a feeder for colleges like MIT, Lincoln had become a troubled school.
Leland spotted Farrell: “Dad, there he is with a Classical sweater on.” Rell was working the alumni and city politicians in the crowd. Jason and Meredith saw some friends and joined them.
It was a sunny, cold day, and I was glad to have worn a fleece-lined jacket. Leland had brought a thermos of coffee. He had been a troubled teen-ager. As a high school junior, he suddenly stopped studying, and his grades plunged; we later caught him smoking pot. His best friend was heavily into pot and LSD, and we feared Leland was trekking down the same path. We quickly got him into therapy. Leland slowly blossomed; his grades improved, and he again involved himself in sports. When he was accepted to Berkeley, Iris and I were elated with relief that he had turned his life around.
There was a setback the summer before he left for college when he fell into a deep depression, locking himself in his room for days, not even coming out for meals. On the lookout for drugs, we found no sign of them. Finally, I had it out with him, begging him to tell us what was bothering him: Was it his mother or me or both of us? He insisted it had nothing to do with any person within or outside the family.
I lost my cool, “So, you want to remain a fucking enigma!”
“Yeah, I’m an enigma. If you have a problem with it, then tough shit.” And he stormed off to his room, and we didn’t talk for a week. When I apologized, he embraced me and whispered, “Someday, Dad, I’ll tell you. OK?” I nodded, but the day has yet to arrive.
When he set off at Logan Airport for LA, he kissed his mother and me, apologizing for causing us worry. Watching him board the plane, his head hanging low, I wept so much Iris had to hold me.
Leland loved California, its sun, beaches, and the people, and our reluctant scholar even loved Berkeley. His letters and telephone calls were so optimistic that at first we were suspicious, but in the end we accepted his happiness. When he decided to settle down in San Francisco, we did not complain.
“How are you and Farrell getting along?” Leland asked, hesitant about mentioning a perennially unpleasant topic.
“The same,” I said, enjoying talking to him as an adult. “He leaves me alone, and I stay clear of him.”
“Is the stress worth it?” he asked.
“It would be far more stressful at another urban high school. I couldn’t take 150 thugs a day.”
“Dad, they’re not all thugs, there are good students in every school.”
“I can’t teach tough kids,” I said. “The kids make Classical worthwhile.”
“But you’d be happier if Farrell was gone?”
“It’s a dream, but you never know, he may someday disappear like those Old Testament plagues.”
We laughed. Leland was the picture of health, eyes sparkling, and skin taut and tanned. A group of junior girls sitting on a nearby bench were staring at him and giggling.
“So, you have a girlfriend?” I said.
“I did, but we broke up,” he said without a hint of hurt. “Business and romance can’t coexist in my life. However, like you, I’m happy with what I have.”
He was emphatic enough for me to know he’d say no more. He was my son, but he was also an adult, a seemingly happy one, and his love life was none of my business.
Farrell worked his way toward us, all I needed to ruin a perfectly beautiful day.
“It’s good to see you, John,” he said, “and don’t tell me this is your son Leland.”
“Yup, he’s home for the holiday.”
My son and Farrell shook hands. Small talk ensued, about the weather, the chances of winning the game, and Farrell then departed for another group. In all the years we had attended Classical football games, he had never before greeted my kids and me.
“Seems like a nice guy, Dad.”
“Everything isn’t as it appears. Remember, ‘Look like the innocent flower’—”
““But be the serpent under it.’ Dad, I’ve heard you quote Lady Macbeth all my life, and always in reference to Classical High. I think I’ve developed a neurosis over it.” We both laughed, but he was dead serious.
Later that day, when Iris placed our Thanksgiving meal on the table, I asked Leland to carve the turkey.
“But, Dad, you always do it.”
“This year I want you to do it.”
Leland shook his head, “Dad, you’re the one who honors rituals.”
In the end I carved, though I knew Leland was touched.
Afterwards, we all threw ourselves into cleaning up to give Iris a break. Later, Leland and I watched TV football while Iris, Jason and Meredith played cards at the dining room table. Noting my widening stomach, Leland said I was a prime candidate for a heart attack, and coaxed from me a promise to start walking around Jamaica Pond.
“Dad, it actually would be better if you jogged.”
“Then I will have a heart attack.”
“Farrell looks like he works out,” he said, teasingly.
“He’s a member of the Storrow Health Club.”
“Wow! That’s exclusive — and expensive.”
“There he can rub shoulders with Boston’s power-brokers.”
“Is he married?”
“No. Though he has a lady friend,” I said, “and anyway he’s married to his alma mater.”
“A case of incest, Dad?”
Around six the news came on with a report of a brutal beating of a boy in a Southie housing project. Leland turned up the volume as everyone joined us. Reporters speculated that it was an anti-gay hate crime, and the boy had been left for dead on the street.
Leland was disturbed. “That’s what I don’t miss about Boston, its goddamn bigotry.”
“Every city has bigots,” I said, “not just Boston.”
“Dad, Boston’s desegregation is broadcast on the national news… it shows Southie kids stoning buses carrying black kids to school. The city’s getting a racist reputation, and now a gay kid’s been beaten to death.”
While lying in bed that night, I was still haunted by the dead boy. It happened in the project where Tim lived. I resolved to do all I could to help Tim get out of that place and admitted into his dream college. I shared my thoughts with Iris.
“Honey, he’s your student, not your son.”
“I know, I know. But he’s a special kid.”
“Do what you think is best.” She rolled over and was snoring before I had time to turn the light off.
Shortly after Badger’s letter appeared, Farrell was standing outside Maria’s room, glaring at her. She shut the door in his face, but Farrell opened it and proceeded to the back of the room where he sat, venomously staring at her. She confounded him by conducting her class in French. When the bell rang to signal the end of class, he stormed out without a word.
She was suspect number one for the Badger.
Jim Ford was suspect number two. On the same day, he looked up from taking attendance to find Farrell opening his classroom door.
“Why is your door closed, Mr. Ford?” Farrell asked.
“There’s no rule against it,” Jim replied.
“Unless one is trying to hide something.”
Jim turned to his students, “Class, what have we been studying for the last two weeks?”
Resoundingly supportive, they shouted, “Hamlet!”
Beaming in triumph, Jim said, “Headmaster, would you like to lecture my class on Claudius’s lust not only for Gertrude but also for power?”
Farrell slammed the door behind him, cracking one of the windowpanes.
Farrell also made a surprise visit to the cafeteria. “Pigs!” he screamed at a group of seniors whose table was a mess of food; it was rare of him to chastise future members of the school’s foundation.
The rumor mill reported that he had also harangued his department chairmen, threatening that if they didn’t discover Badger’s identity, heads would roll.
A few days later, I was correcting a set of tests when Jim walked into the teachers’ room, holding a “Kindly Note” in his hands. It had been years since he received one.
“What’s it say?”
“To report to his office next period,” Jim said, tearing and tossing it into the trash. “Will you come with me?”
Waiting for Farrell in his office, we speculated on what Jim might have done.
“Maybe I failed too many students,” Jim said.
“Maybe you passed too many students,” I said.
“Maybe I gave too many quizzes.”
“Maybe you didn’t give enough quizzes.”
We were both laughing when Farrell arrived along with Murkin, her face slashed with a weird but triumphant smile. Rell carried a manila folder, which he tossed on his desk. Out spilled out copies of Badger’s letter.
“Mr. Ford —”
“Call me Jim.”
“Mr. Ford, it’s come to my attention that you’re behind the Badger letters.”
“You mimeographed it and distributed it to the faculty.”
“I’m not the Badger,” Jim said calmly.
“We have proof, Mr. Ford,” Farrell said, sounding quite sure of himself. “You might as well confess and get it over with. If you tell the truth, we can perhaps be lenient with you.”
“Show me the proof,” Jim said.
Murkin and Rell left the room in search of Mr. Mason. While they were gone, I asked Jim to level with me: “Are you the Badger?” He adamantly denied it.
Mason nervously narrated a rather muddled story about his seeing Jim stuffing the letter into the faculty mailboxes.
“This is a concocted story,” Jim said.
“You’re lying, Mr. Ford,” Rell said. “I have Mr. Mason as a witness, and it’s all I need to file for your dismissal.”
“Well, since you’re in the dismissing mode, you better prepare Mr. Mason’s pink slip,” Jim said with a certain glee in his voice. “He’s been having an affair with one of our junior girls.”
“You’re out of line, Mr. Ford,” Farrell said.
“Ask Mr. Mason yourself,” Jim said, enjoying the chagrin on Murkin’s and Farrell’s faces. “The girl’s name is Sarah Taylor… the whole junior as well as the senior class knows about it.”
Mason had turned pale and was about to speak when Farrell gave Murkin a sign to remove him from the office.
“Perhaps Sarah Taylor’s parents should be informed,” Jim said. “Shall I do it?”
“Your responsibility has been fulfilled… I’ll investigate the allegation.”
Jim and I stood.
“I’m not finished with —”
“Excuse me,” I said, “but we are finished. You have no proof that Mr. Ford wrote the Badger letters except for Mason, a well-known lackey of yours.”
“He isn’t my lackey!”
He rummaged through his desk, took out a Bible and slammed it on his desk.
“Mr. Ford, swear on the Bible that you didn’t write the letters.”
“This is absurd!”
“This meeting is over,” I said.
As Jim and I turned to walk out the door, we could hear Farrell still screaming, “Swear!”
Back in the teachers’ lounge, Jim chuckled. “We checkmated him.”
“The whole senior class knows about Sarah and Mason?” I said, ignoring his comment.
“Sarah hasn’t been discreet,” Jim said. “She drives in with Mason every morning and in the afternoon waits for him in his car. No need for secrecy. Mason knows he can get away with it.”
“Farrell won’t report it?”
“You should know better. It’s one of the perks of absolute loyalty. Farrell will defend him no matter what unless he wants to get rid of him… and then he’ll throw him under the bus.”
“You should report the affair to Guidance.”
“I already have, but nothing will come of it. But I’ll make sure Sarah’s father knows. He might put the fear of God into Mason. That horny bastard… maybe I should also call his wife.”
“She’d cut his balls off,” I said. She was a tough lady. When she got loaded at a retirement party a few years back, she humiliated Mason by describing him as a “lousy lover.” Even I felt bad for Mason.
“Problem is he has no balls.”
“If either of us had had an affair with a student,” I said, “our careers would be over.”
Jim nodded, “Mason’s nothing but scum.”
“But you have to admit he makes a fine lackey.”
Jim laughed. “Yikes! That word drove him nuts. I’ll have to use it more often.”
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”