The School on the Fens (20)
June 22, 2013
HILOBROW is proud to present the twentieth 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.
For weeks Sharon Ford and Iris were planning Jim’s surprise birthday party to be celebrated at our house. Jim and I had known each other since grammar school. We had also attended Boston College, although I was a few years behind him. When I returned to Boston from California with a wife, baby and no job, Jim suggested that I apply for a position at Classical where he had been teaching English. This time I did not have the luxury to cater to my youthful distaste for Classical, and when I applied for a job teaching English, I was accepted.
Preparing for the party, Iris and I cleaned the house from top to bottom. Not that our home was dirty, far from it. On the day of the party, Iris again vacuumed the rugs, dusted and polished the furniture and again washed every glass in the house.
“It’s only a party!” I said.
She threw me her go-to-hell look, “Make sure both bathrooms are spotless.” Bathrooms had become my domain of responsibility.
Later, we toured the house. The living room reflected her interest in the Orient. A beautiful Japanese silk screen of Mount Fuji hung over our pale blue velvet sofa. The Chinese lamps depicting cranes and other birds neither Iris nor I could identify were hand-painted as were the lacquered end tables depicting temples, waterfalls and mist-shrouded hills, and the wall hangings of Asian landscapes and peacocks. The room’s serenity reflected not only Iris’s good taste but also her spirit. When matters became too hectic, I would sometimes sit in a chair, absorbing the tranquil ambience she had so lovingly created.
The party was scheduled for seven on Friday night. Jim was under the impression that Sharon and he had been invited for dinner at our home, a common practice for us. Little did he know his whole family would be waiting for him: his kids, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. Sharon had also invited the usual group from Classical, including Maria, Ed and Norma Tracy. Sharon and Iris were both concerned about Norma’s drinking, but Sharon was too good-hearted not to invite her.
“Norma’s coming?” Iris said. “I hope she doesn’t burn the house down with her goddamn cigarettes.”
“We’ll keep an eye on her,” I said. “She’s a lot of fun.”
“That’s what all the men say.”
I ignored the bait, but our worst fight was over Norma. When Norma had first arrived at Classical, she’d been recently divorced. Married to a highly successful Boston attorney for ten years, she was part of the social scene in Newton, a wealthy Boston suburb where she was a fixture at the country club, frequenting the bar more than the golf links. The divorce was an ugly one, but Norma ended up with the Newton home and a substantial lump sum settlement. After a two years’ tour of the world, she returned home broke and had to return to her former profession, teaching English.
No one as glamorous had ever high-heeled it down its august corridors. She never wore the same outfit twice, and her students were in awe of her, especially the girls who admired her sophisticated fashion flair.
But among the faculty the claws came out: popular with the men, she was resented if not loathed by the women.
I was in the teacher’s bathroom when I heard her being dissected by a group having lunch.
“Who the hell is she dressing for? Diamonds and pearls in a public school!”
“Another Newton phony needing a paycheck after her husband dumped her.”
“Did you smell her breath this morning? The booze would knock you over!”
“Does she know how to teach?”
“Her class is a rap session, laced with anecdotes of her life. No wonder the kids love her.”
“She reminds me of a prostitute.”
“She won’t be buying her clothes on Newbury Street anymore, not on a teacher’s salary.”
I flushed the toilet, washed my hands and opened the door. The ladies’ mouths dropped when they saw me emerge.
“Let me tell you something about Norma,” I said. “She respects kids, listens to them and their problems and whether you believe it or not, she teaches them. Her students go around reciting Frost and Eliot.”
I left them with their mouths still open.
Norma was lonely and had a drinking problem. Several times she had invited me out for a drink. There was no implied romance in her invitation, just an opportunity to discuss school and teaching. Finally I agreed, and it became a custom to meet her once a month after school. When I told Iris about her, red flags must’ve wildly flapped in her mind, and she invited her to dinner — to check her out.
It was a frigid winter night, and Norma arrived, wearing a black mink coat likely costing a year’s college tuition. An animal activist, Iris hung it up barely disguising her distaste. I feared a long evening. Norma then took out her cigarettes. Iris looked at me, expecting me to tell Norma we do not allow smoking in the house. I shook my head.
“Norma, I hope you don’t mind,” Iris said, “but ours is a smoke-free home.”
Norma smiled and with her elegant, bejeweled hand quietly returned her gold cigarette case and lighter to her purse. But I knew her well enough to see that she was not pleased. For every cigarette she denied herself, she made up for it in drinks. By the end of the night Norma had had far too much to drive home so we put her up in our daughter’s bedroom. When we awakened in the morning, she was gone.
Over morning coffee, Iris said, “Honey, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be too friendly with Norma.”
“Because she drinks too much?”
“That and her promiscuous lifestyle.”
“What’s that mean?”
Iris and Norma had stayed up talking after I had gone to bed. Iris could upstage Barbara Walters in eliciting people’s confessions, and Norma spilled her guts about her love life.
“Iris, you’re being mean-spirited. She’s not married and has no obligations. Furthermore, she’s a lonely woman with an ill mother in a nursing home, whom she visits every day without fail… she’s a very decent person.”
“I don’t want my husband going out for drinks with a woman with that kind of reputation.”
We argued and ended up not speaking for a week.
When I later met Norma at school, we talked over coffee.
“Are we still friends?” Norma asked.
“Of course we are.”
“John, I have a confession to make,” she said, inhaling a cigarette. “I don’t remember much of the evening or what I said, and thanks for not letting me drive.” She paused, “I’ve got to stop drinking.”
She was not ready for AA. I wondered if she ever would be. She did most of her drinking on the weekend, and many a Monday morning when I arrived at school, I would look to see if she had signed in, but she was rarely absent. And I knew the reason why: she was committed to her students. They had become her reason for getting up in the morning; they were the kids she had wanted but never had.
“You’ll be in charge of the bar. Make sure Norma’s drinks are weak,” Iris said. “She’ll never know the difference.”
Guests began arriving around six, parking on a nearby side street. Later, when Jim walked up the pathway to our house, I felt certain he hadn’t a clue that over fifty people lay in wait for him.
A loud chorus of “Surprise!” greeted him and his wife.
“Jesus Christ! You bastards!”
A crowd formed around Jim to sing Happy Birthday.
Sharon gave Jim a lingering kiss, “And there’s more where that came from!”
Bartending kept me busy. In my twenties, I had tended bar during the summers on Cape Cod and mixed every drink imaginable, from ordinary highballs to exotic Hawaiian concoctions — but when Jim’s great aunt requested a Sidecar, I was at a loss. Unsure herself, she settled for a whiskey and soda.
Around eight, Ed arrived with Veronica. She asked for a diet coke, Ed a beer, and they went in search of Jim.
“Ronny is lovely, isn’t she?” Maria said. At the bar we had a sweeping view of the party. “Something spiritual about her, the type of woman I’d have envisioned for Ed.”
Ronny wore a blue dress, the exact color of her eyes. Although she wore no make-up, her skin was silky and flushed like someone who enjoys the outdoors. I later learned she was an avid swimmer and skier.
Ed and Ronny never left each other’s side, reassuring one another by constantly touching each other. Their shyness charmed people, and they were plied with personal questions that Ed adroitly but graciously left unanswered. Ronny’s smile never left her face. When she laughed, she had a habit of lifting her head and briefly closing her eyes. She was indeed lovely, and Ed shone with pride.
When Iris relieved me of bar duty, I took my gin and tonic into the living room. Wearing a chic white silk dress and drenched in jewels, Norma was regally ensconced in a wingback. Her legs crossed and holding a Waterford crystal brandy glass in one hand and ignoring Iris’ rule, a cigarette in her other, she regaled her audience — mostly Jim’s male relatives — with anecdotes.
“That was the last time I gave up smoking,” she said. “It was either the cigarettes or my figure. When I don’t smoke, I indulge in enormous quantities of food.”
She daintily sipped her brandy.
“But what do you do when you’re in school?” Jim’s younger brother Kevin asked.
“I smoke,” Norma said. “Why shouldn’t I, I’m an addict!”
“Your headmaster allows it?” Kevin said.
“He’s tried to stop us,” Norma said, flicking ashes into the ashtray Iris had strategically, and resentfully, positioned beside her. “Last week he made a rare appearance in the former smokers’ room. ‘Miss Tracy, there is to be no smoking in the school building,’ he says pompously. I sauntered over to him. ‘But headmaster, the head coach smokes, your two sycophants Mason and Oates smoke and so does your sneaky assistant Murkin’.” Norma acted out the whole scene even down to Farrell’s twitching eyebrow. “Then I blew a plume of smoke into his face.”
“What happened then?” Kevin asked, hanging on her every word.
“He had the nerve to call me a bitch!”
Laughter and catcalls.
“Then what?” asked a breathless Kevin.
“Why, darling, I looked him in the eye and called him a prick, and a few other things I can’t mention in mixed company!”
Gales of laughter erupted, and Iris was instantly at my elbow.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“Norma’s smashed,” I said. “But they’re all enjoying themselves.”
“She’s waving her cigarette like a wand. Honey, keep an eye on her while I light the candles on the cake.”
At eleven sharp Sharon carried out the birthday cake; everyone gathered around the dining room table to sing “Happy Birthday.” A beaming Jim made his wish and blew out the candles in a gale of breath. After we shouted, “Speech!” several times, Jim relented.
“Thank you, everyone,” Jim said, relishing our attention. “I was bloody well caught off guard this time. I suspected Sharon would throw me a party, but I never guessed it would be here at Iris and John’s. You know, I have dear friends, and I have dear, dear friends and then there are my dear, dear, dear friends. Iris and John are the three dears.”
Applause and laughter.
“I have one regret, however. I look around and I see one face is missing.”
“Who?” Maria said, taking the bait.
“Why, Farrell, who else!”
There followed outbursts of groaning and guffawing. Sharon’s and my eyes connected, and I knew what she was thinking: Farrell remained an invisible presence in our lives no matter what the occasion. She then rolled her eyes as if to say, “That’s life.”
“Now, Jim,” Sharon said, “we don’t want to hear about your love affair with Farrell. Please cut the cake and—.”
“I’d rather cut Farrell’s throat, but here goes.”
The evening was full of drinking and eating. The dining room table laden with platters of food was nearly empty by 1:00 A.M. Conversation had miraculously steered clear of Classical High.
By two o’clock most of the guests had left, and Iris beamed with satisfaction at another successful party. Ed and Ronny remained for coffee, and against our protests, Sharon and Jim helped us clean up. Norma had already wisely agreed to sleep overnight. She was now putting Ed through the third degree.
“Are you and Veronica serious?” Norma asked.
Iris looked on anxiously, fearing that Norma was poised to ask embarrassing questions, “More coffee, anyone?” she asked, but her dilatory tactic had no effect on Norma.
“Are you two planning to marry?” Norma said.
Ed smiled, and Ronny cast her eyes down.
“You’re lovers aren’t you?” Norma asked.
“Oh, come on,” Sharon said, “they don’t have to answer that. Norma, shame on you!”
“It’s all right,” Ed said, “Ronny and I have a complete relationship and will some day marry.”
“We just haven’t decided when,” Ronny said, taking Ed’s hand. “And there’s no rush.”
“No, don’t rush into it.” Norma warned. “I’ve been married twice. Foolishly lost my head over two idiots.”
She stood and unsteadily moved to the bar to fill a snifter with Grand Marnier.
“I envy you all,” Norma said to the women, again safely ensconced in her wingback. “You found the right men.”
“And we found the right women,” Jim said, pecking Sharon on the cheek.
“I’ve often wondered,” Norma continued, “why Farrell never married Cathy Collins. She’s such a doll!” Norma leaned luxuriously back into her chair. “Cathy and I met when we were chaperons of the senior prom. Proms are a bore so we adjourned to the hotel bar, the one with the fabulous view of the Boston skyline, and we had a heart-to-heart talk. With her biological clock ticking away, she’d been pressuring Farrell to marry. God, she would’ve been a great mother, but Farrell wanted nothing to do with marriage or kids.”
Iris and Sharon glanced at each other, rolled their eyes and excused themselves to tidy up the kitchen. The rest of us politely waited for Norma to finish her story.
“I do quite like Cathy,” Norma said, each drink creating a pregnant pause as we waited for what would come next. “Such a sweet soul… what she saw in Farrell, I’ll never know… that night we were as drunk as the seniors!”
She laughed her throaty laugh and lit another cigarette, inhaled and exhaled an elegant plume of smoke that swirled to the ceiling. I was glad Iris was in the kitchen.
“Before she broke up with him,” she continued, “Cathy had been with Farrell for ten years, a faithful, and an attractive, escort, accompanying him to all those God-awful sports dinners, proms, alumni reunions, and football games… but she became sick of it and suspected Farrell needed her as a date so that people wouldn’t think he was gay.”
Jim’s eyebrows arched into his hairline. Before anyone could comment, Iris sped from the kitchen where she had overheard everything and turned up the living room lights.
“We must be going,” Ed said, taking the hint. “It was a great party.” He and Ronny stood, and I helped Ronny on with her coat while Jim assisted Ed with his. Ed shyly turned to Jim and handed him a present, which he removed from his coat pocket. Jim unwrapped it to discover an attractive edition of Henry James’ The Ambassadors. Jim smiled broadly, obviously touched, and vigorously shook Ed’s hand.
At the door, Ed turned around with a puzzled look and glanced at me. Tim’s short story and Norma’s revelation: had he figured everything out or was I imagining it?
Sharon and Jim departed shortly after.
Norma passed out on the couch. Iris hid her cigarettes and lighter in the sideboard in case she awakened in the night, craving a smoke.
In bed we reviewed the party and decided it was a success except for, Iris insisted, Norma’s getting drunk.
“But she wasn’t loud or argumentative, and she didn’t burn anything,” I said. “So what’s the problem?”
“Her drunken talk about Farrell. And poor Cathy Collins, she’s a lovely woman.”
“Honey, it’s true. Farrell is gay.” I told her about Tim and the headmaster. She sat up, her eyes bulging.
“Tim’s not the least bit faggy,” she exclaimed.
“All-American, isn’t he?”
She nodded, “But what does he see in Farrell?”
“You’ve got to go public with this information.”
“Hold your horses. I don’t have proof of anything except what Eileen said Bill had seen.”
“Can’t believe it,” she said, leaning back into her pillow and staring at the ceiling.
“Doesn’t it bother you that he violated Tim?”
“Violated? That’s a quaint expression.”
“What they did together isn’t quaint.”
“They had sex, Iris, and Tim consented to it.”
“Maybe he thought Farrell might help him with college admissions.”
“He’d prostitute himself to get into college?”
“Honey, our kids have Ivy League on the brain before they’re freshmen, and some of them would sell their parents to get into Harvard.”
“When did you become so Victorian?”
Iris glared at me, “When I became a mother.”
She reached over to turn off the lamp and was soon asleep. I lay awake still wondering how to deal with Farrell….
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”