I don’t need to check the time to know the bell’s imminent. Restlessness has crept into the classroom. Even though they sit only a chair apart, Bianca and Justine text one another, probably planning how they’ll spend their Friday night; Rachel plaits a lock of her golden hair; Eric scribbles aimlessly across his page in a way that suggests he’s doodling; Dominic has already packed up, everything in his bag, his fingers drumming his empty desk. Everywhere, kids are fidgeting.
I check my watch – 3.25pm – then look back at the faces of my students: bright, naïve, mischievous. They haven’t learned yet the gravity of life. Sometimes, when they’re screwing around, I want to holler at them, You better take this seriously, because one day you’ll wake up and be my age! But then I realise what curmudgeon that makes me. And they’re only teenagers being teenagers.
I open my desk drawer.
A book with a wrinkled brown leather cover sits there. I take it out, like I’m holding a bomb that might go off, and rest it on my lap. My fingers stroke the cover, feel the smooth, dimpled texture.
I open the book.
The spine creaks. Mustiness wafts into my nostrils. The pages are brown with age and coarse when I touch them – or at least coarse compared to paper today. I’m scared to turn them, fearing they might fall from the binding.
The book is a first edition of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. I stumbled on it last Saturday, when Sophie and I went shopping. Sophie had been looking at shoes; I’d seen a second-hand bookstore across the street and ducked in. This had been sitting on top of a pile of books waiting to be catalogued. The bookstore owner, some sixty-year-old hippy with a long white pony-tail (even though he was otherwise mostly bald) and rose-coloured glasses, had priced it at one hundred bucks. Obviously, he didn’t understand its worth.
Sophie hadn’t wanted me to buy it, even when I explained it was worth maybe two thousand dollars. She asked if I planned to resell it. I’d told her no. She’d asked the point of ‘splurging’ then – that’s how she’d put it. Sunday, I ducked out and bought the book, and kept it in my case until I could hide it here.
The bell rings. Those who haven’t packed away their things stuff them into their bags. Kids get up, their chairs screeching across the floor, and mushroom out the door, not waiting to be dismissed. Some bid I have a good weekend.
Dominic saunters past, grins, and points at me, as if to say, Catch ya later. But then he skids to a halt. Bianca and Justine stop behind him. The trio are inseparable.
‘What’ve you got there, Mr D?’ Dominic asks, gesturing towards my book with a thrust of his chin.
‘It’s a first edition David Copperfield,’ I say.
‘It antique?’ Justine asks.
‘I guess that’s as good a way as putting it as any.’
‘You like old books, Mr D?’ Bianca asks.
‘If I could, Bianca, I’d own a bookstore filled with nothing but old books.’
‘Then why don’t you?’
The naivety of the question stumps me. I stumble for an answer. ‘I guess I just never got around to it,’ I say.
‘Never too late, Mr D,’ Bianca says.
‘See you, Mr D,’ Dominic says.
The trio file out, leaving just me, my book, and the empty classroom.
I relish the silence, not wanting to get up, although my butt hurts from sitting on this wooden chair, and there’s a tightening knot in the base of my spine. I stare at my book, my fingertips following the letters as if they’re braille.
Slowly, I close the book, place it back in my drawer, then gently push the drawer closed.
There’s a pain in my right knee as I leave my classroom, and my pants slide low on my butt. I need a new belt, since I’ve run out of belt to make holes in with this one. Maybe that’s something to do this weekend when I go shopping with Sophie.
As I head down the hallway, Jerry Logan pops out from the staff room. He flashes a big grin. The hall lights gleam off the top of his head, and his little, pointed goatee looks like something a man thirty years younger should be wearing.
‘Stan!’ he says. ‘A few of us are heading up to The Andion. How about you join us?’
The Andion’s the local. Some of the faculty retreat there Friday for a couple of drinks. I wonder if Beth will go.
‘I’ve got to go home,’ I say.
‘Come on, Stan!’ Jerry claps me on the back hard enough that I feel my butt jiggle and my pants slide an inch. I pull them up. ‘You never join us.’
‘I did come once.’ When Sophie was on a work trip.
‘Once! In four years!’
‘Maybe next week.’
‘You always say that.’
‘Really,’ Jerry choruses with me. ‘You know, between home and school, you’re going to run yourself into an early grave.’
So? I almost say it. Almost.
‘Sophie’s waiting for me,’ I say. ‘We’ve got plans.’
I shrug. ‘Stuff. I’ve gotta go.’ I brush past Jerry.
‘I’m holding you to next week!’ he calls after me.
The morning had been sunny, but now the sky’s nothing but darkening clouds. Wind cuts through me, like it wants to strip the clothes from my body. The school grounds are empty. Amazing how quick it clears. Everybody’s in a hurry to get their weekend started.
I start for the parking lot. My right knee aches when I extend it. I’m unsure how I injured it, although it’s probably just wear, especially from carrying extra luggage. I’m getting to the age where my body’s going to start yelping about thirty-five years of neglect.
My hands are numb from the cold by the time I get to my Honda Civic. The car is a ghastly canary yellow. I remember when my dad and I picked it out of a lot – I thought it’d be an interim car. But it’s still with me, fifteen years later, despite any number of people telling me I should buy something new.
When I pull the keys out of my pocket, I fumble them, and in trying to catch them I drop my case. It hits the ground. The clasp opens. Forty homework assignments which need correcting spill and fan out. The wind stirs to carry them away. I stomp them with my right foot. Pain shoots into my knee.
I kneel, keeping my foot on the assignments. My hamstrings strain, and my gut acts like a counterweight. The seat of my pants threatens to rip as I gather up the homework assignments and shove them back into my case. The assignments are crinkled now and some have the shard of a dirty sole imprint on them, but I don’t think the kids will mind. Who keeps their homework anyway?
I thrust my hand onto the door of my Civic to haul myself up and see, across the parking lot, Beth heading toward her car, carrying a big box of art supplies. Copper hair blows across her face, and she wears a little blue vest that shapes the curve of her breasts in her puffy white shirt.
She sees me as she reaches her car and throws an arm out to wave. I wave back. She rests her foot on the bumper of her car, balances the box on her thigh, and fumbles to unlock her boot. The box teeters. I watch, unmoving. The way she has her leg bent, her jeans tighten around her butt. I feel an erection for the first time in weeks.
I know I shouldn’t be thinking about her this way (and I tell myself it’s okay because nothing’s ever going to come of it) but she’s so gorgeous. During the breaks, she often chats with me about the books I love – she encouraged me to buy the Dickens – and she’s always asking how I am. Of course, that’s just Beth being Beth.
She gets her boot open and puts her box in. I unlock my car and slide into the driver’s seat. It’s just as I slam the door closed (it needs to be slammed, or doesn’t close properly) that I realise what an idiot I am. I should’ve charged across the parking lot, should’ve taken the box from Beth.
There you go, Beth, I could’ve said.
Such a gentleman.
Anything for a lady.
She would blush. Of course she would. This was a fantasy, after all.
I cock my head back so fast my neck wrenches. If there was any chance to play the belated hero—
It’s gone, Beth’s getting in her car.
Oh well. Maybe next week.