For Edward Albee
Hello, parents,” she says. She’s an assistant, an administrator, a principal. She’s a mother. She wrestles with the tenor. “We need volunteers for our annual open house,” she says. Is she a nuisance? Is she filling a void? Is hers a joyous proclamation?
She goes on, “The Marching Maverick Elementary School Information Network is part of a district-wide effort to involve you in the scholastic lives of our children.”
Jimmy can press the pound key to hear it all again if he wants. He hangs up. He places dinner on the counter. It’s Chinese takeout tonight. Jimmy shouts, “There’s been a mix-up. A robocall. From a school.”
Probably a parental oversight,” Paula says. Paula works for a lawyer. Statutes, filing, a kind face for the seekers of titles, deeds, and damages. Jimmy met the lawyer once at a fundraiser Paula made him attend. The lawyer wore a suit and pinched a half-empty flute of champagne throughout the night. He complimented Jimmy for devoting his night to the cause. Jimmy still doesn’t know what the cause was.
Jimmy cleans up housing development refuse. Lumber, empty adhesive tubes, paint cans, cigarette boxes, scrap wire. Jimmy leaves his and Paula’s apartment early, comes home late.
In his mind, Paula’s privately sexy when he’s gone. She walks around the apartment barefoot in her bra and panties in the mornings, sucks on a lollypop nude in the afternoons. She redresses in sweats and one of his stained undershirts before he enters with dinner. Jimmy’s sure she’s warming to the idea of sleeping with the lawyer.
Another possibility?” Paula continues. “Confused phone numbers. Fours are nines. Vice versa. Sloppy penmanship.”
Jimmy’s penmanship is illegible. This is how it starts, he thinks. First, she does sexy things in his absence. Then, she ridicules his handwriting. Finally, she’s on the lawyer’s mahogany workspace, legs aloft, waiting. It took another day hauling trash and the Marching Menken Maverick Information Network for him to see it. But he sees it now.
He accepts Paula’s explanation. He suppresses his desire to profess his sudden commitment to self-improvement. He digs into the grocery bag and removes the Styrofoam cartons.
I’ll get us taken off the call list,” he says.
You should do that,” Paula answers.
Hello, parents,” she says. Her joy has eroded throughout the year. She perked up a bit after Christmas break, gladly announced the school pageant and toy drive. But now she’s exhausted. It’s March.
She goes on, “The fifth-grade classes are washing cars this weekend at the Canned Food Bazaar. They will also be selling baked goods during afternoon recesses to raise money for the end-of-year trip to Sea World.” Jimmy can press the pound key to hear it all again if he wants.
He hangs up and asks, “You need your car washed?”
No,” Paula says. The car wash announcement merited two previous calls. She doesn’t approve of the Sea World trip–she decided this after the first call of the day–and she wonders why Jimmy cares about Menken Elementary, wonders if perhaps Jimmy’s energies could not be focused elsewhere. Since quitting his job, he’s said much and done little. This Sea World nonsense is exactly the thing he’d promote and defend, she thinks. Maybe accepting his marriage proposal wasn’t Paula’s best idea.
“I’ll walk over next Thursday,” Jimmy says. “The kids are selling baked goods.”
Paula says, “How do you think the Mavericks feel about childless men buying scones at recess?”
“I don’t know. Grateful?”
“If anyone asks, I have a daughter.”
Paula sighs. “If we had a daughter, she wouldn’t be a part of this.”
“Stingrays? Killer Whales? Juggling Chimps?” he says. “Besides, the kids learn the value of hard work this way. They earn the trip. No giveaways, dear.”
“They’re not donating the proceeds to wildlife preservation.”
“It’s annual, a real rite of passage,” he says.
“Your daughter, if she were our daughter, would not participate,” she says.
Jimmy stands in the kitchen doorway with one hand extended, palm open. “Adventure,” he says. “We’re contributing to a great adventure.”
Paula sighs. A great adventure. “My keys are in my purse,” she says.
Hello, parents,” she says. She sounds invigorated. Summer beckons. The tunnel is alight. “We are accepting gently used band uniforms from our graduating Marching Mavericks. We also seek volunteer lifeguards for our graduation swim-day at the Community Center Indoor Pool.” Paula can press the pound key to hear it all again if she wants.
She hangs up. “You think we could part with Regina’s band uniform?” It’s a marriage. Pretending is permitted, a developmental exercise. Regina and the Robocalls constitute important play as normal as discussing the house in the country they don’t have but want.
Sure,” Jimmy says from behind his Newsweek. “The middle-school band will have different uniforms anyway.”
We discussed this,” she says. “Band and Phys Ed overlap. We can’t do both.”
I guess she’ll have to exercise after school,” he says.
We agreed to promote an active lifestyle.”
She’s first chair. P.E. is a waste of time.”
Kids in the band are social outcasts.”
He slaps his magazine onto the table and conjures combativeness. “All those hours of practice?”
Maybe Regina’s athletic,” Paula says. She strides out toward Jimmy, puffs out her chest. “Maybe you’re gender stereotyping. She wants to play basketball.”
Basketball now,” he says. He picks up the magazine and recovers his place. “Fine. But she’s sticking with it.”
She’ll stick with it if she likes it. If she doesn’t, that happens. People change. Especially kids.”
They chuckle. Game over. They’ve mastered the rhythm of this healthy fantasy. Paula turns on the TV and wraps herself in a blanket. Jimmy moves to the kitchen and ties on an apron. He plans to sauté fresh wares of the community-garden harvest and share them with the other tenants on the second and fourth floors, who he imagines kindling their own fantasies above and below his own.
Hello, parents,” he says. This voice is different, new, all business, capable of great human atrocity given the right script. “Romero Middle School will be closed Monday and Tuesday of next week for teacher institute days. Please prepare accordingly,” he says. Paula can press the pound key to hear it all again if she wants.
She hangs up. “The phone numbers graduate with the kids,” she calls out to the front door.
Jimmy stands in the foyer with a wooden toy chest in his arms. Its fire-engine-red paint flakes off in Jimmy’s hands and flutters to the apartment’s floor in tiny scraps. “What do you think?” He asks.
Paula turns around. She is silent.
To fix up. Re-purpose,” Jimmy says.
Right,” Paula says. She sees the corpse of something ensnared in a web. “You think you can do that? It looks… used.”
You think I can’t? I worked construction.”
Building and fixing is a bit different than cleaning up after building and fixing.”
I know which end of the nail to pound.”
Paula tries to touch his arm. He evades her touch and adopts a wounded expression.
It’s not like that,” Paula says. “We’re working a lot lately. You don’t need another project.”
Jimmy laughs. “Cleaning up a toy box is hardly a project. Listen. I’m going to shellack and repaint it. Whatever color you like. Gender-neutral, of course.”
Of course,” Paula answers.
Jimmy sets down the toy chest. Paula collapses onto the couch. “Where do you want to be?” Paula asks. “Think big.”
He joins her and examines the ceiling. “I want a contemporary home that overlooks a city. I want conscientious children. I want them to win school elections and volunteer at soup kitchens.”
Paula pulls the toy box closer. It’s lighter than it looked in Jimmy’s arms. She props up her feet, leans back, gazes up at nothing. “Is it enough to be happy in the machine?” she asks. “I have a friend in Milan. She designs tiny jackets for celebrities’ pets. I’m not jealous. I make a decent living doing clerical work for real estate attorneys. I live the life that television commercials for floor wax assume people like me live. I’m fine with it.”
I’m fine with it,” Jimmy says.
Paula swings her feet off the toy chest. She surveys it.
We could always stuff it full of Regina’s stuff,” she says. She gestures toward the dining room table scattered with school flyers, invites, camp announcements, and junk mail. Somewhere within the mess sits a Thank You card from the Menken Elementary fifth-grade class and two commemorative Sea World key chains.
I’ll do whatever you want,” Jimmy says. “I’ll even throw it off the balcony. Just to watch it explode.”
Hello, parents,” he says. This voice! Its doom is unmatched. “Last Friday, vandals destroyed the Romero Ramblers trophy case and stole our wrestling medals. If your students have any information, we will protect their anonymity,” he says. Jimmy can press the pound key to hear it all again if he wants.
He sets down the phone. “No respect for anything,” he says.
Jimmy’s company sedan is parked in the driveway. Escrow closed last week. The glimpses of his prior selves he catches in the waifs who weave in and out of traffic in their ill-kept, dented coupes, smoking, oblivious to their collective psychic pollution, fill him with an almost viscous shame. “Did you hear about this vandalism business?” he asks.
I don’t care,” she says. She stares at Jimmy’s repurposed toy chest and recoils at the thought of its ironic junk. Pictures of Jimmy and Regina’s chest from last 4th of July. Handheld, plastic megaphones courtesy of the Romero Wrangler marching band’s appearance at the Annual Harvest Parade.
You don’t care now?” he asks.
Paula sits on their new suede couch centered in the laminate-floored living room. Their television, flat-screened and murmuring, throws light onto her skirt and her bare knees. They are pinched together and glowing pale. “Not tonight.”
Ask me later,” she says.
They’re just medals!” she snaps.
It’s not the medals,” he says. “It’s the culture. It’s corrupt. We never got a call like this from Menken. Never. You think they pledge allegiance anymore?”
No games,” she says.
Games? They caught two kids having sex in the boys’ restroom. Middle school, dear. We should be provided with school vouchers. A choice.”
Paula turns over. “How do you know about the middle school sex?”
I went to the parents’ meeting,” he says.
A parents’ meeting?” she shouts. “Without me?”
You were working late. You’re always working late.”
How… I mean…?”
I know where you’re going,” he says. “And the school’s just happy to see concerned citizens. I’m chaperoning the eighth-grade dance next week.”
But,” she sits up. “What about me?”
You can go, too. I told Principal Taylor you might be free.”
Paula dives into the pillows with her fists. She spends too much time in her office hiding from him and all the things she cannot do. Jimmy attends the meetings, buys the cookies, supports the field trips, researches zoning referendums and the platforms of elected school board officials. He is ready.
I went to the doctor,” Paula says.
She does not weep. She waits.
Jimmy doesn’t blink. “So,” Jimmy pauses. “Do you want to go to the dance with me?”
“Hello, parents,” she says. Is a soul there and, if so, does it hope? She goes on, “Please patronize the local businesses who contribute so much to your child’s education. Purchase Wrangler class uniforms at George and Martha’s Educational Outfitters on the corner of Bull and Broome and stationery supplies at Snapdragon Stationery on Old Bergin Road.” She can press the pound key to hear it all again if she wants.
Paula slips her cell phone into her purse. She starts Jimmy’s corporate car and turns off the radio. She pulls out of the parking lot and steers toward home.
“I don’t know what to say,” Jimmy says.
“Make something up,” Paula says.
“Now wait a second….”
“‘Unfit to foster,'” Paula interrupts. “Do you know the lengths?”
Jimmy knows. Histories of substance abuse, malicious behaviors, questionable domestic hygiene, animal hoarding, consistent patterns of unemployment. And lying on official paperwork.
“I had the best intentions,” Jimmy says.
They’d been flagged. Providing false information, their lawyer said. She didn’t go into specifics. “It appears Jimmy has a record. Intoxicated driving. Possession. Others.”
Jimmy did not know what the lawyer meant by “Others.” So many crimes. He bullied an effete classmate in the seventh grade. He masturbated in the university library. He stole condoms from the corner drugstore when he was twelve, filled them with water, and hurled them at passing cars from an overpass. What can the surveillance state provide? How much do the people who matter need to know?
“We probably would have been fine had we been honest. But we weren’t honest. In this state, that’s a nonstarter.” The lawyer closed the file. They all shook hands and shared thin smiles. Jimmy and Paula walked to the car in silence. And that was that.
Paula guides the car through town. She’s barely taken a breath since Jimmy’s proclamation of his intentions. The sky’s a suffocating gray and spits rain onto the windshield.
Jimmy inhales. “I was charged with domestic battery when I was nineteen,” he announces.
She doesn’t respond. The car lurches on without pause.
“It was the beginning of summer. I didn’t want to go to college. My dad said find a job. He gave me $200, everything he had in his wallet, for clothes and shoes. He wanted receipts and change.
“Thing is, I lost the money. Like instantly lost it. I folded the bills. Stuck them in my pocket. Then? Poof. Nothing. I’d swear to it right now. Two one-hundred-dollar bills. It still makes me sick to think about it. I didn’t know what to do. I was ashamed. I went to a friend’s house and we drank a bottle of his parents’ bourbon. His sister was home from college and she and her boyfriend started us shotgunning beers. We smoked weed out of a hollowed-out potato. Then I drove across town to my girlfriend’s house. Are you listening?” Jimmy asks.
Paula keeps her eyes on the road. Passing headlights reveal to him her shaking bottom lip.
Jimmy continues. “I was going to borrow some money. She had the bottom floor of her house to herself. A bathroom. A bedroom. Her own entrance. She always had me over. Her parents would just sit up top and let us run wild. They were nice people. But I used to walk right in at all hours.
“That night the door was locked. Everything was dark. I pounded on the door and windows for probably fifteen minutes. A light went on in her room. I could tell she’d been hiding from me.
“She asked me what I wanted. I started crying. And then I see a figure try to sneak into her bathroom, over her shoulder.
“I barged in and pounded on the bathroom door until the guy came out. It was a friend of mine. A good friend. She was standing behind me and put her hand on my shoulder, I guess to console me or something. And I turned around….”
“And you hit her.” Paula finishes.
“Anyway.” Jimmy says. “Nobody remembers that she was screwing my friend. But everybody remembers that I hit her. And my old man still remembers those two one-hundred-dollar bills.”
Paula pulls the car to the side of the road. It idles in front of an empty storefront. Jimmy’s convinced she’s going to ask him for a divorce. He flicks the dashboard vent open and closed.
Paula exhales. She checks her blind spot and rejoins the flow of traffic.
“I hate you,” she says. His is the noble lie, she thinks, the hopeful glue that keeps the floor-wax life from crumbling. She’s not all right. But this is marriage. Pretending is permitted. Besides. Regina loves him so much.
“Hello, parents,” it says. Another voice. This one lilts with serious experience, with statistics and certifications. It goes on, “Educational Testing Services will be conducting both ACT and SAT preparation workshops. If your student is considering a college career, attendance is encouraged.” Jimmy can press the pound key to hear it all again if he wants.
He fills in the dry-erase calendar. He knows how sensitive Paula is about important events, even if she’s unable to attend. Paula’s away an awful lot now. Their floor-wax life is expensive. Paula’s salary is essential.
Jimmy consults Regina’s Board. The whole house craters to its presence. He assesses the upcoming week’s appointments:
REGINA, SOCCER” accompanies “PRESENTATION: HOME LATE” and “BUY FISH, SALAD, TWINE” in Friday’s square.
GIVE BLOOD” stands alongside “ANNIVERSARY” in Thursday’s square.
Career day is Tuesday. Mrs. Talladay’s class performs the controversial Dutchman Saturday night. Worship service for the victims of last spring’s tragic prom night pileup begins Sunday at 10 a.m., followed by a pancake brunch.
He cannot remember if his high school was this active. He decides no. Or maybe they were. He just didn’t know it. He was such an embarrassment, a real waste of taxpayer dollars. He surveys his current command center–integrated, up-to-date, all the PTA mailers and neighborhood watch meeting minutes chronologically filed–and knows no system this organized could yield a product as defective as he was.
He ascends the stairs to the third bedroom. Regina’s Chest is perched atop a custom-built oak dresser of drawers, surrounded by Edwards High pennants, schedules from past volleyball, basketball, and soccer seasons. He bought a letterman’s jacket and adorned it with all the necessary patches and embroidery. It hangs on a hook he screwed to the corner of the dresser. The local printer who outputs the collateral for the school district sold Jimmy leftover promotional material from Regina’s past and present institutions, including a misprinted box of “My child is an Edwards High Honor Eagel” bumper stickers.
Electronically or by mail, Regina has registered for the TriCounty Soccer Shootout Youth Camp (“We’re sorry she can’t attend and hope she gets well!”) volunteered for the community canned food drive (“We regret your daughter’s prior arrangements conflicted with our event”) and inquired about the possibility of leading an aerobics class for sight-impaired seniors (“We’re unsure of your qualifications. Ideally, we’d like to meet you before scheduling such an activity”). In almost every case, the organization sent something–a letter, a T-shirt, a roll of personalized stickers with Regina’s name and return address–helping prove Regina made an impact.
Jimmy opens Regina’s chest and pulls out a rubber-banded stack of postcards he and Paula sent to each other as a romantic supplement to Menken Elementary’s indefatigable avalanche of informational messages years back. Stamps and all. He rifles through until he finds the last one, written by Paula the night before their wedding, a week or so before the start of the fifth grade.
Folks,” it says. “Used to hate camp. I love it now. Never want to come home. I’m staying here and will kick and scream when you come to take me.”
Jimmy pulls a pen from his shirt pocket. In his practiced, meticulous script, he signs, “Regina” across a vacant strip on the bottom.
“Hello, parents,” it says. This voice believes and hopes. She’s a fellow celebrant. She bubbles. “We welcome you to next week’s graduation festivities,” she says. “Remind your graduating students to dress appropriately as many families and the Eagle photography club will be documenting these momentous occasions. The Edwards High School Eagles thank you for your support and please join us in congratulating this year’s graduating class.” Paula can press the pound key to hear it all again if she wants.
She hangs up. She turns her back to the windows and the clamor of crashing furniture. The postcards, bumper-stickers, mailers, pamphlets, and programs flutter down into the shrubbery. The letterman’s jacket hangs off the fountain’s lip.
All of the schools in the district had been encouraged to audit their call lists. Paula and Jimmy attended the meeting. One parent stood and proclaimed, “The schools call my neighbor and they don’t even have kids. My sister has two boys and doesn’t get call one.” The parents grumbled along, igniting worries of the misuses of school business, of the shadowy intentions of child predators, of the possibility that newer, transplanted students intentionally provided bogus phone numbers to disrupt communications. After the audit, new recordings must be supplemented with telephone surveys and monthly direct mail to the students’ physical addresses.
Discussion veered to graduation festivities. Spectators without school-issued invitations would not be admitted. Leftover funds from the autumn’s 5K Booster Fun Run would help pay for security. Parents volunteered for an ad-hoc ticket hotline commission. Call screeners cross-referenced reservations with names on the graduation program. Students and parents confirmed their guest lists or the graduating senior.
Jimmy stands at the foot of the stairs with Regina’s chest in his arms. His scalp issues cables of sweat. “Airline passengers and pilots will see her,” he says. “The international space station will see her. They’ll see her in space!”
Regina always admired aviation,” Paula says.
Her research paper on the history of flight attendant fashion was so interesting,” Jimmy says.
He sets down Regina’s Chest and puts his hand on her shoulder. “We must remember the good times.”
Paula and Jimmy share a pause. Paula shakes her head. “Get it over with.”
Jimmy slides the door closed behind him. He dumps Regina’s chest into the middle of the yard, rakes Regina’s past around it with his feet. He dances around her. He weeps. He squirts lighter fluid and drops match after match. Regina blazes into the night. “Good luck, Regina!” he screams. “Good luck to you!”
Paula straightens up and turns to watch. She places her palms flat on the sliding glass. She sees life in the constellation of sparks. She sees Regina walk. She sees Regina wave and smile. She watches someone she loves in the procession, anxious for adventure and climbing the dais, while the smoke spirals into the sky.
justin thurman earned his PhD from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he studied contemporary American literature, rhetoric, and writing. He currently teaches at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in WOE: Writing on the Edge, Ekleksographia, Petrichor Machine, Isotropic Fiction, and Stymie: A Journal of Literature and Sport, among others.