JOHN WADDY BULLION

Up N’ Comers

When I was in fourth grade, my school abruptly dropped physical education from its curriculum. Dr. Villanueva, our Older Group teacher, had read an article in a leading alt-ed journal over the summer which said that P.E. was bad because winning squads received “preferential treatment”, so that fall she swapped out P.E. for “U.P.”, which stood for Unstructured Playtime—basically, recess with more sitting around. My Up n’ Comers classmates—the lazy, lumpen offspring of the town intelligentsia—used the free hour to play cards, read books, even take naps. But to me, it made no sense for us to be outside if we weren’t going to do anything, because except for a brief cold snap at the end of September—the same week that my father, the Professor, had moved out of our house to shack up with his mistress—the weather that autumn had been unseasonably warm. Instead of the usual fall foliage, our streets were lined with trees that looked as brown, sick, and shriveled as spinach left wilting on a dinner plate. Swimming pools that had closed on Labor Day had reopened to great civic fanfare. And for the first time in the event’s long and checkered history, organizers of the annual Campus Avenue Oktoberfest had reported more cases of heat exhaustion than arrests for minor-in-possession.

When the heat index hit ninety-eight one afternoon two weeks before Halloween, Dr. Villanueva, who had always been prone to drastic decisions, panicked and informed us that we would have to cut U.P. short. I was just finishing a set of chin-ups on the monkey bars, and instead of completing my last rep, I hung there in mid-air as the members of Older Group waddled drowsily past me on their way back to the classroom, a sad parade of spare tires, cankles, and farmer-tans. That’s when it dawned on me that, thanks to the intensive workout regimen my grandfather had put me on, I had become a living, breathing anatomy lesson and, as such, had more to teach my classmates about the human body as physical specimen than the see-through plastic torso that was perched on the corner of Dr. Villanueva’s desk, compliments of the osteopathic medical school down the street.

So, I dropped to the ground and whipped off my shirt.

Eoghan O’Shaughnessy, who was the most ignorant kid at Up n’ Comers and whose father, like mine, taught in the English department at the same university that ran our school (thus qualifying us both for the faculty discount) snorted at my rippled abdomen. “Gaylord’s gut’s all arseways,” he declared, as if that was to be the last word on the subject. Then, to compound that insult, one of the Weinberg twins—Kim or Keziah, I could never tell them apart—poked her grublike finger in my stomach and announced that it was totally yucky. I gritted my teeth reflexively, reminding myself that I wasn’t out to impress girls, or to make the other boys respect and fear me. My main goal was to somehow use my newly bulky frame to get myself expelled from Up n’ Comers. “It don’t matter how,” my grandfather had told me, “long as you get kicked out.” According to him, my entire future depended on it.

That fall Grandpa had quit his three part-time jobs (construction worker, nightclub bouncer, rural mail carrier), traveled sixteen hours by bus from south Texas to our Missouri home, and promptly appointed himself man of the house in the Professor’s absence. The gym bag hadn’t even left Grandpa’s shoulder before he’d asked me how school was going and I’d told him, much too eagerly, about the fourth- through sixth-graders in my Older Group class, the class hamster we’d adopted and named Alf, and the photocopied Up n’ Comer Dollars we earned instead of letter grades. “You gotta get him outta there ‘fore it stunts him for life, Marsh,” he grumbled at my mother, and right then I got the sense that the drunken, whimpering long-distance call Mom had put in to Grandpa the night she’d given the Professor the boot was the first time father and daughter had spoken in a long while. I also got the sense, from the way Mom was shaking her head as vigorously as the cocktail shaker she happened to be holding, that it’d be a cold day in hell before she would ever voluntarily withdraw me from Up ‘n Comers.

But Grandpa hadn’t always been so down on private education. After my grandmother had ditched him and my then-twelve-year-old mother to run off with one of his old army buddies, Grandpa yanked Mom out of the San Antonio public school system and enrolled her in Providence, one of the most exclusive and highly-ranked preparatories in the American Southwest. To help make ends meet, Grandpa cycled through an endless series of odd jobs, often taking on several at a time in order to keep pace with the school’s sky-high tuition payments. My mother blossomed into a star pupil at Providence, carrying a perfect 4.0 from seventh through twelfth grade. She could’ve gone anywhere for college, but the only brochure she seemed interested in waving under Grandpa’s nose had the words THE MIDWESTERN IVY printed on its every flap and fold, along with photos of foliage so vividly colored it appeared to be aflame. “Lemme get this straight,” he said to her at the time. “You wanna move halfway across the country for a bunch of dead leaves?”

But Mom was persistent. She reminded Grandpa that the dead-leaf school was the only place that had offered her a full ride, and after weeks of hectoring Grandpa finally relented. But neither he nor Mom could’ve predicted that a chunk of that generous scholarship would be applied to a Freshman Honors English seminar taught by a jolly, charming, grey-haired member of the humanities faculty some thirty years her senior. And of course neither he nor Mom could’ve foreseen that by the time she would sit down to take her first college final, she would be pregnant with me.

Though they wouldn’t speak again for years after the shotgun wedding he refused to attend, Grandpa and Mom could at least agree that without her good schooling, she would never have met my father. While I couldn’t fault that logic, I wasn’t quite on board with the idea that private school offered a superior education. The Older Group at Up n’ Comers had its share of world-class knuckleheads–like Enid Tremaigne, who had returned from a summer in France insisting that adding the letter “x” to any word made it plural, even when the words in question were English ones, or like Grant Goss, who’d brought to Show-and-Tell what he claimed was a “piece of UFO”, though anybody with half a brain could see was a rusted Folgers can he’d probably fished out of the creek behind his parents’ property. I’ll admit that this made Grant more of a liar than an idiot, which was the main reason I pinned him to the floor later that afternoon and gave him Indian burns until he told the truth.

When Up n’ Comers District Court convened the next day, a jury of my peers fined me twenty Up n’ Comer Dollars and sentenced me to an hour of time-out in the corridor. As Dr. Villanueva escorted me to my holding pen, she passed me a sheet of scratch paper. “Your written apology to Grant will run in this week’s Up n’ Comer,” she told me, referring to the newspaper edited by Emily Quatermain, a fifth-grader who’d never met a typo she didn’t like.

We’d made it all the way to the door when Dr. Villanueva abruptly leaned down and began whispering in my ear. “I know you’re going through a lot at home, Gaylord,” she said, “and I wanted to tell you that I’m here to help.” Her flat, faintly hostile tone, however, made it sound like she’d rather do anything but.

The corridor that connected the Older and Younger Group classrooms sported a row of dull green cabinets on one side and a crusty, sputtering radiator on the other. In theory I was supposed to sit in that drab space and wallow in remorse while my classmates frolicked next door during a climate-controlled edition of U.P.

Instead, I tickled my fingers over my hard stomach and thought about how I was another step closer to achieving the goal that Grandpa had set for me. Then I set the scratch paper aside, hooked my toes beneath the radiator, and did sit-ups until I hit my mark.

 

Under the stately white oak tree in our front yard there hung a canvas hammock that belonged, technically, to my father. It had been presented to him that past spring by his colleagues, in commemoration of twenty-five years of distinguished service to (and, by implication, rapidly-approaching retirement from) the Midwestern Ivy. But during its brief stint on our property, the hammock had collected more acorns than warm bodies, and the Professor had seethed about its gag-gift trappings. “This weekend,” he could be heard grousing throughout the summer, “that eyesore is coming down.” But he never followed through on these threats, which turned out to be a good thing, because on the night he decided to come clean about his affair—this was after Mom had kicked him out of their bed, chased him down the stairs, shoved him out the front door and locked it behind her—sleeping al fresco in the hammock was pretty much his only available option.

Problem was, a cold front had abruptly descended upon the area, a bitter chill that I could feel through my second-floor window pane as I watched my father curl up in a fetal position in his hammock, his pale, chubby legs tucked beneath his flannel nightgown. I wouldn’t have put it past Mom to leave him out there all night, but as it turned out, fifteen minutes and half a bottle of pinot noir were all it took for her resolve to weaken. “Call that girl and tell her to pick you up at the end of the block,” I heard Mom yell at my father moments before she winged both a hastily-packed suitcase and the cordless phone at his shivering, huddled form. “That way, she won’t have to show her face. And I won’t have to rearrange it for her.”

Since that night my father had, for all intents and purposes, dropped off the face of the earth—we hadn’t heard a peep from him in over three weeks. The cold front had departed with him, replaced by the same mutant jet stream that had treated us like its own personal stew ingredients all through September. The only person in town who seemed to be thriving in the jungle-like heat was Grandpa, who believed that the outdoors was where a man did his most honest work, no matter the conditions. After he picked me up from Up n’ Comers on the day of my sentencing, I spent two hours mulling behind our old push mower while he went around cutting dead tree limbs with a pair of garden shears, barely breaking a sweat as he worked.

A little after five he beckoned me over to the oak. “Heard the Professor hated this thing,” he said, pointing to the hammock with the shears. “Well, know what? I guess great minds think alike.” With a few deft snips he cut the ropes that fastened the hammock to its tree-hooks. He gathered up the canvas from the ground and crumpled it into a tight wad. Then he set the balled-up hammock aside, hoisted himself up on one of the lower branches, and started doing pull-ups. According to Mom, Grandpa’s physical fitness kick was a recent development, but he’d always been in great shape. “This here’s called the mesomorphic form,” he yelled down to me, no strain in his voice as he rose from a dead hang to chin-level with the branch. “Your daddy, now, he’s an ectomorph. Means he’s got more places to store fat.”

When he hit his 20th rep, Grandpa performed a nifty dismount and stuck his landing, beaming like an Olympian expecting perfect tens. But then I realized that he was grimacing, not smiling, because he had caught sight of Mom and Dr. Villanueva, who were sitting in wicker rockers on our front porch, their murmuring mouths distorted by poised glasses of gin and tonic.

“I guess I thought Richard had just gotten too old to pull off this kind of thing,” Mom was saying to Dr. Villanueva, who had invited herself over to our house yet again.

“Look at this way, Marcia,” said Dr. Villanueva. “You’re free! Now you can do everything you talked about back when we were in undergrad. Enroll in law school! Move to D.C.! Write your novel!”

Mom gave Dr. Villanueva a look like my teacher had just removed the lime wedge from the rim of her highball and squirted it right in her eye. “That was you who wanted to do all that,” said Mom, “not me. Remember?”

Dr. Villanueva had been Mom’s old college roommate, her maid of honor, and—though they hardly ever saw each other socially after I’d been born—one of the main reasons Mom wanted to enroll me at Up n’ Comers. Dr. Villanueva’s credentials were impressive: star speaker at all the major conferences, fixture in the peer-reviewed journals, and one of the youngest PhDs in her field. But plop her down among a group of mouth-breathers who couldn’t care less about the lines on her vitae and she would magically transform into a harried, disorganized, easily-flummoxed teacher who couldn’t run a classroom to save her life. I was beginning to think that Dr. Villanueva had established Up n’ Comers District Court (which, like Unstructured Playtime, was another new wrinkle that fall) because she was too much of a wimp to dole out discipline herself. All evening, whenever our eyes had met from across the yard, Dr. Villanueva would look the other way, and I could just tell that even though she was matching Mom drink for drink, my teacher was taking great pains not to reveal how much trouble I was in at school.

“Enough of this pity party,” Grandpa muttered as he plucked the wadded-up hammock up off the ground and flung it into the neighbor’s yard. “Go get your grip together. You and me’re headed to the Y, Buck.”

Grandpa hated that my given name conveniently doubled as a playground slur, and he told me that if I was going to survive public school, I’d better have two things: a nickname, and a vicious right hook. The YMCA downtown was where we worked on the latter. As ropey as my muscles were from working in the yard, I went through my routine that evening with the usual gusto. I started on the treadmill, easing my way from a jog into a sprint, and then, once my heart rate peaked, I moved to the speed bag, standing on a stack of risers Grandpa had filched from the aerobics class next door.

As my fists flew, he leaned against a nearby Nautilus and studied his fingernails. “Her name’s Daphne,” he told me, apropos of nothing. “She’s a sophomore but she has the hours to be a junior. She’s in your daddy’s Brit Lit seminar every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. She grocery-shops at the IGA, even though the Schnuck’s on Seventh is more convenient from where she lives. Likes the produce there better, I reckon.”

It wouldn’t occur to me until much later that, while I was in school and Mom was sleeping off her now-nightly benders, Grandpa was most likely following the Professor and his mistress around town in our Volvo, not working out all day at the Y like he’d claimed.

Just then two older men wearing Lacoste shirts and white Daisy-Dukes walked by on their way to the squash courts. Grandpa’s gaze drifted in their direction. Sgt. Andy Yates, the man who’d stolen off with my grandmother, had tiny shards of grenade shrapnel—the remnants of training mishap at Fort Hood—still lodged in his calves. Whenever Grandpa spied an elderly white male in shorts, he always scanned the backs of the man’s legs for the tell-tale spikes, on the off-chance that his ex-best friend had reappeared to receive a long-overdue ass-whupping.

When we returned home, Grandpa and I found Dr. Villanueva passed out on our living room couch and Mom face-down on the dining table, her drool pooling on one of the Professor’s old legal pads. Mom had filled Grandpa’s spare water bottle with crème de menthe and several pages of the lined yellow paper with her jagged, urgent-looking handwriting. Grandpa slid the pad out from under Mom’s face and squinted at it. Cursive still gave me trouble, but the look on Grandpa’s face told me that Mom had, in all likelihood, spilled out her undying devotion to the Professor in the form of some sort of epic poem.

“What’s it say?” I asked, wanting specifics.

Grandpa ripped the pad, cardboard backing and all, into halves, then quarters, then eighths.

 

Early the next morning, I awoke to the sound of Grandpa yelling “…and stay gone!” as my teacher’s Tercel peeled off down the street. By the time I came downstairs, he had rounded up every liquor bottle in the house and was rinsing them all out in the kitchen sink. “Drag this to the curb,” he told me as he dropped the last bottle into the garbage bag propped up next to him. “Be a good workout.” It was the only thing he said to me all morning.

Grandpa was a little more talkative when he picked me up from school. Apparently, after he’d dropped me off at Up n’ Comers, he’d come back home, loaded my still-loaded mother into the Volvo’s passenger seat, and driven her to the new shopping mall off the business loop. They spent the rest of the morning going store-to-store, inquiring about employment. “I had to do all the talking,” he told me, shaking his head. “Your momma wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind. She fell asleep in the mattress store and she throwed-up twice at WaldenBooks.” Finally, around two o’clock, they’d made their way to the deserted food court. By then Mom’s hangover had made its full arrival, drenching her in a cold sweat as she worked her way through a stack of job applications. Across from her, Grandpa leaned back in his chair, his running shoes propped up on the table’s edge, keeping one eye on Mom’s progress and the other, by force of habit, on the bared calves of a group of male mall-walkers that had been bussed in from a local retirement home.

“A job,” he told me, “is gonna help your momma forget about the Professor.” Then, after a moment, he added, “At the very least, it oughta eat into the time she’d of otherwise spent writing mash notes to him.”

Unlike Mom, I’d been instructed to avoid work at all costs. For nearly a month I had failed to complete a single assignment, though I had been making sure to fill in my name at the top to leave no doubt who the idiot was. But now when I got the graded copies back, I would find minimum wage—three Up n’ Comer Dollars—stapled to them, along with comments like Say Hi to Your Mom!, How’s Your Mom Doing?, or Marcia—Call Me.

“You’re all of a sudden dumb now?” Eoghan O’Shaugnessy inquired one day as he sat next to me. Older Group was supposed to be quietly going over mistakes on our corrected multiplication worksheets while Dr. Villanueva prowled the room, taking names on her steno pad. Recently, she had taken it upon herself to personally levy every single Up n’ Comer Dollar fine. “From now on,” she had announced the morning that Grandpa had banned her from our house, “I am judge, jury, and executioner. I am the dictator-for-life in this classroom!”

We had heard bluster like this from Dr. Villanueva before, only this time around she seemed to really mean it. That period alone, she had already nailed Katie Ann Kunkle (for “chewing gum too loudly”) and Jeffrey Schreiber (for “zoning out,” as she put it, refusing to elaborate).

I watched my teacher wobble through the maze of desks. Her eyes were wild. Her rumpled outfit looked slept-in. Her frizzy hair hung down like cobwebs on a haunted house.

“Hello in there!” Eoghan rapped his bony knuckles on the side of my head. He chuckled. “You’re about as dense as bottled shite, aren’t you?”

He was one to talk. Eoghan was a fifth-grader who, had he been enrolled in the public school system, probably would’ve been held back due to sheer incompetence. Lucky for him, Up n’ Comers was so exclusive it didn’t group students together by grade, which meant he was lumped in with fourth-graders like me anyway, not to mention sixth-graders who were almost as rock-dumb as he was.

I glanced at his paper. All of the answers on his times tables had remainders.

“You’re a retard,” I informed him.

“Ooh, clever man,” Eoghan said, a little too loudly, which summoned Dr. Villanueva and her pad. “What’re you fining me for?” he demanded as she scribbled down his name. “Gayle’s not done a one of his problems.”

Dr. Villanueva scowled. “Why are you concerned about Gaylord’s work?”

“You think I’m cheatin’?” cried Eoghan , a reedy, complaining lilt rising in his voice. His father taught Irish lit, of course. “How can I cheat off his work when he hasn’t done any?”

Dr. Villanueva had heard enough. She grabbed Eoghan under his armpit and jerked him violently out of his desk. As she dragged him toward the corridor, I felt something roll over my toe. It was Alf the hamster, out of his cage and cruising around the room in his clear plastic bubble. He looked up at me and wrinkled his nose. He reminded me of a critter on a Saturday morning kids-show, a furry sidekick who said wise things in a helium voice.

It took every ounce of my willpower to keep from punting Alf across the classroom.

 

After nearly a week with no luck on the job front, Mom scored an interview at the Penney’s shoe department, and the manager, a sophomore at the university, had hired her on the spot. By the time the kid got done training her it was like she’d been measuring feet and lacing up shoes for years. “You’re a natural,” he told her. Then he added, with a wink, “Bet you feel real special, hearing that.” Soon he was plying her for suggestions on everything from what to stock in the staff fridge to which professors to avoid when registering for spring classes. He’d made Mom feel so at-ease that when he invited her to the Sigma Nu formal that weekend, she’d told him yes without hesitating.

“What have I done?” she moaned from her seat at the dining table that night, where she was drinking unspiked diet soda out of a can.

Grandpa and I were over in the living area, watching a cable TV fitness show for mistakes. “Gal in the back,” he said to me, pointing. “Cheating on her side lunges.” I nodded.

“Dad, will you listen?” Mom pressed. “He’s my manager. Whether I go out with him or not, it’ll make things awkward.”

“One little job ain’t the end-all, be-all, Marsh,” said Grandpa. He reached over and patted my head with a mixture of affection and menace, mashing my hair to my skull. “Buck, did you know that back when I was putting your momma through school, I was a janitor, a milkman, a fry cook, and a private detective? And that was just fall semester, eighth grade.”

“Did you also know, Gaylord,” said Mom, drawing my given name out like a knife, “that the real reason your grandfather worked all those jobs was because he kept getting fired?”

“My word, you got a poor attitude. An eligible bachelor just asked you out. Were you this worried about making things awkward when you started up with your ex-husband after English class?”

The aluminum can in Mom’s hand made a popping sound. “He’s not my ex-husband.”

Grandpa held up his hands in a gesture of mock-surrender. “You’re right. He’s the ex-husband of them other two ladies. He’s your estranged husband. See? I know some four-dollar words too.”

Mom opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Instead, she just chucked her soda across the room at Grandpa’s head. He shot up a hand to shield his face, and the can ricocheted off his wrist and came to rest on the living room carpet. Little brown drops of Nutrasweetened liquid dotted Grandpa’s cheek and neck as he glared at her. Then Mom stood up, mule-kicked her chair into the wall, and stomped out of the dining room.

Grandpa plucked the dented can up off the stained rug and balanced it on the sofa’s arm. “I wouldn’t worry about her, Buck,” he told me as he wiped soda off his face with the collar of his wifebeater. “Your momma’s gonna tell that boy yes. I reckon pretty soon she and him will be double-dating with the Professor and his Daphne. Then maybe Daphne and the boy will fall in love, it being more age-appropriate, and that’ll free up your momma and daddy to get back together.” His voice was light, almost singsong-y, but when he turned to me, the pupils of his steel-blue eyes were as hard and concentrated as drill-tips. “Who am I kidding? We both know that’s about as likely as you riding a big yellow bus every morning with all the normal kids, or me winning Mr. goddamned Olympia!”

And with that, Grandpa launched himself off the couch and out the front door. Down the hall I heard rummaging noises, and then what sounded like the familiar rinse and glug of an upturned liquor bottle. Was that Mom, drinking from a secret stash that Grandpa had failed to confiscate, I wondered?

I went and stood in the doorway with my arms braced on the frame, noting with some dismay that my wingspan was barely wide enough to allow this. I peered out into the dark yard. Finally I caught a glimpse of Grandpa’s shadowy form bobbing up and down beneath the oak. He was getting in a few nighttime chin-ups, and even in the darkness I could still make out distinct groups of muscles rippling across his back. Lats, I thought, mentally quizzing myself. Delts. Rhomboids.

I shut the door and felt my middle. A thin layer of flab had built up, encasing my abs. Grandpa had abruptly quit going to the Y in the evenings, and since he was my ride, that meant that I had stopped, too. I knew that he was frustrated with me, but I had no idea how to go about making things right. I had spent my entire childhood receiving lavish praise for even the most minor accomplishments, and had never, to my knowledge, disappointed a single person in my life.

Back in the living area, the workout lady was still exhorting away. “That’s right!” she yelled to her minions as they marched in place. “You’re getting it now!”

I muted the TV and spent the rest of the show flipping the bird at the screen. By the time the credits rolled I could’ve sworn that both my middle fingers had biceps.

 

The next day at school, Dr. Villanueva announced that Unstructured Playtime needed, well, more structure, which was how I found myself out on the playground gripping the sticky palms of Grant Goss and one of the Weinbergs as we stood in a Red Rover line. It was humiliating, playing a game better suited for the booger-eaters in Younger Group, and it didn’t help our team’s cause that our best athlete—me—was marooned at the end of the line next to Grant, who was barely touching my hand and was shying away from me so dramatically that his spine was bent at an odd and painful-looking angle.

Our side called Eoghan right over. He strolled toward us, in no particular hurry. When he got to me and Grant he stopped. “Well then, Gayle,” he said to me. “Are you going to kiss Dr. Villanueva?”

“No,” I said.

“Yes you are,” said Eoghan. His grin made him look smart and stupid all at once. “You’re going to kiss Dr. V because your Da’s kissing one of his students. My Da says your Da’s done it before, when he taught your Mum. My Da says that if people find out, your Da’ll get fired, and then you’ll be too poor to go to school here.”

Hiding an affair with a student wasn’t exactly uncharted territory for the Professor. My father had seniority over Eoghan’s dad, more influence in department politics, and an old-boy network among the faculty that would close ranks to protect his job and reputation. There was little chance of the Professor’s teaching contract being terminated. Maybe Eoghan was beginning to sense this. His goofy look had been replaced by a slightly pained expression that made him appear as though he was straining to keep a fart silent.

But even though I loathed Eoghan, I wasn’t nearly as mad at him as I was at my overall situation, which had taken a turn for the worse that morning when Mom had woken me up to inform me that Grandpa had up and left the night before. “I went in to pee about a quarter to two,” she had told me, sitting on the edge of my bed. “I look out the window and lo and behold, there’s your grandfather loping across the yard, gym bag all packed. Probably headed to the bus station.” She shrugged. “I wasn’t gonna stand in his way.”

“Why not?” I demanded, tears welling in my eyes.

She looked past me, out the same window where I’d watched the Professor’s walk of shame one month prior. She was quiet for a long time.

“News said it might actually get nippy today,” she finally said. “Imagine that.”

I had been turning those words over and over in my head all morning during class. “Does it feel nippy out here to you?” I asked Eoghan.

“Nipply?” he said, too startled to keep the wariness out of his voice.

“No, nippy,” I said. “You know, kinda cold.”

“Cold?” Eoghan looked up at the sun, a hot coin in the cloudless sky above us. “Could burn the balls off a brass monkey, this.”

I let out a relieved sigh. “Thank goodness,” I said. And with that, I took Grant Goss by the arm and basically flung him at Eoghan O’Shaugnessy. Their skulls clopped together like two coconuts and they tumbled to the dirt. Grant was unconscious before he even hit the deck, but Eoghan was still groaning when I walked right up and commenced kicking him in the throat, the face, the kidneys, and the nuts.

 

My first inkling that I’d somehow broken the mold for insubordinate behavior—that there would be no Up n’ Comers District Court, no steep Up n’ Comer Dollar fine, no debt to Up n’ Comer society repaid in the corridor—was the look of undisguised rage on Dr. Villanueva’s face as she dragged me through the Older Group classroom and into the admin office. “Contact his parents immediately,” she hissed at Mrs. Darva, the secretary. “I want him out of my sight.”

I slumped on a bench and counted the squares in the checkerboard carpet pattern while Mrs. Darva dialed my home number. I didn’t bother to tell her that no one would answer, nor did I provide her with Mom’s contact info at her new job. I was too preoccupied with trying to mentally pinpoint where Grandpa was at that exact moment. If I knew anything about geography—hardly a given, considering my education—then he was probably more than halfway through Oklahoma. But then another thought hit me: what if Grandpa wasn’t headed back to Texas? What if he’d just caught the first Greyhound out of town, not caring what direction it was headed? Of course, I thought, sitting bolt upright. Suddenly I understood why he kept taking on all those jobs back in San Antonio even after Mom had left. Our town was likely just the first stop on his whirlwind tour, and probably would’ve been even if Mom hadn’t called him in drunken despair over the collapse of her marriage. Grandpa had no doubt been plotting a trip like this for years, I realized, saving up as much money as he could. Pretty soon there were going to be bus terminals all over the country whose phonebooks would be missing any page with a listing for an Andrew, an Andy, or even an A. Yates. And eventually, somewhere in America—heck, knowing Grandpa, somewhere on this planet—one of those Andrew, Andy, or A.’s was going to hoist his creaky, shredded body out of a ratty old recliner to answer his doorbell, only to come face-to-face with my grandfather standing there on his front porch, looking for all the world like a grenade that had been waiting years to go off.

The familiar sound of Mom’s exhausted greeting on our answering machine, filtered through Mrs. Darva’s earpiece and piped into the silent, airless office snapped me out of my reverie. Mrs. Darva made a little hmph noise and hung up without leaving a message. She moved her index finger down to the next number in the Up n’ Comers parent directory.

 

The Professor showed up half an hour later. He gazed at me over his reading glasses, looking more studied than stern. “Mrs. Darva was just telling me about Gaylord’s run-in with theO’Shaughnessy boy,” he said to Dr. Villanueva. He was regarding my teacher with his trademark gentle leer, idly tapping a scroll of lecture notes into his fleshy palm.

Like Mom, Dr. Villanueva had been a former pupil of my father’s, although from the way she was quivering in his presence you’d have thought her participation grade still hung in the balance. Her voice wavered as she related my unconscionable act out on the playground. Then she moved on to my greatest hits: the first Grant Goss incident, the undone homework, the shirtless preening. Finally she launched into a lengthy filibuster about the toll my behavior had taken on her, and about how there was no future for me at Up n’ Comers, or anywhere else for that matter, when I could inspire in otherwise decent people the kind of anger, frustration, and despair that she felt right then.

I stared at Dr. Villanueva as she rambled, thinking all the while that she sounded less like a teacher than some bratty schoolgirl getting revenge on the boy who’d stolen her best friend.

The Professor was displaying about as much interest in Dr. Villanueva’s venting as he might one of his charges’ end-of-term pleas for extra credit. “Does his mother know about this?” he finally asked, his voice a shrug. “I suppose it hardly matters. The only person Marcia’s ever cared about is Marcia. She treats Gaylord like a housemate. But I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know, Cleo.”

I thought, Cleo?!?

The Professor doffed me on the head with his rolled-up notes. “Guess we’re done, my friend,” he said. “Don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here, I’m afraid.”

 

We lingered awhile at the front entrance. The air outside had turned brisk, just as the news had predicted. A sudden breeze sent a cluster of newly-fallen leaves skittering across the parents’ parking lot. The Professor took a seat on the top step, and when his rump hit the hard concrete, tiny clouds of chalk dust, some of which had to be decades-old, plumed from his faded corduroy jacket.

“O’Shaughnessy’s kid, huh?” he asked. He began to laugh. “Ah, the luck of the Irish. Shame on me for saying that. For that matter, shame on you,” he said, slapping himself lightly on his whiskery jowl, as if this was all the punishment either of us deserved. He looked back at the building. “Never liked this place,” he told me. “But your mother wanted you here. I told her the Ed College can barely teach its own students. It sends them out into the world to do just that: barely teach.”

It occurred to me then that there were so many things I’d never seen my father do—like dance, or giggle uncontrollably, or order pizza over the phone—that now seemed possible, secret things that I would probably never know about. What I did know—or what I could now make an educated guess at—was that my father no longer loved my mother; that my mother, no matter what she told her boss that afternoon, would soon be out of a job; and that Grandpa had come here looking for a reason to kidnap me, to rescue me from the same bucolic black hole that had swallowed up my mother, and I’d given him none. These were the facts of my life at age ten, and they settled over me as hard and solid as muscle as my father abruptly, and not without some effort, stood back up and offered me his hand. I took it and together we walked down the steps of Up n’ Comers for the last time.

“There’s someone I’d like for you to meet,” he told me as we made our way towards a small, white Mazda with out-of-state plates. The girl, Daphne, was inside. Both of her hands were still on the steering wheel. She had short, dark hair and a worried mouth, but I was too young to tell whether or not she was pretty. The Professor removed the scroll of lecture notes from his pocket and rapped it on the glass. Daphne turned. Her left hand slid from the wheel and the window cranked down, revealing an oval face, a hopeful smile, and a pair of startled green eyes that stared out at me like I was a test question she’d forgotten to study for. It was painfully obvious that Daphne had no idea how to behave around a child. I loved her immediately.

 

BIO: John Waddy Bullion is a medical librarian in Fort Worth, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @jwbullion.

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