Untitled work, rough draft, not edited, read at your own risk, etc etc etc. Also copyrighted, please don’t repost anywhere. Thanks. You can catch up from the beginning here.
Strike or not, my alarm goes off at six in the morning.
I fumble for the alarm, hand flailing against the bedside table several times. I almost give up, but then my hand slaps into the alarm clock with a loud crack and I feel a sharp pain in my hand.
Damn it! I sit up, suddenly wide awake. I hit that wrong somehow. I hit the off button on the alarm clock. Light floods through the windows, and I remind myself that there will only be a few more weeks of decent weather. Winters here are ugly. Cold and wet. When I was growing up I spent the winters in Central Florida. Cold has an entirely different definition there.
My morning routine is all over by six forty-five. And then I have no idea what to do with myself. Normally I’d finish my coffee, put it in the sink and walk outside to head to work.
No work today. A small number of teachers will symbolically picket each school, but it’s not really expected. The strike likely won’t last long—teacher’s strikes are illegal in Massachusetts,—but with luck the closing of South Hadley’s four public schools will get the attention of the town’s residents. The union has been distributing flyers and talking with the parent teacher organization for almost two years, and negotiating with the school committee just as long. No one was really interested.
I bet they will be now. I open my laptop and brows to Masslive.com. Right at the top of the page is the headline, South Hadley Teachers Stage Walkout. The subtitle said, Parents scramble for childcare as strike begins.
I read through the article. All in all, it’s mostly correct. Mostly. Dianne Blakely is quoted, of course, noting that the teachers of South Hadley actually sprout horns and eat children at night. Or something like that. I browse away from there to the entertainment pages. Maybe there’s a decent play or something coming up.
At the top of the page: Binder and Mills Circus to Perform Six Nights in Pioneer Valley.
Oh, that’s just fantastic. If I’m not back at work by then, I’ll go perform at the circus. I scan the article. They’re performing in Boston and then Worcester first, and will be here just before Thanksgiving.
I stand up, out of sorts, as if I were going somewhere. Anywhere.
But … Christ. I grab my phone and dial my brother. The phone rings without answer. I disconnect, wait thirty seconds, then try again.
He answers on the first ring.
“You gotta be kidding me. Six months I don’t hear from you, and you gotta call me at six in the morning?”
“It’s seven,” I say.
“Not in Madison.”
“What do you need, Matty?”
I shrug, then realize he can’t see it. “Just wanted to check in. See how you were.”
“Bullshit,” he replies. “You saw the schedule.”
“What schedule?” I say. He knows I’m lying.
“Whatever, Matty. You should come join us. It would do you a world of good.”
I shudder, thinking of my father laying with his neck broken. “No, thanks, Tony.”
“Will we get to see you at least? Dinner? Anything? Mom’s all broken up she never sees you any more. You didn’t even come home for Christmas. What’s that about?”
“Tony, I didn’t have the money. Elementary school teachers don’t get paid all that much.”
Tony mutters something under his breath. Then silence. Silence that drags on, because it’s heavy.
I finally break the silence. “Yeah. We’ll have dinner.”
“That’s real generous, Matty. Real generous. Yeah. We’ll talk later.”
He hangs up the phone, leaving me with silence and guilt. I can deal with one, but not the other. It’s time to head out.
I lock up the apartment and walk down the wooden stairwell to the parking lot. I live in a one bedroom apartment next to South Hadley Common, just above a restaurant. It’s a good location, plus the rent is cheap. Hard to beat. My commute is usually less than five minutes.
As I unlock the car I think, once again, about buying a bike. I’ve been going to the Gold’s Gym on memorial drive pretty regularly—okay maybe regularly is an exaggeration—but every once in a while anyway. And I run a lot in the mornings. But I’m nowhere the shape I was once in, when I had to perform five nights a week.
The car is new to me, but not new. I took the insurance money and bought a 6 year old Honda Civic. It had 45,000 miles on it and is paid for. I’m happy.
I drive to Dunkin’ Donuts and go through the drive through, ordering an assorted dozen and two large cups of coffee. I take a guess and get cream and sugar for both, then head back up College Street until the white colonial is in view. As I drive closer, I see once again that it’s really not in good shape. Paint, once white, is peeling all over the house. Zoe’s minivan is in the driveway.
I pull in, my tires crunching in the gravel. Is it weird that I just showed up here? Will she think it’s weird? No, she asked me to not disappear, to be here for Jasmine. That’s what I’m doing.
Okay, maybe it’s weird. I don’t know.
Anyway, I open the door and grab the donuts and the two cups in their cardboard carrier. Awkwardly, I carry my load to the front door, thumping up the steps. I don’t make it to porch before the front door opens.
Zoe is there. She’s wearing a grey Army sweatshirt and blue sweatpants, and her hair is disheveled, not long enough to tie back easily. Loose nearly-white hair hangs in front of her left eye. Her expression is… not exactly hostile. She tilts her head to the left slightly and purses her lips and her eyebrows squish together.
“What are you doing here?”
“You said I can’t just disappear. I’m not. I get it. Here’s some coffee and donuts, if I don’t drop them.”
Her eyes widen slightly. Then she reaches out and takes the coffee tray from my left hand. “Come on in.” Her voice is monotone, resigned.
Her enthusiasm certainly is encouraging.
It’s dim in the front room as we enter, shades drawn. She sets the coffee down and starts opening the shades. “I wasn’t expecting company. Come on in the kitchen. I don’t think Jasmine’s awake yet.”
She walks on past the long living room into a doorway capped with a wide, shallow arch. I follow, through the dining room (dominated by a large scarred farm table) and into the kitchen. A small table sits in here. An old Apple laptop is open on the table next to a mug of coffee. The mug has characters in Chinese or Japanese or some other Asian language, along with a bright red heart:
It might be an I Love New York mug. Except the silhouette of Godzilla, however, leads me to believe the letters identify Tokyo or another Japanese city.
“Have a seat,” she says. “I’ve got to admit, the donuts—that was a good move. We’re out of food, I’ve got to go grocery shopping today.”
“How is she doing?”
I nod. Zoe’s face is pensive and she looks away from me slightly. In a low voice, she says, “I don’t know. Same stuff we talked about yesterday. When I told her there wasn’t any school today, she just went back upstairs without a word.”
“You didn’t make her come down for breakfast?”
Zoe shakes her head. “I don’t want to push her.”
That makes sense. Zoe takes a cup out of the holder and I grab the other.
“I took a risk you’d prefer cream and sugar.”
“That’s fine,” she says. “Thank you. I wasn’t very gracious when you showed up.”
“You’re not required to be gracious.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Seriously though, shouldn’t you be picketing or something?”
I smile. “There will be some people doing that. I’m actually sitting on my phone waiting to see if the school committee calls. I’m one of the union representatives—if they decide to negotiate, I’ll get the call.”
“You think they will?”
I nod. “Yeah. Everything else aside, people are seriously inconvenienced when school is closed.”
Poker face in hand, she nods. “It’s true. I’m supposed to start classes on Monday.”
“So you are in college.”
“I got accepted under some pretty dodgy circumstances thanks to family friends and the veterans services department.”
“How do you mean?” I ask.
She shrugs. “My dad was a professor at Mount Holyoke. So—sometimes people stick together. I didn’t get into UMASS on my own power.”
“I’m sure you would have been accepted if you had gone through the normal process. Right?”
She smiles. “Now, how would you know that?”
“I don’t. But you seem pretty smart. I bet you did well in school.”
She nods. “I did. Top of my class.”
The words slip out of my mouth without thought. “But you joined the Army.”
She gives a minute shake of her head. “That’s a bit of stereotyping, don’t you think? There’s plenty of smart people in the Army, even if they aren’t academics.”
“True. Forgive me.”
“Of course,” she replies. “I’ve spent the last five years fighting stereotypes. Outside the Army they think we’re all idiots. Inside the Army, the idiots think women can’t be soldiers. Outside the Army too. I spent my whole tour in Iraq patrolling near Baghdad, often on foot. My first time coming home, the guy next to me on the plane asks me how I like nursing.”
I don’t know what to say. She spent a year in Iraq? On patrol? On foot? I don’t let my surprise show on my face. A moment later I hear loud steps thumping down the hall above us, then almost a gallop coming down the stairs.
“Jasmine,” Zoe says in a still voice. “Sounds like she’s already dressed to ride.”
Less than a second later, Jasmine clomps in wearing riding boots. She stops in the doorway of the kitchen. “Mister P?”
Jasmine looks confused. A deep line creases her forehead as her eyebrows draw together. “What—what—what—why are you here?”
The stammer is a new appearance…she didn’t do that in the second grade. For whatever reason, she has been since her parents died.
“Well, school’s closed, but I wanted to stop in and make sure you were okay. Also, I had these extra donuts, and I didn’t know what to do with them, so I brought them to my favorite third grader.”
Jasmine flushes a deep red. “I’m—I’m—your favorite third grader?”
I press my index finger to my lip and blow. “Shhhhh… don’t tell anyone. Just come get a donut.”