The last couple of weeks have been a real roller coaster for this craft beer lover, folks. And I’m not just talking about the heady decisions of whether to drink blueberry cider or blueberry ale, both delish and in ample supply at Greenbush this time of year. No, I’m talking about going from participating in wedding bliss, to the blast of hurt that tragedy imparts, all in the space of days. That is called life, I tell my limping self, and then today I got some good news, and a little light crept into the dark. You may have heard of Mr. Rogers famous and sage advice his mother would offer up to him whenever bad things happened: “Look for the helpers.” And she was right; they are there, if we look. I think my story tells about one of them.
So the good news is that I placed in a national writing contest with said story, and I will share it here in its entirety. Be sure to read the postscript notes for more commentary. Without further adieu, here is “Saving James.”
The shovel’s sharp edges dug into the snowy sidewalks of Brookside Elementary, echoing a dull thud into the winter morning air. Walter Nowicki, or as the kids called him, Mr. Walt, wheezed with each deposit into the side yard and cursed his defunct twenty-five year smoking habit. He bent over for another shovelful when an unpleasant nipping sensation gripped him, like tiny razorblade puppy teeth gnawing at his chest. He leaned on the plastic handle and watched his breath curl up and dissipate. Well, was this how he’d go? Like any sensible person would want, to collapse into a snowbank and call it good? He sure as hell heard about it happening often enough. And he sure as hell knew better than anyone there were worse ways to die.
He was ready. Had been, for a long time.
He put the shovel aside and with a gloved hand dug into a bucket of ice melt. He was sprinkling the salt by the entrance, when Brookside’s principal Debra came up beside him.
“Good morning, Walt,” she said cheerily, stopping.
He straightened his back and the puppy teeth needling eased. Maybe he’d see sixty-seven after all.
“Morning,” he said, more growly than he’d intended.
“We got quite a few inches, didn’t we?”
“That we did.”
He opened the door for her, signaling the end of the conversation. He wasn’t much for chit chat. When Lorraine was alive she used to scold him, said his brusque bordered on rude. He’d laugh and whisper in her ear she didn’t marry him for his small talk skills, did she, and she’d giggle and whisper back it didn’t hurt she’d married Clint Eastwood’s twin, either.
Debra smiled and went through the doorway. “Thank you.”
Her perfume lingered in the cold, the flowery smell halting his salt sprinkle. The scent wasn’t like Lorraine’s, not that it mattered. Anything womanlike held the power. Three years since her passing and the femininity factor still threatened to sideline him with its enormity and randomness. Could be the pattern of a purse, or the curve of a smiling cheek, or the way someone put reading glasses on to peer at a soup can label. Months would go by, and then a simple reminder hit him like a land mine. Once it was earrings, dangly hoops like she used to wear, in the ears of a young mother pushing a toddler in a grocery cart. He did a double take, probably creeping the poor girl out, and in a rush exited the aisle. He hid in the restroom stall and hoped desperately the urinal remained empty for the five minutes it took him to stem the sobs thumping through his chest.
He took a deep breath and looked at his watch. Time to head into the gym; the children would be lining up for breakfast soon. He didn’t have much to do there, only load the milk cooler and restock the cereal and juice cart. Miss Betty logged the kids’ names in on the computer as they filled their trays.
“Keep an eagle eye on that James Carter,” Betty instructed Walt on his first day. “He always tries to take two milks.”
“Maybe he’s thirsty,” Walt replied without thinking. Sounded like a natural response to him, but Betty’s neck, with its deep creases that reminded Walt of an unbound slinky toy, jiggled as she snapped her clipboard on top of the cooler.
“Then he can have water. His account’s already past due.”
Walt considered offering up extra funds to be taken out of his pay to cover the balance, not because he was particularly generous, but because it was something Lorraine would have done. Was he delusional enough to believe that doing good deeds could make up for all the times he’d failed her?
No chance of that.
He stayed silent about his offer. He figured Betty wasn’t the person to take it to anyway, and it was then that a mutual dislike between them was established.
The kids were filing in now by grade level, and he tried to keep a pleasant expression and say hello if they made eye contact. Another challenge, the smiling, but he thought the first faces a student saw in the morning shouldn’t be scowling. Walt made it a point to greet fifth grader James Carter whenever he came down the line, and he decided long ago if the boy ever took an extra milk he’d deny it ever happened.
“Hi, Mr. Walt,” James said, plucking a juice carton off the cart. His brown hair had matted clumps in spots, like an old neighborhood tomcat, and he had ashen circles under his eyes.
“Howya doin’? Hey, wait a sec. Those ones in the front are still frozen. Take one of these.” Walt handed him a fully thawed orange juice, and James smiled.
“You bet. Have a good day.”
Cynthia Haig, the class’ teacher, herded them forward. “Let’s go! You guys are moving slow this morning.”
Walt frowned as he shook the cartons to see which were still frozen. He knew most of the staff as caring folks, but Cynthia Haig and Betty were a different breed. Sour-faced and often ill-tempered, the two reminded Walt of the apple throwing trees from the Wizard of Oz.
“No more than one scoop!” Betty barked at the kids crowding around the salad bar every day.
No, no, no. Everything was no, like a talking sign at a public park.
“No saving seats!”
“Stop talking and eat!”
Walt knew there were logical reasons for school rules, and yet these shrillish commands baffled him. Wasn’t it common knowledge kids suppressed their energy all morning long for the golden freedoms known as lunch and recess? Where they unleashed torrents of words to their friends? When Walt stood in the middle of the cafeteria manning the garbage cans, he caught all kinds of excited chatter.
“I gotta go the bathroom. Wait for me!”
“Lyssa, are you going to the swings at recess?”
“Noah, do you want my peanut butter bar?”
“Yeah, but shhh! You know we’re not s’posed to!”
Sure, the echo from the pent-up conversations could be deafening, but Walt didn’t see much difference between that and when someone came out of the staff break room at noon. A smaller scale, was all.
Walt was also puzzled by the obsession with lines. The hallway couldn’t have been more than a hundred feet long, so whenever a class went as a unit, they arrived to their destination in less than a few minutes.
Any casual observer would think they were going on a mile long army hike, minus the water.
“No touching the walls! Or each other!”
“Straight line and hands folded!”
And there was Cynthia Haig, her eyes bulging like a bullfrog and bellowing much the same as one:
Walt well understood discipline and order, and the need for building it in young people. God knew the nuns at St. John’s had slapped that into him. But he’d venture to guess even cranky old Mother Agnes and his ex drill sergeant Phil Hudson had liked him more than Cynthia Haig liked her charges. Sometimes, even the sound of her voice made him flinch, made him remember Phil and events he’d rather forget about.
Jesus, he’d think. If she has that effect one me, what must it be like for the kids in her wake?
Sometimes it was better not to think.
The last of the fifth graders getting breakfast were gone, and Walt checked the milk supply for lunch. As he filled the cooler, he held a carton and read the label. Eight ounces. He shook his head and returned it to the wire shelf. Why, eight ounces was only a cup of milk. Back in the day if it’d been him or one of his brothers drinking out of these puny containers, they would’ve taken an extra one when nobody was looking too.
When lunch was over, Walt got notice that the boy’s restroom needed towels. He took a brown packet from the supply closet and headed down the hall. A flurry of chittering children marched out to the playground, cutting in front of him, oblivious to his presence. He didn’t mind. Be unobtrusive, wasn’t that the idea? As he walked past piles of scattered shoes and the lost and found box, Mrs. Haig was there with James Carter. She had him sitting at an ancient desk, one with a slanted wooden top embedded with scratches of graffiti. James cradled his chin with his palm.
“You know what to do. Get started.” She turned and headed toward the teacher’s lounge.
James let out a big sigh and picked up a pencil, while Walt picked up a loose scarf.
James turned and his face brightened, making the grey circles under his eyes a little less grey.
Walt’s aversion to chatting disappeared. “Doesn’t your class have recess now?”
He put the packet of towels on top of the lockers in the hall.
“Yeah. But I got sentences to do.”
“Oh? About what?”
His voice was small. “About how I will finish my homework.”
Walt nodded. “Ah. Seems like that shouldn’t take you too long, and you can go out.”
“Pfft. I wish. I haven’t been out, like, all year.”
Walt stared at the back of James’ neck, where the matted knots of hair appeared to be permanent. The child had to be exaggerating. It was February, for God’s sake.
“All year? That sounds like an awfully long time to miss recess.”
James put his pencil to the paper and said matter-of-factly, “Yeah. Not since September. I used to have to stay in the room, but Mrs. Haig said I got too distracted, so now I’m out here.”
Walt was beyond nosiness now, but he couldn’t stop himself.
“Let me get this straight. You didn’t do your homework, so you have to write sentences that keep you from recess for six months?”
“Yup. I’m way behind. Every time I don’t finish, which is almost every day, I get more. See?” He held up his notebook for Walt, flipping through pages of writing.
“That’s a lot of words,” Walt commented, because he could think of nothing else to say.
He’d overheard the term “learning strategy” bandied about in meetings after school, when he’d be cleaning sinks or sweeping. Walt looked at the sketches on James’ notebook and thought the only thing James had learned here was how to draw some impressive looking zoo animals. He pointed to a tiger with elaborate stripes and details.
“You’re quite the artist.”
James searched Walt’s face, skeptical. “You really think?”
“I do. These pictures are someth–” Walt stopped as Tammy, one of the school aides, pulled up a chair next to James.
“Hello,” Walt mumbled, feeling like he should explain his lingering in the hallway. “James was just telling me he has a lot of writing to do.”
“Mmm-hmm. That’s why I’m here, to supervise.” She crossed her legs and whipped out a nail file. “Ya know, make sure he’s not goofing around or nothin’.”
Walt stiffened and remembered the packet of towels. “Well. Guess there’s a restroom that needs tending to,” he said in his brusque bordering on rude voice, and walked away.
The next couple of weeks Walt made it a point to straighten the hall during lunch recess, gathering up the cornucopia of shoes and lining them up against the wall. And every day James was there at the old wooden desk, his neck suspended over the tattered notebook while he scrawled away. Walt snuck glances at James with a mixture of anger and pity, and then churning doubt.
You don’t know anything about kids.
It was true. He and Lorraine hadn’t had children; repeated miscarriages due to what Walt suspected was his agent orange exposure had seen to that. The closest he came to fatherhood was handing out candy at Halloween, for God’s sake, and all that did was make him glad he never had to deal with squalling toddlers.
One Friday afternoon recess Walt tidied the hall, as was his routine. He opened a spare locker and straightened the Kleenex boxes and hand sanitizer bottles, and out of the corner of his eye he spotted James taking up his usual seat.
“Miss Tammy is out with the flu,” Mrs. Haig informed James.
Cynthia’s thin hair was pulled back, as it was every day, with wispy bangs that fell across glasses too big for her face. She pulled a crinkled wad out of the pocket of her denim jumper and honked noisily.
“Everyone’s getting sick, but our day goes on as scheduled. That means you need to stay on task. No doodling and daydreaming.” She gestured in Walt’s direction. “And don’t bother Mr. Walt. He has work to do.”
Walt turned. “He’s no bother to me,” he said, with a not-inside voice.
She looked startled, as if surprised the invisible help could talk. “Well. Glad to hear it.”
She pecked a finger like an angry bird on James’ notebook, her words punctuated with every jab. “Now, get going. If you’d apply some effort, you’d be done by now.”
Sniffing haughtily, she put her arms on her waist, and Walt pictured the apple throwing trees from Oz again.
“Or maybe you don’t mind sitting out here for the rest of the year?”
James shook his head but didn’t speak.
“All right, then, ” she said, and mercifully strode back to her room.
James stared at the eggshell blue wall in front of him, his body swaying, and after a few minutes he laid his head down on the paper and closed his eyes. Walt’s gaze darted from the boy to the door of the classroom, which was plastered with mocking red hearts.
There’s no love here, shmuck. It’s all for show…
Walt looked back at James’ motionless face. His stomach flipped with the kind of nervous dread he’d long forgotten, the kind that told him he’d get a whipping from his father when the old man got home from work.
God help the kid if she came out and found him sleeping.
He closed the locker door gently and slid past James, and with every step down the hall his anger increased. He hoped the needles in his chest wouldn’t start clawing again, and just as quickly shuttered the hope away. If today was the day, so be it, but he wasn’t going down without saying his piece.
The boy should be looking at a blue sky, not a blue wall.
Brookside’s secretary Peggy Hart was typing at her desk when Walt walked into the office. Whenever he came in here, he felt awkward. The space looked to him like what a massage parlor might, with candles all over and soft music playing. And there he was, sticking out like a rusty oilcan in his stained Dickies work clothes and cap. Peggy looked up over her reading glasses.
“Hi, Walt. What can I do for you?” She spoke in a low, breathy voice he had trouble hearing. Word had it she was trying to keep a calm aura about the office atmosphere, to better assist distressed kids and parents, but all Walt could picture was Marilyn Monroe whenever she talked. Walt swallowed.
“Umm..I’d like to speak with Debra, if I could.”
Peggy nodded. “Let me buzz her.” She pressed a button and whispered, then motioned for him to proceed.
He opened Debra’s door, affixed with a silly looking Cupid decoration, and walked in.
“Walt.” Debra smiled. “This is a nice surprise.”
Walt took his ballcap off and held it in front of him. “Hello.”
“Please, sit down, ” Debra said, gesturing to the corner chair.
He did so, looking around at her various plaques and diplomas.
“What brings you to my messy abode?” she laughed, clearing off a pile of papers.
He forced a tight smile. “Sorry to interrupt. It’s just, I wanted to talk to you about some things I’ve seen happening …” He trailed off and shame rose like an uncoiling cobra in his throat. How not to sound like a gossipy snitch? Was it even possible?
“You haven’t interrupted anything. Go on.”
“Listen, this isn’t like me, I hope you know.” He shifted in the chair. “I keep my nose down and try to mind my own business.”
“I do know. In fact, I believe this is the longest conversation I’ve had with you in the three years since you began here.”
She smiled again, and it occurred to Walt she was quite an attractive woman. She and Lorraine had been casual friends, and Debra called him after Lorraine died to ask if he’d be interested in the janitor gig. He accepted, thinking it might be better than blubbering in his beer all day.
“Walt, please. I want to hear what you have to say.”
“Okay.” He coughed. “Well, I guess I’ll start with Mrs. Haig and Miss Betty. To be blunt, I don’t think they like the children. At all.”
Debra rubbed her temple, and Walt continued. “Especially James Carter. ” He met her sad gaze. “I’m sorry, I’m rambling.”
“I assure you, you’re not.” She exhaled. “Can you give me specific examples?”
He shrugged a bit, then went on to recite a few of the choice phrases he’d heard over and over again. She kept nodding, as if it were all old news.
He hesitated. “I didn’t come here to get anyone in trouble, or tattle, as the kids say.”
She stretched across the desk and clasped her hand on his wrist, her touch sending a surprising sparkle of pleasure through him.
“I know what kind of man you are, Walt. Don’t you think Lorraine ever talked about you?”
He reddened. No.
She leaned back, releasing her hand. “I’m aware and have tried to address what youre referring to, but finding people for jobs like Betty’s is difficult. Once you have a warm body that shows up every day, you kind of say a prayer and don’t look back. And as for Cynthia…she’s experiencing personal circumstances affecting her job right now. I cant disclose the nature, of course.”
He was silent. Three years of a personal issue?
“Look, I know it sounds as if I’m making excuses. Maybe I am–”
“There’s more,” Walt broke in. “This might seem, I dunno, unimportant, but did you know that James Carter hasn’t been out for any recess since school started? That he’s so tired he fell asleep at his desk in the hall today?”
By her expression, he knew she didn’t know, and that it wasn’t unimportant.
He scrunched his cap with a death grip.
“I guess I wouldn’t of noticed either, until he got moved to the hallway. Now he’s there every day, and he showed me this…this notebook, full of sentences he’s had to write. All because he got behind on his homework?” He lifted the twisted cap in the air. “Now, I admit, I’m no expert about this stuff. I got a high school diploma and there’s where my book smarts end.” He shrugged, and found his not inside voice again. “But does it matter? Something’s dead wrong when a kid can’t go out in the sunshine and play around with his buddies. For months. You’ll pardon me if this sounds like a threat, but if this is some kinda new school policy, then my work here is done. I cant watch him sitting there anymore.”
She sat up ramrod straight at this, then faced her window. “What you’ve described is not school policy. James also has personal circumstances. Again, I’m not at liberty to discuss, but suffice it to say his family life is dysfunctional at best.”
“Is that some kind of explanation for this?”
“No,” she said sharply, looking back at him. “If anything, his living conditions make this scenario even worse. I’m merely explaining…” She faced her desk, palms down. “Never mind. Walt, thank you. I can promise you, this will be resolved, and your name will never be mentioned. What you’ve told me is inexcusable, and I’m ashamed it happened under my watch.” Her voice wavered. “Truthfully, any other parent would have stormed this office, demanding to know what was going on a long time ago. James doesn’t have anybody to advocate for him. Outside school, or in, apparently.”
Her face softened looking at him, and she sat down. “Until now, maybe.”
He stared at her and half-stifled a nervous chuckle. “What? Me? Aw…hell, no.” He ran a hand through his thick hair.
She didn’t reply, the softness combining with another emotion now. Admiration? Desire? Would he even recognize that one anymore?
“Sorry,” he said, his cheeks flushing under her scrutiny. “No disrespect intended.”
“I dunno what you’re thinking, but let me tell you.” He leaned forward. “I’m nobody’s savior. Far from it.”
“Oh, I beg to differ. I happen to know you were that and more for one very sick lady.”
Her words hung in the air, and Walt, who’d given up praying long ago, prayed for composure.
“She…she would’ve done the same for me.”
Debra squeezed his shoulder this time, and stood up. “Then you were both lucky,” she said, her eyes shining. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have some people I need to talk to.” She turned around, her face still soft. ” You know, Lorraine wasn’t the only one lucky enough to have you around, Walter Nowicki.”
He lowered his eyes at this, embarrassed, and she wished him a good evening and closed the door behind her.
Walt exhaled in sheer relief. He was still alive, with no chest needles in sight. He slapped his knees, willing them to move, when he eyed a picture of a dog on Debra’s desk. He sat back. The frame’s pawprint design was identical to the bumper sticker Lorraine bought after they’d adopted their beagle, Scooter. He’d resisted getting a dog for a long time. Too long.
“Who rescued who?” the sticker had asked, and Lorraine beamed as he scowled. “You’ll see who,” she’d laughed, kissing him on the cheek.
He checked his watch. Time for round two of work soon. He entered Peggy’s office, where the unmistakable aroma of fresh coffee wafted from the staff table. Unusual, at three-fifteen.
Walt yawned. “I think you read my mind, Peggy,” he said, filling a rose-painted mug to the brim.
“It’s been a long day,” Peggy sighed.
“Yup.” He walked out to the hall, sipping as he scanned the happy clutter of strewn backpacks and hair ties and paper bits swept into corners.
The business of saving people made for a long day, indeed.
Post script: Thanks for reading what is probably my longest blog post ever!! I wanted to say just a few things about the story, and one of them is that although James is a fictional character, he is based on a real child. As are all characters in fiction. That’s what makes it so fun to write, after all. And what happened to James happened to the real child, too, about ten years ago, and that was very not-fun. He was a friend of my son Danny, who casually mentioned to me one day how bad he felt for “James”, and he spilled the details. I was appalled, of course, and went to the principal, who promptly told me in not so many words to mind my own business. I am sorry now I didn’t raise holy hell, but as you could probably tell from my incessant sharing on FB about the importance of recess, (among other school issues), it still bugs me. Nevertheless, it’s important to acknowledge the people that do come through for kids, time and again, to “look for the helpers.” And I know some, and I want to be one, like my character Walt. Cheers, friends. May you be the Walter Nowicki in someone’s life, whether you know it or not.