Reedsy Prompt: Reboot # 151
Repetition meets clarification.
“Cease and desist” Tomlinson laughed so hard he almost spilled his brandy. He took a breath, repeated “Cease and desist.”
In front of him, quivering like a tuft of tall grass, Frederickson's thin lips parted. A legend having taught into his seventies, only retiring after Tomlinson's first year as principal, his voice quavered, “Cease and desist?” He saluted with his whiskey glass, gripped it with both hands, lowered his head took a sip. “I remember grandfather slashing at us with cease and.” He wheezed, took a second sip, a different memory he tried to flick aside prickled. “Back then, I suspected he was talking Frenchy like, just back from the big war, stomping about with his cane.”
“The first.” Tomlison knew Frederickson's fondness for not always precise family lore.
“The first to be the last.” Frederickson chortled. One of the high school girls in a red dress with green trim hired for the party rosy cheeks, bright hair in a bun, stopped in front of them with a tray of toothpick speared shrimp. Tomlinson took two, Frederickson waved his hand like a benediction. “I'd never'd seen a man with a cane before. Back then a man like that mostly stayed indoors, out of sight. Not granddad. He'd roam around, pointing the damn cane at us like a gun, wave it over his head like a sword, roar,” his voice rose into a kind of gargle. “Cease and desist.” He shifted his weight to ease his back pain. “He'd chase us around like we was chickens. Caught cousin Clem once on the knee. He limped the rest of the summer. Couldn't figure if that was the cease or the desist and was too scared to ask. I was terrified, genuinely terrified of the old man.” Frederickson tottered. “Who'd you say you heard using that phrase? Did he have a cane?”
“No. No,” Tomlinson put a hand out to steady him. “The new eagle in the English department, T.J. Eckart.” A fire eater, no interest in collaboration. Either love him or hate him and he doesn't give a damn. Each year there've been just enough hard core students who love him.”
“A young one?” Frederickson cocked his head to the side. “Wherever did he learn cease and desist? I'm old enough to have taught his grandfather.” Both hands wrapped around his glass, he managed a large gulp. “Maybe I did.”
“No. No. You may have taught Methuselah but not T.J. He's from California, Berkeley, never went to school within a thousand miles of here and wants us to acknowledge that.”
“Did I meet him?”
“He came to Mildred's party last year. Stood right there with his back to the fire so close I worried his pants would catch.” Tomlinson drained his glass, smiled, perhaps the worry had been more a hope. “God knows you'd remember if you met him an absolute firecracker inside a can of worms. You know what I mean. He's got ideas. Makes the department squirm. The head's come to me on more than one occasion.”
Frederickson lowered his chin, tugged at his vest, “That's your reward for being a principal.”
“Thanks.” Tomlinson smiled. He'd been recruited for the job, been charged with smoothing things down, lowering the temperature. “You'd better tell my secretary, Mildred. But, it's T.J.'s story. This year's doozie.”
“Cease and desist”
“Why didn't you cane him?”
“Freddy old man, Freddy, since your day, the changing times have been clanging along like a firetruck. Really to tell you a bit of a truth big changes since my day, too.” Tomlinson knew enough to never trust a teacher, half of them were smug sure, lazy and afraid of their students. The others, filled with king complexes, wanted only to rule, to subordinate. He swilled his brandy without sipping. “We all make mistakes. Can't teach without cracking eggs.”
“Cracking skulls more like. Part of the job description.”
“Not anymore but this T.J.'s a throwback he comes with a fire brand, a sword not a plough share.”
A draft from the front door made Frederickson shiver. Muffled faculty bunched in the entry way. Mildred greeted each by name. Tomlinson steered Frederickson by his elbow to the wingback chair next to the fireplace, reached for his empty glass “Freshen this for you. Sticking with whiskey? If I find a plate, you hungry?”
Frederickson nodded, spread his bony hands on the chair arms, “Pile it high and deep. Mildred's a queen.” His large, liver spotted hands fluttered over his vest. The chandelier sparkled. Wreaths hung in every window. Mistletoe, in the doorway. Alma Marie gone. He shifted in the chair, eased the pressure on his leg. It was kind of Mildred to remember him each year. He'd outlived most of his colleagues. He feared if he relaxed he'd slip into sentimentality. He hated that. He'd always been a keen judge of others, himself, too. It had riven Alma Marie. She'd left high school to marry him. At the end she'd stiffened, turned away. His left leg twitched. The only warmth within was in his gut from the whiskey. His heart was frozen. He laced his long fingers together, cracked his knuckles. All the new faculty, all of them, shiny and antsy and hungry so young they didn't know they were young. He patted his vest again. Outside air clinging to them, the newcomers tumbled into the living room. He pictured them in rows, raising their hands, eager but trying too hard. He heard snatches, loud greetings, guffaws. He sank back, smiled remembering classes, screw ups, celebrations. With a sound like a shot, sparks snapped against the screen. His first year roared back. His lips tightened he heard himself in his younger, stronger, higher voice stun a class with cease and desist. Tomlinson had dislodged that story. It had been his fault, a rookie screw up. He would've fired himself. He wondered if Tomlinson would've. His first year, his first class. He'd adopted the new radical seating plan moving the boys from the back of the room to side by side with the girls: boys along the inside wall, the girls under the windows. Two days before Christmas vacation, after the school wide assembly ending with Silent Night and after the sugar laden lunch provided by the P.T.A, he'd indulged his class with their favorite game a shoot down spelling bee. Their names marched before him: Abraham, Adam, Aldern, Bertram, he closed his eyes ... Zachariah, never Zach. Each name came with a grade, mostly C's. He'd been told no one gave C's anymore. It was like a failing grade. His leg twitched. He struck it with his fist. Alma Maria over a dinner of burnt peas had said into the silence 'what grade you giving me now?' It was bitter. It cut close to the root of him. He'd never been clear enough for her, for either of them, grades were different from love. A red dress, trimmed in green stopped before him, said something. He waved her away. He still heard from some of those first students. A few were grandparents. Others, dead. Three had died DUI the night of the prom. Another had killed his girl friend. A botched abortion. Frederickson shuddered. No charges ever brought. The girl's parents too ashamed. The room was warming, the noise rising, he'd used the 'party setting' on his new hearing aid. He dreaded the prospect of the after dinner carols. Alma Maria had loved them. She had the voice. This year's tree was topped by a graduation cap complete with tassel. Tomlinson reappeared balancing a plate, piled high. With a snap of his wrist, he opened a holiday red napkin, decorated with silver stars, laid it on Frederickson's lap and set the full plate on top. A slab of ham cut in the shape of a tree was surrounded by mashed potatoes colored green, a wreath of green beans, cranberry like red berries filled the plate. “I'll be back with mine and your whiskey and tell you the T.J. story. Word around the table, he isn't coming, sprained his ankle at the morning hockey party.”
Frederickson lifted a forkful of the potatoes, steered them to his mouth. They were good, easy to swallow. The ham was hard to cut and chew. His mouth bulging that first class filled to their eyeballs with sugar drifted back. A mistake, a newbie miscalculation, he'd started the game. Screaming fits of laughter broke out. Not malicious, irrepressible. Convulsed by an other worldly spirit, Sally R the biggest girl in the class had tipped out of her chair, dragged her partner Bertram on top of her. He thought he'd need a firehose to restore order. In a voice he didn't recognize, he'd barked, cease and desist. Order returned. In the silence for a stunned moment he thought his grandfather stood behind him waving his cane. Later he'd wondered if they'd thought he was speaking in tongues. He chuckled to himself.
A red dress paused, asked if he was “O.K.” She had a narrow chin, a thin, pale, pinched face. He blinked. Alma Maria, his first vision of her. Not many now had that, not enough food in the house, look. He gripped his half full plate. Some sauce had stained his napkin. He could not return the girl's gaze.
Tomlinson pulled a stool over. His plate was almost empty. He took a long sip of his drink, “Your whiskey is good.” He leaned closer to Frederickson, lowered his voice, “I filled you in on T.J.'s first year follies.” He wiped his plate clean. “A tardy when the school bus was late. My secretary, Melinda, couldn't answer the phone fast enough. You'd think the graduation exam had been stolen. Unheard of, preposterous, the injustice. Of course, I summoned T.J. He stood there in my office like he's busy and I'm in his way and says, “They were late.” I restrained myself, stuck to the obvious, not their fault.
T.J. shrugs, “My grade book does not indicate fault.”
Frederickson said, “Did you think of the quality of mercy.”
“Not even close. I thought of grounds to fire the bastard. And should've thought harder cause last year was another outrage. The perfect paper assignment?”
Frederickson looked blank.
“This time, Melinda told me I should make Mr. Eckart come to the office and answer the phone. A single page paper with no mistakes. One error a failure. No erasures, no white out. He had all his students in a state. After the papers were returned a kid comes to my office, crying. And this was one of those who liked him. She's got a big red letter F at the top of her assignment. Two thirds of the way down the page, the letter 'a' in the word 'feature' has a big red circle around it. Over and over the kid mutters “but that's the right spelling.” She blushed, says, as if she's the guilty one, “I even looked it up.” I say, “Did you ask Mr. Eckart for an explanation.” She looks at me sideways. “The line was too long and I didn't want to complain.” At my request she left the paper with me. After school, in the parking lot, I held the paper out to T.J. He didn't pause, didn't look at it, says, “Hold it up sideways.”
I did and sighted along the line, the letter 'a' had dropped the merest fraction below the line and you could only notice it by looking at the paper sideways.
“A skull cracker for our time.” Frederickson grinned. “Were you impressed.”
“With what? His anality. Who is he to require a student to be perfect.”
“Oh, no. Not the student. You're missing the point.”
Tomlinson stared into his flushed face. Teachers, all teachers were sheep like. They huddled together, closed ranks to defend against any imagined wolf.
“You're not on the same page with your firebrand eagle.” With the back of his hand, Frederickson wiped his dry lips. “All of us are mortal, none perfect. It's the performance. That's his point. In our wounded mortality why not aim for perfection.”
No wonder he'd retired. “You volunteering to answer the phone next time? But you know you're on to something. With pride T.J. told me the first year three students passed, now it's like a dozen.”
“That is progress.” Frederickson smiled “I do want to meet him.”
“Yeh. You two would make a pair, standards all your own.
I've seen your file. If complaints were traffic tickets or fines or any kind of deterrent you.”
Frederickson cackled. “They were supposed to burn all that.”
“The school year's not half over” He pointed at Frederickson's empty. You want me to freshen that. The high school girls can't pour the good stuff.”
Frederickson covered the top of glass. His hand shook.
“Any idea what kind of year I'm in for. Already there's been the T.J. drop dead incident. Parents burst in furious. A senior girl one of our very best. One who chose T.J. a second time for senior honors. The parents are livid. They have a portable recorder with them. They report Mr. Eckart told their daughter to drop dead. In class, right to her face. What am I going to do about it. They insist that's the whole story and its intolerable. Of course I check. The girl's not keen on her parents involvement, you know the type.”
“True for all the good ones.”
“But she confirms what they told me. When? She says maybe a month ago. I'm sure her parents have the time and date stamped. I'm hot enough to use the intercom to yank T.J. out of class. A student answers, tells me he's busy. I send a runner to collect him. T.J. storms in. I tell him to take a seat. He stands. I say there's a serious, credible accusation that in class you told a student to drop dead.”
“He straightens up. He's not a big man but he can stand tall. It's the first time I get a flicker of what might be in him. He doesn't respond with a quip. He reflects or pretends to.”
He looks me in the eye says, “No. I didn't do that.”
“I remind him I've spoken with the student.”
“No. He repeats, you know I do say all sorts of things but I don't say that. It's not something I say in school or out. It's not a phrase I use. I simply don't. It's not me.”
“Less his certainty than that it doesn't really sound like him gives me pause. I say do you have an explanation?”
“He says, if you spoke with the student you know who it is. Would the student be willing to have this discussion with me, with us. Maybe in context.”
“I said, I'm not sure but I'd check and you know the parents will insist on being included.”
“He shrugs. Of course.”
“Three days later we're all in my office and when I say all, it's six, Me, T.J. The offended student, Mom, Dad, and their lawyer the guy who sued the district over one bus for boys and girls basketball, sex discrimination.”
“The girl's admirably composed. TJ exhibits the warmth of a snake. The parents are the mongooses in the room. I keep my eyes on the lawyer. The girl explains: It was during the class debate. She nodded at T.J. You remember. It got out of hand, Stacey and her partner wouldn't let Blake and me say anything. So I raised my voice, I admit it, Blake is such a and you weren't being fair at all or doing anything to keep Stacey under control and instead you turned on me pointed your ruler and told me to “drop dead.”
T.J. Said, “Is it possible you heard cease and desist.
“Yes.” The girl beamed in vindication, looked at her mother. That's it. Cease to exist.”