Teacher

 Teacher

Celina McManus

I

Everything is meaningless. Meaningless is the woman who fell in love with a man at seventeen, leaving me with her parents like a whimpering puppy. Meaningless is my grandfather telling me at age nine that I’ve got a mom somewhere up north “finding herself,” and a dad that’s finding himself another woman. There was a time I fell asleep on the job I had to get when I was fifteen, mowing lawns in the middle of summer’s meanest months, my grandma finding me with an ice cold cup of tea. No one will remember her calloused hands or the old man who talked with hot whisky breath about heaven, like it lay amongst the constellations. Meaningless is this journal I keep, bound together by a tree that grew to life just to be cut down, turned into this page that will one day disintegrate. I will never know you, and we are both meaningless.

II

My grandfather was holding me in his lanky arms, his shirt stained by the summer’s hidden sun. His hand pointed up into the sky littered with stars and told me about Orion’s belt and the Big Dipper, just like Grandma’s soup ladle.

“There’s a story in those stars, ya know, son. Some of the wisest men in history sit up there starin’ down at us.”

“What’s wise?” I asked him, looking up into his wrinkles. I touched them and thought of the sandpaper he used on the walls. He told me that wisdom was the greatest gift a man could have. I looked up into the sky, past our little wooden porch, and prayed to the heavens for wisdom.

III

It was the first day of autumn. I drove to work and watched the way the clouds skirt around the mountains. My wife and I bought a nice piece of land right outside the city, two acres, flat where our house sits and a hill for a backyard. On that land, I built a house of cedars, with rafters of firs. I left space for a garden right in front, where the porch looks, for everyone to see. Suzanne loves daffodils. The school I teach at is on the outskirts of the city, the same university both Suzanne and I went to.

When we built our house, we made a pact to have people over every now and then, filling the house with music and dancing right on our front porch, just the way my family would have done it. We didn’t have much back then, so we decorated the house with people instead.

We haven’t had a get-together in over a year now.

IV

During my lunch break, I had an egg sandwich from home and watched from my window the way the leaves fell off the trees. They rustle with the wind, moving about in circles, but never going anywhere of great importance. I thought about my mom, never finding her place like she said she would in the great tundra. She called me a few months ago, like she does about once a year, to tell me she’s looking at a little town like ours, instead hers sits on the cold beaches of Maine. She talked with a low, longing drawl that she can’t get rid of, no matter how hard she tries.

I patted down my shaggy, brown hair and smoothed my khakis, getting ready to start my next class. Staring down at my tie, I looked into the swirls of the “Starry Night”, tracing each curve with my eyes until I reached the coffee stain from yesterday morning. I thought about tonight, and I wondered if Suzanne will like her gift and was it nine years or eleven now?

A picture of a woman in Maine, curled up in a ball next to a cold ocean, popped into my head. Who would I be if I really were my mom’s son, raised in her home – if I let myself wander like a fool? And then the worst hit me. Both my mom and I will die. We have the same fate. We both wake at dawn and must eat and drink to stay alive. Neither of us will be remembered – we both will become dust. I stuff the rest of my sandwich down my throat and let it sink to my stomach like a rock.

V

Pulling into the driveway, gravel churned like always. My wife was outside, pulling weeds. I asked her how her day was at the office and she shrugged. I sent her a quick smile and received a small grin back. Her dirty sleeves were rolled up, but I could still smell the hairspray in her hair. I walked inside and heard the teapot crying.

We’re having roast beef tonight. My wife isn’t a wonderful cook, but I chew with the satisfaction of survival. She’s stabbing her green beans without mercy.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

She looks up from her plate, fork still penetrating the beans. I noticed in her quick stare that she was wearing the new necklace I had bought for her. It was a chain with a small, diamond-studded heart that hung placidly. She looks back down and stuffed the food in her mouth.

“One of the patients at work died today.”

My son, Mackenzie, sat on the edge of his seat. I noticed that he was staring off across the table to the picture frame of our little baby girl, and then to his mom.

I looked down at my plate. “I’m really sorry to hear that…”

Suzanne looked up from her plate and stared at me, as if to silence me with her sad, milky eyes and a flashback sent me shooting up from my chair to find the safety of the porch.

VI

The middle of campus had a circle surrounded by trees. I found a spot underneath the shade, trying to absorb wisdom from my surroundings, as the old bark sat against me like the wrinkles of age.

A shadow appeared in my line of vision, which turned into Suzanne, my girlfriend. She plopped down next to me. Looking up, I saw her maroon lips and smelt her sweet lavender perfume. Suzanne looked up at me, and I met those sad, milky eyes for the first time since we’d been together. They were large and white; in a liquid state.

“I heard you got drunk again.”

It was a Sunday, and she had on a nice, short blue dress decorated with polka-dots. I had missed church. I looked out across the empty lawn and felt a wind that must have been just for me. It cut me in two.

Suzanne put her hand on top of mine. Looking up into those eyes, I saw a love in them that I didn’t know how to duplicate. I decided a good thing to do would be to put my hand on top of hers, and maybe she would know I loved her, too.

I don’t know if it was that wind or the fact that she smelled like pureness but I looked up to that girl and said, “I’m going to marry you, you know that?”

She rolled her eyes and gave me a snarky smile. “You know I’m not marrying you,” the smile lingering in her sarcasm.

Her eyes met mine again, and this time I noticed they had widened. She looked back down and patted her hair, shifting into a comfortable position of pressured self-confidence. She rustled in her bag and took out a bag of M&Ms and handed them to me. “Open them.”

I looked inside, not surprised to find something in the midst of the chocolate. There sat a small letter in response to mine. My lover is mine and I am his; he browses among the lilies…

I looked into her green eyes and recited the words I had previously written for her, “You’re beautiful, my darling. Your eyes are doves.” I folded the note in my hand, taking note of the word, “lily.” I closed my eyes and pretended I was wiser than the oak tree I laid against, and my youth mocked me.

VII

I had a dream of our little girl dancing. She was wearing a yellow dress, twirling around with a basket in her hands, and I was looking through the lens of a video camera. My son was in the yard, too, dancing with her and in the background I heard a woman laughing. Our girl fell to the ground and giggled, barely able to speak a word. The dream was faint, like watching a recovered reel from a century past. I thought I almost heard her say, “dada,” but I woke up, and it was just dawn.

I heard my wife in the bathroom brushing her teeth, and I was older than I wished.

VIII

It was the second day of autumn, and I drove to work in a morning fog. We were discussing Plato in class, and I drew a cave with three figures inside. At the top was an unrealistic, shining sun with flowers on the ground. Only a few people responded to the question, “What does this mean?” I can’t make my class speak for themselves or force wisdom into their hearts. I left class, fiddling with my keys, trying to rest my mind on tonight’s game or something else trivial.

The teacher is to put on the presence of respectable appearance for his students. He must present himself as worthy of teaching the subject, raw of all misunderstanding and presuppositions. But aren’t all teachers of the human race? I am no more worthy of this position than an animal. I will find my grave just as the dove does and disintegrate amongst the fertilized seeds. But, I am grateful to have my position, no matter how meaningless it may seem, no matter who comes after me. My grandfather would have been very proud of what I’ve accomplished, I believe.

I sit on the porch swing and watch the stars almost every night. I used to point out the constellations to my children and tell them stories about their grandfather and Greek gods, sending them off to bed with thoughts stirring in their heads. I taught my son about wisdom as best I could, and my baby girl, she just cooed at the cosmos. Mackenzie has lost interest, just as we all have in the past year, since our little girl left us.

When everyone goes to sleep, I look at the sky and think beyond my house, our garden and the ghosts of every man, woman, and child who felt love on this porch. Lately, there’s only been one ghost amongst us. In a sense, we’ve all become ghosts, and our girl is more alive than we are. Gazing up into the sky, I remember I have to go to work the next day, drink a glass of bourbon, and try to fall asleep before three.

Sitting on the porch gets me through my night, just like the liquor does, stinging my throat.

IX

Time is always moving, and time exists to allow us life.

Time gives us birth at 12:22 and death at 4:01.

We plant tomatoes in the summer and uproot weeds in the winter.

War murders men for months, but doctors bring life back to casualties for days.

One can cry at night when remembering a lost child but laugh at dinner discussing that time when she was two when she took a step and couldn’t take another.

We keep and give away; we love and we hate.

There’s a place in time to speak up, and sometimes, we must keep quiet.

X

All I heard were crickets and the porch light buzzing. The florescent light was unnecessary because of the stars, but I didn’t have the energy to stand up and turn it off.

The screen door opened, and Mackenzie’s head peeked out around the corner.

“You can come out here, son.”

He slowly opened the door and sat down next to me on the swing. His reluctance stung the air harder than the humidity.

We sat in silence for a few minutes.

“Are you and mom okay?” I looked to my son and saw myself in his ragged, brown hair and round nose. He even held his hands in his lap just like me, crossing his small arms just so lightly.

“Have I ever told you the story about…?”

“Mom says you talk wise when you don’t want to feel.”

My son loosened his hands and sat on them, face looking down into his lap. I felt as if the stars had all at brightened and blinded me, forcing me to close my eyes, waiting for them to dim and find their correct proportions. I looked out past our porch and glared at the neighbor’s house, covered by the evergreens shading their home. I had never seen that house completely. I looked down at my watch and realized it was way past my son’s bedtime. Since I hadn’t said anything yet to him, he started to get up.

“She’s right you know.” I kept staring at the house, trying harder and harder to see through the limbs of the tree.

He stood up, and for the first time I realized he wasn’t going to be a boy much longer. He stood with fortitude, a boy with fierceness stronger than some men. I remembered just last year when I took him to the zoo and we ate ice cream cones, unaware of the people we were soon to become. There’s something about the way a tragedy breeds one’s personality.

He said, like a father speaking to his own son, “I know this is about Lily.” I saw his eyes this time, and there was that green, just like Suzanne’s. His pupils were suffocated by the white doves, gracefully taking over in unsustainable peace.

I watched the house across the street again, and it looked smaller. The swing door slammed. I was now alone, and the stars and the house swallowed me.

XII

They say glory to the father on high, or something like that, and I ask why. Don’t get me wrong, the Lord is my shepherd, but Father’s no friend of mine.

He showed up in a Chevy, faded blue, with a rebel flag car freshener dangling from the rear view mirror. I stood there, Grandma’s hands on my shoulders. She held them tight. I held a bag packed with my grandfather’s favorite astrology book, a few pair of good jeans Grandma picked up at the store, and my homework due next week.

He got out of the truck and smiled at me and said, “Howdy!” That was the first word I ever heard my father say. I stared at him and his blue eyes and thought, I’ve got blue eyes. He walked towards the porch where we were standing and he squatted right in front of me.

The woman behind me said, “His bag’s all packed. He’s very excited.”

He looked up at my Grandma like they had some sort of secret code. He then turned to me, with a smile that was kind of crooked on the ends as if it wasn’t completely full. He didn’t say anything to me, just stared, and then stood up and said to the woman still holding me tight, “I’m sorry for your loss. He was a great man.”

She squeezed my shoulders a little and then let go. “Y’all better get going.”

The man in front of me, tall and skinny, wiggled in his steps and backed up. “Yeah, I’m awfully sorry, but I just came to say I don’t know if this weekend will work.” He called when he found out the news, and I guess he thought now was as good time as any to meet his son. I guess he wasn’t ready, yet.

I peered up to him, letting him look at my face real hard. Look at me, I thought.

Tears that sat fresh inside from last week’s funeral started to come up again. I ran inside so that he wouldn’t see and threw my bag on the table. I would let him see my face, but not my crying – he needs to know I don’t need him. I noticed the roses sitting in the window sill, planted into her tiny, potted garden where Grandma kept her cooking herbs. They were the last three my grandfather was able to pick for his wife started to wilt. He always loved her, but I wondered how he kept doing it for so long.

I looked out the window to the man getting back in his truck, his face blinded by the sun. I closed my eyes and tried to forget what his face looked like.

I heard the front door shut to the house and Grandma walked inside. “He’ll come back next weekend, he says. You know, this is hard for him, too. After all these years…”

She fiddled with her apron, stuck around her large, rounded body. I went over and patted her on the arm, my way of saying that I know you’re trying but you don’t always have to hold it together.

XIII

It was the third day of autumn, and my wife was making dinner in the kitchen around two hours after we had all been home. I took to my room, reading notes for class the next day and grading papers. I had to stop grading because the anticipation was making my hand shaky and my grading sloppy. I couldn’t stand it much longer.

Yesterday was our anniversary. I went to bed last night, but I couldn’t sleep. I started to flip through old books and photo albums that sat in our closet. There were Polaroids of our whole family of four in our Easter attire, me as a child in a red wagon, and a giant, green ocean behind my mom in a swimsuit with her hand on her hip, laughing. I went back to bed and noticed the necklace was lying next to Suzanne’s nightstand. Does she even like necklaces? I got into bed and laid on my back, eyes peeled open. What does she like, I meditated, what will make her see.

I walked up to her cutting tomatoes for the soup she was making. I stood by the counter, waiting for her to acknowledge my presence.

“What do you want?” she spoke into the tomatoes.

I slipped a small piece of paper towards her, something I had failed to do in years. It sat there, folded like a fortune. She stopped chopping and slid her hand across the counter, her skinny fingers gripping the note. She picked it up and read the words, “Like a lily among thorns is my darling. Go look inside the garden.” She put down the knife and left the kitchen, and I followed her out. She walked slowly, confused, looking back at me every other step, but I smiled and shook my head in confirmation. I stopped and stood by the doorway, waiting for her to notice, not wanting to be there right away.

“Alden…” I knew she had found it.

I walked outside to her garden. Right in the midst of her daffodils, basil, tomatoes, and weeds was one planted lily. I watched her kneel down and look at it, her hands fell limp. She sat so still, as if she was rooted into the ground. Slowly, I saw her begin to cry. I could see her thoughts turning to a little girl in a white dress, twirling to dizziness, falling to the ground as if gravity itself was her cradle. Mackenzie rushed outside, hearing his mom crying, noticing the flower in the midst of her garden. My son slowly walked towards her, bent down into the mulch and sat with her, crying onto his mom’s shoulder like any boy would do. I stood behind them, watching – wishing I could cry, too.

XIV

It is a burden to toil each day, but it is a beautiful burden. Suzanne waters her plants with the joy of dirtied nails and Mackenzie has wisdom in words that I could hardly speak. Our girl lives among the frames that litter our home as we each carry around eternity in our hearts.

I decided to go to the porch before sunset that evening. The sky was orange, a forgotten color. It blended in with the trees, the mixing of a warm palate. I watched the evergreens and envied their lack of jealousy, knowing they will never be anything but green. But in fact the evergreen knows nothing at all, and neither do I. The tree by our porch held a new, healthy leaf, still holding on tightly. But I believe that because of what the new leaf sees in the past leaf, he will fall without fear to the ground.

A gust of wind hushed my thoughts and everything breathed, almost as one. I held my glass of bourbon and stared into the very real sun.

*** Inspired by and written as a modern-day version of Ecclesiastes. Interesting things about the story are that Alden means “wise one,” Mackenzie means “son of wise man,” and Suzanne (which I didn’t originally realize, which is absolutely crazy) means “lilies.” The letters Alden and Suzanne pass between them are copied from Song of Solomon. Ecclesiastes means “teacher,” which is something that framed the story, also that Solomon asks for wisdom. Other patterns are semi-summaries of the original text. It was fun to do, and I hope you enjoyed reading.

Published by celinamcmanus

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