Cover design by Deborah Halbfoster
Dedicated to Valerie Hart
His mom was dead and there were things that had to be done. There were very few of them that he cared about. It was the prolonged inability to keep his conscious mind focused on the present. Any activity caused the network of nerves to flash crosscuts of his past and carry his consciousness along a river of reverie that seemed to have no end. Inactivity was the same. There had literally been no life before her. Her passing pried him out of the life he was living like an excruciating but inevitable crowbar.
He opened his eyes and there it was. He felt flung back into connections so personal and private that he could not answer the questions, “What are you thinking about?” or “Is there anything I can do for you?” From this vantage point, he was also oblivious to anyone else’s grief.
Celeste recognized this as a stage of grief, disbelief. She had seen it so many times before to varying degrees. She had felt it. Her own grief had moved faster along the progression now. She had felt the disbelief. She had experienced the anger. She tried to stuff her own pain to be of comfort to Ron.
He insisted on driving. He was normally hyperaware of her eyes on him but now he was oblivious. She tried to watch the road and anticipate for him but his driving was smooth. He was carrying his iPod everywhere and when there were speakers, Frank Sinatra was on a loop of One for My Baby that repeated again and again.
When she turned the radio off, he did not react. “Do you know what will happen when we get there?”
“Yes. We’ll do what has to be done and get the hell out as soon as possible.”
She winced for him. “Ron, there are going to be a lot of people who want to talk to you.”
He did not respond but she knew he heard her. She could not reach him. She doubted that he was reachable.
He stopped on the front porch and rang the bell. She had already opened the door and froze for an awkward instant and then called out, “It’s us.”
She followed him into the house and heard muted expressions of greetings. He was saying hello but she was not sure it was really audible. His eyes scanned and panned and did not come to rest on anyone or anything. There were at least a dozen people and Celeste began embracing them warmly and Ron just kept moving until he found a chair by the kitchen table and sat down with his back to the wall.
Celeste finally felt the waves of her own grief bubbling in her and the release was welcome. Marjorie had died suddenly, without any opportunity to say anything to anyone. The EMT people came into her home and gave her oxygen and she immediately lost consciousness and never regained it.
Eight days later, Ron told them to go ahead and disconnect the respirator. He begged some people who had left and said that could not see her like that anymore to come back, assuring them it was very peaceful beside her bed now.
Celeste was with him. Her own feelings were taking her back to her mother’s bedside so many years earlier. In some ways Celeste had shown Marjorie as much love as she had shown to anyone, and she did look at her maternally but it was not the same.
She had that thin space of distance that Ron did not have. She knew that he could not conceive of anyone else feeling the same way that he did.
His stepfather was in charge of the arrangements. Ron said three things. He would write the obit for the newspaper. He would deliver a eulogy. No, she could not be laid out in a running suit. Celeste and Ron were both adamant about that. He did not remember much else, one minute after it happened.
It was just a blur for him. He felt immediately helpless and a center of focus. Because his mother had married into a large Italian family and he had married into a large Italian family, there were copious amounts of food and people in constant attendance. He watched faces stuffing food into bodies that seemed at the verge of exploding before they began to eat. There were small outbursts of laughter that sounded to him like what distant explosions must feel like. There was no talk of his mother. There were positioned calculations being made for her things.
The daze of sitting in her rooms with people who were not strangers but might as well have been caused his distance to deepen. Why were they there saying the things they were saying? They were there to support George. He told himself that it had nothing to do with him.
He had slipped into the well of blood and was alone there. His mother’s words were like an admonishing chant. “These people are not your blood,” she repeated in back of his eyes.
When Chris Calvin came to his mother’s home the day after she died, for a moment, there was someone besides Celeste that he wanted to see. They had decades of shared experiences now and Chris wanted to reminisce. The three of them sat at her kitchen table talking, But Ron couldn’t focus on this either. Celeste’s concern deepened. She had hoped this would be good medicine when she saw Chris. He loved Chris. He could not show it.
The wake started out as more of the same, but the gathering was very large. Marjorie made friends, drove them away, brought them back and made new ones. She had been a business owner and a community association president. She was a churchgoer. People came in droves and Ron stood in front of the casket and shook their hands and embraced them without meaning any of it. He was grateful to them for having come. He did want it to be a tribute to her.
When his colleagues and teachers arrived, he felt an instant of pride that what he had accomplished had brought them to her wake, but then it vanished.
He tried to facilitate conversation but he knew what they were thinking as they looked around. Had they wandered into a remake of the Godfather?
When they could, Ron and Celeste disappeared for a cigarette. The smoking lounges were all but deserted now. There had been times when those lounges rivaled the main room for participants. By 2005, much had changed.
Ron knew he was depressed but did not care. He felt sane until he looked up and saw his sister and father walking into the wake. His father had died eleven years earlier. His mouth open and eyes wide, he stared dumbfounded. It did not feel so different to be hallucinating. For a second he wondered who else was returning from the dead.
His brother and sister were smiling at him as he stood there and she grabbed hold of him and his brother, who had had not seen in years, shook his hand.
All Ron could manage to say was “I thought you were Daddy. I thought I was crazy.”
His younger brother shook his head in a gesture that was supremely his father’s and said, “Everybody says that.”
Ron was shaking and needed to sit down.
As Celeste listened to the endless 40’s music and watched him drink down tumbler after tumbler of rum and diet coke, Ron worked silently on the eulogy. She wanted to say to him that she knew he was in trouble but she did not dare. It was difficult to know what to say. Everything was met with a short clipped answer or a blank stare.
She wanted to call Connie but it was the holidays and she felt guilty because she had no cheer to bring. She wanted to talk to Tina, but she did not seem to understand. “Our mother died. We got over it,” was Tina’s response. “No one knows what to say to him and he acts like we are all intruders, Celeste.”
Tina was right but she was no help. Celeste just needed to give him time and keep him from hurting himself. Both Celeste and Ron knew that Angel hated Marjorie, but she was proud of her daughter. She saw her affectionate towards him and he accepted the affection because it was reserved and private and not meant for anyone except him. She would have to wait until she saw him alone. “How is he possibly going to read that eulogy?” Angel said to her mother.
“I’m not sure but I know he will do it. He would rather die than not be able to do it.”
It was not a long eulogy but it was based in scripture. Ron had for the last year barely been able to speak to his mother because of her new found devotion to a Southern Baptist sect that was anti-gay, closed-minded and proselytizing. Their battles over it had been ongoing and vicious. Now, he was going to go to the pulpit in this church and speak.
Celeste told herself that the last thing Marjorie would have wanted was what she called “a scene.” She prayed that he would keep that in mind.
“One of my mother’s favorite parables was the parable of the Talents. Now I know that talents were money in those days but let’s say that they were real talents as Jesus would have wanted us to think. My mom was not concerned about the two servants who used their master’s gifts in order to multiply them a lot or a little, but the third servant troubled her. She identified with the servant who buried his talents for fear of losing them. She did not agree that this servant should be punished because he was overwhelmed with fear. She begged for an understanding of the weakness.”
Afterwards, the pastor invited him to come to the church and preach saying that it would fulfill one of his mother’s fondest dreams if Ron could find his way back to God.
They were at the repast now. It was almost over and Ron said simply, “You would find me a person with a dangerous mind” and dismissed the idea.
“I feel like we are living on this highway,” said Celeste.
They drove the endless repetitions of west to east and back at least once a day and often twice.
“We are living on it. I feel like our lives on the lake have been a vacation.”
Celeste trembled. She knew it too. When her mother died, they left the apartment upstairs from Marjorie and George and moved in with her father.
His mother’s house was a showcase. It was a Southern Colonial decorated and furnished with an impeccable style that Marjorie had honed over the years. Some of the rooms were imposing. Some warm and comfortable. All had been put together carefully.
When they visited now, things seemed flawed. Relations with George were muted and not having the glue that bound them reduced the necessity of their adherence. Celeste was kind. George was distant and holding close to his family. Ron was more than happy to let him go, but there were things that he wanted. The things that had belonged to his aunt. The thought of anyone else having them gnawed at him.
Celeste never met Aunt Dotty but George sure had and he both respected her and feared her. At this one last meeting to settle things, Ron looked straight at George and said, “I’m going to want everything that belonged to my Aunt.” The implication was that George had neither paid for any of it nor deserved to have any of it. In Ron’s mind, it was indisputable.
George blinked for a moment. His mind calculated, then he said, “You can have any of that that you want.”
Ron knew, two coffee-tables, one secretary, and several framed prints. Marjorie had already given him the chair that he loved so dearly. “And I want all of my mother’s letters and journals and her investigation work about her father.”
George smiled and nodded. He was happy to be getting rid of that garbage.
Celeste said, “Are you going to be able manage here alone, George?”
George squirmed. “I don’t know.”
On the way west, Ron said, “Do you think we should offer to move in there?”
“We both know how to live there,” said Celeste.
Ron seemed to smile. “Streetlights and no mice,” he said softly.
Celeste felt herself quiver inside. At least he talked to her once in a while, but when they got home the tumblers of rum, now supplemented again with pot, came out and Frank Sinatra crooned.
Ron was into his fourth tumbler of rum and diet coke and his second joint. The world was cocoon like now. There was a comfortable buzzing behind his eyes and he could almost click the images away. The images of her laying helpless and intubated, raising her arms at the elbow and then letting them drop back down in futility. He knew in his head that it was an involuntary effort and he knew that this was better because she would have been terrified beyond words if she was conscious. He could not stop seeing it. He sucked hard on the straw and then on the joint. Maybe he could suck it all away. Maybe if he could obliterate his consciousness…His complete self-absorption shut off communication. Ron curled into a ball that resembled deep depression.
A couple of weeks later, they got a call from one of the couples with whom they had been socializing. Leonard, who did not know Ron that well, said, “You’ve got to get over this and move on.”
That was the last of Leonard in their lives.
The Irish Water Spaniels, Keats and Fitzgerald, welcomed Aunt Dotty’s treasures by marking them. The more that they knew it irked him, the more they made the legs of the furniture their favorite targets. They accomplished this with such brazen innocence, that they got away with it. Ron thought to his mom, “That’s what you get for dying. You get pissed on.”
Celeste was flabbergasted. How could he possibly not be enraged? If she had spilled something on one of his aunt’s things, his fury would have been boundless. How could it be that he could accept things from a dog that he would condemn his wife and daughter for doing? Maybe the dogs meant more to him than she did. Didn’t he understand that he was not the only person in the world who was sad over Marjorie’s death? Maybe the dogs meant more to him than she did. What had happened to the man who had loved her the way that no other man had ever loved her? Was he ever coming back?
It was a Sunday afternoon and Ron was in the living room drinking and listening to the music. Angel announced her arrival and made her way up the natural stone-lined interior stairway.
Ron said, “Your mother is upstairs.”
Keats was lying at his feet and got up to greet Angel. Fitzgerald was more exuberant. Angel gave Keats a few absent pats and shot over at Fitzgerald, “Fritz, still fucked-up as ever.”
Celeste heard her come in and came downstairs. They went into the kitchen. Angel said, “Is he drunk already?”
Celeste winced. “Not too bad yet.”
Angel turned and strode back into the living room. “Dad?”
She waited, hands at her sides- clenched. He put the music on pause. Ron met her eyes. Her face was lean and her eyes were brown furious. Her eyes were always brown, but he detected the glint. When it was quiet she said, “I’m sorry that you are sad because your mother died, but she was a spiteful bitch who hated me and mom and what you are doing sucks.”
Ron’s voice started soft. He needed to control his words now, so that he did not slur. “Just what is it that you think I’m doing?”
“Being an asshole, and drinking like a bad alcoholic.” Angel’s hands started to shake.
“Ron sat back and stayed soft. “And just what makes me a bad alcoholic?”
“Good alcoholics have some control. You have none!”
“Have I missed any days of work? Have I ever gotten a ticket for drunk driving?” Now his voice rose. “Did I or anyone else ask your opinion of my behavior?”
“How could you be so blind?” she screamed. “She’s dead! So what!”
Ron screamed louder. Celeste would have sworn the windows shook. “She was my mother! You impossible bitch of a child! She was my mother!”
Angel screamed again, a wail this time. “I can’t be here!”
Celeste said, “Don’t go.”
Ron thundered, “No, stay and spread more of your special brand of cheer, Angel.”
He strode up the stairs only Keats willing to follow him.
Angel whirled, her face contorted. “This is as much your fault as his for letting him get away with it!”
“What would you like me to do?” Celeste was crying and felt helpless. She was fast losing everything that she held dear.
“If he won’t stop, leave him!” scowled Angel.
Celeste fell silent. Then she said, “I’m not going to do that.”
“Because you have no spine, you’re jelly! I’m leaving! Don’t call me anymore.”
She stormed out.
After a time Celeste went upstairs and found Ron sleeping next to Keats. She shut the door, went downstairs and started to make their dinner.
On Mondays, Celeste had a sense of being a survivor of the weekends. Her mornings with the puppies were good. Keats wandered back down stairs where he sat regally on Aunt Dotty’s fan-back Chippendale chair, staring out into the yard. Fitzgerald followed her every step and sometimes demanded attention but could not bear to be separated from her. If she closed the door to the bathroom in back of her, he either opened it again or sat crying until she re-emerged. He took her admonishments with a full faced despondency that needed immediate forgiveness, or he totally ignored them. It always seemed to her that he was saying that he was too pretty to get mad at. The morning drive to work gave her a sense of release and a feeling of security. At least some things were still intact.
She arrived at work early. Her bakery was never open on Mondays and she made do with Dunkin Donuts. The morning was always her quiet time. But this morning, Heidi Kleiss, her boss, had left a message even earlier than the 7:15 at which Celeste arrived.
That could not be good news. The residual panic of having worked in the same building as Heidi had left her scarred. She made sure that she had opened her coffee and was seated so that her tone would be as even as possible.
Kleiss answered the phone on the second ring. “Good morning Celeste. There are going to be some changes in the transportation that we offer to the clients of Sunrise.”
Celeste had her pen out and the legal pad open. She placed them in front of her. “What changes?”
“From now on, we are limiting the transportation radius that we offer to five miles.” Heidi knew Celeste well enough to know that her mouth had just fallen open. What she was saying was that more than 50% of Celeste’s people would no longer be eligible for their transportation. She continued. “Their families will just have to manage to get them to us if they wish their folks to continue. Now we should provide them with some notice, so please tell them that they have two weeks before we reduce our radius.” Kleiss waited but there was no response. “Celeste, are you still there?”
Celeste could not resist the insider barb. “Yes, Mrs. Kleiss, I’m wide awake.” It was a reference to the replacement they had hired for Celeste as Social Services Director who suffered from narcolepsy. Kleiss either ignored or did not get the reference. Celeste did not really care. She had learned. If that’s what Heidi Kleiss wanted to do, that is what would happen. She was merely being informed. “That will cut the census in half.”
“Oh I don’t think it will be that drastic Celeste and we will just have to get out there and whip up some new business.”
Celeste thought, OK, whatever you want but not for one minute longer than you are paying me.
Dr. Tuck returned to his offices again and was met with a round of fresh condolences and belated condolences and formal condolences. He knew they were sometimes genuine and sometimes obligatory or proper etiquette. He tried hard to be gracious and snuff out further inquiries.
Sandy Humz was happy to oblige and Ron threw himself into round after round of evaluation along with extended morning phone time with Celeste and Connie Lake.
The old guard that he had been tasked with replacing was retiring now. Ron would have five openings for the next school year. Evaluations, retirements, and budgets. His hope was to delve into this pile of things and work his way through until something changed. He discussed this with Connie.
“There are going to be these job fairs in the spring. We need young blood,” said Ron.
Connie agreed and thought it was going to be exciting, but like Celeste, she was worried. She had spoken to Marjorie for years. Celeste sent messages to her mother. Ron talked her into taking sick days and going home early. He generated a lot of work but he was really good to her and Connie knew their friendship was more than workplace. They had become real friends.
It was weird. He always wanted to retain control of things but sometimes he would just say, “Just tell me where I have to be and give me what I need to have when I am there.” He liked that best and she did too. It was apparent to everyone who paid attention that Connie had more influence than a secretary. But to top it off she was genuinely nice.
“What fairs are you going to?” she said.
“Sandy will pick them. The idea is that we descend of the students like an organized hoard, give them some idea of the amount of organization that they will need to show, and see how they do under pressure. Sandy said Rutgers and the College of New Jersey.”
“That’s where Stephanie went to school,” Connie smiled. Her elder daughter was now a second year elementary school teacher in a local district that was frugal. Ron conveniently left supplies at Connie’s house. Ron liked Stephanie and said that good teachers should always have the things they needed and giant blank easel pads might be expensive but would help.
“Stephanie sure has the right work ethic. And since you are so able to make me appear organized, if she is anything like you…”
Connie smiled. He seemed to see things this way now. The phone rang. Connie answered it, “Dr. Tuck’s office.” Then her face lit up. It was Celeste.
“How are things there?” said Celeste.
“We can talk,” said Connie. “I’ll patch you through.”
Ron sat in back of the desk and Connie took one of the chairs in front. The three had coffee and the phone was set to speaker on Ron and Connie’s end. Occasionally Celeste had to be put on hold, but most days they had a solid thirty to forty five minutes to just talk.
“Have you started watching Deadwood?” asked Celeste.
Connie’s eyes opened wider. “I can’t believe the way that they talk.”
“They have quite the vocabulary,” said Celeste.
Ron tried to interject. ”I don’t suppose I can get away with calling either of you a loopy cunt.”
The phone was silent. Ron’s eyes twinkled at Connie. Her look of disdain was both entertaining and profound. “Not more than once,” she said.
Celeste supported. “If he ever, even in the slighted bit of jest does that, tell me and I will make his life so miserable that he will wind up kissing your feet and begging forgiveness.”
“So. LC is out too?” said Ron trying to maintain innocence.
Connie chortled. Celeste said, “Ron be careful you are so far over the line there may not be a way back.”
“Could I call other people LC?” pressed Ron.
“No!” Celeste exploded. “You can’t call anyone LC or I will stop watching the show with you.”
“You two are tough,” said Ron. Then he shrugged, “Ok, no loopy cunts.”
Celeste said. “He’s barely house trained,” and they both laughed.
Connie offered, “I hope he has great fringe benefits.”
“You know why he does this?” said Celeste. “He figures if you hear it enough that you won’t be offended by it. And then he trots it out whenever he likes. Don’t give him an inch, Connie. You will regret it.”
“That ship may have sailed,” said Connie.
“And we weren’t on it,” complained Celeste. “I think he should have to take us both away. I want to go away, Ron!”
“We have to take Steve,” said Connie.
“I’m not paying for Steve,” objected Ron. “He’s as guilty as I am, just stealthier.”
Connie laughed. “He is stealthy.”
Celeste was laughing too. “Ron, I’m going to tell your mother.” She tried to pull the words back but they were out.
There was a frozen silence. Ron and Connie’s eyes met and he said softly, “I wish you could.”
Celeste sat back in her office chair. It was a comment that had just slipped out. If she called him, it would only make it a bigger thing. What she had built here was thriving. There was a waiting list of clients and she knew all of her current and past families by their first names. She had found a state regulation and informed Heidi that the clients must be given thirty days’ notice of the transportation change. Kleiss had just grumbled about Richard Codey reaching into her pocket again.
Celeste had only gained a slight postponement of the inevitable, despite the fact that the NJ Governor had nothing to do with the regulation. Now she drafted a letter providing a documented notice of the change. She dated it for tomorrow so that she would have time to call each of her families today and let them know what was on the way.
She had helped to create something good here. And for the first time in her life, she had the complete freedom to organize things as she wanted them. To her families, Sunrise was a blessing that offered an affordable bridge to the demands of an aging member of the family. Her families bloomed with this nourishment.
Bonnie would be her first call. Her mother Sarah had been with Sunrise since Celeste recruited them after Sarah heard her on the radio. Sarah said, “She sounds a little daffy but she’s not from around here and has a good heart.” That was three years ago.
Bonnie was divorced and not well off. She was fifty-two, working as a bookkeeper again, and wondering how she could care for her seventy-eight year old mother who was showing signs of failing. Sunrise gave her the structure that she needed and the assistance that was so helpful.
“Hi Bonnie, sorry to call you at work but I have some troubling news. You’re going to be getting a letter that says that we will no longer be providing transportation for your Mom.”
“What does that mean Celeste, will I have to pay more for it?”
“No Bonnie. They just aren’t going to do it anymore.”
Bonnie began to cry. Celeste had flashbacks of being called at work and made to cry. She hated this. “Maybe you can talk to Hilda Sparrow or Clyde Farney. They both have families that are affected too. Maybe we can set up carpooling?”
“I don’t know them Celeste. Could you ask them?”
Celeste’s brain whirled for a second. Maybe she could organize some clients meetings. “I don’t know, Bonnie. Right now I am just trying to get through telling people about it.”
She got off the phone and began to go through each of her families situations. They were all unique and yet they had some continuous similarities. They just did not have enough money for this. She did not see how they could self-organize but she also did not understand why Kleiss was doing this. She could not ask directly but she could ask her secretary.
Vivian Florencola had always been kind to Celeste, but there was a social structure under Heidi Kleiss that accommodated Heidi’s personal animosities. Vivian had a situation that was pretty good. If she had to engage in some of the necessary cattiness that she needed to protect herself, she did so without hesitation. Now that Celeste was across the street though, she was no longer a factor.
They engaged in a few minutes of the inane chat that Celeste needed to be part of, if she wanted her answers.
“What is really going on with the transportation thing, Vivian? Is Brennan making her do this?”
Vivian lowered her voice and half turned her shoulder away from Heidi’s office door. “It’s the residents. They don’t like Sunrise. They don’t like that their vans aren’t always available. They have been putting pressure on Heidi and Brennan.”
Celeste was shocked. “Why?”
“They think they are free loaders and don’t deserve the stuff they are getting now. They’ve pretty much forgotten about you Celeste. You know how it is? If you aren’t in front of their faces, you don’t exist. I’ve heard them call it Height Village welfare.”
Celeste was nodding. “I never would have guessed that. But, of course, it is so much them at their petty worst.”
“They pay a pretty buck to be here Celeste. You know that.”
“God forbid that anyone else should get a benefit. I also know how the incest of billing works between here and there,” said Celeste.
Vivian smiled. Celeste really didn’t know anything about that but this was a glimpse. “Don’t make things hard for yourself Celeste. It’s only a job.”
Celeste thanked Vivian and they promised to get together for lunch.
Celeste drove home from work, grateful that the day was over but unable to shake off the weight of what she was doing. She hadn’t offered them false hope, but she hadn’t been able to sustain that which she had been offering. It was depressing.
How could her other people be so selfish to one another? She had benefitted from the treasure trove of their experiences. She had seen and been witness to the goodness in their hearts. Then she realized that they had needed her then. Their best qualities were limited to and focused on those they needed in their lives.
Maybe we’re all like that thought Celeste. She wondered for a moment if the people she was worrying about would act any differently if the roles were reversed? As they would say, she was feeling low and then she turned onto the little street path that led into her driveway.
The lake in front of her was gorgeous in the late afternoon early spring light. There weren’t any leaves yet and so landscape detail still had that winter stark quality that showed everything. On her lawn a doe and her newborn fawn were making one of their first trips to the lake. The doe nuzzled and soothed the unsteady fawn, whose legs were not yet fully under control.
It was only the intensity of this activity, which shielded Celeste from their knowledge of her arrival. She got to sit and watch for a few long enthralled seconds.
Stirred by the sound of the car, Fitzgerald was alert. He anticipated the sound of her at the front door. Keats was also aware. He alerted more slowly and went to the kitchen windows, where he could look out and watch with his wagging tail. Fitzgerald stood like a statue at the top of the stairs for an instant, then he bounded down to the door to greet Celeste and then frustrated, he ran back up the stairs and out of his doggy door at the side porch.
Ears flopping he scampered down the stairs towards the gravel driveway. He smelt the deer before he saw them. He barked. The doe stiffened. Celeste panicked. As she got out of the car she saw the doe and fawn, with a newfound grace, glide into the trees like shadows. Fitzgerald barked again and trotted towards her, triumphantly. She crouched down and had to smile. Home made you do that. Keats met her at the top of the stairs, wagging happily.
Celeste was moving around her home with comfortable familiarity. She hadn’t spoken to Ron since morning, which she hoped meant nothing abnormal was happening. The lentils that she had taken out of the freezer three days ago had thawed nicely in the refrigerator. She was trying this slow thaw idea to avoid some of the sogginess that sometimes came with frozen meals.
The phone rang. It was probably Ron saying that he was on the way home. He said that he was going to be home for dinner.
“Celeste, I’ve made a terrible mistake,” wailed Tina.
“What’s wrong, Tina?”
“I’m going to get married and I’m all alone!” Tina wailed again and cried miserably into the phone.
“Tina,” said Celeste calmly. “I’m so sorry that you are upset, but this is what you wanted. You wanted to be alone to start your new life and now you are frightened.”
“I made a mistake!” Tina’s tears boiled over again. “My children aren’t here. My sister isn’t here. I’m all alone.”
Celeste was trying to give Tina what she needed. “But Harvey is there. You aren’t alone. When you come back we will all celebrate.”
“I don’t deserve it,” said a despondent Tina.
Celeste heard Ron come in the door. Keats and Fitzgerald ran to the top of the stairs. They were equally excited. Keats stood up on his back paws in an effort to embrace him and Fitz bounced up and down respectfully distanced from Keats.
Ron took off his coat and jacket before he hit the top of the stairs. He sat on the top step alternately hugging and stroking both of them. Celeste called over at him. “It’s my sister.”
Ron called out, “Hi Tina.”
Celeste held the phone at to him for the wailed response.
Ron was taking off his shoes as he took the phone. “It’s going to be OK. You know what you’re doing, right?”
Tina whimpered that she had made a mistake. Ron listened and removed his tie without damaging it. “You didn’t really make a mistake. You made a decision. Now you and Harvey get all the fun and none of the headaches. Remember Celeste’s and my wedding?”
The thought of that debacle made her chuckle.
“You’re going to get married and you are going to have fun. And no one is giving you a hard time about it but you.”
Ron brought the phone back over to Celeste and Tina said. “Are you sure I’m doing the right thing?”
“None of us are ever sure until we have it, and sometimes not even then.” She watched Ron walk up the stairs carrying his shoes and jacket. The coat remained draped over the bannister.
Spring brought the advent of constant activity at their home. Celeste began opening windows and stopped noticing drafts as much as she did during the winter. She began to go outside for the joy of it again, instead of moving briskly from her car to whatever building was providing protection. She went out to search for green. She had good eyes and could spot the almost covered young crocuses as they pushed up. She delighted in greeting them. It meant that it was finally going to get warmer. It was going to be a whole different kind of pretty.
Ron began to change into his overalls right after work. He would throw on a sweatshirt and a pair of work gloves and began the job of clearing the gardens of what the winter was leaving behind. Keats and Fitzgerald were constant and willing companions. Sometimes, Ron would bring Fitz back into the house and close the doggy door. He’d explain, “He can’t be out there with me right now. He might get hurt.”
Celeste said, “What about Keats?”
“He’s fine,” smiled Ron. “He knows what he’s doing.”
First, Fitzgerald would try to go back out the closed doggy door. Then he would whimper at it accusingly. Frustrated, he would scratch at the door. Then he would run to the window where he could reach up to and stand on his hind paws, watch and bark, and then whimper again. Finally, he would come to Celeste for consolation. He would beg pathetically to be let back out. Celeste distracted him with a treat, and then worked in the rooms. Fitzgerald followed her but would break off to go back to the window jump up and look out, look out and whimper.
Ron was raking and making piles of dead leaves and branches and Keats was sitting by the wheel barrow watching Ron work. After he was done, he brought Keats in and took Fitz out to play Frisbee.
Celeste sat by the window with Keats and watched and then she took him into the kitchen for a snack. Keats had a long drink from his bowl on his table. Fitzgerald’s table was in a front door alcove off the living room. It was the place they had gated Fitz when he was a puppy. They raided each other’s tables constantly but that was only because there was always more than enough.
Chris Calvin drove up for a visit. He was manically upbeat and incredibly easy to distract. He loved their home. He walked through the rooms and outside the house saying, “This is so beautiful. This is perfect.”
Ron and Celeste smiled at his enthusiastic approval. “We love it here,” said Ron. Celeste nodded her agreement.
Chris seemed to have a toothache. He began rubbing his jaw and touching a spot inside of his mouth. Finally, Chris looked up and said, “I don’t have that many teeth left in my mouth, but the ones I have seem to be more trouble than they are worth.”
“Do you still have that same guy?” said Ron.
Chris smiled and shook his head. “No, that ended a really long time ago. Not long after I no longer had the right barter.”
Chris had once paid his dentist with pot. Before he was admitted to the New Jersey bar, he stopped selling and trading illegal substances. Then he became a lawyer and a member of The New Jersey School Boards Association. And then he gave all that up. Everything. Wife, house, career. He just stopped doing it.
Ron never did understand it. Celeste knew that he was suffering in a slow motion, self-destructive cycle. She always thought he was flighty and unreliable, but she thought he was a great father with a good heart.
“So have you thought about doing some lawyering?” said Ron.
“I’ve tried pretty hard to not think about it at all,” explained Chris. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
“What does feel right?” said Celeste.
Chris was sitting on the floor and spread both his arms palms up. “Talking with you and Ron. Being allowed to be in this wonderful place. Right now that feels absolutely real.
Celeste felt a chill that was driven away by the warmth of his giggle.
Ron had several different offices. There was the office where he and Connie did the majority of his work. There was another small office that Ron used for business at Hills. In each of the libraries there was a small office that he could use in an emergency.
Sandy Humz ran the district and Ron was considered her hatchet man. Other administrators were careful not to piss him off. If he perceived insult or resistance, his reputation was that he was cut-throat and ruthless. In addition, Ron was a good speaker and a good writer. When he and Sandy collaborated, they were more than formidable. Since the Superintendent, Leon Stavros, paid little attention to the inner workings of the district, Sandy and Ron got their own way, time after time.
That was why it puzzled him when Sandy asked to use his Hills office on a regular basis. Sandy had one office and it was in the same suite as Stavros. Sandy explained that the very sight of him made her skin crawl and put her in a bad mood. She had clocked his schedule. If she spent mornings at Hills, she could minimize her interactions with him greatly.
But Sandy had some blind spots. One concerned the Hispanic population at Hills. Cheshire was one of the feeder towns to the regional high school and its population was 35% Hispanic. The No Child Left Behind Federal legislation broke schools down by their ethnic demographics. A school could be considered failing if each cohort did not make Adequate Yearly Progress towards the President’s goal of 100% of students passing the state’s High School Proficiency Assessment. Failing schools were publically vilified. The funding was cut. Their administrators were excoriated.
Because Sandy was considered responsible for academic performance in the entire district, she and her team were targets for abuse. To make matters worse, Sandy had taken the position that their curriculum was good and that no changes needed to be made to it.
Because this was a hot button topic in the press, Stavros took an interest. He directed Sandy to do a study of the cohort and come with solutions that worked. Sandy turned the job over to Ron.
Ron was no stranger to dealing with the Hispanic community in Newark, but that had been many years ago. As he reviewed the practices of Hills towards the cohort in question. Something became clear to him. Sandy had not been sympathetic to their plight. The whispers were that both he and Sandy were closet racists who did not want to help them. He had heard Sandy say things like, “They are just going to need to give it up and speak proper English, if the ever want to get anywhere.” He knew this to be true but her attitude towards it happening was not at all receptive. What he saw was that she basically wrote them off and saw that she expected the majority of troublesome students to drop out or move before graduation. He was not sure what could be done about it.
Ron attended a meeting with the new principal of Middle Hills. Audie Riffle had retired and now Buddy Colavito, who had been his assistant was in charge. Buddy had been assigned to do a lot of Audie’s dirty work. He had been put in situations with Ron where he didn’t really have the power to not do what Ron wanted. Ron took full advantage.
In the educational hierarchy of Middle Hills School District, Principals and Vice Principals were in charge of all building operations. They reported directly to the Superintendent. The education of the students was the purview of the Assistant Superintendent. The Assistant Superintendent’s Directors were principals in fields of study. Ron’s areas were language and language related education. Bill Mathews was in charge of Math related topics and now Edmund Kominsky was in charge of Sciences. This was his first year on the team. Ron and Bill were easing him into things.
Edmund and Ron sat in a meeting with Buddy and the head of his Guidance Department, Isa. Isa had spread sheets of enrollment and performance as they were broken down by ethnicity. The Hispanic group showed a decided history of underperformance. The cohort represented the 2nd largest ethnicity in the school population. They were 18% of the school population.
Ron glanced over them and said, “Yes, I’ve seen these. At the time I believe I said that we needed a further breakdown to have an adequate representation. We needed to include transfer rate, and dropout rate.”
Isa smiled. “And that was a perfectly valid consideration and so I went back for the last five years and calculated those same rates.” She produced further charts.
Ron smiled. He liked that a lot. If Isa was going to bring an informed approach to these meetings, he was all for it. He studied the work. Edmund studied the work and asked what kind of software she used in preparation. Isa grinned and was happy to show off. Ron studied.
This was a different kind of reading. Looking at it like a typed page was a mistake that many people made. Ron identified filters and focus. He scanned for curricular connection. Then back to the start with another focus. He loved the way that he had learned to do this. He processed. There was a decided lack of upward migration from remedial level courses.
Isa continued. “I’ve cross referenced the salient grouping statistics with standardized testing. The explanation for both a lack of upward mobility and an inflated dropout rate decidedly points a lack of language skills.”
Ron was still scanning, “I’m coming to the same conclusion although I see a gender disparity and an age disparity.”
“What do you mean?” asked Isa.
“Look at the age of entry for males and then the age of entry for females. Do you find it odd that males are on rough average eighteen months older than females?”
“I see that,” said Isa.
“Now look at the dropout rate. When a students ages out of public education what do we call it?”
“What do you mean?” said Isa.
“An unclassified student over the age of nineteen,” said Ron. “He’s included in the dropout rate.”
As always Ron had a secret weapon. Sandy had reviewed these reports with him two days earlier. He smiled as it dawned on Isa that she had not factored this into her disparity in the dropout rate.
Now on firmer footing, Ron turned to Buddy. “But there is some good stuff here and I agree with you that this cohort of kids is together too much and needs to be broken up.”
“Then tell your boss to stop being so stubborn about moving kids around,” said Buddy.
Ron looked up with a familiar glint in his eye. “Tell my boss?” he repeated. “I suppose you could tell your boss to tell my boss and see how that works out for you, or you could always call Sandy and happily inform her yourself that you think she’s being stubborn. She’s going to ask you about standards of performance. She going to ask you if you are asking her to lower the standards of the curriculum for Hispanic kids. I know you would rather that I have this conversation with her but this one is all yours. Bring Isa that will help.”
Ron went for a cigarette ride after the meeting. Colavito was right. Sandy was stubborn about the problem. Ron headed towards the mall which was four miles though winding but uncongested streets. Was Sandy a prejudiced person? Probably she was. It amazed Ron that Sandy’s exposure to the world outside of her farm and Middle Hills was so insulated. He wondered if she actually knew any Hispanic people. He did not like the answers that his instinctive impressions gave him.
She was as smart as anyone else with whom he collaborated, but Adele Becker’s worldliness left him in awe of his former mentor. Warren Lashly was the most well-travelled man that Ron had ever met. His own experiences and worldliness outstripped Sandy’s by a long shot. His instincts were telling him that Colavito was right. What was he supposed to do with that information?
Ron skirted the edges of the mall and turned his car down towards another route back that would take him to Summit without going passed Hills again. His designated parking space was always left empty, unless some visiting parent decided to ignore the sign that had his name on his slot. District Administrators learned quickly that they were not to object when such things happened.
Leon Stavros was out of the building and so Sandy was relaxed and smiled when she saw him. “Well, how did that go?”
“Colavito is still a fool but Isa is pretty sharp. She had some stats that I was able to deflect but they are making the case that year after year shows no movement for Hispanic kids out of the lower ability groups.”
“We all know,” snapped Sandy. “And we know that the problem is that the middle school doesn’t prepare those kids before they send them on to us.”
“She was charting their progress while they are here, with our curriculum,” said Ron.
“There are cultural problems there no doubt,” said Sandy. She was ready to be done with this topic. “What does dear Buddy propose we do about it?”
“He doesn’t have a proposal but I do,” answered Ron. “Buddy is only looking at one side of the equation. My suggestion is that we say that more total school involvement is a key to the problem.”
Sandy smiled. “That’s why I hired you. You never think inside the boxes people try to put you in.”
Ron felt himself flush at the compliment. He really was just buying time so that he could improve instruction and fiddle a bit with the learning track groups that he hated.
Sandy was writing now. “So your suggestion is that I have him spin his wheels with the coaches for a while.”
She handed Ron a paragraph that she had scrawled. They exchanged a look. Ron did not say anything. He could not read her handwriting, few people could. Sandy had been a punished lefty. The backhand scrawl that developed from her misguided teachings had to be held at a certain angle and even then it was difficult. She was impatient. “Hold on a second.” She reached for the page and called for her secretary to quickly type it so Ron could have it back at his office.
Then she said, “You graduated from Drew, didn’t you?”
“I think so,” said Ron. “Lots of people came. There were bagpipes and they gave me this piece of paper that said I did. Why?”
“Did you meet Tom Kean while you were there?”
“No, he came after. I did vote for him once though.”
Sandy grinned. “That’s once more than I did. I want you to come with me to meet him. He’s conducting a study and wants input. We’re both invited”
“That’s great,” said Ron. “How would anybody know to invite me?”
“I get to bring one person. You’re it. You’ll need Connie to clear next Wednesday and Thursday from your schedule.”
Ron sat with Connie after he returned from Sandy’s office. He had gone for some coffee and smoked another cigarette but called Connie and she said she would love a coffee.
They sat at his desk. First they went through the business of clearing his schedule. Connie said, “Are you happy to be going back there?”
Ron’s eyes softened. “As an alumni graduate of their doctoral program? Yeah that feels really good. I don’t know what Tom Kean is doing there but it will be interesting.”
“It’s an honor,” said Connie.
“I suppose it is,” said Ron.
Connie thought that Ron was a strange man who fit together most peculiarly. He may have loved affirmation more than anyone she ever met and had absolutely no idea of how to respond to it. Ron thought that it would have been a real honor if Drew actually had asked for him. This was just Sandy wanting him there.
“They’re right about these kids, Connie. They aren’t being motivated.” He opened his eyes and met hers. “Nuns knew how to motivate.”
Connie and Ron laughed. “They sure did.”
“Do you think it was more than the fear?” asked Ron.
“They were Catholic. They were taught to obey the church.”
“So were you,” said Ron.
Connie grinned. “Do you have any complaints about my grammar Dr. Tuck?”
“Ok, so I can’t have the teachers demand obedience, which they would not know how to do anyway, and I’ve got to find teachers who can motivate students to stand up to a culture that says school is something you need to get through before they let you get a job.” Ron stopped talking. He needed a young Ron Tuck. But even a young Ron Tuck would not have chosen to take on this population.
“What are you going to do?” said Connie.
“I need new teachers,” said Ron.
Ron and Celeste sat in the living room. Keats lay at Ron’s feet. Fitzgerald sat very still as Celeste pet him. Celeste was down on the floor and Fitz could curl into her and get even closer than he normally tried to be. He had worked late. He hadn’t really had dinner but had grabbed a large sandwich. He was just starting to drink for the day. Every once in a while Celeste would taste his drink. She would pretend to shake and then cough and say,
“Oh my God that’s strong, Ron.”
“Do you want a drink? I’ll make it much weaker.”
“Maybe this weekend. Do you think that maybe we could go out this weekend?”
Ron tried not to visibly exhale but it happened anyway. He tried to cover it up. “Where would you like to go?”
Celeste saw it. “We don’t have to go anywhere?”
“I hate when you do that!”
“I didn’t do anything Ron. I made a suggestion. From your reaction, it was obviously a bad idea.”
Ron got defensive. “All I said was where would you like to go Celeste?”
Ron took a long pull on the straw to his drink. It tasted sweet and good and there was still that hint of a burn. He lit a cigarette. The rum and nicotine he thought were calming him weren’t working. He needed pot.
“It wasn’t what you said Ron. It was how you said it.”
“How did I say it?”
She thought he was being deliberately obtuse. “It wasn’t exactly how you said it. It was what you did before you said it. You’re better at this than I am. You can pick apart anything anyone says to you. And maybe they get confused and walk away Ron, which is why you usually do it.”
She felt her anger transporting her. She wanted to stop and couldn’t. He had made her like this. He had made her want to share every little feeling but then he would sit in judgment of them. Well, since this is what he wanted, she would give it to him. “But I’m your wife and I know that you do things like this to deflect and avoid the real problem.”
She could hear that he was angry. She had gone this far. “You need help Ron. You’re broken because of your mother’s death. You’re trying to self-medicate but it isn’t working.”
Ron put his head down and started rolling his joint. “I’ll work it out,” he said.
Suddenly, Fitzgerald heard or smelt something. He moved like a shot. Celeste yelped because the pain of his weight on her feet dug into her and then he flew out the doggy door. Keats was a full few seconds behind him. He had learned to be more wary of rushing out into the night. Ron bounced up, turned on the outside light and opened the door. The dogs were barking as a small herd of deer which, with Celeste’s doe and fawn, made their way to the lake in the moonlit dark.
Celeste was standing next to him at the door watching their dogs be territorial. Ron had them on a wireless collar for their safety mostly but it turned out to also create a safe passage corridor across their property. Ron put arm around her shoulder and said, “I’ll work it out. I promise.”
The Rutgers Center for this event was large. Rutgers was a fine school with a good reputation. Ron had found its graduates well prepared in subject matter, but the questions for him centered on their preparedness for block classes and multiple learning styles. He was also after that click that showed him that they got what it was all about.
Ron was upfront about his interviews. They had fifteen minutes to impress him enough to talk to them again. He sweetened the pressure by saying, “I have five openings that I need to fill, so this an actual opportunity.” Some of his colleagues would use this time to pick the students’ brains about what they were learning with no openings to speak of. The college provided a good lunch and it was a day off campus, which translated into an easy day. He wanted to make sure that they were not just going through the motions but giving this an honest shot.
Each candidate had a binder that included resume, transcript and anything else they deemed important. After sitting through the welcome, which allowed for political networking, the various school people went off to interviews. Some districts sent their human resource person to do the initial rounds. Some building principals wanted to do it themselves.
Ron had been going to these things with Sandy and Bill for five years now. He knew what he wanted. He did four interviews an hour for three hours and then they broke for lunch. The way the system worked was that if there was anyone you wished to speak to again, those appointments would be made during lunch for afterwards. This was when about half of the attendees left.
Ron had three that he wanted to speak to again. This was why each of the directors drove their own cars to the fairs. Bill went back to the office right after lunch. Sandy always stuck around some to see what was happening. She worked a later day than most of the people here. She would often go back to her office to say goodnight to her secretary at four and be around until seven or eight before she went home.
Susan Saprini looked to Ron like she was custom made for Summit. She was athletic, and well prepared. She knew the buzz words and when Ron probed a little deeper she knew what they meant as well. This was the kind of young teacher that he could work with. There was one other, a wiry looking guy named Billy. He was likeable in a disarming way but Ron saw a willingness to accept new ideas in his thinking. He was very bright and had a streak of independence that Ron liked.
Two candidates was a good day’s catch. Ron felt like a fisherman laying out his nets. He told Sandy about his success. She said that she was headed back to the office.
Ron said, “Do you need anything back in district?
Sandy grinned and said, “Not a thing. Talk to you in the morning.”
About 3:30, Ron started what would be a two hour drive home. He was listening to a Michener audio book of The Source and the book transported him back to pre- Jewish faith. He listened to the story of a man who fell into uncontrollable obsession for a temple girl that had had one the right to have one night with. These were the followers of Ba’al.
Uncontrolled obsession. Ron could understand that. For a moment he thought that he could have been that man in a different time. He could have been a man who fell into the pitfalls of many harmful obsessions. Was he really going to let a common one like alcohol do him in? He was totally resolved that this was not going to happen but when he got home, he immediately poured himself a large glass of rum and coke in an ice filled mug that Celeste kept chilled for him.
Celeste organized a social workers network luncheon. The acceptance of the idea surprised Celeste. Heidi had always been skeptical about the value of her attending meetings of the network but as part of her campaign to create new clients for Sunrise, she was all for it. Celeste threw herself into the task, thinking that she had built up Sunrise’s clientele once and she could do it again.
She arranged for a luncheon that would be followed by a tour of both Height Village and Sunrise. Celeste was amazed when the proposed cost of this luncheon, roughly four–thousand dollars to pay for a four course luncheon to be served to the thirty invitees, was approved without objection.
Celeste had the invitations printed. She did the mailing that was accompanied by a Height Village brochure and a Sunrise brochure. She arranged for a string quartet to play while people were eating. Celeste managed to arrange for convenient parking and rented a shuttle bus that would conduct her colleagues on a complete tour of the sprawling Height Village complex, including Sunrise.
She notified Dennis Brennan’s office and there were fresh cut flowers ordered for all of the receiving areas. The grass was manicured the day before and landscaping even cleared Celeste’s vegetable garden and fertilized her soil to help ensure that her clients had a good crop this year.
In short, Height Village, always tidy anyway, was putting on its Sunday best for her. She was always proud of the appearance that her facility made on normal days, but today it sparkled.
The luncheon ran like clockwork. Brennan came to thank the participants for their attendance and made it feel like Celeste was his right hand person and that they spoke often. The truth was that he had not said a word to her directly since before he had forced her transfer.
Heidi Kleiss also addressed the group and was at her charming, Scandinavian best. It amazed Celeste that in person Heidi could appear as if butter would not melt in her mouth.
It was a long and exhausting day. Celeste was hopeful at the start, but by the end of the day she realized that she had not gotten one referral. Residency at Height Village on the other hand was solicited by no fewer than nine of her colleagues.
Afterwards a jovial Heidi patted her condescendingly on the back as her Atta boy, and she was told that if she did get any clients that stayed for at least three months, there would be a bonus of $100 in cash for her. Celeste was appropriately grateful but as she drove home the obvious occurred to her. Her clients could not be referred by this group with the current transportation restrictions.
Without the additional help that was afforded by the grants and the transportation, it was not doable. The fragility of her people demanded a steady and secure structure. They could not adjust to the added variables of carpooling and different drivers. Their families could not manage the changes to their work schedules. A short time after the luncheon, Celeste was informed that her hours were being cut.
There had been a time during their relationship when news of her employment status would have caused concern between them. That was gone. Ron was making more money now than they ever thought possible.
Celeste told him about it during dinner. Meals were quite the event at their home. Both Ron and Celeste were horrible about not feeding Keats and Fitzgerald from the table. The result was that the dinner had become a competition between Keats and Fitzgerald to see who could coax the most food out of them while they tried to eat.
Celeste was the more grievous offender and so she bore the brunt of their coaxing.
Celeste looked crossly at Fitzgerald. “Stop breathing on me!”
Ron laughed. “He’s your son.” This was cue for Keats to go to Ron’s chair, where Ron tried to surreptitiously sneak him a small piece of veal.
“You’re just as bad as I am but you think that you get away with it,” barked Celeste.
She was feeling guilty. Ron said, “You know it doesn’t matter to us about the money.”
That was undisputedly true. He never cared about who made what as long as they had enough to do what they wanted to do. He had begrudgingly given in on savings, although his first response to any need was still that he would make more or that they had enough. It wasn’t about that.
“Do you remember when you found out that you were the lowest paid administrator in Morris County?” said Celeste.
“Yeah,” said Ron, “By a lot and that stung. We both know that’s one of the reasons that I took the Vice Principal job. I would have always been the lowest paid administrator in Morris County.”
“You were insulted because it valued your work so little,” said Celeste. “You did not set out to but now you are one of the top paid Administrators in Morris County. And you did that in four years, Ron.”
“That’s not how it happened,” said Ron defensively.
“You can tell yourself that Ron, but you were insulted. And you decided to show them what you were worth.” Celeste was serious.
Ron stammered. “That’s the thing you always say that I do, and I promise you now and always, it was never in my thinking.”
Celeste thoughts flicked for a second. He sure was making lots of promises with evidence to the contrary lately, but what good what it be to point it out. He would just get defensive and deflect whatever she said. She refocused.
“I feel undervalued in the same way that you did. It’s not that I am going to have any less responsibility. I just won’t be getting paid for as many hours to get it done. It’s a pay cut.”
Ron sighed she was right. He would not pursue the question of why he did what he did right now. He could make things not all about him, if he stopped for a second and thought about it. “Can you survive there with this transportation thing gone?”
“I don’t see how,” said Celeste.
Ron looked full into her face. “Do you care?”
“Not as much as I used to,” confessed Celeste.
“Then don’t give as much as you used to,” said Ron.
Celeste smiled. “It’s not that simple.”
Ron smiled. “Can you make it that simple?”
Three more college fairs and Ron had his pool of candidates. There were nine. From the nine he would choose five. He was pretty sure that he would have a good grouping for his classes. He would next interview along with the building principals.
Four of the openings were at Summit and only one at Hills. He was doing the interviews with an old friend. Mark Cretti had been Ron’s colleague. They had worked for Adele Becker together. Mark was a student activities director who had left their previous school for a VP job and from there he was interviewed at Summit after Dirk Willamore retired. Sandy had asked Ron’s opinion of him and Ron had been complimentary but it was Leon who hired him and so Sandy was immediately distrustful.
After Mark had been on the job a few months, Sandy had said casually to Ron, “Not very bright is he?”
Ron had just shrugged but filed away Sandy’s comment.
Mark cleared his schedule for the day to do the interviews. They sat in office where one wall was a bank of windows that looked out at the school’s front entrance.
They moved to a three-sided conference table that Mark had pushed up against the bank of windows. Mark seemed easily distracted throughout the day, and Ron would catch him looking out the window watching who was coming and going as much as he was paying attention to the candidates. Ron let Mark take the opening round of questions.
Ron was surprised at the lack of depth in Mark’s questioning. He seemed more interested in who they knew at the schools from which they came and whether or not they played sports than he was about their preparedness for a ninety minute block schedule in an English classroom.
He liked Susan Saprini a lot. She had played field hockey and softball at Rutgers. Mark knew her coaches. Ron figured out that he would make a call to his friend of colleague and find out that person’s opinion. That would make up about 75% of his opinion.
Ron wanted to probe their knowledge of multiple intelligences. If they knew who Howard Gardner was, he would smile and proceed to their knowledge of interdisciplinary learning. Then he wanted to know about their philosophy for the teaching of writing. Then he examined them about their understanding of ability groups and curriculum. The last part he did partially to make Mark feel totally out of his depth. They were agreed that Susan was a keeper. That left three more.
Between interviews Mark said, “Do you ever hear from Adele Becker?”
“Not for a few years,” said Ron. “We lost touch after I changed jobs and graduated from Drew. I still have her phone number if you want it.”
“I don’t want to bother her,” retreated Mark. “But if you talk with her, please remember me to her.” Ron said that he would but filed that away into Mark just making conversation.
Billy Brightway did not impress Mark. He had not played sports. Mark did not know anyone from the high school he attended or student taught. In Mark’s eyes that was two strikes.
Billy breezed through Ron’s questions as Mark stared out the window. At one point, he abruptly stood up and said, “I’ll be right back. You two go ahead.” Mark disappeared from his office for a few minutes and Ron and Billy continued. Billy seemed oblivious to the fact that it did not look great for him when the principal walked out halfway through his interview, but Ron didn’t care. The guy knew what he was talking about and Ron wanted him.
Mark wasn’t so sure. “What do you like about him?”
“He knows English. He has a good idea of what teaching his about. The kids are going to like him.”
“I don’t know,” said Mark. “There’s something a little strange about him.”
“He reminds me of myself when I was first teaching,” said Ron.
“Maybe that’s what I’m afraid of,” laughed Mark.
Ron smiled. “Didn’t you think I was a good teacher, Mark?”
“You were a great teacher, just a real pain in the ass for administration. I’m not sure I want another pain in my ass.”
“You get three years to decide that, Mark. I can teach him to not be a pain in the ass but I can’t teach him to be a good teacher if he doesn’t have the raw materials.”
Mark laughed again. “When did you stop being a pain in the ass?”
By the end of the long day, they had three solid people. That left one more opening.
It was late in the afternoon and they were both tired. Mark said, “There’s somebody else I want you to meet. Do you remember Jodi Krakow?”
“No,” said Ron. The name rang a distant bell, but he couldn’t place it. I knew Walter Krakow for a few months before he left. Walter had been the Vice Principal when Ron first arrived at his previous school.
“This is his wife. I guess she left before you got there.” Mark showed her into the office and they embraced and had chit-chat about their past. When that was over Mark looked over at Ron, “Do you have any questions?”
Ron was almost sorry that he started asking them. Jodi was nice but she was terribly outdated in her methodologies. She kept making references to people that she thought they would both know. Ron was far from satisfied with her answers.
Mark had sat through it enough times to know it. When she left he said, “Tell you what Ron, I’ll go along with the other three and you give Jodi a chance at the last slot.”
Ron was reluctant but he agreed. He knew that this was how things were done. He rounded out his other openings with two kids from Pennsylvania. One was a girl from, Philly that Ron liked a lot. The other was a guy who put himself through school while he was a prison guard at night. They both impressed Ron with their work ethic. And then there was Jodi who knew Mark.
It was unusual for Angel too seek Celeste out at work but not unheard of. “Are you almost done for the day, Mom?”
Celeste said that she was heading to Donaldson Farm to get some produce and then going home.
“I’ll meet you there in about fifteen minutes?” said Angel.
Celeste agreed and they each drove their cars to the farm stand that had grown from an actual farm stand to a complex of fields and activities such as pick your own strawberries in the early summer months or go on a hay ride in the fall or get lost in the corn maze.
Angel knew the Donaldson family, had gone to school with the Donaldson boys. Everything at the stand appeared differently to her than it did to Celeste, who was still in awe of the freshness and homegrown quality to everything she saw.
They wandered the freshly painted outdoor bins, looking at a high grade of produce. Their own potatoes and onions and beets, still clinging to bits of the soil in which they grew. Then Angel’s face brightened and she went to some local printed t-shirts that that bore the farm’s name with a bounty of ripe fruit depicted under it. “Don will like this,” she said and held up the t-shirt.
Celeste smiled and sorted through some leafy green carrots, their points dwindling to dusty roots. “Things seem to be getting pretty serious between the two of you.”
Angel stopped and delivered the message that she had come to announce. “I’m going to marry him.”
Celeste’s eyes filled with instant tears of joy and they embraced between the carrots and the potatoes. “I’m really happy for you,” said Celeste.
“He knows me. We both work hard. He loves me. We have the same kind of dreams,” said Angel.
“Do you really love him?” said Celeste.
“I do Mom. I really do.”
They agreed to meet back at their house and Celeste drove home on a cloud. She wanted to call Ron but he would still be in meetings. They would wait until he got home. This was really Angel’s news to give. Celeste could not stop smiling.
As she drove she prayed to her mother. She saw her mother all soft and warm in a rocking chair singing Jingle bells to Angel in the middle of July because it was the only song that would soothe her and only Nana could sing it to her.
The freely flowing power of connecting overflowed from Celeste’s eyes and she had to pull over by a lake that was much larger than her lake and finish her prayer. “She’s getting married Mom, you’d be so happy.”
Ron ended his early days with a trip to the gym. He became a regular, doing his cardio on the elliptical for about forty-five minutes and, then doing one of his muscle groups, arms and shoulders, back and chest, legs- on the machines that he now relegated himself to. His days of free weights were over. Now he just wanted to stay strong. He carried his gym bag with him each morning, and did not bother to change back into street clothes.
His ride home was a straight easy shot along a beautiful country highway. He was more than ready to be home for the day. He was carrying his jacket, pants and shirt over one arm. And had the gym bag with his shoes, socks, and underwear, in the other hand. He wore his coat over his t-shirt and gym shorts.
Celeste molded her body to him and kissed him at the top of the stairs. He felt hot and strong and she liked that. She said, “Let me take your coat.”
Ron stood there kind of helplessly holding clothes and bag. Celeste took the clothes from one arm and draped them over the bannister. He put the bag down and she was in the middle of awkwardly helping him out of his jacket, when Angel walked into the room and blurted, “Hi Dad, I’m getting married.”
Ron managed, “huh?”
He was now free of the garment he would have shrugged off if Celeste hadn’t been helping him. He looked around a bit confused. “You’re getting married to Don?”
Angel moved over and hugged him and kissed him. “Yes Dad, good choice.”
Ron immediately got into the spirit of it. “Outstanding! Let’s celebrate with dinner out. I vote for lobster!”
Mother and daughter responded energetically. Celeste said, “I’ll turn off the stove and put everything back in the refrigerator.”
Ron headed upstairs top shower and change his clothes. Keats and Fitzgerald, feeling snubbed, trailed after him, frustrated.
Lobster had been a family tradition. Ron and Celeste had both grown up thinking of it as a specialty treat meal that marked occasions with fine linen and nutcrackers at each table, and sometimes silly plastic bibs.
Pub 199 changed all that for them. It was a cross between a biker bar and a hunting lodge. The bar was huge and the waitresses wore tight Pub 199 t-shirts and tight jeans or tight skirts. The juke box was loud, but the place was immense. Preserved heads of deer and antelope and buffalo and tigers and rams and other exotic Taxidermy that would have made Teddy Roosevelt proud lined the walls. It was a raucous place that was simultaneously a biker hangout, a pick-up bar, and a family dinner spot.
The man who owned was an illiterate immigrant who drove a cold truck up to Maine twice a week and bought lobsters for his restaurant. He coupled that with the enormous amount of two dozen clams and offered them at a ridiculously low price.
Ron, Celeste and Angel had gone there often. Angel told them that he was not a nice man and was known as the Tasmanian devil among the waitresses. But then he opened a second spot about a mile down the road from where they lived and it was the creation of an instant oasis for them.
Ron drank Sea-breezes and Celeste had a beer and Angel introduced them to a Bay-breeze that used pineapple juice instead of grapefruit juice. Celeste liked that and Angel swapped with her and drank her beer.
They were light and happy with each other. Angel told them about the restaurant business and about how she and Don absolutely loved exploring new things for their pallets together and about how Don was becoming well known for his cooking.
Ron sat back and thought she was on an incredible rushing high. He looked over at Celeste and saw that she was also on a very different but joyful ride. He tried to feel happy and drown out that chanting voice that had started, “Not your blood.”
It wasn’t that he believed implications of the chant, he did not. But it was a thorn that would not go away. It kept him from truly enjoying anything for a long period of time. Sometimes the rum and pot made it stop.
It was truly spring now and their home was opening to it. Ron had reassembled the mesh tent room on the deck that allowed them to eat outside relatively bug free.
He had hauled the huge glass tabletop, which once was Marjorie’s table, up from the barn. He was pleased with his body’s performance. He had managed to build up muscle tone in his legs and thighs. He squatted and lifted the oval shaped glass in a motion that made his back ripple and his shoulders flex out.
Celeste did like to watch him. She didn’t like it when he did anything with height that put him on a ladder, but he didn’t do that so much anymore. When they bought an old Ford pickup, from Tina’s younger son, he used it with joy and she liked taking rides in it with him. They would climb in and get their annual plants for the terraced gardens that he constructed. Him in the pickup with him in his overalls and Celeste wearing what he called a “schemata” coat.
“We look like Ma and Pa Kettle,” said Celeste.
“I think we are and we just don’t know it. We may be the last to find out,” said Ron.
They sometimes had good luck with annuals but, often as not, by the end of summer they would have become overgrown. But this was spring and they both were happy to be planting.
The drive to the nursery was from the county road to old farm roads. They always took Ron back to when he had been a city kid and this very spot was where interest in a girl became an interest in horses for him. Celeste would say that it was somehow fate and Ron thought of it as irony.
One drives country roads by remembering markers. There is no sign but there is an old tree by a fork in the road with a barn in the background. If you turn left there, that road will run along the rear border of Panther Lake and cornfields eventually turn into a flatland of sod farms.
This was where the paved roads ended. There were the deserted greenhouses of a onetime competitor gone to their skeletal remains now. Abandoned and rusted with a few rags and stubborn aluminum still standing. Alone that pot-holed dirt road, they bounced until another vast array of greenhouse nurseries appeared on a road that was otherwise littered with rusted out farm machinery. There was parking for dozens and a system for loading what was purchased. It sat in stark contrast to its surroundings.
This was where the locals bought plants. It was not a highway side lure-you-to-stop greenhouse. It was an extended farming family who knew how to grow things. They had decided that running this greenhouse thing paid much better than running a farm. There were a couple of houses scattered on the farm but they were not in sight of the greenhouses.
Ron and Celeste wandered through the nurseries, sometimes holding hands and sometimes independently calling to one another to come look.
Ron called Celeste over, “Look!”
It was a Hibiscus tree with two of the most perfect deep red blossoms. They smiled to each other. “We can keep it on the deck and bring her in for winter,” said Ron.
Celeste rolled her eyes and thought, it’s not enough that we live on a lake surrounded by trees. No, he wants to have a tree in the house. It was beautiful and it did remind her of the islands. Celeste agreed and smiled.
They packed up five or six large flats of annuals into the bed of the Ford and Celeste was smiling as they bounced along the road with Ron driving very slowly so as not to damage the plants.
They drove up on their side lawn about ten feet from their door. There was no drive way to the front of their house. It sat facing the county road but seemingly inaccessible. The unloaded the flats to the benches and Ron said, “Well, it looks like I have to get the fences up now.”
Celeste kissed his neck and swatted his bottom. “You need a straw hat.”
She went inside to open the door for an impatient Keats and a frantic Fitzgerald.
Putting up the fence was a full day’s work. Ron was up, dressed, and out the door holding his work gloves, early. He loaded the coils of chicken wire from their storage spots. He loaded the pre-framed gate that he had made. Then he loaded the steel stakes. He put in his snub nose plyers in along with his 12 pound sledge hammer. Keats came down the barn with him and barked and wanted to help a few times, but mostly he sat and watched. Fitzgerald didn’t like the barn and would only go if he really was intrigued, or if Celeste went there.
Ron got into the truck and looked down at Keats. “I’ll see you up top. Be careful while I back out.”
Keats would take a few steps back, eyes still on Ron as he backed the truck out of the driveway and then turn and raced up the outside stairs as Ron came around the corner and drove up onto the lawn.
Ron laid out the coils of wire while Fitzgerald came out to see what was going on. As always, he wanted to play. Ron could not resist and gave a stick that Fitzgerald found somewhere and laid at Ron’s feet, wagging his tail hopefully, a few tosses. Then Keats got involved and wanted to play and Ron had to stop. “I’ve got to get these fences up and you guys aren’t helping.” He sat them on the lawn in back of his truck and lectured them.
Keats seemed to understand and trotted slowly back towards the door. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, waited for him to stop lecturing and figured it was time to play now. He picked up the stick and laid it at Ron’s feet and whimpered for him to throw again. “Ok,” said Ron and he herded them both inside and shut the door.
Now was the fun part. Ron jockeyed the truck so that the bed was close and parallel to where he wanted to drive the long metal stake. The stakes each had arrow-shaped mini anchors about six inches up the frame. He climbed into the bed of the truck and held the spike with one hand and swung the sledge hammer with the other. The vibrations shot through his arms. The ground was cold and rocky and after about twenty-five raps later the pole was in deep enough to add some rocks and pack in and then bang it a few more times and pack it down again and then move on the next. He had sixteen poles in all to bang in.
About five polls in, Ron was sweating and bearing down when he heard the “Woo Hoo” call of Chris Calvin as he came up the side stairs. Ron smiled and stopped to light a cigarette.
“This is great,” said Chris as he walked towards the truck and Ron. “Man, you really do love to work! What happened to you?”
“I don’t know,” said Ron. “I think your fine influence finally wore off and my Protestant ethic took over.”
“Well maybe I can give you a little help and make it go faster and then we can both relax.”
“Let me get you some gloves,” said Ron.
“I hate gloves,” said Chris.
“Ok,” Ron warned “but one wrong swing of the hammer and you might not be playing for some time.”
Chris nodded. “Now that’s a fair point.”
The work went much easier with two sets of hands. Ron asked about the kids and about how things were going with the girl.
“I don’t know,” said Chris. “She’s sick all the time and can’t get out of bed and I wind up helping her suck down some fentanyl pops and that’s the end of the day.”
“Isn’t that shit more powerful than heroin, Man?”
“Don’t believe all that shit, but they are strong.”
“Why don’t you just get out of there more often?” said Ron.
“No car. Putt-putt finally blew up,” said Chris.
“Oh Man,” said Ron. “So you have no way to work or anything?”
“No, I am saved from the travails of having to go to work by a lack of transportation, Brother.”
They were stringing and unrolling the wire now. Ron showed Chris how to crimp the wires and bend and snip them so they adhered. “Suppose you just borrow the truck during the week and then you could just get it here by Friday nights and you could spend a couple of nights in Angel’s old apartment in the barn and have it for the next week.”
“That’s incredibly generous,” said Chris. “Why would you do that?”
In Ron’s mind it was simple. It was an extra vehicle and Chris didn’t have one. How was he ever supposed to make things better if he couldn’t get around?
Celeste returned to work feeling much less depressed about her situation there. She and Ron and spoken about it again and the question he posed to her was a simple one.
“You can be done with it anytime you want. Are you ready to be done?”
It was a fair question, but she didn’t know how to respond. “I don’t think I’m ready yet.”
“Then just accept it for what it is and forget about them when you aren’t there.”
That was easy for him to say. He could do things like that. He once taught a class in Macbeth after just learning that his father had a stroke on the operating table and that his life hung in the balance. Ron put it out of his mind and taught his class and then got to the hospital as soon as he could.
She wasn’t built that way. She could not compartmentalize without it taking a heavy toll on her attention and performance. But maybe she could compartmentalize a little bit.
The three of them began their day with a conversation.
Ron said, “Go on and tell her. I know you are busting to do it.”
“Connie, Angel is getting married.”
“Really!” smiles Connie. “Congratulations!”
Ron smiled. Connie smiled and Celeste smiled a deeply satisfying grin that spoke of all the times she had been starved of those congratulations. Angel had not graduated from High School. They had not been invited to her college graduation, just told about it afterwards. She had been too high to even know where she was at her eighth grade graduation and that had been an impossible embarrassment. Angel had decided to act out and sang with groups she was not part of, and caused basic havoc at that event. But this would be different. This would be a time when she could be proud of being Angel’s mother. This was a time when she and Ron could actually take some hard earned bows.
“Do they know when they want to get married?” asked Connie.
“I think sometime this winter. They are having an engagement party at the end of September. You and Steve are definitely invited.”
“We will be there happily.” Connie smiled deeply again. “I am so happy for both of you and for Angel.”
Later that morning, Celeste called Vivian Florencola. Celeste did not think she would really care but she wanted to spread her good news. Vivian was appropriately complimentary. “I’m so happy for you Celeste. It really makes you forget about some of what is happening here, doesn’t it?”
“It sure does,” said Celeste.
The happiest conversation happened when she told Tina. “Tina, this is your sister. Angel is getting married!”
“She is?” said a surprised Tina. “I thought that they were having trouble.”
“They must have worked it out,” said Celeste. “She talks to you as much as she talks to me.”
“That’s really great! When are they getting married?”
“They don’t know yet. They want to have an engagement party.”
“She does?” said an astonished Tina.
“Can you believe it?” said Celeste. “My daughter wants to do things traditionally.”
“To tell you the truth, Celeste,” said Tina thoughtfully. “I don’t think that Joey is that far behind her.”
“They are really growing up. Mommy would be so proud!” said Celeste.
Tina started to cry. “I think about her every day.”
“So do I” said Celeste.
The day moved by swiftly for Celeste. She did not feel at all depressed when she left Sunrise.
Chris Calvin loved the Ford Truck. He didn’t really drive it that much but he could if he wanted to. Sometimes he liked to lay back in bed and think of it sitting in the driveway. Those were the mornings when he sucked on Fentanyl pops with Juliet.
On the days when he wanted to be energetic, he took Adderall. Then he could focus and play guitar or read for hours at a time. Juliet was just in so much pain all the time. It made her feel better to not take the Fentanyl alone. He took Adderall on Fridays now that he had the truck.
“How long do you think you’ll be up at Ron’s house?” said Juliet slurring words and being a bit disoriented.
“I don’t know,” said Chris. “I have to see what he’s got planned.”
“Can I call you while you are up there?”
“Sure” said Chris. “Call whenever ever you want to.”
“The cell reception isn’t very good up there.” Juliet said it almost like an accusation.
Chris brightened. “I’m looking for good spots. I get a better idea of where to go all the time. So, that’s getting better,” said Chris hopefully.
He was dressed and out to the Ford fairly easy after that. As he drove out of Westfield, he felt a weight lifting from his shoulders. The engine hummed and Chris tried to fiddle with the radio that never did seem to work quite right, except that he could get NPR. He listened to All Things Considered as he drove.
Chris was experiencing a euphoric speed that made everything feel perfect. He was absolutely free. The sight of Ron and Celeste’s house, brought a smile to his face. He had stopped for a container of coffee on the way up and how he carried it down to the lake and wandered along small beach and over to the more natural side of the lake where he found an discarded wooden jetty. Chris leaned against it and drank his coffee and wandered further behind what was once the batting cage for a softball field by the lake. He liked the feel of that and started back towards the barn when he saw Keats and Fitzgerald. They were patrolling. They had heard him arrive in the other driveway and picked up his scent. Now they expected him and no one else was home. They waited at the border of their wireless fence.
When Celeste got home, she did not register anything different about the truck being in the driveway. She was thinking about what she was going to serve to Don’s parents, Roz and Anthony Simplciatto.
She greeted her puppies which took several minutes and included a trip to the kitchen where she gave each of them a snack. She thought of it as her welcome home present.
Celeste was at first startled, then amused by Chris’s “Whoo Hoo,” as he came in the downstairs door. The dogs barked at him and Chris Whoo Hoo’d again.
He appeared at the top of the stairs carrying his guitar case and a cantaloupe and what was left of his coffee. “Hi Beautiful,” he said to Celeste. Her put down his guitar case and shooed off Fitzgerald who instantly wanted to play.
They embraced. Celeste thought he was a good hugger. Chis managed to get the cantaloupe to the island and said, “Vitamin C and fiber,” nodding and pointing at the melon.
Celeste grinned. She liked that he did not come empty handed.
“When’s Ron coming home?” said Chris.
“Right after the gym, I guess. He didn’t mention having anything late.”
“Maybe I’ll just wait out in the barn,” said Chris.
“You’re staying right?” said Celeste.
“For as long as I can,” said Chris.
“Do you need anything out there?” asked Celeste. “Like blankets or towels?”
“No, I’m good. It’s great out there.”
After Ron got home, Chris came in from the barn holding another container of something. Ron was feeling good about the gym and about it being Friday.
Chris was all tuned up and Ron sat in the living room to listen. “I’ve been working on “Ridin’ in the Drivin,” said Chris. He began a funky version of Ron’s song that not only sounded better than the way Ron did it, it sounded great.
“Wow,” said Ron. “That sounds way better than the way I play it. I originally wrote the song with you as the main character.”
Chris snapped his fingers. “I’m immortal.”
“Dinner,” called Celeste.
Celeste had stopped trying to figure out what would be in Chris’s diet from one week to the next. He professed to be leaning towards being a vegetarian, but said that he was flexible about it and for her not to worry about him and that he would always find something to eat.
Ron had reassured her. “Chris doesn’t really like meals that much. He would prefer to just pick on things all day.” Celeste found it hard to wrap her mind around this concept. “What do you mean he doesn’t like meals? What about all those famous dinners at Rahway?”
Ron laughed. “They could be one reason that he doesn’t like meals.”
Eventually Celeste learned that Ron was correct and that Chris would continually find things to graze on.
After they sat down to a table of grilled veggies and some hamburgers, Chris was happily finding tastes that he enjoyed.
“So what have you been reading, Chris?”
Chris made a noise similar to what she imagined would be the reaction to first seeing a haunted house. “Woah…The 911 Commission Report,” said Chris.
“And what did you learn?” asked Celeste innocently.
“Basically that it was an inside job that the government used to take away our civil rights,” said Chris.
Ron looked up from his burger astonished. “You’re kidding me! You really believe that?”
“There is absolutely no doubt,” said Chris. “You know, you had a good idea of who Gerald Ford was because he was on the Warren Commission? This is even worse. Tom Kean was sent in to whitewash the mess and the and boy he did a fine job!”
“I don’t believe that,” said Ron. “I didn’t read the whole report but I read the executive summary.”
“That was primarily written under the direction of Tom Kean. He’s in on Bush and Cheney’s plot.”
“Chris we all watched the planes fly into the trade Center. How did they manage to stage that?”
“Well, I’m not sure that they actually managed it, but they saw the chance and took advantage of it. Like Roosevelt, they set up the situation and then took advantage of it happening.”
Celeste who was a WW 2 buff jumped in. “You can’t be saying that we knew about Pearl Harbor, Chris.”
“Of course we did! We knew all about it,” maintained Chris.
“Ok,” said Ron. “You do believe that Kennedy is dead though right? You don’t think he’s living with Hitler and Roosevelt in South America?”
“Laugh if you want,” said Chris. “I remember you running around talking about the Warren Commission back years and years ago.”
“That’s true,” said Ron. “I still have real doubts about that. But look what happened! It became a cottage industry for people to make lots of money.”
“Exactly,” said Chris emphatically. “Which was exactly what was supposed to happen. Why do you think William Buckley had Mark Lane on his program? Buckley was a spy working for the CIA.”
“You’ve gone way round the bend of this, Chris. I’ve met and worked with Tom Kean.”
Chris said, “And you think that means he isn’t a CIA plant?”
“I think that’s ridiculous,” said Ron.
Celeste got up from the table. “Why don’t you guys go and play music and I will clean up here.”
“No way,” said Ron. “We clean up together.”
Chris had been content to take Celeste up on it but he waited in the other room as they cleaned up the kitchen.
Doing next year’s schedule was always an event. Ron had a very large white board set up in his office and he and Connie had created a grid of each school’s needs and the schedules for the departments’ English teachers. Ron would make the puzzle of joining their schedules with the school’s needs and run it through the filter of their wishes and his preferences.
The goal was to try to make most people happy and at the same time create the proper career opportunities for his young teachers to prove themselves. In most all cases what a teacher taught was Ron’s sole decision and only fenced by certifications and teacher contract.
It was a bit of leverage that he knew he had and tried to seldom use but as he would always say, “the needs of the school have to come before your personal preferences.”
The schools would be shown the enrollment totals for student schedules. Every student was required to take four years of English, so the base number was guaranteed. It was the number of students that signed up for English electives that would make the difference. Plus, how many students wanted to challenge themselves with the rigors of an honors class and how many required mandated remediation.
Low student turnout for a department’s elective schedule could encourage the Board of Education to reduce the number of teachers that were deemed necessary. Territory among administrators equaled the number of teachers that reported to you and the size of your approved curriculum. Ron’s was the largest in the district and so he was always working to at least maintain and on rare occasions grow.
The total number of teachers was decided first with the principals, and Ron was prepping for those meetings in both of his schools. He would lay out his proposed needs and budget and then haggle. His philosophy was to have an A plan and then a B plan and perhaps even a C plan before the meetings were set.
When they got the numbers, Ron and Connie would huddle over them together for hours. Connie was a most valuable partner in this endeavor. Because she has such good relationships with the other assistants, Connie could just about get anything Ron needed in the way of information. So going into this meeting, Ron would already know what math and science were going to ask for. He was indirectly in charge of social studies as well, so those figures were easy. Phys Ed and World Languages were not large enough to make a difference.
Connie had to protect the door to his office during this time period. Everyone wanted to know what he was going to decide and tried to pump her. Connie was unwaveringly loyal and discreet. She would smile her friendly and sincere smile. “I can’t tell you that.”
These were days when they would spend lots of hours in the office together. One day Ron asked, “Who makes the best jewelry around here?”
Connie loved her jewelry and was always wearing different combinations of bracelets and earrings and watches, and pins and rings to go along with the wedding and engagement rings which she wore daily.
“That depends on what you want,” said Connie.
Ron reached into his jacket pocket and took out his family diamond. It had belonged to his great aunt and was a little over three carrots but had always been remarked upon by jewelers as a fine cut and a very pretty stone. His aunt wore it in a belt buckle setting that always seemed strange to him. His mother made it into a ring that he also thought hid the stone’s beauty. Besides, Celeste definitely did not want another ring. Ron wanted to have a necklace made for her.
Connie told him about a jeweler in Denville that had a good reputation.
“Would you make a call for me and set up an appointment?”
Connie said that she would.
The appointment was for 2pm. Ron found it easily enough and was surprised when one of the people whose name was on the sign came to help him. Ron unwrapped the ring and the jeweler peered at it through his glass. “This is a really beautiful stone. I haven’t seen a cut quite like this in some time. It was cut in the Old European style rather than the more modern Emerald cut. “Quite beautiful, what would you like to do with it?”
“I want it set for as simple necklace on a gold chain.” said Ron.
Celeste saw the inevitable coming at Sunrise and began to prepare for it. She still went through the motions of speaking at events designed to bring in new members, but her heart was no longer in it. She decided that she was going to out having fun.
Romance was not a typical occurrence at Sunrise. The large majority of her clients were female. But Peg Duwhitty and Arthur Parnell were an exception. They had both been widowed for some time and there was a natural spark between them that flashed at Daybreak and then continued to be nourished.
When one of her staff came to her with the gossip that something was going on between Peg and Arthur, Celeste was amused. Everyone thought it was cute.
In late spring, Arthur came to see Celeste. She had always liked Arthur. He was eighty-two, had been a carpenter and now had the hobby of building ships in bottles. His father had been a sailor and taught him the craft when he was a young man. It also helped with his use of detail in making some furniture. Arthur came into her office carrying one of his creations that was mounted in a wooden wine holder. “Celeste, I would like you to have this,” he said presenting it to Celeste.
Celeste smiled and was genuinely flattered. “Thank you Arthur, that is so very sweet. But you know that we have a policy against the clients giving gifts to the staff.”
It was Celeste’s policy. She had been gifted any number of dinners for her and Ron when she worked across the street, but Celeste knew that these people were struggling to just get by. She knew that was a way that people from that generation felt they needed to respond to kindness that they were not paying for.
“Well, is there any rule against me just giving to the house here? I have found that they are good conversation stimulators.”
Celeste smiled and felt a little outfoxed. “You’re right Arthur, there is no rule against that. Thank you so much”
Arthur smiled and straightened a bit. “Do you think that Peg and I could get hitched here?”
Celeste smiled a real smile that saw Arthur as a very sweet man. “Is that what Peg wants?”
“She said it was,” said Arthur. He looked at Celeste squarely. “Peg is still a good Catholic,” he said simply.
Celeste had to try hard not to laugh. She succeeded. She said that she would look into it and off the top of her head she could not think of a single reason that it couldn’t be done.
Arthur was embarrassed and shook hands with her warmly and left, saying that he had taken up enough of her time.
This was too good. Celeste needed to tell someone. She decided to call Connie. Because they spoke at work, it was always acceptable if one or the other had to get off the line. So each conversation started like this. “Conn, you busy?”
“No what’s up?” said Connie. She immediately thought, oh shit what if she asks where Ron is. She didn’t want to say that Ron was out of the building at lunch. She would just call him then. She wanted to protect his surprise.
After she told the story, Connie said “So are they both feeling the need to get some or is it more him?”
“According to gossip, it’s as much her. Peg seems to be a bit of a flirt.”
“Good for Peg,” laughed Connie. “How do they get to be together? I mean does one of set of kids bring mom or dad over for a playdate?”
“Connie, that’s bad.”
“I’ve been spending too many hours with Ron,” said Connie. “He really is a bad influence.”
“He’s the Devil. Where is my Devil?”
Connie stammered for a second which Celeste found unusual then she said, “Let me look at his schedule?” There was another pause and then she said. “He has a meeting.”
Celeste became enthusiastic about the Sunrise wedding. First she called her friend Peter, the baker. Peter said that he would be thrilled to bake a cake for the occasion. Then she called Franklin Fevel, one of the ministers for whom Celeste had done radio shows on Advanced Directives. He had nicknamed her “the death Lady” and he at least owed her for that moniker. Every once in a way, people would still ask her if she was the Death Lady. Franklin said that he would be happy to officiate since Arthur was one of his congregants.
Height Village did an enormous business in cut flowers with a local florist, whom she called unbeknownst to Heidi and got them to promise to provide fresh flowers. It actually came together pretty fast.
When she mentioned it to Angel as a cute anecdote, Angel jumped on the opportunity to learn more about how weddings worked. Celeste was shocked. She daydreamed about being able to help her daughter plan her wedding.
The first problem arose when Peg Duwhitty realized that Franklin Fevel was not a Catholic priest. “I can’t have him do the wedding, Celeste. It’s a mortal sin.”
Celeste had tried to accommodate Peg but learned to her dismay that a Catholic priest could not do a wedding without an altar stone. She went back to Peg with the sad news. “I guess we’ll have to call it off,” said Celeste.
“We can’t do that!” exclaimed a shocked Peg. “Everyone already knows. That would be terribly embarrassing.”
Angel had come over to look at Celeste’s plans and said simply, “Why don’t we make it a pretend wedding?”
“I don’t want to deceive anyone,” said Peg. Then she looked at Angel with a glint in her eye. “How could we do that?”
“Just don’t tell anyone it isn’t real and pretend it is. God isn’t going to punish you for wanting to spread a little joy.” Angel was incredibly persuasive and that was the end of Peg’s objections.
Height village provided punch and maintenance set up the chairs for the ceremony. A resident of Height agreed to come over and play piano. She saw it as her Christian act of charity and loved to play for a crowd. The wedding march was one of the few songs that she still remembered.
The local paper, The Recorder sent a reporter to cover the event under local happenings. Celeste sold it to Heidi as part of her campaign to drum up business but she knew better. She also knew that Heidi would go along because she wanted to give the impression of giving Celeste every chance to up her attendance after Heidi had all but made it impossible to do so.
The preparations gave Celeste at least a week’s worth of activities. Peg decided to make all of the female clients bridesmaids so as not to leave anyone out. Celeste set the group to making decorations for the yard. It reminded her of the Chemistry class in high school. The nun in charge of teaching it knew little about chemistry but the girls spent most of the year making decorations for the senior prom.
Celeste was truly amazed and gratified at their enthusiasm. If she thought about it, she became wistful about the environment that she had created that was about to be torn down. Celeste told herself that she couldn’t think about it.
The weather for the event was perfect. The ceremony started at 1:30 in the afternoon and Peg wore a veil and a crown of wild flowers that her grand-daughter made from their garden. The couple’s children and grandchildren and even a young great-grandchild attended the event. There were smiles everywhere. Celeste wondered why it was so hard for people to see that engagement was key to holding off dementia for as long as possible.
No matter how many times she demonstrated it for them, they just did not seem to get or care about that message. Of course they would pay lip service to it, but they did not want it to cost them anything. They could not be changed. She was the one who had to let go of this notion of doing good by people at the conclusion of their lives. Creativity in this area was not welcomed. It did nothing to enhance the bottom line. It was not mandated by state regulations. It was considered irrelevant.
Ron went to the jeweler to pick up the ring at lunchtime. He was ushered into the back and was seated in a plush chair with several mirrors arranged at various angles in front of him. Ron squirmed at little at the multiple angles of his reflection. It was like he was being viewed from a crowd of hims.
The jeweler came over with a smile and shook his hand. He opened the box and sat the piece down on a velvet cloth for Ron, who gazed at it for a few long seconds. He felt something odd. This was the most precious gift that he had to give. He smiled up at the jeweler. “This is excellent work. It is exactly what I wanted.”
“The chain will almost disappear into the light thrown off by the stone,” said the jeweler. The customer had asked for a simple setting that showed off the diamond to the fullest. “And we can adjust the size of it to her wishes.”
Ron wrote out the check and the jeweler put it in a bag. Ron said that he would wrap it himself and the jeweler provided him with wrapping paper and ribbon and a blank card.
He couldn’t wait to show it to Connie and see what she thought of it. Ron was certain that it was beautiful but Connie’s reaction would give him an idea of what to expect from Celeste.
He called her and asked her when she was going to lunch.
“I’m going to leave in about twenty minutes,” said Connie looking at her computer screen.
“Good,” said Ron. “I’ll be there in ten. I have something to show you.”
Ron was feeling light footed as he walked into his office suite. He was smiling. “Come and see,” said Ron.
They sat down in front of his desk and he showed her the necklace. He watched her face as her smile grew to huge. “That is stunning,” said Connie.
“I hope she likes it.”
“Celeste is no fool. She’s going to love it,” said Connie.
“Now I have to figure out when to give it to her,” said Ron.
Connie giggled. “What are you gonna do?”
“I don’t know,” said Ron. He hadn’t thought about this part. He knew that he was terrible about keeping gifts a secret once he had them. Celeste was the elephant of keeping secrets. She shopped for Christmas in July. Ron usually shopped for whatever the week before. There were a few exceptions, but not many.
While Connie was at lunch he felt himself involuntarily patting the jacket pocket where he knew that he had placed it.
He was sorting through sectioning. And it was time to show his Cooperating teachers the configurations that he and Connie had come up with. Ron was looking it over one more time. In the system, Cooperating teachers were seen to be a hybrid. They were lead teachers who received additional compensation for added work within the departments. Ron always found it a strange title. It seemed to assume that others were not cooperating.
Ron made the meeting a midafternoon gathering with him and Connie at Summit. The four of them made for a very congenial atmosphere. Ron always depicted them as teammates.
He teased. “Yes, this is the place where the dark side of education meets the light of teaching.”
Nicole Johansson said, “Well I know that Marilyn and I are bright and Connie surely seems bright to me, so Darth what do you have to tell us?”
Everyone laughed. Ron gave them a copy of the proposed schedules. At first Ron tried to read it with fresh eyes but that wasn’t possible right now. Then Ron did what no other administrator in the district did. “Take a look at these overnight and I’ll meet with each of you tomorrow. We can talk about your first impressions now, but I want you to have some time to look them over.”
That loosened the feel of the meeting a bit. There was no real pressure. They each knew that it was more than notification. If they recommended a change be made, Ron would more than likely make it.
They talked for a while and then left. Ron would always encourage them to take the rest of the day off. They never did.
Before she left for the day, Connie asked Ron if he had decided when to give the necklace to Celeste.
His answer was a miserable, “No.”
Ron drove home later listening to Mike and the Mad Dog and making sure the necklace still was where it had been an hour ago. By the time he got home, his answer was clear. He would give it to her as soon as he saw her of course.
Celeste was in the middle of her late afternoon kitchen routine. Keats and Fitzgerald had already had snacks and were waiting for the happy time when they helped her cook by standing on either side of her, panting and watchful, as she sliced and chopped and let slip a few fragments of what she was working at the table.
Often they did not like the taste of it raw and stopped sniffing what fell, but they stayed watchful anyway. The three of them engaged in it like social interaction.
They heard the sound of the car on the gravel in the driveway. Keats and Fitzgerald hurried out the doggie door to meet Ron at the bottom of the stairs. He walked towards the lake and the mailbox when he got out of the car. Keats ran down to meet him at the mailbox. Fitzgerald picked up a stick and waited on the upper lip of the low stone wall bouncing up and down with the stick in his mouth.
First Ron crouched down by the mailbox and hugged Keats. The Irish Water Spaniel wagged his long straight tail excitedly into the embrace. He gathered up the mail. He gave the stick that Fitzgerald dropped at his feet with anticipation few tosses. Ron tossed it up the outside stair case into the front yard. He came up the same stairs and Fitz brought the deeply chewed stick back. Keats followed. Ron tossed it once more and said, “That’s all for now.”
He came in the side door and Keats followed him through his doggie door.
They kissed and Celeste was surprised that Ron had not already shed his jacket the way that he normally did. Ron said, “Come upstairs.”
Celeste protested that she was in the middle of something but Ron insisted. They went into their bedroom and sat on the bed. Ron reached into his jacket pocket and took out the box that Connie had wrapped.
On the card Ron wrote, “To the only person in the world I could possibly give this.”
Celeste read the card and looked at the necklace. Her first reaction was that she needed to pee very badly.
Celeste flushed when she saw the diamond and realized what he’d done. She kissed him warmly and said that it was beautiful and then she went into the bathroom.
She was sitting on the toilet and wanting to talk to someone before she went back out to face him. She wished she could call someone. She could think of lots of people that she would like to talk to right now but she didn’t have the damn phone.
She told herself that it was a beautiful gift. It was a loving gesture. She knew that he loved her. She was certain that she loved him. How could she possibly tell him that she didn’t think that she could not wear the necklace? Her mind raced.
She did not believe that Marjorie would have wanted her to have it. She knew that she did not believe that Marjorie would have wanted it to go to her. How could she tell him that? He had changed it from a ring to a necklace. He would say that it was his Aunt Dotty’s diamond anyway. His Aunt would have expected him to give it to her. She could hear and see him saying these things as she sat there. She had to come out.
Celeste smiled. “You know my body. The only thing that it can be counted on is to do the unpredictable.” She picked up the necklace and admired it. “It’s so beautiful, but I think this chain is too thin, Ron. What if I wore it and the chain broke? You would never forgive me.”
Ron was bewildered. This was far from the reaction that he had expected. He had hoped that she would be pleased and see it as him giving her a chance to have her connection also be to his family. He did not see that the necklace was something else to her and withdrew.
Since Chris coming on the scene, Ron had taken to playing his guitar regularly again. He changed his clothes quietly and went into his study to play.
Celeste felt like pond scum. How could she explain it to him? After Marjorie’s death, Bumpy had given away most of Marjorie’s jewelry. She claimed to be following Marjorie’s wishes, but the result was that every woman in the Bombasco family got a piece and Celeste received nothing. Ron had been too deep into grief to even notice.
Then Celeste scoured through Marjorie’s journals. She was horribly disappointed. They contained no real clues into how Marjorie truly felt about her. There was little mention of her at all. How could she tell Ron that she could not separate the gift from where the diamond had come?
At dinner, they talked about the garden and about the dogs. They cleaned up after dinner and he started drinking and smoking. They watched The West Wing season finale. She was about to tell him how she felt when she heard his breathing shift and that let her know he was asleep. She sighed and switched the channel to the late news.
Celeste and Angel arranged a dinner so that they could meet Don’s parents. Angel said that the Simplciattos were a very traditional family. “He comes from a real family Mom, not like what you and dad are.”
Anthony had moved in with Roz’s mother. They still lived with her. Don and Dill Simplciatto had grown up there. The structure of it attracted Angel. Grandma was a very small, very old lady who they all revered. She accepted Angel with open arms and Angel basked in the glow of this family that did not seem fractured and broken and filled with never ending conflicts of one sort or another.
Roz wanted to come to their house and Celeste was happy to host. On the day of their planned dinner, Sussex County was pelted with a series of dangerous thunder shower squalls, lightning strikes, strong winds and widespread power outages.
She and Ron were waiting for their power to go out at any instant.
Celeste called Angel. “Honey, I’m glad that I got through. I think we have to postpone this dinner. Dad and I are waiting for the power to go out up here.”
Angel had been there for enough storms to know exactly what Celeste was talking about. “I’ll tell Don and he can call Roz.”
Twenty minutes later the phone rang again. It was Angel. Her voice sounded a bit strained. “Roz says that she is planning on coming and that Anthony thinks that he can make it through.”
Celeste was a bit stunned. “Did you explain the conditions up here?”
“She said that it is only raining there and that if you didn’t want to host the dinner you should have just said no.”
Celeste felt slapped. She just said, “No, tell them we’ll understand if they are a bit late.”
Ron was looking out the windows and trying the comfort the dogs when Celeste told him. “What kind of assholes are these people?” said Ron.
Don and Angel arrived first. Angel was nervous and therefore frantic. Roz Simplciatto had a very limited diet. She would eat chicken but could not bear to look at dark meat mixed with white meat. There was an entire list of vegetables that made her “want to vomit” when she saw them. Pasta was safe as long as there was not too much garlic in it. “Too much” was not defined.
With the oven heating and because of the baking chicken breast and the water from the pasta adding to the humidity, the house was positively dripping. The gusts of wind and blowing rain required the windows be kept closed. The air conditioner chugged along with the sounds of the rain beating against it.
Celeste was nervous but hoped that they would all make the best of it on behalf of their kids. Ron was in a foul mood about the whole situation and began with his first tumbler of rum and coke at about 11 am. The lake was whipped into a froth.
Don said, “I’m sorry that my mother is so crazy.”
Roz was a porcine looking woman with a small snout and short hair.
She looked around Celeste and Ron’s house unimpressed. They had lots of strange looking pictures on their walls, mismatched furniture, and two large an overly active dogs. She looked for a spot at Celeste’s nicely set dining room table and did not move for the entire visit.
Anthony Simplciatto was a very tall, quiet man. Don looked nothing like him. Ron shook his hand when Anthony greeted him but there was no follow up chatter.
Celeste asked everyone if they were hungry.
Roz dismissed the question saying that it was much too early to eat.
Celeste froze. Dinner was about to be served. If she tried to keep it, the chicken would dry out.
Angel and Celeste began serving the food anyway. Roz was silent.
Dinner was a soggy affair. No one was hungry and the circumstances were far less than ideal. There were the forced cordialities. No one asked for seconds.
Ron was literally dripping sweat onto the lace tablecloth. “Did you have any trouble making it up here? There are quite a few trees down. Did you notice if the lights were working out at the interstate?”
Anthony said, “We only hit a small detour.”
Roz said, “The ride was fine. It is very open out here.”
“We haven’t locked our doors in ten years,” said Celeste.
The Simplciattos exchanged an uncomfortable look. Roz was about to remind Anthony to make sure that he kept the door padlocked in the shed, but she didn’t want to say it now.
Celeste said to Ron, “Why don’t you and Anthony and Don go into the living room where it is cool. We’ll take care of things in here.”
Celeste gave Ron a look that communicated that she wanted him to not help her clean up. This confused Ron. He didn’t understand why everyone didn’t help clean up with the possible exception of the person who cooked the meal. But he agreed to take the other men.
The three of them all smoked cigarettes. Anthony said that he wasn’t accustomed to smoking in the house.
Ron said, “You’re a pretty big guy. Did you play any sports in high school?”
“Not really,” said Anthony.
Don began to look nervous about what was happening in the dining room and decided to go back there.
Anthony did not have a question for Ron.
“Would a baseball game on TV interest you?”
“Not really,” said Anthony.
Ron looked around feeling some obligation to say something. “What kind of music do you like?”
“Pretty much anything,” said Anthony.
Ron brightened. “Have you heard any of Mark Knopfler’s music after Dire Straits?”
“I don’t really know groups or songs, “said Anthony.
Plans for the engagement party were being made in the dining room.
“How many people do you want at the party?’ said Roz.
Angel said, “Maybe thirty.”
Roz bristled, “There will need to be a least one hundred on our side.”
Don tried to smooth things. “We can talk about numbers later,” he said calmly. “Thirty isn’t a bad number.”
Fitzgerald and Keats were friendly but wary towards the outsiders. They would accept food, but were uninterested in much else, considering that they were nervous about the weather anyway. Fitzgerald came in from his doggy door and shook himself out in front of Anthony. Ron smiled. Anthony grimaced.
The end of the year was a difficult time for Connie and Ron. In a couple of weeks they could laugh about it but the final day for teachers was an especially busy one.
Because they could only be in one school at a time, a schedule was fixed for checkouts. The day would begin at Summit. The building administrators played a bit of a head game with teachers on the last day of school. They knew the teachers were anxious to leave and so they were casual about distributing the last check of the year. Ron told them that he would check them out starting at 7:30 in the morning. He would make it over to Hills by 10 am.
He could sign off on their check lists, but the building principals would make the departments wait until they released the last paycheck to Ron and the other Supervisors. It was their little power game and they reveled in it.
The checkout list included twenty things that had to be submitted. The Cooperating teachers would assemble some of these things but Ron was responsible to sign off on the last ten that day.
The teachers were mostly tired and anxious to be out of the buildings. They had parties scheduled for later in the day. They lined up outside Ron’s offices and came in one at a time to present things to Ron and Connie and be signed out.
Technically, the teachers were obligated to a full day and the building principals though never checking up on them, reminded the teachers of this fact if they pestered about when the checks were coming over.
Connie organized the checkout procedure flawlessly. Ron would initial for each teacher ten times before they could go. The less organized ones invariably got angry with Ron. It was too difficult to get angry at Connie and so they took their frustration at the system out on Ron.
It did not matter to them that they knew he hated the system as much as they did. He was management. It was his fault. Ron had been told that the checks would be ready at 9 o’clock.
He went down to the principal’s office to collect them. “They haven’t been sent down yet,” said the secretary. Ron did not want to go back to his office to face the angry teachers. He decided to go to the business office to see what the delay was.
The principals were sitting with the school business administrator drinking coffee. Each had the checks in front of him.
Hector Gonzales smiled when he saw Ron. “Come on in, Ron. Have a cup of coffee. The natives can wait a little while longer.”
Ron scowled at each of principals. “I’d love to Hector but today is busy and I have not been over to Hills yet.” He gestured down at the two piles. “Do you think you could just release the ones I’m responsible for now and I’ll just be on my way.”
Hector threw up his hands. “I don’t want people coming to this office thinking that they can get their checks here.”
Ron looked at the two principals. “Well you guys can just give me the checks and I won’t tell anyone where I got them,” said Ron.
“We’re getting to it,” said The Hills principal.
Ron was in no mood. “Ok, I’ll just sit here and wait with you.”
He sat down and stared at both of them. A moment of silence later they got up and started back to their buildings. They were not happy with Ron.
In the summer of 2005, Ron and Celeste got to fulfill one of Celeste’s lifelong dreams; they went to Hawaii. Celeste’s favorite author in the world was James Michener and her favorite book by James Michener was Hawaii. Celeste was hoping that the trip jump-started Ron and pulled him out of the deep state of grief where he seemed to dwell.
Ron had been reluctant because of the flight. He thought that flying to Europe was just about at the end of his ability to tolerate airline travel. This flight was going to be longer than that, twice as long. Ron was resigned to do it because he knew how much it meant to her.
Hell, he hadn’t even watched Hawaii 5-0.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, Celeste made Ron rent From Here to Eternity, the screen adaptation of the Michener book Hawaii, and Diamond Head. He finally admitted that it looked absolutely beautiful and that he was excited.
During the plane ride, they read, they slept, they watched movies, they ate, they slept some more and still they weren’t there. The hours were endless. Ron stared out at the blue and white of the ocean and sky and dreamed. And then they landed and Ron was sure that the endless plane ride had been a voyage to heaven.
There was a car waiting for them at Kampala airport. They drove to the two room apartment they had rented for the next two weeks. They were exhausted but did not feel it. The adrenalin of awe flowed in their veins. The splendor of views was everywhere. The sky, the deep blue of the sea, the moving pallet of cloud formations made them smile with an astounded pleasure that such a place existed and that they were in it.
Ron and Celeste walked from their apartment to sit on the beach and watch the sunset. They had seen such sunsets only in Aruba. What was different was the anticipation of wonder. Celeste heard Michener’s words in her head. Hawaii was a marvel of creation. The Sandwich islands indeed.
The slept hard and long and peacefully. The next morning Celeste said, “Where do you want to go first?”
Ron said, “It doesn’t seem to matter. Why don’t we just drive around?”
And so they did. They headed north from their place and found themselves on roads where they went slowly so that they could just look out of their convertible rental and gape.
“Is it possible that a place could be more beautiful than this one?” asked Ron.
“I don’t see how it could be,” said Celeste.
The stopped off the side of the road to get out and spend some time with a bay colored mare with a thick white mane who wandered over to greet them. There was a fence but it was two single strands of wire with no barbs tacked to wooden poles set at twenty feet.
Ron stroked the horse’s mane and she snorted softly. He whispered “We didn’t know to bring a carrot. We will next time.”
Then they got back into their car and the mare swished her tail as they drove down the long winding road through these low hills.
They came onto a gated, stone-lined, white stucco estate. Celeste laughed, “I wonder if this is where Joe Torre lives?”
Ron laughed back. “From what I saw of the standings, it might be where he’d rather be.”
“Why would anyone ever leave here?” said Celeste.
“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” said Ron. “Those first people who had it so hard to get here had to think why ever go back?”
They decided to drive into Lahaina. The wandered through the historically preserved section of the city and Celeste saw the places about which she dreamed. The houses were always so much smaller than she thought possible to be comfortable, but here the houses were really unimportant as long as they kept you dry. Celeste grinned and thought that she sounded like a travel agent.
One early morning they set out to drive to the other end of the island and go to the top of Mount Haleakala. They had been told to wear a jacket and they listened. The road climbing the mountain went round and round and ever higher. It was steep. The watched in amazement as bicycles flew passed them going at least thirty miles an hour. As they climbed to a more steep point the bicycles seemed to going even faster. The views and the drop offs were incredible but Ron could not fathom someone hurtling down a mountain like this at break neck speed.
“Celeste, I must be getting old because I have no envy for these people at all.”
“I just think they’re nuts. But I think your nuts when you dive down a hundred feet below the surface too, so I’m just a chicken.”
“That doesn’t bother me. This looks crazy.”
Celeste grinned at him, “You gotta be hooked on the speed and that was never your thing.”
Ron was playfully defensive. “No, it wasn’t, dear, but it sure was your thing.”
Celeste hung her head in mock penance. “I did love coke.”
“What do you mean did? If I told you right now that I had some, you’d want to do it.”
“No,” said Celeste dreamily, “I’d wait for sunset.”
They pulled over at the first parking lot. They were above the tree line. Ron looked down at a grey spiny creation that looked like something from deep under the ocean. It grew here and there at long spaced intervals, with no plant close to another. That was unusual. Plants were more likely to bunch together and grow in little communities. Solitary plants fascinated him.
Celeste watched him crouch at what she thought was too close to the edge, lightly stroking the plant and talking to it. His affinity for plants was something she appreciated but not something she understood.
In Ron’s mind, it was much more important that his plants got enough water than it was if the water spilled. And, of course, it was more important that plants not be moved than it was that the water got cleaned up. “They don’t like to move. They aren’t like us.”
Celeste had long since given up on the notion of having curtains or drapes in any room with plants. In one repeating agitation that they had between them, he lectured her like she was incapable of understanding. “They are living things and they need light.”
All Celeste could think of saying was, “Then why do we put poinsettia plants in the closet.”
Ron had looked at her full in the face, “Because the people who did that were fucked up and wanted a certain effect no matter what it did to the plant. You know like I showed you how they get show horses to step so high. Do you remember how I explained they did it?”
“I don’t need you to remind me of anything. I’m not one of your students, Ron.”
That was a bad one. She watched him crouched over this plant. He had to be shivering now and he didn’t seem to notice. She opened the car window and called out. “Ron, come on, I’m getting cold.” After she said the words she realized that she had no breath left.
He came back to the car, red in the face and breathing a little harder because of the exertion of the walk. He just said, “This is even more unbelievable than yesterday. Let’s keep going.”
Celeste expected nothing less and did not mention her breathing. There were many times that she could not keep up with him. Yes, he would always stop for her and yes he always said that it didn’t matter even when she could see that it did. It was one of the things that she loved him for, but she had promised herself that she wasn’t going to be the one that held them back on this vacation. Celeste just nodded and said, “It’s truly amazing.”
“When we were younger, people said that things were amazing all the time,” said Ron. “I’m not sure that we have vocabulary for this.”
She knew what he meant but she didn’t agree. It was that need he had to say something the way it hadn’t been said before. Celeste was content to appreciate the way beautiful words that existed did describe the things that people saw. She laughed, “That’s just you being you.”
Ron laughed too and then he said, “It’s harder to breathe up here, isn’t it?”
Celeste smiled with relief. “I didn’t want to say anything.”
Ron looked at her quizzically as he drove higher. They seemed to pass through clouds; green faded to the distance and Ron wondered aloud how high they could actually go.
“That’s not like you,” Celeste teased. “Don’t you always want to go a little higher?”
Ron laughed and kept his eyes glued to the road that seemed to be also passing through clouds. He tried not to think about the edges of the road and went no more than ten miles an hour and then they reached it. The end of the road. The park had set some of the spore plants in a flowerbox arrangement at the top. There was about twenty more feet of cliff but Ron wasn’t about to climb it.
Celeste got out of the car and then got back in. She rolled down the window and said, “I can’t breathe up here. You go ahead.”
“I’ll just be a little bit,” said Ron.
Cloud formations flowed like rivers through the valley below, white sliding over green. The sunlight danced in the valleys and up the sides of smaller distant mountains unveiling them and then covering them in soft shadows. It was a landscape of this world but unearthly.
Walking back to the car, Ron found that he had to slow his pace to be able to breathe. It was a new experience. In the car and smiling broadly, face red from the wind, panting, Ron said, “I don’t think that we’ll ever be mountain climbers.”
The Iao state monument park was where ancient Hawaiians buried their kings. They were buried in the deep valley in secret. Ron did not know if they had been found, but he guessed not. One of the most impressive things about Maui was its lack of industry. Yes there were acres and acres of pineapple trees but there was no processing plant. That was done elsewhere. There was a belief in leaving things as they were.
“That’s true,” said Celeste, “but they sure didn’t do that for Hawaiians.” Celeste knew that the story that Michener wove about the eradication of the Hawaiians was accurate.
They wandered through the lush green valley with mountain rivers that exploded through all around them. It was fast moving water and pure and fresh. The Valley was magical in a way that was different than the magic of the mountain. Different from the deep magnetic pull of the ocean on the rocks of the shore. It was a magic that said that one should tread lightly.
All around them there were steep, projecting hills that stuck up like a hundred green phallic symbols rising into the air in arousal. They appeared unscalable. The shadows that they cast down from sun were stark and almost defied the watcher to see into them. Hawaii was a world that was still being born.
“Why couldn’t we move here?” said Ron.
“Do you realize that every couple who comes here feels that way?” answered Celeste.
“I know,” said Ron, “but we could make that happen. We aren’t two young kids who just got married and were sent here on their honeymoon.”
“Ron, we can’t pack up and just move to Hawaii. You know how foolish that sounds, don’t you?”
“What’s keeping us in New Jersey?” said Ron. “Angel is grown. Our families sure won’t miss us.”
“What about our careers Ron?”
“I’m sure that they have schools that need people. I’m sure that a social worker could find a job.”
“That’s a little crazy but if you want to look into it, there’s no problem in that. It’s our vacation.”
On the way back to their apartment Ron picked up copies of all the local newspapers. In the apartment, he started looking up the kind of educational reputation Hawaii had. The answers were not to his liking.
Hawaii was ranked 49th out of all the states in education. He read further. The majority of the students in public schools were Chinese or some mixture of South Asian. Class sizes were large. Drug issues were rampant.
When he checked the newspaper he found that Lahaina High School was looking for a Vice Principal. Ron felt nervous as he dialed the number. He was asked to cite his qualifications and was immediately offered an interview for the job.
At dinner they talked about it. “You hated being a Vice Principal and that was in a place you knew. You’d be the unhappiest man in paradise.”
Ron could see what she was saying. “I think the people with any money send their kids to private school or off the island.”
“I don’t understand why people would want to get out,” said Ron.
He began looking at private schools. He had been very happy as a teacher in private school. Could he go back to that?
The day they drove the road to Hana was a spectacle of flora and waterfalls unmatched by anything else they had ever experienced. They were not untraveled, but this place brought things to a new level.
They took the highway that ringed the island, and now become their daily road, route 30. They traced along through the congestion of the town and then they sprang free onto a road that seemed to go nowhere. It turned away from the sea and unlike every other road they had been on it was straight. They were bisecting the island. It looked almost like a desert in the middle.
Then they turned off over some hills and through endless pineapple fields and almost flat terrain. As they continued north, hills reappeared and then they became mountains again.
They were both smiling when they saw a place by a sign that read Twin Falls and another that read Road to Hana. It was an old Hippy Pancake House. There were a number in places they’d visited in the Keys or at the Jersey Shore of even in Caribbean.
People their age who found a spot and made a living serving a great breakfast in a beautiful place and decided that was exactly what they wanted to do with their lives.
Ron and Celeste had Macadamia nut banana pancakes. They were both silent as they ate. Celeste ate in euphoria. The Kona coffee was pungent and fresh as the morning air. The pancakes, which you would have thought would be heavy, floated from her fork to her mouth.
“Oh my God, Ron! If I lived here I would weigh three hundred pounds.”
Ron nodded. “We might have to both exercise more, but that’s good. I’m sure the diving here is spectacular. We’d want to exercise more.”
Celeste dreamed with him. “We’d bring our dinner down to the beach. We’d cook on those grills that we see everyone using. Then watch the sun go down listening to drum circles.” Celeste closed her eyes and pictured her body tanned and thin and dressed like a native, dancing.
They started along the road that began with the ocean in view and quickly turned a little inland. So that they were immersed in a cocoon like canopy of flowers and trees. Around another bend was a waterfall. They stopped and got out to look at it. Without the confines of the car and road they saw that there were two more waterfalls in the distance.
They got back into their car and drove on. The pink and turquoise flowers, were interspersed with vibrant red Hibiscus plants. Snow white flowers, and birds flying and singing with abandon. Around another bend was a grove of rainbow eucalyptus trees that even amid this splendor stood out, as their long straight rainbow colored barks rose over their heads.
And finally, after a thousand more delights, they reached Hana by the ocean. It was an understated and sleepy little beachside village that mostly serviced tourists who came to ride along that magnificent road.
A large black volcanic rock sat under some berry trees that were bunched incredibly close to the ocean. They sat on the rock and drank some water.
“There is this place called Seabury Hall,” said Ron. “Maybe I could get a job there.”
“It feels natural to eat outside here,” said Celeste.
“Almost feels like it is the way it is supposed to be,” said Ron.
They grinned at each other, but some doubts had begun to creep in. They had gone to a couple local supermarkets and felt disappointment at the prices for everything. They were also used to much more variety. They had never seen so many kinds of spam offered so prominently. Brands were American standard for everything from bread to detergent. Prices were twice as much.
They decided that maybe they could live with that. They would learn how local people ate and maybe there would be more wisdom there. Then they went looking at places to live.
After they saw about four or five cookie cutter condos, Ron said to Celeste, “Can you imagine what a place like ours would go for here?”
“Millions,” said Celeste.
“Yeah,” said Ron. “One more example of real estate being all about location.”
They both smiled and held hands. “You really are so much more hopeful here,” said Celeste. “We’re not supposed to put a price tag on that.”
“We have always said that, and at the same time we learned to do it,” said Ron.
They were eating one of the endless, unforgettable seaside meals that they had there. The swordfish steak seemed to have a freshness that Ron had never experienced. Celeste ordered an appetizer of macadamia nut hummus that transported her with every bite.
“I just don’t know, Ron. It doesn’t feel like a thing that we could really do. It’s so radical and maybe we aren’t that radical anymore.”
Ron smiled his dimpled grin. “When we were younger, we would have said that we were ground down. Now it feels like we were being shaped. Maybe they are the same things.”
Celeste hadn’t felt ground down. She was never quite sure what he was talking about but she told herself that she was just a little more realistic than he was. Of course he would want to live in a totally unrealistic place. Didn’t they live in a totally unrealistic place already?
Celeste said, “What about our puppies?”
Ron frowned and nodded. “Puppies are a problem.”
Celeste felt her nesting instinct rise. “Puppies are not a problem at all!” she said emphatically. She had flashed on a memory of her lake and the quiet beauty that was already theirs. Her eyes searched her face. She could surely find a way to be happy here and, if it could bring him maybe they should do it.
That next morning they drove out to Seabury Hall. Dr. Tuck, a director of instructional services for a well-regarded school district in a well-regarded state would always get a meeting and a conversation. It was a professional curtesy.
The campus was impressive. It was set away from the coast and had the feel of an old Southern Prep school. Ped Germani was the principal. He was dark haired around forty year’s old, olive tan skin and a relaxed demeanor. He met with Ron in a breezy courtyard that was set up with wrought iron and wicker furniture. The two had coffee.
Prior to the meeting, Ron asked to see a copy of the course selection booklets that the students received. While he waited he read. It took him about two minutes to realize that it was a very traditional curriculum. His teaching style would thrive there.
Class sized averaged ten. There were about four hundred students. Yes they had an opening in the English Department.
Ped Germani smiled. “Dr. Tuck you are way overqualified to be a high school teacher. I don’t know what you are making but I could not offer you half as much. Perhaps you have a little case of island fever. It happens from time to time and it is beautiful here. But you and your wife have to reassess how realistic it would be. But having said that. Yes the job pays thirty-seven thousand dollars a year.”
Ron’s face showed a flush of disbelief wash over like a tsunami. That was about one third of what he was making. The meeting ended with a cordial and friendly hand shake.
Celeste was wandering through the front gardens by the parking lot, not at all bored and in wonder at the lack of bugs that always seemed to find her and bite or sting her somewhere. Celeste had been stung in some of the most embarrassing places.
They embraced and he said softly, “We can’t manage to live here, can we?”
On one of their last days on Maui, Celeste and Ron went chasing rainbows. A rainbow was an elusive thing in New Jersey. Ron had seen maybe a dozen in his life. Celeste had maybe noticed a few more than that. But what they saw on this sunny rainy afternoon would challenge their dreams forever.
The rainbows were brilliant in color. The red, yellow blue, green and magenta arcs were everywhere and the colors were vibrant and stood out like the smiles of the gods.
They drove towards them and found a place where they could see unimpeded by trees or buildings. Sometimes there were double rainbows. They hung like dividers in the sky with one side being cloudy and misty and the other a bright and clear blue sky with sunlight playing off the land.
They darted like busy insects from one view to the other. No sooner did a rainbow vanish than another appeared. They were like dreams that roamed through the sky deciding where they would sprinkle their colored palate down to earth. On that afternoon, Ron and Celeste would not have been shocked to have encountered a pot of gold.
They ended their search with dinner at Mamma’s Fish House. They had been advised to arrive at Sunset and the open air dining that looked over a bay did not disappoint.
They sat there looking at the menu in a state of stunned silence. Then Celeste said, “I want everything.”
They laughed the kind of laugh and smiled the kind of smiles that lasted through their trip back to the airport and the long flight home. “Whatever else happens,” said Ron, “we did do this.”
“We sure did,” said Celeste. Her smile was not sad. It was wistful. If she had never seen paradise, she would have believed that it was a place like heaven. It was supposed to be great, but she was not at all sure that she would ever get there. Having been here, Celeste was already wondering if she would ever come back.
Ron’s eyes were closed and he was smiling. “Well, you can never say that we didn’t ever go anywhere.”
Celeste grinned like a little girl. “I want more.”
They landed and drove to their lake, Keats and Fitzgerald where beside themselves with joy. There was no protocol between them on this occasion. They whimpered and licked and jumped up until Ron and Celeste both sunk down so that they could bathe them in licks, check to see if there was the smells of any other animals on them and let them know that they were home where they should be. Ron and Celeste gave themselves into it and smiled.
The day that Celeste returned from Hawaii. She went to see Heidi Kleiss. Vivian Florencola was on vacation and so the door to Heidi’s office suite was open and Heidi was there alone.
Heidi’s girth made it almost impossible for her to look comfortable and perhaps that added to the air of distance that she emanated. “Did you and Ron enjoy tour trip, Celeste? Where did you go again? One of your islands?”
Celeste smiled. “Hawaii, and yes it was spectacular.”
Heidi nodded and smiled. “I’m afraid your census continues to decline, Celeste.”
Celeste thought, of course it does. You created its decline.
“Yes, Celeste. I’m afraid that the decline necessitates a further reduction in your hours.”
Celeste’s hours had already been reduced once. She was now only working four hours of on-the-book time a day. Of course, it took longer than that but that was all she was being paid for. “How much of a reduction?” Celeste just blurted the question out before she considered.
Heidi paused and then she said gently, “We’re going to reduce you to ten hours a week, Celeste. It will give you more time at home and, if in the fall the numbers trend back up, perhaps we can even increase things again.”
Celeste considered. She looked around the office first. She thought about how she had moved her life away from Height Village over the past seventeen years. Her job was the only thing that kept her coming back to this town now. She used to live down the street. She used to worship in town. Her friends used to be here. None of that was true anymore. “That doesn’t work for me, Heidi.”
Heidi Kleiss was not surprised. She was a little shocked at the speed of Celeste’s answer and the familiarity of her response. “Do you want to think it over?”
“No, I don’t think so. I really can’t see myself coming here to work five days a week for two hours a day. It takes me an hour round trip to drive here. So, no. Ten hours a week doesn’t work for me.”
“I’m truly sorry that you feel that way Celeste. I think maybe you should sleep on it.”
“I hope that there will not be a problem for me getting unemployment?”
Heidi calculated. She had changed the terms and conditions of employment but she had really done so at the behest of the residents who actually wanted Sunrise shut down. She could defend Celeste’s unemployment. “Of course not.”
“Then we can just think of today as my two weeks’ notice,” said Celeste. “I’ll make the necessary claim and fill out the paperwork for unemployment and have it on your desk as soon as possible.”
Heidi winced a little inwardly. She would miss Celeste’s efficiency. Things had just changed and Celeste was not the bargain that she once had been. She also created too many waves. Heidi like things firmly under her control and Celeste was difficult to control.
Celeste called Ron’s office and Connie answered the phone. “Are you busy?” she asked.
Connie almost whispered. “Sandy Humz showed up.”
“I wonder what she wants?” said Celeste. Sandy was not one for visiting offices of others. She called people to her office. The exception was Ron’s office at Hills that she had half-commandeered. The truth was that Ron hated the windowless former copy closet from the day he first saw it. It reminded of his office when he was a department chairperson. At least this one did not share a wall with the boys’ bathroom.
“They’re laughing so it can’t be bad,” said Connie in her lowered voice talking during class tone.
“I just quit my job, Connie.”
“What?” It was one of Connie’s favorite words. Kind of her default reaction when she needed to take a beat because she heard something that startled her. “Oh boy,” she said. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” said Celeste. “I’m not going to stay here and be insulted. She wanted to pay me for two hours a day to run this place.”
“That is insulting.”
Then Connie put her on hold as Ron’s office door was opening. Sandy came out grinning. Tall angular and very observant, Sandy looked around Connie’s office and said, “He sure hit the jackpot when he got you.”
Connie felt herself blush but by this time of the summer she was too tan for it to be noticeable. “Thank you very much.”
Ron appeared in the doorway. Sandy looked over at him and said, “If I didn’t like you so much, I would steal her away.” It was a compliment with a purpose.
Ron smiled. “You’ve been with Rose forever. The two of you are a match.” Rose had been Ron’s secretary when he first got the job at Middle Hills. She disliked almost everything about Ron except that Sandy had chosen him and he was a doctor. Her respect was always grudging.
“Rose is retiring, “smiled Sandy. She said this glancing down at Connie who did not react.
Celeste was making garden tomato sauce. It was a summer ritual that she loved and which drove her crazy. It was also something she did to keep herself calm. Fitzgerald was at her feet in the kitchen watching every move that she made and waiting for something to fall. Keats was sprawled on the wooden floor in front of the deck’s sliding door. Celeste was still dressed as she was when she left for work that morning. She was snipping fresh parsley when she heard Ron’s car.
Keats got to his feet and went to the top of the stairs. They had spoken on the phone about it, and she knew that he wasn’t panicked by the idea. He didn’t seem upset at all.
After the greeting ritual at the top of the stairs, Ron came into the kitchen and kissed her and squeezed her ass the way that he usually did at least five times a day. Unless she was angry with him, she enjoyed it.
She stuck the wooden spoon in front of his mouth and said, “Taste.”
Ron licked the spoon, grimaced and said, “Taste’s great, very sweet.”
She waited for him to go upstairs and change. He changed incredibly fast because he was both single-minded and careless with his clothes. He came downstairs and Fitzgerald took it as a single to play Frisbee. Keats had gone upstairs with Ron to change and have one of their endless personal conversations. He came back down after Ron and was overpowered by the smells coming from the kitchen. He took up his post to remind Celeste that it was time for his dinner.
Celeste wasn’t going to wait any longer. “So what do you think about what happened at Sunrise?”
Ron smiled. “We knew it was going to happen. Maybe not this quickly but we knew it was coming.”
“They’re just going to let what I built fail,” said Celeste, tears hot on her cheeks.
They embraced. He didn’t squeeze her ass this time. He whispered, “To tell you the truth, I think it’s a good thing. You built a little Camelot and now it’s ending. I’m beginning to think that those are the punctuations of our lives Celeste, the times that we just came together with other people in a place and for a brief period something good happened.”
He made her smile. He made her think of the movie and of the Kennedys and of those few times when things all did seem to fit together. She hugged him tighter and felt safe. Then he squeezed her ass again and said, “Is there meat with the pasta?”
She pushed him away playfully. “Yes, there’s meat. You wanted to grow this many tomatoes, Ron. I’m not taking the blame for having pasta in the summer this time.
Ron was out the door to play Frisbee and Fitzgerald was on his heels. Keats sat watching her. Reminding her of his dinner. “OK,” said Celeste. I know what time it is.”
Over dinner, Ron said, “How much would you hate it, if you stayed home?”
“You mean, not work?” said Celeste.
“Could you be happy just doing this house and helping Angel plan for her wedding and taking the winter off?”
“It’s still summer,” protested Celeste.
“You’re the one who thinks summer is really over by August 1st Celeste.”
“You mean, you think that I should just stay home?”
“Why not? You earned it,” said Ron. His look was earnest and sincere.
Celeste quivered. Working, being able to earn her way, was always something about which she was proud. She would enjoy being home for a while. She did not wish to live her life waiting for Ron to come home. “Let’s see how it goes,” said Celeste.
The unspoken rule was that administrators should finish their summer vacations before August 15. Planning for the new school year took its final steps on those days. Ron and Connie were constantly active. Connie was prepping welcome packets and Ron was busy delivering books. The dress code was smart casual and so, sport shirts and khaki casuals were the flavor of the day. Building principals invariably wore sport shirts with their school’s logo. Ron had a district sport shirt but he rarely wore it. He thought it was itchy.
If there were no other meetings, Ron and Connie could get back together at around two in the afternoon.
“I didn’t get around to telling you, but I am doing the school boards presentation in Atlantic City alone with Sandy this fall. I’m going to be working on a two-hour presentation that I’m going to need you to put a power point together for. I’ll get you the quotes for all the slides and I’ll need to have it to over to Sandy,” Ron checked his calendar, “by September 15.”
Connie nodded and made a note to remind him. “Well I guess summer’s over with a bang.”
“Soon it will be time for you to start rutting.” Ron teased, “Are you going to be an enthusiastic rutter this year?”
Connie blushed but shot back. “I am always an enthusiastic rutter!”
It was a silly phrase that Ron made up. In a different climate, it would have gotten them both into an amount of trouble. Steve and Connie were season ticket holders for the Rutgers football team. When Connie first mentioned it, Ron quipped, “Why don’t you rut, rut for Rutgers” in an off key sing song kind of voice that had stuck. Yearly she would now report to Ron that she was about to start serious rutting for the year. And weekly he would ask her if the weekend rutting had gone well. It was totally innocent but they both knew that they could never explain it to anyone outside of Steve and Celeste, who had both been there when he first blurted out the quip. Connie and Ron were careful to keep it private.
Connie had prepared five special binders for the new teachers who were required to report two days before anyone else for orientation. First the district’s new teachers were assembled for district orientation, then they were turned over to their departmental people. Ron and Connie figured they would need about three hours with them, so that they were not totally overwhelmed on opening day.
They prepared the agenda for that meeting and then the agenda for the full faculty meeting. They looked at the amount of work necessary for each. Connie would be doing the brunt of it but she knew what was coming and, as usual, she was way ahead of any request that Ron even thought about yet.
“We’re really in pretty good shape,” said Connie.
“Good,” said Ron. “Why don’t you head home? I’ll be here until after the office closes and if anyone calls for you, I’ll say that I sent you to the post office to drop off some things before they closed.”
“Are you sure?”
“Tell Steve I said hi,” said Ron.
Connie left as unobtrusively as possible. None of the other bosses would ever think of doing this and Connie had to be careful. Jealousy among the secretaries could be debilitating. Of course to her face they would all say that it was great, but someone would let it slip so that it got back to Sandy Humz. Connie did not want that. She stuffed a manila folder with fake mail and slipped out.
Ron waited until about 3:45 and then he left.
Celeste plopped the box of her personal items down on the dining room table. It was the least used room in their house and, as far as Celeste was concerned, there was nothing in that box that was of the slightest interest any more.
An idea crossed in back of her eyes that made her smile. She went upstairs and changed her clothes. Her bedroom was warm large and inviting. Celeste had two closets for her clothing and a bureau of dresser drawers that held the stuff that did not need to go on hangers.
Celeste changed into shorts and a t-shirt. She put on her gym socks and sneakers. She pulled her long gray streaked dark hair back into a pony tail. She stood in front of the floor length mirror and inspected herself turning one way and then the other. She told herself that she did not look half bad for an old hag. The words hung in her head. She had not ever thought of herself that way before.
Fitzgerald, who was watching her take inventory, came close and sniffed her. She giggled as she felt his cold nose on the back of her knees and pushed him away. Fitz took this as a sign to play and stretched out his front paws with his hind quarters and straight tail stuck in the air wiggling. Celeste laughed. He is a most beautiful dog, she thought, and he loved her.
They went downstairs and Celeste stood out on the side porch with her hands on her hips, looking around. She was searching for the places that she intended to give attention. It was true that Ron mostly took care of the outside and she took care of the inside, but she could do more things outside now. Fitzgerald dropped a stick at her feet. She played a little, not seeming to notice it. Impatiently, he picked it up and dropped right on her foot this time. Celeste relented and threw the stick. Fitzgerald flew after it, r and, in less than twenty seconds, it was back at her feet and he was lifting up on his hind paws, whimpering for her to throw it again. She picked it up and held it by her right ear. He twitched and waited, the anticipation sending ripples of excitement through him. “One more throw, and then that’s it,” she lectured.
She tossed it and then walked down the long porch. Fitzgerald followed her. The stick, chewed in half and dripping saliva, in his mouth. Celeste stopped at the end of the porch that was forever in shade. They had tried to grow lots of things down here, but none of it took to the shady rocky, well patrolled corner that just sat beautiful and wild. Ron came down here with the lawn mower a few times a summer but that was it.
Fitzgerald laid the stick at her feet. Celeste looked down, scrunched her face and said, “No!”
Fitzgerald whimpered. Celeste said, “Don’t get junky, or I’ll go inside.” Fitzgerald whimpered again as she walked away. He picked up the remains of the chewed stick just in case she changed her mind and followed after her.
Ron was sitting in front of five anxious faces. Connie had arranged his desk office furniture and laid out the binders along with bottles of water around his desk. He arrived after they were seated. Connie smiled at him and he said, “Would it be ok if I asked you to join us after things settle down out here?”
Connie grinned. “Just call me.”
Ron opened his folder and said, “So, we all know each other by now and you will get to know each other lots more over the next few weeks or months or years. Connie is the key to you finding this transition as smooth as possible. She is infinitely patient and knows everything. You’ll find that out for yourselves eventually, but that may help to know from the start.”
They looked at each other smiling and nodding. They had already seen that from the way she had spoken to each of them when they called.
“I’m your boss. Your tendency will be to not let me see your mistakes and drive yourself crazy trying not to make any. That would be a mistake. You’re going to make mistakes. How we respond to them is what makes the difference.”
He meant it. He really did. He knew that it sounded like company bullshit but he meant it. The habits he had learned as a teacher had been taught to him by groups of teachers who were answering a religious calling or acting like members of a fine old guild. Nuns, Brothers, Union Reps, artists, scholars, freeloaders, damaged, and many painfully mediocre teachers had taught him how the mechanics of it all worked and what to look out for. His need to be part of it though, had ceased to be personal. Maybe he could impart some of it to others.
Celeste was curled under a blanket in front of a window that looked out at the winter garden. She was stretched out on a soft cushion ergonomic divan. The wood pellet stove that they had installed in the living-room blazed and radiated. Celeste was looking at pictures from Angel’s wedding. She allowed herself to daydream over each of them. She picked out people in the background and smiled.
Fitzgerald was laying across her feet. Keats was at her side. Celeste looked out the window in between pictures. There was Angel, genuinely radiant, wearing the diamond necklace. Ron had been very supportive of Angel wearing it, after he realized that Celeste wasn’t ever going to wear it without being coerced. But there was Angel wearing a super traditional bride’s dress. There was Angel loving her veil.
Celeste remembered the day they shopped for the dress. Angel had been decisive and self-assured. Celeste drank tea and was fussed over, as Angel came out in only four dresses before she was absolutely and positively sure that this was the one that she wanted. Celeste closed her eyes and then looked out at the falling snow.
The sky was a dark solid slate grey and the flakes were not lazily drifting but falling with a purpose. It was only 10 am. Celeste felt the deep butterfly of panic in her stomach. It was so much easier now she did not have to go anywhere. She hoped that they would call school and that Ron could come home too.
She looked down at Duane, Angel’s choice to do their wedding. He was smiling and looked healthy and ready for the world again. She was not sure that it would be a religious world, but he would figure that out. That day he was dressed in his finest ecclastical garb. The light played with the greens and gold of the borders of his vestments and reflected from his light brown shortly cropped hair and beard. Duane stood between Angel and Don and this picture captured the instant of his blessing them. They looked expectant and joyful.
Her nephews were broad shouldered handsome young men and Celeste recalled the pleasure of drinking tequila shots with them, and them insisting that they did that all the time. Celeste smiled and thought of Joey, so small she could cradle him in her arm and now so big he could lift her off the ground.
She glanced out the window again. The snow silenced the world as it fell, but she was safe and warm and did not have to go anywhere. She wiggled her toes and Fitzgerald felt them under him and sprang off the chair in one, smooth athletic motion. Celeste grunted as the weight of him at first bore down and then surged into the air.
She looked at a picture of Ron and her. Him, in his black tux with red rose buttoner and Celeste in her very low cut, dark green and turquoise dress. Her hair highlighted blonde and brown and hanging perfectly to her shoulders.
She glanced through the pictures of the table centerpieces that were waterlilies in carafe shaped bowls with live tropical fish swimming in them.
The phone rang. It was Ron. “We’re going to pack it in for the day here and so I’m on the way. Things are going to get bad later. Do you need anything?”
“Just you,” said Celeste. “Come home safe.”
She got up and walked into the kitchen and felt like she passed through a thermal clime. She could not see the lake, it was obscured in the falling blanket of swirling snow. Then she heard the flap on the doggy door close as Keats and Fitz went out. They came back in quickly, dusted in white.
Celeste felt that isolated emptiness when they went out. She was stuck out here in the middle of nowhere in a blizzard.
Then phone rang again. This time it was Tina. “Celeste, this is your sister, is it snowing up there?”
“It’s a blizzard. I’m just waiting for Ron to get home. We got the wedding pictures.”
“Is your boob sticking out?” said Tina.
“No Tina there is no picture of that. Your husband was gracious enough to cover me up before anybody saw.”
“I’ll bet he got a good look,” said Tina.
Celeste felt her face burn. “The pictures are beautiful!”
“How do I look?” said Tina.
“You look great and so does Harvey. He is very light on his feet.”
“He’s a better dancer than me,” said Tina.
They talked for a while and Tina told her again about how much her boys had enjoyed the wedding. Then Celeste began to hear the light pattering of the snow becoming ice and she said that she had to go and sat at the table looking out her windows and waiting for Ron to get home.
There was relief when she saw the road weary car, headlights cutting through the driving storm, turn into the driveway. A feeling a safety washed over her. She got up and moved to the oven.
She could literally see his body change after her entered the house. He always came in wearing his Dr. Tuck clothes, she told him once and then in a matter of minutes he could be Ron again, unless he had to talk on the phone or unless he was too preoccupied to change.
Keats was a presence that demanded the change instantly. Fitzgerald seemed oblivious to it and Celeste was married to both of them, although she far preferred Ron to Dr. Tuck.
When they embraced his body felt as tight as a spring. “Was it bad out there?”
“There were accidents all over the place, mostly because of people who should not have been out in the first place and drivers who were in too much of a hurry to slow down.”
He moved away from her and stripped off shoes and jacket, the tie had come off when he bore down in the car. “It’s most always the other people and not the storm,” he said.
“I’m really happy that you’re home,” said Celeste. “Even with the puppies, it is very isolated here.”
At first, Ron didn’t answer but he did come back to hug her, this time squeezing his favorite spot. “Well, you’re not alone now.”
Celeste relaxed into the warmth of him, the feel of him there. The part of her that had so wanted to not spend her life waiting for him was quiet.
The snow continued late into the day and into the dark. The doggy door became impossible to open and Ron switched on the outside floodlights and went out into the storm to make it possible for the dogs to at least get out onto the porch.
At dinner, they heard the beating of the ice against their windows and on the wall unit air conditioner, whose metallic frame echoed into the house as it was pelted. Celeste was frightened.
“Suppose it doesn’t stop?” she said. Suddenly she missed her safe suburban existence again, her thoughts like homing pigeons.
“It will stop,” said Ron. He glanced out of the window, he grinned, “If we are lucky not for a couple of days.”
Celeste trembled. He was teasing her on purpose and enjoying playing among her insecurities. Celeste knew and it was ok because it was distracting her. She looked down at the pictures. “I thought a lot about my mom, when Angel was getting married. I thought about how much she would have loved being there.”
“I’m sure she would have loved it,” said Ron because he did not know what else to say.
Ron glanced at the pictures but did not have anything much to say about them. To say that he missed his mom on the night of Angel’s wedding would not have been correct.
Celeste’s dad Mario had been there and Ron could not tell if he was happy or not. His reactions were always consistent but Ron could no longer tell if they were ever sincere. He had really stopped trying to figure it out and cared for Celeste’s father out of a devotion he felt for her?
His father would not have much cared. Aunt Dotty would have thought that it was stylish. Ron knew she would have liked Angel but nobody gets to live forever do they?
Ron scanned through the pictures, young people striking poses and old people who somehow seemed surprised at their own presence. George’s family was there. Ron saw it as an act of respect for his mother. He could not make the transition to it being anything that was done for him.
Celeste knew these things as she watched him look through the pictures, curled up with her puppies in her living room in the blizzard.
In the early spring Celeste drove down to Tuxedo Park to visit her father. It was a direct shot of interstates and Celeste waited for a warm day to make her visit. She had swapped cars with Ron because she was pretty sure that Mario would not be able to get into her Eclipse and she wanted to take him to lunch.
Mario and Anna Brago had purchased a very strange house alongside a highway that lead to the NY State Thruway, which was the major view in the distance as you looked out of the enormous bay windows of the living room. The house had nine rooms including a large fully finished basement. The stairs were steep. There were four bedrooms and three bathrooms. There was no real place for a garden and it seemed so odd a choice for age seventy five Mario and sixty three year old wife.
Mario and Celeste did not speak regularly. There was a canyon of distance between them. There were deep valleys of resentment. Jagged edges caused by betrayal and worn only in some places by time. There were the flowers of memory between them and there was at the bed of the canyon their common river of blood.
He sounded weak on the phone, and more than once Celeste was not completely sure that his responses did not seem like a byproduct of dementia. Anna, it seemed, was never around.
Celeste pulled into the empty driveway. She rang the bell. There was no response. She knocked the brass clacker on the door. She thought she heard rustling. She could hear the TV set. She tried the handle and it was locked. She walked around to the back of the house and saw some outside steps that led up to the kitchen patio deck of the modern split level.
She saw her father sitting in his recliner wearing a goobalini and gloves. She rapped on the window and this caught his attention over the sound of the blaring TV set. He got up slowly and made his way to the door. He was frail and moving unsteadily. His shoulders were hunched and his head bowed like someone who is not quite sure that his legs will work.
Celeste stepped inside and they had an awkward embrace and he kissed her cheek and he felt small and fragile as plaster in her arms. They made their way back into the living room and it took him a moment to turn down the volume so that they could hear each other speak.
“How are you Daddy?”
Mario sat back a little. “I’m alright I guess, not so good really.”
“What’s wrong?” asked Celeste.
“I’m cold and hungry all the time.” Mario said this pitifully. His beard was straggly and not deliberate. Unkempt hair sprouted from under the hat.
“Why is it so cold in here?” asked Celeste. She imagine it to be not much more than sixty degrees in the house.
Mario answered sullenly mumbling, “Anna likes it cold.”
“Where is Anna?”
“She’s always with one of her daughters. She never eats here. She barely sleeps here.”
Celeste was shocked. Anna had several daughters from her previous marriage but Celeste was not curious enough to know what their relationship was. Part of her felt that her father was getting exactly what he deserved. He had played pathetic after her mother died and enticed her and Ron into moving in with him. She had been partially to blame for that. She was just wanting to be closer to her mother for a little while longer.
Mario turned it into a disaster and sold the house out from under them in order to buy a new place with his new girlfriend now wife. That had only been a year after her mother died. That cliff was still jagged and always would be. Nothing could grow there.
“What have you been eating, Daddy?”
“She buys cans of pork and beans. She won’t buy anything else. She says that’s all I need. Celeste, we are getting a divorce.”
Celeste was stunned. “I don’t know what to say, Daddy.”
“Celeste will you and Ron help me?”
Celeste was enraged as she drove home. She brought her father to the grocery store and the barber shop. She was shocked at his level of helplessness, but at the same time her heart was cold towards this man who had upturned everything that she believed about the way things were going to go. He had been selfish and greedy and cheap and cruel. Karma is a bitch, thought Celeste. Part of her wanted this to happen to her father. Part of her wanted him punished for all the crap he had pulled. He had abandoned her and Angel and Tina and everyone else who had been the family that he professed to love ever since she could remember. Now he was screwed. Maybe she should see the world’s justice as being a fitting way for things to work out.
Celeste set her jaw hard in anger and gripped the steering wheel tightly. It made her angry to feel this way. It was his fault that she was angry. That descending spiral had Celeste’s face set in a hard mask of rejection. “Mommy was hardly in the ground and he was already dating someone who had her name! Didn’t he have any class? Any shame?
Her puppies made her smile but just barely. Maybe she should have a drink or smoke a joint like Ron and then she could just bury her anger and never let it out of the cold storage inside of her that was locked away from her heart. She called Tina.
“Tina, this is your sister. I saw Daddy today.”
“Yeah, where’s he going on the next trip with our mother’s money?”
“Tina, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. He looks terrible.”
“Good,” said Tina. “What’s the matter with the old bastard?”
“He doesn’t look good, Tina. He can hardly stand and walk and he and Anna are splitting up. She’s left him all alone in that ridiculous house with no heat.”
“Mommy must be laughing her ass off.” Tina’s voice was very hard and bitter.
“Tina he asked me to help him.”
“Well, you go ahead and help him if you want to. It doesn’t have a fucking thing to do with me.”
“Do you think I want to help him?” said Celeste accusingly.
“You must. You’re the one who went to see him.”
The two of them grumbled back and forth about not wanting to do anything for Mario and then they hung up. They did not say goodbye when they ended the call. They never said goodbye to each other.
Over dinner, Celeste told Ron about the visit. He listened quietly. Then he said, “So when are you going back?”
Celeste bit off her words. “I don’t want to ever go back.”
“Then why did you go there today?”
Celeste felt like she was spitting the words at him. “Because he’s my father.”
“That’s why you have to go back,” said Ron. His tone was even. “What does he want us to do for him?”
Celeste looked at Ron incredulously. “You aren’t seriously thinking about helping him are you?”
“I don’t know,” said Ron. “You got any other fathers floating around?”
At that moment she hated Ron. He got up and went to the sink carrying his plate and turning on the water and stacking the dishes from the meal. Celeste sat there biting on her fingers, almost shaking with rage.
Then followed him into the kitchen. “You’ve got some nerve saying that to me.” She slammed the dishes down on the counter not caring if something broke. It didn’t. “How could you say something like that to me?”
“Your father was an asshole to us. My mother was an asshole to us. Did we stop loving her because she acted out so badly?”
“That was different! You never had to doubt if your mother loved you. I still don’t think that he loves me. Why should I owe him anything?”
“I’m not sure it’s about owing. I think it’s just the way things work out.” He looked back to the dishes and continued to rinse them.
“That’s really noble of you, Ron.” Celeste went upstairs to the bedroom and slammed the door behind her.
Ron finished rinsing the dishes and stopped for a second. Depending on how angry she was, she would either want or not want him to load the dishwasher. That was usually her chore. He decided to leave the dishes and there was Fitzgerald. He and Keats had taken cover under the dining room table when they sensed the argument coming. Fitzgerald was thinking that now that it was over it must be time to play Frisbee.
Rom turned and looked down at him, sitting up perfectly straight, front paws together, and eyes moving from Ron to the Frisbee. The immediacy and hope sliced through all of the human drama for Ron.
He grinned and reached for the Frisbee. Instantly Fitz sprang, front paws on top of the counter, ears flopping, whip like tail slapping against his haunches and whimpering. Celeste heard them go out the side door and the distinctive slap of the heavy plastic as the doggy door closed.
She shut her eyes and tried to shove it all away, but she couldn’t. It was Ron’s fault that she couldn’t. He had done this to her. He forced her to not forget and now she couldn’t.
Ron and Celeste were watching a Yankee game in early April. It was Good Friday and the Yankees were playing Tampa Bay. Ron spent part of the day outside working, but it really was still too cold. Celeste thought about breaking up the soil on the flower boxes on the deck, but found the dirt still frozen. She gave it up and watched Ron and her puppies through the window while she crocheted. She was just about finished with an enormous comforter that was almost too heavy to lift.
After dinner, they settled down by the radiating stove for the game. Ron turned it up to blast heat and filled the hopper. He opened the windows in the living room. She watched him astonished.
“The world has no idea of how crazy you are, Ron.”
Ron settled on the couch and grinned. “Don’t tell.”
The phone rang. “Ron, its Mario. Do you know what channel the game in on tonight?”
Ron checked and said, “It’s on the YES channel.”
Mario said, “I can’t find that one. What channel number is it?”
“I really don’t know on your system, Mario.”
“I’m in a hell of a fix here. I don’t know how anything works. Sometimes it feels like I’m losing my marbles.”
“How can I help?” said Ron.
“Does Chris know how to do divorces?” said Mario.
“I’m sure he does Mario. Do you want me to ask him for you?”
“Can you just have him do it for me?” said Mario, sounding more than a little confused.
“I can try, Mario. I know Celeste has been visiting you. Are you doing ok with your money?”
“That’s the thing right there. I have no idea where my money is.”
“You don’t know how much you have coming in or going out?” said Ron a bit surprised.
“I turned that all over to her and now she’s robbing me, and wants to see me die is what I really think.” Mario sounded helpless and defeated. “That’s the real horror of it.”
“Let me see what I can do,” said Ron.
Ron was quiet after the phone call. He made another tumbler of Myers’s rum and diet coke with plenty of ice. Mario was not someone that he felt close to. He had the right not to give a shit what happened to him. Then he heard his mother’s voice in his head asking if that was the kind of person he was? Is that what you would watch happening to another person while you were able to help and did nothing? The voice judged him by telepathically echoing the words, you really have become a cold hearted bastard.
When Chris next brought the truck back, they did their usual routine of smoking a joint and playing guitars. Ron’s guitar work had improved greatly and at times Celeste found the music enjoyable but not when the two of them played together. Celeste felt that they did not sound like they were playing the same song. Ron reassured her that it was her ear that could not hear what was really happening.
“You sound really good,” she said to Ron. She turned to Chris. “You sound really good. But together you do not sound good at all.”
“Sounds to me like we need more practice and more joints,” said Ron.
He was difficult to speak to when Chris was there. There was a callous gregariousness that she could not penetrate. “OK,” said Celeste. “Then don’t complain if my faulty ears don’t want to listen.”
She went back into the kitchen. Chris said, “Well, that was definitive.”
Ron waited a few seconds and then turned to Chris. “How do I become someone’s power of attorney?”
Chris looked puzzled. “Usually, that person has to agree and there is a form that has to be signed at the bank by their officer and then that’s it.”
“That’s pretty simple,” said Ron.
“Yeah, it’s really no big deal. Why?”
“Celeste’s father Mario wants me to take over his affairs and help to get him divorced.”
“Ughh,” said Chris. “That’s going to be messy. I remember when I closed on her house. I felt like I was a lawyer for Jesse James.”
“That’s because of your outlaw spirit,” said Ron, passing him the joint.
Chris sucked deep on it and then coughed. “I don’t think I like smoking this stuff as much as I used to. It doesn’t feel good inside anymore.”
“That’s because all that other shit you’re taking is about a thousand times stronger,” said Ron.
“It’s not really the same,” said Chris, passing back the joint.
Ron sucked on his rum and coke and let the joint go out. “Can I count on you helping me to do this thing with Mario?”
“Sure, I can do that.”
“I’ll make sure you are well paid. I really don’t want him to be taking advantage of our friendship,” explained Ron. In the back of his mind, the last thing that Ron wanted was for Chris to feel that his services were not worth quite a bit.”
Chris smiled and then giggled. “I’m driving your truck, half of the time I’m living in your barn, I’m eating your food and you are worried that I will feel taken advantage of?”
“You know what I mean. That’s different. I don’t mind helping Mario but it should not all be charity. He made this mess and should have to pay to get out of it and I can’t see anyone I’d rather that he pay than you.” Ron laughed too.
Their partnership intact, they began to play. Ron played rhythm because he really did not know how to play a lead. He lay down his solid rhythm and Chris would dance around it and sometimes play at counterpoint with it and once in a while it blended.
There were some exceptions. Ron had written this simple blues song a long time ago. It was one of his songs that actually made musical sense and Chris loved to play lead blues guitar. It was true that Ron did not know how to change keys. Where he started the song was where he stayed and finished it. Chris had learned to not push this because it was beyond the limit of Ron’s musical grasp.
The weeks after Mario and Celeste meeting with Chris and Ron at the bank were unsettling. Ron took control of Mario’s money and immediately passed the day to day of it on to Celeste. At first, she was reluctant but she eventually agreed because it was obvious that Ron just didn’t seem to have the time to do it. It really wasn’t that hard. And it cut further into that canyon between them that Mario could trust turning this over to Ron but would not trust turning it over to Celeste or even Tina.
She knew it was because Ron was a man and to Mario, that meant that he would know what to do about money. The thought of it made her laugh. Ron had no idea about his own finances. He could never say with any certainty how much was in their checking account. He had some idea of how much they had saved, but the whole idea of saving anything had been because of Celeste. But of course Mario would feel better if Ron took over.
She thought about it as she drove to Tuxedo Park. Ron had tried to defend Mario, saying that maybe he did not want to choose one of his daughters over the other. Yeah, that was rich. So he chose one of his daughter’s husbands over the other? No, it was because he didn’t know Harvey and Ron was a man. Why would he possibly choose the one daughter who was still speaking to him over the other who didn’t want anything to do with him?
Maybe Mario was afraid that her mother would exact her revenge through her daughters. Celeste smiled. That had been her attitude all along. Except that after he took control of things, Ron got her talking about her father being a war hero. That was true. Her father was a bona fide war hero during the Second World War. He had parachuted into France the night before the D day invasion. He fought on through the liberation of Paris and finally in the frigid forests of the Battle of the Bulge. He won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
Celeste had always thought proudly about her father’s war record and had helped him recover his medals after they were stolen. But all that had been before he became a father who was not only cheap but cruel. That was before Mario lost any ambition to do anything at all except serve his own comfort. Now he was old and had dug himself into a foxhole that he could not get out of.
Today they were meeting the three evil sisters as Tina had named them. Anna was going to be with her daughters. Ron had told Celeste to stop paying any of the bills. Anna was angry and had chosen her most truculent child to speak for her.
Ron put in a few hours at the office before he left. It never ceased to amaze him that all he had to do was tell Connie that he would be out of the district and call her later. Unless he had a meeting, that was his situation. He wanted to be in full Dr. Tuck mode when he met with Anna and her daughters.
The driveway was crowded when Ron arrived. Ron noticed that the house was considerably warmer than it was on his previous visits. Mario sat at one end of the table and Anna sat at the other. Ron had spent time with Anna’s daughters over the years. He smiled when he saw Nan, She was the middle daughter and a painter. She had a strange boyfriend who dressed in his mother’s clothing when he painted, but the boyfriend was not there. Nan did not return his smile. Ron knew that the appearance he made at work was far different than the one he made socially but he stopped for a second smiled again and said, “Hi Nan.”
“Hello,” was all the woman said. Ron kissed Celeste and shook hands with Mario and sat down next to Celeste and opposite Tanya. He made eye contact with Anna and they said Hello. She had always been cordial with Ron and she was cordial today.
Tanya did not bother with such pleasantries. “I have my mother’s bills here. They need to be paid.”
Ron looked at the bills and then at Tanya. “That’s part of why we are here.”
Tanya raised her voice, “Then why haven’t you paid them?”
“Let’s see,” said Ron. “Most of these bills are in your mother’s name aren’t they?”
“That was their arrangement,” said Tanya.
“Yes, I’m sure that it was. You wouldn’t happen to have that in writing anywhere would you?”
Anna spoke softly. “It’s not in writing anywhere Ron. Do you have a written arrangement with your wife?”
“We’re not getting divorced, Anna and you need to know one thing right from the start. We have always been friendly, but I am not here as your friend. I have one purpose in being here and that is to represent Mario’s financial interests. I don’t care about your feelings or whether or not you are being treated as you think you deserve to be treated.”
Mario nodded and looked at Anna. He started to say something then he thought better of it.
Tanya shot at Mario, “And you are going along with that?”
“Ron’s the boss,” said Mario.
Tanya looked at Ron. “I took a day off from work to get this done. These bills have to be paid.”
“And they will,” said Ron. “Just as soon as you list your mother’s monthly income as part of the marital funds and we look at their assets and divide the bills accordingly.” Ron smiled.
Tanya bristled. “We aren’t doing that!”
“Then I guess the bills aren’t going to be paid.”
Tanya turned red. “I have them all listed right here.”
“Then go ahead and pay them,” said Ron.
“Their deal was that Mario would pay the mortgage and the bills.”
“And what was your mother supposed to pay?”
“She pays for food and her other expenses.”
“That’s a very sweet deal isn’t it?” said Ron. “Unfortunately, it’s over. First of all my wife has been coming here every week and buying food. Your mother’s idea of buying food was to buy cans of pork and beans. That’s a tad cheap don’t you think?”
“I don’t have to listen to this!” hollered Tanya.
“No, you don’t but you’d better hear this. Marital assets are those things that they bought while they were married. It does not matter who paid for them. So, I’m going to have every piece of furniture in this house appraised. Half of that will belong to Mario unless you allow him to take every piece of furniture in this house that he wants to have.”
“I paid for most of this stuff,” objected Anna.
“I really don’t care,” said Ron.
Tanya screamed in frustration. “This has been a complete waste of my time!”
“Sorry about that,” said Ron softly and evenly. “It would be better to work this out before your mother loses a lot of money.”
“I’m not working anything out with you. I’m getting a lawyer.”
Ron smiled again and produced Chris’s card from his wallet. “Have him talk to my lawyer then.” He handed Tanya the card but she refused to take it. Ron placed it on the table. He turned to Anna. “You remember Chis don’t you?”
Anna didn’t answer.
Ron turned back to Tanya. “Lawyers are really expensive but mine doesn’t cost anything.” He smiled again.
Tanya exploded. “This has been a total waste of my time.”
Ron couldn’t resist. “Well you did get a day off Tanya.”
Celeste knew that getting Mario out of Tuxedo Park was only the first step, but she had a plan. Height Village owned a smaller subsidiary called Chaucer Village. Celeste had done some work with them for them over her seventeen years with Height. It really only took two phone calls. Chaucer Village would happily accept Mario.
Celeste calculated Mario’s income. There was his pension from the Teamsters and his pension from the army. He would need to show a savings that would at least supplement this money for three years and have someone willing to guarantee the fees after that. Celeste knew that was not entirely true. What Chaucer was not advertising was that they would eventually accept Medicaid payments.
She could work to make that happen, but Mario needed to be free of Tuxedo Park and he needed to walk away with something. She hoped Ron was doing the right thing. Her natural posture would have been more sympathetic to Anna’s feelings. She could only imagine what living with Mario had been like as he declined.
She knew the stages that had brought him there. Professionally, her opinions about such a case would have been valued and appreciated. But Tanya hated Mario. She had always hated him. She loved her father and saw Mario as nothing more than a vehicle for her mother’s convenience. If her mom wanted her to help to get rid of the old bastard, she was more than happy to comply.
Developments were moving slowly. Ron forced Tanya’s hand and she paid the bills out of Anna’s money. She kept a tabulation that she intended to force Mario’s lawyer to pay out of his settlement. Chris spoke with their lawyer. Then he sat down with Ron and Celeste.
Chris had gotten a haircut and looked on top of the situation when they talked. Ron thought that this was his friend. This was Chris understanding the situation and giving the advice of a friend.
“Look, I know their lawyer from years ago. He’s a pretty straight forward guy as lawyers go, which does not really mean anything at all in the way that you guys understand straight forward. What he said is that they are taking an unreasonable position and basically want to fleece Mario.”
“He said it like that?” Ron interrupted.
“Not exactly in those words but that’s what it came down to. What he said was that his client wanted to drag this out forever.”
Celeste said, “They’re counting on him to die.”
“That would not be a bad turn of events where they are concerned, said Chris. “And in the meantime, of course, the lawyers, make lots of your money.”
Ron stared at Chris. “That works to our advantage, right?”
“Presumably yes but the time isn’t on your side,” said Chris.
“What do you mean?” asked Celeste.
Ron spoke up. “He means that the longer your father stays there the worse off he is.”
“How much money do you think there is, Chris?” asked Celeste.
“They don’t have a mortgage. He bought the house and put it in both of their names. I have no idea of how much money she has. That would only be something we get as the result of a hearing. And by now it’s probably not worth it. Anna is financially shrewd. She has her assets hidden by now. She was an accountant before she retired. We can find out how much of a pension she gets, but I don’t think that will be very helpful.”
“So the best thing to do is to get him however much he needs for Chaucer and get it done? Is that what you think, Chris?”
“That would be the best for everyone,” said Chris.
Celeste knew what she had to do. Ron said, “Law talk over, want to get high?”
Chris smiled and snapped his fingers theatrically. “You read my mind.”
Celeste went upstairs into the bedroom.
Chris waited until she was gone. “I know what needs to be done but I can’t tell you how much a hate being a lawyer.”
Celeste heard Fitzgerald whimper at the door. He had followed her up the stairs. Then he scratched at the door. Celeste opened it and said, “Come on but you have to be quiet.”
She found the number in her phone book and dialed. “Nan, this is Celeste Tuck. Have you got a few minutes to talk?”
Over the next hour, Celeste and Nan spoke to each other like concerned participants who did not need to win and who loathed the confrontations. That was what it was going to take all along. Celeste knew Mario’s shortcomings but she also decided that maybe Ron had a point.
Chris and the truck helped with the actual move. There wasn’t really anything aside from a comfortable bed and chair and a good TV and a bureau. In the end they bought him a new chair and a new TV, so all he wound up taking was his clothes, some personal things and the agreed upon amount of money, which remained under Ron and Celeste’s control.
It was a spring night and Celeste and Ron were enjoying the feel of open windows and gentle temperatures. Celeste had begun peeking out from under her blankets and shawls like a hibernating creature who did not have to shield against the weather. The experience with Mario had started her thinking. She missed people. She wanted to get back into the daily commerce of the world.
Celeste figured that she had spent a good amount of time licking her wounds after Heidi Kleiss and Height Village. She began to scan the newspaper and even applied for a job with an organization called Military Family Services. She told herself that there was more to social work than what she had been doing. She wanted to be done with the elderly. There were many situations in the stages of life where people could be benefitted by a social worker. She just needed to find a different one.
Ron said, “Things are very different for you now. You don’t have to work which means you can wait until something you really want to do comes along.”
Celeste nodded. She said, “I’ve never experienced that, being able to pick and choose what I might want to do. You’re right. It takes away the desperate feeling that comes along with needing a job.”
The phone rang. It was Sandy Humz. Ron said, “Hold on a minute Sandy,” and he took the phone upstairs into their bedroom.
Sandy sounded tense. “Ron, I’m at the Board of Education meeting. I think I may have just made a mistake.”
“I told the Board that Leon Stavros is a fool and a phony and that I don’t want to keep working for him.”
Ron thought holy shit but said, “And how did they take that?”
“Not as well as I thought. I was sure that I had built enough of a coalition to unseat him, but it fell apart. It ended with me being asked if I thought that I could still work with him.”
“What did you say?”
“I said that I did not know. Then I said the usual things about the needs of the district being the most important to me, but I think they stopped listening.”
“What are we going to do?” said Ron.
“I want you to think about it and meet me at the Hills office in the morning.”
“Was Leon actually there when you did it?”
“I wish he had been. I would love to see him have to explain some of the things that he’s done and expose how little he knows about the district.” Sandy sounded bitter.
“He’s too slimy for that. He’d just talk about how efficient you are and how hard he tries to work well with you.”
“We need a plan,” said Sandy. “Bill announced his retirement. He’s had enough. So we have to talk about his replacement. I want to know what you think.”
“OK,” said Ron. “I’ll think about it.”
“Maybe you should go and talk to the Board. Maybe all of this is because I am a woman.” Sandy’s tone was a strange one. It had a vulnerable quality that Ron had not felt before. Sandy liked to be sure of herself and she didn’t sound sure of herself at all.
“I’ll think about it and we can talk in the morning,” said Ron. “What time?”
“I’ll meet you in that office at 10 o’clock,” said Sandy.
“See you then,” said Ron.
“Please say hello to Celeste for me. See you then.”
Ron came back downstairs and poured a large tumbler of rum and coke. “That sure changes a few things,” he said to Celeste. “It seems that Sandy has started a palace coup that didn’t work out.”
“What is that going to mean for you?” Celeste had never really like Sandy. She saw too much manipulation in her. She saw Sandy as a woman who felt wronged and wanted revenge.
“I’m not sure.”
“Be careful,” said Celeste. “Sandy is not above using you.”
“Sandy is also partially responsible for how much money we have,” defended Ron.
“You’re responsible for how much money we have,” corrected Celeste.
Celeste had sent the Military family application in almost two months earlier but then she got a call to go for an interview. The office building was on the fourth floor of a professional building in Morristown. Celeste was more curious than apprehensive.
Henry Burns was about fifteen years younger than Celeste. Her age and limited experiences with a population that was not aging were the reasons that she had not been his first choice. His candidate had not worked out and now he was going to the person who had been his second choice.
Henry, whose balding head and glasses made him seem older than he was, expected Celeste to look matronly. He was surprised when a tall fortyish looking woman who was stylishly comfortable in her attire and had beautiful long dark hair walked into his office, smiled warmly and shook his hand. He liked the sound of her voice. It had that eastern twang that was unmistakably New York or New Jersey.
Having lived in a kibbutz for seven years and being bi-lingual had erased much of his Brooklynese, but there was Celeste in full Jersey bloom. She had never worked with the military before but her father was a decorated veteran. Henry didn’t know why but the interview had veered off into their backgrounds. Celeste had a way of getting him to talk and open up about himself that Henry thought would be useful. He was honest with her about being a second choice and she was not offended at all. About thirty minutes into the interview, he was pretty certain that he was going to recommend that Celeste be hired. Of course there would be at least two more interviews, particularly after his last mistake, but he was confident.
“Celeste, have you ever been active in any anti-government or anti-military organizations?”
Celeste smiled as she thought about that question. She wondered if smuggling guys who were evading the draft by going to Canada counted. She decided that it did not. “I was against the war in Viet Nam,” she said.
“I’m a little young to remember that,” said Henry. “Anything more recent?”
For a moment Celeste’s mind flashed on a photograph of her in dancing shoes and tights and thought you sure aren’t in Kansas anymore. She just shook her head no.
The job interested Celeste. She was to be working with the families of mostly guys who were in the reserves and had been called up and sent to Iraq. These were young guys who had young families and not enough money. They were struggling to make ends meet. Instantly, Celeste wanted to help them. The ride back to her lake was long, but Celeste didn’t mind it. She wanted another bite at the apple.
Sandy seemed contrite and subdued with Ron. “I don’t think that you want to hear this, but I’ve taken another job.”
“I’m not totally surprised,” said Ron. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to be the superintendent at Jackson.”
Now Ron was surprised. He thought Jackson would be a step down for her. It was not highly thought of. He knew the district. They were cheap. They went for the homespun solution to educational issues rather than try anything that was the least bit costly or cutting edge. “Do you think that you can be happy there?”
“I don’t know, I do know that I can’t keep working for him.” Sandy set her jaw and looked at Ron. “I’m sorry.”
Ron was quiet. The operation at Middle Hills was head and shoulders above Jackson. This was her ego making a mistake. “Did they meet your number?”
Sandy laughed. “That part shocked them. You know that they have a reputation.”
“Sure I do. One of their previous supers once hired me. I decided that I could not work there after I read their handbook. Sandy, they still had a section for air raid drills!”
“That’s because of the military base but I know what you mean and I have been thinking about it. You don’t like the idea do you?”
“I dislike it on more levels than I can tell you, Sandy. I don’t want your job and I don’t want to have to work for whoever Stavros will pick.”
“I’m thinking I may have made a mistake Ron. But maybe we could reshape Jackson. Maybe if I was able to eventually make you my assistant we could revamp the whole thing together. I don’t know!” Sandy stood up and paced. “I love this district. It’s the only place I ever worked.”
“Sandy, it’s really like a love affair. But you only ever get to be with your first love once and after that it is different. I loved Mount Calvary, but it wasn’t my first love. I don’t think I can love a district anymore, but you still do. The chances of you falling in love with Jackson are slender.”
“You have the strangest way of putting things,” said Sandy.
“You love the team and the work. That’s what drives you. I’ve been a free agent a few times and you never have.”
“I’m going to have to call Stavros and tell him that I’ve changed my mind.”
“You’ve submitted your letter?” said Ron.
Sandy nodded. “But they’ll let me take it back.”
Ron said, “They would be fools not to.”
Inside, he knew that she was gone. By the next day, the deal had been sealed. Initially, Stavros agreed and said that he would retract her letter of resignation, by the next morning he had changed his mind. Sandy began scrambling to not let word out that she had second thoughts about Jackson.
Ron was sitting with Connie, reviewing his calendar. “So, is the word out up in Jackson?”
Connie grinned. “Oh yes, they are quite excited. They feel like they just got Derek Jeter.”
“That’s who we just lost. This is going to be a different place.” Ron had been through it before. It never seemed to get better to him. Ron wondered if he was showing his age. He had not been the slightest bit excited by what Sandy had dangled. As he saw it now, the work of changing a school system was unpopular drudgery.
“I’ve been asked by people here if you are going to apply for her job,” said Connie.
“I don’t want it, Connie. I really don’t.”
Military Family Services was an outgrowth of the American Way. They received funding for a staff and were given offices in the American Way building in Morristown. The Way rented three floors of offices in the building. The third floor was for executives but it was the only floor with an available office and so it was given to Celeste.
Henry was kind of succinct about her responsibilities and yet somehow there was a vagueness to it all. “We work things a bit differently around here Celeste. You are hired for twenty hours a week, but the job will take longer than that. So, you need to keep a record of your comp time, over the twenty, and take it at a later date.”
Celeste wasn’t totally sure how that worked but they were paying her a fair salary and she could be casual about the way she was compensated. Ron was right. It sure was different when you did not need the job. “I can do that,” said Celeste. She was smiling and Henry was smiling back.
“There were three hundred National Guard from New Jersey called up to train for Iraq, Celeste. These guys were the weekend warriors, little bit older with young families and lots of them with young businesses and their worlds just got turned upside down.”
“That must be really hard,” said Celeste.
“Your job it to do everything that you can for their families,” said Henry sincerely.
“How much of a budget do we have?” asked Celeste.
“You’ll need to raise your own budget, Celeste. We only have enough for your salary.”
Celeste was a little stunned. “Do we have a list of the families?”
“You can get those from the National Guard Armories and of course we will give you numbers for some contacts but you are basically on your own from here. I will need a written status report each month.”
Celeste felt her mouth drop a little. She had assumed it would be at least weekly. Celeste looked around at her office and the view and her new computer. “Can I have some help with this thing?” she said pointing at it.
“Absolutely,” said Henry. He pushed his glasses back on his head and noticed again how attractive Celeste was for an older woman. “Eric will be around to hook you all up in a little while.”
Later that day when Eric did arrive, Celeste felt amused. He was a short guy with very long black curly hair. He smiled up at her. “Are you one of the new bosses?”
Celeste giggled. “No, they just put me up here.”
Eric was looking down at her legs. “Can I get down there?”
Celeste pushed back from her desk on her executive rolling pad. She smiled and followed his eyes. “Under my desk you mean?”
Eric blushed. “If it isn’t too much trouble.”
Celeste rolled back further and stood up. “I hope you know that you are going to have to show me how this works.”
Eric got down on his knees and crawled under the desk. Celeste went to the other side of her office and sat down to watch. Eric scuttled efficiently and was back out quickly standing and clicking on Celeste’s machine.
“It really is very simple,” said Eric. “May I please show you?”
“Thank you,” said Celeste. She settled back into her chair and noticing how Eric’s body seemed to tighten at her presence.
He spoke very quickly and flashed his fingers over the keyboard while standing next to her. “Do you see how easy it is?”
Celeste looked at him with a stern expression which collapsed when she said, “I really didn’t understand anything that you said or did.”
Eric lowered his eyes. “Do you want me to go through it more slowly?”
Celeste exhaled. She had these discussion with Ron. He had tried to show her how to do things but usually gave up, frustrated.
“Look,” said Celeste. “Just show me how to get to different spots and I’ll write it down.”
Eric was puzzled. Celeste crossed her legs. “Write down first you press this key and then you press that one and take me through it.” Celeste flipped open her note pad.
Eric leaned a little closer and said, “I’ll just talk very slowly and you can write it down.”
Creating something where there was nothing before was not as daunting as it sounded. Celeste got the three hundred addresses and then composed a letter that introduced herself to the families. Next she contacted the Social Workers Network and because she knew everyone there, she was able to get a listing of the available services and contact numbers. Celeste would write to them all and call a number of the ones that she thought were most relevant. Celeste lost herself in these organization tasks for the first few days. She only had to call Eric back once and ask how to create a mailing list and send something that she had written to everyone and was there a way to get her computer to automatically print out mailing labels.
Eric was at her office twenty minutes later. He was carrying coffee. Celeste was surprised to see him but delighted with the coffee. He shuffled in her doorway. “I didn’t know what you like so I took a chance and put cream in it. I have the sugars and the sweet and low in plenty of packets.”
Celeste gave Eric a big smile and reached for her purse. “Please don’t it’s my treat,” said Eric abruptly.
Celeste smiled again and took the stash of Equal packets that she constantly lifted from any place where she saw them lying loose. She probably had a couple hundred now. She removed two from their special wallet and said, “I think this is very nice of you, Eric and I totally appreciate it. Please sit down and show me how to do this.”
Celeste was aware of Eric’s interest in her, but she also sensed no aggression in him. She decided that she really could use his patience.
Henry also dropped by her office each day to see how things were going. It was a casual check in and by her third day Celeste realized that this was what replaced the Height Village more formal processes. On that day, Henry said, “Celeste, I can’t believe how much you’ve accomplished in so short a time. How did you manage that?”
Celeste laughed a little nervously. “I should be doing something while I’m here.”
“Well, you are surely living up to expectations and then some. What are you going to do today?”
“Today, I am meeting with the chaplains at Picatinny Arsenal. They are nice men, if they are anything like the ministers and priests with whom I’ve worked.”
Henry looked a little shocked. “You are actually going on the base?”
“Yes,” said Celeste. “That’s ok isn’t it?”
“Have you ever been there before?” asked Henry. “I get a little bit anxious when I even drive passed the place.”
Picatinny Arsenal was spread across sixty-four hundred acres of prime New Jersey real estate. It was a munitions hub and center for research and development. Its operations were widely classified and little to nothing was known about the Arsenal to the surrounding public.
Celeste was met at the first gate by two soldiers wearing military police insignias. They were armed. “How can we help you Ma’am?” snapped a scrubbed fresh young man who was staring down at her from behind a helmet and sunglasses.
“I’m Celeste Tuck. I’m here from Military Family Services and I’m here to meet with the base chaplains.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said the young soldier. “May I see some identification and could you please step out of your vehicle?”
Celeste grinned to herself thinking about how Henry would have responded to this. She watched, transfixed as the guards slipped mirrors under her car.
With her temporary parking permit taped to a specific place on the passenger side front windshield, Celeste rolled forward a couple of hundred yards to the next gate. It was a bit creepy but at the same time Celeste felt proud that these were her guys.
At this gate, Celeste’s credentials were inspected again and then she was directed to the base chapel complex. It was large and brightly lit, beautiful but did not look like any church that Celeste knew. There were no pictures on the walls. There were no stained glass windows. There was no crucifix and no altar. There was a pulpit. There were lines of straight wooden pews.
Off to the right of the chapel was the liturgical meeting room. Celeste was directed there.
Three men sat straight as arrows around a table. Pastor Ezekiel Brown identified himself as a Southern Baptist to Celeste. Rabbi Brian Shineglass was the only one of the three men who smiled. Bill Bravin was an enormous man who when standing was well over six and a half feet and whose frame contained almost three hundred solid pounds. Each held the rank of captain.
They got right to business. Ezekiel was the first to speak. “Mrs. Tuck we are happy to meet you.” Celeste noticed that none of them looked the least bit happy. “It is our intention to provide you with anything that you need within our purview.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Celeste, soldiering on with her smile continuing. “What kinds of things can you help with?”
“Any guidance that our family of soldiers requires, Ma’am.”
Celeste nodded. “Would that include referrals for psychological assistance?”
“What other kinds of assistance can you provide them?”
“You just let us know what the problems are and we can fix them, Ma’am.”
Celeste was at a little bit of a loss. “Financial problems?”
“Yes Ma’am. If any of our men’s families are having trouble getting their checks, we can straighten that out.”
“Anything beyond that in the way of finances?”
Then three military men exchanged a quick look and Ezekiel said, “No Ma’am. Only those things that are within the army’s control.”
Celeste asked a few more questions but the answers were the same. With the exception of learning that they would straighten out any kinks that the families had with getting their health care cards recognized, she learned nothing new.
Exiting the base was easier but did require Celeste to sign out and certify that she had left.
Sometimes purges are preceded by a time of uneasy inactivity. This is what happened following the news that Sandy Humz was leaving the district. Initially, there was shock from people who had been around for a long time. Sandy had been a student at Hills. She had been a teacher at Summit. She had been a Vice Principal at Summit. She was well known and gave the veterans that feeling of stability. For sure she had her detractors, but mostly Sandy had cowed them into submission.
There was an awkwardness between her and Ron when they met now. Sandy’s thoughts were never totally on the Hills District anymore. Her evenings were now spent at Jackson meetings. She had been through a divorce in her private life, but this was her first professional breakup and she was unsure.
“You’re going to have a big struggle with the Staff Development. They won’t understand that you will no longer have the power that you once had.” She explained this to Ron as he sat in her office, which was slowly being cleaned of her personal things.
Ron found his eyes drawn to the empty spaces as they spoke. “I’m just going to keep on acting like everything is the same until I am told otherwise,” said Ron.
“Has he asked to meet with you yet?” Sandy was referring to Leon Stavros, the superintendent.
“I haven’t heard a word,” said Ron.
“I suppose no news is the best that we can hope for now,” said Sandy. “I turned down his offer of a going away party.”
“Because I don’t think I could stand being in the same room with him for that long and I’m afraid of what I might say.”
“Sandy, you’ve been here a long time. The district owes you a good-bye.”
“The district was not willing to give me what they truly should have given me. I don’t want any fake consolation prizes.” She was bitter. Her words dripped of it. Her affect communicated it. She felt wronged.
“I understand,” said Ron.
“What you need to understand is that you need to be careful. They couldn’t get me but you are staying and that makes you a target for everyone who had a gripe against me.”
Ron thought that it seemed to him that they had done quite the number on her, although much of it was of her own making. “I’ll be careful.”
“No, you won’t. You’ll just keep on doing what is best for education and, that isn’t the game now Ron.”
Ron left her office and was asked to stop in to see the Business Administrator, Hector Gonzalez. Hector had been a friend to Sandy, but he worked directly for the Board of Education. His expertise came from understanding the jungle of fiscal relationships that surrounded the district’s money. Hector had made a small fortune for the district by being a skilled and devious accountant who had funds stashed in dozens of discretionary accounts that he had amassed by taking full advantage of deposit dates, withdrawal dates, earmarked grants, and the ever-popular, district general fund.
They sat in front of a long shelf of model corvettes that Hector had in his spacious office. Hector owned two corvettes and went to car shows with them. He had initially been disappointed when Ron revealed that he knew nothing about cars. They were, to a large extent, the only social topic that Hector knew how to discuss. Ron was also uninterested in real estate holdings. Hector was a Spaniard who bristled and held a long standing grudge against anyone who mistook him for being Hispanic. It was an insult that Hector never forgot or forgave.
“I like you Ron. You’ve brought a feeling of scholarship to this district that it never had before. That magazine that you created, The Raconteur, is not something that this district ever saw before. You got teachers to create and show off their own talents along with their students. It is very European and highbrow.”
“I’m not exactly highbrow, Hector.”
“Sandy was a hothead about this. She wouldn’t listen to my advice. I tried to tell her that the Board was never going to oust him. He wins elections. That’s not one of Sandy’s skills.”
“You really think that was the reason Hector?”
“That was part of it. When the State abolished tenure among superintendents the angles changed. Sandy did not understand the implications. It meant the Superintendent was going to need to be a lot more political. Jim, her mentor, was the last of the tenured superintendents.
He would tell the board to go and pound salt and there was nothing they really could do about that. They were not about to ever put themselves in a position like that again.”
“I’ll keep on putting in a good word for you, but you’re a hot head too.”
Ron laughed and shifted in his chair. Hector was being a confidant. Sandy had warned Ron to not really trust Hector. He and Hector had few regular dealings. Mostly, when it came time for grant preparation.
“Leon is going to have a hard time trusting you. You need to show him some loyalty now.”
“How do you mean?” asked Ron.
“You should probably go and see him.”
Ron had mixed feelings about going to see Stavros. Experience told him that if he asked for the meeting that the power structure of the meeting would shift and he would need to provide meaning for its justification. He did not have the kind of relationship with Leon that would allow him to just drop in. Besides, it did not feel loyal to Sandy. When Stavros was ready for him, he would call.
Celeste had a different opinion. “I don’t think you owe Sandy anything at all. She’s hanging you out to dry, Ron.”
“I don’t think that she would do that,” said Ron.
“How can you be so smart about everything else and so blind when it comes to what you think is loyalty?” asked Celeste.
Ron did not want to think about that. Loyalty was something he felt. When he felt it, he allowed his loyalty to shade his thinking. He knew that it was true, but didn’t everybody do that? “You do the same thing when it comes to your family,” said Ron.
“You’re changing the subject and deflecting my question,” said Celeste. “Right now, this isn’t about me and my family. It is about you and your job, which means a whole lot more to you than it does to most people.”
“Maybe it does,” said Ron. “Maybe because it is so important to me that I feel an obligation to act with some kind of integrity.”
“You’re integrity is going to get you screwed. I have to live with you. That means I am going to be screwed too.”
“So, I guess it really isn’t all about me,” said Ron quickly.
“I give up. You’re better at this than I am. You can twist anyone’s words to make them mean exactly what you want them to mean, Ron. I can’t talk with you when you are like that.”
Ron got up and poured another large tumbler full of ice, rum and diet coke. He walked back into the living room. “I know you’re right,” said Ron, “but I just want to wait until he comes to me.”
Celeste looked at the drink and then looked back at him. “You’re going to do exactly what you want to do no matter what anybody says, Ron.”
There was a weekly meeting called C and I, which stood for curriculum and instruction. It was usually a small meeting that began as only Sandy Humz, Bill Mathews and himself. Before Sandy left, a new district director for math had been appointed. Ruth Powell was an experienced teacher from Hills who Ron knew and liked. Edmund Kominsky was now of this group representing the sciences.
The room felt strangely incomplete. Ron, Edmund and Ruth were there, in the board of education meeting room that was used, during the day, for most of the district meetings. By school standards, it was a high tech room with a built in, overhead projector, a screen, a speaker system and its own Wi-Fi booster. There were two doors to the room. One led to Hector Gonzalez’s office and one lead to the hallway. There was a small closet that had a coffee maker, small refrigerator, and snacks along with some old files. Pretzels and bottled water were the normal accompaniments to meetings. Sometimes, if they had a particularly long agenda, they would start early and work over lunch.
Their chairs were comfortably padded and leather. They rolled and swiveled. Usually most of the other chairs in the room were only used during board meetings and for guests. They were hard aluminum and there were about thirty of them. There were also some stationary chairs, lightly padded and set back against the walls at the U shaped board table end of the room. The air conditioner had been turned on, which was a sure indication that there was a meeting about to happen. Hector made sure the air conditioner was off if there was no meeting.
Five minutes into their quiet wait, Hector’s door opened and Leon Stavros came into the room followed by Hector and his secretary. The secretary smiled at Ron and Edmund who she knew and nodded politely at Ruth who she did not know at all. She distributed copies of the C & I agenda and left. Leon smiled warmly. Hector stood there proudly. Leon said, “Ron why don’t you walk us through the agenda?”
“And so what did you do?” asked Celeste.
“I walked him through the agenda,” said Ron flatly.
“How did that go?”
“I have no idea. I gave him honest answers. There was no way to tell if it was a test or a setup.”
It was a warm, late spring afternoon. Celeste had not gone to work today. She had been instructed to only work three days a week for the rest of this month dues to the amount of comp time she had already amassed. Celeste was wearing blue jean cutoffs and a light cotton white shirt. Her hair was in a ponytail and she was sitting in front of a pile of Ron’s ties, holding a pair of scissors. Fitzgerald was sitting impatiently on the other side of the fence. Keats was lying on the porch, basking in the afternoon sun.
Ron had been wearing a tie to work for more than thirty years. Naturally, he had not thrown any of them away on purpose. There had been some that were lost in moves. Some that Celeste found on the floor of his closet and would hold up for Ron with her face scrunched in what he called her shit smell look. She would dangle them like dead worms and ask, “Do you think you might be done wearing this one?”
Now he was more cooperative. She would tell him when it was time and he would appear with a half dozen ties that he was willing to sacrifice to the garden. Celeste liked to attach his more colorful ties to the stakes and baskets that were used to keep the tomato plants from growing along the ground.
First Celeste would snip the stitch that held the ties together at the rear. Then she would strip out the white linen base around which the tie’s fabric had been pressed. She noticed that he gave her mostly maroon and blue ties. His older ties were all conservative and solid colors. He would pass the striped ties off to her as soon as he could. She could get four good stake tied from each that he supplied her. She liked the way they flapped in the breeze.
It was in the middle of this process of stripping the ties that Celeste felt the first stings on her ass. At first she just wiggled it on the ground and kept working but then the stings and bites got worse and persistent and Celeste jumped up. Fitzgerald barked. Celeste began slapping and rubbing her ass and moving her legs up and down at the knees like a horse that was prancing. Fitzgerald jumped up and down a few times, in time with Celeste.
Keats got up from the porch and trotted over to be part of the show. Celeste was cursing now. “God damn son of a bitch. Get the fuck off me!” Some strands of her pony tail had come loose.
Ron arrived unnoticed in the midst of the scene and stood on the porch watching in total amusement. Celeste came out of the garden without closing the wire gate that Ron had constructed. She was still slapping her ass and her faced looked anguished.
“Everything OK?” said Ron, grinning and showing his dimples.
Celeste cursed, “The fucking ants want to kill me! I’m going to take a shower.” She stormed through the side door.
Ron went over and surveyed the situation. He scooped up what was left of his sacrificed ties and the pair of scissors. He closed the gate. He greeted Keats and Fitzgerald. Then he went inside and came upstairs. He heard the shower running. He could still her through the glass door loudly muttering curses as she scrubbed the insects off of her.
He changed his clothes quietly. He went into the steamy bathroom and said, “Are you ok now?”
The water stopped. Celeste said pitifully, “The insects hate me.” She opened the door and stood there naked and dripping and flushed. Ron handed her a towel but was immediately aroused. He followed her into the bedroom and closed the door to lock out Keats and Fitzgerald.
Celeste sat in a conference room down the hall from her office. It was comfortable but modest. The chairs were all of the same standard board office issue. The meeting table was bare pine, polished and worn. The only refreshment was a water cooler that was in the corner. The modest image that this room projected was arranged Agatha Boren, the chief administrator for Military Family Services who was actually employed by the American Way.
Agatha was a diminutive woman in her mid-sixties. She had been with the Way for twenty five years. This assignment had been one that she requested.
“As we know, three thousand of the National Guard from New Jersey have been activated and are being deployed to Iraq. Some of these people may see fighting. Some of them may be injured or wounded. Some may be killed. That is one side of our problem. Another is that something may happen to one of their loved ones while they are deployed. Our goal is to handle and fix as many of those situations that may arise so that they present as little distraction to our troops as possible.”
Celeste felt patriotic as she listened. She liked Agatha. This was good work.
Her second admission to the Arsenal went very much like her first. She was startled to be in a place with some many black sedans and jeeps. She checked through the two gates and directed her again to the chapel. The three officers stood and the rabbi spoke this time. “Welcome back Mrs. Tuck. Please have a seat and tell us how we can help.”
Celeste smiled and sat down. The officers sat. “Rabbi,” began Celeste. She had forgotten his name but was sure it was the rabbi remembering that he had smiled last time. “We like to have contingency plans so that if something if happens we aren’t flying by the seat of our pants.” Celeste paused. That made her think of the ants for some reason.
“The Army likes to plan too, Ma’am,” announced the very large Methodist. Then he chuckled. The other two officers chuckled.
Celeste grinned. “That’s what my dad always said.”
The Southern Baptist asked, “When did your dad serve Ma’am?”
Celeste felt a warmth from them as she recited the litany of her dad’s military record. A certain distance melted. “So I’m here to help us figure out how we should react to casualties.”
A wall went back up immediately. The large Methodist Captain spoke. “Any notification of casualties is strictly a military matter. We have quite a bit of experience with doing that.”
Celeste smiled but was unable to make eye contact because the Captain’s eyes seemed to look through her. “I know that is really unfortunately true, but I mean afterwards, for the families. When can we know so that we can be there to help them?”
There was consultation among the chaplains. There was no disagreement but notification was strict military policy. They could not deviate in any way but they wanted to appear cooperative. “We can make sure that within forty-eight to seventy two hours that your group will be notified. And that will be the first public notification.”
Celeste thought that it didn’t sound like much but she wasn’t here to argue, just to learn more.
Celeste and Ron were sitting in their living room. Their wood pellet stove had been cleaned that day. It sat in the corner gleaming bright and Celeste was happy that it was clean, but even though it was the summer that made her think of winter. She thought about crocheting.
The music was jazz. Ron had brought jazz to Celeste and she had been a hard sell but slowly she grew to appreciate the music. It was a combination of Miles Davis and Bill Evans that convinced her. It was quiet music that flowed like a brook, or chirped like crickets, or sang the songs that birds dream while they are waiting for morning. Once she could hear those melodies, she began to really like it.
“I don’t think my mother was a bad person,” said Ron, coming back from deep thought.
“No,” said Celeste. “I don’t think she was a bad person either.”
“She was flawed,” said Ron.
“We’re all flawed, said Celeste.
“Why does it take so long to learn that?”
Ron’s face had that quizzical wondering look that at this moment made Celeste want to laugh, but she knew that she couldn’t. “It takes some of us longer than others,” she said quietly and waited to see if he would smile.
After a moment, he did. “I can’t stop thinking about the way that she treated Angel and how much of that I let happen. But there was a difference. My mom could get away with it with me because I knew that she loved me. She never loved Angel.”
Celeste blurted, “She didn’t even like Angel let alone allow the possibility that she could ever love her.”
Ron drank more. “I know and somehow I was blind to it. I talked myself into not seeing it and pretending for a while it was something else entirely.”
Celeste wondered if this ever was going to be over. It was like he was pouring over every aspect of his life with his mother, searching for something.
“That’s the thing about my family, boy. Gotta’ hand it to us. We are all able to not give a shit about some people that we should really care about.”
Celeste didn’t know what to say. Ron was too deep down his rabbit hole right now.
The arrival of Chris always meant two things to Celeste, giggling and confusion. Chris brought on waves of both in intermittent bursts. She enjoyed the first and tried to tolerate the second. Chris would never seem all that confused up close, but a drawback in perspective revealed disorientation. It was easier to just try to live moment to moment with Chris.
For Ron, Chris meant music. Yes, there was their decades old friendship and their shared history, and there was the pot and assorted other drugs that Chris imbibed, but underneath all of that was shared music.
Guitars came out immediately or soon after. Ron began practicing on his own when Chris was not around. They could play for hours and their play would engender new songs.
Ron replaced reading with music. He replaced time alone with Celeste to go up into his study and spend hours playing. The songs got more crisp. Their volume grew. His rekindled love of his guitar drove him to guitar city where he purchased his Martin.
Martin was a guitar brand that always made Ron remember his old friend Hank. Hank always had disposable cash and spent much of it on music. His speakers and receiver and record collection were expansive. Bose was another word that Ron would always associate with Hank, who instructed Ron on the necessary placement of the oddly shaped Bose speakers and how they had to be just the right distance from the wall to operate smoothly. It was the same for a pool cue with Hank. He found the best. It was the same with guitars.
Hank’s first Martin was a D-18 that he let Ron play. Shortly afterwards, Hank got a D-25 sunburst model that Ron was almost afraid to touch. He only knew a few chords then and he would pound our rhythms of A-minor and E-minor along with the more difficult to execute G and D chords. They would sit cross-legged on the carpet and smoke pot and listen to Ron pound on the guitar. Then Hank would practice scales and Ron would sit stone-hypnotized by how Hank’s fingers moved over the keyboard.
When he was ready for a good guitar, Ron wanted a Martin. He did like his Yamaha, but it was not a Martin. Even today, Ron felt a certain respect for that word when it came to a discussion of guitars. His Martin was perfect. Ron loved the feel of it in his hands, cradled in his arms. When he played music in his head it was with this guitar.
Celeste was always on the lookout for what she might get Ron for a present. He had always given her great presents and she was up to this challenge between lovers. Celeste would know by Ron’s first expression whether or not her present was a success. She wanted a certain reaction of delight in his face. She wanted to watch it instantly open his mind to new possibilities and watch, as the face she knew so well, registered them.
That was what she saw when she gave him one day’s worth of purchased time at Yellow Submarine recording studio. Ron had one year to use the voucher. He was staggered by the gift. Now he was playing as much and more than when he was as a single man, living in a cold water flat with a very small and solitary private life.
The combination of the reinsertion of Chris, the guitar and Celeste’s gift put Ron on a mission. In the weeks leading up to the sessions at Yellow Submarine Ron played guitar and sang every night. Celeste wasn’t sure if he had gotten good or if she had heard the songs too many times to even know.
Celeste’s confusion mounted as the day for the recording room session neared and Chris stopped answering his phone. Ron was frustrated and spent more time getting three songs down. He spent about forty five minutes practicing each one over and over, until it felt good for that day. Then he would move on to the next one. After that he played a set of one leading into the other. Then he would stop for the night.
“Are you nervous about Sunday?” asked Celeste.
“In a really good way. My nerves feel like they did before a football game or an important match. I feel focused.”
“I’m curious to see what it’s like,” said Celeste. “On the inside I mean.”
“I’m hoping I don’t get over whelmed by that and feel like I don’t belong there,” said Ron.
“You’ll belong,” said Celeste.
Ron quipped. “Yup, we paid the money I guess they don’t really care. Long as we don’t ruin anything, we could be chimps on kazoo.”
“Do you think Chris will be there?” said Celeste.
“I have to not think about that,” said Ron.
They drove down Route 3, passed Giants Stadium into the tightly packed sprawl beyond the swamplands that stretched right to the east coast. Neither of them new Jersey City, but Ron thought he knew the name of the street that housed Yellow Submarine. It had once been the derogatory name that his favorite sportswriter had given to a Giants quarterback. Everyone knew the name of the road, but what Ron did not know what that it stretched through three counties in northern Jersey and went by different names and numbers as its modern day version snaked through one of the most densely populated areas in the country.
They got hopelessly and helplessly lost. The tom-tom drove him road crazy as he snaked and turned at its direction only to find himself on the heavily truck travelled Routes 1 and 9. Ron screamed. He banged his fists on the steering wheel like a toddler in tantrum.
Celeste was as wound up as a coiled spring as she sat in the passenger seat, afraid to move or speak. Finally, she said, “Ron do you think I should call them?”
Ron felt frustrated and defeated. “Sure.”
Celeste called. “Hi, we were supposed to be there almost an hour ago and are totally lost. We’re sorry.”
“Really don’t worry about it,” said a kind sounding voice. “We’re casual about time here. Get here when you get here and it will be fine. We’re all set up for you.”
Celeste grinned. “Thank you very, very much. See you soon.”
She turned to Ron and repeated what they said. “That’s great,” said a still frustrated Ron. “But we still have to find it.”
Forty-five minutes later they did. They hadn’t even been close. Celeste had asked two different men that they saw on the streets and each gave them directions that finally got them there.
There was the rush of being late on both of them. The perspiration that came to both of them after years and years of training that told them that they had to be on time. Ron thought to himself as he unpacked the car that maybe it was stupid but it was how he was. Celeste was a little better about it.
The studio was opened by a bolt locked door. It was another reminder to go along with the sights and sounds and smells of the city that were attacking him like a virus to which he had an old immunity.
The walls were all black that lead into reception area that resembled a ticket taker’s booth in an old movie theater, what would come to be called a kiosk.
A large dark-haired woman welcomed them. She spoke with an English accent that did not seem to fit her appearance. Her voice skipped happily over words like they were notes in a song. Then Dirk stepped in and rubbed his hands together, long hair falling to his shoulders, eyes sleepy and said to Ron, “I’m going to show you two studios. But I think the smaller one will be best for you.”
He led Ron down a corridor and then turned off into what looked like a radio station to Ron. Ron exhaled a huge sigh of relief and realized that it smelled like a radio station as well. The walls the floors and everything was designed to trap sound.
The first studio had a drum kit in one corner and various amps lying around along with guitars that were in cases. There was a piano and that was locked. “If you get claustrophobic we can record in here.” Dirk spread his arm out. “But it’s just you and the guitar, right?”
Ron looked around the cluttered and quiet room and for a second imagine it bustling with musicians and instruments and people sitting on the other side of the large glass partition from which the control room watched and listened.
“Or, if you don’t mind sacrificing space we can use this room.” He pointed over his shoulder.
The room was much smaller and had no instruments. There was a stool and three microphone stands. Ron looked at it and thought it felt like the inside of his mind sometimes. “This is the one,” he said.
Dirk spent what seemed like forever but was really only about ten minutes placing the microphones. He told Ron to tune his guitar and find a height so he could sit comfortably and play and then find a height where we wanted to stand and sing.
“Oh, I want to do them both at the same time,” said Ron.
“OK, but that really limits what I could do with different tracks because the sound will bleed through, but we can make it work.”
Two mics went on his guitar and one was for his voice. A sound filter was positioned over the mic on his voice.
Then Dirk left the room and the glowing world on the other side of the glass lit up for Ron and there was Celeste sitting on an overstuffed leather couch and Dirk sitting at the vast control panel with another engineer. It was a completely silent view of the room.
Then a voice crackled through. “Why don’t you just play something Ron and loosen up.” Ron played for about two minutes while they changed settings. Then the voice crackled through again. “Now can you sing?”
Ron started the first song in his set of three. “After a moment, he stopped and the voice said. “We’re all set up now do you want to take a break?”
Ron said that he did and drank a fast rum and coke and had a cigarette with Celeste.
Then he went back in and played a song that he had written about girls he knew with different colored hair. Each verse told a little story using the same words that were slightly changed each time. It was a comfortable song. He could flow into the execution of it, but it didn’t feel like he could play it unconsciously anymore. He could not feel like he was losing himself into the song. He was too concerned about whether or not he was doing it right.
Then the voice crackled in. “Ok, do you want to play that again now?”
Ron played it again. As he sang, he did not picture himself in the story of the song. He watched himself singing and playing the song.
The voice said, “I want you to stay right there and listen now.”
Ron listened to the playbacks. Then the voice said, “Is either of these close to what you want?”
“I’d like to play it again,” said Ron.
By the fourth take Ron had one that he liked, and he decided to move on to the next song.
Over the next couple of hours, they did the same process for three songs. Dirk reappeared and said that they were going to be mixed down now. Ron and Celeste should relax.
“So what happens now?” asked Celeste.
“We make a studio version of the songs and keep a cd on file and give you one. But even with being late, you only used half of your time, so when do you want to come back?”
Ron grinned. Celeste smiled. “How about next Sunday?”
“Sounds great,” said Dirk. “We’ll keep a light on for you. For now just hang out.”
It was dark by the time Celeste drove home. Ron said, “Well we know what it sounded like in there now let’s hear what it sounds like in the car.”
Celeste was tired as she drove. The puppies were waiting. They would be hungry and anxious.
Chaucer Village was a thirty minute drive for Celeste. She made the trip each Thursday since Mario had been there. Sometimes she incorporated it into her days with military families and so she and Mario went to lunch. Pal’s Cabin was not far away. There used to be a spin-off lunch place down the road but that was gone now. Mario and Celeste both had memories of coming to Pal’s Cabin.
Mario was agreeable and appreciative. “You and Ron really saved my life back there, Celeste. I can’t thank you enough for what you both did.”
Celeste smiled and felt a little guilty accepting the compliment. “It was more Ron than it was me, Daddy.” Celeste thought for a moment that she would have let him stew in his own juices. Then she felt conflicted because she knew that she had done the right thing. She knew that she had a right to feel the way that she did about him because of how he had been, and what he had done to everyone.
Now she was seeing him in a different light. Maybe he had earned his karma long before Celeste was even born. She felt that after watching Saving Private Ryan. It seemed to her that all those guys who survived earned their karma a long long time ago.
“Ron did a great thing, don’t get me wrong. I think the world of him for it. But you do a lot of the work Celeste.”
Mario was happy in his new community. There were many more females than males and you did not have to live with them. He loved his breakfasts and his big screen TV and had a growing affection for the Yankees, managed by Joe Torre, a good Italian guy that Mario could relate to, understand, and pull for. “And this place is really so much better than what I had.”
Celeste catalogued all the signs of aging on her father. He was moving through old age gracefully. “Tina and Harvey came to see me. Harvey made me a shadow box for my medals and it’s just beautiful.”
Mario knew about unmanned flights to Mars and towards Venus. He knew that Italy was playing in the world cup. He did not like to reminisce with Celeste. Mario wanted to talk about what was happening that day.
Celeste felt good about how and where he was. As she drove back, she called Tina. “Tina, this is your sister.”
“I was just about to call you. I guess it’s a sister thing, huh?”
“Must be,” said Celeste. “What did you think about how Daddy looked?”
“He looked fine. He remembered to tell you that we came to see him I guess? Did he mention that his grandsons, who idolize him, were there?”
“Yeah, he seems very happy,” said Celeste.
“Well good for him,” said Tina, dismissing the subject.
Celeste pulled into the driveway and her impatient puppies came bounding to see her. There was a soft breeze blowing in from across the lake. Keats and Fitzgerald crowded around her and herded her up the stairs. Ron was not home yet.
It was an evening in the middle of their work week when the phone rang. Celeste had been trying to reach Angel. She had been trying for more than a few days. It seemed like weeks to her. There was a question about whether Angel was pregnant. Pregnancy had been hard for Celeste. It was no different for Angel.
She had mentioned it to Ron but he hadn’t been all that concerned. He did register Celeste’s concern though, and so when he answered the phone and it was Don Simplciatto asking for Celeste, he stayed on the line.
Celeste said,” Hi Don, how are you? How’s Angel?”
There was a slight pause and Don said, “We’re both fine. Angel asked me to give you a call.”
“What do you need?” asked Celeste.
“She doesn’t want to see you or talk to you anymore,” said Don flatly.
Ron felt stunned. He did not walk into the room where Celeste was. He did not speak.
Celeste didn’t register what had been said. “Is something wrong, Don?”
Don Simplciatto laughed, “No, everything is fine. We’re fine. Angel is pregnant. She just doesn’t want to see either one of you anymore.”
Now Celeste was stunned too. “Why?”
“I think it is what is best. Angel is pregnant now.”
Celeste gasped. “She’s pregnant!”
“She is and we are very happy about it. We are simple people Celeste, we just want to be happy. You and Ron are way too complicated for us.”
Celeste didn’t say anything. Ron walked into the space between the living room and kitchen and stood there with the phone to his ear, prepared to speak. Celeste saw him and held up her hand for him to wait. Her hand was trembling. Her mouth was quivering. She was trying very hard to compose herself and wanted more than anything in the world a moment to do so.
Ron wondered if Angel was on the other line. His mind tried to grapple with what he’d just heard. All he could see was Angel’s face when he held her in his arms on her wedding day, and then that image was peeled back and he felt her arms hug him with a tight desperation that he had felt from no one else on a sustained basis.
Celeste was swirling. She needed to vomit. She needed to say something. She managed the tone that one gives when informed of the death of a loved one and said, “Thank you for calling and letting me know. Angel knows that I’m her mother and that I love her.”
“Take care now,” said Don Simplciatto and hung up the phone. Celeste slumped down into a chair and did not move. Neither Keats nor Fitzgerald moved. Ron took her by the hand. There was not a single sound for the longest time, and then Fitzgerald couldn’t hold it together any longer and whimpered and wanted to be in Celeste’s lap.
“What kind of a piece of shit mother must I be to have my daughter have her spineless jellyfish of a husband call me and say that she doesn’t want me in her life anymore?”
Ron truly did not know what to say. “Angel goes to extremes sometimes,” he managed.
“What kind of horrible monster of a mother I must have been,” said Celeste.
Ron was sitting at one end of the long leather couch in Dr. Garfunkel’s office. He was studying a bust of designated phrenology labels drawn on a replica of a human skull. Celeste’s voice was shaky as she spoke. She was holding her seemingly ever present handful of tissues. He had been finding similar handfuls of discarded tissues all over the house for months.
“Do you feel like the anti-depressants are working, Celeste?”
“I can’t say for sure. I want them to work. I can’t stay like this.” Celeste wiped her nose and eyes.
Ron was studying Dr. Garfunkel. He was looking for reassurance that this guy had some idea of what he was doing. He wanted to put faith in the process and he wanted to help Celeste to have faith in the process, but it was a struggle against his intellect, emotions, and experiences.
Ron had been sitting inside or outside of offices like this one for his entire life. First it was his mother and her agoraphobia. Then he went for a few weeks because their doctor made him. His mother went well into her sixties. Ron would always have to meet them and spend time talking with them. Then it was Angel, starting with them at an age that was too tender to render any kind of diagnosis and careening through crisis after crisis throughout her youth. Now it was Celeste. Now the treatment was less talk and more drugs.
“Am I forgetting anything, Ron?”
Celeste looked to him to remember the things she seemed to be forgetting more and more. They were things that she really wanted to remember and she would try but when she started crying they just slipped out of her mind like everything else except the emptiness. When she closed her eyes the faces of her Aunt and Mother would not speak to her and they looked sad and just shook their heads at her. But she wasn’t going to tell anyone about that. Then they would know that she truly had lost her mind, not even Ron could know that.
“You wanted to talk about sleeping,” said Ron quietly.
“Yes,” said Dr. Garfunkel. “I was just going to ask about that.”
Ron glanced down at his watch. They had about five minutes to go. Garfunkel would be wrapping up now.
They reviewed a slight adjustment in her levels and then Ron said that he would go and be in the car. He tried to anticipate the end of the session so if there was anything that Celeste wanted to say about him, he could not be there and give her a chance to say it.
Ron had found a place to park on the street in Morristown. He called Connie. “Anything going on this afternoon?”
“No,” said Connie. “Everything is quiet. How is she?”
“These visits are never easy,” said Ron. “This wasn’t really bad. You can call me for the rest of the afternoon now.”
“Ok,” said Connie. “Tell Celeste I love her.”
Celeste got into the car just after he clicked off the phone. “Everything ok?” said Ron.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” said Celeste with zero affectation.
Ron was just pulling out of the spot when the phone jingled again. He eased back in, looked at the number, looked at Celeste. “It’s Angel.”
Celeste froze. She was about to light a cigarette and just froze.
Ron said, “Hello.”
“Don’t you even want to see her or know who she is?” accused Angel.
Elves Harbor New Jersey was not considered the Jersey Shore. It was not part of the lower bay. It was part of the Sandy Hook Bay community. It was on the inside of a large indentation that gave New Jersey its shape.
Ron and Celeste had lived in more than thirty different places in New Jersey. From cities to farm country, with Jersey’s idea of what a suburb was thrown in. Neither of them had heard of Elves Harbor. It was in Middlesex County. It was only ever a place they drove through on the Parkway or Turnpike.
That was where Angel and Don were living. Ron and Celeste were invited down to meet their three month old grandchild. It was a tense and quiet ride.
The smaller engine of Celeste’s brand new Honda Fit whined. She had wanted to give up the Eclipse, soon after she heard about Angel. All of a sudden Celeste said that she felt foolish in this young person’s car.
This was its first long ride and Celeste wanted Ron to drive. She had lost confidence in her own driving and alertness. Besides, she was much too frightened to drive today. Suppose she did something wrong and they got into an accident.
They arrived a full thirty minutes before they were supposed to be there. Ron decided that he wanted to look around the area and Celeste was sure that if they didn’t get there on time that Angel wouldn’t allow them in. The town bordered the bay.
Ron and Celeste drove down to the bay. It was a sunny day. Celeste said, “There’s a nice little beach where you could swim.”
“Yeah, how nice for them,” said Ron. He circled in towards their street. When he drove passed, he saw a run down, what his mother would have called, a skid-row dump. He was fighting his anger with Angel and his contempt and disgust for Don. He didn’t want to show it for Celeste’s sake but he was not sure how he could mask it. “Maybe it would be better if I waited in the car,” he said.
Celeste’s face showed panic. “Ron, I don’t want to do this alone but I won’t force you.”
Ron turned the car around and drove up alongside the house. Don came out to greet them. “Welcome,” he said. “Angel wants you both to come in.”
Ron almost smiled. He had wished for a daughter with brains and he got his wish. He felt like a joke of the gods. Ask for eternity but forget to include eternal youth. Angel was very bright but her compassion could disappear like a puddle in a drought. Ron lit a cigarette and tried not to blow the smoke into Don’s face. He turned to Celeste. “You go ahead and I’ll be right there.”
Celeste went into the house with Don Simplciatto and Ron flashed on an image of Angel as a nine year old and standing in the living room and explaining to him quietly about how she didn’t need parents anymore. And there was Ron saying an echo of the same thing that had been said to him.
He heard his mother say that when he was eighteen he could do as he liked but until then he was going to follow her rules. He had said that to Angel. His mother hadn’t meant it, but Ron knew that Angel would hold him to it. He had told himself back then that if they could just get her through to that point that they would have accomplished something. He sucked on the cigarette and tried to tell himself that she should be free to make whatever decisions that she wanted and then his mind shifted to Celeste and how Angel’s choices had gutted her. He didn’t know if she would ever heal. The cigarette was gone. Ron slipped a mint into his mouth and went to the door.
He knocked on the screen and Don came to the door. “Come in,” said Don cheerfully. Ron decided that it would not be a good idea to go for his throat. He was just too old to think that way.
Celeste was sitting on the couch holding a small baby. The infant had obviously just woken up. Ron said, “Hello” and found a place to sit. Celeste was sitting there with tears rolling down her cheeks and a large smile on her face. She looked at Ron and met his eyes. They were waiting for him to say something.
Angel said, “Her name is Emma.”
Ron nodded. “She’s very pretty.”
“She’s the most beautiful child I have ever seen. She is perfect,” said Angel.
Ron didn’t answer.
Celeste said, “How does she sleep?”
“Like a rock,” said Angel.
Celeste smiled to her daughter and said, “You’re lucky. You never wanted to go to sleep.”
“I don’t intend to have her be anything like me,” snapped Angel.
“Can I get you something to drink?” said Don to Ron and Celeste.
Celeste said that she would have coffee. Ron said, “I don’t want anything, thank you.”
Angel got the coffee and said pointedly to Ron, “You don’t want anything to drink at all?”
“I’ll have some water.”
Don went to get the water and Angel sat down next to Celeste who was still holding Emma. Angel said to Ron, “Do you want to hold her?”
Ron didn’t answer but Celeste instinctively held her arms out with the baby and Ron took her. He had held babies before. He was a godfather. A one year older Angel had lived in his arms. He cradled Emma in his arms and bent over her and said, “Hello,” and stopped. He smiled and tried to help her find his eyes as he did with animals and babies. She locked on his for an instant and he smiled and said, “Hello.”
Then he gave the baby to Angel and said with a distinct chill, “Thank you.”
They spent an uncomfortable forty five minutes. Angel talked about how much she loved the neighborhood and felt at home there. Celeste was timid and tried to be joyful.
Then Don said that he would have to get ready for work soon.
Celeste said, “We should be going.”
Ron stood up and said thank you to Angel and then again to Don. “I’ll be in the car,” he said to Celeste.
When Celeste joined him she said, “Angel said if that’s the way that he’s going to act he shouldn’t come back.”
To say that Ron was at a loss to know how to help Celeste was an understatement. He was consumed by it. He sat with Connie having coffee on a Monday morning.
“Did she feel good about seeing Emma?” asked Connie.
“She thinks that Emma is beautiful and that Angel did a wonderful job with having her but I don’t know if it helped. She’s like a starving person who was offered an appetizer. Sure it helped but it was not a cure. It wasn’t ever going to address the underlying problem.”
“I can’t imagine how she must feel.”
“Yes, you can,” said Ron. “You were raised with the same set of values that she was raised with. You could go off and do anything but the most important thing that you would ever do is your children. Celeste looks at herself by that standard and can’t help but see herself as worthless.”
“I know,” said Connie, “but you just look for her to get a break somewhere.”
“My daughter gives no quarter. Hell Connie, she doesn’t even call me Dad most of the time. When she is talking to Celeste I am always referred to as ‘her husband.”
“That must feel awful for you. It puts you in an impossible position.”
“I can’t show that, Connie and please don’t refer to it when you talk to Celeste. She can’t handle thinking about anything else negative right now.”
“I just try to listen to her. That’s really all I can do.”
“Maybe there is something else, if you are willing.” said Ron.
Connie looked up, unsure but wanting to hear.
“Angel doesn’t really want to see me anymore. The next time that Celeste goes down to Elves Harbor, if I can arrange it, would you be willing to go with her?”
“I would do that,” said Connie instantly.
Ron smiled. “Thanks Connie.”
“You have a meeting in five minutes,” said Connie.
“Where am I going?” said Ron.
“Scaramucci wants to see you.”
“Oh joy,” said Ron sarcastically. “Do I need anything?”
“I think it’s about test results. They are all here.”
She handed Ron the two folders, one for each high school.
Ron took the folders and walked over to see Sandy Humz’ replacement.
Drew Scaramucci had been working at a private academy in NY State when he was picked to be the new Assistant Superintendent. He was a fastidious man who kept several pairs of shoes in his office. There were his travelling shoes, his office clogs that looked like slippers, and the dress shoes that he wore to meetings. He also kept several jackets in the office that he used to fit his changing moods.
He was shorter than Ron and a little paunchy. There was an acknowledgement between them, as usually existed between all men. One either paid deference to another man’s physicality, thought it was his equal, or knew that he could overpower the other if it ever came down to that. That recognition was never spoken about but it worked its way into most exchanges between them with vague gestures and postures.
Ron and Drew scoured over the test results for a bit and then Scaramucci said, “The Superintendent wants to see you.”
“He wants to give you your evaluation. He doesn’t think that I have been here long enough to do it and so he wants to be the one to tell you personally.”
“That sounds ominous,” said Ron.
Drew Scaramucci slid back from his desk and held his hands up defensively. “I have nothing to do with it. These are the Super’s wishes. You’ll have to take up anything he says with him.”
“OK,” said Ron. “When?”
“He wants to see you now. He’s waiting for you.”
Scaramucci stood up and exited the side door of his office that led to an adjoin room for the Superintendent’s and Assistant Super’s secretaries. Leon Stavros’ office had a door at the other end that led into his office suite. Drew walked back in quickly and said, “He’s ready for you now.”
Ron knew it was a setup and that he had no choice. It was done smoothly but without any doubt in his mind that this was not going to be good.
Leon Stavros smiled and said, “Have a seat Ron. I thought it best if I write this evaluation but after this you will return to the direct supervision of the Assistant.” Leon was careful not to mention Scaramucci’s name. You should read before we talk.
There were only three overall job performance descriptor’s that were available at Middle Hills: Satisfactory, Needs Improvement, and Unsatisfactory. In his more than thirty-five years as a teacher or administrator he had never gotten a review that was less than exemplary. But there was today’s review and it labelled him, “Unsatisfactory.”
Ron felt a cold rush of adrenalin wash through him. He began to read the narrative line by line. “While there is no doubt of Dr. Tuck’s ability to do his job in a successful manner and there is no question about his communication and organizational skills, his personality and attitudes are abrasive and counter-productive to a smooth functioning district.”
Ron read that line again. He felt himself grip the pages tightly, took a cleansing breath and sat back and crossed his legs. He continued reading.
“Dr. Tuck’s influence on staff development is no longer in keeping with what the aims of the district have become. He is therefore removed from all contact with the Staff Development at Middle Hills and will act in an advisory capacity to Dr. Scaramucci, who will be replacing him in this role.”
Ron looked up at Stavros who was pretending to be reading something else and watching Ron as he read. “Dr. Tuck will assume responsibility to raise standardized test scores in this district. Because of the immediacy of the District’s problems with standardized testing and Dr. Tuck’s continued failure to raise test scores, this will now become an important area of evaluation on his job performance.”
When he finished reading he said softly, “I have some time to sign this if I am correct.”
Stavros smiled. “Of course you are correct, Ron. You’re usually correct.”
Ron sat in Hector Gonzalez’s office. It was unusual for Ron to have Connie call Hector’s office and set an appointment. Usually they just ran into each other and their need for contact had dwindled even further in the weeks since Ron had been stripped of his Staff Development responsibilities. Ron was buttoned up tight whenever he saw anyone from Central Office now. Any sense of a casual atmosphere disappeared from his lexicon after the meeting with Stavros.
Scaramucci had cautioned Ron twice about calling him Sir. Ron’s response was “Yes, Dr. Scaramucci.”
He had tenure. He could not be fired. He could however be continually humiliated and reduced. That was Stavros’ plan and Ron knew it. Ron also knew that he was almost sixty years old and made over 150K a year. His value on the job market was literally nonexistent. Unless he was willing to take a 50% cut in salary and start over without tenure, he was trapped.
Ron felt that he could not talk to Celeste about this. She was concentrated on those few times when Angel would allow her to see Emma. Slowly, she was starting to show signs of life. Ron told himself that it could not be about him between them now and so he compartmentalized.
Hector came in smiling. “Yours was not a name I expected to see on my calendar Ron. Why didn’t you just give me a call?”
“You know, Hector, changing times.”
Hector nodded. “And not for the better!”
Ron didn’t answer.
“So, what’s up?”
“I’ve heard that you can buy back years, Hector. Can you tell me exactly how that works?”
“Mostly,” said Hector. “It is for teachers who left the profession and the union and took their cash payouts and then came back. If they want to buy back into the plan, they have to pay for each year of service that they rendered. It can also work for those who had military service.”
“Hector, I spent nine years teaching in private school, does any of that count?”
“That’s tricky right now because of all of this alternate route stuff. If you had your certificate and were teaching in the inner city maybe, but that wasn’t you right?”
“No Hector, I was alternate route. I was in the first class of alternate route candidates. So no, I only had a college degree then.”
“You really have had a strange trip here, Dr. Tuck,” said Hector. “But I’m afraid that if you never worked for the State of New Jersey that none of it counts.”
Ron’s mind flashed like light in his history. “I did work for the State of New Jersey for a year,” said Ron. “I was employed by the Department of Institutions and Agencies.”
Hector was surprised again. He repeated, “Instructions and Agencies?”
Ron sat flatly. “I worked in a jail for a year Hector.”
Hector stammered. “If… if you did that, it counts.”
“How much would it cost to buy back that year?” asked Ron.
“At least ten thousand,” said Hector. “It isn’t cheap but it’s worth it.”
“Let’s put in the application,” said Ron. Ron had calculated that meant that he had two years left before he could retire.
Ron was surprised and delighted when he saw the invitation. Our Lady of the Forlorn was having a thirtytieth reunion and he was asked to come and speak. He replied that he would attend with his wife, Celeste. It was not like a reunion that he had ever been to before. Ron had never desired to go back to his high school reunions. He hadn’t much liked his classmates the first time around and told himself that would not change.
Celeste had said then, “Wouldn’t you like to go back as Dr. Tuck just to rub their noses in it?”
“That would not even make me feel good while I was doing it,” said Ron.
“Why?” Celeste seemed to really want to know.
“They always thought that they were better than me. Their surprise would only reinforce how much of an oddball they thought I was. Look, you go back to reunions because you want to see someone and you hope that they would want to see you. There is no one there that I have any desire to see and none of them would feel any joy at seeing me.”
When this invitation came, Celeste was adamant. “We have to go!”
“Why?” said Ron.
“Are you really going to tell me that they have no desire to see you and that you are not curious to see them?”
Ron hung his head.
“You can’t say that this time can you?” Celeste was staring at him hard.
“I believed in all of those girls. Maybe I am afraid that for some it didn’t work out so well.”
Celeste did not change her expression or stance. “Then, that’s music you are just going to have to face isn’t it?”
“Ok, we’ll go!” said Ron surrendering.
“Thank God. Don’t you think that I’m curious about these girls that meant so much to you?”
The invitation got more complicated two days after Celeste returned the RSVP in the affirmative. The organizer of the event called him at home and said the girls who were attending had taken a vote and there was only one person that they all agreed that they would like to hear from and that was him. In addition, the school was also wondering if he would make a few remarks in the Church before the celebratory mass.
Again, Celeste watched as Ron was stunned. “Celeste, a lot of people believed that I was ruining the lives of these girls and now they want me to speak?”
“You must have done something right.”
Now it was a bright Saturday afternoon and they were driving to this affair with him and he was incredibly quiet. Celeste was so curious about this time in his life when she didn’t know him. This time that had nothing to do with Robin and Chris and Warren and Rahway. He had told her that these were the hardest and some of the best years of teaching he had ever done. He had told her that he was even more serious about it then. He told her that he was more dedicated to it than he could be now. Celeste wondered how that could be possible. She had been with him when she would have sworn that his only thoughts ever were about his teaching and students. Then she smiled. The difference was her. She had taken root in his life and they had grown intermingled now, but this was before that happened.
Ron made sure to lock the car. He could not remember the last time that he locked anything. They didn’t lock their doors. Ron never locked his car. Connie usually opened and closed his office. It felt odd. He took Celeste’s hand as they walked through the parking lot.
It was really a community complex. The high school, the grammar school, the church, the cafeteria and the gym are all intertwined. The complex actually took up the better part of a squared city block. On the north corner of the block was the church and the rectory. In back of them was the old part of the high school, a courtyard with an enclosed causeway that bridged to the newer building of the high school and then a solid wall on the other side of which was the grammar school and the convent. It was two stories high and stretched to the end of the block. Across the street were one and two family homes.
They walked through the courtyard together and came out at the other end where the front entrance of the high school had been. The high school was gone now. The grammar school was still there but the high school had become a community center. Celeste and Ron wandered around to this entrance, that had rarely been used when it was an operating high school, and up some stairs into the back of the building.
It was dark and close inside. They walked up the second flight of stairs and were greeted by three people sitting at a table with envelopes in boxes laid out in front of them.
“Hi,” said Ron. “We’re here for a reunion.”
The dark eyes of the woman brightened when she heard his voice and she looked up and said, “O my God! Mr. Tuck! You came!”
She got up from her seat and ran into his old classroom. “Mr. Tuck is here!”
Celeste heard squeals and then five middle aged woman came running out of the room and gathered around Ron and squealed and smiled and hugged him with unrestrained affection. Celeste stood back and thought, Holy Shit!
Ron stood there in smiling, hugging, kissing shock. Over the next ten minutes, more and more of them showed up and it was the same. Celeste had never quite seen anything like it before. It came like waves as more and more of the girls arrived.
Some said that they really were not supposed to be there but heard that he was coming. He had taught them for this or that over his four years there and they just wanted to see him.
Ron tried to remember them all but he couldn’t and after a while he just laughed at himself for them, and they laughed with him and then Suzy said that she wanted to take pictures. They arranged him on the steps in the middle of them and took turns snapping pictures and then returning to the picture.
The women, now girls, began to huddle in circles and talk and giggle and laugh. Celeste walked over to Ron and said, “That was quite a welcome. I guess they remember you.”
Sheer joy radiated from Ron and he had that look that reminded Celeste of the way she saw him when he came up from a SCUBA dive. Then the girls began to introduce themselves to Celeste and again she felt what she could only call adoration when they talked to her about him.
The leader of the community center was a small man about Ron’s age. He introduced himself to Ron, shook his hand and said, “I’m Nestor Cortez. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Ron smiled and shook his hand. “We thought you might like to give your first talk in your old class room. Nestor ushered Ron into his old room.
Ron did not know what to think at first. Eyes moved to the spot where he had hung his Lincoln portrait. It had been there for every class that he taught. There were some papers thumbtacked into the wall now. Eyes travelled to the windows that opened two sides of the room. The emergency door at the side of his classroom led out to the fire escape where Ron used to hide between classes for a few quick drags on a cigarette. The room wasn’t speaking to him now. Ron felt like it did not remember him. That was Ok, it had been so long and there could be so many people in the life of a room.
It filled quickly. It was time to begin the program.
Nestor spoke first. “We welcome you to this happy day for our community when we can celebrate the anniversary of a very special group of people who lived in our community. Some of you still live here and worship at our church and take part in the life of our community, but today we are proud to honor the fruits of our labors. The beautiful and talented women who went through this school, who graduated from this school and have returned to celebrate with us.”
There was applause. Ron applauded. He eyes went from. His eyes moved from Sonja to Elizabeth to Connie to Julie and Vicky and they were grown women now who were living grown up people’s lives. Ron felt humbled and blessed by the sight of them. And then Nestor was introducing him and Ron heard the warm applause fill the room.
Ron grinned. “Well that was surely not how you greeted me on test day was it?” They laughed. Ron looked around at the walls. “This was a great room for learning and we taught each other here.” They smiled and straightened. “Then we were all filled with dreams and fears and aspirations and today we are filled with experiences and memories. Today is a day for our memories. We have laid today aside to stop and reflect about where we have been and come back to.
The year we began learning together, France held its last execution by guillotine.” Ron went out with a litany of things that they had experienced and may well have forgotten. They laughed and listened and a few of them cried. Celeste noticed how they seemed to hang on his every little anecdote. They were personal and so much him and yet so different from the way that he was now.
“As you guys know, I grew up a few blocks from here. This community is not one for an easy childhood and it makes us who we are. Our early lives were not easy and that is why we can come here and be joyful because we have survived it and can rejoice and dance, which is what I hope I will see you all doing later this evening. Thank you for inviting me back.”
The church was always cool and today was no exception. It was not set up for mass but sacristy was lit and there was a microphone at the pulpit. A priest that Ron did not know and had not met blessed the congregation and then Sister Agnes Marie addressed the gathering. Celeste had gone to light a candle when they entered in the rear of the Church, and Ron had been lead up to his place inside the communion rail.
Sister Agnes said that she was so pleased to be here to welcome back the graduating class of 1981. She went on to say how the blessings of the Lord had been visited upon us all by having been given the privilege of serving God from his church. “We also respect the sacrifices and talents of our lay faculty and when one is welcomed back to us, it is with pride and love that we welcome him.
Ron Tuck first came to our school when he was in 7th grade. He was a Protestant boy then who had not been exposed to the grace of our mother church. We took him in and he joined us and was baptized right on the spot where he currently sits. Then, he came back to us as a teacher and today he is here to help us celebrate the achievements of this fine class of women. Dr. Ronald Tuck, would you please say a few words to us …”
Then she smiled and gracefully gestured Ron to the pulpit. “I will always remember the absolutely beautiful windows of this church and the way that its celling seems to rise up to the heavens themselves.” Ron looked down at a place just in front of the communion rail. Then he moved to it. Even without the microphone his voice was loud and clear in the church. “I can see Sister Bernadette standing here and leading us in songs for First Friday Masses and I remember us all singing our hearts out to please her because such warmth and love emanated from her.” He hoped they could picture her as well. “I will always remember the smell of incense and the wish for peace that we all made here.”
He went on and for the next three minutes painted a picture of their lives touching the church and then he sat down. There was applause and Ron was embarrassed to be applauded in a church.
Ron and Celeste left the parking lot and Ron said, “Do you mind if we take a little ride while we are down here?”
Celeste smiled. “No, where are we going?”
“I want to show you some things,” said Ron. He immediately turned down Elmwood Ave and parked beside a thin, tree lined, very small park. “This is where I first tore up my knee.”
Celeste said, “It’s so small.”
“It sure looks that way now but it didn’t back then. This street was always lined with cars of people who stopped to watch us play.” Then he circled the park and turned down Lincoln Ave. “I lived at the end of this street, across from the Boys Club. It was a nice building.” Ron was looking at houses that had once seemed so very well kept and now looked run-down.
The car dipped dramatically. Ron and Celeste heard and felt a loud large clang that sounded to Ron like something snapping in the front of the car. He stopped and get out and was confronted with a huge pothole that sat in the middle of the street, now just in back of him. Ron looked in amazement. It was about five feet wide and at least a foot deep. He got back into the car and said, “Fucking Newark. Forget where you are for one second and you get slammed.” They started off again.
“Is the car OK?”
“I think we did some damage,” said Ron. “But it’s riding ok now.” Ron stopped again about a mile down the street. He looked across Celeste to the place where the large stately apartment building had been. In its place sat a police station. “It’s gone,” he said astonished. “It was where the police station is. Why did I even bother to come back down here? There’s nothing here for me.”
He turned the car and headed out of Newark. “Your girls are extraordinary! “said Celeste.
“Yeah, they are. I guess we have to tonight.”
Celeste looked at him in disbelief. “Why wouldn’t you want to go and see these women who obviously worship you?”
“They don’t worship. They like who I was at a time in their lives when I was important to them. Maybe I’m better as a memory.” Ron smiled. “Like in Eddie and the Cruisers, don’t fuck with the memories.”
Celeste looked hard at him. “A lot of people will be really disappointed if you don’t go because of some nonsense that is going on in your head,” Celeste paused, “and I’ll be disappointed.”
For Ron, it turned out to be a night in heaven. Celeste thought that this must what it’s like to have your life be a movie set. She sat with Ron as woman after woman came up to them at different points and told him what their time with him had meant to them.
He would smile and be charming and ask questions about their children and their careers and what they might be reading now. There were the outstanding examples of success. Elena had graduated from that Ivy League College, picked up a law degree after that, had become a Fulbright scholar and had decided to teach high school in New York. Donna had become a civil rights attorney in Seattle. Elizabeth was a professor of film for a Big Ten University. But they were not the ones that truly impressed Celeste.
Celeste found herself drawn to those women who had finished their formal education with high school but had carried his teachings with them. They spoke to Ron about the way that he had made them feel valued and that they had something to say. They were the ones who talked about him being the person who was willing to take them seriously and cared about whether or not they would be successful in whatever they tried to do. They told him that he had not let them down and that was what made him different.
Celeste was also sure that more than one of these former students still had an obvious crush on their old teacher and accepted Celeste and gave her props because he had chosen to be with her. It was a night that Ron should cherish and have good feelings about forever, but she was worried that he would not. Celeste was worried that this seemed like a prelude for an ending to his career that would not be quite as celebratory.
“So, what did you think of that?” said Celeste as they drove home.
“I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t a polished teacher when I taught those girls. They always made me feel so damn good about them. They were the ones who made me want to be better for them every day. That’s sure gone now isn’t it?”
“Do you still want to teach?”
“I don’t know,” said Ron. “How could I ever live up to that?”
“That’s just not true,” said Celeste. “Your boys loved you. Your students loved you for your whole career.”
“I don’t think that’s who I am anymore Celeste. Bruce Springsteen was right. I took a wrong turn and I just kept going.”
“You tried to be more effective for more students Ron. I was there!”
“Yeah,” said Ron. “And look how that’s worked out.”
Then they were back at the lake and facing neglected dogs who were not at all used to this and wanted to announce that idea with authority, in every way that they could, that it was not acceptable.
On Monday morning Celeste called Ron’s office. Once on speaker she said to Connie, “Is there room in that office for his head?”
Connie giggled and gave her customary, “What?” Followed by, “I’m not sure. He made it in but it was tight.”
Ron grinned. “I like when it’s tight.”
Connie giggled. “I’m sure that you do.”
Celeste said, “See how you are? Your mind goes straight into the gutter.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” said Ron continuing the joke. “If you saw anything suggestive in my comment, it must be your mind that went there, not mine.”
“You see how he is, Connie. He could gaslight Jesus.”
The three of them laughed and then Connie said, “You have a last minute appointment that is scheduled to start at the change of class.”
“With who?” said Ron.
“Do you know what she needs?”
“No,” said Connie. She just said that she needed to see you and that it was urgent.”
“Ok,” said Ron. “Then he spoke to the phone. “Looks like you will have to have fun with me later,” he said.
Ron said, “You see, I have the reputation but it is the two of you who always go there.”
They laughed again and hung up just as Phoebe was coming into Connie’s office.
She asked that the door be closed and Ron settled back down behind his desk expecting some kind of problem that Phoebe thought was serious.
“What do you do when you are faced with teaching a homophobic student?” asked Phoebe.
“What do you mean? That type of student needs the education more than most.”
“One of my students Chase Barlow had been saying and writing the most prejudiced things in my class. It is disruptive and I’m afraid that there is going to be violence.”
Ron listened to the rest of the story making notes and asking for elaboration here and there. Then he said, “I think I’d like to meet Mr. Barlow.”
“I want him out of my class, Dr. Tuck. He’s insulting to me and to the rest of the class. I am telling you that this is a powder keg that is going to blow up unless you do something about it.”
“I’m going to do my best not to let that happen,” said Ron. He called on his intercom for Connie to look up Chase’s schedule and to find out where he was and get him in to see Ron as soon as possible.”
Then he turned his attention back to Phoebe, who was nervous. He calmed her and told her that she had done the right thing.
“I may have said some things in anger, Dr. Tuck”
“Tell me about anything that you have said that might be questionable now. I can help with this but only if I’m not surprised by what I learn.”
Phoebe wasn’t tenured yet and although Ron had every intention of keeping the young teacher, he understood her concerns.
“I’m pretty sure that I told him to shut up at least twice.”
“Ok,” said Ron. “That’s not the best but it may be that you did that to keep a tense situation from getting out of hand.”
“That’s exactly why I did it, “but it could get twisted into him saying that I was denying him the right to voice his ideas. Which is what he said. I’m worried, Dr. Tuck. I think that this student’s goal is to make trouble for me.”
“Is he bright?” asked Ron.
“In some ways he is very bright and in some ways he is a Neanderthal. He’s not from around here. He’s one of the army kids.”
“Do you know where he’s from?”
“North Carolina,” said Phoebe.
“I’ll meet with him,” said Ron. “When is your lunch?”
Phoebe told him and Ron said that he would try to catch up with her then or at the end of the day.
Phoebe left and Connie came back with Chase’s schedule.
Ron looked at it and called the building principal and said he needed to pull a kid out of class. Mark Cretti wanted to know why. Ron explained. Mark said that maybe Ron should stop down at his office now to see him before he saw the kid.
Mark was in the main office when Ron arrived and ushered him right into his office.
“I know the kid. He’s a good kid. Ms. Misner is a bit high strung, don’t you think?”
“She knows her stuff, Mark. She’s a teacher. She came from East Orange. She was their teacher of the year. She knows how to deal with tough students.”
“Chase has had it tough, Ron. This is his third high school and his first in this part of the country. His father is deployed in Iraq.”
“Ok,” said Ron. “I get it.”
“Would you like me to sit in on the meeting with him?” asked Mark.
Ron stiffened a little. “Why Mark? Worried that I can’t handle it?”
Mark smiled. “You’re not the easiest guy to talk to Ron?
Ron called on their history. “You ever know me to have a problem talking to kids, Mark?”
“That was then, Ron. I just know the kid.”
“I’ll let you know how it went, Mark”
Ron got up and left the office. Mark called Leon Stavros.
Chase Barlow was a thin, pale young man with blonde hair. He came into Ron’s office, removed his baseball cap and reported to Connie in a formal and respectful way. Connie smiled at him. She came from around her desk and ushered him into Ron’s office.
“Sorry to pull you out of Phys Ed Chase.”
“That’s ok, Sir. I don’t really like the class very much.”
Ron gestured for him to sit. With his cap still in his hand and his book sack next to him, he sat. “What is your favorite class?”
“I don’t have one here, Sir.”
“Why is this?” asked Ron.
“I dislike it here, Sir. I’m just doing my time until it’s over.”
“What do you like to study, Chase?”
“Military robotics, Sir.”
“We do have robotics classes here,” offered Ron.
“I wasn’t here to take the pre rec course Sir. And thankfully I’ll be out of this place before I qualify. Why was I was called here, Sir?”
“Because you do have to take and pass English, Chase and right now that seems to be a bit of an issue.”
“Was I reported Sir?”
“Yeah, kind of… Ms. Misner came to see me. Seems like you are having a bit of a disagreement over research paper topics and completing a research paper is one of the requirements of the course, which is one of the requirements for your senior year.”
“I don’t understand,” said Chase. “She said that we were free to choose our own topics, but she rejected mine.”
“What was your topic?” asked Ron.
“How homosexuality is destroying the fabric of American morality,” announced Chase.
“Yeah,” Ron nodded. “I can see how that would be an issue.”
“I only picked it because I know that she’s one of them.”
“So, it’s not an area that really interests you?”
“Sure. I think it’s a problem, but it’s not like I spend all my time thinking about it. She has more prejudices that I can count, but up north here they are all ok. I’m the oddball as usual, no big deal.”
“Let’s talk about some other things that you could do.”
“So, what’s the reason that I can’t do my topic?” asserted Chase.
“Chase, your topic presupposes an answer to the question. If you want to truly research this topic you would have to read on both sides of the issue. That means the homosexual viewpoint as well. You ready to do that?”
“Don’t need to Sir. I’ve met a few. Lots more since coming up here. I know what they’re like.”
“See Chase that’s the thing. I don’t really give a damn about what your paper is about. Neither does Ms. Misner. This is about teaching you how to go through the process.”
“What does that mean?” said Chase. Ron had him now and he knew it. The kid respected his authority. He was listening. Ron didn’t understand what the big mystery was in getting the attention of students. It had always seemed like the most natural thing in the world to him.
“It means that you have a topic with a question that can go either, like the death penalty. Then you stack up research on both sides of the issue and present your opinion through the words of experts in the field. It shows that you know how to do research and manipulate sources. Maybe you’ll have to do twenty research papers in college. This prepares you.”
“So why can’t I do homosexuality in the army?” challenged Chase.
“Show me that you can put together credible sources on both sides of the question, and rephrase your topic and maybe you can.”
“When do you want to see that, Sir?”
“Show it to Ms. Misner when you get it together,” said Ron.
“Can I show it to you first, Sir?”
“You can call me, Dr. Tuck. Everyone does.”
“I’ve been taught to refer to my superior officers as Sir, Sir.”
“Whatever makes you most comfortable,” said Ron.
After Chase left, Ron said to Connie. “This is not going to be a happy conversation with Phoebe Misner.”
Celeste’s relationship with Angel took another downturn. It was on one of the visit’s to Elves Harbor. Celeste noticed that Angel only invited her down there when Don was not at home. She loved seeing Emma. The bright look in the baby’s eyes jolted her heart each and every time. On the day that Emma seemed to recognize Celeste, it moved her to tears.
The tears angered Angel. “Why are you crying around her? I don’t want her to see people cry. If you can’t be happy with her when you come down here, you really shouldn’t bother to come.”
“I was just overwhelmed, Angel. I won’t cry around her anymore.”
“It’s not just that. It’s your whole thing. She can feel how insincere you are. She knows that you really don’t give a shit about her.”
Celeste tried hard not to show that she had begun shaking. Angel did not stop. “I really don’t know why you come down here. At least your husband is honest enough to show that he doesn’t give a shit. Why do you bother with this charade?”
“It’s not a charade Angel. I love her and I love you. I know that I made some mistakes but I am your mother and I love both of you with all my heart.”
“That’s another thing about you that pisses me off, Ma. This you love with all your heart. You never loved anyone or anything with all your heart. No, let me revise that. You may have your husband fooled into thinking that’s how you are, and maybe you even believe that’s how you are yourself, but it’s all a lie.”
Celeste didn’t bother to try to hide the shaking now. Emma was taking a nap in her room and Celeste and Angel were on the porch. Celeste’s eyes looked up and down the lines of telephone poles and wires, tightly packed houses, and cluttered front yards.
“You’re right I do love Dad and he knows it. I love you and you don’t know it. I want Emma to feel the love that I have for her and if you need to beat me up while I get to do that, I can take it.”
“I’m going to protect her from you the way that you never protected me. I’m not going to let her be subjected to a mean and spiteful person like Marjorie.”
“I’m not mean and spiteful, Angel.”
“No, you’re a weak phony and don’t think that I give a shit about your tears at all. I care about as much as you did when you left me with people who tortured me.”
“Between your husband’s mother and your crazy old aunt that you claimed loved me so much, you didn’t care where you left me as long as you didn’t have to take care of me. My child is never going to feel unwanted anywhere.”
“I’ll try to do better,” said Celeste almost pitifully.
“I truly don’t think that you are capable of it, Mom.”
When Emma woke up, Angel and Celeste fussed over her for a few minutes and then Angel said. “Your Daddy’s going to be coming home soon and so your Nana has to leave now.”
This was Celeste’s cue and she felt another hot spring of tears rushing up from inside her and vowed with a grim, internal resolve not to shed them until she was in her car. She kissed Emma and her held thinking that it was maybe the last time that she was going to kiss and hold her grand-child.
Angel, holding Emma in her arms, walked her to the car. Angel did not move to kiss her. She said, “Good-bye Mom” and held up Emma’s hand to wave goodbye.
Celeste got into her car and made it to the end of the street which overlooked the bay. Then the tears burst out of her in torrents. She pulled over and stopped the car. She could not see. She felt like she was dying. She prayed that this was not going to be the way that she died. She prayed to her mother and her aunts and to those faces from her family that was the real place where heaven resided for Celeste.
They were finished with the travails of life and were happy and gathered in an endless eternity of celebrations. They could see her. They could give her the wisdom and strength that she needed, and they would because they were part of her and Angel was part of them, and they had Emma now. Celeste had made her contribution to heaven and Angel had carried on that long line of mothers and sisters and daughters and aunts and grand-daughters. She wasn’t a failure. She cried until there were not more tears and then there were dry sobs and she sat there in front of the bay in her car until it occurred to her that she still had to drive home.
Celeste began to dread the effort that it took on the days that she was working. She wanted to sit at her table and look out on her lake and feel the wet and insistent nose of Fitzgerald reassuring her that she was still needed. That there were things that brought her back from the nothingness into which her mind drifted. She began to feel like a star just off the edge of a black hole that was ever growing and swallowing up all the light that she could muster. She felt less light inside of her each day.
Today, she had managed to put her robe and slippers on and make her way across the back yard towards her lake to where their mail box was. There was a card from Angel. It was a general announcement to their family and friends that Don had joined the Navy to save the world and get them healthcare.
Ron was touring the Special Ed. classes while the students were taking the second of the monthly benchmarks that Ron had developed. His latest approach was to improve writing grades on one of the two required essays that was known as the picture prompt. In this latest iteration from the state’s testing company, students would create a personal essay that explained what they saw in a given visual prompt. Ron poured over the different prompt selections and reviewed the standards upon which the holistic scoring of the prompt would occur. He devised a strategy.
He explained it to his teachers at a departmental meeting. “The real question is how do we make chicken salad out of this chicken,” he paused dramatically and smiled, “doo doo?” He waited for a chuckle. It didn’t come. They sat stone faced and angry with him. He was invading their classroom. It was only of passing concern to them that he was not doing it willingly. In fact, Ron kept that unspoken. Connie knew. Nicole knew. Maybe one or two others had sussed it out, but not from anything that he said publically and he said very little privately to them now. “I think that we prepare them for the broad strokes a generic story that they can really apply to any picture. For example,” Ron had a projection of a surrealistic painting and then something more literal and in the realm of art Americana. “If the students begins this is what I see when I dream of my future and then hypothesizes any image from either of these, he or she will have the framework for a response. The goal is to make sure their stories have a structure with an opening and a closing and some examples stuck in the middle. It’s structure that they are looking for. The picture is really incidental.”
“You want us to teach to the test,” said one of the teachers. That was a loaded phrase that was an anathema to every teacher in front of him and one that Ron and other administrators heard like a mantra from classroom instructors.
“I want you to give them a strategy so they will know how to confront this portion of the test. One of the most often said things that I hear from kids is that they don’t know what to write about. That’s mainly because they don’t have a structure into which they can place their ideas. I want you to teach them a structure.”
“Which conveniently also helps the test scores, right Dr. Tuck?” said Nicole.
She smiled at him. She was prodding him to admit it to them. She hoped that they would get more in back of it if he said that.
“Yeah, it does,” said Ron. “Which means that if we manage this we can get back to doing the real teaching that we are trying to accomplish.”
“You’re the boss,” said Phoebe Misner.
After the meeting she came up to Ron and told him that Chase Barlow had failed his research paper and would have to redo it. She thought that Ron would like to see it before she returned it to the student.
That was also in the back of Ron’s mind as he toured the classes and saw one student pounding the point of his pencil into the desk over and over again until it broke, and then asking to sharpen his pencil only to start pounding the new point when he sat back down at his desk. He saw students cry in frustration as they tried to focus on the test. He saw some writing diligently and some sitting there in disinterested and unengaged boredom. He moved through the rooms like someone walking in a bad dream.
The nagging thought that he had when he turned away was that he did not want to do this anymore.
Ron and Connie sat with their morning coffee. There wasn’t going to be a connecting call to Celeste today. She was making a series of home visits.
“She’s struggling Connie and I have no idea of how to help her.”
“Is there anything that I can do?”
Ron smiled. “You’ve been great and Steve has too. You went down to Elves Harbor with her and that meant a whole lot. We hang out with you guys and she feels comfortable. So we have some semblance of a social life, but it’s like trying to take a bath when your water source comes out of an eye dropper. It just isn’t going to be enough. She falls back into that dark place every time like it’s her default now.”
“I know,” said Connie. “She tries to be brave but neither one of us can change how she feels. Only Angel can do that.”
“How could we have been such failures at this Connie? I mean other people have kids with issues and when I meet kids who can’t get it together I can’t help but think about what their parents did wrong. I can’t imagine what people must think about us.”
Connie’s face took on an air of admonition. “You can’t worry about that or think about that. None of those people who are making those judgements know the truth. Only you and Celeste know the truth.”
“I guess Angel has her truth too but I can’t help but hate what her truth is doing to my wife.”
“What about what it is doing to you?” asked Connie.
Ron put his head down drew his hands apart slowly and then slapped them together softly. “I’ll have to think about that later. I know that it is different for her. She didn’t expect to get pushed aside by people that she loved. I am more used to that.”
There was a silent pause in their conversation. Connie was looking at him, waiting for a cue. Ron looked down at his desk. “And I don’t have any idea about what I am going to do with young Chase Barlow.”
They paused again. Ron scanned the failing paper. “Misner was harsh but she wasn’t unfair. It’s not a research paper, but the funny thing is that in North Carolina this paper would not raise an eye. The kid is a fish out of water up here and he’s thrashing around because he can’t find a way to get oxygen.”
“Then I suppose the job is to teach him how to breath or throw him back,” said Connie. Steve was a fisherman and Connie was comfortable with Ron’s metaphors.
“Maybe I should help him,” said Ron. “It sure would be a lot more satisfying than touring rooms and watching kids cry in frustration. Speaking of which, do we have the scores back in from the teachers on the practice test?”
Connie said that she had most of the figures but would go down to the main office and collect their mail.
Ron decided to take a walk upstairs to the teacher’s conference room. The way that the building was configured, different departments claimed occupational ownership of the conference rooms that were scattered throughout the building. These were determined by the locations of clusters of classrooms teaching the same subjects.
Ron had always avoided teacher conference rooms unless it was absolutely necessary. Once they outlawed smoking, he found it less necessary than ever. He found Phoebe sitting with a couple of other third year teachers. They had all bonded and that made Ron proud. If he hadn’t done anything else right for Middle Hills, at least he had put together a team that would dominate the department for a generation.
They all stopped talking and looked up when Ron came in. “Good morning Dr. Tuck, did you need something?”
Ron smiled and sat down. They fidgeted. “How many of you have students that come from Picatinny?” he asked.
“I think it’s just me,” said Phoebe.
“I guess that’s right. Most of the kids out there would tend to be younger. The older officer’s kids go to private schools I would imagine.”
“Where they can be as prejudiced as they like,” said Billy Brightway.
Ron smiled. He knew the feelings in public schools about private schools. He wasn’t about to have that discussion right now.
“Phoebe, do you mind if I work with Chase privately? Help him with this paper and then have him resubmit it to you?”
“I don’t really feel like a have a choice, Dr. Tuck. So, of course I don’t mind.
“Well,” said Ron, laughing to himself as he spoke, “that did not go as smoothly as I was hoping, but ok. Here’s the thing Phoebe, and this could be a teaching lesson for us all here, this kid is screwed. He doesn’t want to be here, he has no choice in the matter. If he was a kid who been bounced around from school to school because his parents were migrant farm workers, we’d have all the sympathy and understanding in the world. It’s happened to this kid because his father is a soldier.”
Of course, Phoebe Misner had been filling her friends in on Chase Barlow. “So, you are telling us that we should accept his prejudices or turn a blind eye to them?” said Billy.
“No,” said Ron, maybe a little too sharply. “I’m saying this kid is still developing. The way to him is not by rejecting him. We are here to help him learn to use the language effectively. We have a hard job because language is so filled with thoughts and feelings. It’s not like other subjects.”
They were listening. Ron was listening as he spoke. For a few seconds he felt like a teacher again. It was that feeling of speaking for more than just himself. “How much we try to shape a kid’s personality is a grey area.”
“So if I teach little Hitler to use the language well, I’ve done a good job?”
“You’re like a doctor,” said Ron. His mind flashed on a West Wing Episode where the president’s wife, herself a doctor said of treating and assassins wounds ‘Too bad, you set the leg.’ Ron had paused with this image because when he pictured it Celeste was in bed next to him and they were watching it and Ron wanted it to be over so that he could have her. He got lost in the reverie for a second and then came back. “Our job is to hone the student’s language skills.”
Ron paused again. “I don’t want to grade Chare Barlow or tell you how you should grade him. I’m interested in him for a totally different reason.
“Can you tell us?” said Phoebe.
“I will,” said Ron. “As soon as I figure it out myself.”
When he came back to his office Connie delivered his mail. His application for one year’s worth of credit had been approved. It would cost eleven thousand dollars.
Ron and Celeste talked over dinner. She had been too tired to make anything after work and so Ron got to order take-out sushi, which was fast becoming his favorite food. Celeste had tried, but she could not passed the feel of eating uncooked fish. She didn’t even like to touch the stuff before she cooked and the idea of eating it raw made her sick at first. Now she just settled for a Hibachi dinner that was never anywhere near as good as it was when it came straight off the grill. She didn’t really care. He would love the dinner and there wasn’t really anything that excited her about eating anymore.
Ron picked up their dinner on the way home and Celeste managed to feed the puppies and set the table before he got there.
Ron explained the situation.
“I think we should do it without any question,” said Celeste. “We have the money. Can you think of a better way to spend it?”
“We could go on a really kick- ass vacation for eleven thousand dollars, Celeste.”
“I know you think I’m a bit cheap and selfish, Ron but I’m not that selfish.”
“I don’t think you’re selfish at all! Where is that coming from?”
Celeste closed her eyes. She didn’t want to think about where that was coming from. “Don’t we always try to do what’s best for each other?” asked Celeste.
“Yes,” said Ron “We do. But why do you think that this is what’s best for me?”
“Because Ron,” Celeste met his eyes and spoke very distinctly, “you hate it and it’s killing you. How many quarts of rum are you drinking a week now, Ron? Do you even try to keep track anymore?”
Instantly, he got defensive. “This has nothing to do with that. I get up and go to work every morning.”
“Yes, you do,” said Celeste. “I used to pray that you would get so sick that you couldn’t but that didn’t happen and I gave up.”
“Why does it always have to come back to my drinking?” said Ron.
“It doesn’t,” said Celeste, feeling defeated again. “It doesn’t have to come back to anything. You asked what I thought. Why did you ask if you don’t care what I think?”
“I do care,” said Ron.
“I want to see you live, Ron. Is that too much for me to ask of you? Something has to change or you’re not going to make it.”
“I’ll cut down,” said Ron.
“How do you feel about having to work a year less to get health care for life?”
“I feel relieved.”
“That should tell you something. My husband who always put his teaching right up there with caring for his family feels relieved at having to do it for one less year.”
“Can you tell me one other time in our entire marriage that you would have felt that way?”
“No, I can’t.”
“I rest my case,” said Celeste.
The next morning Ron sat down to have a conversation with Connie. He dreaded this conversation almost as much as Celeste asking him about his drinking.
“Have you and Steve discussed retirement?” he began.
Connie laughed. “Funny that you should mention that. Steve and I were talking about it last month. Verizon is making him an offer that is almost too good to turn down and Steve is going to take it.”
“Is it a good offer?”
Connie smiled and said in a conspiratorial tone. “They are basically giving him a million dollars to go away. If he stays, he can’t hope for more than half that much.”
That’s a no brainer,” said Ron.
“We think so too.”
“What about you?” asked Ron.
“I have to wait until I have twenty-five in, same as you.”
That had always been their pact. They would go out together.
“That looks like it’s going to change, Connie.”
Ron explained about the year he had bought back. Connie looked slapped by the news. All she managed to say was, “That’s great, Ron.”
After two more meetings with Chase, Ron hatched an idea. Ron recognized that a large part of Chase’s lack of motivation was that he could not get into a college that offered the military robotics that he desired to study. Although he had spent a considerable amount of time in a state that would make it affordable for him to get in-state tuition rates, officially he was a resident of the state where his father enlisted.
Ron’s brain began to work. Why? Why wouldn’t Americans want to allow the children of their servicemen to be considered residents of every state? He could write an argument for that that would be persuasive. He had the right climate. That surely was true. He shut the door to his office, told Connie to hold every call that was not an emergency and went to work.
He felt like he was preparing a debate brief. It felt good. After ninety minutes, he had a draft. He called Connie in to hear it. She liked it and what was even more important to Ron, she agreed with him. Connie could and did tell him if she thought his thinking on something was flawed. Her politics was definitely main stream and reflective of what Ron hoped would be a majority opinion. He was smiling when he said, “Could you take this, polish it a little, and put it in the form of a memo at the end of which write.”
Connie flipped open her pad. “To present this proposal, I would like your permission to set up a meeting with the appropriate person at Picatinny Arsenal.”
Connie finished writing and looked up at Ron, ready for more. “Then show it to me one last time,” said Ron.
Leon Stavros asked to see Ron the next day. “How did you come up with this?” said Leon.
“I’m working with a kid who is assigned to the base,” said Ron. “I found out through him.”
“You’re working with this kid directly?” asked Stavros.
“I’m working with him and his teacher to try to smooth over a rough patch that he’s having,” explained Ron.
“So, how much of this is actually the teacher’s idea?”
“The teacher doesn’t know about it yet.”
“So this is,” Leon looked down at the report and looked back up, “the kid’s idea?”
“No,” said Ron. “Chase Barlow doesn’t know anything about this. It’s my idea.”
Leon Stavros smiled broadly. “This is good work Ron. This is a great idea and could get the district some very good standing in the state and with the Army.”
“I’ll call to set up the appointment. I’d like to go with you.”
Ron told Celeste about his plan over dinner. When she heard that Leon Stavros wanted to be a part of it her only comment was “That slimy politician.”
Ron agreed. “He does have the feel of slime about him, but he can help me to do what I want to do. I could care less who gets the credit for it.”
“That’s because you’re not looking to see what’s in for you,” said Celeste bitterly.
“Sure I am.” said Ron. “What’s in it for me is that I can still do something that I find to be of the slightest bit of value. There’s precious little of that these days.”
“I hate seeing you this way,” said Celeste. “Is there anything that I can do to help?”
“There is,” said Ron. Celeste waited, earnest in her desire to help him. “Don’t say anything to me about my drinking for tonight.”
Celeste felt rebuffed and shut out again. She wanted to say that the only reason that she ever said anything about his drinking was that she was afraid that he was doing damage to his liver and the rest of his body, but she stopped herself. She knew that it was the last thing that he wanted to hear. “I’ll even make a drink for you,” she said.
When she brought him the drink, Ron took a long pull on the straw and then got up and filled the mug that he had brought down in a couple of inches with pure rum. “Thanks,” he said and smiled.
He wandered into the living room and put on music. It was his new favorite song, Mark Knopfler singing ‘Punish the Monkey.’
Celeste sat there unsure about what to do. Keats had followed Ron into the living room and Fitzgerald was sitting at her feet wanting attention. Should she go in there to be with him? Should she just leave him alone? Should she just get into her car and drive somewhere until she ran out of gas or got lost? He would soon be in no shape to help her if she did that. Maybe that’s what he needed. That wouldn’t work. He’d manage a way to get to her anyway. He might get hurt or get into trouble in the process. No, she couldn’t do that.
Then he was standing there in the doorway, back for another tumbler of rum and diet coke. “I did learn something new today.”
Celeste looked up. “What did you learn?”
“Stavros directed me to Mark Cretti to know who to contact at Picatinny. It seems that they sponsored a program last year to send guys in Iraq pencils to help them to write home. It seems that there is something wrong with pens over there.”
“What could be wrong with pens?”
“I have no idea,” said Ron “but the program was a success and it gave me another idea.”
“Maybe I could get the creative writing people and the art department together and they could create greeting cards to send.”
“That sounds very nice,” said Celeste.
“Do you think that maybe that would be something that your group would be interested in doing?”
“Maybe, I’ll ask.”
“Come sit with me,” said Ron.
Celeste started to say that the last thing that she wanted to do in the world was to sit and watch him drink until he needed to go to bed, but she caught herself and said, “Sure.”
Then he changed on a dime. “I’m going to go out and throw the Frisbee with Fitz for a while first,” he said.
Ron moved to the counter and seeing him, Fitzgerald flew into action. Celeste found herself sitting with Keats listening to Knopfler croon. “The boss has hung you out to dry, there’s your quid pro quo…” and thought about how much she disliked Sandy Humz.
Setting up the greetings cards was easy and Ron found willingness on the part of teachers and enthusiasm on the part of students. The building principals found it curious and decided that Ron was just trying to kiss-ass and get some good press.
The trip to Picatinny Arsenal was different. Ron and Leon were meeting with the Colonel who ran the place. He was a stocky well-scrubbed man who wore camouflage fatigues and travelled with an army clerk who was always there to do his bidding. He greeted Ron and Stavros warmly and Ron felt his hand swallowed in the hard, firm grip of his handshake. “I’m Nate Cavanaugh,” he said. “I understand that you guys have a proposal for us. I reviewed it earlier this morning and it looks real good to me.”
Ron did not have large or particularly hard hands. He had some callouses from weight lifting and playing guitar and he had a firm handshake. When he was engulfed by Cavanaugh’s hand, he had tried to squeeze back, but he felt like he was holding a hard stone pillar that was engulfed in skin and he gave up.
Leon turned to Ron. “This man accomplishes more before breakfast than we do in a day.”
Cavanaugh ignored the compliment and offered the men chairs around a rectangular table. With a nod of his head the other soldiers around the table introduced themselves to Ron and Leon. Then Cavanaugh looked at Ron. “You’re Dr. Tuck, correct?”
Ron smiled. “That’s me.”
Cavanaugh said, “There are some people here that want to meet you Dr. Tuck.” He gestured in back of him to two women who were dressed in civilian clothing and sitting behind the colonel. “This is Mrs. Barlow and Mrs. Sutter.”
Mrs. Barlow was an attractive blonde-haired woman. She was holding a dish on her lap. In it were home-made cookies. “Dr. Tuck, I just wanted to meet you and to thank you. You’ve done more for my son in a few weeks than anyone has been able to do in some time.” She smiled in what Ron felt was almost a seductive way. “I baked these cookies for you. I hope you like chocolate chip.”
Mrs. Barlow got up and gave them to Ron and kissed him on the cheek. Ron smiled and blushed. The soldiers around the table eyed Ron. “Your son is going to be a good man. I hope we can help him.”
Mrs. Barlow smiled back and returned to her chair. Ron added. “My wife is with military family services. I’ll give her your name and maybe you can get together in the future.”
Colonel Cavanaugh smiled over to Jean Barlow. She smiled back. Cavanaugh said, “Mrs. Barlow has already organized the women who live on base. She gets quite a bit accomplished.”
Then Leon explained Ron’s plan in broad strokes. After a few sentences he said, “This is really Dr. Tuck’s idea. I’ll let him explain the rest.” Everyone at the table understood a pecking order and was used to superior officers climbing on board a proposal.
Ron explained more of the details. He ended with, “This is about as far as I can take this idea. From here it needs to have publicity and someone who understands how the politics of such things work. I’m not that guy. Dr. Stavros understands that way of things far better than I do.”
Stavros smiled and took the handoff. At that point, Ron felt his mind switch off and he began to think about other things. He followed the discussion in case he was asked a question, but he felt like he had passed the baton.
Two weeks later, Chase Barlow got a C on his research paper and the greeting cards were ready.
Celeste came for a signing ceremony at the School Board Meeting office.
Agatha Boren accompanied Celeste to the Middle Hills to accept the ceremonial delivery of the printed and drawn greeting cards. Ron had been contacted earlier by a reporter who asked him questions about the involvement of students and teachers with the project. When Stavros asked him who he thought should be there for the exchange, Ron said that students and teachers is who he would want to see there.
Ron knew that in the lives of students and in the lives of teachers this would be a good memory and an Atta boy that would carry some weight for them. He wanted it to be good for other reasons. He wanted it to be good for Celeste.
Stavros and Boren were in all of the pictures. There was Leon smiling at the teachers whom he had never met before. There was Stavros smiling benevolently at the students. There was Agatha genuinely thrilled and believing that this was a community building thing. Celeste and Ron stood in the background. She was wearing a business suit. Ron did like the way that the skirt clung to her bottom but he knew a secret. It meant that she would have to wear panty hose. Celeste hated panty hose. Ron held her hand and whispered in her ear. “How much do you want to be out of those pantyhose right now?”
Celeste could not believe he was saying that to her here and smiled professionally. Then she whispered back. “Don’t you dare grab my ass here!”
It was a brief photo op. It took about thirty minutes in all. It had taken far longer to assemble the people than it took to take the pictures and make the exchange. Ron introduced Celeste and Agatha to the teachers and students.
Celeste knew the teacher Ron had talked into doing this project with her creative writing class. It was the same teacher who years earlier had accused Ron of harassment. She was sure to smile and greet the young woman as if she were a little girl. She bit her lip before she greeted Stavros and thought about how much damage should could do by accidently driving one of her three inch heels into him, but she didn’t.
Stavros had ordered coffee and cake. The teachers and students were the first to leave. Ron had moved to them and saw each of them off. Celeste looked around this room about which she heard so many stories. She wondered where Ron sat at the conference table in the meetings that would go on for hours and hours. It was a strange little world in which her husband lived and where he did not want to live anymore.
Stavros asked Ron back to his office. “I just want to tell you that I am really pleased Ron. Your work with the testing has been exemplary. Things like this and what you did at Picatinny are really good for the district and the Board and I are pleased.”
Ron nodded. He took an envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to Stavros. “This is my retirement letter. I’m leaving in eighteen months.”
Ron did take a moment of pleasure in Stavros look of surprise. “Ron, you know that I am going in six months. You weathered me. Why now?”
“I’m done,” said Ron. “It is not about you. You made the decision easier, but it’s not you. It’s me.”
“We’ve never seen eye to eye Ron, but I never doubted that you are a good educator.”
“Yes, you did,” said Ron evenly, “but that’s not why either.”
“I want you to sleep on this. Take a couple of days and think about it maybe.”
“No problem,” said Ron, “but you keep the letter.”
Ron felt a detachment that he would have identified as freedom when he was younger. Now, it was about putting the things he cared about in order and divesting himself of the rest.
Connie felt more distant now. He knew that he had surprised her and not in a good way. He was hoping that she understood. On the surface she did, but the bond that had grown between them and taken a hit.
Scaramucci called him on his private line. “Ron can you stop down to see me?”
“Sure,” said Ron. “When?”
“If you could do it now?” said Scaramucci.
Ron went down to see the Assistant Superintendent.
“Ron, I’ve submitted my letter of resignation. I’ll be leaving in less than a month.”
Ron thought, well you just got here so I’m not all that surprised. “The Superintendent hasn’t submitted your letter yet. I have it here.”
Ron looked surprised. He didn’t say anything. Drew was holding his letter in the original envelope. “He thinks you should apply for this job.”
“Where are you going?” said Ron.
Drew looked down at his desk thought for a moment and said, “This isn’t public yet but I’m going to be the Superintendent at Glen Ridge.”
“That’s a good district,” said Ron.
“You know it?”
“Not really but I graduated from that high school.”
Scaramucci looked pensive, like he had shared too much. “Do you have any friends still there?”
“No,” said Ron. “I don’t know anyone who can help you.”
“What do you want me to tell the Leon?”
Ron smiled. “Tell him I’ll apply, as soon as he turns in my letter.”
Ron walked back to his office a little dazed. “Why me? Why on earth would he want me to do this? He saw Mark Cretti in the hallway and said, “Hey Mark, you got a second?”
Cretti asked him back into his office. “Dr. Tuck, whenever I see you in the halls you are walking like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders. What’s up?”
“I don’t know, Mark. You know how Adele Becker always said that you would know when it is time to leave and if you don’t listen to that voice, you’ll pay for it?”
Mark Cretti smiled his full-faced boyish grin. “She never said anything like that to me but you two were a lot closer than most people.”
“You heard anything about Scaramucci lately?” dangled Ron.
“You mean that he’s leaving? Yes, I heard.”
“Stavros wants me to apply for the job,” said Ron.
Cretti smiled again. “You’d be great. But I can’t talk about it with you. I’ve been asked to be on the interview committee.”
Ron laughed. “That’s a switch.”
“What do you mean?” said Cretti.
“Back at Oak Mountain, for the VP job. I was on your interview committee.”
Cretti laughed. “That’s right! I forgot about that.” Then he smiled again. “I wish you the best of luck, Ron.” He said it was his authenticity gone and replaced but his professional self.
Then Ron sat down with Connie. He told her what had happened. Connie looked at him crossly. “Well then I guess you may be out the door even quicker than I thought.”
“I’d want you to come with me. That job has got to pay better than this one.”
Connie looked at him indignantly. “I can’t do that, Ron! Things don’t work that way. I eat lunch with those girls! I’m not going to take anyone’s job away!”
Ron put his hands up defensively. “OK, you’re right. I wasn’t thinking. This just happened Connie.”
“You have to decide what you’re doing Ron.” Connie got up and walked back to her desk.
Ron went to his interview a few days later. It was a standard kind of interview. Stavros, the building principals, a school board member, and Hector Gonzalez were on the interview team. The oddity was that they had been working together for ten years. Ron knew that unless he really screwed up the interview that it did not matter. This was all a formality. There was one other candidate, the Guidance supervisor from Hills.
When it was over, Ron felt that he had done a credible job. He had been clear. “I am retiring in a year and a half. That is not going to change. This district has been good to me and I am a good person for this transition because I have institutional memory. Any of you that know me are aware that I have always served the interests of my supervisor well. I will do the same for this superintendent and the next one. After a year, that person will have feet of the ground and be ready to make his own choice for an assistant.”
They thanked Ron for his time and they were all smiles around the table when Leon said, “With the candidates that we have for this position, I don’t think that we can make a wrong choice. Our job, and it will not be easy, is to make the best choice.”
It was Friday afternoon when he next encountered Mark Cretti. “How did I do?” asked Ron.
“You’re a strong candidate, and you had a good interview,” said Mark.
“Did I get it?”
“I’m not allowed to say Ron. I’ve been asked to keep it confidential.” Then he smiled. “You have nothing to worry about.”
Connie was decidedly frosty. Privately, she swore Celeste to secrecy and told her that she was heart-broken. “I’m going to miss working with him a lot, Celeste, but I don’t want him to know. He’s got enough on his mind. Connie was careful to not lay any of it on Celeste. The last thing that she wanted was to put any more pressure of her. Connie could see that Celeste was hanging on by a thread as it was.
“You know he loves you,” said Celeste. “You know that he wouldn’t do anything intentionally to hurt you.”
“I know,” said Connie. “This one is just hard to take.”
On Monday, Ron was called into Stavros’ office. “You were a good strong candidate Ron. I liked your answers but Tisha Fowler in an outstanding candidate who has a bright future in the district. She and her husband read policy books from the state over the weekend for fun. The committee has decided to go with her. Thanks for sitting in for the interview. It was important that the committee have a good choice to make.”
Ron was a little stunned but thanked Stavros and left. On the way back to his office he stopped in to see Mark Cretti. As soon as they were alone Mark said, “I was asked not to say anything Ron.”
“I’m sure you were,” said Ron dryly. “I remember being asked not to say anything when I was on your committee. Didn’t stop me then, did it Mark?”
“That was different,” said Cretti. “You remember how Mountain Oaks was. We were friends and you gave me a heads up about what was coming.”
“When do you think the friend part changed Mark?” said Ron.
“I still think of you as a friend, Ron.”
Ron smiled. “That’s not true Mark. You’re just one of the guys I work with now.”
Ron turned to leave. Mark said, “I’m sorry that you feel that way.”
Ron didn’t answer.
Ron saw a look of relief wash through Connie and it made him feel good. He called Celeste and told her.
“Lousy bastards,” said Celeste. “I can’t wait until you are out of there.”
Celeste resigned from her last job not long after the greeting cards were delivered. She knew that they got to the Armory and then knew nothing more about them. She learned that their only value to the organization had been the good press. Whether or not anything was ever done with the idea was not even a secondary consideration.
Agatha Boren was sympathetic to Celeste leaving. She had personal issues was all that Celeste had said. Agatha did not ask what they were. Celeste left quietly. She told herself that she had worked since she was fourteen. It could be over now.
She still had her weekly visits with Mario. Every once in a while she would get some message, usually a cold one, from Angel. Ron was home more and more. He was starting to cut his days short. He did not want to talk about work anymore. They could not talk about Angel or Emma without Celeste feeling paralyzed with the depression that never seemed to leave.
Then she totaled her Honda Fit. She could not say how it happened. She was thrown around by first impact from the rear and then a collapsing impact with the car in front of her. She banged knees and broke her elbow. She was helpless now.
Ron used sick days and personal days so that he could stay home at first to help her. Celeste was disgusted with herself. “I wonder how many more times I get to be kicked in the ass before it stops?” she asked Ron. He had just gotten her back into bed.
“You know how easy it is to grab your ass when you can’t even reach back and cover it?” he answered smiling.
“Why you would want to grab it is something I don’t understand anymore Ron.
“I like to,” he said with that boyish grin and what she thought was an almost pathetic glint in his eyes.
“That’s because you’re just as sick and damaged a person as I am Ron. You just don’t show it.”
“Shh…” said Ron. “I’ve been fooling them for more than forty years. I’ve almost pulled it off. Now we get you better and we start something new.”
“I’m not sure that I have the strength, Ron. I think I’m done.”
“You’ll feel better when you are healthy,” said Ron softly.
“It doesn’t feel like I am ever going to recover from this one.”
“I know,” said Ron. “I’m just not ready to die yet.”
After about a week, Ron was able to go back to work. Oddly, work had become the distraction and there wasn’t too much yet to do. Ron and Connie began to talk about his replacement.
Nicole Jorgensen had shut him down thirty seconds into the conversation. “I don’t want it Ron. It’s not how I see my career. I’m happy in my classroom. I don’t want to have to do what you do. It makes me feel queasy to even talk about it.”
When Ron told Connie about what Nicole said, she smirked. “Smart girl.”
The discussions came down to one teacher. Sandy had hired her but Ron had been mentoring and advising her for a long time. She was ambitious and had that look of someone who wanted to prove herself as an administrator. Ron began meeting with Deirdre Simmons regularly. She was now a VP at Hills. She told him that she wanted his job. That was enough for Ron. If she wanted it, he would get it for her. He had one last plan.
Connie liked Deirdre. They were friends. It would make things easier for Connie to show her how things worked for a year and then hire her replacement. Maybe that would help to repair things with Connie just a little.
Ron looked at his sick days, personal days and accrued vacation days. The accumulation of these amounted to a retirement package. There was a formula: an unused sick day was counted as one third of a vacation day. An unused personal day was equal to a vacation day. Vacation days were compensated as one full day’s worth of salary at the current rate of compensation. At sixty-one, Ron was one year shy of qualifying for Medicare. His current health care package would cover both he and Celeste until he transitioned to the mandated Medicare.
It had been always been a joke between them that Celeste was six months older than Ron. Now it became a practical matter that Celeste would qualify for social security before he did. It was important to Ron that no change be forthcoming in her health insurance.
Ron was sure that they had enough money for him to retire. They had almost always lived below their means and thanks to Celeste had a retirement savings account. That safety net, along with his pension, the extra money he would get for leaving, would be more than enough to carry them through until the additional boosts of Social Security kicked in. Celeste was still worried.
“Suppose something really bad happens? What will we do?” she pleaded.
“I think we’re ok. Trust me. We’ve got it.”
“I do trust you,” said Celeste. “You may be the only person that I still trust, but what if you’re wrong?”
“What do you think is going to happen? asked Ron. It was not said as a challenge. He said it with a soothing, everything is going to be ok tone in his voice.
“I feel like something terrible is going to happen every day. I don’t know what it is! Why do you think I’m like this?”
This last was a question a defense and a little bit of an accusation.
“We’re going to be ok. I won’t let anything really bad happen to us,” said Ron.
“You can’t promise that Ron. You can’t know that!” Her face showed none of the joy that Ron thrived on. He wondered if her brow was ever to become unfurrowed again.
“I’ll do my very best Celeste.”
She knew that he meant it. She prayed that it would be enough.
Ron went to answer the ringing phone. It was Sandy Humz. “Ron, how are you doing?”
“I’m fine Sandy. How are you?”
“Up to my eyeballs with work as usual. Could you manage to meet me for lunch this week?”
Ron said that he could and they set a day, time and place.
It had been a small luncheonette. The father ran the deli counter and candy store for years. Then he bought the store next to his so that his daughter, a recent graduate of culinary school, could open a place. When he retired, the daughter knocked out the deli-counter and changed it all into one restaurant. It was the first place that Ron found for lunch when he started at Middle Hills. Ron always had his corner store with a counter. It was a holdover from his Saturdays with his dad. Ron knew candy stores.
Now it felt strange to see tables with real tablecloths on this spot. It is always changing, he thought. It was useless to try to keep things as they were and a tribute to them if they survived.
“I heard you’re retiring Ron. Are you ok?”
“I’m fine Sandy. It’s just time for me to go.” Celeste had cautioned him before the meeting. She had told him to be careful. Sandy would not be meeting with him unless she wanted something.
“I’d like to talk you out of it Ron. I want you to come and work with me. We could bring Jackson into the 21st century together.”
“I don’t think I’m your guy,” said Ron. “I don’t have the passion for it anymore. I’m tired of working to change something that’s going to get changed backwards. And that is where I see us going.”
“I know that. But what about the people we help in the meantime. That still means something to you. I know it does.”
“I just have other things that I need to do, Sandy. My heart wouldn’t be in it. Remember when I told you about being a free agent?”
“Yes, I do. You were right. With you as my assistant we would be formidable.”
“How are Frank and Tahar?” These were Sandy’s horses. They had been a basis of their early connection.
Sandy smiled. “Frank’s getting too old to ride now but Tahar is rearing to go.”
“That’s great,” said Ron. “Give them a carrot for me and tell Frank that I am being put out to pasture too.”
Sandy smiled again. “I can’t change your mind, can I?” Ron smiled as Sandy grabbed the check. “Jackson is paying for this lunch. I’m leaving the offer open. Contact me if you change your mind.”
Leon Stavros was gone. Hector Gonzalez was gone. Edmund Kominsky had survived a battle with cancer and had decided it was time for him to retire as well. He would be leaving with Ron. Every passing day was ratifying Ron’s choice. It had been this way everywhere for his whole life. People came together for a time and then that time passed. He thought that it was uncannily like being part of an athletic team.
Ron calculated that he could afford to burn twenty sick days. He used those mostly for hellish Mondays that had meetings that sometimes ran late into the day and into the evening. He just stopped going and called in sick on each of those days. No one said anything to him.
Then he decided to shorten his work day and left at 2 pm most days. Connie just covered for him. If someone was looking for him, she called him on his cell and turned him around more than once to attend to this or that thing that were clearly his responsibilities.
Ron began playing music out at open-mic nights. Celeste always went with him and Ron started playing out at least two nights a week. He went to the gym every afternoon. His body was growing hard again and he liked it. His voice felt strong, but the drinking had not stopped.
His pattern now was to come home early, play music and drink, take a nap, have dinner and then go out and play music or watch TV with Celeste.
Ron tried to tell himself that he was finally using music in a way that others could enjoy. He told himself that it was helping to get Celeste out of the house. He told himself that it gave him something to look forward to. Celeste bought him another day at Yellow Submarine.
Fall morphed through winter and into spring this way.
Ron’s first retirement luncheon was an afternoon affair that was administrators only. Edmund and Ron had been around for some time.
All the district administrators, retired and current, came to this luncheon annually. Edmund Kominsky spoke first. He thanked his fellow administrators and the teachers with whom he had spent his entire career at Middle Hills. He assured them that he was healthy now and looking forward to working on antique cars. He told them that he could finally get around to doing the projects that his wife had been begging him to address. He concluded, “I know that you wish me well and I hope that you won’t forget me because I will never forget all of you.”
Then it was Ron’s turn to speak. “I have had the privilege of working with three great women in my career. Sister Irene Emanuel taught me that I could love my students and use my skills to help them to better lives. Her lessons have stayed with me for my entire career. Adele Becker taught me the power of curriculum and training minds to think using critical thinking skills. Adele was a fine administrator with a wicked sense of humor. She read more than any living individual that I have ever met. And I have had the privilege of knowing and meeting some fine readers. She was a sponge for new ideas and she had a wicked sense of humor. Now Adele did not know much about sports but when she became a principal she was injected into the Athletic Directors Association meetings. After resolving one such dispute in which Audie Riffle and Dirk Willamore were involved.” Ron was on very familiar territory. Audie and Dirk were well known. “Audie reached up and put his arm around Adele’s shoulder, she was quite tall, and said, ‘You did really good Honey.’
Now if you knew Adele at all, you knew that you did not put your arm around her shoulder and you surely did not call her Honey. She stopped and said, ‘The wonder is not so much what the horse says but the very fact that it can speak.’ This of course flew right over Audie’s head.” There was laughter. Audie Riffle stood about five foot six.
“Which brings me to Sandy Humz. A finely skilled person who loved the district at which she spent her entire life. An administrator who has a better memory for fact that anyone with whom I work. Those people taught me a whole lot. I hope I have been able to pass some of that along and, unlike Edmund, I would prefer if you forgot about me as soon as possible.” Then he sat down. There was polite applause.
Ron’s actual retirement dinner happened in the evening. Celeste was there. Tina and Harvey showed up. Connie brought Steve. Many of the teachers who had retired during Ron’s tenure, came to wish him well. A couple of Board of Education members attended. Connie asked Ron if there was anyone special that he wanted to have there. Ron said that he thought Sandy Humz should be invited.
Connie had the audience in gales of laughter when she spoke about what it was like to work with Ron. She explained that there were some times that she just could not help herself from going into his office and cleaning. “The only place in Ron’s office that was not a mess was where he wrote and I still needed to clean that.” She looked him straight in the eyes. “Ron was always my friend as well as my boss. I know people thought that it was crazy that Steve and I would go on vacations with Ron and Celeste. I was asked more than once how I could stand being around him that much. But the reality was that we had fun. Steve and Celeste put up with our work talk and we always had a damn good time. I will miss him dearly. He says that he is not disappearing from my life, but we both know that it will never be the same.” Connie did not get choked up but she really wanted to sit down and so she ended her talk.
Sandy was uncomfortable speaking to the Middle Hills audience. She had eschewed any kind of a farewell. This was the first that many had seen of her since her last day at Middle Hills. She did not mention Leon Stavros one time. She spoke about Ron’s writing and speaking skills, about his dedication to his work and about his loyalty. “I always knew that Ron would give me his best opinion about what was good for this district and good for me. And I could always rely that Ron would follow through on any decision I made, whether he agreed with it or not. I am here to tell you that is rare in this business of so many fine people.”
Sandy got a warm round of applause. Then it was Ron’s turn. “I’m grateful that you would come out on a school night to see me off. I was never a great administrator. You just heard from a great administrator.” He made eye contact with the two board members. They smiled uncomfortably. “I was a good teacher and an adequate administrator. But I did have one talent. I knew how to spot good teachers and tonight I feel that you are my legacy. You are what I have given to Middle Hills. Some of you may not like me anymore. Maybe some of you never liked me. But I fought for all of you. I brought you together and you found each other and have the chance to have that most rare of professional experiences and that is believing in your colleagues and learning how to work together, so that these kids graduate with the language tools that they need to be successful.
“I’ll have a chance to say goodbye to you personally over the next couple of busy weeks. But this is the last time I will see you as a group. A colleague of mine once wrote that a teacher lives forever. This is how that happens. We pass on what we have learned and what has been taught to us. You will do the same. My hope is that you will feel as fortunate as I feel tonight.”
The applause was warm. Celeste was smiling. Connie was smiling. Ron thought that it was not a bad way for this to come to closure at all.
Now it was a series of signing off on things and packing. There was his exit interview with the new superintendent. “I need to apologize to you,” Ron said to John Calandra. “I never really gave you my best effort.”
“I heard that. I heard that from quite a few people. I want you to take my personal card. You should call me if you have any trouble or have any advice that you want to give.”
“I will,” said Ron. They both knew that he wouldn’t.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is twenty five miles across and under a spectacular bay that feeds areas of Delaware and Maryland. It is a pathway between water and sky. It is far longer than the Florida Keys Bridge that Ron and Celeste had been on previously. They had both read James Michener’s novel Chesapeake. Celeste had actually read it a few times, but neither of them had ever seen it.
They were going to see Angel and Emma who were in Virginia Beach. They had been stationed there while Don Simplciatto was deployed to the Middle East on an aircraft carrier. Ron and Celeste were hopeful. They were together. Now there was going to be time for many adventures.
If Angel wanted to see them it meant that she wasn’t finished with them. Celeste was clinging to this hope and the car was pulling them out of their public swamp and leading them along this sunlit, water reflecting highway. They had heard it was scary, but it embraced them with the water and the sky and the enclaves of people who made a life along the bay’s shores.
“What do you think it will be like to see them?” asked Celeste.
“Emma talks now right?”
“She’s like Angel. At first she’s shy and then she never shuts up.”
“I’m looking forward to that. I think my shoulders are still strong enough to carry a little girl.”
“Are you nervous about seeing Angel?” said Celeste.
“I’m not sure,” said Ron. “She invited us here. She wants to see us for some reason.”