Across the street from the high school was a corner coffee shop. The girls piled in there at the end of the day, unbuttoning their tops and hiking up their skirts even more for the collection of males that waited for them. The place had the heavy Latino aroma of beans and rice, fried plantains, and Cuban sandwiches. Lots of things happened in the candy store. Gambling, street drugs, contacts who knew where to get guns, people who dreamed of the death of Fidel and their return to their long lost home, talk of baseball and soccer. The nuns never entered the place. The lay teachers were afraid of it, but Ron needed a place to get his coffee and he had already decided that the faculty room wasn’t for him. So, twice a day, once in the morning before school, and once at lunch he entered the place to the suspicious stares of the collection of men who weren’t sure why he was there. But the girls were always thrilled to see him.
That Friday morning he made his first entrance. The girls had told him that it was the only place around where he could get a good container of coffee.
“Mr. Tuck, I want you to meet my brother, Edwardo and this is Jimmy my brother’s friend” said Elena, placing Jimmy’s arm around her waist.
“It’s good to meet you, Edwardo,” said Ron, sticking out his hand.
Edwardo shook his hand politely. “Like Elena said, I’m her brother and this is Jimmy, her boyfriend.”
Ron smiled and extended his hand to Jimmy. Elena seemed about ten years older in the store than she had appeared to be in his class. In the store, she was a hot woman who knew the needs of men.
“Elena is a talented student. I’m sure that you’re proud of her.”
“Thank you,” said Edwardo. “We are very proud of her and of all the girls in the neighborhood, Mr. Tuck. You just here to get coffee?”
“Yeah, “said Ron smiling and taking his container and trying to pay for it.
But the man behind the counter said, “You teach my daughter, Connie. It wouldn’t be right to take money from you.”
Ron smiled and kept his dollar bill extended. “I need you to take it so that I can feel free to come back.”
Everyone was watching. The counterman took Ron’s bill and made change. “Connie will study her vocabulary at night with the rest of us,” said the man. “She says that you care about what she learns.” The man emptied the change into Ron’s hand adding, “I care about what she learns too, Mr. Tuck.”
Ron wasn’t sure if it was a warning or a compliment but he took his container to his fire escape and ripped a V into the lid, lit a cigarette and rested his head against the metal. He could hear the music coming out of the store. Then he heard the buzzer that said his lunch was over.
Edwardo grabbed Elena’s arm as she started out the door. “Don’t let that American man fill your head up,” he said.
“No,” said Elena lightly. “I’ll keep my head just the way you like it, all empty and pretty.”
When she left Edwardo said to Jimmy, “Why my fourteen year old smart-assed sister is somebody you want is a mystery to me.”
“Elena knows who she is,” said Jimmy. “Don’t worry about her.”
Edwardo took a step back and raised his hands palms up. “I’m not worried but maybe you should be.” His accent had the singsong of bravado and gentle mockery.
All day long, Ron tested them. They were to use dictionaries to help them write. They could use Spanish to English dictionaries if they needed to. Ron was hungry for their essays. He wanted their thoughts. He wanted them to get used to writing for him. He’d devised a question for each class. He hadn’t planned the questions. He’d planned the test. But when it came time to put the question on the board he seemed to know what it was and wrote it out almost automatically.
The girls left his classes that day complaining that their hands and heads hurt. Ron laughed at them and they pouted for him. He loved the way that they pouted because it always ended with a turn of their heads and a dark eyed smile that wished him a good weekend.
Now he was sitting in back of his desk arranging the piles of papers and Sister Irene appeared in his doorway. “How was your first week, Mr. Tuck? Are you planning to stay with us?”
Ron felt a flush of fear wash through his body and he froze at the sound of her words, “Yes, Sister.”
“Then I suppose you’d better have this,” she said and handed him his check. Father Smith liked to give the teachers a week’s pay at the end of the first week of school, even though the pay period was every two weeks. It had been a long summer and the check was the boost that some of them needed. Ron was amazed when he stared at the check. They’d given him money for teaching