Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical
Bob clutched the rifle and considered that this might be a turning point of some kind. He had never been so close to such a great specimen . . . even he could not miss a shot like this. He froze into the background, the cold metal of his rifle burning into his clenched hand.
Watching the animal move with majestic grace, he was reminded of the basketball games of his youth, of the strong, young athletes whose fluid movement with the ball seemed a mystery to him as he sat on the bench. His grip on the rifle tightened and it seemed as if the animal could sense that imperceptible movement.
It lifted its head, suddenly alert and on edge. Yes, this could be a turning point, Bob reasoned, one shot here and he would be the hero of the hunting lodge tonight. They would be telling tales about it for months. This was what Darwin was talking about; this was survival of the fittest. Maybe not actual survival, but social survival, which was more important anyway.
His finger on the trigger, he raised the gun slowly, ever so slowly as he had seen his companions do. It was, after all, the chance of a lifetime. Suddenly, he knew his companions were near. He sensed them even as the animal seemed to become aware of danger. It was now or never, one shot and it would be over and any guilt he may feel would be diminished by the praise of his hunting partners.
He could almost see the pictures of him holding the antlers of the dead beast, its eyes a glassy and still window into death. He could feel the other hunters bearing down on them and he felt more like the prey than the predator. His hand cramped as it held tightly to the instrument that would bring death to one of them and an assertion of manhood to the other. Sweat collected on his brow, his chest tightened. Not too far off, he heard a footstep. The animal heard it, too, but seemed frozen, as though Bob held it immobile in the scope of his gun.
Suddenly, he lowered the rifle.
“Run, you idiot,” he hissed to the majestic beast. “Get out of here.”
Like the bullet that might have been fired from his gun, the buck shot through the woods and out of Bob’s life. Later on, his companions would ask him how he could have missed it. He would make up a story about how he fell asleep, drowsy from the drinking the night before. They would laugh and jest at his expense for some time to come, but he would dish out the mushroom stew he had meticulously prepared and all would be well. He would settle back into the bench.
Ah well, he sighed. He went to the woods so that he could live deliberately, he told himself, as he shivered in the tree stand. With a sigh, he took out the tattered copy of Walden he always carried with him when he went hunting.
“I went to the woods so I could live deliberately,” Bob read to his second period class, his deep voice resonating with what he hoped was the power of the written word. “To front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover I had not lived.”
He paused for effect and a deep silence settled into the room, like a blanket of snow over the Adirondack hills. Then it was broken by a loud belch from a student in the front row.
The room erupted into laughter as Bob set his book down on the podium and gave the student an icy glare.
“This is gay,” the belcher said, more to his audience than to Bob, and his classmates heartily expressed their agreement with high fives and more laughter. Bob felt that familiar tightening as his anger rose to the surface.
“Really, Mr. Pearson?” Bob said, “What is it about Mr. Thoreau’s writing that you find homosexual in nature?”
This caused a round of sneering and laughter and Bob knew it was Darwin time again. Survival of the Fittest. Only one of them would emerge with control of the class. He suddenly felt a wave of anger wash over him as he surveyed the battlefield. He was becoming reckless as his retirement neared, caring less and less about the consequences.
“You seem to use that word a lot, Mr. Pearson. Tell me, why would a young man like you see so many things as gay?”
The boy twisted uncomfortably in his chair, squirming under the laughter of his classmates. Bob watched as the boy transferred the tobacco he was chewing to the alternate cheek.
“Cause all the stuff you have us read is gay,” he countered, angry defiance flashing in his adolescent eyes.
“What’s so gay about it?”
“Going into the woods just to sit there for no reason . . .” the boy sneered and Bob could feel him pulling the class away from him. The young man seemed to feel it too and it was gaining him confidence. He continued, pushing further.
“It’s not like he is going in to shoot something. The guy’s a fag. Maybe this guy Thoreau is gay. . . . ”
“Maybe you’re ignorant,” Bob could feel thirty years of anger bubbling to the surface.
“Maybe you’re gay,” the boy sneered.
“And you are a horse’s ass. . . . ” The laughter stopped and Bob acknowledged the sinking feeling that is common when one recognizes one went too far.
“Did you even consider the ramifications such a comment could have on the developing personality of a child, Mr. Jazinski?” she asked, her expression promising infinite patience. Bob’s jaw clenched as he sought a professional and confident retort.
“He started it. He called me gay!”
“Now really, Mr. Jazinski,” she said with a sad, complacent smile. “Who is the adult here?”
Bob had a comment all prepared for her, but his union representative seemed to sense that and interjected. She was an old friend and they had taught together for twenty years.
“In Bob’s defense,” she began, “He has a very challenging class. If you recall, I have spoken to you about seeing if we couldn’t balance it better. Over 50% of his class are chronic discipline problems and most are reading 3 grades or more below grade level.”
“All the more reason why a little compassion and empathy are needed if we are to change these youngsters’ lives around,” spoke the voice of administrative optimism.
Or idealism. Or fantasy, depending on your outlook, Bob thought.
He made a conscious effort to control the look of incredulity that crossed his face, but he knew he was doing a bad job of it.
His union representative tried again. “I am sure Bob understands that his comments were inappropriate, but Jason Pearson has been a discipline problem for years here. He has been a disruption to Bob’s instruction for five months now and …”
“I understand that, Mrs. Hayes, but how can we ask considerate behavior of our students if our staff do not model that behavior?” She did not wait for a reply, but continued on. “Therefore, I am directing Mr. Jazinski to apologize to Jason for his unprofessional and hurtful comments…”
“Apologize?” Bob sputtered. He was so angry his chest clenched and his words came out garbled and strained. His friend reached out and nudged his leg in silent warning as he visibly fought for self control.
“In addition,” the principal continued, “I have spoken with the superintendent and he agrees that, because this is the third infraction in the past five years, you will be registered in an Employee Anger Management class.”
He watched her overly white teeth smile at him through her overly tanned face. She was a slim blonde but she began to resemble an eight-point buck.
“Do you really think that is necessary?” his colleague was saying, trying to choose her wording carefully to defuse the situation. “After all, this is Bob’s last year teaching. As long as the settlement is passed, he has already decided to retire this June. I mean, anyone can have a bad day and suffer a lapse of judgment.”
The principal smiled at her with benevolent patience.
“We have our rules for discipline, Mrs. Hayes. Consistency is always the key.”
In the faculty room later, Bob’s fury began to slowly dissolve in the warmth of conversation. The tightness inside was loosening, but he was still mad at his friend.
“This is partly your fault,” he grumbled at her. “Literature for the Outdoorsman…what kind of a class is that?”
“Well, we were trying to make it more student-centered…you know, engage the student and all that. Besides, I thought you would like teaching it,” she said a little sheepishly. “I just thought you would choose different pieces of literature to do with them…”
“Like what? Deliverance?” he said.
Was it wrong to try to give them a little culture? Was it wrong to expose them to the greatest thinkers of our time? Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, Thoreau had written and Bob knew he was one of them. But awareness wasn’t enough. How do you change the plan at this point? It was easy to advise others to “simplify, simplify,” but what about health insurance? Two kids in college? A retirement fund? No, once Bob retired he would live deliberately and until then, he only had to hang on. It was strategy, not cowardice that kept him here.
After all, one might argue that it took certain courage to try to teach Thoreau to a class of four-wheeling rednecks . . .Pearls before swine, he thought. Pearls before swine. Maybe there were always students like Jason Pearson, but they were the exception not the rule. There was a time when he shared Steinbeck and Emerson and he could feel at least one or two students connecting with him. Now, they sat, their eyes on him, but their fingers under the desk, busily texting their friends even while he lectured. Their insults became more disrespectful, more biting, and more frequent. There were days he dreaded facing them and looking into the eyes of a world he feared and could not understand.
Now, he sat trying to put his grades into the computer that perched on his desk and mocked him daily. Back in the day, he did his grades by hand, with a calculator and entered them neatly into his black covered grade book. He smiled at the thought, as he remembered his neat and clear handwriting gracing the blue columns. He loved all things ordered and neat. Technology was supposed to make it easier, but instead it wound up taking him twice as long as he pecked his way around the keyboard, muttering curses not loud, but deep.
When he retired next year, he would regain that sense of peace and security that escaped him. He would buy a season ticket to the theatre and go every month, with the exception of the month he would go to Italy. His coveted trip to Italy now hovered just within his grasp. He had been planning it for years, researching old churches.
He had purchased some CDs on learning Italian, but he couldn’t figure out his CD player in the new car, so they had sat, unused. There would be time for all of that, he thought, once he retired. He felt that uncomfortable feeling in his chest ease a little at the promise of the voyage. Just the thought of his retirement cheered him.
A short month later, with the state budget in desperate straits, discussion of retirement incentives dominated union meetings. He had waited, licking his lips in anticipation until it was decided. When his friends asked him if he would definitely take it, he smiled. It was an offer, he told them, he could not refuse.
The letter signed, his grades submitted, his career roasted, he stood now looking out at the vast lawn that stretched before him. While he was teaching, he had hired a lawn service to mow as it was a huge task and he had not invested in a riding mower. Now, however, there would be no need to waste money on that when he had all the time in the world for lawn maintenance.
Well, eventually, he would. For today, time pressed gently but insistently on him. He had to get the lawn in shape for the party tomorrow.
He had plenty of time, even though he knew it took a full two and a half hours to finish the job. No matter, the sun rose high in the sky on an unusually warm June day. He was sweating already as he fumbled with the earphones of the iPod his children had given him as a retirement gift. They had preloaded it with Italian operas and Jimmy Buffet and now he concentrated carefully on their instructions regarding its use. It took a few minutes for him to adjust the volume, then he tucked the small device into his chest pocket and revved the mower.
Looming before him was a field of green that beckoned like the Mediterranean Sea. It was his time now. He marched toward his destiny with a determined stride, the sounds of the Italian tenor mingling with the whine of the mower as he peeled away the overgrowth, one row at a time. He hacked away the excess, leaving only fresh green grass, peeling away the past with a sweep of metal. He relished in the power of it all, despite the enormity of the task. It warmed his soul to see the fresh growth he left in his wake.
And this was what it all was about, he sighed with contentment as the scent of summer reached his nostrils, and the roar of the tenor battled with the whine of the mower. This was his time. And the sun beat down on the older man and the mower, with no malice or forethought. But, this time there was no warning. It snuck up on him, so intent was he on peeling away the old and releasing the new. The sweat had begun to drip down his back and forehead, and the heat rose up in him as the tenor’s voice rang clear and true.
So when the unseen hand seized his heart in its vice-like grip, he froze for an instant in surprise, his sweaty hand clutching at his chest, even as his other hand held fast to the mower. He saw it all then, in the haze of the early afternoon sun. He saw the joy in his dog each time he arrived home, the laughter of the faculty room, and hunting lodge and his grades as he carefully arranged them in alphabetical order. He saw the deer raise its majestic head and look into him before he disappeared into the woods. He saw that empty spot on the bench where he had waited to enter the game. He understood then, in the final seconds, the futility of his plans, the random and incomprehensible arrangement of life, and his struggling heart accepted with regret the greatest betrayal of all.
Momentum. That’s how it all ended. The mower shifted under his weight as the song ended, pushing through the last four feet of grass at the mercy of the unseen force. And momentum propelled Bob’s body to follow as he hit the freshly mowed grass with a dull and gentle thud, the earphones dislodged from him, settling in the grass a few yards away. Dimly, he could hear the rattle of the mower and the dog’s alarmed barking eclipse his own anguished gasps.
The half finished lawn loomed just ahead, just out of his grasp.
And so the quiet desperation crept out of him, seeping into the green grass. He was not alone, though. In his ear, he heard the whisper of gentle reassurance, “Simplify, simplify…”
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