Wednesday, August 20, 2014


           Nothing notable about him.

He owned exactly two suits, one a blue pinstripe, and the other a milk chocolate brown. He had two pairs of shoes to go with his suits, black and brown wingtips that made his feet appear  large and hobbit-like when holding up his diminutive frame. He had black hair, parted on the left -- a little too greasy -- and matching black framed glasses.

Joseph Perry was twenty-seven, but looked older. The most interesting thing about him was his salt-and-pepper beard. Sometimes a whole thing, connected ear to ear and detouring over his lip, and sometimes, a lopsided goatee, with the ear connectors removed. It was clear he lived alone (unless one counted the elderly couple living downstairs) by the inept way he attempted to groom himself for his fidgety flock of fifth graders at Saint Edward the Confessor School. But always a collar tab stuck out at an unruly angle, a tie knot slightly off to the right, one sideburn a little longer that the other. A teacher rendition of Maynard G. Krebs.

Miss Byczek, the tall, willowy science teacher with Cher-straight long, black hair, light pink nail polish and an unbelievably even tan, walked by him without a glance. The even shorter and nerdier French teacher Henri Mageean, a mouse of a man with a ridiculous pencil mustache, was not put off. "Bonjour, Mademoiselle," he sonorized in his made-up mash of British and French accents.

Both Henri and Joseph lay awake at night in their respective one-room flats, imagining themselves with the floaty, enigmatic Miss Byczek. During the school day, only Henri, either by pluck or idiocy, spoke to her, his large nose only reaching her sternum. However much Joseph saw the silliness in Henri, he had to admire his bravery. How many times since the beginning of the school year had he rehearsed a casual greeting, a subtle arm brush in the hall? Every time the moment opened up, he froze, blinking harder and faster behind his black plastic frames, his lower lip quivering invisibly beneath the jet black beard.
The clock radio woke him. 

Cousin Brucie’s caffeinated voice jarred him into a sitting position. He smacked the off button on top of the plastic radio (a free gift when he opened his first grown-up bank account) wiped the sleep spittle from his beard and rolled sideways off the futon which doubled as his daytime couch. “Davenport,” he thought, smiling a bit, remembering the funny word his midwest grandma used for such furniture.

Joseph shuffled into the kitchenette, plugged in the hotpot and reached into the metal cabinet for his can of Maxwell House. While waiting for the water to heat, he opened a can of A&P cat food, scooped out its contents onto a melamine saucer and placed it on the windowsill. Leaning out the open window, he pursed his lips, making a soft psss-ing sound. Within five seconds, a skinny tuxedo cat appeared with a dead mouse in her teeth. She dropped the gift on the sill and looked expectantly at him. “Your welcome,” she said, and began eating from the saucer.

After showering and beard trimming, Joseph put on his remaining clean white dress shirt. “Blue or brown?” he wondered, grimacing inwardly at his own poverty. He remembered it was Wednesday and therefore the day of the weekly teachers' meeting. He opted for the blue suit. "More sophisticated," he thought. That meant black socks, black belt and black wingtips. His tie of choice (he owned three) was navy blue with pink paisley amoeba swimming throughout.

Joseph grabbed his worn book bag and headed out the door. The elderly woman who lived with her toothless husband in the downstairs apartment, was watering geraniums on the stoop. "Morning," Joseph mumbled, rushing past her, not wanting to seem rude, but not wanting to encourage a conversation that would reveal his ignorance of her name (was it Edna? Elba? Irma?). He needn't have worried, since she did not even bother to look up.

His car was parked two blocks away. It was a Datsun 240 Z, a cool car, which, had it been new, would be wildly beyond Joseph's means. His was navy blue, like his suit, and was no longer shiny. Its sides were sprinkled with dings and rust spots and the driver side door creaked as he opened it. Nevertheless, Joseph loved his car so much that he had given it a name and believed it had a soul. Pepe, he christened it, after his late father. In reality, Pepe Pereira was far from dead, but had disappeared when Joseph was a child. Rumor had it that he had returned to Guatemala, and had fathered twenty more children since his dalliance with Joseph's mother. But Joseph preferred to think of his father as a hard-working-but-unfortunate immigrant who lost his life in some sort of mysterious, heroic way.
Pepe (the car) whined and complained as Joseph woke him into action. After four tries, Pepe finally gave in. Joseph pulled away from the curb and rumbled off to St. Edward's School.

He arrived late. Pepe had cause problems on the way, stalling and coughing. When Joseph finally walked into the conference room, the meeting was already in progress. He found a metal folding chair and sat down behind a group of nuns. He didn’t know their names -- they taught the younger grades -- and even if he did, they were not the women’s real names. Sister Mary Alphonsus, Sister Mary Norbert, Sister Mary Francis. Looking at the back of their veiled heads, he wondered what their actual given names might be. Betty? Sally? Judy?

Joseph was amusing himself so thoroughly, he did not hear his name called at first. “Mr. Perry? Are you with us today?” Sister Mary Sebastian the school’s perpetually red-faced principal was at the head of the table. Joseph stood up. Henri Mageean was also standing (had he been the whole time? And why does he look like he’d been crying?) “This affects you too, I’m afraid,” she continued. “The bishop has decided that all the elementary schools in the diocese should should be taught only by women, either the lay women teachers, or by the Sisters of Mercy.”

More like the Sisters of NO Mercy, he thought, smiling at his own joke in spite of the seriousness of the moment. He shrugged and looked over at Miss Byczek. She was not affected by this sweeping edict, so why, then did she also look like she was going to cry? She was looking back at him with what appeared to be real concern. It seemed odd to be so much taller than she at this moment, since she was sitting, one tanned willowy leg crossed over the other, and he was still standing.
The meeting ended and the teachers gathered their things to head off to their classrooms. Joseph straightened his paisley tie (was that a stain?) and reached for his briefcase. “I’m so sorry Joseph.” Miss Byczek was standing next to him, touching his coat sleeve. He froze for a moment. “It’s okay,” he stammered, frozen with instant fear, and at the same time, ecstatic that she knew his first name. It has been very nice working with you, Lucille.” “It’s Lorraine,” she said, flipping her hair and walking off. 

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