Three months after losing his job at Monsanto, Jack Donahue found himself with a large pile of bills and a short list of prospects for a new job. For the past three years, he had been a tech writer trying to put a pretty face on the Monsanto GMO seed production, which, in his mind, was like putting lipstick on a pig. But a guy’s gotta live. So, he was just as glad when the pink slip came down and he walked out of there with a small cardboard box of accumulated desk crap and his head held high.
Three months later things weren’t going so well. The tech writer job market was flat, his driver’s license was suspended for another month so he couldn’t drive an Uber, and his psoriasis prevented him from working as a dishwasher, or other menial jobs often filled by people with degrees in English Literature. His prospects were dim.
With no employment calls to date, he had forgotten about the application he made in the Spring for a temporary assignment as a substitute teacher at the Waverly Junior/Senior Regional High school.
His cell phone woke him early in the morning. It was very dark with the shades pulled down. The clock’s red digits showed 5:58. The phone beeped again. The lack of fresh brewed coffee aroma confirmed that his early riser girlfriend had, indeed, packed her things and moved out last week. Cell phone beep again. He got his feet over the edge of the bed, fumbled the phone to his ear and said, “Hullo.”
“Mister Donahue, Jack Albert calling. I’m the Assistant Principal at Waverly Regional. I hope I’m not calling too early?”
“Not at all, Mr. Albert, I’m having breakfast, just back from an early run. How can I help you?”
“I know this is short notice, and I know you’re probably busy, but we have an opening for today and possibly tomorrow. If you’re available?”
“I have a couple of free days, what grade level, Mr. Albert?”
“Call me, Jack…tenth grade English, Mrs. Curran’s class. She has a little medical problem and needs some outpatient treatment today.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
“Not medically, except this was unexpected and she hadn’t prepared anything for a substitute. You’ll have to wing it.”
“That’s what I do best, Jack.”
“Great, I’ll see you in my office at seven for some paperwork and then take you to the classroom, Jack.”
The scrambled sheet was caught around Jack Donahue’s feet from a night of restless sleep and tripped him as he rose. He stumbled into the bathroom, turned on the shower, and looked in the mirror. The image was startling. “Oh, crap!” The words came back at him from the beard stubbled, the red-eyed face of a man who had too many beers last night at the Rockin’ Robin Tavern dart finals. He rubbed, his eyes, blew out some air, leaned against the sink and said, “Oh my God.”
After the shower, shave, Alka-Seltzer, Pop-Tarts, and three coffees, he was ready to tackle anything a tenth-grade class of delinquents could throw at him.
He should have asked, Jack Albert, about proper dress, but decided, what the hell, it was only a day or two and emerged from his apartment in clean jeans, button-down oxford shirt and rep tie. He finished off with a Harris tweed sport coat and loafers. Close enough.
Jack Albert met him for a brief meeting about policy and a form to fill out, then took him to room 303 and addressed the class. “Good morning, students, Miss Curran will not be in today.” A few students mumbled. “good,” “yea,” and “who cares,” with Mr. Albert quieting the class with raised hands, palms flat, pumping down. “Mister Donahue will substitute for her today. Please give him your complete attention, you’re in good hands.” He turned to Jack and said quietly, “Give it your best shot,” and left.
“Good morning.” Complete silence. Thirty pairs of eyes simply stared back at him. One pair at the back of the room was closed and appeared to be sleeping.
“Miss.” Jack pointed at a red-haired girl in the front row that seemed to be the least hostile looking. He waved the attendance book and said, “Please come up here and mark the book for me. Thanks.”
He turned to the board and wrote in big block letters, JACK. Then turned back to the class and said, “That’s me. When I call on one of you, please state your name. Thank you.”
“Sit here.” Jack indicated to the red-haired attendance taker and pulled out his desk chair, then went around to the front of the desk, sat on the edge and began. “Apparently the medical condition that Miss Curran has is not serious, but because it was unexpected, she left no lesson plan for today.” He saw the students brighten thinking this would be a breeze day. “So, I have to wing it.” He got up and went to the board.
I’m going to write a short poem on the board and give you a few minutes to think about it.” He heard the groans and the sleeping head kept sleeping.
“This is a poem written in the late sixties by a guy named Richard Brautigan. I’ll be surprised if any of you have heard of him.” Jack wrote in large letters, THE WIDOW’S LAMENT.
He turned back to the class before continuing. “Brautigan was what you could describe as a hippie poet living mostly in the San Francisco area.” He turned to the board and added the first five words of the poem under the title.
Facing the class again, Jack spotted a little interest from some of the kids who had been beaten over the head with Wordsworth and Poe, then added the next five words.
He hesitated and half-turned, trying not to laugh as a few more puzzled faces came to life. Before adding to the poem, he casually remarked, “Brautigan died in 1964. He shot himself in the head with a forty-four caliber Magnum and the body was not discovered for nearly a month. It was badly decomposed in the California heat. It was rumored that he left a note saying, ‘Messy isn’t it,’ but, his daughter says that’s not true.” Jack faced the board, felt that he had hooked them, and added the final three words of the poem.
A kid wearing a BRADY 12 sweatshirt in the outside row by the windows said, “That’s it?”
“That’s it. Take a few minutes to study this. Think about it. Visualize it, and then we’ll talk about it.” The attendance girl rose from the desk chair. Jack said, and your name is?”
“Okay, Melissa, thanks for your help.” She went to her seat.
Jack watched his audience fidget in their seats and doodle in their notebooks. More eyes close and heads looked ceilingward, as if, that would help the thoughts collect at the back of their heads.
“Okay, Miss, in the blue sweater.” Jack pointed to a girl in the second row. “Tell me something about this woman.”
“Um, she’s old.”
“You are who?”
“Oh, I’m Andrea. Andrea Montecalvo, There’s, another Andrea over there.” The girl turned and pointed toward the outside row.
“Okay, Andrea, tell me more about the woman in the poem.”
“Um, she’s kind of old…”
“When you say, ‘kind of,’ what do you mean? Can you put a number on that?”
“Um… like sixty.”
Jack wrote that on the board. “Okay, we already know who Andrea number two is, give me your guess as to the woman’s age.” He then pointed to the girl in the outside row who pointed to herself in a ‘me’ gesture.
“Yes, A-two,” Give me a number.” The class was beginning to come alive.
“I would say…seventy-five.”
Jack wrote that above the 60 on the board, then said, “One more.” He scanned the room, stopping at a kid in a Blackhawks team shirt. “Sir. Name and then a number.”
“I’m Jason…ninety…I would say she’s gotta be ninety”. He looked relieved, thinking it was over.
“Good guess, J. Why do you think that?”
Jason reddened a little, and the rest of the class thought it best to start paying attention. “Well, because it says she’s old in the poem, but I don’t think sixty is really old. I mean, my dad is fifty-two, and he’s not old. And my grandparents, they’re like seventy-five or something, and they’re really active people.” Jason’s red face was pleading, and Jack cut him loose.
“Okay, we’ve had three opinions on this woman’s age. Three estimates based on the experience of these three students. The body of this poem has thirteen words. We just spent five minutes on one of them. One word that made us do what?” Jack looked over the class, and all eyes were focused on him except “sleepy” in the back. He pointed to Melissa. “What has this made us do?”
“Exactly, this is what poems do, they make us think. They throw out words like baseballs. It’s up to us to catch them. Okay, it seems that this woman is alone. Can you tell us something about her past? Sir, in the back with the long sleeve tee shirt. What can you tell us?”
“Um…Tom…um, she’s alone now but maybe wasn’t always alone, maybe.”
“Why do you say that, Tom?”
“Because the title is about a widow, so I guess she was married at some point.” Tom wiped his forehead with his sleeve, glad to have done his bit.
“Of course. Brautigan gives us some of the woman’s past with one word that our imaginations can build on to give us a more complete picture of her who we can probably average out to be in her eighties and formerly married. With two words, he has given us a pretty good mental picture. Okay, how cold is it?”
For the first time, several hands were eagerly raised. Jack pointed.
“I’m Marsha…I think it has to be pretty cold for her to think about it because she’s probably embarrassed to go to the neighbors and ask for firewood. I see her as being a pretty tough woman, on her own, making do. I like this woman. I feel for her.”
“And I like your answer, Marsha. You see what’s happening here? The word ‘quite’ speaks volumes. We now have three words leading us to the big picture. So, let’s assume it gets really cold, dangerously cold. What does she do? She “goes” to the neighbors, presumably, pride in hand, to get this wood. So, now we must ask, how does she do that? Does she have a pickup? SUV? Wheelbarrow? You see how the picture broadens. Is the way smooth, or rough? Snow on the ground? Deep frozen mud ruts? Four words Brautigan gives us, and the canvas is almost ready to be framed. Now, there’s one more word we need to look at. “Sir, trying to hide behind the girl in the green sweater.” All the kids look toward him except “sleepy, whose eyes are still closed.
There’s some good-natured laughter, and the kid answers. “Ya got me, Jack. I think it’s the word ‘borrow.’
“Good choice and your name is?”
“Okay, Robbie, tell us why that’s such a good choice.”
Just as Robbie starts to speak, there’s a knock on the door, and a hall monitor comes into the class and hands the teacher a note. Jack thanks her and turns to the class. “Let’s see what this is.” He reads it, folds it, and puts it on the desk.
From the desk of Jack Albert
Mrs. Curran called. She’ll be available tomorrow.
Thanks so much for helping us today.
I’ll keep your name at the top of the list.
“Okay, Robbie, tell us why you think ‘borrow’ is a keyword.”
“Well, I ask myself, does she have the means to pay back this wood? I think Brautigan is using that word as irony.” Robbie encloses the word with air quotes.
“Wow! You’ve just presented us with a new set of problems for this old; presumably poor, woman who must swallow her pride, get out in the cold, somehow get to the neighbors, borrow some wood and get home again. Then is faced with having to pay it back. Five words and we could write a book. Good job. Irony is the use of words in a direct opposite sense of meaning. And here, Brautigan gives us the final dilemma facing this woman. We can only assume that she has good intentions, but probably cannot repay the borrowed wood and will be faced with the same problem next winter. If she lives that long.” All eyes are on me. These kids are getting it. Everyone but sleepy.
The first dismissal buzzer sounds in the corridor.
Jack holds up the note. “I thank you all for your attention and your contributions. I guess Miss Curran will be back tomorrow.”
Groans from the class, then Sleepy gets to his feet and begins to clap. Others join in. The whole room is clapping. Jack is a little embarrassed. The dismissal bell rings. The students file out to the corridor. Sleepy reaches for the walking stick at his feet. The white stick with the red bands top and bottom, and slowly comes to the front of the room sweeping the stick back and forth across the narrow aisle.
Jack is unsure of what to say. “Sir, can I help you?”
“My name’s Roland, and I’m all set. My escort is waiting in the hall. I just want to shake your hand and thank you for the best class I’ve ever had.”
After the handshake, Jack wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, picked up his notebook, and went home thinking this was his best class, also.
When he opened the door of his apartment, smelled fresh coffee, and heard some noise in the kitchen, he knew this might be one of his best days.
The Widow’s Lament was first printed in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, published by The Communication Company, April 1967.