JONATHAN TROSCLAIR - FOAL
Jonathan Trosclair is an aspiring writer and musician residing in Lafayette, Louisiana. His writing has previously been featured in the Southwestern Review and the e-zine Beguiled. In 2012 he won the Judge Felix J. Voorhies Award for Creative Writing while attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is currently working on a novel.
Mrs. Greene used to model for Victoria’s Secret, but the boys, in an act of decency almost inconceivable for their age, decide to keep it, yes, a secret. Of the two that know, it’s Miller who feels like he can stare out of the window in Biology without consequence now. The knowledge makes him untouchable, a little cavalier. But Robin is less sure. He struggles to correlate this information with the names of the types of clouds, the idea that the moon is a virgin, defecation, ejaculation, Greek myth, child labor, and child birth; does not see how these things can possibly be related but also doesn’t see how it would be possible for them to exist without somehow being so.
At a red light on the way to school a man jogs out in front of the pickup with his hands splayed, the index and thumb of each touching to make a signal. This man has a hostile expression, and he seems to run in place for a few seconds to make sure they see it. “What the hell,” says Robin’s dad. The jogger is balding, is thin and pale, and wears a revealing muscle shirt like something a body-builder would best be found in. But on this man the garment hangs loose, fabric snapping in the strange wind as if he had been emboweled suddenly, prepared with modern speed for burial in the old ways. He carries on to the other side of the street and doesn’t look back. “It means pussy,” Robin says.
Harsh look from his dad meaning, Yes but I don’t want to hear you say it. It’s a morning filled with symbols.
On campus wary steps on his still healing leg. He stops, a couple cold drops dousing and sliding down his cheek. Janis had walked into the big stately doors beneath the iron sky just as he climbed out of the truck. The long dark lawn dotted only with a few milling groups. Smell of rain and something burning. “Three o’clock,” from his dad.
Janis has a tattoo and this makes his heart race.
Inside, the school is humming from fluorescent light as well as the general anticipation that comes before a rain. Robin sees Miller and they take up together, walking down the hall lined with lockers. “You see Janis?”
“Saw her coming in.”
“She’s wearing a skirt today.”
“Yeah,” Robin says.
Miller and Robin are both white boys in a mostly white school. The place is also largely Catholic, although only from an inertia running off of parents just as disinterested in regular practice as the children are, some little pool of faith slowly draining itself into obscurity. Robin himself went through a period of obsession with the Mother Mary and certain of the saints and likes to look at pictures of cathedrals, specifically ones taken in the evening. But like any young person he loathed the mass, its stillness and bad feelings. True, the smell of dust and wax and smoke not totally unpleasant, but too arcane how the flavorless host is kept out of sight until ingestion, as if being observed before showtime would sap whatever power the turning from bread to gore embodied.
Far down the hall Greggory stands and does a slow head turn to stare at Robin. He is flanked by two lean, brutal-looking boys, all wearing soccer socks under nikes, hoodies, always shorts even when it gets cold. Miller glowers and Robin tries not to limp.
None of the boys know where on Janis’ body her tattoo is and, though he is ashamed to admit it, the mystery of it makes him happy.
The majority white factor often gets cited by his father as a good bit of luck. Frequent addendum is the inevitable vindication, “So long as they work, I got no problem with them,” from which it can be gleaned that all morals flow out of how one views money. Taxpayers, practically mythic, are often evoked as withered saints, “entitlement” being a very favorite word of abuse around the household. And Robin gets so mad he wants to abandon the man. There is a toxic regularity to their conversation, an obstinacy of topic and dedication to hatred that has grown hard to stomach. Robin feels like this is the same sort of attitude that led to his mother leaving.
Christina, a band geek, tries to get his attention at lunch and eventually he gives it. “Your leg?” she asks, showing concern that does move him.
“Fine,” he shrugs. “I’m out for the season though.”
“Yeah.” Her face falls back to her plate. But of course there is something more. “So. What really happened?”
There is a pause, a moment for which Christina could be forgiven if she related it to a slackening before a musical swell, the calm before the big moment, but “I wonder what everyone thinks,” is all Robin says. Then a nod. A bite of apple.
Third block Janis gets in a shouting match with Mr. Mankis, at one point calling him “pear-shaped.” Robin is in the classroom next door and so can hear parts of it. Some of the students laugh and Mrs. Greene does her teacher thing, quiets them with little more than looks, cooing but stern, ensures order is restored to her kingdom by turning on some disarming music full of strings and woodwinds that blocks out anything beyond their walls. Robin tries to think of who he knows in Janis’ third block, who he can ask. But just then it starts raining and his knee flares into an apical pain worse even than when it first happened. With water slapping hard at the window and Mrs. Greene reminding him of that whole other world, he wonders if this is how it’s always going to be from now on.
After third block Robin goes limping down to the gym lockers. Only a few people around, but he has solitude in mind and so walks on, out the door to an alcove made from probably unintended angles of brick and cement where he finds the Algebra teacher, Mr. Wales, smoking a cigarette.
“Oh,” says Robin.
“What are you doing back here?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.”
They both turn out to look at the rain. Robin and Mr. Wales had always had a tacit sort of respect for one another, the elder of them affecting the archetype, a tough-but-fair teacher who has set expectations and Robin being a smart and mostly pacific kid. This though, is a new kind of encounter for them both.
“Not gunna tell on me are you,” as way of conversational favor.
“Nah,” Robin says. “Never poke a sleeping giant.”
Out in the wash, a white SUV in miniature breaks through the pines. They watch it. Robin knows it is Janis’ mother’s car. Probably she got suspended.
“How long you been teaching here, Mr. Wales?”
Small issue of breath meaning a long time. “I remember when they had this as a shotput and archery field,” gesturing to the muddy expanse of grass and chainlink fence. “No one here is interested in that anymore.”
“I’ve never seen anyone do that stuff except on TV.”
Nods. “And once a flood came, ‘79 probably. Whatever year they decided to turn over the Panama Canal. The school was one of the only two-story buildings in town at the time and so people got evacuated to it. Wound up being historic. Ten inches of rain in 24 hours. You can google it, it’ll come up. My house is low in the valley so we came. I was a teacher then too, Civics all the way back when. I remember walking through the halls with the power out and everyone holding or doing things by the light of these long, white candles from the emergency closet,” spreading his hands apart to show length, his cigarette smoking as if one were indeed held there, lit and casting. “Everyone quiet like someone told them not to talk. It was a real eerie experience. They seemed more like shapes than you felt they were people that night. Or at least the same people you saw every day. The rain hitting and them so quiet you couldn’t hear talking. They were like a collection of just shadows. Yeah. Silhouettes. Was odd. Sometimes I remember about it from nowhere like I’m right back there, just going to a meeting or eating lunch. Lot of the past will do that though.”
Robin had never heard him talk so much, and was eager for this link to what seemed like antiquity. “What happened to your house?”
“Got ruined. Took on more mud than water. Then the property wasn’t worth anything after everyone got reminded that living on the side of mountain is prone to such conflicts. Those between man and nature. Insurance moved out too, but we rebuilt. Raised ourselves off the ground a little more, used more cement in the foundation.”
“Sounds kind of fatalist.”
Mr. Wales shrugs, “You get to figure those things out.”
“You still run two miles every day?”
“Every day.” He looks over, downward. “Speaking of. How’s that leg?”
“Hurts in the rain.”
“How long’s it been?”
“I haven’t been counting.”
“Yeah.” Then, stubbing out the cigarette, “Well I guess you know about bad things now, the way they come up.” His head tilts, a manner of care not typically observed in this man, the creases around his mouth seeming more deeply etched than normal in the gray light, “And I don’t think there’s good in everyone. Some people belong in the Dark Ages. Woulda been right at home throttling brains out, tearing down what’s been built. Just pulling out the last bricks. There’s layers to it and old as I am I’ve not seen the bottom. Even the barbarians were afraid of someone, it was someone worse than them pushed them west and started the collapse. That said I think it’s alright to be careful, but I wouldn’t take it far enough to where it could be called anxious.” Robin doesn’t know if he understands. “I warn against that,” Mr. Wales nods, is quiet, though not waiting for a response. “Well. I’ll see you second block tomorrow. Favor that leg.”
The white SUV is already making its way back, an albino creature singled out. Now alone, his vision shakes and by the smell Robin knows the bacteria are breeding out in the rain, already profligate and making many more. Those words had not been a teacher’s words. A crier. Or a liar. Some intercessor come from up high, the only two-story building in town, or maybe from down in the valley like he’d said. Robin looks at an ember of the cigarette not yet extinguished. He is having visions of his leg split open again. Curled skin and the bone bare. His own flesh scent. His own shock at the sudden change. He feels that he is breathing in clouds of badness, a flock of vast chaos funneling through like the mudslide down the mountain, seeking basin among his organs. He is anxious. And what could quell? Where is any bastion?
Embarrassed, vulnerable, as though against his deepest instincts, he knows that he believes in love, and that in this he might be deeply, fatally flawed.
Next morning the man ambushes them again at the same intersection, this time extending his middle finger, perhaps, Robin thinks, favoring a more direct approach. But then his other hand makes a telephone that he puts up to his left ear, mouthing “CALL ME,” with a hateful expression, again obscuring his overarching message: neither son nor father know who this man is, or what his phone number could possibly be. Robin guesses that for his dad, the man probably represents an incredible insult, a sign of shifting values tending evermore towards anarchy, irreverence, and liberalism. For Robin himself the man is merely something else to be assimilated into the tight vicious circles that life has been revealing itself to be.
Because things are shifting. He feels like it’s like the air itself and it’s heavier and indifferent all of a sudden. Trees have been vanishing from the lawn. Someone breaks the school’s windows at night and they are found taped up the next day with visqueen. Never repaired, just patched, the plastic either being sucked at or pushed out by the outside wind. A plume of woodsmoke every day from beyond the stands of the soccer field. You can smell it. The particulate matter in your lungs. And kids have been saying that Mrs. Greene is full of cancer. That this is why she looks so tired now, why she has been missing days. In all these things, Robin cannot help but draw inferences about much wider subjects.
Miller is absent that day though Janis is unexpectedly back at school. She moves with classless indifference, that sort of worldliness Robin feels he won’t obtain for another ten years and with it on full display she approaches him in the hall. Some subtle lip balm. Lashes uncared for. “Wanna walk me to class?”
He meets her eyes and for a moment actually considers refusing. “Where you going?”
“Alright,” he says. They walk to Mrs. Greene’s class together. The secret near constantly being thrust back into view, he now actively wishes he had not found the magazines in the attic, the slumbering issues that had been kept and forgotten in a box of mother’s old things, allowed to wrinkle from the humidity, fade to pastel, and then to wake mean and hungry, ruining some easy, hallmark movie moment of a boy looking through an elsewhere parent’s belongings. Just back to reality. Look, this is what’s waiting. This is what stares back when you go seeking, when you fossick through the castoff to find what was supposed to be forgotten. And worse still he had shown another pair of eyes.
“I guess you won’t be playing soccer anymore this year.”
“No,” he says. “Pretty upset about it. But not as much as I thought I’d be.”
“Sucks. I’m sure we won’t go to state again this year anyway. Lightning never strikes Byrd High twice.”
“Not yet at least.”
“Mm,” she hums. They walk.
“I caught Mr. Wales smoking yesterday.”
“I knew it,” she grins. “I always see him walking around to the back.”
“He didn’t seem to really care.”
“He wouldn’t. He knows he’s the best teacher here. They couldn’t touch him.”
“Yeah.” Up the stairs, its echoes and bustle. “So what happened with you yesterday?”
“What do you mean?” and it is not a show.
“With Mr. Mankis.”
Memory dawns, she shrugs. “You heard about that?”
“I heard it from next door.”
A smile, eyes easily downcast and her face in that moment moves him over long plains, into more blood-worthy rhythms of life. “He wasn’t pulling any punches yesterday.”
“I went too far. And I only say that because I feel like I’m smarter than him, you know. I mean everybody does. I should have acted like I know that cus he’ll never admit he’s wrong. But I had to give in eventually anyway because I’m a kid of course. Got suspended for the day. My mom chewed him out a little so that felt good. But then she chewed me out the whole way home.”
“What started it?”
“Nothing. Bullshit. Uniform stuff.”
They are almost at the classroom. “Greggory called yesterday,” she says gently. “What did happen out there, Robin?”
“Didn’t he tell you?”
“Can’t be everything.”
“It might be.”
“And you won’t tell me.”
“We’re here,” he says.
She gives him a strange look, equal portions cruel estimation and careful thirst, then even stranger, a kiss, cheek-wise. “You gunna be an island forever?” before disappearing into the room.
But there is, opposite the dark anxious pit, a brilliance of his nerves. Shaving what happens from matter into light, sunwhipped beams to stand in for the steady nervous little animal wishing to go down on her, to hold her eye and be the leopard bored in her branches. He is foolish, knows he is foolish and anyway wants to see what inch of her bark has been carved already. The rumors drift that the tattoo is of an emerging city, or otherwise it is of a woman, draped in furs on the beach, lazy and not quite supine, receiving to her court the young girls in the form of the white birds she has turned them into. Let that look back, he thinks, because it is the sole response his flitting mind has been attuned for, greedy, base as it may be.
Amid the dim gray and the dim yellow light of Mr. Wales’ classroom and the hum of the overhead projector that this teacher will not stop using despite its being held barely together by all-purpose glues and replacement parts from distinct decades, Robin turns back to see Greggory extend his hand, form it into the shape of a gun and pull its trigger once, then twice. It’s algebra talk from the front, pyramids and angles, work to do. “Kill yourself,” the boy mouths, sharp faced. A cleated sphinx.
There come weeks of rain. His father begins to take a different route to school. In order to make things simpler for himself, to give category to the enigmatic, Robin decides that the hostile jogger they see no more is a lunatic doomsday-predictor, an out of his mind Mr. Wales, and that after his morning run he must take up a street corner, and on some manner of found platform decry the coming flood to a throng that will not listen though it pours all around them. He augurs first about hooded figures, then of the injustice done by men such as Robin’s father, bystanders such as his son, and about the very shape of the precipice their continent will be carried over by these unparalleled currents. There was presage in the last, mere glimmer of what will now befall. But still none watch for the force he brings word of. Nor will they repent of the sins that lure it.
When the rain finally stops, Robin burns the Victoria’s Secret magazines in the firepit in the backyard late, late at night. Thin curls of ash running lambent orange circuitry before turning to powder in his hand. A constellation overhead he does not know the name of. Knee pain subsiding. Big and white above him the moon indeed a virgin, coasting, still making no sense to him. Perhaps that is what Janis’ tattoo depicts; all is likely. And turning it over again, for some hundredth of a time, Robin concludes that although an unfortunate portion of isolation has always been his, he is really much more of a peninsula than an island, and that this is a good thing. A bastion. In his eyes the fire, consuming itself, is fed another magazine to furl. Miller will be very angry with them, that deep in the night they surrendered this upper hand so willingly.
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