John Holbrook, one of the heroes of this book, once told me that he had mused his way to the conclusion that a school is to a community what the skin is to a body.
“You see the rash on your arms and you might think that it’s the skin that’s sick, when actually the disease is somewhere deep inside, and it is only reflected in the skin. Or, conversely, when the skin is silky smooth – soft, and supple, and pleasant to the touch – it’s because the entire inside of the body is healthy.”
It has just occurred to me that I have written a book to illustratte what John said.
I must confess that at times, in order to better move the story along, two or three real-life persons have been shoved into one, or one person has been split up into two. Chronology has not been always rigorously followed, either, and real lives have been twisted to allow the sap of fiction to better flow to the heart and mind of the reader.
Wait. Did I say fiction? I’ll take that back. For this is not a fictional book.
The stories, all of them, without any exception, the stories, they are true. And if they sometimes seem far-fetched it’s only because many times reality is stranger than fiction – and also more pitiless, and more brutal.
I have kept some of the original quizzes, essays, newspaper articles and classroom drawings to give the book its well-deserved air of authenticity.
If you are a teacher, you will read the book and nod in agreement.
If you are a parent, now you know – a teacher’s life is not the bowl of cherries you always thought it was.
If you are a principal, or a superintendent, you will naturally want to burn the book in the public square – this book is a mirror and you will not like what you see.
Some of the real names of the characters have been maintained: Marina Argueta, Elizabeth Ramirez, Franklin Sosa, Jose Alberto Ochoa and the rest of the Ochoa clan, Hector Mandujano, aka Camarón, and most of the soccer players on the KCHS varsity team have given me kind permission to use their real-life names.
Only one character in the entire book is completely fabricated, and I will allow you, the reader, the investigative pleasure of discovering who that character is on your own.
If you like the book, please recommend it to your friends, to that nasty brother-in-law of yours who gets drunk on Thanksgiving, to the guy sitting next to you in the carpool, or to your fellow teacher in the teacher’s lounge. But don’t lend it to him. Let him buy his own copy.
by Cristian Săileanu
Once – I remember – two students got into a fight and were swinging wildly at each other, when Mr. John Holbrook just happened to walk on the scene. He warned the teenagers to stop fighting. Once. They were too hot under the collar to hear him or mind his warning. Then Mr. Holbrook stepped forward and grabbed each one of them by the belt and lifted them in the air. Their legs were dangling comically as he scowled at them. He knocked them against one another and let them drop to the ground, all fight out of them.
“How’s life treating you, Johnny boy?” I greet him.
“Some fucking Mexican stole my bike!” he growls, his red face getting redder as he speaks.
“How do you know it was a Mexican?” I ask him, only half amused.
“Who do you think it was, bright guy? One of those rowdy Swedes? A thieving Dane?”
“You’ve got a point there,” I say and move on.
“Mr. Pappas,” Gloria says. “I saw two of my friends having sex last Friday night!! Yak!”
She seems sickened by the whole affair, and I wonder why. After all, Gloria confessed to me a few months earlier that she had started her sex life when she was twelve. Why would she be shocked when her friends do the same?
“How did this happen?” I ask.
“We had a party at Miguel’s house last night. His father’s in jail and his mother’s gone to Mexico for three weeks to see her boyfriend. And, well, we… there was a lot of beer and vodka in the house. And we all drank, and we listened to music, and we danced… You know, it was a nice party… up to a point, I mean…”
“Did you drink, too?” I ask, thanking my lucky stars I don’t have a daughter.
“Yeah, some vodka, but not that much…”
“Why, Gloria? A nice girl like you… Why do you need alcohol?”
“Mr. Pappas, you don’t understand. You’re too old… It was a party… Everybody was drinking. You look and act like a stiff if everybody drinks and you don’t, you know… You’re like, you know, from another joke… They all laugh and are happy, and you are, you know, sober and dumb… But, anyway, about three o’clock in the morning I was kinda tired and I opened the door to one of the bedrooms, and there they were, two of them, having sex, doggy style…”
“What do you expect, Gloria?” I try to cut the conversation short, before Gloria gives me too many details. ”You guys were all drunk…”
“Mr. Pappas, they were both boys!” Gloria says and puckers her face in a disgusted grimace.
I rush to Ramiro’s shop to get an oil change. Ramiro used to be my student a few years back, I forgot how many. Despite his diminutive stature – Ramiro stands barely 5 feet 4 inches – during his high school days he was an excellent soccer player, the captain of the team and one of the best midfielders in the history of the school. He has now turned into a real grease monkey with his own mechanics shop of which he is very proud.
I drive to his shop immediately after school. When I get there he is bent inside a large Ford truck, only his puny behind visible from the door of the garage. On a chair near the entrance sits a large, fat, young Mexican – he can’t be older than twenty – with a large moustache and spiked oily hair that is standing up like as many porcupine needles. Ramiro stands up, wipes his hands on a red rag hanging from his belt, shakes my hand, and shows me where to park the car.
“I need an oil change.” I say.
“No problem. It’ll take just five minutes,” he says cheerfully. He immediately lifts my car on a large jack, pulls out a low rolling platform, lies on his back on it, and slides underneath. He is barely there for a few seconds, when the fat Mexican jumps to his feet as if somebody had slapped his face, and stands addressing Ramiro’s feet.
“Hey, Pulga, vamonos a Santa Roosa!” he sings, as if hit by a sudden idea.
“Cuando?” Ramiro asks from under the car.
“Ahoora, puto!” the fat man says with conviction.
“Nosotros?” asks Ramiro.
“Tu y yo?”
“¿Por qué, Cachetes?
“Así, ¡no máás!”
“De verdad, gordo?”
“A Santa Rosa?”
“A Santa Rosa, pendejo!”
“A Santa Rosa?”
“Pues, siii, a Santa Rosa!”
“Ahora mismo, pendejo.”
I leave the shop one hour later, oil finally changed, shaking my head in wonder, while El Gordo and El Pulga are still egging each other on to go to Santa Rosa.
(“Hey, Flea, let’s go to Santa Rosa.”
“You and me?”
“To Santa Rosa?”
“To Santa Rosa, moron.”
“To Santa Rosa?”
“Yeah, to Santa Rosa!”
“Like, right now?”
“Yeah, like right now, moron!”)
“I didn’t know Patino was married,” I begin again, not knowing what else I could say.
“We were just living together,” she says looking away from me. I think for a moment that I see tears in her eyes. “They told me you were the first guy to get to him while he was layin there,” she jerks her head towards the Broadway parking lot. There is bitterness in her voice, but I know it’s not directed at me.
“Yes. I saw it happen out of my window. I was teaching in the portables next to the parking lot that year.” She looks up at me. She wants to hear more. I’m not sure I want to remember it, but she keeps looking up at me and nodding, encouraging me to go on. “It was about half an hour before school started, and I happened to look out of the window and I saw Patino heading towards class, coming through the parking lot, crossing it. And you know how he was smiling or laughing all the time?” She nods, and tears begin to roll down her face. “Well, I noticed that he wasn’t smiling this time. He stopped and flashed some fingers to someone, I couldn’t see this other person from that angle out of my window. And a few seconds later I saw the truck. A small, red pick-up truck just veered screeching around the parking lot, and came to an abrupt halt in front of Patino. And instead of running, Patino just stood there ready to confront someone, you could tell from his body posture. And then this big, fat, Mexican guy stepped out of the truck, and he was holding a big rifle. He raised the rifle and shot Patino once in the chest, and Patino fell. He fell on his back. I told everything to the cops and I was a witness at the trial…”
“I was in Mexico at that time,” she whimpers. “Did you go to him? I mean when he was down, bleeding?”
“I first called 911. But that only took me a few seconds. The operator was really good about it. Then I ran outside and went over to him. But it was too late.”
“They told me you tried to help him.”
“I did. Did CPR on him. It was too late, the wound was too big. And…”
I stop. There is no need to tell this poor woman what I saw that day. I’ve had lots of nightmares about it through the years. She is better off not knowing what I saw.
When I got to the parking lot there was a huge puddle of blood around Patino. I remember that, as I was bending over Patino, my stupefied mind was thinking that there was no way a human body could hold so much blood. I took a look at him and I knew that he was dead. He had fallen on his back and his shirt was ripped off in front and there was a hole, a large hole in his chest, I could put both fists in it, and blood was still gushing out like water out of a damn hydrant. And I tried to stop it, but… I’d better not even remember it. Got all bloody, my hands and my clothes, and my feet… And the blood thickened on my hands, while I was leaning over him and trying to stop the flow. With my fucking hand I tried to stop the blood. And as I was waiting for the ambulance and then watching the paramedics, my feet got stuck in the thickening blood, and when I tried to move I almost couldn’t step away. The whole damn parking lot was full of my damn, red footsteps. But I wasn’t thinking then. I couldn’t think for days on end, and walked around the school grounds with a furious step, talking to myself. Ben Larsen, who was the principal at that time, took a quick look at me and sent me home for three days. Which I spent walking up and down the house, cussing out God and the world, and getting drunk.
“I’m looking for a wife,” Adrian says seriously, loud enough for the girls to hear him.
It’s four o’clock and the usual suspects, Marina, Elizabeth, Gladiola, Covadonga and Yolanda, joined today by Humberto, are in my room sitting at the round table in the far end, working on their math problems.
When Adrian makes this intriguing announcement, all the girls stand up, and gather giggling around my visitor. They all examine him with amused interest. Adrian is small, roundish, amoeba-faced. His eyes seem the eyes of an owl.
“Oh, really?” Gladiola says. “I might be interested. What’s your profession? Can you take care of me?”
“I’m a businessman, a car dealer,” he says seriously, his eyes fixing her with intensity. “I’ve got plenty of money. I’ll buy you shoes. Five, six pairs. From Macy’s, not that crap from Payless. And dresses, long shiny dresses. And I’ll take you dancing. I’m a very good dancer. But you’d better know the truth about me now,” a chubby finger admonishes all of them, one by one. He takes his cell phone out of his pocket and flips it open. The girls huddle around him and crane their necks to see. Adrian pumps up his chest, feeling immensely proud. A tar-black, red-eyed, horned head, surrounded by smoke flashes on the screen, followed by the word “Satanas” licked by flames and more flames. “With me you’ll have great power, but you’ll also suffer great discrimination. Only a woman with a lot of courage, a special woman, can take the hardships that I, Satanas, will have to suffer.”
“You are Satanas?” Covadonga measures him with her pretty eyes.
“Yes,” Adrian confesses. “I speak eight languages.”
“What languages do you speak?” Elizabeth asks. She is the only girl who is sitting a little way back. At the mention of Adrian’s polyglot abilities, her curiosity is piqued.
“I speak Russian,” Adrian says, after thinking for a while.
“Say something in Russian,” I provoke him. “Kak tebya zavut?”
“I don’t speak Russian every day,” Adrian dismisses me. “Today I don’t speak Russian. But tomorrow I’ll speak Russian again.”
“Your mother’s told me that you don’t want to work in the field anymore,” I say. “Adrian, you must go back to work.”
“Why do you want me to go to work in the fil?” Adrian shrugs, annoyed. “Come outside with me. I’m a car dealer, I’m telling you. Come outside, and I’ll show you my new car. You wanna buy a car? From now on you come to me.”
“O.K., girls, back to work,” I say. “Now you know. If you want to become Señora Satanas, you get in touch with Adrian here.”
“Bye-bye, Adrian,” Elizabeth says.
“Bye-bye, Señor Satanas,” the other girls chirp.
I wait for Adrian to leave and whistle under my breath.
“And my father says I’m a bad kid,” Humberto says.