Mar 31, 2008

Story: The Librarian's Companion

“What do you mean, Montezuma-Cortez? Find two bitterer enemies in all of human history. It’s like Churchill-Hitler High School.” Selena regretted speaking immediately.

Dr. Whistler looked at her with complete disbelief. “Look, Ms. Locke, Cortez is the name of the city, and Montezuma is the name of the county.” He emphasized the Ms., drawing it out like an ethnic slur. “There’s a lot of kids from around the county that come here, and besides, it makes for unique initials. School’s gonna start tomorrow, and you best just keep those little tidbits to yourself, understand?” He harrumphed importantly. Selena had expected that with her ridiculous over-qualification for this position would have given her a little leeway, but no.

“My mistake.” She doubted that he knew who Montezuma and Cortez were.

The school was tiled with old vinyl squares, scratched clean of all color in places from generations of kids pushing chairs to and from the auditorium/basketball court. Everything was worn and frayed, but solid—most of the walls were cinderblock and concrete. Here and there they had tacked on another classroom or three, but down one hall she saw men behind plastic sheeting who were, according to Dr. Whistler, pulling out some asbestos from the floor. Later she would find out that his degree was in physical education.

Selena had been repeatedly telling herself that it wasn’t going to be like the magnet school in Portland, but she learned there is a difference between knowing a fact and actually believing it. The male students were alternately misogynistic, making wildly suggestive comments about her and trying to look down her shirt, then virulently homophobic toward their classmates. She ended up giving out twenty-three detentions the first day. The second day she came within a hair’s breadth of losing an eye trying to break up a fight between two girls. The third day she discovered someone had cleaned out her desk—not just stolen the pens, but everything that wasn’t nailed down, including the drawers. After the fourth day she gave up trying to make them stop using “gay” as a synonym for annoying—mentioning it just made them do it more. By the fifth day she was thinking about smoking.

She made a friend in Ms. Young, one of the history teachers. She was married, a bit older than Selena, with two young kids. She’d been teaching for fifteen years and was also a militant feminist, in the best sense of the term, which delighted Selena.

“Don’t,” she’d said when Selena brought up Mr. Whistler, “judge the whole school by the administrators. These public schools out here are rotten, and shitty administrators are passed around like a bad cold. Couple years back there was a vice-principal who resigned in disgrace after groping a student. Two weeks later he had a job down in Gallup. A lot of the teachers are no good either. But there are a few gems. And don’t,” she added, “forget that there are some smart bastards around even out here.”

When Selena asked how the “gems” managed their teaching, Ms. Young broke it down. “First thing you’ve gotta do is give up on about half the kids straight off. You’ll know which ones. Most of the rest will scrape by and you don’t have to worry about them either. Second, you’ve got to isolate the smart ones, the ones that still like to learn and haven’t lost hope yet. Talk to ‘em after class, get ‘em reading, loan ‘em your own books, tutor ‘em after school, whatever it takes. You might get three or four of those a year. Some of the smart ones won’t need your help—you’ll know those too. Good parents, personal drive, something’s got ‘em on the right track. That leaves the smart ones that are trying to bomb—born into stupid and brutal families and so on. Some of those will get by you, no sense in blaming yourself about that. But if you work it subtly, don’t aggravate the parents by making it seem like you’re pushing that ‘devil learnin’ on ‘em, you might just help. And don’t get discouraged. You’re panning for gold in the dregs of humanity down here. Low expectations are the key to survival.”

“Who’s the best teacher here?” asked Selena.

“Mr. Martens,” said Ms. Young quickly. “Don’t try and learn from him. He’s got his own style. In fact, you better just leave him alone.”

The first time Selena saw Bill Martens was in the break room at lunch a couple weeks into the year. He carried himself warily, gracefully—especially for such a thickly built man. A great pink scar emerged from under his rolled-up left sleeve and made it most of the way to his hand. He actually looked like a powerlifter, now that she thought about it—his arms and neck thick and heavy with muscle. He would make a good pot roast, thought Selena. She regarded very muscular men as somewhat grotesque, but this one wasn’t bad looking, in a granite statue sort of way.

The top of his head was totally bald, ringed by a wispy silver growth. He carried in his lunch in an ancient blue mini-cooler, out of which he extracted a submarine sandwich. After it was done, he made to leave without saying a word, but Selena stood in the way.

“Hi,” she said, and stuck out her hand. “I’m Selena Locke. I just moved down here from Portland.”

“I know.” He shook her hand roughly and made to leave again. His hand felt rough, almost like wood instead of skin.

“And you are?”

“Martens.” He looked like he was about to forcibly remove her from the doorway, but Selena held her ground.

“What do you teach?” she asked.

“Chemistry.”

“Interesting! I’m teaching physics and algebra II. I always wanted to take more chemistry classes in college.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you can do physics, then why bother with chemistry?”

Selena was stumped by this one. “Well, it’s useful,” she said after a moment.

“But it’s bullshit.”

“Don’t you like chemistry?”

“No.”

“Then why teach it?”

“Will you get out of my way?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Selena flushed scarlet.

He opened the door violently, muttering under his breath, and slammed it behind him. Ms. Young came in the break room a moment later.

“I met that Martens guy.”

“Ah, you met Bill, eh? The kids call him Doc, like the shoes.” Ms. Young sounded amused.

Selena had expected more sympathy than that. “What a ridiculous name for such a hard man.” She spat the last two words out, putting as much venom in them as she could manage.

“Listen, Selena, don’t take him too seriously. You just leave him alone, he won’t bother you in the slightest.”

“Don’t worry.”

Later she realized that “Doc” had not looked her in the eyes once during their conversation.

The next time Selena saw Bill Martens was a week later when she was hitting up the john during her planning period. Her classroom was just down the hall from his, and yet she had not seen him once since the first time in the break room. The bathroom was right across from his classroom, and he didn’t seem to use the break room often, but she heard from one of the math teachers that he rode a bike to school.

After the anger at him died down, Selena had felt curiosity creep back up. She snuck a peek through the window next to the door to his classroom.

He was holding a black rubber toilet plunger while he lectured, first just leaning on it, but in the space of three minutes, he used it alternately as a pointer, baseball bat, rapier, and rifle. He seemed to be a disciple of the old art of Charlie Chaplin. As she watched, he goose-stepped across the room giving the fascist salute, marched into the wall, and collapsed fluidly to the ground to wild laughter. She couldn’t make out any words, but it was clear then that he was whipping them into a frenzy tent-revival preacher style, using call-and-response to teach…well, something. She might have guessed.

After school she screwed up her courage and went to his door try and make friends again. He just leaving and facing the other way, turning out the light as she approached. When he saw her, he dropped his lunchbox and his hand jumped to his side with whip-crack speed. He crouched down slightly, like a coiling snake.

Selena was stunned at his quickness. He caught himself then, standing up again and clipping something back on his belt. Selena steeled herself for a volcanic blast of rage. She considered making a break for it, but thought she wouldn’t make it to the end of the hall.

“Please don’t sneak up on me,” he said, his voice trembling. His eyes shone in the dim hallway. His rumbling voice lilted slightly, as though he had picked up a Chinese accent.

“I’m so sorry,” said Selena, touched but confused out of her wits. She groped for something to say that wouldn’t sound trite. “Is there anything I can do?” She failed.

She fished in her pocket and came up with a half-melted Three Musketeers she had confiscated from one of her students. She offered it to him, hardly believing herself. “Candy bar?”

He looked at her eyes for the first time then, and at the candy, and suddenly burst out laughing, great bellowing guffaws that were nearly as frightening as his near-assault. Selena joined in out of nervousness, but soon let herself go and laughed along full force.

“God-damn,” he said, still chuckling. “I must have scared the shit out of you!” He sounded like a different person, fresh and friendly, but as his laughter died, it was as if someone had strapped a backpack full of lead ingots on his back. His shoulders slumped, his eyes dropped, and he stooped to scoop the debris from his lunchbox back from whence it came.

“Let me help you with that,” said Selena, but it was already done.

“I’d better get going,” he said. “Sorry about being jumpy. See you.” He began walking off, giving her a wide berth.

“Wait, at least let me give you a ride home,” she said. “It’s the least I can do.”

“I’ve got my bike,” he said, walking quickly and looking straight ahead.

“I’ve got a truck, it’ll fit.”

“No thanks, I could use the exercise.” He was almost running now.

She let him go.

A couple weeks later Selena discovered the town of Dolores. Snuggled up against the Dolores River north of Cortez, it was hipper, whiter, and liberaler than its larger neighbor. Selena mentioned the place to Ms. Young, who said she met some other teachers at the local brew pub on Mondays and invited her along.

Upon arrival she recognized Bill Martens’ gravelly voice with its strange hint of Asian up-and-down flavor to it; he seemed to be telling a story. She walked past their table and nodded, trying not to interrupt, but Bill froze mid-gesticulation and stopped. Ms. Young looked at him with annoyance while Mr. Smith genially pulled out a heavy wooden chair, gesturing for Selena to sit down.

Selena hesitated a moment, then took the chair. “I didn’t mean to interrupt,” she said.

“Of course you didn’t,” said Ms. Young. “How are you?”

“Doing well,” said Selena. “I’m glad this town exists. I don’t know if I could make it otherwise.”

Mr. Smith laughed. “Hear, hear. Bill was just telling us a story about how he met Jack Nicholson in Telluride the other day.”

“Wait, is that close?” Selena had heard of the ski resort but didn’t know where it was.

Mr. Smith laughed again. “It’s right up the street.” He pointed to the main drag fifty yards away outside. “About seventy miles north on that road there.”

“So,” prompted Selena. “How did you meet Jack Nicholson?”

Bill stared at the table. “I ran into him on the mountain hiking up there.”

Ms. Young punched him in the arm, hard. She shook her hand out, grimacing in pain. “He ran into you, more like.”

“Yeah.”

Ms. Young gritted her teeth. “Goddammit.” She looked at Selena. “Bill was almost taken out by Jack Nicholson when he fell hiking downhill. But Bill managed to catch him before he fell to certain death.”

“He wouldn’t have died,” said Bill. “That cliff was only about ten feet. Fifteen tops. Anyone coulda done it.”

Ms. Young rolled her eyes.

Bill started to get up, looking desperately at the door, but Selena grasped his wrist. “Hang on,” she said. He looked her in the eyes for the second time, frozen again. “I was just stopping by to drop something off for the bartender,” she lied. “I’ll be going now.” He sat down heavily, gazing at the wrist she had touched.

Selena scampered to the bar and short of anything to do, ordered a pint of their best homebrew and told the bartender to give it to Bill. She gave a casual salute as she left, which Bill returned quickly, automatically.

She climbed into her truck, an older Toyota four-wheel-drive purchased especially for the area, returned to her house on Beech and Arbecam and made some tea. She drank it slowly, ruminating on Bill Martens. She knew his type—the shy, self-deprecating one—the woman generally had to make the first move. They’d seize on any possible excuse to convince themselves that you actually weren’t interested.

She cracked open Mary Boas’ Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences. Opening to a random section—one on Fourier series and transforms—she turned to the problems and did one after the other with machinelike precision and speed, feeling the tension lift from her shoulder blades.

Selena found out where Martens lived by looking him up in the faculty directory. She felt somewhat creepy about doing it, but she decided to take a bike ride out by his place, just to see what it looked like. It was about fifteen miles from her house up Road 26, left onto the dirt of Road N, across Highway 666, past Road 22, past Road 21, left on Road 20, second driveway on the right. The driveway itself was of indeterminate length, overgrown and heavily rutted. It vanished into some trees about a quarter-mile away. She saw no mailbox on the street. It was starting to get cold as the sun sank behind an ominous cloud bank to the west.

Martens rode up beside her on his bicycle. “You’d better come inside,” he said. “It’s set to rain like a sonofabitch.”

Selena felt terribly awkward, but her curiosity was a living thing, pulsing inside her breast. The thought of riding back all those miles in the pouring rain helped as well. She had yet to get used to the instantaneous torrential downpours characteristic of the desert. “Are you sure that’s okay?” she asked.

He nodded and led the way.

The driveway was terribly rough. It obviously hadn’t been maintained, though she could see bike tracks. The house was gray, unfinished stucco base coat, set into the side of a small hill. The front porch was tiny, but covered on top and on three sides, so she left her bike there. Bill opened the door for her and locked the deadbolt behind him. “Latch doesn’t work very well on the door,” he explained. “It’s going to be a bad one, just you wait. The road might wash out.” His hand shook on the doorknob. “You can probably tell I don’t entertain much.”

“Jesus, I guess not,” said Selena. “Do you mind if I have a look around?” He nodded.

The house was much larger than she would have suspected from the outside. A substantial portion of the hill had been carved out, which made for grand high ceilings. The floor was cold tile and concrete; Selena could see the impression of leaves in strategic places. There was a functional bedroom on the left, with a personal bathroom, and to the right there was a smaller room full of bookshelves. Straight ahead was an enormous room; she estimated it took up a solid third of the house. To the closest corner to the left was a fully equipped chef’s kitchen, complete with marble countertops. It that looked somewhat used, but the rest of the space was taken up with the same rickety bookshelves. To the right there was a dark hallway framed by a wall and a bookshelf. This bookshelf had two layers—the bottom looked original, painstakingly handcrafted, about three feet high, topped with a huge single piece of fir that must have been beautiful once. On top of that, blocking the view into the large room, another fragile-looking bookshelf had been stacked, packed to the gills with—? Selena took down a volume at random. Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy.

She saw a picture on the wall across from the bookshelf, and flipped the nearest light switch. A dusty light, suspended overhead by brushed aluminum chains, cast a pleasing glow down onto the hallway and the picture. It was of ten men in jungle camouflage, smeared with war paint, clustered around a central figure. Some grinned, some looked away, some looked bored. Many smoked. She recognized Bill Martens in the center. He had already lost much of his hair, but what was left was black. He did not smile. He looked absolutely fearsome, thought Selena. He held a huge machine gun as though it were a part of him, strapped with bandoliers of ammunition, and looked to the side as though he were even during this calm moment searching for enemies.

At that moment the rain and the wind came, hammering down with unsettling force. Selena looked at the end of the hallway and found more rooms stuffed with books, as well as a bathroom that had the same treatment, complete with a bookshelf in the tub. The place would fit a family nicely with a little touching up.

Bill called from the kitchen. “You want some tea?”

“Sure.” Selena returned to the kitchen. Through the rows of bookshelves she could see huge windows, taking up most of the wall facing south. She ticked off the seconds after a flash of lightning and got to four before the sharp thunder. The rain was coming down in sheets, lashing the windows violently. The house, however, didn’t so much as creak. She sat down at the table, a huge, polished piece of gray marble.

“So, how long have you lived here?” Selena asked.

Bill sat down across the table from her with an obvious effort, and slid a heavy cup across the table to her. “Thirty-eight years.”

“Did you build it yourself?” she asked. This seemed to be common in these parts. She sipped the tea, and was surprised by the quality.

“Yes,” he said. “How did you know?”

“It was an inspired guess.”

He pulled from his shirt pocket a small bottle. He uncapped it, poured the cap full, and drained it down.

“What’s that?” she asked. He hesitated, and she added, “You don’t have to answer.”

“Laudanum,” he said. “Tincture of opium. My own blend, containing not less than 15 milligrams of morphine per milliliter.”

Behind her eyes ten thousand images and ideas clicked heavily into place, known personally or half-remembered, and coalesced behind three words: addiction, intervention, and rehab.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Bill. “I don’t need any help.”

Another word joined the first three: denial.

“I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I’m in fine shape.”

Selena found that hard to believe. The rain was coming down harder and harder, roaring, making it hard to hear anything.

“You ever smoke?” asked Bill.

“Yeah. I quit.”

“Why?”

“Lung cancer, emphysema, and Phillip Morris.”

“Morphine’s harmless, except for the addiction. Only side effect is constipation, if you have clean material. I grow my own.” He showed her a Tupperware full of opium poppies, and demonstrated how to collect the latex by scoring the bulbs with a dull razor. “Sixteen percent morphine, that.”

“Do the police know about this?”

“My cousin is a detective. We agreed that, so long as I didn’t sell to anyone and didn’t get caught by the feds, they’d leave me alone. That was thirty-two years ago. He comes by every now and again to make sure I’m not cutting it up for street sale.”

“You’re lucky.” Live and let live, she always said. He seemed to be doing all right. Sort of.

“Yeah.”

“No side effects? Are you sure?” That part was too much to swallow in one go.

“No, that’s pretty much it. Objectively much less harmful than alcohol or cocaine. Well, decreased libido as well. Though as you can see,” he said, waving his arm around, “that’s not exactly a deal breaker around here.”

“Are you sure about that?” asked Selena, arching one eyebrow. He flushed a violent shade of purple, and Selena wished she had kept that one to herself, but he did not get up. She looked around sheepishly, and noticed a paper with familiar arcane scribbling. She turned it to face her, and saw a moderately difficult partial differential equation. Immediately her attention was completely sucked away. He had gotten stuck, it seemed. “Is this yours?” she asked, already seeing where he had made his mistake.

“It is. Some years ago I started doing math again and this is how far I’ve made it.” He seemed somewhat ashamed.

“You’re 99% there. You fouled up this integral here, just a hair.” She showed him, and solved it fluidly.

“Jesus Christ!” he said, openmouthed. He drawled like a southerner. “They don’t make ‘em like you down in Cor-tez.”

She shrugged. “Hey, don’t be down on yourself. Self-taught, hardly anyone would make it that far, especially at your age. This is the only thing I’m good at.”

He smiled.

The evening sun emerged under the storm, flooding the kitchen with golden light. “I think I might be able to head home soon.” The rain was tapering off as well.

“Come on outside before you go.”

The back porch was an enormous concrete slab, enough for a wedding reception, that overlooked the canyon behind the house and faced south and west. It was unfinished, with rebar sticking up like punjis. Bill had left an old armchair under the eaves, and balanced a piece of plywood as a table on top some convenient rebar. The sun, its light filtered through a haze from three coal-fired power plants, outlined the underside of the storm cloud in a stark red glow, and slashed across the eroded, folded drapery face of the Mesa Verde to the southwest, giving alternating stripes of red-gold and dark green. The Sleeping Ute was close in to the south, imposing and massive, individual trees on the west slope of its folded arms lit like massive forest fire. “Wow,” she said. They watched the sun go down in silence.

“This country ain’t meant for this many people to live here,” said Bill. “One day we’ll be manning the barricades against starving Phoenicians coming up here trying to take over.” His voice was different again, rolling kind of like Garrison Keillor, thought Selena. She wondered if she had ever heard his natural voice, or if he even had one. He paused for a moment. “Not enough water. It’s thirsty business down in the desert. Just you wait.”

He shook his head abruptly, as though he had forgotten she was there. “Here, let me get you a better coat. It’s going to be muddy as Jesus out there. If the road’s washed out and you can’t get around, you can come back. I can set you up with a place to sleep.”

“Is that so,” she said slyly, before she could catch herself.

He didn’t flush quite so badly this time. “Not what I meant.” He fished in his closet and came out with an old oilcloth riding coat. “This should work for your bike. It’s got straps to hold it to your legs.”

Surprisingly, it fit perfectly. Selena measured the coat against his broad frame. “This can’t be yours.”

“No,” he said. “It was my wife’s,” he added after few seconds.

“Whoa,” she said. “I see.” The pieces were falling together.

“I doubt it,” he said. “I killed her.”

Selena could think of nothing to say. Fear rose in her gut, black and nauseating.

He rolled up his left sleeve, showing the massive scar. “She came after me with a kitchen knife. Got me in the leg too. There was a struggle.” He hiccupped. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I haven’t told anyone in thirty-six years.”

“The drugs?” she ventured.

“I’m always on drugs. Every time we’ve met. You’d better go. Be dark soon.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she said slowly. “And thanks for the coat. I’ll give it back tomorrow.”

“Keep it,” he said, and watched her bounce down the driveway. He sat down on the porch in the gathering dusk, kneading his kneecaps.

She was back a half-hour later, and he was still there on the porch. “You were right. Road’s washed out,” she said. “Can I stay at your place?” He didn’t look away.

“I have pretty bad nightmares sometimes,” he said, and looked stunned at what he had said.

She stood very close to him now. “What you need are some better memories,” she said. “And a dust mop. I bet I can help you sleep.” She kissed him, and felt his body slacken against hers.

She was right.



Copyright 2009, all rights reserved. No part of this writing can be reproduced, rewritten, broadcast, or published without the written consent of the author.

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