He was on lunch duty when it happened, jacketless because of the Chinook wind and composing in his head a line or two about the color of the sky reflected in the wet school-yard pavement, the ice-rimmed, quickly vanishing puddles, clouds whipping past upside down . . . sun oil water. If he had a minute before class, he’d jot some notes to remind himself, and tonight or tomorrow, the weekend maybe, craft the lines. Meanwhile, these gusting, transitory moments of pleasure verging on epiphany, ears full of word sounds not quite articulable. He told himself he was lucky: The reward was having such feelings at all, being a man attuned to his surroundings enough to experience the old spine tingle beholding a thing of beauty, not in mining his particular sensitivities for a poem. In the midst of this, something else, too—a push, a seismic shift in the surrounding school-yard energy that put him on the alert, making him momentarily more enthralled by the windblown colors and reflections as he tore his attention from them back to the here and now—and then it was in their voices, too, and he knew, because he’d been in the job long enough to recognize all the signs. There was a fight. He would now be called upon to do something. Act. These were old-enough kids, grades nine and ten, no one would come running for him; no more grade-school, middle-school tattletales (“Fight! Fight! Mr. Franklin—quick!”), those simpler, earlier years of his teaching career long gone, like so many other things. They’d flock around, these kids, oversize strangers, cheering maybe or just silently longing for more, for torture, each one thankful it wasn’t him in there getting pummeled, but no one would stop it.
The boys he identified from a distance—not bad kids, really, but ones with a preying instinct and a reputation. Scollard, Martini, two he didn’t have names for, and the tall, angular one—the instigator, he guessed—Jeremy Malloy. Pink oxford shirt, dark blond hair, jeans seasoned with pocket whiskers and tears at the knees. Franklin hadn’t been here long enough to say for sure, but he knew the type—never alone, always mugging it up for a pack of friends, all of his antics, apparently, to be taken down by some imaginary news crew.
What he neither saw nor identified (and certainly never anticipated), in the less than thirty seconds it took him to lope-stride across the school-yard, gathering himself, finding the words in advance, alternating anger, dread, annoyance, disappointment, and a little excitement at the prospect of exercising his teacherly “authority”: his own flesh and blood, his own son the one held down in the snow crust, underwear pulled to his rib cage, blood flowing from his nose. “Hey there, hey now, HEY, I said that’s enough,” he heard his voice booming while something inside him withdrew and spun out of control, causing the whole scene to fade and tunnel with pinpricks. He was weirdly aware of his teeth clicking together, and then of the sibilance of breath scratching his throat as he drew more air, impossibly warm, dry air, to raise the volume of his voice. “Hey! I said stop that now! That’s enough. You boys! Thomas?”
Worse, as Thomas rose and separated from the bunch, stood back, tugging vainly at the waistband of his underwear with one hand and with the other dabbing at the blood that ran from his nose—“It’s OK, Dad. I’m OK. You can go now. Really. I’m fine . . .”—Franklin knew just why they’d done this. No, worse than that, he sympathized. The kid, his own son, with his remote, demented stare, stiff-legged pirate-boy walk, perennial sniffling, and all the dietary weirdness—he was an embarrassment. A nuisance, and an eyesore. The very stubborn thing, whatever it was lately, that seemed to sit on his soul like a block, it made you want to shake him, shout at him, hug him, do something anyway to see if you could get a response. See if Thomas might be made to realize how his obstinacy and difference and insistence upon never doing anything like other people only provoked everyone around him.
“I said I’m OK, Dad.”
“No! You’re not! And you’ll come with me now. All of you. This way. On the double.” Or else?
For a moment, watching their faces, Malloy’s especially, handsome, no-good, winter white with pink spots under the eyes, he felt the question just under the surface, animating their features. Or what, Franklin? On what authority, old man? We’ll take you down, too. Malloy was a hockey kid—hockey royalty. Team captain? Too young. High scorer? Something special about him, Franklin couldn’t remember. With the hockey came certain entitlements: all those 4:00 a.m. mornings, some poor mom dragging him off to practice. He was allowed to act out. Expected to, almost. For split seconds longer, he felt how barely anything here was actually in his command. One boy sniffed and shoved his fists in his pockets, hard, feeling for something in there maybe, and backed up a step. One tossed and smoothed aside the black hair falling over his black eyes. Only Malloy seemed openly unconcerned.
“It’ll just get worse, boys. You want a two-day suspension or a four-day suspension? Shall I keep going? Six days? How about detention, in-school suspension, and garbage duty the rest of the year? This way, now.”
And then they were marching, past the vanishing puddles that had seemed to him luminous moments ago, windows to another world and full of hidden Sule Skerry poetry (his mind went reflexively back to the words sun oil water, but not much beyond that remained), the snowbanks reflected in their surfaces now menacing as teeth, grim and dead and nothing to look at or think twice about. Just ice and bare, wind-whipped ground. Students mostly tried to pretend they didn’t notice anything going on, but they all did. They saw. They watched. There goes the new teacher, Franklin, saving his son. The dork. They stood back and kept eyes averted. One or two stared, one passed secret hand signals at the boys, and behind him he felt the gathering menace of other hostile gestures. Mockery and rage. Turned once abruptly to catch them at it, but no. Nothing.
Then the exterior double doors and the vestibule going inside, the sequence of things he didn’t adequately anticipate. First the bell signaling the end of the period, so classroom doors everywhere inside banged open and students barged out, already laughing, talking; next, Malloy, seizing the opportunity, throwing back a pair of inner hallway doors, smashing them into red tiled walls and yelling “Bullshit!” under the noise of it as he ducked to the side and started to make a run for it; and last, Franklin, reacting (Overreacting? Later, he couldn’t say), grabbing out, catching the kid by the back of his pink shirt collar and, not anticipating anything like the force of his own rage, flinging him back (so much stiffer, lighter, less resistant than he might have expected; a kid, after all) and around and against the wall, forearm across Malloy’s chest, lifting and holding him there until the boy’s eyes watered and only the wheezing sound of his breath made Franklin realize he’d better stop. Let go. Still he was yelling: “You want to try that again? Wanna piece of me? Any of you others want to make a run for it?” He was not even that mad, that he was aware of anyway, but he was yelling. Something had happened to make him go out of control. What?
Only after he’d released Malloy and gotten the other boys marching again on a course straight through the crowded hallway for the principal’s office, only then did he realize the one who’d given him the slip: his own son, Thomas, gone.
On the bus ride home, it started again—the bleeding. Devon, his brother, would understand why it pleased Thomas enough almost to make him laugh out loud, except that the garish bubbling of half-thickened blood in his nostrils stopped him. He didn’t want it getting any messier than necessary. Didn’t want extra attention. Amendment: Devon would understand, but he would not approve. He’d know that bleeding made you impervious and repellent. No one gave you shit if you were bleeding. No one gave a shit about you. They gaped and made faces, but they left you alone. More importantly, bleeding proved the experiment might be working. The chewing gum had been a setback (Who knew? Actual vitamin C in Juicy Fruit), but he was on track again and soon to be unassailable.
He tilted back his head and pinched the nostrils lightly. Felt blood pooling at the back of his throat, swallowed; felt it seeping along his cheeks and lips, and gazed at the tranquil, seldom-observed ceiling of the bus—domed and riveted and blue-green—fixing his attention inward, on his movie. OK. Frame one, opening shot—Erebus and Terror at sea. . . . Interesting how the voices of other kids faded, became tinny and inconsequential as soon as he had a picture in mind. Who cared about them? He blinked his eyes shut, sniffed again, and exhaled steadily through his nostrils to keep the blood going. Drew up one knee and propped it against the seat back in front of him.
From the start, then. Frame one:
Opening shot: exterior: the Erebus and the Terror on a sea more or less the same blue-green as that bus ceiling. No icebergs yet, no sign of land. Low-flying mist, and as the ships come closer, you see men on board, wearing black and wrapped in wool. Cue distant dance music—accordions, mandolin, and piano; mournful, ballad-inflected, but melodic and mostly happy. This is a good day, despite the ominous backdrop—a joyous day. Roll-across subtitle: Day 107 of the Franklin Expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage. Stores just replenished in Greenland and closing in on Lancaster Sound. The true start of the adventure . . . or . . . the beginning of the end? Period rigging and period ships. Mid-1800s, waddling, flat-bellied bombers refitted for the Arctic, both ships loaded practically to the waterline with coal and provisions. Seagulls—no, strike the seagulls. Two-shot: leaning at the railing of ship number one (Terror), a pair of men with pipes, talking, gesturing. Establishment shot of the ship, and panning around it to ship two (Erebus) with more sounds. Cut to fight scene on board Erebus: sounds of flesh hitting flesh—good amped-up Hollywood fight sounds, wet crackle of breaking tissue, cracking ribs, wheezy, punched-out breaths. POW. THWACK. WHUMP. Close-up of a sailor’s bloodied face. Able-bodied Seaman Thomas Work—one of the main characters and among the few men who will make it as far as Starvation Cove with Crozier. Shoulder shot of other sailor’s face, both men circling—Pvt. William Braine (dead of mysterious causes in less than a year but now very much alive). Both men are bearded and stripped to the waist, backs steaming in the cold, and ringed around by cheering sailors. Work’s been goaded into this fight by insults, but because of a religious upbringing (maybe his inferior rank, as well) limits his responses to self-defense. He won’t strike until he has to. All of this you know from his stance: wary, apologetic, fists raised. Braine moves in suddenly for the headlock. Clamps a sweating arm around Work’s head and squeezes, pops him a few good ones until Work breaks away again. They separate and circle. Camera dollies back to show the men from a distance, the whole ship deck seen from above again, against a wind-ruffled blue-green backdrop of vast emptiness—a kingdom of emptiness. From here, it appears almost like they’re dancing crabs, circling each other and swinging fists, music from ship number one mixing together with the action and the cheering, so, from this perspective, it all has the appearance of fun—brutal, sailor merriment. . . .
Someone had entered Thomas’s field of vision and was waving a white handkerchief or wad of Kleenexes at him.
“Dude!” It was the dreadlocked bus driver. Koda? Cody? Dakota? Couldn’t be more than four or five years older than the oldest kids on the bus. Always singing and bouncing his head to the music on his earbuds as he hauled around the enormous wheel of the school bus with one hand and banged in and out of gears with the other; always making cryptic, blessinglike remarks at the backs of their heads as they exited down the steps. “Someone got you pretty good there, hey buddy?”
He remembered: the bloody nose, Martini, Malloy, and the other hockey goons. There he’d been, eating his peanut butter sandwich alone, trying to keep the hair from blowing into his mouth and enjoying the unexpected heat on his skin, not bothering anyone, when suddenly the sandwich went flying out of his hand, across the vanishing ice—bland, stabbing circle of pain in the back of his hand where he was hit, so he knew it was not the wind that had snatched his lunch away and caused it to become airborne. And then the rest of it—being propelled suddenly upward and dropped on the ice and assaulted from all sides, and last, the sudden back-severing pain in his ass crack and the sound of ripping cloth and laughter as they tried to draw the elastic of his underwear over his head. His own words as he went down, jumbled and high-pitched, more petulant than fierce and therefore embarrassing to recollect—something about infantile homosadistic jock rituals—whatever he’d said, he was pretty sure it would have been mostly unintelligible.
“A little school-yard fisticuffs?”
He faked a smile. “Aftershocks of a random beating, more like. Hours ago now.”
“Here you go.” And before Thomas could stop it, the white cloth was being held to his mouth and nose, smelling vaguely of pot, sweat, licorice, and garlic. The outer fringe of it bumped his eyelashes as he blinked and tried to push Cody/Dakota—whatever his name was—back, but it was no use.
“Yeah. Apply some pressure there, bud; you gotta apply pressure. Now, this is a trick my old lady taught me. Lean forward a little.” Thomas seemed to have no real choice here, either. He was tilted out of his seat. Felt fingers prying open the back of his coat collar, shirt collar, deftly peeling one from the other, and then an icy shaft of wet streaked down his back.
“What the hell!” he said. Jerked free. “What are you doing, man?”
“Supposed to use cold keys or coins, drop ’em down the back of your shirt like that.” The driver laughed peculiarly, a sibilant see-see-shoo-shoo sound, like he was some kind of hissing hippy leprechaun, cheeks pinkening under his thin beard. “But I don’t got any spares. That was just some ice. Relax man. It’s just ice. Water.”
“Hell!” Thomas mopped the back of his neck, jerked out the tail of his shirt, and stood, so that whatever had gone down there would fall out. Held the white rag for Cody/Dakota to take back but did not meet eyes with him. “I’m OK now. Thanks. Really.”
“Lookie there. Dang if that nose didn’t quit bleeding. See?”
Thomas ran a finger under his nose. Nothing. A little pinkish mucus. Sniffed once hard to restart it and swallowed the last brackish bit of spit and blood at the back of his throat and sat again.
“My old lady never did tell a lie.”
“I’m like a friggin’ shaman.” The driver ambled back to the front of the bus, bobbing his head, slapping the backs of seats as he went, one hand raised a moment to give a backward wave. “You can just thank me whenever you feel like it.”
“I said thanks.”
Reseated, Cody/Dakota studied Thomas in his extended-field rearview mirror a moment, nodding his head, grinning. Then he gave Thomas the thumbs-up and held it too long, way too long, staring and still grinning.
“You’re all right, kid.”
“I am not.”
More kids tromped on board, and more, no one he knew or cared about. Soon it was a humid racket of kids’ voices reflected off the windows and metal ceiling—a continual bombardment as claustrophobic as the hold of his imaginary frozen ship. At last came the motorized wrenching sound of bus diesel starting up, squeal of the door closing, and off they went, bumping out of the snow-scarred lot. Thomas kept his head tilted back and practiced knowing where he was without looking out a window. Like the ice masters on board the Erebus and Terror maneuvering into Peel Sound and interpreting the forms of ice as they went—pancake, sludge ice, bergy bits, dread screwed pack—each distinguishable from the other by its distinct sonic characteristics as it struck the ships’ hulls, he tried to maintain his bearings based on the shifting sheen of light reflected in the ceiling, and all corresponding sounds. The stop at the end of the parking lot beside the school sign and the sound of the turn signal; the surrounding barren, wheat-stubbled, snowy fields, acre upon acre, grain silos and rolled hay bales under tarpaulin, and the freaky caved-in top hat–looking glacial, erratic, bigger than a house; the oil derricks, one close, two farther out, enormous praying mantises, bobbing flat-headed alien life-forms eternally rolling their arms around and sucking the earth of fuel; the Lazy U Ranch; the turn, the dull highway haul of absolutely nothing, more oil derricks, cottonwoods, mud, and sand hiss-slapping in the wheel wells, wind beating the windows, and then the first signs of Houndstitch—clusterings of raised ranchers and just-built brick and glass and shotcrete condo warrens for the new oil people, all with street names meant to evoke nature or native lore despite the surrounding tundralike desolation: Winding Creek estates across from the Blockbuster and Tim Hortons—Roaring Brook, Deer Trail, Eagle Feather Way, Rattler Drive, Harbour Crescent—none of it even here until about a year ago. All of it paid for by oil. In the western distance, always, the Rockies disrupting the horizon like a wall of frozen white waves.
Aside from this, and the story that wouldn’t come back yet, two things had his focus now. One was what he’d eat tonight and what he’d have to refuse. No to corn; no on his dad’s favorite iceberg salad with vinaigrette and chickpeas and hacked-up bits of carrot and ham and slimy silver-tinged tomatoes; no to juice or fresh fruit or berry Tofutti dessert. With this was a memory he could almost stop before it was too late: the pleasure of ripping into a package of fruit leather for his after-school snack (every day of his life, practically, until this year)—how the packaging would peel away and then you’d roll the flattened, sticky, tonguelike fruit thing in your fingertips, apple, cherry orchard, grape-a-licious, mango madness, and bite into it. The sweet, acid-sour, C-saturated taste of it nailing him in the back of the mouth and gumming up his teeth, so good, and then doing it again. Have as many as you like, his mother always said. They’re good for you. Of course he craved it; his whole body wanted vitamin C like nothing he’d ever wished for before, except maybe sex. All the more reason to resist and stick with facts. Foods safe for consumption: bread, crackers, peanut butter, tahini, rice, nuts, canned fish, potatoes, well-done meat. If all else failed, somewhere in the middle of dinner slip into the bathroom, drink water until he vomited; take two aspirin from the gargantuan bottle in the cabinet and an antacid to be double sure.
The other thing was the letter from his mother almost certainly waiting at home. It’d been a few weeks since her last, so one would be due soon. He didn’t think of it like that, exactly. He got as far as picturing himself unlocking the mailbox under the tree, the hollow tocking sound of the lock opening, and the dread-worry sensations closing around him as he reached in, and then standing there feeling like the ground had opened under his feet. Again her handwriting on the envelope. Another fat letter full of nothing—place names and animals and facts about life up there in the territories and the latest high and low temperatures, names of people she’d met. My mother’s in the Arctic, talking to schoolteachers about their problems and observing the effects of global warming on little towns you’ve never heard of and never will and would never care about even if you knew their names or could say them. Ulukhaktok. Tuktoyaktuk. Because that’s what she does and that’s what she cares about. More than anything else.
“Spaceman,” the bus driver was saying. “HEY, spaceman back there with the bloody nose.”
Thomas sat forward. Looked around. Light everywhere. “What?” He’d been a little off in his calculations. They were not, as he’d thought, approaching the crazy house of quilted-together RVs and trailers with the piles of split wood and innumerable junked cars just past Winding Creek (aka Oil Sands) Estates. “You talking to me?”
“You got a name?”
Head bobbing, grinning, hissing laughter. “I didn’t think so.”
“OK then, Thomas. I got some advice for you.”
“What’s that.” For a moment, he thought this might really be it, might be just the news he needed today—weird warm Chinook wind day. Why not? The guy could stop a nosebleed. Maybe he had other powers.
“Come on up here, so I don’t have to shout it.”
He studied the driver’s shivering image in the rearview mirror. Watched his nose seem to elongate and shrink again (a warp or divot in the glass?) as he shoulder-checked and shifted and returned his gaze to Thomas: Native eyes and eyebrows, everything else about him Slavic or some other brand of northern European. Viking?
“Come on. Right here in the seat there behind me.”
“You gotta lay off the blow. That’s my advice, man. It’s a killer. Only thing worse?”
Thomas zoned out the rest. He didn’t know why it should surprise him anymore: another so-called grown-up parading around advice that was really just a projection of his own messed-up personal life, personal traumas and experiences. Why were they all like that? Was anyone not like that? Give the guy two more seconds, he’d probably start talking about sex with underage girls . . . or boys—it was probably the whole reason he’d reached out in the first place.
“Is that a fact?”
“It’s my walking-talking paranormal nightmare-testimonial, bro. You lay off the stuff or it’ll kill you.”
“Sure, but I’m not your bro. OK?”
The bus driver kept nodding but didn’t look back at Thomas. “You just lay off it, whatever your thing is. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Whatever. If it makes you happy.”
And again as he exited the bus, the words seemingly aimed to pierce the back of Thomas’s skull: “I don’t care who you are or what you know or how much money you got. It’s gonna kill you dead.”
Gregory Spatz’s most recent novel is Inukshuk (Bellevue Literary Press). His other books include the short story collections Half as Happy (forthcoming) and Wonderful Tricks, and the novels Fiddler’s Dream and No One But Us. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and New England Review. He is the recipient of a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship; a Washington State Book Award; and the 2011 Spokane Arts Commission Individual Artist of the Year Award. He teaches in the MFA program at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University. When he’s not writing or teaching, Spatz plays fiddle and tours with Mighty Squirrel and the internationally acclaimed bluegrass band John Reischman & The Jaybirds.
Photo credit: Brett Hall Jones
From Inukshuk, by Gregory Spatz 2012. Reprinted by permission from Bellevue Literary Press.