Rescue 911 No MSG
Will watched Savannah disappear into the school and cursed his defective gaydar. They’d connected his first months on the job, so he’d thought, talked breadmakers and espresso machines. Had he offended her by suggesting dinner? Here was something new to worry about.
Any time now the home ec department would be yucking it up while Savannah recounted his idiocy. “Then he asked me if I liked Chinese. I thought, oh no, is he asking me out? And he thinks there’s decent Kung Pao in Lento? He is hopeless.” The ladies would cackle and slap their doughy thighs. But no sounds of merriment drifted through Will’s trailer window. Maybe Savannah had spared him and kept the embarrassing tale to herself.
Big deal, he’d asked a lesbian for a date. Not the first time he’d made a fool of himself. But he hadn’t been out with a woman in months – not a movie, not a latte at Panera. Now Will feared he’d made a huge mistake moving to Florida, desperate to flee the scene of his latest romantic humiliation. Back in Philly, every public square and movie marquee swelled with memories. He could hear the street vendors mocking him. “Pretzels, water ice, Will Palmacio traded for actuary with eczema.” The plan had been to propose to Kira on St. Patrick’s Day, with a honeymoon trip to her ancestral county Killarney. But she’d preempted him with her own announcement that their three-year romance was history. At least Will hadn’t bought the ring yet.
When the last bell of the day signaled freedom for Turner High’s inmates, Will tossed a stack of exams in his briefcase before exiting the trailer that served as his classroom. The scent of cannabis wafted in from the ballfields, and Joe Grayson, who taught advanced calculus from the portable next door, poked his head out the window. “Smells like a Def Leppard concert.”
“Can’t the campus cops shut this party down?” asked Will.
“They’re too busy fending off Columbine II,” said Joe. The day before a sophomore had brandished a gun-shaped cigarette lighter in the hallway, and a hit list was found in her backpack. The staff was still on edge.
“You coming tonight?” asked Will.
“Do I have a choice?” Joe slid his window shut. You had to be coughing up internal organs to skip Back To School night, everyone understood.
With its pink stucco archways and courtyard studded with allamandas, the school still seemed vacationy to Will, nothing like the brick fortress surrounded by chain link where he and Kira had taught history to the urchins of West Philly. He made his way past the administration building, the site of his interview just months before, where Turner’s principal had offered him a job on the spot. For the first time in his compulsively ordered life, he didn’t spend days agonizing over the decision, pressing everyone he knew for an opinion. Instead he’d calmly packed two suitcases, one with clothing, one with cookbooks, and moved a thousand miles to a place where he knew no one, convincing himself he’d embarked on some exotic adventure.
What an armpit the town of Lento turned out to be, the main street lined with pawn shops, fast food joints and fortune tellers. The occasional palm sprouting from concrete couldn’t save the town from its terminal tackiness. If Kira were here, they’d laugh at the phony lakes fronting every apartment complex, the McMansions tucked between trailer parks. Will figured his new home must have some charms, maybe even some colorful history. But he’d need to dig for them, and that wasn’t a solo endeavor.
He slid his long pale body behind the wheel of the little sedan and headed for Publix. Garlic knots were the menu for back to school night, and the grocery carried the Pecorino Romano Will needed. At a red light, he watched a senior maneuver a motorized scooter across four lanes of traffic, recognizing the treasurer of the local Democratic Club, which he’d joined for the social possibilities. “Young blood” the old codgers called him when they tried to convince him to run for city council, though he’d lived in Lento only a few months. Mostly to please them, he’d agreed to a stint as precinct captain, though he regretted it now; he liked the old people, but the club was no place to meet females who were still menstruating.
“Join a gym,” his sister advised, when Will lamented his dating misfortunes. He’d gamely signed on at Before and After All-Fitness, but bulging pecs and steely abs had never been his forte. The spandex-clad hotties logged miles on the treadmills to music that streamed from their earbuds, barely acknowledging his existence.
When would this place cool off, Will wondered, blasting the air conditioning as he rolled out of the parking lot. He’d arrived for the first day of school with circles of sweat spreading under his arms, just from the walk between car and his low rent classroom. “Portables” they called them; the county had some crazy student assignment system, resulting in Turner’s enrolling hundreds more bodies than it was built to hold. They’d brought in twenty trailers to house the overflow, and Will was stuck in one of these. The principal sold him the job with the promise the school’s special programs drew serious students, and he’d envisioned a class demanding critiques of Marbury v. Madison, mobbing him in the halls for term paper advice. Instead, he got stuck with the “traditionals,” a mix of the good, bad and criminal, who spent most of their time getting high in the bathrooms. Half of his students thought the Battle of the Bulge was a fitness video, which a quick Google check confirmed it to be. As for field trips, while there’d been endless options in Philadelphia, here in Lento, Will was stumped for ideas.
After a quick stop at Publix, Will drove home and pulled on his red apron, which masked all manner of kitchen sins, and got to work kneading and rolling. He’d chosen the apartment for its big, sunny kitchen, complete with greenhouse window which Will filled with dog-eared copies of Live Love Eat, What’s Cooking, Yan Can Cook. Though he could find any recipe on the internet, Will loved his oil-flecked library, with its annotations (double the cumin, chill dough overnight) commemorating his culinary journey. Food had been Will’s hobby, friend, and therapist for as long as he could remember, and as a child he’d spent afternoons seasoning sauce and spooning cheese into cannoli shells, while other boys whacked hockey pucks in the street. His mother was second generation Scotch-Welsh, but she’d commandeered Grandma Palmacio’s recipes and made them her own, with Will as her eager apprentice. All that cooking and tasting had made him a plump child, but when he reached adolescence he’d grown eighteen inches in one year. Now his six foot two frame seemed flab proof, a good thing because cutting back on food, his greatest pleasure, was never an option.
Three hours later, ninety-eight garlic knots were tucked into neat foil bundles. Will hurried them back to the school, and the visiting parents cooed as he set out the hot rolls, their pungent smell filling the room.
“I haven’t eaten since lunch,” said one father, grabbing a handful of knots from the gingham-lined basket. Will grinned. The Hundred Years War went down easier with the right snack, and besides, he wanted to assure the parents their children were in good hands. Baked goods said that better than any three-minute speech on grading policy he could deliver.
At six-thirty the last group of parents straggled into the trailer clutching their children’s class schedules, congratulating themselves on navigating the maze of illogically numbered outbuildings. In the doorway, a statuesque brunette paused to check the room number. Six feet tall, for sure, thought Will, mesmerized by the bracelets jangling from her brown arms. He glanced at her left hand. Bare.
“Ninth grade European History,” he said.
The woman smiled. “Then I’m in the right place.” Thick, black hair hung to her waist, and her wide eyes and high cheekbones reminded Will of portraits of Pocahontas. As she passed his desk, she took a roll from the basket and bit in. “Mmm. Better than Olive Garden.”
Will sniffed. “I bake circles around Olive Garden. And you’ve never tasted my moo shu. Who’s your child?”
“Dennis is bright,” said Will, relieved to report something positive. He returned to the front of the class and gave his spiel for the final time – curriculum, classroom rules – and tried not to stare at the mother. When the bell rang, she followed the other parents out the door. Was this it, Will thought, he’d never see this enchanting creature again? He couldn’t just call and invite her to dinner after they’d exchanged no more than a few words. Maybe he’d look up Dennis’ address and park outside her house, pretend he just happened to be in the neighborhood. Or find out where she worked. Stalk her, in other words. He shook his head to dislodge the idea. Stop acting like a fourteen-year-old, he told himself, she’d never give you a second look.
The next morning Will left for school early, still needing to grade the exams he’d ignored the previous night. He pulled into the parking lot at six, the campus still dark. When he opened the car door, the smell of smoke overwhelmed him. The stoners must be getting an early start. Couldn’t they wait until he had his coffee? He passed the first row of portables, turned the corner and froze. Flames were consuming his trailer and spreading fast to Joe Grayson’s next door.
“Fire!” he yelled, realizing no one would hear. He rushed into the main building and pulled the alarm. He grabbed an extinguisher off the wall and ran back to the trailers, gunned ammonium phosphate into the flames till he’d emptied the can, but the blaze was out of control. Where the hell was everyone, he wondered, then heard sirens approaching. The wailing grew louder and moments later two neon green trucks rounded the corner and drove up onto the school’s grass perimeter. Firemen in bulky suits jumped from the trucks and trained hoses on the blaze, yelling to each other. In minutes, the fire was out, all was quiet and dripping as the sky grew light. Will could pick out the charred remains of text books, timelines, his laptop. What a waste, he thought. One more loss, in a long series of losses.
One of the firemen called out to Will. “Good thing we got here before the whole place went up.”
“Right. Thanks for coming,” Will said, feeling oddly like a party host. “Any idea what started it?”
“Probably a joint. There’s a heap of ‘em behind the trailers.” He nodded at Will’s ex-classroom, where a trio of firemen congregated, one with long black hair. Will moved closer for a better look. A girl? She waved, her cheeks smeared with soot.
“Sorry about your classroom,” she said. “Strange to think we were here just last night.”
Will stared. “Mrs. Chang? You’re – a fireman? Or is it firewoman?”
“Just a volunteer.” She shrugged. “My grandfather and father both served. Kind of a family thing.”
“So you’re a Lento native?”
She smiled. “One of the real natives. Half Miccosukee.”
“You must have seen lots of changes in this town.”
“When my parents were kids it was all citrus groves and dirt roads. You know Cockroach Shopping Mall? My grandpa hunted turkeys there.” She pulled off her hat and shook out her long hair. “Have you been to the burial mounds? The school kids take field trips there.”
The engine horn honked.
“Gotta run,” said Mrs. Chang. “Can’t be late for my real job.”
“Right. Just saving some lives before work.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
“Mom rescues son’s school, film at eleven?”
She pulled a business card from her pocket and handed it to Will. “Next time you’re cooking, I like moo shu.” She climbed onto the truck and Will watched it speed off, satisfied he knew now where to find good Chinese in this town.
About the Author: Liz Drayer is an arbitrator in Clearwater, Florida. Her short fiction, poems and essays have appeared in the Tampa Bay Times, Orlando Sentinel, Prick of the Spindle, New Plains Review, Spitball, and other publications.