Not By Arguments*
Judith’s grandmother was dying, had been moved from a rest home she hated to a hospital she couldn’t recognize. Heredity, plus ailments, plus time, each was enough, and together claimed complete authority. Judith, four hundred miles to the north, understood the reality by day but nights were endless discomfort. She hesitated to accept the touch, the gentle words, even the breath of her beloved Mayra, knowing that with closed eyes the sorrow returned.
Judith’s father had died when she was sixteen. An energetic trail-walker and thrice-a-week jogger, he fell just before his fortieth birthday. She had been sitting at the old kitchen table doing homework for Mr. Alexander as the stereo played for the last time a bouncy Sheryl Crow tune. Dad was working his normal second-shift at the docks in Long Beach. He left their apartment at 2:45pm as, two miles away, Judith’s school ended for most of the students, at the bridge between sixth and seventh periods. Seventh was optional, an opening for over-achievers like Judith, for whom high school was a feast of opportunities. She had long stopped wondering why the majority chose the opposite approach. She concentrated on what she did know: she would make it to college, and she would become a teacher, like Mr. Alexander, like Mrs. Amaya, like Ms. Anding.
She would be the next Mr. Alexander. She loved his challenges, that his every assignment was difficult, that his comments on her writing were honest, that his encouragement was unceasing. She had him twice this year: third period for College Prep English and seventh, with only four others, for “Enhanced.” It wasn’t quite Advanced Placement, Mr. Alexander lamented, because the school hadn’t done what it needed to do to get it approved. But, he said, if they - “the mighty five” - gave their all, he would, too, and when they were in college they’d be as prepared as anyone, official AP credits or not.
She was scribbling questions in the margins of three Thomas Hardy poems when the phone rang. Looking at the yellow clock above the sink, the clock they’d had in every kitchen she could remember, she saw it was already seven. She smiled, put down her pen, and reached for the wall phone. He often called on his lunch break. Some nights, he would receive “voluntary” overtime, an extra two to four hours. If that happened, they could go three days without seeing each other. The call served as a check-in and, just in case, a chance to say good night. When he was a teenager he had quit school, lied about his age, and joined the army, all on his sixteenth birthday. He loved to ask her about her books. He loved an expression he’d learned from some British friends, “gobsmacked,” and often used to describe his wonder at her skills.
It wasn’t her dad. It was a Doctor Rumney, asking to speak to Mrs. Richard McMahon. Judith’s mother was a faint childhood scar, someone who had deserted husband and her then-four-year-old daughter. Six years later, three months after it had happened, daughter and father learned that the body of the one-time Mrs. Richard McMahon had been found in a Motel 6 in Las Cruces, New Mexico. There had been no sign of foul play. Judith said to the doctor “this is she” and was told her father had collapsed and died at twenty minutes after six.
Her grandmother was dying. Her father’s mother. She had no brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles. She had married in the middle of her senior year at Berkeley. He was passionate, driven, intelligent, terrified, and full of anger. She had matched him trait for trait. The union endured only two years, mercifully arrested by his infidelity with a co-worker. It had never been violent, though only she knew how close she had once come, while glaring at his smug face, to smacking it. And now, remarkably, she was enjoying Mayra’s love and companionship. Frequently, over the past four years, Mayra had urged her to admit that Vic’s cheating was a gift to all three of them, but she wasn’t buying. She wasn’t yet willing to give up the memory of the pain.
Last weekend, the last weekend of August, when all other teachers in California were setting up classrooms, preparing and revising lesson plans, pouring money into off-site copy machines, she had driven the 412 miles to Long Beach to see her grandmother. The doctor said it would be a few days, possibly as much as a week or ten days, but likely no more than that. For most of the visit she sat beside the bed, clutching her grandmother’s hands and peering into the stricken and silent face. She couldn’t see if her grandmother knew she was there. She chose not to ask the nurses.
After that, after getting home at three-thirty Monday morning, the first day of classes was a stunningly incoherent blur. She rode the waves of student energy and did her best not to wipe out. On her desk, not yet framed and not likely to be hung, was the Special Recognition Award she and the school had received in the summer, honoring the extraordinary success of her last year’s Advanced Placement class.
At a workshop two summers ago she had re-connected with Mr. Alexander. What she hadn’t understood in high school was that neither the administration nor his fellow teachers had been happy about the seventh period class. Administration either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay him, and to his colleagues, working for free set a terrible precedent. Ironically – “as we know, a favorite word for English teachers,” he half-laughed -- he had been the campus’s union representative three times. He had explained to everyone, he told her, that sometimes “you just give what you can,” and “the rest will just have to take care of itself.” He had remained an active union member but did not offer himself again for the representative’s role. “I don’t think I would have been elected,” he smiled.
If there were no disturbing phone call during the week, she would get coverage for her Friday afternoon classes and coax another pair of trips from her ancient Datsun. The engine wouldn’t like it, but hell, neither did she. On Wednesday afternoon she filed the “green sheet” with the principal’s secretary to request a substitute, writing “impending family death” in the box next to “reason for absence.”
Thursday afternoon, as she was leaving her classroom, she found Mr. Bartlett in the doorway. Remarkably, he was walking into her room. On purpose. Bartlett, who had been at the school twenty-six years, grudgingly teaching English only to support his true calling: baseball. Bartlett, who was never, ever, without his baseball cap. Bartlett, who consistently introduced himself to new teachers, loudly, as “the old fart.” He endlessly praised the days when he could smoke in his classroom “instead of sneaking off campus like some piss-ant freshman.” When she had started, burning with beginner’s zeal and keen to develop an Advanced Placement program at this school, a school even worse demographically and every other way than her own alma mater, Bartlett had snorted: “Kid, AP is for other schools. If they learn ABC here, we’re happy.”
That was six years ago and she still avoided him as much as possible. He had exactly one virtue: his name reminded her of the Buddhist Center she and Vic had briefly attended, on Bartlett Street in San Francisco. That had been one good thing they had done together. When she had time, she might go back. She and Mayra had a moved to an apartment in the outer Mission, so the center wasn’t far away. When she had time. When she had space.
Perfect, just what I need. What could Bartlett want now?
“Hold on a second, Kid.” He still doesn’t know my first name.
He grabbed her elbow (has he ever touched me?) and forced something into her hand.
“Here’s a United ticket to LAX. It’s the 1:40, Friday afternoon.”
Judith stared at the flimsy blue and red envelope, then at Bartlett. Her lips and tongue refused to cooperate. The phrase “words failed her” finally made sense.
“Take all the time you need, it’s an open return. I’ll make sure people cover your classes. And for Christ’s sake, don’t worry about your precious AP, I won’t go near it. All your subs will be real English teachers, I promise.”
“But, but, it’s too much, it must be so expensive. No. I can drive. I was planning to drive. Why would you do this?”
“You give what you can, Kid. Take the goddamn plane.”
She sensed rather than saw him leave her room. Maybe he was going toward his own room, perhaps the ball fields. She held the envelope in one hand and dialed Mayra with the other. If she told her, then it would have to be real: the awe, the good fortune, the love she felt for Mayra, for her grandmother, and for Bartlett and all the rest.
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*Title taken from the 10th stanza of Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”: "I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes, We convince by our presence."
About the Author: Tony Press tries to pay attention and sometimes he does. His short story collection, Crossing the Lines, was recently published by Big Table--he’d love for you to buy it. About 100 of his stories and poems are out in the world, and he has received two Pushcart nominations. Although he lives near San Francisco, he has no website.