(This week's Flash Fiction Friday theme is back to school, or as we call it in our house, the most wonderful time of the year. This story is called "Don't Tell The Children".)
The calculus of what to wear on the first day of school was always a delicate one. It was a sad moment, driving through the sudden 8:00 traffic, passing the brightly colored girls and the dark denimed boys standing in clusters at the various bus stops. You could see the hope and fear on their tiny faces. They weren't the only ones.
After ten years in, I had easy classes that bonded early and got along well, distant classes that were at loggerheads until the very end, and every gradation in between. It never got easier, it just got different. I spent the last week obsessing about my first day's outfit, starting with my new shoes, smooth looking bone colored flats, then plunging into the morass of choices for clothing.
Dresses can seem too formal and overtly feminine, but pants can seem uptight and bitchy. You have to have authority, to look like you're in charge, while not seeming unapproachable and mean. You can't overwhelm them, but you can't look dowdy. The whole process was frustrating, because it shouldn't matter what you wore, within reason, as long as you did your job, but it took me as much effort as any anxious middle schooler.
I had settled on a long dress in muted colors and a gentle pattern, tasteful jewelry and very little makeup. I was counting on Dennis, our rotund principal, to make some sort of a barbed remark as soon as he saw me. I could tell that it drove him crazy that I wasn't married and never admitted to having a personal life. It was always, with him, an overly broad compliment that I knew concealed a double meaning. He wanted to know what I was about, and I secretly delighted in not allowing him to see.
I parked in my usual spot, alighting from my car with my bag and my cooling latte. I walked up the steps towards the front door, the first few students making their way in beside me. Dennis was usually right inside the front door, booming out his greetings to one and all. I came up to the front doors, scanned my ID, and pulled them open. The lobby already smelled like fall- disinfectant, sweat, and fear.
Jim Reynolds was already there, the tall, thin, preternaturally calm assistant principal. One of the crueller jokes the faculty circulated was that, when he stood next to Dennis during an assembly, they looked like the number 10. He was engaged in a fevered conversation with Miss Peabody, the nosy blueblood school secretary. He half turned when he saw me come in.
"Elin...er....Ms. Hirsch, good morning. Have you heard?" It was a regular rumor around the building that Jim and I were having a torrid affair, being the two singletons on staff. And I hadn't dismissed the idea- he was classy and smelled good and looked strong. But we both imagined the complications and laughed off the idea.
"Heard what, Mr. Reynolds?" We tried not to use first names within range of little ears, but they all figured out our names anyway.
"Dennis...Mr. Gold didn't...he isn't....his wife had to call 911 this morning. She found him on the bathroom floor. He wasn't breathing."
I stopped short, my heart suddenly pounding. "My goodness," was all I could say. It wasn't what I wanted to say, but when I was in school mode, I disconnected my four letter word module.
"We're waiting on word from the hospital," he continued uselessly.
"We've decided not to tell the children," Miss Peabody put in. She liked to think she was part of the management team.
"Of course," I said, shocked, backing away as the two returned to their conversation. Dennis had hired me, new in town and fairly fresh out of school with very little experience to my name. He always had about him a clammy desperation, the kind of man who could be counted on to peek down the front of your dress if something fell on the floor and you bent to pick it up. I knew what he could say and do, and what he couldn't, and while he never violated any rules of any kind, I always had the feeling he wanted to. He was needy, and sweaty, and he stared at you too long. He never seemed to understand how to talk to women at all. I didn't dislike him, but I didn't really like him, either. He was my boss, and he was just so sad and lonely. It was impossible to think of him with anything except pity. I wouldn't miss him if he were gone, but I hated myself for that thought as well. I thought about him on the bathroom floor, perhaps still in his boxer shorts, his body huge, still and silent like a wall of sand, while his wife waited for the paramedics. Was she panicky with fear, or did the have the same tiny voice in her head whispering "finally" that I did? Unhappy men had to die just like everyone else, I supposed, but it seemed somehow unfair that he'd never get to see how cute I looked in these shoes.