FATHERS AND TORMENTORS
BY GARRETT ROWLAN
Lamenting their fate was an occupational hazard, and all three of the substitute teachers, occupying a small table in the cafeteria of Samuel Goldwyn Junior High School in northeast Los Angeles, did so today -- none more vigorously than Byron Powers, a heavyset man with long black hair graying in dramatic streaks.
"Jesus Christ," he said. He'd gone through the food line emerging with nachos, a piece of cake, and a Coke. "You wouldn't believe the hour I just had with these so-called gifted eighth grade students."
"Gifted at putting a wild hair up your ass," said Betsy Taylor, a black woman in her fifties who cared for an ailing mother.
"No shit. This one little prick... I sent him to the Dean once. They sent him back with a note to apologize to me."
Don Reed, a chinless, self-published poet, emitted a strangled laughed, and Betsy shook her head.
"I know that was bullshit," she said.
"Total bullshit. He says in front of everyone, 'I apologize for calling you ugly and fat.' Everyone laughed. He sits and torments me for the next half-hour. I know he shot a rubber band at me, right before the bell rang. I could have killed him. Javier Lopez was the name, a light-skinned kid. Watch out for him."
"It's only Tuesday," Betsy said.
"And it's only December," Don Reed added.
Byron popped open his Coke. "Looks like they're not going to make me do a class coverage. So I'll have to file. They want me to report to the office sixth period."
"That is bullshit," Betsy Taylor said. "I'm going to put in a grievance. We are not file clerks. We're teachers."
"Sub teachers," Don Reed said.
"I don't care. It's bullshit. This is the only junior high in this area that makes you do unpaid office work on your conference hour. They already screwed us out of money when we cover a class. You ought to file a grievance."
"Yeah," Byron said, knowing he wouldn't. He'd had this job two years now, and didn't wish to add to the history of strained relations he'd established with previous employers. He changed the subject. "You know I went to this school, like forty years ago. It was a different world then."
"It was white world, that's what you mean," Betty said.
"Whatever. It was a better world."
"For some," Betty said.
So Byron ducked that subject, bit into his nachos, took refuge in synthetic flavors. Before the bell rang for fifth period, he went into a small patio and smoked a cigarette. Thus fortified, he entered class, which after the dismissal bell an hour later was littered with balled-up paper, candy wrappers, and a discarded pencil. As he picked things up, the door to his class swung open and there was Javier Lopez.
"Fucking fat ass gordo pendejo."
Javier's features wore a purity of hatred. He slammed the door shut. When Byron flung it open, his tormentor had disappeared into the crowd of children changing classes from fifth to sixth. Byron closed the door and sat. His blood boiled with unspent rage. He opened a window and lit a cigarette just as the phone rang.
"This is the secretary," a woman said. "I'm just reminding you that you're supposed to report to the main office for your conference period."
"I was just picking up some papers."
"Well, come right down. We got work for you."
He finished his cigarette and walked downstairs, making sure to smile at the secretary.
"Go to the counseling office," she said.
The blonde lady at the counseling office had the sprightly air of someone who'd spent a lifetime hiding what she thought.
"Are you the sub?" she asked.
"Yes, and I'd like to report a student for being abusive."
"They can be that way with subs, can't they?" She turned and motioned to him to follow her down a short corridor. "We've been updating some of our files," she said over her shoulder. "It'd be a great help to us if you could re-file them."
"His name is Javier Lopez."
"Oh, Javier, yes."
"You know him?"
"He's a smart kid, but he's had some family problems," she said.
"Well, haven't we all. My father abandoned me when I was ten, walked right out." From behind, his eyes followed the switch of her narrow hips. "It doesn't mean I get a break from the rules. Just the opposite."
However, she obviously wasn't listening to him as she reached a door that she held open, as if he were a docile animal being escorted back to a cage. He stepped into a storage room with fluorescent lights, metal cabinets, and, in a wire basket, manila folders containing the Cums, shorthand for each student's cumulative index.
She explained his duties and left. He abandoned them after a few minutes and dug out Javier Lopez's records. He read of erratic grades, squandered intelligence, and distrust of authority. School pictures over the years revealed a smile changed to a glare. Using the flame of his lighter, Byron loosened the glue on a sealed letter. Written by a school psychologist, the missive detailed emotional problems that Javier had developed after his father had abandoned the family three years ago, when he was in the fifth grade. Byron re-sealed the envelope with spit. Glancing at Javier's address and phone number, he felt inspired to write them down. He was sitting when the blonde counselor stuck her head in the door. She smiled bright as spilled milk. "Taking a break?"
He got to his feet. "Oh, just resting for a bit."
Just before the hour ended, he picked up a handful of the manila folders that he was supposed to have filed alphabetically and tossed them into a half-empty drawer. In the main office he signed out, collected his day's receipt. His current financial status did not permit him the luxury of owning a car, and a couple of DUIs had compromised his relation with the DMV. As he stood outside the school, leaning against the bus stop for the 81 line, Javier Lopez, walking with his friends, one chubby and one skinny, passed by him.
"Look at the fat man," Javier said. "Waiting for the bus like the loser he is."
"I know about you," Byron said. "Where's Daddy?"
Javier flinched an instant before he swaggered forward, his chest thrust forward. "You know me? You want to get crazy with me? Is that what you want?"
Byron stepped back. He would have loved to hit him, to wipe that defiant look from his face, but the school's Assistant Principle with his little walkie-talkie was nearby, and Byron didn't want to answer to an assault charge or some bullshit.
"That's what I thought, fool." Javier turned and walked away. As he crossed the street, Byron's northbound bus approached. He rode with his head down, hearing adolescent snickers he thought were aimed at him.
He stepped off the bus in Eagle Rock, went to his apartment and slept and woke in the middle of "Dr. Phil." By the time his sister, who paid most of the rent, arrived, he was sprawled on the couch that doubled as his bed. She had a favor to ask.
"I'm taking my boss out to dinner," she said. Sam Powers, forty, younger by five years, was divorced and childless. She worked downtown and slept in the apartment's one bedroom. "And then we're going to come back here." She had pale hair, stooped shoulders, and long arms that seemed elbow-less when she let them hang straight. "I want us to be alone."
"So why can't you be alone at his place? Ah, he's married."
"No. He lives with his mother."
Byron nodded. It was consistent with the family history that Sam should be seducing losers while her ex-husband had already re-married and fathered a child. Their own father had left them when they were children, remarried and started another family. Their mother had been engaged once for a couple of weeks, but had never remarried.
"When do I scram?"
"He'll be here in an hour."
After she'd gone into the bedroom to change, leaving the door slightly ajar, he asked, "Did I ever tell you about the time I saw Dad kissing Mrs. Jacobson?"
"Many times!" she called.
"That was just months before he left."
"Good riddance," she said.
"A girl's relationship to her father is not as important as a boy's."
She poked her head into the open door's aperture. "You're not drinking again, are you?"
"I always waited for him to return at his old bus stop. Did I tell you --"
"Get over it. That happened almost forty years ago." Having changed into jeans and a white blouse, she stepped out of the room. "What brought all this on?"
"I talked to a kid at school today. He told me his father walked out on him when he was in the fifth grade. It screwed him all up. He's Mexican; his father was white. Apparently, he's got a resentment against Caucasians. Or maybe just me."
"He said that?"
Byron looked out the window. "In so many words."
"So what do you care? I thought you hated kids. That's why you chose the teaching profession."
"I'm not a teacher," he said "I'm a sub."
An hour later, Byron rode the southbound bus down Figueroa Street at twilight. He gazed through a knife-scoured window. His mood was one of introspection. He had much to be introspective about, having lost a marriage, house, and a job terminated upon an understanding -- return the money and they wouldn't prosecute. His forty-five years had pretty much canceled each other out, a thought that occupied him as he got off the bus, three miles from downtown Los Angeles, for this was the neighborhood in which he'd grown up, and where Javier lived.
It had changed from Byron's youth. The public park across the street, filled with sycamores, was about the same, but as he walked up the concrete stairs between small apartments, he heard snatches of Spanish behind screen doors where English had flowed forty years ago. He followed an alley past low walls stung by graffiti. The alley ended above a cul-de-sac.
Looking down on a street that he'd known, he had an immense sense of futility. His life had come to this, this perspective at dusk, this crappy street which even in better times was never a happy place for him. At last, he descended a trail jagged as static. Parked cars, some up on blocks, clogged the street. Glaring streetlights illuminated a Chevy with a loose-hanging front fender. It was parked in front of Byron's former address, 207 South Avenue 49, where he'd lived for the first fourteen years of his life. The house was dark and didn't want to know him. So he moved on, coming to the numerals he'd scrawled on paper and finding them to represent a duplex with pale stucco walls and a small dirt lawn. At that moment, a middle-aged woman with hair dyed a reddish tint emerged. She wore a white uniform, that of a night duty nurse or attendant. At the door she turned. "You don't go nowhere, Javier, okay?" Getting no response from inside, she turned and walked in Byron's direction. He stood in a jacaranda's shadow. She passed without seeing him as if he were invisible. The sodium streetlight illuminated her heavy make-up and the tentative way she walked, as if her feet hurt even before her shift began. She drove away.
Byron reached the corner. He entered a small store with bars over the windows and, inside, haphazard lighting, crowded shelves, and wooden floors with a tang of rot. Between the aisles, he thought of Javier's mother, her tentative steps, her oval features rapidly losing their shape under stress of being a single parent, having to live a life she had never chosen. He knew the tune. It was his story in another dimension. He'd crawled out of that hole to find himself in another one, and the knowledge made him both rebellious and restless. He wanted a change, but the only one he could afford was in consciousness.
That was why, dismissing the benefits of two year's sobriety, he bought a six-pack of Bud, cigarettes, and potato chips. The Mexican or maybe Turkish clerk took his money in silence with downcast eyes. Byron might as well have handed the ten-dollar bill through a slot. He took his purchases and opened his beer at a bus bench. It was the same bus stop where he used to wait for his father. Even after his father had left Byron would be sitting right here, like some dumb faithful dog, at this bench now marked by graffiti. He'd watch strangers step out, hoping that one of them would be his father.
The memory occupied him while he slurped two beers. They clarified his thinking. Absolutely, he thought, going over to a phone. He dialed the number in his pocket. Javier answered on the third ring. Byron stuffed a potato chip in his mouth to muffle his voice.
"Yeah?" Javier said.
"Do you know who this is?"
"This is your father, son. This is Jim. I've returned."
In the background, Byron heard a stringy adolescent voice and canned laughter on the TV.
"I've changed," Byron said. "You want to see me?"
"Who did you say you was?"
"Your father Jim, Jimmy, Jimbo. I'm your father, son. I'm your pappy, daddy, padre, papa. Don't you want to see me?"
"Where you been?"
"I uh ...had to get my shit together. I want to see you. You want to meet?"
"You know where I live?"
"Sure," Byron said. "But I prefer meeting somewhere else."
After a long pause Javier said, "I'll meet you down Marmion Way. Just above the Southwest Museum where the road curls. Under that big light."
"In a half hour."
Byron hung up. He popped the third beer and drank. By now, a faint self-disgust blended with the brew. He tasted old disasters, metallic, heavy as hangovers. He sensed trap doors at his feet. Yet he'd always been subject to a certain determinism: Once you started down a road you kept going. He retraced his steps, passing Javier's place where a single light glowed behind a pulled curtain. Kid probably smells a rat, Byron thought. Still, Byron climbed up the path to the railroad tracks and walked some two-hundred yards down, tossing away the third beer as he went, and finally slipped past a municipal fence and sat next to some bushes. With a stare losing focus he regarded Marmion Way, a two-lane road huddled against a hillside. Weeds and rubble lined its edges. Byron set his back against a creosote-covered pole and sipped a fourth beer.
Forty-five minutes passed. Just at the point where Byron decided to leave, Javier came from some bushes to Byron's right. He reached Marmion Way and waited. Byron emerged from the darkness, ready to teach a lesson in respect. It wasn't a mere respect for one's elders, that was bullshit as Byron well knew. No, a respect based on the fact that Byron understood, understood when he saw that file this afternoon, understood what Javier was going through. Holding two beers by the plastic strip, he stumbled across rocky ground. Javier wore a nylon jacket against the cold, and looked over as Byron approached.
"I know you," Byron said. "I've been where you've been, my father left me, and I've got a message for you."
"I've got one for you, pendejo." Javier's face screwed up and exploded. "My dad is dead."
Javier reached into the pocket of his jacket -- Byron thought he had a gun -- and threw an egg. It shattered on Byron's arm like a bursting star. As he scooped away the egg he thought momentarily of his days as a fry cook, his first job out of rehab. Javier, too, seemed to be in some other place. One, however, more connected to the present moment, and his second egg clipped the side of Byron's head. Its hard shell glanced off Byron's neck and made his head dance with little pasteboard stars.
Perhaps this wasn't a good time for a lesson in respect. Byron turned and ran, going across the ground and the railroad tracks and down an alley, dropping his ballast of beer cans. He reached the steps he'd taken earlier and stumbling down them. In his heavy coat, he felt like some wholly mammoth hunted to extinction. Gasping, each breath feeling like razor blades in his throat, he crossed Figueroa with barely a glance at traffic. One car honked and swerved to avoid him.
Winded, he entered the dark public park and wandered sycamore to sycamore. Rank sweat roiled inside his clothes, rolled down his face. Deep into darkness, he gasped, leaning against a tree and hoping he wouldn't get sick. He looked back. Javier had entered the park in pursuit. Byron stumbled to another tree, his feet snapping dry sticks, and rested, getting his breath back while sweat ran under his clothes like scuttling ants. He wiped blood from his neck with a snotty handkerchief. Soon, the impulse to vomit faded, leaving him weak and oddly content, floating in his own intoxication. Exercise, he thought, I should get more of it.
Javier neared, his breathing heavy and laden with mucous. Byron stepped out from behind the tree and faced him. Javier stared back.
"Asshole," he said.
"Tell me something I don't know."
Javier opened his mouth as if to say something then stopped. His expression in the gloom was unreadable. Distant streetlights rendered the darkness into smoke through which they stared at each other.
"How did it happen?"
"How what?" Javier asked.
"How did your father die?"
The boy sat on a bench, and Byron realized that he was weeping, a child's hapless tears. Beside him, Byron watched his own thoughts wander, and realized he didn't right now know who, or what, or even when he was. Sitting beside the boy he was content to wait, just has he'd waited on that other bench, so many years ago for the bus that would stop and let out someone who would love him.