The students were already seated by the time he reached the room, which was on the second floor. Most were reading. It was almost enough to make him a proponent of formal education. He took attendance, calling names aloud, self conscious about disturbing them. Upon finishing, he stood by quietly. Soon he was summoned by a girl, then another. Eventually he was moving about the entire room, defining and pronouncing words. He was shocked at the students' difficulty with simplistic material. Most were black.
He was at the rear, near the door, when a young woman entered. They stood frozen a moment as their dark eyes met. She was blond and beautiful, simply attired in a black pullover sweater and faded jeans. There was a stirring within him similar to that he'd experienced upon first setting eyes on Kathy.
"Can I help you?"
A female student giggled.
"I work here," said the woman, styrofoam cup in hand, blue down jacket over an arm; "but not for long if I keep showing up late. Wild night." She rolled her eyes heavenward.
He smiled, holding her gaze. She wasn't wearing a wedding band. His eyes followed her to the desk, where she hung the jacket on the back of the chair. Her body was every bit as alluring as her face. He started, as his attention was requested by a student.
Karen approached. "I had no idea Jack was gonna be out. I hope everything's okay. He's never absent."
"I haven't heard anything. I'm sure it's nothing serious."
"I'll give him a call later. I haven't seen you before."
"I hardly ever work here, and when I do it's usually in Phys. Ed.."
"That figures. I mean, you look athletic."
He was glad he'd rolled up his sleeves, displayed his forearms. "I was an aide here a few years ago."
"Really? Do you know Peggy?"
He suppressed emotion. "No." Doesn't everybody? he thought. Her name had come up so quickly. He wondered if there were something about him that would arouse it.
"She worked here before me. I'm surprised you don't know her. We go way back. She recommended me for the job. She got her per diem license last summer."
He wondered why Hy, who loved Peggy, hadn't called her here instead of him. He assumed she'd already secured an assignment. He was happy for her, despite his bitterness, the thirst the thought of her aroused, a thirst never slaked. Suddenly her presence was strong. He hadn't even realized that this was her former workplace. He imagined her moving about, helping the students. He resisted the urge to find out more about her. It was a lost cause. He doubted he would ever get over his failure with her. It would be wiser to concentrate on this beauty, who was at hand. He tried his best to be congenial, to overcome his difficulty with small talk. Fortunately, she was friendly, unintimidated by his reticence and appearance, unlike most women. He tried to keep from fantasizing, planning, but he already had them on a date, in bed, and living together - all at a glance.
"What's your name, by the way?" she said.
"Vinnie, Vinnie Russo."
She offered a hand, a weak grip. "Karen Miller."
"My pleasure. Do you like the job?"
"Yes. I should say I like the hours and all the days off and the summer stipend. The job's bull..." She cringed and gazed about to see if anyone had heard. Her face had the trace of a tan, in contrast to her hands, which were quite pale.
"Was that what they call biting the hand that feeds you?"
He smiled. "Pretty close. What's so bad about it?"
She moved toward the windows, where they could converse more privately.
"All I do is walk around or sit up front waiting. It gets excruciatingly boring at times."
"I thought it'd be rewarding to help kids learn how to read."
"That's what I thought when I started, but so few of them improve. It's a good thing we're not paid by production. We'd be in the poorhouse. They come in at such a low level, though. You wouldn't believe it. I guess you really can't expect them to take a sudden interest after all these years. I mean, these kids've all discovered sex by now. Think back to when you were in high school - what was first in your mind? Can you really expect a kid to put reading before it, especially after he's neglected it for so long?"
Brains too, he thought, repressing excitement. "But isn't it worth it for those few who do improve?"
"That's what I told myself in the beginning, but it didn't work anymore after a while. If I thought about it too much I'd get depressed. I try not to think, as a rule."
Try not to think? he thought, dismayed yet outwardly composed. How odd that someone who expressed herself so well would profess an aversion to thinking. Had she heard the ideas elsewhere and merely repeated them? He cautioned himself not to attribute traits to her she did not possess, as he'd done with her predecessor, Peggy.
The bell rang. Karen went to the desk. He remained at the window, looking out on the surrounding area. Directly ahead stood a housing project, to the left an elevated line, to the right tracks that were below street level and passed through a train yard at the rear of the school's athletic field. He watched Karen out of a corner of an eye. The boys fawned about her. She smiled for each. She was as poised, confident, and amiable as anyone he'd ever met. He wondered how many erections she'd inspired here, how many of the males fantasized about her while masturbating.
Could you blame 'em? he thought, becoming aroused himself. No doubt she was in great demand and never spent an evening alone other than by choice. Her physical being suggested privilege. He hoped she would teach him to enjoy himself more. He imagined her experience was vast and feared he would have nothing new to offer her. They seemed opposites, as different as the shade of their hair and flesh.
She approached. "Have you been subbing long?"
"Since September. The pay as an aide wasn't too good, as you know, so I got a per diem, even though I don't like teaching."
He realized that his failure with Peggy had been his main reason for leaving. After the shooting, once he returned to work, she paid him considerable attention. It took all the strength he had to distance himself from her. Since the basis of her attention was sympathy, not love, he would not have it. She would never have loved him, he knew. He had to accept it and get on with his life. Trouble was, it was as baffling as an agent's rejection of his work. How, having poured out so much of himself, had he been refused?
"What d'you wanna do?" said Karen.
"How old are you?"
He told her.
"Really? You don't look it, even with that beard."
Apparently she didn't like it. He wished he'd shaved.
"I'd've guessed twenty-five."
He wondered if she were acting, flattering him, then admonished himself. Even if it were a lie, it was harmless, an attempt at socialization. One thing he knew - the shooting had added years to his soul. He found it hard to believe it didn't show in his demeanor.
"I'd say you were about the same age as me."
"Just about," she returned, looking away, apparently pained, as if he'd implied she looked older.
He regretted not having played the social game, having failed to return the compliment. He scoured his mind for something that might appease her.
"I didn't mean to offend you. There's just something about you that tells your age. Maybe it was only wishful thinking on my part. You certainly don't look old. You look great, better than anybody in the school, staff or kids."
"But for how much longer?"
He stared, incredulous. "You're not serious?"
"You don't know what it's like."
He was startled by her pain. Suddenly the self confidence with which she'd carried herself had vanished.
"You could be the nicest, smartest woman in the world, but the minute your looks go guys don't wanna know you any more."
"What kind of guys are you talking about?"
"As if you're any different. Your jaw almost hit the floor when you first laid eyes on me."
She walked away. Baffled, he attended to a student. When his presence was no longer in demand, he approached her. She was at the desk, scanning a newspaper.
"What're you doing here?" he whispered.
She gazed at him severely, puzzled.
"I mean, you say this's bull - why d'you stay? A woman with your looks and intelligence can find something a lot better than this. Do you have something special planned? Are you into modelling or acting?"
She tensed, as if ashamed of her station. "No. I love to dance, but in clubs, not professionally."
"Are you in school?"
She shook her head, gazing at the floor. "No, I didn't finish. I have this problem finishing things or making any kind of commitment. That's why this's perfect for me. It requires minimal effort. I can save my energy for partying."
"Do you make enough money to party?"
She shrugged, apparently irked.
Dumb question, he thought. A woman of such beauty did not have to spend any of the money she earned. What she needed was a rich husband.
"Don't you have any goals?"
"Only one - to enjoy myself."
She strolled to the other side of the room, a look of doubt, confusion, annoyance on her face.
Just as well, he told himself, certain they would despise each other upon familiarization. He doubted they had anything at all in common. And he'd compared her to Kathy! He'd even tried to establish an artistic link between them.
Typical, he thought, chagrined, realizing he was drawn to her nonetheless. Her beauty bound him, was all that bound him. Obviously, the stirring inside him had been lust. It was Peggy all over again.
So what? he thought, irked at his shame. At worst she would show him a good time, however brief.
She returned to the newspaper, shuffled through the pages briefly, and approached. "My horoscope says I'm gonna meet a tall, dark stranger. Well, you're not tall, but you are dark and you certainly are strange."
He chuckled, so pleased with her wit he wanted to kiss her cheek, irked that he lacked the nerve to do it. Suddenly he was puzzled, recalling her aversion to thinking.
"I read mine every day. If I believed what it said, I'd've had dozens of affairs by now and had books published and everything."
He'd revealed more than he'd intended. It was what the presence of beauty did to him. Fortunately, she seemed not to have heard. Perhaps she'd assumed he was generalizing, or perhaps she was accustomed to engendering such gushing.
"You don't take that stuff seriously, do you?"
She eyed him warily, as if she'd been ridiculed. She went back to work. She gazed at him repeatedly across the room, apparently troubled. Soon she approached, timorously.
"I worked at a bank once. There was this Puerto Rican girl there who'd just broken up with her boyfriend. She was so crushed. Her mother was really superstitious and religious. She told her that if she wanted him back she should think about him all the time and do all these crazy things like writing his name on her wrists and keeping pictures of him in her shoes. Well, one night I went home and thought and thought about this guy I used to see - and he called me. And I'll never believe it was just coincidence."
He was at a loss for words. He wanted to be believe in cosmic forces, but he didn't think they could be forced or controlled. He remained silent, although her eyes pleaded for approval. He feared an ill-chosen response would ruin any chance he had with her. Fortunately, he was called by a student, enabling him to escape. He helped the girl, then strolled about the room, feigning the role of teacher while actually mulling what Karen had said and wondering how he might expose its foolishness without being haughty. It was a half-hour before he'd formulated an argument.
"Think about what you said. I'm sure you'll see how wrong it is."
She shook her head, pained. "I don't have to. I know what happened."
"But doesn't your belief that a mystical power made him call you cheapen the action? It wasn't his love for you that made him do it but some higher force. He was compelled. He didn't do it of his own volition. Is that what you wanted?"
She grimaced. "You think too much."
He was about to walk away and turned back to her. "By the way, what happened to the girl? Did she get her boyfriend back?"
"I don't know. I quit the job."
"Then the jury's still out. There's still hope for your theory."
She was not appeased. When the bell rang she hurried from the room.
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