LAST THURSDAY NIGHT, a few steps inside the slender park, and just out of the streetlamp’s reach, I paused to take a leak. The night was overcast, so I’m not sure if the moon had already risen, but it was light enough to see a faint mist rise from the issue.
I was on the lookout for horned owls, despite the early hour. It was not even nine yet. Annette had gone to the theater with her old library buddies, so I worked pretty late, left the car for her by the train station so she wouldn’t have to take a cab, and started to walk home. I could straighten up a little, do some reading. But approaching the pub, I recalled that Rick would be behind the bar tonight. Some bartenders pour scotch like it was nitroglycerine, so fearful they are of barely covering the bottom of your glass, but Rick serves you a double if not more. Because there was rain in the clouds, I ordered Laphroaig. But I digress.
It was Steve who—moments before—tipped me off on the horned owl. Steve lives on the corner, just outside the park, and has a keen eye for the local wildlife. He knows when the red fox goes on morning patrol, and keeps close tabs on the hawks—the coopers, the sharpshins, the redtailed and redshouldered—as they pass through the region.
Steve was out front as I walked by, with his ancient ginger cat weaving between his legs, tail erect. I stopped to tell him about the pair of dove-sized hawks I saw on my way in last week. He agreed that they were probably sharpshins—not redshouldered fledglings, as others suggested. Then he told me how he encountered a horned owl—twice in the past week—while riding his bike, just a few miles up the creek.
“Are you sure it was a horned?” I asked. Annette told me many times, of sleepless nights, listening to screech owls, hunting their way up the creek around midnight, and back down again before dawn. She’d repeat their call, that quavering whoo-oo-oo-oo-oo, in a descending tone.
And last year there was that barred owl—Annette recognized his call, which to me was just another dog, barking at passersby, from a yard backing up to the creek. But I stumbled into the bamboo and poison ivy, and caught him at close range in my 10x42’s—the breast as majestic as a Bourbon king in flecked ermine, the unmistakable headlamp eyes. When he took flight, revealing a wingspan nearly as great as Annette’s height, my heart paused.
“No, I saw his horns against the sky. No doubt. Second time, I came around this curve and he’s flying low, right towards me. I must have surprised him, because as he passes over my head, I see something fall, and plop! I look down and there’s a headless rabbit lying there, right smack in front of my bike.”
“No bull, man, that’s something else.”
I was searching for something meaningful to say when I felt something brush my pant leg. It’s the cat. I bent over and kneaded the flesh behind its ear, and smoothed the fur over its arthritic haunch. They were both just looking for some company, I guess, but it was time to get going. I said, “Dude, I’m half drunk and headed home,” and shoved off.
Still no rain. The Laphroaig was a good choice, however, because I was in shirtsleeves and the wind was picking up. It was going to be one drink at first. The bar was crowded, but quiet, because it was a solid, dreary line of men. I joined the line, and started watching a tennis match. Monofils edging out Nadal. I wanted to check out their moves, but the camera covered the whole court, and the only time it zoomed in was to show Monofils shaking his wild afro, slinging sweat in great arcs.
The scotch disappeared into the man, and the man into the match. Presently, a blistering forehand by Monofils drove Nadal far to the right--his backhand side--and the return was wide. Set over, glass drained. My feet were ready to find some sidewalk.
I caught Rick's eye and drew my forefinger across my throat. He came over and picked up my glass.
"My pleasure. I hope things are going better for you."
"Well, things are starting to pick up. There's a good chance I'll be in the black by the end of the year."
I was reaching for my wallet when the guy next to me gently intruded.
"Pardon me, would you mind if I asked what business you are in?"
"Not at all. It's about the worst business you can have in a recession." I explained briefly what I did, but did not offer him a card. "What's your name?"
"Carter Adams. And you?"
I told him.
I had noted his presence earlier, working on a huge hanger steak and washing it down with a martini. He was a short, compact fellow--a wrestler once, perhaps, built for power and for speed. Wiry, closecropped black hair sprang from a round head. Dark eyes and a genuine smile displayed confidence. That he did not crush my hand when we shook intimated a refined temperament.
"And what do you do?"
"I teach and coach football."
"Yes." He mentioned the name of a local high school.
"My cousins went there, late sixties and early seventies."
"Hah--that was before I was born, man."
“What do you teach, physed?
“Tenth grade English.”
“Wooohhh! Do I detect some cognitive dissonance here?”
I caught Rick's eye again, and lifted an imaginary glass to my lips. A new glass arrived.
“Not in the least. Do you have something against English teachers?”
“No way. I’m the grateful product of some inspired public school English teachers. What books do you teach?”
Carter told me that his school gives the teachers wide discretion. At least a third of the kids are college bound, reading at adult levels. A similar proportion struggles at an elementary school level.
“There’s only one required book: 1984.”
“That’s a hoot. Not Silas Marner—which by the way, I faked my way through.”
“You and most of your classmates, for sure.”
“Still, Orwell seems a little edgy for a big school system.”
“If you think the book is edgy, let me tell you about how I taught it last year. I knew from previous years, that when you pass out the texts, and the kids see it’s 300 pages, you lose half of them before you even start.
“So I cooked up a little conspiracy with the school secretary and the security officer. The next day, I walk into class, looking and acting terrified. They pick up on it right away, because normally I’m pretty laid back, really happy to be in the classroom. Then I announce that there is concern about my teaching, and that I have been accused of violating chapter 451 in the teacher’s code—a failure to ‘adhere strictly to the prescribed curriculum.’ It’s totally bogus of course—but I explain that I might be at any point, ‘removed from the classroom.’"
"Holy smokes--I know what's coming."
"Right. I start to take attendance and the secretary walks into the classroom, up to the podium, and announces, 'I'm sorry to interrupt, class, but Mr. Adams will be leaving us. Your substitute will arrive shortly.'"
"She leaves, and I stand up, looking crushed. Before I can speak, the security office walks in, announcing that I am under arrest for 'a 451' and handcuffs me. Then he grabs my collar and walks me out."
"Cool. And the 451 reference is beautiful."
"I let a few moments go by, and then I walk back into the classroom. Several students are in tears; others are slackjawed. I explain the hoax, and then tell them that in the book we are about to read, incidents like that are a matter of routine. To the ones in tears, I ask, 'for heaven's sake, why didn't you protest?'
"Anyway, every one of those kids devoured that book. They all got it--that a population can be brainwashed, and subdued."
The conversation paused. The hanger steak was almost gone. I'm proud of this guy. I thought of Riefner, who taught 9th grade English in my button-down junior high school. The first time I encountered him, I was a skinny undeveloped kid, fresh out of elementary school. Rief was serving as hall monitor, leaning back on a wooden chair, watching students on their way to home room. Two girls in front of me walked by him. "Skags!" he hissed. They giggled. Then I walked by.
I stopped in my tracks.
"Where's your belt?"
Before I could reply, he snarled, "YOU! Report to me tomorrow morning wearing a belt. If you don‘t, I‘ll find you!"
Next morning I dug out the only belt I had, a hideous thing with beadwork on the back that spelled out Miami Beach, given to me by my mother's maiden aunt. I went to Reif's classroom, but he was not there. I asked a girl--my god, she was a woman--where he was. She started calling, “Mr. Riefner, Mr. Riefner,” and looking around, attracting the attention of the other students. She leaned over and opened the doors of a credenza, peered in and called, "Mr. Rieeeef-ner!" As she leaned, I peered down the scoop neck of her top, deep between her breasts. The view made me lightheaded.
She closed the cabinet door. "He's not here." The classroom was ringing with laughter.
I blurted, "Could you please tell him I came by, and I'm wearing a belt?" Another peel of laughter. I spun on my heels and ducked back into the anonymous hall, unsure of where I was, or where to go, or how to take my next breath.
When I got to his English class, two years later, he was still working on me. In the middle of a session, with no warning, he'd fire out, coal black eyes blazing, "ABRAMS! WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INNOCENCE AND IGNORANCE?" But he'd also take me aside in the hall, putting his arm around me, and give me a copy of The Painted Bird, or A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. His breath reeked of tobacco, and the tweeded arm was scratchy.
Once I asked him why he gave me an "A" on a composition. "I really didn't think it was that good."
"It wasn't. But I grade on the curve, and your classmates are idiots."
The hanger steak was gone. The martini and the scotch were dwindling. I made a V with my fingers, and Rick brought up reinforcements.
We talked on, mostly about families. How his three nieces, each just a year apart, were so different in temperament.
“I used to think it was all about upbringing. These girls were brought up in the same household, same parents, same circumstance. But if you met them on the street, you’d never think they were sisters. It became clear to me that there’s something in our nature, that makes us who we are.”
I told him about Annette and her twin sister, who complete each other’s sentences, and of my own brother, so alien to me. Again, our glasses were empty.
It always seems like there's craziness in the air on Thursday nights. Good craziness. But the craziness could turn bad with a fourth scotch. Monofils had shot his wad; Nadal had come back. I asked Carter how to find him again; he said “Come by the school anytime, I’ll be there.” I knew I probably never would.
After the piss, I was walking across the footbridge—the one where, whenever Annette and I cross together, I always embrace her and kiss her—and I thought of Killer.
Killer was a cat that belonged to a former girlfriend of mine, back in New Mexico. The name was meant to be ironic. Household mice and crickets were in little danger. I still have a snapshot of Anna Marie in her chair, reading a book, with the Killer asleep in her lap.
In the fall of 1974, we rented half of an old adobe house in Chimayo. The other half of the house, split down the middle with an adobe party wall, was owned by a family named Martinez. I never knew the parents very well, but the son introduced himself one day, while I was out front, replacing the ball joints of my truck. I saw his boots first, and slid out from under the truck. He greeted me with a 35mm film can of mota, and we got along fine until one night, when, like so many of his cohort, he drifted across the centerline of the twolane. It seemed like there was a wooden cross and a wreath of plastic flowers at every curve, all the way to Espanola.
Anyway, the Martinez’s had a big tomcat that would torment Killer. He’d come in with tattered ear, or a festering abscess. One afternoon, the tom caught Killer by surprise, and they went tumbling down the hand dug well that Mrs Martinez still pumped from every day. You could hear them fighting as they were falling, and two hellacious yowls as they thumped to the bottom. But it was Tom who bounded out of the hole first, with Killer in savage pursuit. I don’t think he was bothered much after that.
I concentrated on keeping my wobbly gait within the three center planks of the bridge. My right foot is freedom, my left is slavery. Right is innocence, left is ignorance. Right, nature; left, nurture. Killer B. Killed, I called him, after that journey down the well.
Above the dark rim of tree canopy, the moon winked through a gap in the clouds. Just then, a rushing shape hurtled over my head, heading up the creek.
“Who-whoo-oo-hoo,” it called.