by Eli Cranor
Mr. Koontz checked the time on his grandfather’s gold pocket watch. It was a thing he carried daily, a beautiful thing, a thing his grandfather gave him instead of his two, older brothers. He rattled his empty Diet Coke can and thought about going again to the machine, but remembered there was no cash in his wallet.
The blonde woman came towards his station from across the high school cafeteria. The man stood and shook her hand firmly. He looked her in the eyes and smiled, just like they had told him to. This woman looked normal – a little large – maybe even obese, but normal. Thank God for the normal ones.
Mr. Koontz worked as a lawyer for thirteen years before deciding to become a high school English teacher. He wanted to make a difference, have a positive impact, and he wanted to be home, that’s what it really was – he wanted an easier job.
He was five weeks into his first year of teaching, and it was time for parent teacher conferences. He remembered talking about these conferences in his Master’s classes – don’t let the conference go over five minutes – that was the only rule he could remember. He was big on rules, big on numbers, which was odd for an English teacher, but it’s how he made his money as lawyer. Nothing like what you see in the movies, no big time cases, putting people on the stand and grilling them. No his work was done in the office, behind a desk, finding the one sentence, the one loophole, the one thing that would win the case. He liked details.
But Mr. Koontz first few weeks at school had involved very little details. Instead there were a lot of situations like this: a large blonde woman sits down in front of you and she has a daughter, they look nice enough, but you can’t remember the girl’s name, not even a detail like her name.
“Can you spell your last name,” the man said as he licked his fingers and picked up the stack of progress reports.
“Smith,” said the woman. The daughter giggled.
“He didn’t even know my name, Momma.”
The man continued flipping through the progress reports but peaked one eye at the mother.
“Sure he did, baby – there’s lots of ways to spell Smith.”
The girl crossed her arms tightly across her chest and looked up at the ceiling.
The man exhaled as he continued to search for Smith in the stack of progress reports. Thankfully this mother got it, thought the man. They’d be out of here in no time. Whatever little problems he’d had with Chelsea – Chelsea Smith, he remembered it now – he’d get ironed out over the course of the next four minutes: four minutes remaining. They weren’t big problems anyway, small things like talking in class, a cell phone infraction, and that one time she poked him with her pencil. But that was an accident. He was sure of it. It had been an accident.
“Ah, here it is,” said the man.
He handed it over to the mother.
“Mr. Koontz, that right?” said the woman.
She held the paper at the sides, held it with both hands, and when he said the word, “ma’am”, she lowered the paper slowly from her face, lowered it and turned her eyes to Mr. Koontz.
“Don’t call me that.”
“I ain’t no ma’am.” She crossed her arms and looked up at the ceiling. “My momma used to make me say that, I ain’t no ma’am.”
“Yes m – ” he caught himself.
Not saying ma’am, or expecting someone to say it, was going to be hard for the time remaining in the conference. It was the one thing he had stuck to over the last five weeks – manners – at least teach the kids manners. If they wouldn’t learn metaphors or plot structure, then surely they could learn some manners. He’d fought it so hard that sometimes when he’d go home his wife would answer him with a simple, “Yes,” and he would say, “Yes what?”
“She got a seventy-eight in your class, that a C,” said the burly woman.
Mr. Koontz tried to decide if it was a question. He looked at the woman, then her daughter, and decided it was a question. “Yes, that is a C,” he said.
“I know what it is.”
“Ok, I guess I don’t – ”
“Chelsea can’t be gettin’ no C’s. I’m a single mom. Know what that is?” Mr. Koontz heard the woman’s language change, a slur in her words, something he hadn’t noticed before. “I work nights. I cain’t help her with no Shakespeare. I ain’t gonna be payin’ for no college either. She got all A’s in all her other classes.”
She picked up the progress report again, still holding it at both edges, picked it up and stared at it like her staring and her squeezing might change the grade without Mr. Koontz’s approval.
Mr. Koontz watched the burly blonde woman squeeze the paper. He was smaller than her, smaller by at least thirty pounds. He’d actually lost weight once he became a teacher, which he found odd, seeing as how he was home more, nowhere near the hours of a lawyer. But Mr. Koontz looked worn, like a tube of toothpaste rolled to the very top then flattened back out again.
The burly blonde mother stared at the paper. Mr. Koontz thought it might rip in half, the way she was holding it and staring.
“You got any problems with Chelsea?”
“No’m – , I mean, no, not really. Sometimes she talks with the other girls in class, but I moved her after the second week, so that isn’t really a – ”
The burly mother slammed the paper down cutting off Mr. Koontz.
“You moved her?”
Mr. Koontz looked left, then right.
“Nah, nah, naaaah,” said the burly mother and started to swing her gigantic head back and forth. Mr. Koontz noticed a crack in her hairline. A little piece had peeled up from the skin and was askew. Mr. Koontz thought her a Martian or a robot, the way things were progressing he would have believed either, but then he realized it was only a wig.
“Told you, momma. I told you,” Chelsea said.
The big woman continued swinging her head and Mr. Koontz kept starring at the fissure in her hairline. It was orange, like her scalp, orange with little dark specks in it. It looked like something from a haunted house makeup kit, Halloween in its color and texture. She kept swinging her head and the wig peeled farther and farther from her scalp. Now there was a two-finger-width hole atop the woman’s head.
“You moved Chelsea?”
“Yes?” said Mr. Koontz and the combination of her size and her wig made his voice crack a little.
“You ain’t read her modifications?”
“Her modifications,” she said, louder this time, like she was saying it in hopes of someone hearing, a principal maybe. “My Lord, you ain’t got a clue do you? Chelsea got problems. She ain’t normal. You can’t be treatin’ her normal. You got to treat her different, says so in her papers.”
She held the progress report again, held it so tight her knuckles turned white.
“Her papers?” said Mr. Koontz and when he did, the look in the gigantic woman’s face told him it was a mistake.
“If you don’t know about her papers then your ass is grass. That’s the first thing a teacher got a know, how to modify for they students.” She paused and looked back out across the cafeteria then leveled her sights on Mr. Koontz. “What her modifications, Mr. Koontz?”
The woman folded her arms tightly across her chest but this time did not look up at the ceiling, this time she looked at Mr. Koontz. Chelsea looked at her mother, then folded her arms across her chest and turned her head to Mr. Koontz. They both made a clicking sound with their cheek and gums, a clicking sound that Mr. Koontz recognized from his first five weeks at school – a sound of disapproval.
“Her papers say she has ADHD and a mild form of social anxiety,” Mr. Koontz said and crossed his arms. It was a shot in the dark, a guess, but hell almost every one of his students had ADHD and some form of anxiety. It was complete bullshit, complete and utter bullshit, but it was better than admitting defeat. His minutes were ticking away, less than two minutes now. This was his only chance.
The mother flinched, like someone had bounced a golf ball off of her forehead. Chelsea unfolded her hands, put them up and out.
“It ain’t a mild form of social anxiety,” said the mother. “It’s the bad kind, and if you knew that you knew you ain’t supposed to move her in class – makes her nervous.”
Mr. Koontz smiled. He found it, that one detail, a loophole that gave him a chance.
“Yes, but if I had not moved her, then the students around her in combination with her ADHD would have made it impossible to keep her focused. So I waited until after class and told her that she would move the next day. She did and it has greatly improved her grade.”
Chelsea’s hands were still up and out, her palms facing the ceiling.
“Chelsea, do you feel like your grade has improved since I moved you?”
Chelsea looked to her mother, but her mother just rolled her eyes up and into her head and blew at what she thought was a loose strand of hair but was actually a piece of the mesh from the wig.
“Yeah, it’s helped,” Chelsea said and put her head in her hands.
Mr. Koontz almost smiled, but fought the corners of his mouth, and then out of habit, a pure and honest hope to better the next generation through the acquisition of manners, he said it:
The mother’s eyes rolled back down from her head and leveled out on Mr. Koontz.
“What’d you just say to my baby?”
“I, uh, was just trying to get her to use her manners, you know to help her learn her manners – ”
“Nobody talks to my baby like that, my baby ain’t gotta say that to nobody. Makes me think of my momma. My momma’s all the time puttin’ us down like that, trying to force us to say this and do this. Cain’t nobody tell us what to do.”
Chelsea began crying, loud hysterical sobs, loud enough for people to turn and watch. Mr. Koontz’s brain quickened. He thought of escape, the loophole, the detail, something that could save him, but all he’d been given was the five-minute time limit. No one prepared him for this gigantic mother with doll-hair, her crying daughter, and their stiff aversion to manners.
“I – I’m, sorry?”
Neither mother nor daughter acted as if they heard him. In fact, when the word sorry came out of his mouth the mother joined in with her daughter, joined in with the chorus of cries and tears, the loud, baying sounds. Her tears were wet and thick, and they only added to the absurdity of the situation. She had been able to hide it when she first sat down, simply a large woman and her child, but now Mr. Koontz could see them for what they were – crazy.
The gigantic mother kept blubbering. Chelsea cried too. They each would cry, then stop, then the other would cry. Mr. Koontz didn’t know what to do. He looked back to his grandfather’s gold watch and realized that now more than seven minutes had passed since their first sitting down. He’d broken his only rule and wondered if this is what they had warned of? If these were the sort of dangers that awaited teachers who let parents stay for more than five minutes?
“Let’s get up,” he said and was surprised as he said it.
They looked up at him through red eyes.
“Yeah, yeah, let’s get up, get some fresh air,” he said.
He liked the idea more and more, liked it the more he said it. Get them up, get them out of here before the principal came by and started asking why this beast was howling at his table.
Without any question they both rose and started towards the door. Chelsea made sniffling sounds as they walked. They made it outside without obstructions, made it outside to the good clean air and then Mr. Koontz put his hand on the gigantic mother’s back. He wanted to show her he was a good guy – he was there to help. But when he placed his small hand amidst her massive back her skin tightened and recoiled – he knew he’d made a mistake.
“Don’t you touch me,” she said.
Chelsea began crying, loud and long again, crying right out there in the parking lot. Mr. Koontz looked back to the school.
“I’m sorry,” he said and when he did the large, hideous woman made another move.
“You just stop, you hear me? Stop with all that. Keep tellin’ me sorry. Keep tellin’ me do this, say that, then tellin’ me sorry. All we’s looking for was good grades, good grades to give her a chance at college. Thought maybe we’d get that, seeing as how Chelsea told me how you rubbed yourself up against her.”
Mr. Koontz looked first at her, then at Chelsea. Chelsea just cried.
“What? No.” he said. But the mother turned and ran from him. She went out into the parking lot, away from the lights of the school.
Mr. Koontz ran behind, yelling for them to stop.
Her car was parked in the back corner of the parking lot, back against the shadows of the lot, away from any light, away from other cars. She got to the car first and tried to unlock it. Mr. Koontz approached and saw movement from within, many small movements. Finally he realized that there were children and puppies inside the car, a mixture of both. He couldn’t tell whether the puppies outnumbered the children or the children outnumbered the puppies.
“I did no such thing,” he said, “I did no such thing!”
The gigantic, hideous poor mother’s wig had fallen off as she’d trotted through the parking lot and now the thin wisps of her hair twisted like snakes in the night.
“I’m tellin’,” she said, and then said it again.“I’m tellin’, I’m tellin.”
“No, no, please don’t,” said Mr. Koontz.
“I’m tellin’,” she said again.
“Listen,” said Mr. Koontz. “Surely we can work something out.”
The woman ran a hand up across her face and back through her hair, smearing all the Halloween rows up and into her serpent hair.
“Get in the car, Chelsea,” she said and sniffled.
Chelsea got in with the children and the puppies. She had to slide in sideways, so she didn’t squish one of the living things inside the car. The puppies licked her face and the children asked if she’d brought them anything: a Coke, a donut, anything, but Chelsea put her hands across her chest and stared at the roof of the car.
“Listen,” Mr. Koontz said, “I was passing out papers, and the rows of the desks are tight in my class. I’ve got so many students. I turned and Chelsea’s pencil jabbed me in the pants. I’m sure it was an accident – ”
The woman lurched forward and was inches away from his face.
“You son-a-bitch, you slimy son-a-bitch,” howled the woman. “ I tried tonight, really tried, for the first damn time, I tried. I got dolled up and got my ass to parent-teacher-conferences. Couldn’t even get a damn baby sitter or a dog sitter, but I tried, Chelsea’s gotta go to college. It’s gonna take all A’s for that lotto scholarship, so I fuckin’ tried.”
The woman stopped and breathed heavily. The pain in her words held Mr. Koontz close, so close that he felt drawn into her, sucked in. He put both arms across his chest, guarding himself. He almost ran, almost just took off running back to the light of the high school and out of this darkness, but then he heard her.
The gigantic, burly, hideous, Halloween-faced woman with wispy snakes for hair started crying, quietly crying, a cry that resonated with Mr. Koontz, and for the first time he saw through her mask.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Smith,” he said.
“Cain’t you just give her an A?” she said between quiet tears.
Mr. Koontz looked from the woman to her daughter. Chelsea still sat with arms tightly folded across her chest and looked up at the roof of the car while the puppies and the children moved in shadows around her.
“I cannot,” he said finally.
“You cain’t do nothin’?” She paused. “Nothin?”
He reached for his wallet, a few bucks would do it, a way to balance the equation, enough money to get them all a meal, maybe even some dog food. He took hold his wallet, but remembered the Coke machine, remembered there was no money.
The woman watched him reach for the wallet, watched him grab the thing, then pause and slide it back in his pocket. She made the clicking sound with her teeth and gums.
“Fuck you, man,” she said and opened the car door.
The man patted his pants for anything, something he could give her. He felt his grandfather’s watch. He reached in and took it in his hands like he had for the last ten years – ten years since his grandpa had left him the heavy, gold, beautiful thing.
“Wait,” he said.
The woman pulled her head back from the recesses of the car, back from the puppies, the children, and Chelsea. She closed the door. She eyed him to see what this charade had earned her.
“Listen,” he said, “this watch is worth good money.”
Mr. Koontz held the watch up in the dark. But its luster could not be seen in the darkness of the parking lot. He held it up and out and towards the woman. Before he let her take it, he spoke again.
“You take and sell this thing, sell it and it’ll bring good money, money you can use to help pay for Chelsea’s college. Do you understand?”
The large woman clawed for the watch, but Mr. Koontz pulled it back.
“Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I got it,” she said.
“Yes,” she said sharply.
“Yes what?” said Mr. Koontz.
He did not plan on such a proposition. It had simply flowed out of him from habit. His words settled. When he understood what was at stake he felt the corners of his mouth rise to a smile in the darkness.
“Fuck you, man – fuck you.”
The woman turned, got in the car, and slammed the door. Chelsea pawed at her mother when she entered, pawed to see what she had taken from the man, but found nothing. The puppies and the children milled in the floorboards.
Mr. Koontz took the watch and slid it neatly back into his pocket. He turned and headed for the lights of the school, back to the cafeteria. As he stepped through the doors and into the light he saw his table. There were already parents waiting, a good long line of them, differing in shapes and sizes and all sorts of other things he could not see.
As he approached the parents he took the gold watch from his pocket and sat it on his table. He made note of the slender, minute hand. The next parent in line was already sitting and waiting. She looked normal enough. Mr. Koontz introduced himself, and before the woman could respond he said, “We have five minutes.”
Eli Cranor is twenty-nine years old and lives in Russelville, Arkansas. He played quarterback at Quachita Baptist University while earning an English Literature degree. He then played ball in Sweden. For more information check him out at http://elicranor.weebly.com.