James Mulhern’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in over one hundred literary journals and anthologies. In 2013, he was a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His writing has earned a Kirkus Star. His most recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Award winner, a Notable Best Indie Book of 2019, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019, and a RED RIBBON WINNER, highly recommended by The Wishing Shelf Book Awards in the United Kingdom.
By James Mulhern
When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.”—(John 19-20)
One day, Deidre Schleppi, a fellow English teacher, and I are walking down the hallway. Someone has smashed the front of a vending machine. Bags of Lays potato chips, Doritos, Starbursts, Cheetos, Skittles, and other assorted healthy foods that we provide for our students lie on the floor in a chaotic mess. A senior who looks old for his age pours several bottles of water onto the cracked linoleum, creating a small flood. Water spills onto his long beard and flared white shirt. Laughing students crouch, dive, and slide, shoving one another to get the goods. They remind me of children playing at the beach.
“Hey!” I shout. “Get away from there.”
When they see Deidre and me, they begin to bolt, some hurriedly exchanging money for the most coveted sweets.
“Fuck you!” a girl in a red dress screams at us, cramming a dollar into her pocket.
By the time we reach the machine, the looters have dispersed. To our amazement, everything is gone except for a few Skittles spread across the blue floor; each candy reminds me of a lost and lonely person.
“This school is out of control,” Deidre says, looking around. “Where the hell is security?”
Ms. Lane comes out of her classroom. “I called the office, guys,” she says. “I was eating my lunch in the back of my room when I heard this loud crack and boom. I was scared to death. I didn’t dare step outside.” She is a beautiful 20-something brunette from El Paso, Texas. Fresh-faced and athletic, she could pass for one of the kids. “It sounded like a car crash.”
In a few moments, Ms. Jackson, our principal, and two maintenance people show up. Cecelia is a demure Latin woman with a broom always in hand, and Carver, a tall, serious man with pale blue eyes and a red stache that he obsessively fingers.
“Did any of you see who did this?” Ms. Jackson’s impeccably clean and shiny blond hair glitters like a helmet under the fluorescent light. She’s wearing a stylish black business suit and pumps–probably Gucci, Prada, or some other expensive designer.
“Not exactly. Ms. Schleppi and I were just returning from the cafeteria when we saw a crowd of kids making off with the food. It was a free for all. Reminded me of Filene’s Basement at Christmas. But without the sound of ‘Oh Holy Night.’ The hideous Muzak version.” I laugh.
All business, Ms. Jackson finds no humor in the situation. She squats down to pick up a big piece of glass. To Cecelia and Carver she says, “If a student cuts himself, we could have ourselves a terrible lawsuit.” She waves the long sliver in the air like a sword. Cecelia ducks, as though she thinks Ms. Jackson might slice her with it. “I want this thing moved and the whole area swept thoroughly.
“You English teachers,” she says to the rest of us, “need to have more of a presence in the hallway. I’d appreciate your checking the hallway periodically and keeping an eye on the vending machine once I get it repaired. We should all be vigilant, no matter what time of day. I don’t want this to happen a second time.” She glanced around. “What a mess these children have created.” She nods and looks down.
I survey the dimly lit hall with its deep-blue floors and the shabby gray lockers. Shit. Another pain-in-the-ass thing to do. When do we get to teach?
“Will that be a problem?”
“Yeah, I have a problem,“ Deidre says. “Where’s security? Why aren’t they up here during lunch? It’s not the teachers’ responsibility to patrol the campus.” Her face is red.
“Some of the students are pretty disruptive,” I say. “Something’s gotta be done.” I can feel my own anger rising.
“Look. I understand where you guys are coming from. But security can’t do it alone. I need the cooperation of my teachers.”
Ms. Lane says, “Isn’t anybody watching the cameras?” She points to the camera at the end of the hall.
“They’re supposed to be. On my way up here, I checked with Ms. Vickman. Evidently, she screwed up. She didn’t have the damn camera on, or it’s broken, or God knows what’s wrong with the system. I promise you I’ll check into it. By the end of the week, I’ll have this fixed.” She pats the side of the vending machine. “And I’ll be watching the cameras myself.”
The period bell rings and students begin to enter the corridor. Ms. Jackson pushes her way through a group of flashy Latin girls who mutter under their breath “bitch” and “fat ass,” but Jackson either doesn’t hear, or chooses to ignore them.
The next day I teach “Civil Disobedience” to my American Literature class.
As always, it takes a while to get the students settled. When I tell them to put their cell phones, iPods, and any other electronic devices away, I always feel like the classroom is about to take off. I’m the flight attendant and they are my passengers.
“Put all book bags underneath your desks and open your textbooks to page 192.”
I start to read Thoreau’s essay aloud. The kids are talking over me. A few haven’t opened their books yet. Eventually, though, the class settles down, becomes less frenetic, and some are listening. Mostly, they don’t understand the turgid prose, so I have to stop every few sentences and paraphrase. When I get to the sentence, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” Leo Turpin, one of the chronic nappers, raises his hand. The other kids think he is cool and call him “Turp.”
“So this guy is saying that we don’t have to do what other people tell us?” He leans back in his chair, smirking.
“In a way, Leo. Thoreau is talking about an individual’s conscience as being the most important aspect of who we are. You remember Emerson? ‘Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind’ and his other quote, ‘What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?’’’ He looks clueless, as do most of the others.
Brandi, a heavyset black girl who is always writing about her diabetes, raises her hand. “Isn’t he the guy that invented electricity?”
“You’re talking about Edison. He invented the light bulb. Good point though.” I don’t think it’s a good point, but sometimes you lie because at least students are listening and some semblance of a discussion has begun.
Darren from the back shouts, “What page?”
Sandy, a quiet Pakistani girl next to him, points to the paragraph in his book. Sandy types are blessings.
Beneatha by the back window says, “I gotta use the bathroom.”
“Not now,” I say firmly.
“Mr. . . .” She looks around, confused. I hear her say to Reggie under her breath, “What’s his name?” I have been her teacher for four months.
“Mr. McCarthy, if you don’t let me go, my pussy’s gonna burst.” This is followed by laughter from the others.
“You better go,” I say. “And don’t be such a smartass with that mouth of yours.”
Amelia and Brandi are whispering. Then Amelia raises her hand.
“I like this guy,” she says. At first I think she is going to tell us about another boyfriend who broke her heart, but I am jubilant to realize she is talking about Thoreau. “It’s cool what he says about government and how we don’t need one.”
Brandi adds, “Yeah, why should we have to follow laws if we don’t agree with them? We should only have to listen to our own conscious. No one has a right to tell us how to think or what we should do.”
“It’s conscience, you moron,” Mary Grace, a pimple-faced obese white girl from Georgia shouts from the back of the room. She is always reading. Lately, she is consumed with the Bible. She told me she was going to finish it by the end of the school year. “And Mr. McCarthy, I don’t think living by yourself in the woods for two years like Thoreau did is healthy. I think he was a narcissist.”
“What’s a narcissist?” Brandi asks.
“It’s a person who is really into himself. Very self-centered.”
Mary Grace snickers and opens Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. I don’t care that she rarely pays attention to what we’re reading in class. She is far ahead of the other students.
“Amelia and Brandi both make good points,” I add. “Thoreau thinks our conscience is very important. An individual, according to him, should have the freedom to disobey a law that his conscience tells him is unjust. He’s saying that it is really important for us to speak up if we have decided that something isn’t right. What would happen, though, if we all decided to ignore the laws that we disagreed with? And what would happen if we didn’t have any laws at all? If we didn’t pay attention to what other people needed and just lived for ourselves?”
“You’re so smart, Mr. McCarthy. How do you remember all these ideas?” Amelia says.
“I read a lot, and all of you should too. Reading helps make you a free thinker.”
Mary Grace says, “You can read all you want but it won’t make you a better person. You need to act in the world, not retire from it like Thoreau. Helping others is what God wants us to do. You don’t know everything, Mr. McCarthy.”
Brandi, still focused on Thoreau, says, “Everyone should just do what they want. We shouldn’t have to follow rules if we think they’re dumb. It’s messed up.”
“This school is like a prison,” Amelia says, and the other members of the class are suddenly very interested.
Someone says, “Yeah. Fuck this place.”
“Hey! Watch your language,” I say.
Then bits of black dust begin to spew out of the air conditioning vent next to the American flag.
“What’s that?” Trisha, a student prone to hysteria, shouts.
“Mr.! There’s black shit all over my desk,” Mike says.
“Lily, you got some in your hair!” Vega jumps up and points.
Lily pushes her hands through her hair and screams. “Oh my God!”
The fire alarm goes off and I manage to guide my class along the corridor and down the east stairwell to the designated area of lawn behind the school. After accounting for all my students who meet me under a fichus tree, I walk over to Deidre and Ms. Lane, who are leaning against a chain-link fence by a section of dead grass.
“Stupid bastards,” Deidre says. “They are working on the roof and they forget to turn off the ventilation system. All of us breathing in that tar. That stuff is so carcinogenic.”
“Really?” Lane gasps. “Cancer runs in my family. Like I need any more risk factors.” She puts her hand over her mouth and looks visibly distressed.
“Look at her,” Deidre says, pointing to Jackson who is yelling up at two roofers descending a ladder by the auditorium. “I’m sure she’s giving them hell. Probably worried about another lawsuit. Forget about the health of the faculty and students.” She shakes her head.
“She’s not so bad,” Lane says. “It’s not her fault that they fucked up. Can’t blame her for everything. She’s got a lot on her plate.” Lane looks smug like she knows something we don’t.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I was talking to her secretary, Elsa. She said Jackson has a mother at home with dementia and a brother who doesn’t do anything but hang out all day. He’s unemployed. Never even finished high school. She said Jackson’s been getting a lot of calls from neighbors who find her mother wandering around the neighborhood, lost. Her brother is usually stoned in his room. A total loser.”
Brandi and Amelia come running over to us.
“Is the school on fire?” Brandi asks excitedly.
“No, but we’ll probably all get cancer,” Deidre mumbles, then laughs.
“I’m sure they’ll clean it all up,” I say.
Carver and Cecelia have joined Jackson and the roofers. Jackson is giving the two of them some directives. They nod their heads, ask a couple questions, and then head into the building. Jackson takes her radio from her waist and says something. A few minutes later, Ms. Vickman and two other security guards make the rounds among the crowd of faculty and students. We’re told that we’ll be allowed to enter the building in about twenty minutes, once the maintenance crew has had a chance to clean up. The students are disappointed that the school didn’t go up in a blaze.
“They don’t care about us,” Amelia says. “We could get cancer and die.”
I explain to the kids that their chances of getting cancer from this one incident are slim.
“Uh-uh,” Brandi says. “This ain’t right. It’s like that guy Walden said.”
“You mean Thoreau,” I say.
“Yeah him. This is a type of injustice. We should break a law or something.” She’s smiling and wide-eyed.
“Yeah. We should stage some kinda civil obedience,” Amelia adds. “Do something to make a statement.”
“Disobedience. You dumbass,” Brandi says.
That afternoon, I stay late to put grades into the computer, which is a rarity for me. I’m usually one of the first to leave. When I exit the building, the parking lot is nearly empty. In the far corner, behind the cafeteria dumpster, I spot Jackson, who waves for me to come over. She’s staring at the side of her silver Audi as I approach.
“Look at this.”
Someone has keyed her car from front to back on the driver’s side.
“Well that sucks,” I say, rubbing my hand over a portion of the scratch. Then I see where the vandal etched “bitch.”
“At least they spelled it right.” Jackson laughs.
“You can check these cameras, can’t you?” I point to them and wonder if the car scratching is Brandi and Amelia’s doing, their idea of civil disobedience. I’m pissed at the monsters I might have created.
“Nope. The entire surveillance system is down. I have a service person coming tomorrow. It seems everything’s falling apart. Everything’s broken. Can’t even park in my designated spot because of the burst pipe in front of the school. God knows when they’ll be through with that project. I thought my car would be safe over here, off the beaten track.”
“Nothing’s safe anymore,” I say.
“You can say that again.” She leans against the hood of the car and takes a cigarette out of her purse. “You want one?”
“Nah. I don’t smoke.”
“One of my vices. Helps me with the stress.” She lights up, then exhales slowly. “I know the kids hate me. Most of the faculty too. But I’m just trying to do my job. Keep things running smoothly, maybe make a few improvements. Get us the money we need. You understand that, don’t you?”
Her cellphone rings and she takes it out of her back pocket, then steps away while holding up her index finger. She speaks softly into the phone. Her expression is strained and serious.
When she’s finished, she says, “My mother. She keeps asking for me. That was the aide who looks in on her a couple times a week. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease. Do you have anyone in your family with it?”
“No. Well at least not yet.”
“Good.” She tamps her cigarette out against the side of the dumpster, then flicks it inside. “I wouldn’t wish that disease on anyone. Watching someone lose their mind is awful, Jack.” I’m surprised by her use of my first name. She looks at the sky. “You ever just want some peace?” Her voice cracks. “Something to take your mind off your troubles?”
“Sure. We all do. It’s the nature of being human.”
“My mother isn’t who she used to be. She was a strong woman, very independent. I wish I had asked her more questions when she was well. I wish I had taken the time to talk to her. Really talk to her. We spend too much time in our heads, alone with our thoughts. There’s so much I wish I knew about her life, but it’s too late. If only I had asked. Done more things with her.” She is staring at a darkening cloud. Then she nods her head, not to me, but to something she is thinking. “I miss her.” She sighs and looks into my face. Her eyes are rheumy. “Thank you for coming over. I needed to vent. . . . Sorry. I didn’t mean to make this a self-pity party. There are a lot of people with worse problems than me.”
“Venting is good for the soul,” I say feebly. “I think all of us sometimes feel adrift and wayward.”
She smiles at me. “Spoken like a brilliant English teacher. . . . I’m outta here,” she says, opening her car door. “You should go home too. Before you get drenched.” She looks up. “That sky looks ominous.” A flash of lightning zigzags in the sky beyond her.
On the way home, I think about the chaos and brokenness that surrounds me—the tumult in my classroom, the ridiculous vending machine, the cameras that do not work, Jackson’s mother wandering and becoming disoriented, Thoreau’s isolation in the woods, Mary Grace and her comments. The thought of all these things depresses me.
It begins to rain hard now, as is often the case during South Florida afternoons. People dodge puddles as they hurry across the street, some with umbrellas, others holding bags over their heads. When I pass the church on the corner of 19th Street and 20th Avenue, the rain is pelting, obscuring the road in front of me. I drive into the parking lot to wait it out and read the large quote on the entry sign. The irony in the words of St. Francis strikes me: “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
But could my wounds, or those of anyone else, ever be healed? And isn’t it a law of physics that objects in our world eventually fall apart: entropy, the gradual decline into disorder leading ultimately to the death of our universe. Galaxies are floating further and further away, drifting into the infinity of space. That is alienation, not unity. On this October day, so much of life seems “fallen apart,” spiraling into an inevitable state of decline.
What is the way for those who are lost? Who will tell us? Had Mary Grace been trying to tell me? Maybe I am too full of myself, hiding in a world of ideas, afraid to participate in life. I think again of Ms. Jackson’s regrets about her relationship with her mother. Like the galaxies, I feel like I’m drifting and alone.
These are my thoughts as I sit in the steeple-shadowed parking lot. I put the wipers on high and rub the inside of the fogged-up windshield. Lightning crackles across the dark horizon. I wait.
Soon the time between the thundering lengthens, and the intense rain begins to diminish. I pray that before long I will be able to see the way home. When I am able to put my wipers on low, I turn the radio to a classic rock station. I ease out of the parking lot, reading the other side of the sign: “Will you follow the road to experience God’s salvation and have eternal life? Join us Sundays 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.” I turn right onto 20th Avenue. As the light at the next intersection turns green, Paul McCartney sings about Father McKenzie wiping the dirt off his hands as he walks from the grave. The moment feels strange as if the universe hears my thoughts. Poor Eleanor Rigby, I think. In the opposite lane, a Chrysler hydroplanes over a flood of water and hits me straight on.