The first time he was suicidal, he didn’t notice. He
mistook it for exhaustion and boredom, engaged in an
existential meditation in his apartment, under the covers.
Outside rush-hour screamed, tires scraping, brake lights
scattering like ice against the curb. One day he no longer
enjoyed the beach. It was gone. Same with the park. The
birds, the sun, the rocks smushed into white noise. Books,
music, films, and food washed into a horizon sunset that
did nothing for him.
Funny how easy we fall: Mr. Peter Lisky squeaked across
the board the day he planned – absopositively this time –
to kill himself. Chalk dust floated off the words like steam.
He swallowed a packet of dry white pills confiscated from
He had fallen weeks behind schedule. Obligations,
errands, appointments, tune-ups, grading, cleaning, DMV,
alphabetizing, bills, more DMV, laundry, noting any
pending matters in Excel. No one notices when you’re
alive, but I promise you, my friend, they will notice when
you’re not. You’re the car that never moves for street
cleaning, tickets stuck in the wiper blade like headstone
flowers… or the guy who never returned that fucking video
rental, the small things that stitch your neighbors’ lives
Having spent all of spring break whittling down a final draft,
Peter felt attached to the letter, as if he should be included
with it, a living appendix. His Goodbye Packet should not
be too lengthy, so he used bullets to make his points: to
dissuade readers from skimming ahead to the end. A
calming memory surfaced – Easter morning, flipping
through his note cards and library books with cellophane
covers that crackled when he squeezed.
He forgot to return Emerson, the collection that didn’t have
the quotation he needed. It was at home: a trap that could
suck him into the laptop, the oven, the couch, until sunrise
spat him back to the classroom, students staring, chewing
gum, tapping fingers.
When you’re alive, you can rot in your apartment, pacing,
sleeping, spooning down just enough cereal, milk cartons
collapsed in the recycling bin under the sink. One morning
the alarm goes off just once, no snooze button. The smell
comes out in whiffs, your whole residence a dirty sauce
pan, until the hallway is uninhabitable. Someone kicks
down your door and shoves you in a casket. He’d hate to
be that guy.
The pills, he felt, were just enough to help him sink into the
tide if the impact didn’t finish him. That way he wouldn’t be
out there for hours, splashing, squinting for shark fins in
the white-out ripples. He intended not to barge in on
someone’s Saturday, another seaweed-socket corpse with
jellied skin, totally traumatizing a small child. A bag of
chum will be strapped to his chest like explosives. The
sharks will escort his remains.
The sky looked soft. The pills, piled in his belly, brought
him closer to his students, in purely kinesthetic terms.
Their sighs, rolled eyes, teeth sucking, tongue clicking
made sense. He inhabited their ideal physicality, his head
tilted against the noduled padded walls of the capsules.
“One if by land… too messy… two if by sea… jussst right,”
Good thing he stopped home. Plates piled to the faucet.
The last thing he wanted to do was leave behind pale
broccoli stuck in the sink. Washing dishes relaxed him,
conjured a mild sense of accomplishment, running his
fingers through mini-waterfalls and rivulets. A sensation
that connected all of humanity, all of time – his soapy
hands, foam dripping down his wrists, up his sleeve cuffs.
The ride to the library was gorgeous, almost blissful –
sundown wind exhilarating, not overbearing. He dumped
Emerson through the slot and considered, as it clacked
back and forth, that he had imagined the quotation he was
First week of school, last fall, he found out none of his
students wore bike helmets. This bothered the hell out of
“If you fall and hit your head and become brain-damaged,
how do you expect…?”
He froze with his hand cupped. Some stared, or worse,
those who never looked. “To get any better with your
One boy, nameless, furrowed his brows. “That
statement… sir.” He raised his hand.
“That statement is offensive… sir.”
Peter cleared his throat and apologized. He reached for
the window. Someone stopped him.
The kids didn’t want sun in there. Fresh air was out also,
locked behind the latch. He drew a brainstorm map on the
“It boils down to this: I envy your freedom, but also fear for
you. It took me a long time to ride, even on sidewalks. I’
ve seen bicyclists get doored by iron apartment gates –
doored on a sidewalk, can you believe that?”
He wondered aloud, with chalk scrapes, why they didn’t
want sun or breeze inside… if it was a denial mechanism
that they didn’t want to see the good weather because
they’d rather be in it – bird chirps to a prisoner.
He finished his scraping. He craved a little bit of curtain
open, to remind him there was something out there.
“Jenny, knock it off. I know you’re doing something under
“What?” she said, smiling.
“I see your forearms flexing, which means you’re moving
your fingers.” Peter glanced out the curtain slit, tugged it,
a thin pie slice of panorama. “Put the phone away.”
When the bell sounded, he watched Jenny walk to the
door. She carried herself with such confidence. She lilted
like a ring girl. He could hear each pop of her hip. He
figured she had been sexually abused as a child. “It was a
camera, Mr. Lisky,” she said, pulling up her sweats.
At home, he threw a leftover bagasse container in the
microwave. He hoped it was a half-chewed burger with
extra onion but didn’t bother to look inside. Meals had
become a textured smear in his routine.
His laptop sat in the corner of the tilted kitchen where he
could tap into his neighbor’s wireless. He searched the
web pages for student perspectives on bike riding. Most
posts were boring and unintelligible until he ran into a
video diary site. Nope, no bike helmets, just hairspray and
hats. Hours of bike stunt footage and close-ups of the
wounds. Gashes and abrasions appeared to be squeezed
out from condiment and make-up tubes. Friends stood by,
not applying pressure to the wound, only pressing the
zoom lens into it. They couldn’t call 911 because they
were filming with their phones.
Kids stuck their faces in front of the lens, yelling things and
making elaborate gestures that, beyond their innate
gibberish, communicated: I am famous right now. In a
trance, he teleported from clip to clip, the sounds of the
ocean waves filling in the loading time. A double-click
brought him through a portal. The scroll bar shrunk under
the slew of thumbnails labeled “girl fight” and “cat fight”
that flowed down the screen.
He had attended his share of high school sport events but
this… this was different. En vogue as it was to crouch in
the bleachers and watch young ladies grunt with lacrosse
sticks and shoulder-block each other across the ball court,
sliding on their gym shorts, as if the collision had been
choreographed, he had the experience of being the only
male who wasn’t whispering something lewd. These
videos were visceral: pouted lips, clenched fists, blue
fingernails, sassy dance taunts, vigorous brawls. Girls
tossed and tussled, until one got shoved to the pavement,
and the other stood above the fallen one, and the crowd
He recognized one of his handouts flying out a girl’s hand,
blown against the lens. His stomach tingled. Four hours
later he reheated his food. He poked at dry eggs and ham.
Around Halloween, just when he thought he wasn’t getting
through, he caught references to his class discussions in
their video comments. He was touched. The phrases lit
his guts: Wolverine that shit. Another Hansel and Gretel
sitch. Goliath got whupped. Go tell your Grendal motha
that! Whatever Macbeth witch #2!
Engaged in a private brainstorm exercise before his first
student clunked up the staircase that morning, he asked
himself, So what if his discussion notes were appropriated
by students for smack talk on web pages he should have
never seen? In an unorthodox manner, he was
supervising troubled youth – this was his conclusion.
The best was when he told them about Bluebeard – the
whole here’s the keys for the weekend, darling, you can
explore any room in the castle, the garden, the theater,
just don’t use this one key in this one room, yet curiosity
gets the best of our damsel and she peeks downstairs, the
door creaking so loudly her hubby must have heard it at
the other end of town, and in shock she drops the key on
the tile into the blood and beads and diamonds and
powdery petals of his past wives, piled to the chandelier,
the ones who looked before, and she can’t get the rusty
blood off the tip, scrubbing it in the sink, peering out the
window, until guess what, there’s ol’ Bluebeard, trekking up
the winding road, carrying roses.
During silent written response time, the ladies threw up
their hands. They said they wouldn’t be having that with
Blueballs or whatever the idiot’s name was, chuckle,
chuckle. “Hell no.” They pivoted their fingers in the air
and wiggled their necks. “Can you say, ‘intimacy issues!’”
While it was an old story, he appreciated their desire to
whoop Bluebeard’s ass, really. “That’s a rather proactive
By the end of the week, an online post read: “You blue-
bearding that shit, bitch.” He couldn’t tell if this was one of
his students or a trickle-down. This was followed by a
threat about set colors. The initial Bluebeard poster
retaliated, “That’s not a gang reference, dummy. Don’t
you know your history?” It was dark outside.
Peter took a stroll into the purple night, the willow trees,
the pink-lit bushels, really getting a feel for his
neighborhood, the city “out there” that used to scare him.
Passing the post office, he flinched at a metallic tapping,
envisioning a knife being sharpened, and looked between
the branches at the flag rings clanking the pole in the
wind. A few minutes later he smiled over wine. “I must be
a good teacher if the lesson notes get used in territorial
gang idioms.” He chuckled. “Technically, the Blue Beard
one wasn’t a gang thing, like the girl said, but you know
what I mean.” He typed into his AnonyBlog, “I think I’m
becoming a better teacher.” He couldn’t finish the glass.
He wasn’t much of a drinker.
Beep-beep, the oven said. Unlike a microwave, this thing
will stuff your apartment with smoke, even if you don’t
finish what you are doing in the corner at the keyboard,
stacked on an unopened vacuum box and a mail-ordered
iron, also unopened, for the best wireless reception
borrowed from your neighbor. Beep-beep. He had a few
more minutes. He couldn’t smell the burning yet.
His ex-fiancé had a thing when she was a little girl, at a
swimming pool party. Sitting on her dad’s lap, he clutched
her hips and said, “You’ll look better than these other
women. You’ll look like mommy.” The way she felt at that
moment, she wanted to ask, “Is this puberty?” Due to a
bleary context at the edge of the pool, she wasn’t sure if
that afternoon qualified as bona fide abuse. Still, she
imagined a huge pair of hands holding her there, which
amounted to a swagger that could stop an entire street
hockey game faster than yelling, Car! The ramifications of
influence and power haunted Peter, and helped him with
his literature dissertation.
At the board, he brought up Jeckel and Hyde. He feigned
nonchalance, the way one plants a topic strand to fulfill
their secret fetish. He glanced around the room, awaiting
“Mmhmm, we know that one,” one girl said.
“It’s a common motif in cinema,” one boy, still nameless,
“Motif,” Peter said, “now that’s a great—“
“All that Apollonian/Dionysian stuff. Werewolf. Yin-yang.
“Wow,” Peter said.
“Steven King foreword,” the boy shrugged. “Frankenstein.”
“Nice!” Peter said.
One of the girls clucked her tongue, which still made him
“Whatever, Montresor,” someone muttered.
The nameless boy disappeared for the rest of the week.
Peter found out why on the web. A bunch of girls circled
the boy like wolves. Peter was disgusted and exhilarated
by the loudest one who spat at the boy and shoved him
with such a jolt that his legs kicked up in the air, parallel to
the pavement. The video muffled with shouting, directed
at the nameless boy, who got called all sorts of things.
Choppy pixels concealed the loud one’s identity, the plump
calves in windpants, now in silhouette, as the sun blinded
Peter through the lens and the sound of kicking began.
He prayed this attack was not a footnote to their last class
discussion. Over the weekend, three more videos of the
same fight popped up, shot at different angles. He signed
off immediately and started the oven to reheat his very late
dinner. He jammed the unopened boxes in the closet,
heaped laundry on top of them, stuck the laptop on the
other end of the apartment at his desk where it could not
receive wireless, and watched the Late Show. He fell
Peter tutored students, one on one, during recess. The
warm, moldy Leap Program office needed an open
window, but the girls said it was cold and blew their papers
around. “And so it goes.” He rolled up his cuffs and
immersed himself in the smell of hairspray and socks and
takeout. Jenny came late. She sat with jeans that seemed
smeared on her thighs, and her legs were slightly apart,
and he helped her with her vocabulary, and she was lazy
and wanted him to do it for her.
Squeezed right out of a packet, that scent of plastic syrupy
sweat. A giant dictionary pressed into her lap, the antique
kind with a gold string hanging out the bottom. Jenny
wasn’t too much under eighteen.
He looked up statutory laws as soon as he left the room.
Peter leaned against his handlebars, laptop dangling off
his lap, the sun raw and heavy, catching a fingernail
connection of wireless on the street corner. Swinging from
link to link, he stumbled upon a private chat room, the
Locker Room of Upstanding Citizens. He entered his
occupation and the laptop said, BLOOP.
Lawyer said, “Hi Teacher D. I’ll be your humble moderator
this fiscal year.”
Peter wrote, “Hello there.” His forearms pulsed as he
typed, getting tanner, and toner. Looking off into
stratocumulus clouds – or perhaps nimbostratus – he
typed: “One night laying there, ya know, with my ex-fiancé
on top, I was haunted by the idea of her being the conduit
for her father’s lap-horsy rhythms. As if they had been
digitally recorded on her flesh.” The bell rang. “I imagined
him floating behind us, like we were being taught how to
bowl. That’s why I had to leave and get out of my lifestyle
and do something good, like teaching. It’s a freaky cycle.”
The chat room exchanged LOL’s. “It’s true,” he said, “but I
guess it’s funny now.”
Being the newbie, they had tons of questions. “I have a
crush on J— the way I would if I were her age. It’s
innocent. But I’m trapped in a man’s body. I need a trans-
age operation.” He typed his first LOL. It moved up the
screen as they added their own LOLs.
“That’s the cENTER of the bell curve, my friend.”
“Really? You think so?”
“Mr. Lisky,” the kids called from the window. “My
In the stairwell, the nameless boy (who never spoke in
class anymore) whispered, “I didn’t proof this essay before
I turned it in. But look at this. I misspelled ‘torchure.’ You
didn’t mark it.” He leaned against the railing.
“I… wanted you to learn for yourself. I won’t always be
here for you. You’ve… how should I put this?“
“Dude, you sound like my mom.”
The kitchen reminded Peter more and more of a
dungeon. The sticky spills of tea and lemonade in the
corner that he never cleaned up. The chair reeked of
mildewed towel, so he lit a vanilla candle to neutralize the
In the Locker Room, he confessed: “I’m stumbling down a
secret passage – much like a bumbling detective leaning
on a bookshelf that spins open – where teens are doing
things they shouldn’t. A fly on the wall, a nasty despicable
fly. When you’re finished, you delete the URL, and if you
could you’d toss that damn cookie cache out to sea. It’s
like deleting a phone number you’ve already memorized.”
BLOOP. Lawyer laughed. “Aw shucks Teacher D. That
ain’t nothing. You ever provoke one of those fights?”
“Not on purpose,” Peter muttered. He turned down the
oven. Olive oil sputtered and bubbled in the crevices of
Lawyer elaborated: “Our friends Referees A, C, and G
make some bad calls. And pretty soon the ladies are
slamming each other into the net, now a giant piece of
lingerie, sliding across the fresh-waxed floor, pulling hair,
shrieking. Here’s the link.”
BLOOP. A link popped up. Peter x-ed out the window
before he could bookmark it. In the distance, a
jackhammer shredded, and a foghorn droned. It was clear
and sunny outside.
“I think I have a problem,” Peter wrote. Becoming so
accustomed to the clunky internet postings his student’s
papers didn’t nauseate him anymore – this was his litmus
test that something was wrong. His world view shifted
under his feet.
“Everyone fibs. You’re being too hard on yourself,”
His foot stuck to the tile. “You know that whole bell curve
thing,” Peter typed. “I’m going to maintain an eight foot
pendulum radius from J—.”
No LOLs on the forum. The keys creaked like crickets.
“I’ve been thinking: what about the ones who
hyperventilate for the rest of their lives whenever they
smell a certain cologne or see a certain car.”
BLOOP. “Well that happens with tequila in college.”
“Seriously though, haven’t you considered that?”
BLOOP. “You say trauma, I say conditioning. Tomayto,
“Are you really a lawyer?” Peter asked. Lawyer’s icon
idled and faded. He cut up his filet and it was tasty.
BLOOP. “Trust me buddy. I can get a blow job from your
underage daughter and make YOU go to jail for it. I’m an
upstanding citizen, buddy. I’ll have the villagers chasing
you with torches at the snap of a finger.”
Peter, chewing, wrote: “It took you 45 minutes to think of
that?” He included an LOL to cushion the tone. The other
Locker Room members idled out or signed off. He had the
sneaking suspicion they were talking about him in another
room, volleying fantasies about the daughter he didn’t
have. To nobody, he typed: “Your keys are stained…”
Two bots came on and solicited. He slammed the laptop
like a medicine cabinet. He took a walk, so much feedback
to fit in the margins. He graded papers at the park,
watched people walk their dogs, they watched him watch
them, the trees rustled. The papers blew out of his lap.
The sea gulls scattered. He scooped them up, back into
his bag. He leaned back. He let the sun heal him.
It was Vietnamese leftovers again, half-heated by the
faculty lounge microwave. Its walls, caked with sauce,
resembled a low-budget horror flick.
She materialized in the doorframe, carrying a book half the
length of her torso. He tried not to look pleased. The last
“Mr. Lisky, you really like chicken and broccoli.”
“Much more than the average bear.” Jenny stared.
“It’s the sauce. I’m not saying it’s good for you, but when
you get to be an old man like me…”
“A neurotic one?”
She opened the thesaurus. “A batty one? A buggy one?
A cockamamie, daffy one? A demented one? A
“Okay, I’m busted,” he laughed, and covered up his lips.
He’d been talking with his mouth full. He scratched out a
brainstorm sheet: Coping Mechanism. In a small box, he
jotted: entitlement toward rudeness and odd behavior. He
left a space on the right column for comments. He
believed, through studious analysis and consideration, he
could make himself a better person.
She leaned into the book, all breasts, and sucked the eyes
right out of his head. Like a cartoon wolf. Peter scooted
his chair back and stood, covering the front of his pants
with a notebook the way he hadn’t since he was her age.
His eight foot radius was breached. “Well it’s getting late,”
he said, and smiled.
“What’s your bedtime? 4 PM?”
“L…O…L,” he said.
“Omigod.” She kicked her head back. “You’re such a
psycho.” She snickered. He’d seen her behave like this
on her video blog. Off camera, it was less mystifying. She
stopped snickering. “You look…” She glanced at the
thesaurus cover. “You look… happy.”
On the bridge, the sunset wasn’t a bummer reminder of
another day gone, the cars zipping past, the trajectory of
synapse, the stink of exhaust, the color of rubber glue.
Below, the ocean tore itself apart and pasted together. It
doodled, whispered, ran, crawled, it didn’t have a hall pass.
He pulled out his camera to snap a picture. Peter saw it as
a cruel joke of divinity – which he didn’t believe in – how
things could fall into place at a moment like this. He’d tied-
up the loose ends and compiled a touching Goodbye
Packet for the world. His stomach dropped. He realized
that, during his errands, he had misplaced his package. It
was supposed to be at the post office. He patted his
His eyes bobbed around the fixtures of the bridge, the
glints of wave, the windshield, the lights blinking in the
city. It was gone. Somewhere out there.
He leaned into the camera screen. He rubbed his eyes.
He didn’t press the button. Jenny really was in frame,
swinging her arms along the bike path. He put the camera
down. He wanted to apologize for pointing the thing at
her. His mind couldn’t fit around her figure, the
mathematically genius curves and proportions, Nobel Prize
worthy, even at that awkward stage where she was almost
a woman and her body existed in different drafts.
“I can’t believe you rode all the way out here, Paul
Revere,” she said, short on breath.
“How did you find me?”
“I followed you.”
“I guess…” he nodded, “I guess that makes sense.”
“Um, you forgot to sign my letter of recommendation.”
“Oh. Shit. I mean…” he shook his head. “Sorry.”
“Wasn’t the envelope… sealed?”
She peered ahead over the bridge. Up close her face was
unrefined, like a digital photo stretched to distortion, the
Despite her screwy forehead movements and weird lip
gawks that alternated between stoic and hysterical, he
sensed adorability, not like a teacher would… not like a
pervert… he felt…
“So I guess you peeked, huh, smarty?”
“Yeah.” She shifted her weight, smiling.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“This is… this is so… pardon my French, no that’s not
right, why blame the French?… this is so effed-up.”
“You cuss like that?”
“Yes. Effed-up… I need help.”
Jenny had a five o’ clock shadow in her arm pit, the sun
golden on her lip, like a drag-king Charlie Chaplin.
“You’re… staring at my stash.”
Peter scratched his neck. “Sorry.”
She shrugged. “I think I caught it from Carlos.”
He chuckled, and stopped himself. He felt… paternal.
“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” she said.
“Me neither. I mean me, not–”
“Shhh.” She wrapped her arms around his waist. The
scent of her shampoo reminded him of his childhood,
wriggling some dendrites loose. His lip quivered. “Shhh.”
She patted his back.
He belched. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I took some…”
She stepped back. “Omigod! It worked.”
He wiped his eyes with his wrist. “Yeah,” he smiled, bleary-
“I can’t believe I burped my teacher!” She slumped and
picked at her pimply arm. She held out his note. “You left
this on your desk. I almost mailed it for you. But then… I’
m nosey okay!”
“I feel so—”
“Embarrassed? Bashful? Um, mortified? It’s kind of
invigorating, isn’t it, Mr. Lisky?”
He picked at his teeth.
“Who’s Valerie?” she asked.
“My… we almost got married.”
“You still love that beeyatch, don’t you?” She poked his
side, and it tickled.
“Ow. I’m not sure, Jenny. I don’t know if I’ve ever truly
loved anyone. I get infatuated easily. I’ve loved a lot of
people a little bit, kind of easy. Just not one…”
“Ahem.” Jenny adjusted her posture. She recited
statistics about depression and suicide. She suggested
four different hot lines and three walk-in clinics. “All in the
neighborhood too. I’ll send you an email.”
“But those are meant for teen—”
Jenny said, “Excuse me, I’m writing a term paper on it.”
Peter nodded. “Has anyone ever told you you’re feisty?”
“I’m examining an important issue, Mr. Lisky.”
The wind was ridiculous. He loved the idea that if he set
down his camera or water bottle it would blow away.
|Listen to audio version here
©2010 Joe Cervelin
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